GOP Senate candidates criticize Biden but offer the same response to Russian aggression

By: - February 24, 2022 4:43 pm

People wait for buses at a bus station as they attempt to evacuate the city of Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

Russia has launched what President Joe Biden is calling an “unprovoked and unjustified attack” on Ukraine. After weeks of teetering on the verge of conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a war was swiftly met with condemnation from international leaders. In a statement, Biden promised the world, “will hold Russia accountable.”

“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring,” Biden said, “and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way.”

Ohio’s outgoing Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman co-chairs the Senate Ukraine Caucus, and he urged the president respond rapidly to Russia’s aggression.

“The Biden administration promised tough sanctions,” Portman wrote. “The administration must stand by that commitment. We can and we must cripple Russia’s military by starving it of financing.”

Portman went on to call for export and import controls against Russia as well as greater military support in the form of additional weapons and even a NATO Rapid Response Force.

The candidates running for his seat weighed in on the crisis as well.

Not surprisingly, Democratic candidates Morgan Harper and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan backed the President’s plans for sanctions.

“This devastating and unnecessary loss of life justifies aggressive sanctions to protect global security,” Harper said in a tweet.

Ryan argued innocent people will die because of Putin’s “insatiable pursuit of power,” before addressing the Ukranian people directly.

“We stand with you today and every day,” Ryan said. “Make no mistake: Putin will regret this decision.”

Across the aisle, Republicans have a lot of critiques for Biden, but they don’t have any novel ideas for how to respond to the crisis.

Republican Mike Gibbons invoked Ohio’s Ukranian-American community directly and its outsized presence in his hometown of Parma. While he condemned Russia’s actions as “unacceptable” he directed most of his ire at Biden.

“Joe Biden’s policy of appeasement has failed,” Gibbons said. “His statement in January telegraphing a non-response to a ‘minor incursion’ by Russia into Ukraine sent a clear message of weakness to Vladimir Putin.”

But while Gibbons suggests Biden bears culpability for not projecting enough strength, he offers no other recourse than what Biden has promised. Russia should be isolated politically and economically, Gibbons argues, but he remains “one hundred percent opposed” to deploying American troops in Ukraine.

The arguments are much the same from other Republicans running for Senate.

Jane Timken took shots at Biden’s “feckless” leadership that “emboldened” Putin. Her response, though, mirrors the administration’s plans.

“As a U.S. Senator, I would have pushed long ago for crushing economic sanctions against Russia and vital military aid for Ukraine,” Timken said before also describing herself as 100% opposed to sending U.S. troops.

She also urged the president to block the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is a decision for Germany to make. This week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz halted the natural gas pipeline’s certification.

Timken is facing scrutiny though, because of the family business. Her husband sits on the board of the Timken Company which inked a deal in 2014 to provide industrial bearings to two major Russian steel producers. The announcement came shortly after Russia invaded Crimea.

In an op-ed published by the Columbus Dispatch two weeks ago, Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, tried to connect domestic energy policies with Russia’s growing hostility. Dolan argued the Biden administration’s decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling leases on federal land created an opening in world markets that Russia seized upon. Still, while criticizing Biden, Dolan acknowledged that record U.S. exports of liquified natural gas were buying the European Union time to stand up to Russian aggression.

In a more recent statement, Dolan described Putin as “an egomaniacal tyrant hellbent on delegitimizing NATO,” but offered the same set of responses the Biden administration has offered.

“Russia’s annexation of Crimea provided the powerful lesson that weakness invites aggression unless economic sanctions are crippling,” Dolan said.

Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer and presumed front runner, has been less direct in his responses. He posted a picture of Biden tweeting that Putin was afraid of him becoming the nominee, along with the message, “having Biden as President is exactly what Putin wanted.”

In another post, Mandel criticized a person floating concerns about COVID as Ukrainians shelter from attacks. “Innocent lives will be lost but this is the American left’s primary concern,” Mandel quipped. In another, he argued to “bring back the peace president” with a photo of Donald Trump.

Mandel has offered no statement thus far regarding how he believes the U.S. should respond to Russia’s aggression. Ohio Capital Journal reached out to Mandel’s team and did not get a response.

The one Republican who stands out from the pack is Hillbilly Elegy author and venture capitalist, J.D. Vance because of his off the cuff remarks during an appearance on Steve Bannon’s podcast.

“I gotta be honest with you,” Vance said. “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”

In a statement after the fact, Vance doubled down on his argument, deriding his “America last” opponents.

“Spare me the performative affection for the Ukraine,” he said, “a corrupt nation run by oligarchs, that is as close to a functional democracy in 2022 as Afghanistan was when Joe Biden handed it over to the Taliban in 2021.”

Vance insisted the conflict has nothing to do national security and serves no American interest. Instead, he argued, it distracts from the problem of drugs and human trafficking at the U.S. Mexico border.

Thursday, Vance waded back into those waters, highlighting the trend of Republican candidates echoing vague calls for sanctions.

“They should try being honest with the American people and admit what they really want: military intervention from American or NATO troops,” Vance suggested. “This would be a disaster, and we must stand against it under any circumstance.”

While every Republican candidate criticized Biden they suggested Putin would not have pursued this aggressive course if Donald Trump was still president. Meanwhile, Trump himself praised the Russian president’s actions as genius.

Thursday President Biden announced additional sanctions that would apply to five of Russia’s largest banks, as well as seven oligarchs and their children or businesses. Biden’s actions held two significant responses in reserve, though. The U.S. and its allies will not be kicking Russia off the global banking system known as SWIFT. Also, sanctions have yet to be placed on Putin himself, but Biden said that’s still an option.



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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.