Maine delegation supports sanctions and more weapons, but leery of military involvement in Ukraine
With Russian forces converging on the Ukrainian capital, members of Maine's congressional delegation said the U.S. and its allies should continue isolating Russia economically and politically.
But while they universally support sending weapons to Ukraine, delegation members also acknowledged that doing much more militarily — including imposition of a “no-fly” zone above the country — could spark a world war.
Ahead of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, Maine’s four representatives to Congress told Maine Public that they largely supported the administration’s response to the crisis in Ukraine even as they worried about the worsening situation.
“I’m very worried about it because Putin is a trapped rat right now,” said Sen. Angus King of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He's made a big mistake and I don't know if he realizes it because I don't think he listens to anyone. Apparently, he is pretty isolated."
King said he sees two likely scenarios, the first is that Putin finds "an off ramp" after realizing the invasion is not in the long-term interests of Russia or its economy. But King said the more likely — and unfortunate — scenario is that Putin ramps up the brutality in an attempt to bludgeon the country into temporary submission. So King said President Biden and allies need to keep providing Ukraine with weapons while continuing to squeeze Russia with political isolation and sanctions, which he says have been “incredibly effective.”
"So this is something that has to be done very carefully,” said King, who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I think the president has done really an amazing job of balancing the risks and the opportunities to act against Putin, and particularly to rally NATO and the rest of the western world, actually."
Republican Sen. Susan Collins said it is "absolutely critical" that Congress, the White House and European allies have a unified message to avoid any suggestion of disarray to Putin. Collins largely supports the Biden administration's approach so far but added that she believes the next step should be to revoke Russia's most-favored nation status as a trading partner.
"That would be another severe blow to the Russian economy and to Putin and his cronies,” said Collins, who also serves on Senate Intelligence. “I also think going after Putin's wealth is really important to make him pay a political and personal price."
Collins and King also said they support sending additional supplies of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and Collins said she is hoping that President Biden includes those and other appropriations in a budget proposal that can be fast-tracked through Congress. A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Collins said the White House should also pressure Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate to bring such a bill up for floor votes this week before Congress leaves town.
"But obviously I'm extremely worried because this has been a David and Goliath fight,” Collins said of the conflict in Ukraine. “The Ukrainians have just been extraordinary and their president has just been so personally brave."
Neither Collins nor King believe it would be feasible to quickly add Ukraine to NATO, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has suggested. And both are also seriously concerned about sparking a broader conflict should the U.S. and its allies attempt to enforce a "no-fly zone" above Ukraine, as some observers have suggested, because it would inevitably require U.S. fighter jets to engage and shoot down Russian aircraft.
Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District who fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq with the Marine Corps, said from the beginning he has asked himself whether the invasion of Ukraine represents such a national security threat to the U.S. that would necessitate putting American forces in peril. Golden said it's clear that is not the case now and, like the other delegation members, said enforcing a no-fly zone would largely fall on the shoulders of U.S. forces.
"I don't think we want to see ourselves getting into direct conflict with Russia over Ukraine,” Golden said. “We are pushing the package pretty far."
Golden supports sanctions against Russia as well as sending additional military supplies to Ukraine, although he added that the Biden administration could have moved even faster. But overall he believes the U.S. and allies’ response has been “pretty strong.”
Yet Golden said he also hopes Biden will move to ramp up U.S. energy production and work with energy producers to avoid opponents using oil and gas as leverage against this country in the future, just as Putin has done against European nations in the current conflict.
"To invest in renewable energy but also to have an all-of-the-above approach that ensures that we have our bases covered from a national security perspective,” Golden said. “So I think increased drilling and production makes sense right now."
Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine's 1st District, said she feels good about the U.S. approach to the Ukrainian crisis so far.
“Of course, all of us want to do more,” Pingree said. “We want to stop the movement of Russia into Ukraine and we want to help the Ukrainian people and their government in any way that we can. And virtually every day I think we will be looking for more and more ways to continue to do that.”
Pingree said sanctions have clearly undermined Putin's attempts to protect his country's economy and she supports continuing those efforts. Pingree said Ukrainians have proven that they are "fiercely supportive of being a democratic nation" during this crisis, so she believes it is important to consider opening up NATO to Ukraine even though that is usually a lengthy process. But like other members of the delegation, Pingree was wary of discussion of a "no-fly" zone above Ukraine because it could provoke a broader conflict with Russia.
"We have to walk a very fine line to do everything we can to protect the country of Ukraine, to protect the citizens and families that are really in grave danger, yet not enter into another world war that could mean a lot of destruction in the world,” Pingree said.