Click here to watch the video.
U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today discussed the rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine, including Russia’s unserious demands for de-escalation. Thune spoke about the imperative of presenting a credible deterrent to Putin while demonstrating that the United States will make good on its longstanding NATO commitments.
Thune’s remarks below (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, I rise today to speak on a topic of global importance and mounting urgency: Russia’s continued aggression toward Ukraine.
“After months of shifting tens of thousands of troops and military equipment, some from its eastern-most military district, Russia has built up a military presence around the northern, eastern, and southern flanks of Ukraine.
“Russia has also amassed forces in Belarus under the guise of joint military exercises.
“And unfortunately, Mr. President, there are no indications that the situation with Ukraine and Russia has taken any steps toward de-escalation.
“If anything, Ukraine and our European partners are beginning to accept the U.S. assessment that Russia’s buildup is continuing on a trend to permit a well-resourced and supported attack in mid- to late February.
“As the cost of his deployment adds up and the so-called exercises in Belarus come to an end on February 20, Vladimir Putin will reach a decision point.
“I say this not to provoke alarm, but to emphasize that the United States and our security partners must do what we can while we still can.
“It’s critical to demonstrate that there will be a unified response from the West, including when it comes to sanctions and providing military equipment to Ukraine, so that we send the message to Putin that an attack would be a severe miscalculation on his part.
“Is an attack from Russia truly imminent?
“Well, so far, Putin’s demands are nonstarters.
“Russia demanded that NATO deny Ukraine or any other free nation in eastern Europe the ability to join this defensive alliance.
“Russia also demanded that NATO revert to its 1997 posture and capabilities.
“These aren’t serious demands, Mr. President, and the administration rightly rejected both.
“Unfortunately, at this point Putin would likely find it humiliating to back down from such a costly military buildup without getting any concessions from the West.
“Many fear he has backed himself into a corner where he may feel like his best option is to attack, as disastrous as that would be.
“Now, the Ukrainians will say, ‘How can Russia start a war with Ukraine? We have been at war for eight years.’
“That’s a critical point to remember – particularly when Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are accusing the U.S. and NATO of stoking tensions and assuming a threatening military posture.
“Think about it, Mr. President: Russia has illegally occupied Crimea and backed separatist forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine for eight years as of this month.
“Yet Russia has the temerity to call NATO, a defensive alliance, and Ukraine, a free country that wishes to join that defensive pact, the aggressors.
“I should add, Mr. President, that this is not a case of NATO moving east, as the Russians will claim, but independent countries seeking, of their own volition, to cast off old imperialist Soviet influence and align with the West.
“Russia is the aggressor here.
“And we know Putin wants to destabilize an independent Ukraine and bring it back into Russia’s sphere of influence, similar to what he has done with Belarus.
“And that includes making it unthinkable for Ukraine, Georgia, or any other nation to seek to join NATO.
“There are many possible scenarios for a Russian attack, including an attempt by Russia to try to solidify control of eastern Ukraine, pick up territory along the coast, or connect a land bridge to Crimea.
“Any Russian attack would also surely include cyber and information operations – behavior which we’ve already seen.
“Russia could overwhelm Ukrainian defenses and strike command, control, and communications centers in an opening salvo before crossing the border, but its long-term course of action remains less certain.
“Ukrainians of all ages are showing their renewed willingness to put up a fight and determine their own future.
“And Putin has to weigh any possible gains against the risk of high casualties or an insurgency.
“Putin could also threaten Kiev and try to force concessions elsewhere, but his calculus must already include the likely response of crippling sanctions and isolation, not to mention driving other nations like Sweden and Finland to align more closely with NATO.
“There have also been reports that Putin, whether by military attack or his little green men, could seek to overthrow President Zelensky.
“Russia has of course denied the claim, but Putin would certainly prefer a puppet regime to that of President Zelensky.
“The uncertainty surrounding what Putin could do does not lower the threat of a Russian attack on Ukraine.
“And the latest indicators suggest Russia is still pressing forward to prepare for an imminent attack.
“Reports show that Russia is moving blood supplies, medical materials, and more fuel tankers to its west and Belarus.
“Blood supplies are especially not required for a so-called exercise with Belarus, Mr. President – they’re meant for casualties.
“We need to take these developments seriously, pursuing a diplomatic de-escalation while making sure Ukraine can put up a fight and that NATO is ready and able to defend against any direct Russian aggressions.
“On the diplomatic side, the U.S. and Russia have traded negotiation letters.
“As I noted earlier, Vladimir Putin is demanding a ransom for Ukraine’s safety – a permanent ban on Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO – and demanding that NATO, a freely associating defensive alliance, take steps to weaken its own security.
“These aren’t serious demands, Mr. President.
“And so, with no resolution in sight, the U.S. and its allies continue to move security assistance to Ukraine, including ammunition, missiles, and rockets, while preparing to reinforce NATO troops in border states.
“The Javelins and Stingers the west is sending to Ukraine may do little to stop Russian long-range fires or airstrikes, but they should still impose a significant cost if Russia tries to hold significant territory, especially in urban areas.
“Ukrainians are prepared to put up a fight, and we should provide them with the arms they need to dig in.
“I hope the administration and the majority party will take this threat to Ukraine seriously, utilize any remaining levers of American influence to deter a renewed attack, and, if Putin proceeds, make him immediately realize that it was a miscalculation.
“This will take coordinated lethal military assistance and strong sanctions – including against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
“Mr. President, it will be critical that Democrats come to realize that Nord Stream 2 is one of Putin’s top geopolitical priorities.
“When this administration waived sanctions on the pipeline, despite the overwhelming opinion that the pipeline will make Europe more reliant on – and vulnerable to – Russian energy and will be an economic blow to Ukraine, Putin saw that he wouldn’t be challenged.
“Mr. President, this is a crisis of Putin’s making, but we didn’t get here overnight.
“Waiving sanctions on Nord Stream 2 was one of many missed opportunities to signal strength against Putin.
“We first saw Russia amassing troops on Ukraine’s border last April.
“Yet here we are, roughly 10 months later, scrambling to deliver lethal defensive military aid.
“The Biden administration has been too slow to respond to the mounting crisis and is now playing catch-up.
“Exhibit A is that the administration just this Monday named its pick to serve as ambassador to Ukraine.
“Of all the times to have a top diplomat in a country to prove we are taking its situation seriously and to coordinate assistance, this is it.
“This follows a year of the administration slow-rolling assistance to Ukraine and seemingly springing to action only after the United Kingdom and others began overtly equipping Ukraine.
“Mr. President, it’s essential that we present a credible threat to Putin, but unfortunately I think he’s pegged our president as a benign counterpart.
“Putin can look at America and see an unpopular president as risk-averse and spinning his wheels on a polarizing and flailing domestic agenda.
“Not to mention that he can look at President Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the risk to our defense modernization efforts from another continuing resolution, and conclude that Democrats and the president pose little threat to Russia’s ambitions.
“Mr. President, given the Biden administration’s record, I have concerns about the president’s willingness to stand up to Russia.
“But I very much hope those concerns are unfounded.
“We simply cannot afford to fail in this situation.
“This is Ukraine’s fight, but the implications of an attack will go far beyond its borders.
“We cannot accept that one nation can simply attack and subjugate another.
“And we cannot be so naive as to think that Russia would stop with an invasion of Ukraine.
“The bear would still be in the woods.
“And Putin would love nothing more than to challenge or break the credibility of NATO or the United States.
“We cannot accept that scenario or allow Russia to dictate our own security posture with respect to NATO.
“And the only way to reject that future is by standing with our partners and staring down Putin’s open aggression.
“Shoring up our NATO presence and putting troops on high alert are steps in the right direction.
“I am sure Ukraine currently feels surrounded and outgunned.
“But we need to make clear – to Ukraine and to Vladimir Putin – that Ukraine is not alone.
“That the free nations of the West will stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression.
“And that the United States will make good on its NATO commitments.
“Mr. President, I yield the floor.”