Sanctions, Aid, Cyber Concerns Dominate Congressional Response to Ukraine Invasion

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in the early hours of Feb. 24, members of Congress issued a deluge of statements condemning the attack and calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to cease hostilities.

Now, as the invasion continues to unfold, lawmakers are set to consider massive economic sanctions against Russia, as well as military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine in the coming days, all while watching carefully to see the ripple effects the conflict may have for Europe, NATO, and across the globe.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively, had previously worked on bipartisan legislation to impose economic sanctions on Russia for its aggression toward Ukraine.

That legislation wasn’t passed before the invasion started, but in a statement early Feb. 24, Menedez pledged that he was “committed to ensuring that the United States upholds our responsibility to exact maximum costs on Putin, the Russian economy, and those who enabled and facilitated this trampling of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Menendez’s House Foreign Affairs counterpart, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), issued his own statement saying the U.S. and its allies “will impose severe & swift consequences for this needless loss of life.”

The call for sanctions has been bipartisan. A trio of top Republicans in the House—Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), and Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio)—issued their own statement saying they are committed “to enacting the strongest possible sanctions and export controls to cripple Russia’s ability to make war, punish its barbarity, and relegate the Putin regime to the status of an international pariah.”

Meanwhile, in a Twitter thread, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that Congress should “unite to punish and crush Putin and his cronies,” adding that he had spoken with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and told her “there is broad bipartisan support for an emergency supplemental to include aid to the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian military.”

The need for both military and humanitarian aid is especially crucial now, Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas), a former Air Force pilot, told Air Force Magazine in an interview. 

“They need military aid, they need aid with Stingers, with lethal aid like Javelin missile systems. … The full range of military aid needs to be delivered to them,” Pfluger said. “But in the case of humanitarian aid, I mean, where are the refugees going to go? There’s estimates of up to 5 million Ukrainian refugees, and where are they going to be headed to? How are we going to help them get out of there?”

Pfluger also expressed concern about the need to evacuate American citizens still in Ukraine—the State Department has been urging Americans to leave the country for a month now, and it is unclear how many are still left.

“On my [January] trip to Ukraine, we got estimates [that] there are thousands, but how many still remain? And how is the U.S. government going to help get them out?” Pfluger said. “That’s where air power comes in. I know that the Supreme Allied Commander and the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe … are very worried about this. We want to make sure that the administration has the tools that they need to safely help Americans get out. So far, they said that they do not plan on some sort of noncombatant evacuation order, so I want to know what the administration’s plan is to help get those Americans to safety.”

Beyond these immediate concerns, there are other issues garnering the attention of lawmakers. Speaking on CBS on Feb. 24, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) expressed concern that Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine could spill over into bordering countries like Poland and trigger NATO’s Article V, which states that an attack on one NATO ally is an attack on all.

“One of the things that I’m gravely concerned about is if Russia unleashes its full cyber power against Ukraine, once you put malware into the wild in a sense, it knows no geographic boundaries,” Warner said. “So if the Russians decide they’re going to try to turn off the power, turn off all the electricity all across Ukraine, very likely that might turn off the power in eastern Poland and eastern Romania, that could affect our troops.”

Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) expressed similar concerns for the implications for NATO in an interview on Fox.

“A Ukrainian city on Poland’s border … also receiving targeted strikes in Lviv, that’s incredibly concerning,” Rogers said. “And that’s why we have to have our forces on the highest alert, not just in Poland, Romania, and Hungary, but also in the Baltics: Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Those are the final pieces for Putin to put the old Soviet Union back together again. Those countries are NATO’s allies and we are obligated to defend them. And that’s why this is so dangerous.”

More broadly, Russia’s invasion “sends the message globally to powerful nations that they can reshape their borders through military might, and that is something that the international order has been fighting against for 80 years,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN. “We can’t let this stand.”

It’s a concern shared by Pfluger, who specifically pointed to China as an adversary watching current events unfold closely.

“What is China calculating? And with regards to Taiwan, how does this impact their calculus? For a similar situation in Taiwan, you know that the economic impact of the Ukraine is one thing, but the economic impact of an invasion of Taiwan could be catastrophic to the entire world,” Pfluger said. “And so we’re obviously very worried about that.”