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Biden says Navalny’s reported death brings new urgency to the need for more U.S. aid to Ukraine

By ZEKE MILLER and MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press
Published: February 16, 2024, 12:22pm

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Friday that the apparent death of Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny brings new urgency to the need for Congress to approve tens of billions of dollars for Ukraine to stave off Moscow’s invasion.

Speaking at the White House, Biden said that no matter the cause, he holds Russian President Vladimir Putin responsible for Navalny’s death. He added, “I hope to God it helps” push U.S. lawmakers to send more aid to Ukraine.

Biden said that “history is watching” lawmakers in the House, which hasn’t moved to take up a Senate-passed bill that would send funds and armaments to Ukraine, whose troops U.S. officials say are running out of critical munitions on the battlefield.

“The failure to support Ukraine at this critical moment will never be forgotten,” Biden said. “And the clock is ticking. This has to happen. We have to help now.”

Biden said the U.S. had not confirmed Navalny’s death in a Russian prison above the Arctic Circle, but that he had no reason to doubt it either.

The president sharply criticized House Republicans for letting the chamber enter a two-week recess without moving on the Ukraine funding.

“What are they thinking — my God,” Biden said. “This is bizarre and it’s just reinforcing all of the concern — I won’t say panic but real concern — about the United States being a responsible ally.”

Republican Speaker Mike Johnson earlier this week said the House won’t be “rushed” to pass the aid, but on Friday he said Putin was “a vicious dictator and the world knows he is likely directly responsible for the sudden death of his most prominent political opponent.”

“We must be clear that Putin will be met with united opposition,” Johnson, R-La., said in a statement. “As Congress debates the best path forward to support Ukraine, the United States, and our partners, must be using every means available to cut off Putin’s ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine and aggression against the Baltic states.”

Johnson’s plan for moving the aid is unclear. While the speaker has said he personally supports aiding Ukraine, he leads a far-right majority that is solidly aligned with former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination who opposes the legislation. Republicans have argued that Congress needs to first pass legislation to stem migration at the border, but Johnson and GOP House lawmakers immediately rejected a bipartisan Senate compromise on the border.

In a statement Friday, Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries called for an up or down vote on the Senate-passed bill.

“We must never allow Vladimir Putin and Russia to win,” Jeffries said. “This is not a moment for platitudes and empty promises. It is a time to choose.”

The Senate passed the Ukraine package, which also includes money for Israel and Taiwan, on a 70-29 vote Tuesday. Republicans were deeply divided on the bill, with 22 voting for it and 26 voting against. Some of the strongest GOP opponents argued that Ukraine can’t win the war and that there should be a settlement with Russia, an argument Putin himself has made.

On Friday, Republicans renewed their criticism of Putin – but some suggested it was up to Biden to respond.

“Alexei Navalny died as he lived: a champion of the Russian people and a brave voice of dissent in Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” posted Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who voted against the aid. “President Biden pledged ‘devastating’ consequences should Navalny die in prison; now he must follow through. America can’t afford another erased red line.”

Lawmakers who have pushed for the Ukraine legislation blamed the Republicans who have sided with Trump as he has urged its defeat.

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“The Speaker’s loyalty to Trump’s Putin is foolish & dangerous,” posted Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, on X.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who voted for the package, said that Navalny laid down his life fighting for a country he loved and that “Putin is a murderous, paranoid dictator.”

“History will not be kind to those in America who make apologies for Putin and praise Russian autocracy,” Tillis posted. “Nor will history be kind to America’s leaders who stay silent because they fear backlash from online pundits.”

Biden, eyeing a likely general election rematch against Trump this November, said American presidents from Harry Truman on are “rolling over in their graves” hearing Trump’s comments suggesting that the U.S. might not defend its NATO allies who fail to meet their defense spending targets if attacked.

“As long as I’m president, America stands by its sacred commitment to our allies,” Biden said.

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