WASHINGTON — Northwest lawmakers in Congress decried Russian President Vladimir Putin's move Monday to recognize two provinces in eastern Ukraine as independent "republics" and order Russian troops into the region, testing a U.S. commitment to respond harshly to an invasion.
In response to the move, President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced what he described as a first wave of sanctions on Russian banks and members of Putin's inner circle. Seeking to punish Russia while retaining the ability to ramp up pressure if Putin escalates the crisis further, the White House has so far refrained from the tough sanctions called for by some lawmakers, including Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho.
Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Monday night the Russian troop movements were "tantamount to an invasion."
"Putin is using smoke and mirrors to continue chipping away at Ukraine's sovereignty, in hopes that the West won't react, which has proved to be true thus far," Risch said. "This is precisely the kind of action that many of us expected, and it is one step closer to Putin's clear goal of dismantling Ukraine's sovereignty."
Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014, when Russia also forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. By sending troops — ostensibly in a "peacekeeping" role — into a breakaway region that has been largely under Russian control for the better part of a decade, Putin challenged Western governments to define what exactly constitutes an invasion.
In a speech at the White House on Tuesday, Biden called Putin's move the "beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine," signaling Russian forces could advance beyond the separatist-controlled areas.
Ukraine is roughly the size of Washington, Idaho and Oregon combined. The area controlled by Russian-backed separatists is about 6,500 square miles, according to some estimates, a little bigger than Okanogan County.
Risch has been negotiating a bill with his Democratic counterpart on the panel, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, to impose additional sanctions on Russia for staging more than 100,000 troops surrounding Ukraine. The Idaho Republican released his own sanctions proposal Feb. 15 after the talks failed to produce a bipartisan bill, but those negotiations will continue.
In his statement, Risch renewed his call for harsh sanctions on Russian banks, individuals and a new pipeline that would carry natural gas from Russia to Germany without passing through Ukraine, a project critics argue would weaken Ukraine and make Western Europe more dependent on Russia. Germany halted the pipeline project on Tuesday in response to Putin's move.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement Tuesday she would introduce a bill that would require the president to develop an "energy security plan" to ramp up U.S. oil production to counter Russia, whose economy depends heavily on oil and gas exports.
"Especially given Russia's invasion of Ukraine, America must flip the switch and aggressively promote our energy jobs, production, and exports," she said, accusing Biden of a "radical agenda to shut down American energy and embolden our enemies like Russia."
Rep. Adam Smith, a Bellevue Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Monday night Putin must be held accountable for the crisis.
"Russia's blatant assault on the freedom and security of Ukraine, a sovereign and independent country, must end immediately," Smith said. "We know that Putin seeks to expand Russia's sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, and we know that he sees violence, threats, disinformation, and division as legitimate tools in pursuit of that aim. He will not succeed, and the result of Putin's escalatory actions will only bring the United States, NATO, and the democratic countries of Eastern Europe even closer together in opposition to what he has done."
While most Republicans and Democrats in Congress condemned Putin's move, former President Donald Trump took a different tack. On a talk radio show hosted by Clay Travis and Buck Sexton on Tuesday, Trump called Putin "very savvy" and said the Russian president's move to send troops into separatist-held territory was "genius."
"I think he sees this opportunity," Trump said of Putin. "I knew that he always wanted Ukraine."