Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks as U.S. Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton appears before a Senate Rules and Administration Committee oversight hearing on the Jan. 6, attack on the Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Credit: Andrew Harnick / AP

Sen. Angus King warned Russian leader Vladimir Putin may be looking to use even more force against Ukraine when he should be looking for an “offramp” after crippling Western sanctions.

Senators returned to Washington on Monday as the conflict in Ukraine entered its fifth day. The U.S. and its allies ramped up economic sanctions over the weekend, something that King and other lawmakers had called for. But there was little sign Monday that neither the massive consequences nor mounting casualties were causing Russia to reconsider its plans.

Instead, Putin said Sunday he was putting Russian nuclear forces on high alert, citing “aggressive statements” by NATO and the sanctions. King, a Senate Intelligence Committee member, characterized the move as “an unnecessary escalation of a conflict that [Putin] created in the first place,” noting that Putin could be trying to drum up a pretext for action later.

“For him to even be mentioning or suggesting nuclear weapons in this context is very concerning,” King said.

King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, praised Biden’s decision to deescalate the situation by not similarly upping the status of U.S. nuclear capabilities. Biden has indicated firmly that the U.S. will not become militarily involved in the conflict, although it has continued to supply weapons and other assistance to Ukraine.

The Maine senator also praised the “heroism” of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians resisting Russian invaders, and said the “hatred” for Putin generated by the war would make it near impossible for Russia to effectively govern Ukraine, as the Kremlin might have aimed for at one point.

“The idea of bombing civilians in a country that you’re hoping to occupy and make part of your country just makes no sense,” King said. “So I hope that he’s looking for an offramp rather than escalation, but I fear that he could be moved toward greater force in Ukraine.”