Ro Khanna: Ukraine Will Be Russia’s Afghanistan

“Concerned about providing lethal aid before the war started,” the Democratic congressman is now more “open” to helping Ukraine.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (L), Democrat of California speaks during a press conference following a vote in the US House on ending US military involvement in the war in Yemen, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 4, 2019.
U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (L), Democrat of California speaks during a press conference following a vote in the US House on ending US military involvement in the war in Yemen, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 4, 2019.
U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (L), Democrat of California speaks during a press conference following a vote in the US House on ending US military involvement in the war in Yemen, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 4, 2019. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Democratic progressives, an outsize voice on domestic issues in the United States, were seen as late to the debate on Russia-Ukraine and on how involved Washington should be. But as Ro Khanna, a Democrat representing California’s Silicon Valley, told Foreign Policy on Thursday, that’s not to say they are naive about the threats Russian President Vladimir Putin poses, in Ukraine or elsewhere.

Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, served as a foreign-policy advisor for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders ahead of the 2020 election. This policy relationship gained initial momentum when the two lawmakers won bipartisan support to end U.S. involvement in Yemen, only to have the bill vetoed by then-President Donald Trump.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Democratic progressives, an outsize voice on domestic issues in the United States, were seen as late to the debate on Russia-Ukraine and on how involved Washington should be. But as Ro Khanna, a Democrat representing California’s Silicon Valley, told Foreign Policy on Thursday, that’s not to say they are naive about the threats Russian President Vladimir Putin poses, in Ukraine or elsewhere.

Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, served as a foreign-policy advisor for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders ahead of the 2020 election. This policy relationship gained initial momentum when the two lawmakers won bipartisan support to end U.S. involvement in Yemen, only to have the bill vetoed by then-President Donald Trump.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: So, after months of diplomatic efforts and a massive military buildup, Russia has invaded Ukraine. What is an appropriate U.S. response here?

Ro Khanna: We have to first condemn Putin’s invasion, his callous disregard for human life, his violation of international law in a total war of choice and that has no justification. We need to have crippling economic sanctions against him and other oligarchs. We need to make it clear that the United States will be prepared to militarily defend our NATO allies—that is an alliance that we will honor and have a very clear expectation of that.

We need to make it clear that under the 1979 Taiwan Act that we are prepared to do everything for Taiwan’s defense and provide that capability so that there is no ambiguity about American resolve when it comes to NATO and when it comes to providing for Taiwan’s defense.

But I support what the administration has been doing in being clear about Putin’s aggression and pointing out the extraordinary economic sanctions while also making it clear that we won’t be sending troops into Ukraine itself.

FP: You just talked about supporting NATO and imposing economic sanctions on Russia. How far should U.S. support for Ukraine go?

RK: Having met with the mayor of Kyiv, in Munich, I’m confident that Ukrainians will fight for their homeland. The man was 6-7, he’s a boxer. He talks about the spirit that he has to fight for Ukraine. A lot of Ukrainians now hate Russia. That’s because of Putin’s actions.

I think Ukraine may end up being Russia’s Afghanistan. That really hurt them in the Cold War. In the long run, this is going to be very costly for Putin, so I am for sanctions, and I’m open to what the administration proposes of what we need to be doing to help Ukrainians from a defense perspective.

I mean, I was concerned about providing lethal aid before the war started, because I didn’t want us to be unnecessarily provocative, but, now that Putin has taken on this war, I’m open to what the administration may propose, and standing up for Ukraine.

FP: Of course, the Ukrainian military has to remain standing in order for that to be viable in the long term.

RK: Yeah, I think there are questions. I mean, I think there’s the challenge of the Ukrainian military in the initial confrontation with the Russian army that is 10 times as powerful, but then there is the insurgency, and that’s I think what Putin is underestimating there.

From my interactions in Munich and speaking to people who know folks in Ukraine, there is a lot of fight in the Ukrainian people, and there is a real hatred of what Russia has done to Ukraine. I also happen to know a fair amount of people in Ukraine just because of representing Silicon Valley, and a lot of the software engineers at different cryptocurrency companies or technology companies are in Ukraine.

And so I’ve been reaching out to some of my friends and in that space or in communication with some of their employees in Ukraine, and what I hear back anecdotally is that they’re prepared to fight for their country.

FP: The Ukrainians have called for cutting off diplomatic relations with Russia. Is the diplomatic door closed for the time being between Russia and the United States?

RK: Well, you never shut off diplomacy completely. I mean, there always has to be some resolution, and you don’t want war to escalate. So there has to be a clarity that the invasion is wrong, that there will be severe consequences, crippling consequences, that we will do whatever we can in supporting Ukraine, but at the same time, if there is a way to explore how to bring this to an end, that has to be always on the table.

FP: You just returned from Munich, where you were consulting with U.S. allies and partners there. Talk to me a little bit about what role you would like to see them play, what role you’d like to see the Europeans play, now that the war is here.

RK: I was very impressed with Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz of Germany, and he conveyed early in his tenure that he stands with the United States in imposing economic sanctions. I’m glad they made such a quick decision to discontinue Nord Stream 2, and that was consistent with what he represented to us. He is very much aligned with the United States.

One of the points he made that I think was particularly insightful is the need to move away from Russian gas. That the policy of dependence on Russian gas was misguided and that they have to explore all options from renewables to nuclear to have greater energy independence for Germany in Europe.

We had a very good meeting with Keir Starmer, the Labour leader who is proposing a windfall profit tax on oil to help reduce costs for working-class Brits.

I think that’s something that we should look at in the United States, with Exxon’s record profits and oil companies’ record profits, how can we have some windfall tax and then use that to reduce energy costs here in the United States, especially given that the war may increase some of those costs for working families and in America.

And we had a constructive meeting with [British] Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson. I urged the prime minister to assume the leadership of the European National Security Council that is offered to them. Britain needs to act in concert with our European allies and NATO. And this is not the time for them to isolate.

FP: Looking back at the last three months, the United States has been the lead negotiator with Russia, partially on Russia’s choice, but also in a de facto sense, it’s seen as the leader of the West in this standoff. Does it always have to be that way? Is there a problem there that the United States has to be the one to be in the lead when all this is happening in Europe?

RK: Well, we benefit from NATO. I mean, the only time NATO was invoked was after the 9/11 attacks, and there were so many NATO allies that have fought with us in Afghanistan. We benefit from making sure that Europe is protected, and if Europe’s integrity is compromised, that hurts our economic markets, and that poses a far greater threat to the United States, those threats come much closer to our shores.

So, we are still the world’s superpower, and history teaches us that we have to care about the violation of territorial sovereignty in Europe and stand firm against it. I think the president has handled this appropriately. He has been firm, he’s exercised leadership, but he’s made it clear that American troops aren’t going to get into an endless war in Ukraine and that endless war will be reserved for Russia.

FP: I’m wondering about the Democratic Party and how you see the policy debates playing out there at the moment. How much daylight is there do you think between your position, as more restraint-oriented, versus those in your party who would be more pro-intervention?

RK: We met with Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken, and I think he’s done a brilliant job. I’m 100 percent supportive of the administration’s approach here on Russia. And where I have been opposed to endless wars in Afghanistan and our long war in Iraq, which I thought was a blunder, I believe we have to be clear-eyed about the threat that Putin and Russia pose to the international order and the United States—and that China poses to the United States, both in terms of their expansion instincts in Taiwan and the genocide of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

So someone like me, I think, who is a progressive and is advocated withdrawal in Afghanistan, who advocated against the Iraq War, will be very supportive of a tough, strong policy to restrain China from making any moves against Taiwan. And that will make sure that Putin knows that he cannot in any way cross into NATO territory without facing military consequences. And so I think here, he would have people like me aligned with the president.

FP: Is the main way to counter Russia and China the military way? Is that the only kind of voice the United States should be speaking with right now? 

RK: No, I think we have to first look at our alliances, and here I think I can play a unique role of being the vice chair of the U.S.-India caucus, in being, of course, Indian American. I think the United States needs to strengthen our alliances with India, Australia, Japan, with the Quad, and really make that a clear alliance. I would like to see India speak out more clearly against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and ultimately make it clear that India, Australia, Japan would oppose any Chinese aggression into Taiwan.

And then I think it’s important that we lead technologically, that we outstrip China in technology and AI and space and in submarines and undersea technology, and that we lead economically. So that would be my two emphases about the alliances and economic leadership in addition to the military. But we have to have the military option on the table, especially when it comes to defending NATO and when it comes to under our 1979 obligation to providing for Taiwan’s defense.

FP: Going back to Ukraine, where the human cost could be severe. What is the U.S. responsibility here when it comes to displaced people and refugees coming out of this conflict?

RK: We have a big moral responsibility. We have a responsibility to help Ukrainians who are fleeing Ukraine, to help civilians, to have to accept Ukrainians seeking asylum, both in Europe and the United States.

One of the things that pains me so much is our moral abdication in Afghanistan, where freezing that money has led to literally starvation there. I’ve been advocating with several of my colleagues that we need to unfreeze it to get it to the people. We need to make sure that we’re putting the civilians in Ukraine first and foremost in our mind and doing everything we can to mitigate the loss of life.

FP: There has already been debate about making sure Congress makes any final decision to declare war, should things come to that. We’re not there yet, so where do you see Congress’s role right now in the balance of power between yourselves and the White House?

RK: I think right now, Congress needs to be supporting the administration, as we did with the speaker in Munich, to working to make it clear that we condemn Putin’s actions that we support the president, that we are working to get all our allies on board so that Putin knows we’re unified, speaking with one voice: the legislative branch and the executive branch.

The president, in taking the actions he is, to have the crippling economic sanctions and making it clear that any aggression into NATO would be met with a swift and strong response, including having a military option. I believe the administration would come to Congress in the future if it were needed. But right now, what’s important to focus on is supporting the administration and speaking with one voice.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.