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Senator Calls For Strategy to Confront Putin

The following is a speech by US Senator Rob Portman of Ohio that was given on the Senate Floor on November 20, 2014.

Mr. President, I rise today to call this body’s attention to a crisis that grows more alarming every day—the continued Russian encroachment into Ukraine. It has been nearly two months since the Ukrainian government entered into a cease-fire agreement with Russian-backed insurgents in south-eastern Ukraine. It is an agreement that the separatists have repeatedly violated, and since it came into effect, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have died in battles against these same separatist forces.

The Ukrainian people want peace, but these insurgents and their patrons in Moscow are not interested. And every day, they grow more aggressive and bolder in their violations of Ukrainian territory and their willingness to subvert the international order.

Now, I know there are some in this body who would say that this is not our problem, that events thousands of miles away aren’t really our concern, that ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether a piece of land most Americans have never been to lies under one flag or another. I have a different view. To me, what happens in Ukraine is in our interests and in the interests of all who value liberty and the right to choose one’s own future. The stakes are high, and the consequences of inaction are devastating. To those who ask: why is this important, I’d bring up several points.

The first is America’s traditional commitment to supporting democracy around the world and upholding the right of a people to choose their own destiny. When the Soviet Union fell and the people of Eastern Europe took back the liberty that had been stolen from them decades before, the United States made a solemn promise. Embrace Democracy, freedom, transparency, and the rule of law, and we will embrace you.

The Ukrainian people made their choice. They did so on the 24th of August, 1991, when an independent Ukraine ceased to be a dream and became a reality. They reaffirmed that commitment over a decade later when the Orange Revolution swept a corrupt government from office.

And this year, in the face of Russian threats, intimidation, and aggression, they did so again. I saw that commitment first hand earlier this year when I had the honor of leading a Congressional delegation, with my friend from Maryland, Senator Cardin, to monitor the Ukrainian Presidential elections. I saw the spirit of the Ukrainian people and their determination to honor the memory of the brave men and women who have given their lives in the fight for a free and independent Ukraine. That fight goes on today.


But this fight is about more than just Ukraine, and failing to honor our commitment to the Ukrainians will have real consequences that extend to other national security priorities. When Ukraine emerged as an independent nation after the Cold War, it inherited the world’s third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. As a newly-independent state looking to ensure its sovereignty and territorial integrity, Ukraine could have relied on its nuclear arsenal to ward off would-be aggressors. Instead of pursuing this dangerous path, Ukraine sought—and received—assurances from the international community that its borders would be respected if it gave up its nuclear weapons. In 1994, the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum, in which all sides pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, refrain from using military force or economic pressure to limit Ukrainian sovereignty, and provide assistance to Ukraine if it becomes the victim of aggression from another nation.

Obviously, Russia has broken its part of that agreement. Now the question is whether we are breaking ours. And if we do break our word, what will be the impact on American counter-proliferation efforts around the world? How could any nation we seek to prevent from developing nuclear weapons ever trust U.S. security assurances if they see in the carnage and destruction in Ukraine the deadly folly of trading nuclear weapons for American guarantees.

More than just the credibility of U.S. counter-proliferation efforts is at stake here. Events in Ukraine are a direct challenge to the entire U.S.-led international order. U.S. economic and military power was the glue that kept the Western alliance together through the challenges of the Cold War and formed the foundation of an international order based on universal values and standards of conduct that has led to unprecedented global prosperity and stability. This, in turn, has produced a period of U.S. economic growth and security unrivaled in our nation’s history. Confidence in America’s willingness to use our unmatched capabilities to uphold this system deters potential challengers and incentivizes other countries to play by the rules, which prevents us from actually having to use them. If the credibility of this commitment is in doubt, then the stability and openness upon which U.S. economic prosperity and national security depend is jeopardized and the chance for violence, instability, and economic collapse increases.

The Russian government knows all this. Vladimir Putin, who famously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union to be “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century,” knows that his dream of building a new Russian Empire out of the ashes of the Soviet Union requires establishing Russian dominance over its newly independent neighbors, many of whom want closer integration with the West—not Russia. To accomplish this goal, Moscow must shatter the political, economic, military, and ideological credibility of the Western system. Russian aggression against Ukraine today, or Georgia back in 2008, is as much about demonstrating the emptiness of U.S. and Western guarantees as it is about control of those individual countries. The conflict in Ukraine is the latest escalation of this trend, one that will continue until the United States and its allies stand firm and say, “No more.”
The President keeps saying that, “there is no military solution to this conflict.” The President may think so, but Moscow certainly doesn’t. The direct Russian military involvement in Ukraine has been on full display for months. In previous times, it may have been easier to keep movements out of sight – even as Putin does his best to suppress a free press. But we’re fortunate to have brave reporters willing to document what they see for all the world to witness. Here are just a few examples in the media from recent days.

(Picture 1) Here’s a picture of Russian-made T-90 Main Battle Tanks in the Luhansk oblast of Ukraine recently. Mr. President, do you know who owns T-90 tanks? Algeria, Azerbaijan, India, Turkmenistan, and Russia. I think it’s safe to assume that these tanks didn’t drive from South Asia or North Africa.

(Picture 2) Here’s a picture of a Sukhoi-24 attack fighter reportedly taken in Russia. You’ll see painted on the tail the increasingly universal flag for the Ukrainian separatists. Not many people are aware of reports that Russia is helping to create a separatist air force, but we must wake up and realize the extent to which Russia is determined to trample on Ukraine and the global order to achieve its ends. In the past couple days, we’ve also seen reports of significant movement of Russian aircraft to airfields close to the Ukrainian border.
These are just a few examples of the Russian armored personnel carriers, artillery, tanks, air-defense systems, electronic warfare units, and thousands of Russian troops that NATO reports have moved into Ukraine over the last several weeks. According to Ukrainian analysts, Russian and separatist forces have been organized into mobile strike groups and have completed reconnaissance of Ukrainian positions in preparation for an all-out assault. Barely a day has gone by since the signing of the so-called ceasefire in September where Ukrainian troops haven’t come under attack as the separatists probe Ukrainian defenses, looking for an opening. Since the beginning of the conflict, conservative estimates put the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed at roughly 4,000 with another 5,000 civilians killed or wounded in the fighting. We shouldn’t be afraid to call this exactly what it is—a Russian invasion.


Two months ago today, the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, spoke before a joint session of Congress. We were all there. It was a poignant speech, a powerful speech, and one from the heart. There’s a line from that speech that I think stood out. In speaking about the humanitarian aid we have sent to Ukraine and thanking us for that aid, President Poroshenko said, “one cannot win the war with blankets. Even more, we cannot keep the peace with a blanket.” And he was right. Blankets won’t stop a tank. Blankets won’t stop bullets. Blankets won’t protect Ukrainian children from Russian artillery shells.

(Picture 3) We don’t know a whole lot about what the U.S. has provided to the Ukrainians – I’ll get more to that in a moment – but we know a few things. We’ve given them blankets, sleeping mats, military rations, medical kits, and body armor. I know the Ukrainians are grateful for these items, but when you compare this to the Russian involvement, the differences are stark. While I am proud of the hard working Ohioans in Cincinnati who are making these rations and in Heath who produce these helmets, they know as well as I do that this equipment doesn’t constitute deterrence. Especially, not when the Ukrainians are facing advanced Russian equipment and troops.

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the economic, political, and humanitarian aid we have provided. Indeed, there are many economic and political reforms the Ukrainians will need to make in order to secure long term peace and prosperity. But how can Ukraine be expected to make these difficult but necessary reforms if it cannot even control its own borders or maintain law and order? There is a military dimension to this crisis that we simply cannot ignore any longer. Moscow continues to believe that military force is a viable option to achieve his goals, and unless the United States and its allies help the Ukrainians prove otherwise, we shouldn’t expect any change in behavior.

Ukraine needs anti-tank weapons to defend against armored assaults; it needs modern air defense systems to defend against Russian air superiority; it needs unmanned aircraft to monitor its borders and detect violations of its sovereignty and of the cease fire; it needs secure communications gear to prevent Russia from accessing Ukrainian plans and troop locations; it needs advanced counter-battery radar to target the artillery batteries responsible for so many of the causalities in the conflict; it needs elite rapid reaction forces capable of responding to Russian border provocations and the fast-moving, asymmetric “hybrid war” tactics Russia used to destabilize the country. Ukraine has asked for this support; we should provide it.

But most importantly, Ukraine needs a sustained commitment from the United States and our allies to provide both the quality and the quantity of equipment necessary to preserve its independence. This is not a partisan issue. Leading Democrats in the Senate such as the Chairmen of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, Senators Levin and Menendez, as well as Senator Cardin and others have joined in calling for increased assistance, including defensive weapons. Yet, the President and some of his top advisors continue to stand in the way of meaningful action for fear of “provoking Russia,” as if the Russian tanks streaming into Ukraine or the daily clashes aren’t evidence enough that American restraint has not had the desired effect on Russian policy.


It is well known by now that the President has refused to adopt policies that actually provide Ukraine with the capabilities needed to change the situation on the ground. What is less well known is whether the administration is even fully committed to fulfilling the objectives of its own already limited policies. For all the talk we’ve heard from the President about his steadfast support for Ukraine and the $116 million in security assistance the United States has promised to deliver, we know almost nothing about how these policies actually are being implemented. This Administration has been a black box when it comes to even the most basic information on our efforts to aid Ukraine. Despite multiple requests, including a letter to the President from Senator Cardin and me, we still can’t seem to get answers on fundamental questions.


What equipment has been delivered to Ukraine?

How long will it take to deliver the equipment we have promised but not delivered?

What is the process for determining what capabilities to provide?

How does the equipment we’ve agreed to provide support the capabilities the Ukrainians requested?

How do our assistance efforts fit into a comprehensive strategy?

This complete lack of transparency on the day-to-day implementation of U.S. assistance programs raises questions about the underlying policy guidance driving it, and whether the administration actually has far more modest goals than the President’s public rhetoric would suggest. For example, a bipartisan assessment, conducted by retired General Wesley Clark and former top Pentagon official Dr. Phillip Karber, and featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major newspapers, revealed that the Obama administration had issued extremely restrictive instructions on the type of non-lethal aid the U.S. could provide. This guidance prohibited U.S. agencies from providing any assistance deemed to be a “force multiplier,” i.e. anything that would improve the Ukrainian military’s ability in combat. The U.S. could provide diesel fuel for trucks but not aviation fuel for the planes and UAVs desperately needed to support Ukrainian ground troops; we can give them night vision goggles but not the night vision scopes for their weapons they need to fight effectively at night; we can provide valuable medical training but not the even more valuable infantry training. The possibilities are endless, and the fact that no one in Congress knows how these regulations are being applied is a huge problem and stands in the way of a coherent and effective policy.

Yesterday, the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor testified that strengthening the Ukrainian forces is “something we should be looking at.” While this is a welcomed change of tone out of this administration, we should be well beyond the point of just “looking at” this. Every day we delay, every day we dither, every day we match Russian action with half-measures and self-imposed limitations, Moscow is emboldened, and the danger grows.

I am convinced that a piecemeal, reactionary response to intimidation from Moscow is a recipe for failure. Instead, we must have a comprehensive, proactive strategy that strengthens NATO, deters Russian aggression, and gives Ukraine the political, economic, and military support it needs to maintain its independence. We need a strategy that seeks to shape outcomes, not be shaped by them. Much of that leadership must come from the White House, but this body also has a role to play. We should include funding for Ukrainian military assistance in upcoming spending bills. We should pass the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which would authorize the assistance Ukraine needs today. We should pass legislation that will reduce Ukraine’s—and all of Europe’s—reliance on Russia for its energy resources. And we should pass legislation to ensure that the United States never recognizes Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea.

The need for action could not be more clear. Through his aggression in Ukraine, Moscow is trying to send a message to Ukraine and to the world that America and the West are indecisive and weak and that their guarantees of support are meaningless. The Ukrainian people have rejected that message, choosing instead the path of democracy and openness, a path the United States urged the world to follow.

We and our NATO allies must stand with them now.

When America is strong, when we stand unequivocally for freedom and justice, when we do not back down in the face of threats and intimidation, that is when we see a world that is more stable, less dangerous, and more free. More wars, more conflicts, more threats to our security—these do not arise from American strength. They arise from American weakness.

Let us be strong again. Let us lead again. The world is watching.

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