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Republicans are condemning Putin for the invasion of Ukraine — and criticizing Biden

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Thursday criticized the sanctions the Biden administration announced against Russia as too little, too late.
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Thursday criticized the sanctions the Biden administration announced against Russia as too little, too late.

Republicans have largely condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin in the wake of his invasion of Ukraine, and many have also criticized President Biden's responding sanctions as insufficient.

However, the Republican Party has not reached full consensus on the Kremlin's actions, with former President Donald Trump remaining an outlier in the party he ostensibly leads.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., attacked Biden on Thursday, telling reporters that the deadly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year had been "an invitation to the autocrats of the world that maybe this was a good time to make a move," as WFPL's Ryan Van Velzer reported.

An array of Republicans, including McConnell, also criticized the sanctions Biden has announced in response to Russia's aggression as too little, too late.

There had been bipartisan energy in Congress for a package billed as the "mother of all sanctions." While talks over that bill fell apart six days ago, that energy remains.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who had been one lawmaker leading the push for more sanctions, on Thursday reiterated his support for further action.

"As we seek to impose maximum costs on Putin, there is more that we can and should do," he said in a statement.

GOP focuses on other topics at CPAC

Meanwhile, on the first day of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, Republican politicians were muted in their response to Russia and Ukraine.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered a strong potential challenger to Trump for the 2024 presidential nomination, didn't mention Ukraine or Russia in his speech on Thursday, choosing to focus on major Republican culture war issues like COVID-19 policy and teaching about race in public schools.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Thursday.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who has events planned in early presidential primary and caucus states New Hampshire and Iowa, also only briefly touched on Ukraine and Russia in her remarks.

Meanwhile, Trump's responses to Russian aggression thus far have been similarly critical of Biden — but also friendly to Putin. On a conservative radio show on Tuesday, he praised the Russian leader's actions in recognizing the independence of separatist-controlled regions as "savvy" and "genius." And footage from a Wednesday fundraiser in Florida showed Trump calling Putin "smart" for moving in on Ukraine "for $2 worth of sanctions."

Trump was friendly to Putin throughout his presidency. At one notorious 2018 news conference with Putin, Trump called the Russian leader's denials of 2016 election interference "strong and powerful."

Danielle Pletka, distinguished senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, agreed that earlier and more forceful sanctions from Biden would have been more useful in deterring Putin.

She also noted that foreign policy ideologies don't always break down neatly along party lines — neither major party, she pointed out, is made up entirely of either isolationists or interventionists.

When it comes to Trump, however, he occupies a separate ideology, governed largely by self-interest.

"I haven't parsed his somewhat-confusing statements, both condemning and at the same time admiring and at the same time deploring what has happened," Pletka said. "But, no surprise, Trump sees this through the prism of his own ego and his own power, much less through the prism of a geopolitical strategy or even American strength and security."

Trump is set to speak at CPAC on Saturday night in a speech sure to be closely watched for any comments on the situation in Ukraine.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.