U.S. Senate weighs sanctions on Russia for aggression against Ukraine

Biden administration and military officials were at the U.S. Capitol Thursday briefing senators on the growing tensions over Russia and Ukraine. This comes after President Biden sent 3,000 troops to Eastern Europe to bolster NATO allies. Senators face tough questions about when to come down on the Russian government and how best to do it. NewsHour's Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Top Biden officials were at the Capitol today briefing senators on the growing tensions in Russia and Ukraine.

    It is a potentially critical moment, as members of Congress wrestle with if and how to pass sanctions directly confronting Vladimir Putin and the Russian government.

    For more on all of this, I'm joined by our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins.

    So, hello, Lisa.

    We know senators are concerned. Give us a sense the level of concern you were picking up as you talked to the senators after the briefing and why.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    What I got that was new today, Judy, from these senators as they were walking out of this long hour-and-a-half-plus briefing was continued concern, but what was new was real urgency from them.

    I heard in this voices a sense they think time for the U.S. to really make a statement here and potentially to strategize and use leverage against Putin diplomatically may be running out.

    And, specifically, this is as senators are trying to weigh exactly what kind of attentions package, if any, they need to pass. They're in the middle of trying to put that package together right now. But there is a more broad debate over how and if the U.S. should do anything at all.

    Some senators, including divides — those divided in the Republican Party, say the U.S. has to act. Others say it's not the U.S.' job.

    Listen to these two senators, first Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and then Roger Marshall of Kansas.

  • b>Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC):

    All I can say is, after that briefing, we live in very dangerous times. And I want the American people to know, if you think this is not our concern, you're wrong.

  • Sen. Roger Marshall(R-KS):

    Where are the European countries and where is NATO? Why aren't they being stronger in this situation? Why aren't they standing up to this bullying?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Other news today, though, this is all happening as we see in North Carolina those first troops being deployed as part of President Biden's decision to send more American forces to the Ukraine region — or to the Eastern Europe region.

    This is the 82nd Airborne out of Fort Bragg. They're leaving as part of that 3,000 troops. I want to remind people of exactly what this deployment looks like that the president is directing. Overall, some 3,000 American troops will be moving as part of this effort to secure NATO's position in the region; 2,000 of those, including those from Fort Bragg, are headed to Poland and Germany, 1,000 going to Romania.

    This is a defensive posture, members of Congress talking me today saying they call it assurance to our allies there. But the timing is critical, Judy. This is why the sense of urgency. Right now, temperatures are right around freezing in that region. And there is a real sense that, of course, it will be easier for Russia to make moves with its heavy equipment when the ground is frozen, vs. when later, say, March, late February, it's not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, give us a sense of what options the Congress is looking at and why they have not made a decision before now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It Is complicated. It is a nuanced debate, actually, up here.

    But I think I can boil it down to sort of three options that senators are considering. Let's look at this. First, they have the option to let President Biden decide. He can issue sanctions on his own. He obviously can send some troops for some reasons to that region.

    But Congress can reinforce that with a mandate for sanctions now. Some people want very heavy sanctions now on Russia. Others say, why not issue some sanctions now, like targeted perhaps to Putin's inner circle, and then threaten much more hefty sanctions on Russia's banks, on its financial sector, if Russia should invade?

    Judy, my reporting is that the two key senators involved here, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, and the ranking Republican, Jim Risch, have been meeting, including last night. And they are focusing on that last option, some targeted sanctions now, and perhaps heavier sanctions later.

    But it's complicated, because President Biden is not necessarily on board that idea. He does not want his hands tied by Congress. And then there's a third factor, Germany. The German chancellor and Germany are involved in a financial relationship over a gas pipeline with Russia.

    And I am told by people here the German ambassador was at the Capitol. And this is adding another complicated dynamic to America's try — attempts to reinforce its allies, when one ally, Germany, may have a slightly different opinion on the exact sanctions that should go into place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hardly a simple matter.

    And quickly to something else, Lisa. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Republicans on that committee today issued their report on what happened in the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Just give us a sense of that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I will.

    And this was a report that was just from the Republicans, but it struck me as more serious in tone, not as partisan as sometimes these reports can be. They said that a number of failings they found were that was that the administration disregarded warnings from front-line Foreign Service officers.

    And, essentially, they're saying some basic things need to go in place here, that the United States needs to be better prepared for evacuation scenarios, and that the United States needs to just have a better accounting of Americans and its own allies in regions that are under risk.

    Remember, Judy, when the United States pulled out of that region, there were still more than 30,000 SIVs. Those are often those translators that helped America, people who were at — who were ready to receive visas, that were in the pipeline for visas, that we left behind in Afghanistan, many of them still there.

    So this is an effort to try and look at what happened and how to avoid it in the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins reporting on all these things at the Capitol.

    Thank you, Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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