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Return to Sender

House Progressives’ Ukraine Letter Was a Self-Inflicted Disaster

A tedious and tepid missive did more to damage its writers’ reputations than advance the cause of peace.

Joshua Roberts/Getty Images
Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Pramila Jayapal

How will the war in Ukraine end? More than seven months after Russian troops swept into the country, they find themselves in a brutal quagmire. Ukrainian troops have heroically pushed back their invaders, first in Kiev and then in towns and cities in the east. At this juncture, there seems to be no way for Vladimir Putin to declare victory; he is also incapable of admitting defeat. The current options seem dire: The conflict could continue indefinitely, pointlessly swallowing up thousands of more lives. Or there are more chilling possibilities: Putin could use nuclear weapons; the war could spill into Ukraine’s neighbors.

This was the context in which 30 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to the White House on Monday, asking for the Biden administration to pursue diplomatic options to resolve the conflict. “Given the destruction created by this war for Ukraine and the world, as well as the risk of catastrophic escalation, we also believe it is in the interests of Ukraine, the United States, and the world to avoid a prolonged conflict,” CPC leader Pramila Jayapal wrote on behalf of the caucus. “For this reason, we urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” Just about 24 hours later, Jayapal announced that the Caucus was withdrawing the letter.

It’s hard to imagine a bigger or more avoidable fiasco. Nearly immediately after the letter was publicly released, Jayapal and the CPC were under fire. House Democrat Jake Auchincloss called it “an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war.” Several of the signees criticized the timing of its release, which they said they didn’t support. “It’s just a disaster. The CPC just needs to clean house,” one staffer told Politico. Democrats have largely been united in support of Ukraine. The letter called that into question and muddied the party’s foreign policy message at the worst possible time: less than two weeks to go before the midterms and during a period in which many Republicans were openly questioning continued financial and military support for Ukraine.

Even more inexplicable, the letter had apparently been drafted way back in July, after which it circulated behind the scenes with no evident push to bring it forward for public consumption until yesterday, when it was revived and released. It is still not clear why it was decided that this moment—before the midterms, after Ukraine has successfully pushed Russia back in several key areas—was the ripest time to launch it into the world. (Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall speculated that members of the Quincy Institute may have pushed for its release, as they were quick to amplify the news of the letter’s release; as The New Republic’s Blaise Malley reported in September, the group had suffered some meaningful divisions over how to approach Putin’s invasion.)

The biggest problem with the release of the letter is that it never really made it clear what, specifically, the Congressional Progressive Caucus wanted the Biden administration to do. The U.S. is obviously Ukraine’s biggest backer, in terms of both financial support and military aid. But there is little the Biden administration can do to bring Ukraine to the table—short of withholding the support that may have enabled Ukraine to fend off the invasion—and there is even less it can do to convince Putin that now is the time to cut his losses. Regardless, what the letter makes in terms of demands are vague to the point of being insubstantial, generally seeming simply to ask the Biden administration to pursue diplomacy as soon as it becomes both appropriate and possible to do so. There is no reason to believe that this is not already the Biden administration’s strategy.

To a large extent, this is merely a tempest in a teacup. The letter is mostly an anodyne affirmation of positions that most Democrats and the Biden administration already champion: support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and its leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy; the belief that the U.S. should do all it can to end the war. But by throwing it into the public square in such dramatic fashion, it’s hard not to hear the implicit suggestion that there is more the U.S. and the Biden administration should be doing that they aren’t.

The letter talks about the interests of the U.S., but however the war concludes will primarily affect the people and the interests of Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians have died in the war; cities have been reduced to rubble. But Ukraine isn’t clamoring for a negotiated settlement right now, and there’s little reason for the United States to force Ukraine to the table at this juncture. At this point, Russia is losing the war—but it’s not pushing for peace. Instead, Russian state-run media is a waterfall of genocidal fantasizing: a clear sign that Russia won’t be coming to the bargaining table anytime soon and that there’s not much that either Ukraine or the U.S. can do to change its mind.

For House progressives—and especially for Jayapal, who was expected to seek a leadership position—this unforced error has been an omnishambles. The caucus has steadily gained influence in recent years. But this is a mess of its own making, a needless folderol that accomplished nothing beyond making the group seem messy and divided. The left has hitherto struggled to articulate a foreign policy vision on par with its compelling domestic policy diagnoses and platform; this letter sets both projects back. It goes without saying that this affair has done nothing to advance peace in Ukraine either.