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‘The actions of a madman’: Northwest lawmakers condemn Russian assault on Ukraine as Biden ramps up sanctions

Smoke rise from an air defence base in the aftermath of an apparent Russian strike in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Russian troops have launched their anticipated attack on Ukraine. Big explosions were heard before dawn in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa as world leaders decried the start of Russian invasion that could cause massive casualties and topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government.  (Evgeniy Maloletka)

WASHINGTON – Northwest lawmakers in Congress joined in global condemnation of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Thursday after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the assault overnight.

The offensive, which Putin launched under the pretext of protecting Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine, had killed scores of Ukrainian soldiers and dozens of civilians as of Thursday afternoon, according to Ukraine’s ambassador in Washington. At the White House, President Joe Biden announced tougher sanctions in response to what Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho called “a premeditated and flagrant act of war.”

Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a key architect of additional sanctions, released a statement Wednesday night calling Putin’s move “the actions of a desperate man whose only desire is to sow chaos in order to make himself look strong.”

“The people of Ukraine have prepared to take up arms and defend their sovereignty, and they should know the United States and freedom loving people around the world stand with them,” Risch said. “Putin should recognize the territorial integrity of Ukraine and withdraw his position to the internationally recognized border between the two countries. The repercussions of this invasion will be painful and swift. The only way to avoid this reality is for Putin to reverse course, immediately.”

In a speech early Thursday, Putin claimed the goal of the invasion is not to occupy Ukraine but to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country, a reference to the Kremlin’s contention that the current Ukrainian government is run by neo-Nazis who are committing a “genocide” of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, even though the nation’s president is Jewish. Biden on Thursday called the Nazi claim “outlandish and baseless.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement, “The death and destruction of this conflict will lie solely at the feet of Vladimir Putin.”

“This conflict is totally fabricated but its human toll will be very real,” Murray said. “Swift measures must be taken to inflict severe and devastating sanctions – Russia must pay a crippling price for invading a sovereign democracy unprovoked. This is a time for our country and the world to stand united – in strong support of Ukraine and firmly against Putin and his cronies.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, one of dozens of members of the bipartisan Congressional Ukraine Caucus, condemned “Putin’s unprovoked and unlawful invasion of Ukraine” and repeated her call for Biden to ramp up U.S. energy production to reduce global dependence on Russia, a major oil and gas producer.

“We must unite around our shared values of liberty and democracy in the face of his blatant power grab against the people of Ukraine and their nation’s sovereignty,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “Freedom must prevail.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, joined a bipartisan chorus in Congress calling for tougher sanctions on Russian banks and officials, saying in a statement Wednesday night, “I stand with the people of Ukraine as they defend themselves against Putin’s relentless aggression.”

“Vladimir Putin and his regime have continued to prove they are little more than criminal thugs,” Newhouse said in another statement Thursday, “and the international community must reject their delusional and alarming attempts at creating a new world order and work together to prevent any further loss of life in Ukraine.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked Ukrainian Americans in Washington state to reach out to her office if they need help and called the Russian invasion “another very dark moment in the history of Europe.”

“Ukraine is a proud and sovereign nation,” Cantwell said in a statement. “In the face of this reckless aggression, we must stand together with our NATO allies and respond with unequivocal and unified action.”

Of the more than 1 million people of Ukrainian ancestry living in the United States, nearly 56,000 live in Washington, according to 2019 data from the Census Bureau.

Washington state’s elected leaders also weighed in on Twitter, with Gov. Jay Inslee writing, “All Washingtonians should be outraged both by Russia’s unprovoked and destructive attack on Ukraine, a peaceful nation that has embraced democracy.”

“This morning I am thinking of the thousands of Washingtonians with family in Ukraine,” Lt. Gov. Denny Heck tweeted. Hilary Franz, Washington’s commissioner of public lands, said the attack reminded her “of the interconnected nature of our world and the common bond of our humanity.”

The new round of sanctions Biden announced Thursday include restricting exports of critical goods to Russia and cutting off Russian elites, banks and state-owned business from the international financial system. Russia’s stock market and the value of the Russian ruble both plunged Thursday in response to the invasion and anticipated sanctions.

After Biden’s announcement, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said in a statement Russia’s actions “must swiftly be met with additional crushing economic sanctions.”

“The U.S. should not put American troops on the ground, but must continue to provide the lethal militaristic tools and technology necessary for Ukraine to defend itself against this barbaric regime,” Crapo said. “My prayers for safety remain with the innocent people of Ukraine.”

In March 2019, Crapo led a delegation of lawmakers to Ukraine that also included Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho. In a phone call, Fulcher said the group visited the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east, where Russian-backed separatists have controlled two breakaway regions since 2014, when Russia also forcibly annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

One of the main purposes of the trip, Fulcher said, was to decide whether to recommend sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would carry Russian natural gas to Germany without passing through Ukraine, a project critics say would weaken Ukraine and give Russia more leverage over the European Union. Former President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom in December 2019, but they failed to stop the project and Biden waived the sanctions under pressure from European allies in May 2021.

In a call with reporters late Thursday, Risch said he planned to resume work on legislation to sanction Russia as soon as he returns to the Capitol on Monday. His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, had resisted the Idaho Republican’s demands that a bipartisan sanctions bill halt the Nord Stream 2 project and include pre-emptive sanctions, but both of those points are moot now that Russia has invaded and Germany has stopped the pipeline in response.

In a statement that called Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine “the actions of a madman,” Risch laid out the components of his proposal, which would impose sanctions not only on Russian banks and individuals, but on those who do business with them. Biden has so far resisted those “secondary sanctions,” but Risch said he was confident Republicans and Democrats will come together to impose even tougher sanctions on Russia when Congress returns to session next week.