July 14, 2023

Senator Ricketts’ Weekly Column: Pushing Back on Putin

July 14, 2023

There’s an old adage that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Despite teaching history as early as kindergarten, we sometimes forget its lessons. In doing so, we miss opportunities to prevent it from repeating. Our posture toward the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is one such example.

Despite our efforts to avoid getting involved in conflicts around the world, they inevitably find their way to our doorstep. From World War I and II to the radical Islamic terror that inspired 9/11, our greatness makes us the ultimate target for adversaries on the warpath. The last century demonstrated that the United States will get dragged into global conflicts. As we grapple with what to do about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, history tells us looking the other way now won’t keep the bullies from setting their sights on us. To put it even more simply: as every Nebraska farmer knows, it is better to address a problem early than let it get bigger down the road. A stitch in time saves nine.

After World War II, the United States and our allies set up a rules-based system. This system promotes peaceful trade between nations and has prevented global war. For nearly 80 years, this system has worked. Now, both Russia and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) want to change that system. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of its neighbor Ukraine is a land grab. It is also a direct challenge to global peace. If dictators are successful they don’t stop. They grab for more. Our actions now will either open the door to more conflict or prevent catastrophe.

Putin’s brutality is on display in Ukraine. We should not question his willingness to apply the same kind of disregard for human life in a conflict with the United States and our allies. He’s killed tens of thousands. Ukrainian children have been abducted and taken to Russian indoctrination camps. Putin’s troops have been accused of thousands of war crimes. This includes the indiscriminate mass killings and rape of civilians. More than 8 million Ukrainians – that’s four times Nebraska’s entire population – have been forced to flee their country. Nearly 6 million have had to abandon their homes and are displaced within Ukraine. Our support for Ukraine now can prevent a wider conflict without costing American lives. It will also be at a lesser financial cost.

I said recently in our Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Russia policy that Putin sees the U.S. as his chief adversary. He has long behaved like he’s at war with us. He’s wrongfully detained U.S. citizens and held them for ransom. He’s repeatedly refused to comply with U.S.-Russia arms control agreements. He’s aligned himself with our other adversaries in Iran and the CCP, who will be emboldened if he is successful in Ukraine.

While Putin’s hostility can be shocking, the ambition behind it is not surprising. Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, and Ukraine again last year. Putin’s actions indicate he aims to recreate the Soviet Union. If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, NATO allies like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland could be next. At that point, the United States would be obligated to intervene with our own troops. We cannot let Putin succeed.

However, our support cannot be in the form of a blank check. It is critical we also provide necessary and aggressive oversight of American tax dollars to ensure they are being used effectively.

It is also critical that our NATO allies do their part to help in this fight. In 2014, all NATO members agreed to spend at least 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense by 2024. That pledge is more important than ever. Seven countries met or exceeded this target last year, including the United States. Yet, twenty-four others failed to step up. This must change. Recently, I joined with 35 of my Senate colleagues to urge President Biden to push NATO countries to fulfill their defense commitments. I also personally raised these concerns with them at the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania this past week.

History has taught us that to stop Putin now will be far less costly in blood and treasure then what happens if we don’t. We are giving Ukraine weapons to fight Russia so we don’t have to. It is critical the U.S. and our allies provide Ukraine with the economic and security assistance necessary to defeat Russia so the battlefield never reaches us at home.

The United States must direct a coherent policy to confront Russia that forces Putin to deal with us on our terms. We must continue to provide Ukraine the types of weapons its needs to win. We must also expand our sanctions regime on Russia’s energy sector and crack down on those who support Putin’s war machine by helping Russia evade sanctions. Finally, we must urgently accelerate efforts to modernize our nation’s nuclear deterrent.

It is in America’s national interest to respond to these challenges. Adversaries like Putin can only be dealt with by leading with strength. If we look the other way, it will cost far more in American blood and treasure down the road. We must deter future aggression and promote security – both at home and abroad before it’s too late.

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