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Rep. Pramila Jayapal speaks to reporters

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) is seen on the House steps of the U.S. Capitol during the last votes of the week on June 16, 2022. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Congressional Progressive Caucus Withdraws Letter That Tepidly Called for Diplomacy in Ukraine

The move comes after the mild and carefully worded letter sparked furious backlash from pundits and at least one Democratic leader.

Jake Johnson

The Congressional Progressive Caucus on Tuesday withdrew a letter that mildly expressed support for diplomatic negotiations to end Russia's war on Ukraine as the document's 30 signatories faced a torrent of criticism and hysterical backlash from fellow Democrats, party leaders, and pundits on social media.

"The shrill response to this utterly moderate letter exposes that war proponents are scared of an open debate."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the CPC, said in a statement that the letter addressed to U.S. President Joe Biden "was drafted several months ago, but unfortunately was released by staff without vetting"—a line that was widely seen as Jayapal throwing her staff under the bus.

"As chair of the caucus, I accept responsibility for this," she added. "Because of the timing, our message is being conflated by some as being equivalent to the recent statement by Republican Leader McCarthy threatening an end to aid to Ukraine if Republicans take over."

"The proximity of these statements," the CPC leader said, "created the unfortunate appearance that Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted for every package of military, strategic, and economic assistance to the Ukrainian people, are somehow aligned with Republicans who seek to pull the plug on American support for President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian forces."

Jayapal said that narrative—peddled by one Democratic leader who Politico granted anonymity to slime their colleagues as Putin apologists—could not be "further from the truth."

"Every war ends with diplomacy, and this one will too after Ukrainian victory," Jayapal continued. "The letter sent yesterday, although restating that basic principle, has been conflated with GOP opposition to support for the Ukrainians' just defense of their national sovereignty. As such, it is a distraction at this time and we withdraw the letter."

Jayapal's statement capped off a bizarre series of events that began Monday afternoon, when the CPC released a letter voicing support for a "proactive diplomatic push" in pursuit of a "realistic framework for a ceasefire." The letter directly quoted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said in May that the war "will be bloody, there will be fighting, but it will only definitively end through diplomacy."

Though the letter went out of its way to condemn Russia's aggression, support the arming of Ukraine, and acknowledge the major obstacles to a diplomatic settlement—including Russia's unlawful annexation of Ukrainian territory—it was immediately maligned on social media and in the press as a dangerous call for "appeasement."

One unnamed member of the Democratic leadership told Politico that "Vladimir Putin would have signed that letter if asked."

"That bone-headed letter just put Dems in the same league as Kevin McCarthy, who said in the same week that Ukraine funding could be in jeopardy," the anonymous top Democrat said.

As the outrage mounted in the hours following the letter's release, signatories began distancing themselves from its message and insisting on their support for aiding Ukraine militarily—even though the letter doesn't suggest cutting off military assistance. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) noted in response to one critic of the letter that he has "voted for every defense package to Ukraine."

"Calling for exploring every diplomatic avenue to avoid nuclear war and seek a ceasefire while upholding Ukraine sovereignty is what many constituents seek," Khanna wrote on Twitter. "Our nation should never silence or shout down debate. The admin does not."

Khanna was just one of several prominent progressives who signed the letter, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)

Late Monday, in the face of growing backlash, Jayapal issued a statement purportedly aimed at "clarifying the position" of the letter, which was endorsed by a number of peace groups including Just Foreign Policy, Win Without War, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

"Let me be clear: we are united as Democrats in our unequivocal commitment to supporting Ukraine in their fight for their democracy and freedom in the face of the illegal and outrageous Russian invasion, and nothing in the letter advocates for a change in that support," Jayapal said. "Diplomacy is an important tool that can save lives—but it is just one tool."

Erik Sperling, the executive director of Just Foreign Policy, told The Intercept Monday night that "the shrill response to this utterly moderate letter exposes that war proponents are scared of an open debate about the range of potential approaches to address this escalating conflict."

"As happened with the war in Iraq and many others throughout human history, war proponents attempt to silence debate in large part because they aren't confident in their arguments and are afraid that pro-diplomacy views will appeal to average Americans," said Sperling. "With polls already showing growing opposition to U.S. military involvement in Ukraine, increasing concern from progressives will only make it harder for war proponents to cast conventional pro-diplomacy views as 'far-right' or 'pro-Putin.'"

In a Monday tweet touting the since-withdrawn letter, CPC policy director Keane Bhatt pointed to Data for Progress polling from September showing that "a majority (57%) of Americans support U.S. negotiations to end the war in Ukraine as soon as possible, even if it means Ukraine making some compromises with Russia."

"A majority of voters (57%) believe that Russia's war in Ukraine will end in a negotiated peace, not a total military victory for either side," Jessica Rosenblum, director of communications at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, wrote in a summary of the survey's findings. "Moreover, voters largely agree that the U.S. has a leading role to play in negotiating an end to the war (59%)."

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