On Senate Floor, Portman Highlights Recent Ukrainian Advances, Russian War Crimes, Urges Support for Ukrainian Aid Package
WASHINGTON, DC – This evening, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor in support of Ukraine for the 23rd consecutive week while the Senate has been in session. Portman focused on recent discoveries of more Russian atrocities in recently liberated territory in northeast Ukraine, and made specific mention of the mass burial site found in the town of Izium, Ukraine, where over 400 graves were uncovered. On his eighth and most recent bipartisan trip to Ukraine last month with Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Portman saw similar grave sites and war-torn towns firsthand.
Senator Portman made clear that now is not the time to stop supporting Ukraine, as military aid from the United States, including High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, have turned the tide for Ukraine and enabled its defenders to liberate cities and save innocent civilians from Russian occupation.
As co-chair and co-founder of the Senate Ukraine Caucus and member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Portman urged his colleagues to support the administration’s new request to provide Ukraine with the weapons, equipment, and ammunition it needs to stop Russia’s genocide against innocent Ukrainian civilians.
A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.
“I'm here on the floor of the Senate for the 23rd week in a row to bring to the attention of the Senate, to my constituents, and to the American people the latest news of Russia's illegal, unprovoked, and brutal war against Ukraine. I will talk about the disturbing news from Ukraine, about more Russian war crimes, and I will discuss the upcoming vote on the supplemental spending bill for the effort in Ukraine, why it's so important right now to continue to support Ukraine as it makes progress in pushing back against Russia's war of aggression. Last week I spoke about Ukraine's stunning advances up here in the north around Kharkiv. After distracting the Russians with a counteroffensive here in the south near Kherson, the Ukrainian army launched a surprise counteroffensive in the north and punched through the Russian lines.
“In just a matter of days, as you'll see with this light blue part of the map here, in just a matter of days, the Ukrainian army was able to liberate roughly 300 settlements across 3,000 square miles and liberate over 150,000 Ukrainians from Russian occupation. They also managed to capture hundreds of pieces of Russian military equipment and vehicles and ammunition. So now, instead of being used to kill and subjugate innocent Ukrainian citizens, these vehicles, the equipment, and munitions can be used by Ukrainian forces to liberate their fellow citizens from Russian tyranny. There were stories of Russian soldiers abandoning their equipment and stealing Ukrainian cars to make their escape. Even stealing motor bikes and bicycles. Last Wednesday Ukraine's President Zelenskyy visited a town in this area. The town is called Izium.
“Izium is located right here on the map. Very strategic town for the Russians. Just four days before he stepped foot there, this town was under Russian occupation and even when he visited the front line was only about six miles away. Izium had been used as an important logistics hub from which the Russians attacked south and east into the Donbas region, so down in this area. This was supposed to be the northern part of the pincer that Russia would use to trap Ukrainian forces in the Donbas. So Ukrainian forces who are here, the idea was that this area would be used as a staging ground to be able to cut off the Ukrainian troops. Instead it's now under Ukrainian control. There were reportedly 10,000 Russian soldiers in this town of Izium and most observers thought it would be months before Ukraine could recapture it. But after just a couple of days of a lightning strike, this town which had been held by the Russians for six months, is now free.
“It’s Russian occupiers on the run. Unfortunately, what the occupiers left behind was not just military equipment, but clear evidence of Russian atrocities. Ukrainian officials say multiple graves have been found near the city cemetery. President Zelenskyy has said they contained the bodies of civilians, civilian adults, civilian children, as well as Ukrainian soldiers showing signs of violent death, including evidence of torture. Oleksandr Filchakov, the Chief Prosecutor of the Kharkiv region has confirmed that at least 445 graves were at one site in this town. Here's a photo of some of the corpses that have been discovered. Some corpses had their hands tied behind their backs. Others had ropes around their necks. Some victims are still being identified but as an example, investigators have confirmed that among the dead are the entire Stolpakov family – Elena, her husband Dmitry, six-year-old Olesya, eight-year-old Sasha, and Elena’s parents. They were killed by a Russian air strike on their home in this region. Again, another target, a civilian target of Russian missiles. The nearly 400 civilian graves in Izium were found near a previous graveyard, but near there they also found 17 graves of Ukrainian soldiers. Their hands were all tied and they appeared to be shot at close range. They were in a single mass grave, bodies piled upon one another. They were executed.
“So those killed in Izium were men, women, children, soldiers and noncombatants alike. More victims of Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war. CNN described the scene this way: ‘Even the heavy rainfall couldn't erase the smell of death in the pine forest in Izium.’ President Zelenskyy described it as ‘cruelty and terrorism.’ The Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Makarova, said yesterday that the scene was one of, ‘Tortures, rapes, killings and war crimes of a massive proportion.’ It is indeed inhumane and genocide, but it's not the first time we've seen evidence of Russia committing such horrible atrocities. A commander in the National Guard announced his team is hunting for additional graves reportedly of victims who were abused at a detention is Kozacha Lopan, north of Kharkiv. That's this area up here. Certainly, we will learn about many more graves and many more atrocities in this area as we begin to discover more and more of these war crimes being committed by the Russians.
“Over the weekend, President Zelenskyy also said the Ukrainian forces found ten makeshift torture chambers throughout the liberated territories in that Kharkiv region. According to him, some of these rooms had tools for Russian soldiers to conduct electric torture on innocent Ukrainians. This photo is from inside one of these cellars, one of these makeshift torture chambers that we found in the Kharkiv region. In here you can see where a prisoner actually scratched The Lord's Prayer on the wall of the torture chamber. The liberating soldiers are also recovering bodies on the battlefield, which is where they're lying too often in farm fields or woods just left to rot in the fields and the woods. This is what Russia has done to Ukraine. This is not a one-off event. When Senator Klobuchar and I were in Ukraine three weeks ago we visited Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, and we saw the spot where soldiers dug a mass grave for dozens of innocent civilians they had murdered during their occupation.
“Sadly the murder, the torture and the rape discovered in Bucha was not unique. These horrific events that happen behind Russian lines often aren't known to the world until that area is liberated by Ukrainian forces. One has to wonder what other Russian horrors are currently occurring in occupied areas that we will witness when Ukraine finally liberates the rest of this territory. This is the grim reality of Russia's war. President Putin claims this war is about liberating Ukrainians and reuniting them with their Ukrainian brothers and sisters, but this photo is not what brothers and sisters do to each other. This is not a war of freedom or a war of liberation. This is a war of conquest and genocide. And over the weekend we also got a glimpse of what happens to the Ukrainian children who have lost their parents in this war and fall into Russia's hands.
“Russia's Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights, who by the way has been sanctioned by the United States, recently stated that Russian authorities are placing 125 Ukrainian orphans with Russian families. Of course the natural solution here would be to put these children in the care of their extended family members in Ukraine, allow them to stay in their country. But that's not their objective. Russia's goal isn't to provide a better future for these children. Their goal is to erase their Ukrainian identity and turn them into Russians. Under the rules laid down by the United Nations, ‘forcibly transferring children of one group to another group’ constitutes genocide, another example. Frustrated by Ukrainian gains in the northeast and in the south that we've seen on these maps, Russians have begun bombing civilian infrastructure at increased rates, like power plants and dams, threatening the livelihoods of millions of innocent Ukrainians. Unfortunately, we have to expect more missiles being fired into Ukraine to terrorize civilians.
“Just this weekend a Russian missile struck about 300 yards away from a nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, threatening a nuclear disaster. This was not the Zaporizhzhia plant that we've talked about a lot on this floor. This is another power planet. The Zaporizhzhia power plant, as you know, is the largest nuclear power plant in all of Europe. It provides 20 percent of electricity, or it did, to the country of Ukraine. That's the plant the Russians are using as a shield, much as they’ve used energy as a weapon, including in Europe, cutting off energy unless Europe agrees to stop the necessary sanctions. They’ve used food as a weapon, bombing grain bins in the Odessa region, keeping food from going to starving people in Africa. Now they are actually using nuclear power plants as weapons in this war. It's all reckless, it’s all dangerous, but this risks a catastrophe by creating a military zone around a nuclear power plant and firing on Ukrainian forces from there and actually exploding parts of the plant that connect to Ukraine. This is incredibly dangerous and risks something like the tragedy we had at Chernobyl.
“So, all of this is precisely why we need to continue to give Ukraine the help it so desperately needs. Vladimir Putin will continue his reign of terror against a neighbor that just wants to live in peace unless he knows that there are consequences. He is betting that he can use terror to intimidate Ukraine and its allies into surrendering. Let me be clear, I want this brutal war to end as much as anyone else in this chamber, but the responsible way to end this war is not to stop providing our assistance to our allies and watch as Ukraine slowly falls to Russian domination.
“The right way to end this war is to actually win it, to continue to provide Ukraine the weapons it needs to keep advancing and liberating territory like it did over these past few weeks. For the sake of global freedom, Ukraine must be allowed to end this war on its own terms, not Russia's. That's why when this chamber votes on the Continuing Resolution to keep the government open next week, I urge my colleagues to also support the expected supplemental request for additional Ukraine funding. Most important to me, frankly, is the military support including needed ammunition for the weapons they already have and including refilling our own stockpiles of military weapons and ammunition.
“This is one way we can show Vladimir Putin that we will not stand for his war crimes. The West and our allies all need to recognize that these Russian atrocities will not stop until there are more victories on the battlefield and until sanctions are more effective at cutting off funding to Russia's war machine. The world is watching, and if President Putin's military is not held accountable for these atrocities it sends a signal to other rogue leaders that they will be able to get away with the same types of crimes.
“As Congress considers this latest request for support, I hope my colleagues will think about four things. One, the mass graves I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, we should not turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate violence Russia has wrought on Ukraine. Vladimir Putin will continue his reign of terror against a neighbor that just wants to live in peace, unless he knows again that there will be consequences. As President Zelenskyy said, ‘Russia leaves death everywhere and must pay for it.’
“Second, despite these atrocities, Ukraine is turning the tide of the war in large measure because of our help. It's working. This map, to me, is very interesting because it shows here on February 24th, after the invasion of Ukraine, on that date, how much territory that the Russians controlled. Not just the parts they had already controlled down here in Crimea, here in Luhansk and Donetsk, but look at all the territory they controlled at that time, including right up to the city of Kyiv. This is where the famous battle occurred at the airfield outside Kyiv, where they had planned to bring in heavy weapons and more military to topple the government in the capital of Kyiv.
“Look, all this in red, all of this in red, and today here we are. So we have made progress. The Russians have come along the Donbas area, and now more recently of course, we have made additional progress here and here to push the Russians back. This would not have happened without the support of this body. We must think about that as we look at this additional request for funding. We are making a difference, specifically thanks to this Congress, these long-range missiles called HIMARS have been extremely effective in enabling Ukraine to be able to strike behind enemy lines and disrupt Russia in ways no one thought possible. Before the Russians were sitting back and firing on Ukrainian positions and the Ukrainians couldn't respond because they couldn't reach the Russian guns, they were firing with impunity, killing civilians, killing Ukrainian soldiers.
“Now with these new weapons, these HIMARS, these longer-range missiles coming from the United States, coming from the U.K., coming from Germany, the Ukrainians are able to hold their own, and more, as we see with advances in the south and the northeast. We need to keep it up particularly at a time when Russia is getting help from its own partners. As Republican Leader Senator McConnell pointed out, Iran is equipping the Russian military with armed drones, like the ones that they used against American forces in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, there are reports North Korea has supplied Russia with artillery shells.
“Third, I'd ask my colleagues to remember this is not just about Ukraine. We've got to remember that Vladimir Putin has said, ‘The borders of Russia never end.’ Earlier this summer President Putin says he views Ukraine as basically just the first step toward re-creating the Russian empire. His advisors have made similar statements about their intent with regard to this war. It's not just about Ukraine. What the United States does matter.
“What we do in defense of global freedom not only shows the world we will stand up for Ukraine against a rogue authoritarian attacking an ally, but our actions show adversaries that we're ready to defend democracy around the world. It's not just the United States providing this military support. Let's remember that. Forty-nine other countries are contributing in one way or another: weapons, ammunition, training, and so on. With regard to economic support, more countries than 50 are providing help to Ukraine.
“Fourth, I'd ask my colleagues to remember that there are important guardrails to assure assistance from the U.S. taxpayers is very well accounted for, and there should be. While in Poland recently, Senator Klobuchar and I met with the 101st Airborne to discuss their unprecedented ‘end use monitoring’ of our military equipment that goes into Ukraine. This is ramped up even further with the addition of our embassy staff on the ground in Kyiv, which we also heard about when we were there, to ensure there is no diversion of the military assistance that we are providing. Again, this is an unprecedented level of accountability and it is necessary.
“Transparency is absolutely needed and promised by the Ukrainians. I will say that from President Zelenskyy, to members of his government, to members of parliament we met with, everyone said the same thing. They too want total transparency and accountability. It's very important to them, just as they are continuing their reforms against corruption even in the face of this war, they want transparency with regard to all the aid. They have an accounting firm in Ukraine who is following the budgetary funding that goes from this place, this Congress, to Ukraine as well. And they have a need and an interest in transparency themselves.
“With regard to the end game in Ukraine, that some have asked me about here on this floor, I believe Ukraine's Ambassador to the United States, Oksana Makarova said it well, ‘Ukraine will not rest until all our country is free, all our people are back and Russia is brought to justice.’ As Russia's military suffers setbacks in Ukraine, that's actually good news for the freedom-loving countries of the world. For decades Russia has used its military to threaten and coerce its neighbors. Think of Russia's invasion of Ukraine this year and back in 2014, when they invaded Crimea and the Donbas. Russia, under its current government, is a threat to all of its neighbors.
“Think about its invasion in Georgia in 2008 and its ongoing occupation of parts of Moldova, just to name a couple. As Russia's military has weakened, Europe and the United States are made safer. So our support matters. Global support matters. I believe President Putin responds to strength and weakness on our part would only invite more aggression. Helping Ukraine is just one way to show our strength and to show our resolve, as a country and as an alliance. I noted last week that we are finally seeing the fruits of our labor when you look at the progress that has been made. The support now is more important than ever. Three thousand, 3,000 square miles of territory has been liberated just in the past few weeks.
“This is the battle of our generation. This is the fight between authoritarianism and democracy on the world stage, the fight between evil and good. Freedom is at stake. The Ukrainians are fighting for that. They're fighting for democracy, for the right to live free, for the right to chart their own course, and as we have seen, they will fight like hell for it. We see this every single day in their courage and their resolve. They're fighting for their families, they're fighting for their homeland, they're fighting for their freedom.
“When Senator Klobuchar and I met with President Zelenskyy last month, he started and ended our discussion with expressing gratitude to the American people for their willingness to stand with Ukraine. He spoke about Russia's war in his country as our joint battle, as all freedom-loving countries strive towards our joint victory. Ukraine is the shield of democracy. It is bearing the full brunt of the aggression that Russia has threatened against Europe for years and is still standing strong.
“It is in our interest that Russia's military aggression ends here, the sword of Russian imperialism must be broken in Ukraine, by Ukrainians. And the United States and our allies need to continue to provide those brave Ukrainians with the tools they need to be successful. I yield the floor.”