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Risch urges continued support for Ukraine at Halifax International Security Forum

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, speaks as Ukrainian human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk, left, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., listen during the opening of the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Friday.  (Orion Donovan Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

HALIFAX, N.S. – At a gathering of international security leaders on Canada’s Atlantic coast on Friday, Sen. Jim Risch, of Idaho, made the case for continued support for Ukraine as the country defends itself against Russia’s invasion, even as the world’s attention turns to another war in the Middle East and support for Ukraine has faltered among some of Risch’s fellow Republicans.

The 15th annual Halifax International Security Forum kicked off after more than a month of war between Israel and Hamas, and as President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a week of meetings in San Francisco aimed at cooling tensions between their countries. The conference’s organizers sought to link those conflicts to the war in Ukraine, pitching them all as part of a global struggle between democracies and authoritarian states.

“Probably the strongest weapon we have today is talk and rhetoric,” Risch told a room full of military officials and other representatives from dozens of countries, urging them not to set a time limit for their support to Ukraine.

“Vladimir Putin believes he is going to win this war by outlasting us,” the senator said. “They watch very, very closely to every word that’s uttered in the United States and Canada and other allies – by the dissenters. Not by the vast majority of people who support this, but by the dissenters.”

The message from Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, may have been intended for members of his own party who have voiced growing skepticism over the financial support the U.S. government has sent to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022. While most Republicans and nearly all Democrats back additional aid, GOP opposition in the House has delayed approval of the Biden administration’s request.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who co-led the U.S. congressional delegation to Halifax with Risch, said during the panel discussion that she believed Congress would soon pass a bill to approve billions for Ukraine, Israel and security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I’m confident that in the end we’re going to get this done, because failure is not an option,” Shaheen said. “We cannot let them win. And if Russia is successful, if Hamas is successful, they win.”

The dominant theme of the conference, which continues over the weekend and includes public and private discussions on crises around the world, is that a loss for Ukraine could create a domino effect that would hurt other democratic countries.

Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer who leads the Center for Civil Liberties, which won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for its work documenting Russian war crimes in Ukraine, said Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded her country in an attempt “to convince the entire world that democracy and freedom are fake values because they couldn’t protect anyone.”

“We can win this war,” Matviichuk said, speaking alongside Risch, Shaheen and Canadian Minister of National Defense Bill Blair. “This victory is essential not just for Ukraine, because it’s not just a war between two states – this is a war between two systems: authoritarianism and democracy.”

Risch made a similar assertion about the Oct. 7 terror attacks by Hamas on Israel, which killed roughly 1,200 people, most of them civilians. Israel’s retaliatory strikes on the Gaza Strip have killed more than 11,000, mostly women and children.

The Idaho senator said he has “no doubt” that Iran, which backs Hamas, “pulled the trigger” on the Oct. 7 attacks in an effort to derail diplomatic efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. While Iran has denied that level of involvement, Hamas leaders told the New York Times they planned the attacks partly because they believed Arab countries were getting too close to Israel.

In one of the unique features of the relatively small and intimate gathering, the question-and-answer portion of the opening panel began with a question for Matviichuk from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“We all wish Ukraine to win,” Barak said. “But in real life, you always need much more concrete definition of what Ukraine perceives as winning, in terms of territorial gains, military results and political results. Can you give us some more details about it?”

Matviichuk said victory for Ukraine would mean not only taking back all the territory Russia has seized since 2014 – including the Crimean Peninsula – but also succeeding in its transition to becoming a successful democracy. As Risch emphasized, meeting those goals would require money and patience from the United States and its allies.