People wait for buses at a bus station as they attempt to evacuate Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022. Overnight, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. (Photo by Pierre Crom / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden Thursday vowed a “united and decisive” wave of sanctions against Russia after the country’s leaders ordered a military assault on Ukraine.
Russian military forces began attacking several cities and towns throughout the country, according to multiple news reports. The Washington Post reported that a senior U.S. defense official said the incursion is taking place along three fronts designed to hit population centers and take down the Ukrainian government. Reuters reported that Russians had captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of a nuclear disaster in 1986.
“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” Biden said in a statement. “Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable.”
The Ukrainian government has reported at least 30 Russian cruise missile strikes, Simon Miles, a public policy professor and historian with expertise in U.S.-Soviet relations at Duke University in North Carolina, said Thursday.
Ukraine’s military has not been routed, as some expected, Miles said, but about 40 service members died in the first full day of hostilities.
Co-chairs of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus released a statement Thursday morning, calling Russia’s military actions in Ukraine “a reprehensible violation of international law.”
“Together, the United States and our allies must unleash crippling sanctions against Russia, and swiftly bolster Ukraine’s military capabilities. The security and stability of Europe – and the preservation of global liberty – are all on the line,” wrote Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris, Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur and Illinois Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley.
The Biden administration committed to continued coordination with the other 29 nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “to ensure a strong, united response that deters any aggression against the Alliance.”
The White House said that if Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated within Ukraine, the sanctions would increase. That escalation happened Thursday.
Still, sanctions imposed so far may have been oversold, Bruce Jentleson, a public policy professor at Duke and senior State Department adviser during President Barack Obama’s administration, said.
“A lot of the discussion of sanctions has been, ‘Oh my goodness, look at all the tools we have,’” he said. “In the sense of sanctions being a major part of the deterrent, they didn’t work.”
Russia has built substantial currency reserves that will buy Putin “insulation” from sanctions. Even the much-publicized cancellation of the proposed Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany was relatively painless for Russia as it only affected the permitting of a non-operational line, Jentleson added.
Russia’s goals “appear pretty maximalist,” likely including overthrowing Ukraine’s government with a regime friendlier to Putin, but stopping short of invading other nations, Miles said.
However, Putin’s recent decision-making also doesn’t appear completely rational and his goals are difficult to interpret, Miles added.
Miles predicted intense hostilities would continue for a matter of days, but that Putin would try not to extend the war further.
Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy overnight.
During the call, Biden “condemned this unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces” and Zelenskyy asked Biden “to call on the leaders of the world to speak out clearly against President Putin’s flagrant aggression, and to stand with the people of Ukraine.”
Biden met with the National Security Council Thursday morning in the Situation Room to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine, according to a White House official.
He also spoke with leaders from the G7 countries later Thursday morning.
Biden has repeatedly vowed not to send U.S. soldiers into Ukraine to engage in a war with Russian troops, but he is likely to announce severe economic restrictions on Russia and possibly an increase in U.S. financial aid and weapons for Ukraine.
Hundreds of U.S. troops are reportedly scheduled to redeploy to NATO member states in Eastern Europe, including 20 Pennsylvania National Guard members set to travel to Lithuania. Pennsylvania’s elected officials, including Gov. Tom Wolf, offered unanimous condemnation of the attack, though some Republicans also blamed Biden for the situation.
Putin issued a “very thinly veiled nuclear threat” if the United States or other countries become directly involved in the ground war, Miles said.
That threat should “be taken very seriously, given what appears to be his (Putin’s) present state of mind,” Miles said.
The White House has not detailed what sanctions it would levy against Russia and its elites following the type of attack that took place Thursday, but White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the administration could target financial institutions.
“There’s enormous financial institutions — the two largest banks, for example — which were not a part of the announcement we made yesterday,” Psaki said during the White House daily press briefing. “There’s additional steps we’ve expressed an openness to, including taking steps as it relates to export controls. So these are assessments we will continue to make internally.”
Members of the U.S. Congress swiftly condemned Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said the U.S. should aid Ukraine’s military and “dramatically escalate the sanctions that we place on Russia for this act of naked aggression by the Kremlin dictator.”
The chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, said in a statement that the U.S. should continue to issue “crippling sanctions” against Russia.
“My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine, who are victims of this unprovoked war, and I stand with the American people — including the more than 39,000 Michiganders of Ukrainian descent — in opposing this aggression,” he said.
Peters is also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Ukrainian Caucus.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, said in a statement that “Russia has just become a pariah nation.”
“Everything short of involving U.S. forces should be done to punish this action,” he said. “This should be unrelenting.”
In Missouri, Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt on Wednesday said that while he wanted sanctions imposed earlier, “I do think the president’s decision to call this what it is, an invasion, and the president’s decision to move forward with these sanctions is important.”
Further sanctions are needed, Blunt said.
“I think we are going to have to add, in all likelihood, sanctions to those individuals who really need to feel the pain of what happens when Russia is aggressive,” he said.
As the U.S. braces for impacts, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack assured attendees at a major agricultural forum that he was confident in the agency’s resilience, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, during a virtual event Thursday.
“One could take the position that the Ag outlook could be sour and uncertain, but that’s not my position,” he said. “And I don’t think it should be your position. I think American agriculture is resilient.”
A segment of prominent conservatives outside of government have praised Putin or downplayed the situation.
Former President Donald Trump said the invasion was a “genius” move from Putin.
J.D. Vance, who is running for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, advocated on Tucker Carlson’s influential, far-right Fox News program Wednesday night for the United States to stay out of the conflict.
“We would be much better served, Tucker, our people would be safer, if we declared the Mexican cartels a terrorist organization, focused on them, and let Ukraine and Russia figure out what’s in Russia and Ukraine’s business,” Vance said.
Ariana Figueroa contributed to this report.
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