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‘Putin has lost this war’: Jim Risch on Russia’s escalation in Ukraine

Oct. 1, 2022 Updated Sat., Oct. 1, 2022 at 9:16 p.m.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, visits Antonov International Airport in Hostomel, Ukraine, on June 26.  (Courtesy of the Government of Ukraine)
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, visits Antonov International Airport in Hostomel, Ukraine, on June 26. (Courtesy of the Government of Ukraine)

WASHINGTON – More than seven months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the Kremlin’s move to annex four provinces in eastern Ukraine on Friday doesn’t change the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed to meet his main objective of toppling the government in Kyiv.

“Putin has lost this war,” Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho said in an interview at the Capitol. “It’s not over, but he’s lost it. And the sooner he realizes it, the world is going to be better off.”

When Russian troops entered Ukraine on Feb. 24, they did so under the pretext of protecting Russian speakers in the country from what Putin has called a Nazi regime and aimed to oust Ukraine’s Jewish, Russian-speaking president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Since Ukraine’s military forced Russian troops to withdraw from Kyiv in early April, Moscow has turned its focus to capturing territory in Ukraine’s east. After referendums in Russian-controlled areas dismissed by the United States and its allies as a sham, Putin held an elaborate ceremony at the Kremlin on Friday to declare four Ukrainian provinces part of Russia.

With fighting still ongoing in the provinces, the annexation raised fears Russia could use it to justify further escalation. Risch, who visited Ukraine in June to meet with Zelenskyy and survey the damage left behind by Russian occupiers, called the votes and annexation “absolute nonsense.”

“This is an actual movement in the genocide that he’s trying to impose on Ukraine,” he said. “It has no legal authority. You can’t just say something and make it true, even if you have guns.”

During his trip in June, Risch visited Kyiv suburbs where Russian troops committed atrocities, according to human rights groups. He said Ukrainians won’t soon forget the violence done by Putin’s forces.

“They’re going to fight with broomsticks if they have to, but they will never allow Putin to occupy their country,” he said. “They’re angry. They’re hurt. They are deeply affected by the atrocities that have been committed there. And when this is over, it isn’t over. The relationship is going to be soured for generations to come.”

On Friday, Russia vetoed a resolution in the United Nations Security Council backed by the United States and Ukraine to condemn the annexation and call for the nations of the world not to recognize changes to Ukraine’s borders. The move underscored the dysfunction of the institution, where the victors of World War II hold permanent veto power – including Russia, which inherited the seat from the Soviet Union.

Risch traveled to New York City a week earlier for the annual UN General Assembly. In an interview Thursday, he said the organization “has real weaknesses.”

“The thing that struck me as I sat there and looked around: 193 countries there, and all but a half dozen or so think Russia ought to be stopped in what they’re doing, and they can’t stop it,” he said. “And so then you wonder: What are we spending all this money on?”

The United States contributed $11 billion to the United Nations in 2020, more than any other country and more than a quarter of the organization’s total budget. Most of those funds go toward relatively uncontroversial humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, but the UN Security Council has faced renewed scrutiny since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrated how relatively powerless the body is to halt the kind of wars it was established to prevent.

Risch said once-private conversations about reforming or “rebooting” the UN have now become public. That talk was spurred in part by Zelenskyy, who called for changes in an address to the Security Council in April.

“The UN system must be reformed immediately so that the right of veto is not a right to kill,” Zelenskyy said. “So that there is a fair representation of all regions of the world in the Security Council.”

The Security Council’s five permanent members – the United States, Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom – are joined by a rotating cast of 10 other countries serving two-year terms. Critics have long argued that arrangement reflects the world order at the UN’s creation in 1945, not today’s.

“It needs to be rethought, there’s no question about it,” Risch said. “The organization, if it can’t reorganize itself, then it ought to think about going a different direction, because it’s not working. It simply isn’t working.”

While the war is taking place half a world away from his home state, Risch said what is happening in Ukraine matters to people in the Inland Northwest.

“Ronald Reagan spent eight years trying to bring the Soviet Union down, and he did it,” Risch said. “He freed all those countries that were involuntarily wrapped up in the orbit of the USSR. He would be very disappointed if we turned our head and walked away from this when Putin was doing what he is doing, for the reasons he’s doing it – namely, to try to put the old USSR back together again.”

If the United States and its allies don’t act now to block Moscow’s expansionism, Risch said, it will embolden Putin and his allies and pave the way for more wars.

“As the autocracies of the world look around and try to resurrect imperialism, this is a line that’s got to be drawn,” he said. “Putin has to lose this war. He’s already lost it as far as what he’s trying to accomplish, but he needs to be defeated on the battlefield.”

Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territories came after Ukrainian forces staged a major counterattack and retook Russian-occupied territory in the country’s northeast in September. That seemingly prompted Putin to institute a mass mobilization of men to join the war in Ukraine, a move that sparked backlash among Russians.

In a rare concession, Putin said Thursday all “mistakes” made in the quasi-draft would be corrected. Risch said it remains to be seen what impact the additional troops will have for Russia’s army, which Ukrainian forces have shown to be poorly trained and equipped.

Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, have performed better than many military analysts and intelligence agencies expected. Risch said that is due largely to the support the United States ramped up after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and started backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

“The U.S. did a lot more than what people know about,” he said. “The Ukrainians would not be having the success on the battlefield that they’re having had we not engaged after 2014. Could we have done more? You can argue that. But their special ops that they run, those are U.S.-trained.”

In addition to providing more than $16 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, the Biden administration has worked with U.S. allies to impose a sweeping sanctions regime against Russia. The White House announced a new set of sanctions Friday in response to Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian provinces.

A stopgap spending bill the Senate passed Wednesday to avert a government shutdown also included $12.3 billion in additional aid to Ukraine. Risch voted against that bill, but his spokeswoman Suzanne Wrasse said that vote was because he typically opposes such bills, “as they promote irresponsibility by Congress to pass and live within an annual budget.”

“Senator Risch supports assistance to Ukraine,” Wrasse said in a statement, but its connection to the stopgap spending bill “meant he could not vote for it – something he communicated to Ukrainian officials before the vote.”

As the war in Ukraine enters its eighth month and both sides dig in for what promises to be a brutal winter, Risch said he sees a parallel between Ukrainians and the early Americans who fought to escape British rule.

“They’re fighting for something like we did in 1776,” he said. “They were under the thumb of the Soviet Union for a long, long time. They don’t want to go back there, and they’re willing to die to not go back there, and they’re paying a price that the country will remember for generations to come.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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