Tennessee congressmen failing Ukraine challenge

October 24, 2023 6:00 am
Tennessee Congressional District 5 U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee Congressional District 5 U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles. (Photo: John Partipilo)

You may have noticed that Republicans in the U. S. House extracted a price for keeping the government open through mid-November. That price was that there would be no additional Ukraine assistance in the legislation, known in Congress-speak as a continuing resolution.  President Joe Biden insisted a separate bill advancing the aid would go forward and last week asked Congress to approve a funding package to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Israel and other countries. 

Nevertheless, a growing share of Republican legislators, with several Tennesseans in the lead, are waffling on our commitments to Ukraine, to democracy, and to thwarting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.   

The biggest land war since World War II is playing out right now in Ukraine. It may well prove to be the moral, democratic, and military challenge of this generation, and at least three Tennessee members of Congress are failing that challenge.

The National Defense Authorization Act, that effectively serves our nation’s military budget, recently came up for a series of votes — and votes on some proposed amendments were quite revealing about our congressmen.  The most disturbing was an amendment from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R- Fla., that flat out would have prohibited U. S. security assistance to Ukraine. It failed by a lopsided 70-358 margin, but three Tennessee members of Congress — U.S. Rep.  Diana Harshbarger, U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, and U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles, all Republicans — voted for it.

Another amendment, striking the section of the bill extending lend-lease authority to Ukraine, fell by a similar lopsided majority, but the same trio of Tennessee congressmen voted for it. Yet another amendment, this one sponsored by the infamous Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia would eliminate plans to create a military training operation, known as a Center of Excellence, in Ukraine. This time U.S. Rep. Mark Green joined Burchett and Harshbarger in voting to delete that resource. Ogles did not vote.

Three members of Tennessee’s federal delegation — U.S. Reps. Diana Harshbarger, District 1; Tim Burchett, District 2; and Andy Ogles, District 5 — voted for an amendment proposed by Florida Republican Matt Gaetz to prohibit U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.

Ogles, however, authored his own particular horror, HR 4799. Its summary declares it will “prohibit assistance under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative until the President certifies to Congress that the Government of Ukraine is not providing funding, equipment, training, fuel, or other support to the Russian Volunteer Corps, the Azov Battalion, or any other neo-Nazi militia.” If that wording sounds odd, that’s because it mirrors that thin tissue of lies Putin used to justify his invasion of Ukraine. The amendment quietly was sent to die in two committees.

This past summer I had a teaching assignment in Prague, the beautiful and inspiring capital of the Czech Republic. Prague is a good vantage point from which to ruminate about the war in Ukraine and what it means for Europe and, indeed, the globe.

Czechs do not need reminders about the capacity of the Russian military for the cruel crushing of democratic progress. Prague Spring began in January 1968 when the reformer Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. He pushed forward some economic decentralization; he also loosened restrictions on travel, media, and speech. Reform came to an abrupt end in August of that year when troops and tanks from the Warsaw Pact (a Soviet bloc response to NATO) rolled into the country.

Czechs and tourists alike now can visit Prague’s Museum of Communism to see displays about Prague Spring, the cruelty and deceit of the Soviet communist era and the inspiring 1989 Velvet Revolution that shook off subservience to Moscow’s will. In a move of typical Czech humor, the Lenin and Stalin statues are by the museum’s toilets.

Another moment for reflection on the current war in Ukraine can occur in the Military History Institute in Prague, better known as the Army Museum. I visited and discovered that the collection has extensive artifacts on the technology, uniforms, and weapons of war, but it also has displays (including many videos) on the continuing human tragedy that is war.

The Czech Republic has taken in more than half a million Ukrainian refugees from the current war, making it one of the top destinations. Despite some political stresses, more than 100,000 refugees have found work, and about nine in ten refugee children are enrolled in schools.

Czechs like many Europeans, and indeed many Americans, are concerned about Russian expansionism, evident in the 2014 seizure of Crimea followed by proxy seizures in Eastern Ukraine, and understand it must meet unified international condemnation and response.  Biden, to his great credit, has kept NATO together in this awful war, at the same time guided expansion of NATO by two more nations, Finland and Sweden.

The stakes are high. This war is about democracy, truth, and self-determination. This is Vladimir Putin’s war.  He launched the latest wave of it by invasion in February of last year.  He hides his ambition for an expansive Russia, reminiscent of the old Soviet empire, behind a barrage of lies. The brave people of Ukraine, outgunned but resilient, held off the invaders and pushed back in many areas.

The people of the Czech Republic, like the people of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland, know the geography and stakes of what it means to have a dangerous neighbor like Putin’s Russia. They watch with great intensity events in Ukraine. They deserve better than what we saw recently from several of Tennessee’s members of Congress.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon is a professor of journalism and media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.