Journalist’s notebook: Russian-Ukrainian tensions are escalating and Congress may intervene

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When the drums of war resound in Europe, they resound inside the Washington Beltway.

The Biden administration has said it will not pass on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to invade Ukraine. The Pentagon puts 8,500 soldiers on “high alert” to deter a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Missions have not been assigned,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. “There is no mission per se.”

The United States will measure any response.

“There (will be) no American forces entering Ukraine,” President Biden said.

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive to meet at Villa la Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021.
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

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The administration is still reeling from perhaps the most significant debacle of Biden’s 53 weeks in office: the botched withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Moreover, the United States must exercise caution when directly interfering in a conflict with Russia. A fraught Cold War history persists more than three decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

A miscalculation or an erroneous provocation has disastrous consequences.

The United States sends American forces to the easternmost regions of NATO: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. It is both a threat and a deterrent.

But we’ve been down this road before.

Putin invaded Crimea – part of Ukraine – shortly after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko came to Washington within months later to address a joint session of Congress. Poroshenko pleaded with US lawmakers to help Ukraine.

“They need more military equipment, both lethal and non-lethal,” Poroshenko told lawmakers. “Blankets and night vision goggles are also important. But you can’t win the war with blankets.”

Ukraine eventually secured $70 million in non-lethal aid from the United States and tens of millions to help the country harden its borders. But Poroshenko indicated that in 2014 former President Obama was unwilling to do much else.

Poroshenko made an ominous prediction to lawmakers.

“These threats are now challenging Europe,” Poroshenko said on Capitol Hill. “If (the Russians) are not stopped now, they will cross European borders and spread, absolutely, all over the world.”

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So the United States is trying to decide what to do about Ukraine. Congress usually meddles in these matters at some point.

Kirby said he was “not aware” of any provisions that would require congressional approval to justify any commitment of US forces to a defensive posture outside Ukraine. But those who study the “war powers” of Congress are always careful as soon as an administration begins to move forces overseas in anticipation of a potential conflict.

Let’s start with the basics.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution requires Congressional authorization to “declare war”. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states that “The President shall be the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States and of the Militia of the several States, when called upon for the effective service of the States -United”.

These two passages reflect the tension inherent in the Constitution as to which branch of government actually controls the military in the event of a conflict. Of course, the United States is not at “war” with Russia. And, Congress hasn’t actually “declared war” since it did on Romania in 1942. But Congress regularly passes resolutions giving its blessing for the use of the military overseas. .

Lawmakers approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, authorizing US intervention in Vietnam. Congress approved “Authorizations for the Use of Military Force” (AUMF) to justify combat in Afghanistan and, more broadly, global counterterrorism operations in 2001. Congress also approved an AUMF in 2002 for the war in Iraq in 2003.

The administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Obama, Trump and, to a lesser extent, Biden, all relied on the AUMFs of 2001 and 2002 to justify a litany of overseas military commitments. Some are close to the original intention of Congress. Others stray further. This calls into question the constitutionality of such operations.

Members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have joined army reserves Ukraine in recent weeks amid fears of a Russian invasion.

Members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have joined army reserves Ukraine in recent weeks amid fears of a Russian invasion.
(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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Overall, the United States relied on the 2001 AUMF as a pretext for military efforts in Djibouti, assistance in Niger, and varying degrees of combat or support in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria , Libya and Iraq.

That’s why some lawmakers in both parties are questioning the legitimacy of the United States to repeatedly recycle authorization more than two decades old and approved while Ground Zero and the Pentagon were still simmering after 9/11.

Congress actually came close to repealing the 2002 AUMF. The House last year voted 268 to 161 to repeal the measure. Senators Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Todd Young, R-Ind., have drawn up a repeal plan for the Senate. The Senate expected to vote in December to formally repeal the 2002 AUMF. But that vote was lost in the December chaos on Capitol Hill.

Kirby therefore says that an AUMF is not necessary for ongoing operations related to Ukraine. And, even if it were clear that an AUMF was necessary, it is obvious that the reassignment of AUMFs from 2001 and 2002 for any commitment goes too far.

But the Congress could soak up this subject with various debates on resolutions concerning the American policy towards Russia, Ukraine or the use of troops.

The United States and NATO became involved in the Balkans during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, right, talks to Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic Radman during a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, right, talks to Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic Radman during a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday.
(AP/Virginia Mayo)

SEXTON: DEMOCRATS ARE NOT INTERESTED ON US BORDER BUT ARE FOCUSED ON UKRAINE BORDERS

Congress sent mixed messages about US military activity in the Balkans at the time. President Clinton decided to send troops to help enforce peace in Bosnia after the former Yugoslavia turned into a civil war. The Senate approved a measure saying it supported the troops involved in the mission. But senators voted specifically against Clinton’s choice to send troops overseas.

Then, in the final fig leaf, the House overturned the president’s decision to send troops. But in the same resolution, the House indicated that it would support forces abroad.

The president asked for support from Congress to boost “the morale of our troops”.

In 1999, the Senate voted 58 to 41 to support US collaboration with NATO to bomb Serbia as the Balkan Wars continued. The rulers in Belgrade oppressed Kosovo. This prompted NATO to act. But the House shocked the Clinton White House. In a vote of 213 to 213, the House rejected the Senate resolution to approve the NATO airstrikes. Typically, tie votes fail.

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The House and Senate are out of session this week. But Congress has historically been making noise about such military deployments and demanding information about mission goals. Lawmakers left and right form a bizarre coalition over presidential war powers and congressional authority to oversee the executive branch. This is augmented by the fact that Congress granted President George W. Bush a blank check with the 2001 AUMF.

Additionally, one could see a scenario where Congress weighs in on potential overseas military action in an upcoming omnibus spending bill to fund the government by Feb. 18. Control of the purse strings is the ultimate power in Congress. Lawmakers could either wire money for aid to Ukraine — or impose restrictions on what the United States is allowed to do militarily.

The drums of war from overseas still echo through the halls of Capitol Hill. It is unclear what could happen in Ukraine and what it means for the US military. But Congress usually sends a legislative signal indicating its agreement or dissent.

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