Column: A stirring moment of bipartisan purpose in supporting Ukraine
Even the seating in the Capitol auditorium reflected a rare bipartisanship.
Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, never one to leave a political point unscored, sat between two Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Vermont’s Sen. Patrick Leahy. The three men and hundreds of other members of Congress stared Wednesday morning at a big screen, transfixed by the live feed of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, pleading for more help from the United States.
When Zelensky showed a gut-wrenching video — pre-invasion views of beautiful Ukrainian cities followed by the aftermath of Russia’s bombings and civilian casualties, including the now-iconic shots of a dying pregnant woman and a mother with her two children lifeless in a street — there were tears among the lawmakers and, according to Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King, “a collective holding of breath.”
Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.
“Collective.” That’s not a word that usually describes anything about Congress. Yet this too is what the murderous Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has achieved by his unprovoked devastation of Ukraine: a bit of bipartisanship, imperfect to be sure, among typically polarized Democrats and Republicans.
Zelensky, clad in the olive military T-shirt that’s become his uniform, shrewdly evoked America’s history, of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, when “innocent people were attacked, attacked from air.” He added, “Our country experienced the same every day, right now, at this moment, every night for three weeks now.”
As Zelensky probably knew, however, his emotional oratory wouldn’t get him everything he’s asked for — not U.S. intervention to create a no-fly zone in Ukrainian skies, nor, at least for now, America’s help in transferring aircraft from Poland to Ukrainian pilots.
“Close the sky over Ukraine” read the words onscreen as the haunting video closed. Yet President Biden and most lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — oppose U.S. enforcement of a no-fly zone or direct U.S. involvement in providing aircraft as provocations that the nuclear-armed Putin could exploit to expand the conflict into a third world war.
If Putin succeeds in taking Ukraine, he won’t stop there. Securing land access to Russian territory on the Baltic Sea, going through Poland and Lithuania, could be next.
Still, with bipartisan support, Ukraine is receiving unprecedented military and humanitarian aid to fight its battle, including anti-aircraft systems that many experts say can defend against bombs and missiles from Russia’s land-based weaponry.
In something of an orchestrated follow-up to Zelensky’s appeal, Biden announced an additional $800 million in assistance, including armed drones, 800 more anti-aircraft systems, 9,000 anti-tank weapons and 7,000 additional small arms and munitions. Biden promised more to come, from the $13.6 billion package of emergency aid he’d signed Tuesday after its passage by a bipartisan Congress.
Separately on Tuesday, a unanimous Senate approved a resolution supporting an international criminal court’s investigation of Putin and his government for war crimes. While the international court has begun that process, actually holding Putin accountable would be difficult. Still, the label “war criminal” — and the shame and shunning it would entail for Putin — is not a small thing.
That Washington has united behind Ukraine when little else has brought the political parties together is all the more remarkable given that the country in recent years was a pawn in Donald Trump’s corrupt political machinations, and denigrated by his allies in Congress and right-wing media.
Now those antagonists are mostly sidelined and muzzled — though not before Trump initially dubbed Putin a “genius” for his Ukraine aggression. A large majority of Americans supports the current aid to Ukraine or wants more of it, and both lawmakers and the public support the punishing economic sanctions against Russia that Biden has orchestrated with U.S. allies, even if they cost American consumers.
That hasn’t stopped Republicans from blaming Biden for high gasoline prices, a real political liability for Democrats in a midterm-elections year. And they’ve been quick to criticize the president as slow in sending aid; Rep. Kevin McCarthy told reporters Putin might have been deterred from invading had Biden provided armaments sooner.
Few doubt that Russia will defeat the Ukrainian military. But does this mean Putin can achieve victory over a country with a population of 44 million?
McCarthy’s criticism of Biden just after Zelensky’s speech was “sickening,” as Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, tweeted. “Somebody needs to tell him who the real enemy is & to stop playing politics with the defense of freedom in Ukraine.”
After all, it was McCarthy, the House Republican leader who, along with Trump’s other sycophants in Congress, made excuses in 2019 after Trump withheld $250 million in aid that Congress had approved for Ukraine. Putin back then was increasing his forces on the Russia-Ukraine border, threatening invasion. Yet Trump first wanted Zelensky to provide dirt on Biden and Biden’s son Hunter.
McCarthy and nearly all other Republicans opposed Trump’s impeachment for that extortion of Zelensky. They were silent too when Trump, standing beside Putin at their summit in Helsinki in 2018, sided with the Russian dictator against the entire U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Putin had interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. Instead, many Republicans and right-wing pundits echoed Trump’s nonsensical claim that it was a corrupt Ukraine that meddled in the 2016 election, for Hillary Clinton’s benefit.
That McCarthy and other Republicans are now so eager to speed aid to the brave Ukrainians is a good thing. But if they want to criticize anyone for not acting sooner to deter Putin, they should look in the mirror.
For now, however, bipartisanship is welcome — not least to Ukrainians.
Get the latest from Jackie Calmes
Commentary on politics and more from award-winning opinion columnist.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.