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Resolution in support of Ukraine fuels contentious debate in Maine Legislature

Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions near Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 7, 2023.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions near Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 7, 2023.

A resolution supporting U.S. efforts to help Ukraine repel the ongoing invasion by Russia erupted into a contentious debate on the floor of the Maine House of Representatives on Tuesday. The skirmish mirrored increasingly partisan divisions over the yearlong war that could potentially affect U.S. involvement.

The resolution praises Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky while denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion as a barbaric and imperialist conquest that has killed thousands of Ukrainians and forced millions of others to flee their homeland.

It was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Rebecca Millett, of Cape Elizabeth, who compared the Ukrainian resistance with the birth of American democracy and citizens' inherent right to self-determination in both countries.

"The Ukrainians want no less for themselves," she said. "To live in peace with human dignity. To chart their own future with their democratic government under the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. If it were us, we would not accept anything less."

But several Republicans, including minority leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, of Winter Harbor, described the resolution as filled with "war drum" rhetoric.

He warned that such language, along with U.S. support for Ukraine, could draw the U.S. into a direct military confrontation with Russia.

"This enthusiasm for what's going on in Ukraine needs to stop," he said. "We need to stop this war propaganda."

Faulkingham and other Republicans also questioned the U.S. funding of the Ukrainian resistance, saying the U.S. is funneling security and humanitarian aid to one of the "most corrupt" countries on the planet at the expense of American interests.

Republican Rep. John Andrews described Zelenskky as an aspiring autocrat, arguing that the conflict between Ukraine and Russia was best handled by countries other than the U.S.

"This war is ugly, as all wars are ugly," he said. "Russian conscripts fighting armed Ukrainian civilians until the streets are red with blood is nothing the world wants or needs. This is a European problem that requires a European solution."

Andrews also lamented what he said was the disappearance of the "anti-war left" and he urged what remained of it to join what he described as the "America First" right.

But his reference to "America First" has a historical connection to the isolationist movement that some argue kept the U.S. from assisting Europe as Nazi Germany rampaged the continent during its violent campaign of territorial conquest.

Kennebunk Democratic Rep. Dan Sayre noted that connection, adding that the initial America First movement was also rife with anti-Semitism.

His comments prompted Andrews to shout for a point of order, and a challenge to Sayre.

"The member is out of line questioning the motives of other members and if he (Sayre) wants to call me an anti-Semite or a Nazi, he can do it to my face," Andrews said.

Sayre apologized, saying he meant no offense.

But he stuck to his argument that the America First movement of the 1940s kept the U.S. from intervening in World War II earlier than it did.

"And because of the power of that isolationist approach of one party in our government, we were ill-prepared to enter into the conflict that was forced upon us when an attack came to our shores," he said.

Other Democrats drew additional parallels between the Ukraine conflict and America's early reluctance to support Europe during World War II.

Cumberland Rep. Steve Moriarity compared Putin to Adolf Hitler, calling him a deranged conqueror who feeds off Western deference while pursuing a violent military campaign against his neighbors.

"If we think, at this time, that dictators can be rationally dealt with, that their demands can be satisfied while avoiding the catastrophe of war, we are deluding ourselves yet again," he said.

The debate in the Maine House bore close resemblance to the one taking place nationally, as more Republicans question U.S. involvement in the war while Democrats largely maintain their support of Ukraine.

The resolution ultimatelypassed 87-54, with nearly a dozen Republicans joining Democrats in approving it, and just one Democrat joining the Republican minority.

But the vote was a marked change from one that took place nearly a year ago on a similar resolution supporting Ukraine, when just two lawmakers opposed it.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.