Russia Takes Center Stage in US Political Battle

washington — Russia has taken center stage in American political discourse after the death of a prominent opposition figure there, putting congressional Republicans under increased pressure to support Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden has highlighted in his recent statements one of the differences between him and his challenger, former U.S. President Donald Trump.

At a recent rally, Trump said that if he were president and a NATO member fell short of its financial commitments to the security bloc, he would not protect that ally. “In fact, I would encourage them” — meaning Russia — “to do whatever the hell they want,” Trump said.

“Every president since Truman has been a rock-solid supporter of NATO, except for Donald Trump,” a stentorian male voice intones in an ad released this week by the Biden campaign. “Trump wants to walk away from NATO. He’s even given Putin and Russia the green light to attack America’s allies. … No president has ever said anything like it. It’s shameful. It’s weak. It’s dangerous. It’s un-American.”

The divide was further compounded by the death last week of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in a Russian prison.

Biden has been quick to lay blame and threaten stiff sanctions over the 47-year-old’s death in an Arctic penal colony, which Russian officials say was caused by “sudden death syndrome.”

“The fact of the matter is, Putin is responsible,” Biden said. “Whether he ordered it, he’s responsible for the circumstances they put that man in. And it’s a reflection of who he is. It just cannot be tolerated. I said there will be a price to pay.”

The Kremlin said Biden’s allegation is “unfounded” and “insolent,” but authorities have denied Navalny’s mother access to his body.

A different line

Trump and his Republican Party have taken a different line, with Trump saying he would not support NATO as strongly as Biden has. And, in a recent event with Fox News, he cast himself as a victim of political persecution, like Navalny.

“It’s a horrible thing, but it’s happening in our country, too,” Trump said Tuesday night. “We are turning into a communist country in many ways. And if you look at it, I’m the leading candidate. I get … I never heard of being indicted before. … I got indicted four times, I have eight or nine trials, all because of the fact that — and you know this — all because of the fact that I’m in politics.”

Trump was vague on how he’d end the war, instead saying that if he were president, Putin would never have invaded Ukraine.

Republicans have grown more vocal in questioning why they should fund the conflict. Russian forces recently captured a key Ukrainian city, Avdiivka, which the White House points to as proof that Ukrainian forces need urgent help.

In urging members of Congress to pass a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine, national security adviser Jake Sullivan argued it is “in our cold-blooded, national security interest to help Ukraine stand up to Putin’s vicious and brutal invasion.”

“We know from history that when dictators aren’t stopped, they keep going,” Sullivan told reporters this week in a briefing. “The cost for America rises, and the consequences get more and more severe for our NATO allies and elsewhere in the world.”

Some Republicans are confident that they will pass the stalled $95 billion aid package, most of which is for Ukraine.

“I think the slow response from Europe and the United States, of course, that hurts Ukraine,” Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick said on a recent visit to Ukraine. “And that’s why we can’t let this happen, why we’re going to get something done.”

War’s symbolism grows

Meanwhile, as Ukraine nears the second anniversary of the invasion and U.S. aid hangs in the balance, the war has taken on greater symbolic meaning.

“This has become about America,” journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev told VOA’s Russian Service via Skype. He is also a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “Will America continue to play the role of a power that keeps its promises, that respects its alliances and that is capable of projecting strength?

“Or is America over as a serious power? That’s the question now,” he said. “It’s no longer about Russia or Ukraine. Now all eyes of the world are on America, and the way America decides will have epic consequences.”

VOA’s Rafael R. Saakyan contributed to this report from Washington.

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