There’s rare bipartisan momentum in Congress to send nearly $14 billion in humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine—particularly lethal military weaponry. But in the rush to help the war-torn country, some progressives are nervous about where the aid ends and where getting sucked into a war begins.
“There’s very often a slippery slope when these military aid transfers happen,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who has previously voiced support for the military aid being sent to Ukraine, said. “There’s a way that it can be very targeted and there’s a way that it can be very indiscriminate… Who specifically is on the receiving end is very important and what specifically is being sent is also very important.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who came to the United States as a refugee from war-torn Somalia as a child, tweeted that she’s concerned about the prospect of “flooding Ukraine” with billions of dollars in American weapons, calling the consequences “unpredictable” and “likely disastrous.”
Omar added the role of paramilitary groups in Ukraine—essentially unofficial defense forces—gives her pause. “I support giving Ukraine the resources it needs to defend its people, I just have legitimate concerns about the size and scope,” she wrote.
Fellow progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) told The Daily Beast that, while he supports efforts to ensure Ukraine can defend itself, there’s no military solution to the Ukraine crisis. “We have to go back to the table and find a diplomatic solution… The continued sending of weapons alone is not going to get them to victory,” he said.
The trio’s sentiments reflect a broader stance among progressives about military involvement as a solution to foreign conflict. In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion, progressive lawmakers, along with some libertarian-minded Republicans repeatedly urged the Biden administration to focus on diplomatic solutions rather than turn toward military options.
More than three dozen members of the House from both sides of the aisle also signed a letter in February urging Biden to get Congress’ authorization for the use of military force abroad as part of the Ukraine crisis—a move required by the Constitution but loosely enforced on a conflict-to-conflict basis.
The House last year voted to overturn the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq. But the Senate failed to take the same action, and the even broader 2001 AUMF—authorizing military force against any terrorist group supposedly connected to the 9/11 attacks—remains in place.
Still, Biden has pledged not to send ground troops into Ukraine, and he has maintained that any troop presence in the region is only there to help NATO allies.
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and longtime war opponent Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) issued a joint statement voicing concerns that troop deployments, sanctions and a “flood of lethal weapons” to Ukraine would only escalate tensions with Russia.
But the political calculus for Democrats on Ukraine continues to evolve as the crisis worsens and the civilian death toll grows.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told The Daily Beast the conflict in Ukraine was an “unfolding situation,” but said she feels “we best hold Russia accountable with our economic tools,” while also mentioning the need to help “supply Ukraine with the defensive weapons they need.”
Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Daily Beast he also supported efforts to supply U.S. weapons to Ukraine, but noted it’s important to send weapons that would actually be of use to Ukrainian forces.
“There are many weapons that Ukraine military has no training on… We're not going to give them jets that they don’t know how to fly,” he said.
At the same time, aid to Ukraine wasn’t the only military issue on progressives’ minds this week.
The delicate decision-making around Russia’s invasion comes as progressives were dealt a painful blow in this year’s Pentagon budget, which the House is set to vote on Wednesday. Lowering defense spending has been a priority for the most liberal members of Congress—especially following President Joe Biden’s 2020 win.
“My concern all along has been the part of our national budget that goes overall to the Department of Defense… We need to make sure that we are funding other programs both internationally and domestically,” Warren said.
And yet, a year-long spending bill that’s expected to become law later this week will further inflate the Pentagon budget.
According to The New York Times, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith said the Russian invasion “fundamentally altered what our national security posture and what our defense posture needs to be.”
“It made it more complicated, and it made it more expensive,” Smith said last week.
While progressives may have balked at an even larger defense budget, the crisis in Ukraine seems to have left them with little time or inclination to fight the extra money. A failure to fund the government would force a government shutdown—and it would delay extremely popular funds for Ukraine.
Putting Ukraine aid into the same bill that would keep the government’s lights on also adds pressure for Republicans to support the measure. But it also puts progressives in a corner.
“There's obviously no flexibility to go back and forth on things at this point,” Levin told The Daily Beast.
On Wednesday, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) said he plans to vote yes on the increased defense budget—and said he supports sending “as many weapons as we can to the Ukrainians,” fearing an even higher death toll in the region. But he still hopes there’s a diplomatic way out of the matter—even amid increasing violence from Vladimir Putin’s forces.
“The arming of Ukrainians and the crushing economic sanctions then create the conditions to have a diplomatic effort,” he said. “Now, I don't know if diplomacy will succeed, but we ought to really try.”