Sen. Tom Cotton accused the Biden administration of kowtowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday during a hearing in which he grilled Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines about White House opposition to a Polish proposal to transfer MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine.
“It seems to me that Vladimir Putin has simply deterred the US government from providing these aircraft by stating they [Russia] would view this as escalatory,” Cotton (R-Ark.) told Haines and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Barrier during the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual worldwide threats hearing.
Cotton pressed Haines on the intelligence community’s analysis of Russia’s view of the potential aircraft transfer, which the senator described as a “fiasco.”
“It is our analysts’ assessment that the transfer of these airplanes could be perceived as a significant escalation by the Russians,” Haines said, echoing claims made by the Pentagon earlier in the week.
“I appreciate your analysts, and their deep expertise and knowledge about this,” Cotton responded. “I’m asking what specific evidence, information, intelligence do they have that the transfer of these aircrafts — as opposed to anti-aircraft missiles that shoot Russian jets out of the sky — is going to be viewed as escalatory?”
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After Haines offered to provide Cotton with a written report, the senator asked again: “Do you have new intelligence?”
The DNI ducked the question, saying that intelligence analysts were “looking at a body of intelligence, and they’re also providing their own knowledge and experience.”
Soon after, Cotton cut Haines off.
“We can address this in a closed setting, but here’s my opinion,” he said. “You don’t have new intelligence. This is opinion, and in many cases, this is policymakers looking to the intelligence community to provide them cover for their hesitancy.”
Cotton then asked Barrier, “How Putin might be A-OK with us transferring missiles that turn their tanks into burning piles of rubbish or shoot their jets out of the sky, yet transferring tactical aircraft is going to be unacceptable? Why is the latter escalatory and the former not escalatory?”
“I think when you look at anti-tank weapons and air defense, shoulder-fired kinds of weapons, there is a range of escalation,” answered the DIA chief. “In our view, that escalation ladder doesn’t get checked higher with those weapons versus something like combat aircraft.”
“I gotta say, I don’t think there’s a lot of common sense in this distinction,” a visibly frustrated Cotton responded before asking Haines about her office’s report on global threats, which stated that Russia “does not want a direct conflict with U.S. forces.”
“That was from January 21,” Cotton said. “You think that they’re more likely to want a conflict now, after Vladimir Putin has seen the performance of his army? Not just against the Ukrainian army, but against moms with Molotov cocktails and grandmas with AK-47s?”
Haines replied that the issue was not whether Russia wanted a conflict with the US, but “whether they perceive us as being in that conflict with them.”
“We’re in a very challenging position where we are obviously providing support to the Ukrainians as we should and need to do, but at the same time trying not to escalate the conflict into a full-on NATO or US war with Russia,” she said. “And that’s a challenging space to manage, and the analysts are just trying to provide their best assessment of what is likely to be perceived as that kind of escalation in this circumstance.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) later called Cotton’s questioning “the most important part of this hearing so far today.”
“Vladimir Putin might embrace the idea that we might somehow self-deter every time he issues a press release, and lawyerly hair-splitting about providing this kind of weaponry is not escalatory but providing that weaponry is escalatory — I don’t think we really believe that,” he said. “I think the administration is pushing the intelligence community to give them cover for lean-forward decisions they don’t want to be making.”
After the Polish government said Tuesday it would hand over 28 MiG-29 jets to the US for provision to Ukraine and asked Washington to lend Poland aircraft to fill the gap in its air force, the Pentagon shot down the proposal, with press secretary John Kirby saying it was not “tenable.”
That caused outrage among members of both parties on Capitol Hill.
“There is bipartisan support to provide these planes,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “It is disappointing to see the reluctance on the part of the admin, and it’s coming across as indecision and bickering among members of the administration, which is not helpful to the cause.”
“I believe there is a sentiment that we are fearful about what Putin might do and what he might consider as an escalation,” added Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “It is time for him to be fearful of what we might do.”