A group of liberal Democrats in the US Congress is pressing president Joe Biden to pursue direct talks with Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, opening a new front of pressure on his Ukraine strategy as his administration tries to maintain domestic support for Kyiv.
The letter, sent to the White House on Monday by 30 House Democrats, comes as some senior Republicans have warned it will be challenging for Congress to maintain full support for Ukraine should the GOP take control of the House as polls predict.
“As legislators responsible for the expenditure of tens of billions of US taxpayer dollars in military assistance . . . we believe such involvement in this war also creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia,” the House Democrats wrote in the letter.
Talks with Moscow have the potential “to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement”, according to the letter, which was signed by lawmakers including Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — a group of liberal Congresswomen known as “the Squad”.
The lawmakers urged an approach that could include “incentives to end hostilities, including some form of sanctions relief”, as well as an international arrangement to “establish security guarantees for a free and independent Ukraine that are acceptable for all parties”.
However, they acknowledged that speaking with Russia would be difficult given its decision to invade Ukraine.
John Kirby, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, confirmed the White House received the letter. The Biden administration appreciates “their thoughtful concerns about what’s going on in the war in Ukraine”, Kirby said, but added it was up to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to decide when to engage with Putin.
“[Zelenskyy] does not believe it is time now to sit down and have a negotiation with Mr Putin,” Kirby said. “What we’re going to stay focused on is making sure that he and his troops can succeed on the battlefield so that if and when it comes time to sit down at the table, Mr Zelenskyy can succeed.”
Putin’s recent actions such as mobilising new soldiers, conducting sham referendums and targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure illustrate the Russian leader’s disinterest in talks with Kyiv, Kirby said.
Both parties are showing signs of division over Ukraine ahead of November’s midterm elections and a potentially difficult winter on the battlefield, though administration and Congressional officials say they believe they will continue to have enough support to be able to pass more aid to Ukraine in the coming months.
Last week, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy said he anticipates difficulty in passing additional aid for Ukraine if his party wins the House in the midterm elections. But Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said he supports additional aid to Kyiv and wants to provide even more.