The U.S. Congress is considering the White House’s request for $38 billion in additional support for Ukraine in its defense against Russia aggression. Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Senator Jim Risch say they believe the aid will be approved in the coming weeks.
The two senators have been strong supporters of aid to Ukraine, part of bipartisan congressional support that, if the latest appropriation bill passes, will deliver more than $100 billion in aid to Ukraine this year.
The senators sat down with VOA Georgian Service’s managing editor Ia Meurmishvili on November 30 to discuss U.S. policy toward Ukraine and Russia, and the likelihood that Congress will continue backing Ukraine in 2023.
Shaheen said the lessons from World War II are still relevant in the context of Ukraine, and the West must stop Russia before it invades other countries in Europe. On providing arms to Ukraine, Risch said the U.S. should not engage in self-deterrence out of concern that Russia might escalate the war. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin should instead be thinking about how to avoid U.S. escalation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: NATO reaffirmed its 2008 commitment that Ukraine will one day become a member. Do you think that reaffirmation is advancing Ukraine’s NATO membership? And when do you think Ukraine can join NATO?
Shaheen: Well sadly, Ukraine right now is engaged in a brutal war from Russia’s unprovoked invasion. But I think the aspiration that Ukraine should be able to join NATO is very important. And for the EU, for NATO, for the Western alliance to support them as they are fighting this war against Russia is absolutely critical. Because we can’t allow dictators like Vladimir Putin to think they can upend the international, rules-based order and just take over any country because they might like to. And then, to commit war crimes and atrocities, to bomb civilians, to bomb hospitals and schools. … It’s unthinkable in a civilized society. So, we need to do everything we can to support the Ukrainians.
Risch: I agree with that. I would add that NATO is as strong as I have ever seen NATO, and I think it is getting stronger every day. There is no deterioration. NATO is committed to do what NATO was formed to do. Article 5 means just what it says — an attack on one is an attack on all. We have said clearly to the Russians that we will not give up one inch of NATO ground, whether it’s in the Baltics, in London, or in Los Angeles. We will not give up one inch of NATO ground, and we will all come shoulder to shoulder to defend it.
When it comes to Ukraine joining NATO, Ukraine or any other country is welcome to join NATO so long as they meet the requirements. We feel strongly about that. If Ukraine meets the requirements, and Ukraine wants to join NATO, then Ukraine should be let in. Neither Russia nor any other country should be able to stand up and say, ‘No, you can’t go where you want to go.’ Every country is sovereign and should have that right to enter any kind of alliance they want to for their defense.
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VOA: The Biden administration has requested an additional $38 billion for assistance to Ukraine. Do you think it will be approved before recess?
Shaheen: I do. I think there’s still strong bipartisan and bicameral support for Ukraine. We understand that Ukraine is fighting for democracies around the world, and the role of democracies is on the line here in this war.
Risch: Putin has already lost this war. He set out to occupy that country. It is obvious to the world he will never occupy that country. If you talk with Ukrainians, they will fight in the street with broomsticks if they have to, but the Russians will never occupy that country. So, what’s his exit ramp? I don’t know, but he better find one.
VOA: Do you support the idea of providing Ukraine with the Patriot missiles and the other long-range artillery they have been asking for, which the administration has been hesitant to provide?
Risch: I’ve wanted to ratchet up for some time. The Ukrainians are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. They’ve got a country adjacent to them that has invaded them and is committing all of these atrocities. On top of that, over the recent weeks, [the Russians] have done everything they can to totally eliminate [Ukraine’s] infrastructure for heat and electricity and everything else. We can’t stand by and watch that happen.
You know, some people in the administration — not all of them — say, ‘Oh, you know, we don’t want to escalate.’ That’s nonsense. I want Putin to wake up in the morning worried about what he’s going to do that might cause us to escalate. We have to escalate, or you lose the war. So, I’m all in. I think the Patriots are fine. If it was up to me — even from the beginning — I said we should give them planes. When we fought in Korea, when we fought in Vietnam, the Russians supplied the enemy with jet aircraft and trained the pilots. It’s time to return the favor, as far as I’m concerned.
Shaheen: I think that’s the intent of the U.S. We’re working closely with our allies and with the Ukrainians on what they need and supplying them as soon as we can with the weapons that they need. I think we need to continue to do that.
VOA: The world, especially the West, is beginning to talk about how Ukraine will emerge from this war — that it will be a united, democratic, sovereign country in Europe that will only get stronger from this point on. We don’t know much about how Russia will emerge from it. How do you see Russia after this war?
Shaheen: We had a hearing today in the Foreign Relations Committee with the nominee to be the ambassador to Russia. One of the things we talked about in that hearing is the difficult balance that the new ambassador is going to have in trying to keep an open channel of communication to the leadership in Russia, and at the same time expressing our strong opposition to what Russia is doing in the war in Ukraine, to express the concerns that we have about Russia walking away from the new START nuclear negotiations, about their human rights record, and the American detainees that they have in their prisons. So, it’s going to be a challenge.
I had a chance to speak with Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is an amazing, very courageous human rights activist, as he was planning to go back to Russia. One of the things he said to me when I said, you know, ‘You’re going to be in prison. Why are you doing this?’ He said, ‘Because the Russian people are better than the government of Russia, and we need to make the world see that.’ So, it’s my hope that at some point, the Russian people will have that opportunity for self-governance and to determine their own future.
Risch: First of all, I’ve said all along — when this is over, it’s not over. Russia is going to suffer from this for a long, long time. The world made a mistake when the Iron Curtain came down and Russia was welcomed to the international stage, and everyone started doing business with them. The Europeans really relied on them for energy and that sort of thing. Nobody even conceived that they would start a medieval war in the 21st century. Seven hundred companies from America have pulled out. They’re not going back there. We talk to the Europeans all the time. They’ve had it with Russia. Even if Putin disappeared tomorrow and you brought in a moderate — if there is such a thing in Russia — I still think it would take decades before the Russians can get back any kind of credibility that this isn’t going to happen again.
VOA: Thus far, Congress has been united on the issues of support toward Ukraine, toward the region, NATO and such. There are some concerns that with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, that [unity] may change.
Risch: Look, there’s 535 members of Congress —100 in the Senate, 435 in the House. We are as diverse a group as you could possibly find. We are a true representation of America top to bottom. As a result of that, there is about every view you could possibly want there. No matter what issue you have, with very few exceptions, you’re always going to have dissent. We were born in dissent. We dissent all the time. Having said that, when things are appropriate, we come together.
On Ukraine, there is strong, strong support in both houses and both parties. Are there a handful of people who are dissidents? Yes. But the media here focuses on those that do dissent. That’s the American way, and that’s the way it should be. People have the right to express an opinion on either side, and then you vote and get behind the vote. I think the media has asked me this question a number of times, and I’ve said over and over again that the dissent on this is de minimis, and it’s way overreported.
Shaheen: We had a bipartisan, bicameral delegation in Halifax [Nova Scotia] a couple of weeks ago, nine of us from the House and Senate. We were all virtually aligned on support for Ukraine and the need to continue that support. And that included prominent members of the House, as well as prominent members of the Senate. So I think Senator Risch is absolutely right.