On Senate Floor, Portman Highlights Russia’s Long History of Oppression of Ukraine, Ukrainian Artillery Strikes on Russian Forces, NATO Vote, & Urges Continued Support of Ukrainian People
WASHINGTON, DC – This afternoon, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor in support of Ukraine for the 20th consecutive week before the Senate breaks for the August district work period, joining Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Portman discussed the progress made over these last five months that Russia has waged its war against innocent Ukrainians. Portman laid out how Russia has a long history of oppressing Ukrainian identity, language, and culture going back hundreds of years, and how that oppression continues today in its brutal war against Ukraine.
Heeding bipartisan calls from Congress, the United States has sent Ukraine over a dozen High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS to strike Russian forces from long distances. These weapons have been crucial to Ukraine’s attempts to slow Russia’s advance in the Donbas and to liberate territory in the south.
Senator Portman also highlighted his intent to vote to bring Finland and Sweden into NATO in defiance of Russia’s threats. As Co-Chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus and member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Portman has been a staunch defender of Ukraine and has spoken consistently on the Senate floor since before the Russian invasion began.
A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.
“Madam President, I'm on the floor today with Senator Jeanne Shaheen from New Hampshire to join in a colloquy regarding what is happening in Ukraine. This is the 20th time in so many weeks that I have come to the floor to talk about the illegal, unprovoked, and brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Today, I look forward to being with my colleague, Senator Shaheen, a member of the Ukraine Caucus, someone with whom I traveled to Ukraine and also to the border of Ukraine and Poland to meet with the refugees. Senator Shaheen is going to talk a little about how we got to where we are and what we do going forward.
“I also was recently made aware of the fact that we are going to take up the NATO ratification vote today and this is to have the United States approve the addition of Sweden and Finland to the NATO alliance. This is great for the alliance. It's great for the United States. I believe it's also, otherwise, they wouldn't be interested, very good for the people of Finland and Sweden. They add a lot to the NATO alliance. They are militarily and economically in a position to be valuable contributors. They also, in the case of Finland, share the largest land border with Russia of any country. They have understandable concerns with what they see happening in Ukraine. I just believe it's very much in our national security interest and the interest of people I represent to have, in addition, even further strengthening of the NATO alliance through the addition of these two partners. Vladimir Putin thought he was going to split NATO apart when he began his invasion of Ukraine, I believe, and today he's finding just the opposite has happened. NATO has come together in ways we have never seen and we now have, again, the addition of two very strong members of NATO who are longtime allies of the United States and will add significantly to the NATO alliance.
“With regard to Ukraine, let's start with a little history. Ukrainians have faced adversity from Russia for hundreds of years. This is not new to them. Russia's impression of Ukraine is not a 21st century issue. For 300 years, under the brutal rule of the Russian czars, Ukrainians were subject to repeated efforts to stamp out their language, their, culture, and their identity. In January of 1918, Ukrainians got their first taste of national freedom. While Russia was dealing with the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ukraine declared its independence from the Russian empire. Unfortunately, this freedom was short-lived. Just a few years later, the Bolsheviks conquered Ukraine and subsumed it into the Soviet Union. As an unwilling member of the Soviet Empire, Ukrainians suffered horrific atrocities at the hands of their Soviet overlords.
“In 1932 and again in 1933, the Stalinist regime confiscated grain harvests across Ukraine and imposed a premeditated, man-made famine against the people of Ukraine. This horrific atrocity is known as the Holodomor. Millions of men, women, and children were starved to death in a deliberate effort to break the Ukrainian nation’s resistance to communist occupation. Stalin even ordered the borders of the country to be sealed to prevent anyone from escaping this man-made starvation and to prevent the delivery of any international food aid. In 2018, Senator Durbin and I introduced a resolution to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor and to recognize the Commission on the Ukraine Famine's finding that it was a genocide. No question. I’m grateful to Senator Shaheen, Senator Tillis, and others who are in the chamber today for cosponsoring that resolution. It passed in October of 2018 unanimously here in the United States Senate.
“The Holodomor failed to extinguish the Ukrainian people's identity, as hard as they tried. But it was not the end of the Soviet oppression. In the 1970’s, the Soviet leadership imposed a crackdown on Ukrainian intellectuals and those with any sort of leanings toward Independence or toward the West. The prisons and gulags became filled with Ukrainian political prisoners as the Soviet Union, once again, tried to assault Ukrainian identity.
“But then in 1991, after years of repression, Ukraine finally broke away from its Russian rulers for good. Ukraine declared its independence on August 24 of that year, and in December, the declaration was confirmed by a referendum in which over 90 percent of the Ukrainian people voted in favor of independence. This chart shows the amazing response of the people of Ukraine to that. Ninety-five percent of the people in the Kyiv area, as you can see, supported Independence. By the way, Russians often say that Crimea really was not part of Ukraine. Well, more than half of the people in Crimea were for Independence as well.
“But Russia's crimes against the people of Ukraine continue to this day. Last week a video was circulated online of a Russian soldier torturing and mutilating a Ukrainian prisoner, unfortunately not an isolated incident. After this, the Ukrainian soldier was shot dead and dragged with a rope into a shallow grave by his Russian captors. We've all seen the pictures from Bucha, people assassinated, people with their hands tied behind their back. Elsewhere in Ukraine, a Russian missile attack struck a prison in Donetsk that was housing Ukrainian prisoners of war. This chart shows that prison and the fact that it was attacked by missiles.
“Many of these soldiers were involved in the heroic defense of the Azovstal Steel Factory in Mariupol. They held out for weeks against Russian assaults on the plant. At least 40 Ukrainian POWs, maybe more, were killed in this assault. These were POWs, these were soldiers who were lawful prisoners of war, supposedly protected by the Geneva Convention. Russia’s murder of these POWs is a war crime, and Russia must be held accountable for this and all its countless crimes in Ukraine.
“But, following its usual playbook, Russia is spreading massive amounts of disinformation regarding this incident and so many others. They claim that the Ukrainian forces killed these prisoners as a way to discourage other soldiers from surrendering. This, of course, is nonsense. Among other things, Ukraine needs the manpower. Why would they kill their own soldiers instead of getting them back in a prisoner swap that everybody assumed was going to happen? It makes little sense, but it has never stopped Russia from propagating lies to deflect blame from its own crimes. Unsurprisingly the Red Cross still has not been granted access to this site by Russia who clearly need more time to cover up the evidence of its involvement before they allow any kind of inspection. Let the Red Cross in.
“Those responsible for these atrocities must be held to account. This is one reason why Senator Shaheen and I last week cosponsored a resolution to recognize what is happening in Ukraine as genocide. Across the country, Ukrainian women and children have been subjected to indiscriminate Russian missile strikes and air strikes. It has killed thousands of innocents -- not combatants, noncombatants -- children. A few weeks ago, I spoke about little Liza, a 4-year-old girl with autism who was killed by a Russian missile strike in Vinnitsa. When Ukrainian First Lady Zelenska was in town a couple of weeks ago, she spoke about a three-year-old boy who just learned how to use prosthetics. Imagine that: An innocent three-year-old boy who has been forced to learn how to use a prosthetic limb because of a Russian air strike on civilian targets.
“These stories are hard to hear and hard to tell, but the world must know about them. This is the reality that all Ukrainians are facing. Unsurprisingly, the people of Ukraine are responding to these atrocities. A possible Ukrainian counteroffensive may be unfolding in the south in the direction of Kherson. We’ve also heard about this in the popular media. Kherson is here, it’s near the Black Sea Port of Odessa. This southern part of Ukraine is incredibly important for Ukraine's economy, and Russia knows that.
“Remember Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city to fall to the Russian forces after Russia's full-scale invasion began in February of this year, but now Ukrainian soldiers are conducting missile strikes against Russian military infrastructure in the area to weaken Russia's defenses. They are also conducting limited ground attacks and liberating parts of this territory that Russia has illegally taken. You can see that in the light blue. The significance of recapturing Kherson cannot be overestimated. It would undo one of Russia's earliest successes in the war. It's also important that Ukraine regain control of much of its Black Sea coast as possible. This is the Ukrainian economy’s primary connection to the rest of the world. Russia of course has sought to capture this coastline in order to economically strangle Ukraine.
“We talked last week about what they are doing in Odessa. They finally decided they were going to let ships come out of Odessa, and they made an agreement that they would not continue to bomb Odessa and certainly not bomb any port facilities. Within 12 hours, they bombed port facilities in Odessa. That's how much the Russian commitment meant. But a ship has finally sailed from Odessa, and we hope many more will go. If Ukraine is successful in its efforts here in the south, it will undermine President Putin and his attempts to make a Russian victory in Ukraine. Something that the Russians say is inevitable.
“While Ukraine is making progress in the south, Russia is laying the groundwork to try to annex occupied land, particularly in the east in this area near Donetsk. Occupation means that the Russians themselves are distributing Russian passports, paying salaries in Russian rubles, and expediting Russian citizens for Ukrainian citizens. There are reports that Russia will stage a “sham” referendum in this area to try to legitimatize their illegal annexation. Senior Kremlin officials have warned Russia will never leave areas of Kherson, in the south here, where Russian forces have been occupying the territory.
“Before the invasion, these cities were home to more than 2.5 million Ukrainians in this area. 2.5 million Ukrainians. One prominent Kremlin propagandist has said, ‘Ukraine, as it was, cannot continue to exist.’ This person continued, ‘There will not be the Ukraine as we have known for many years. It won't be Ukraine any longer.’ Clearly, that's the Russian intent. Vladimir Putin said his ambition is even more.
“It's to fully restore the borders of the old Soviet Union. We must make sure he knows that the Ukraine of 2022 is not the Ukraine of 1921 which Russian Bolsheviks conquered and forced into the Soviet Empire.
“We know how to help Ukraine to keep this from happening. It's to provide them what they need to defend themselves. We recently provided Ukraine with what we call High Mobility Artillery Systems, or HIMARs. Many of us have been advocating for that; we're glad to see there are some HIMARs now in the theater. These have been critical to the recent Ukrainian military successes. So, this Congress has made a difference. We provided funding. We've gotten some equipment into the area that the Ukrainians need to be able to defend themselves and to have some sort of a level playing field with Russia's much bigger army. Officials have said with the help of these HIMARs, Ukraine has taken out Russian high-value targets and destroyed them, and saved countless Ukrainian lives. These include ammunition depots and targets from long distances. HIMARs have also conducted many of these strikes in southern Ukraine, as I talked about earlier to make progress in the Kherson area.
“Russians have similar long-range artillery that previously allowed them to fire on Ukrainian forces with impunity. They could sit back and fire and level cities and kill civilians and kill Ukrainian military personnel, but they couldn't be reached by the Ukrainians. Now the Ukrainians have taken themselves out of that danger zone because these HIMARs can balance the playing field and have that longer range and the accuracy they need. I think there are about 15 in theater now. There are also a few from Germany and a few from the U.K. But they need more. They say they need 40 to 50 and the munitions to be able to make them effective.
“That's something that we should be focused on. We should be focused on providing them again what they need to actually win this conflict. I believe we also got to continue providing Ukrainians with other weapons, as well, including the Army Tactical Missile System or the ATACMS. This missile, which can be launched from the same HIMARs launchers that we've already been giving to Ukraine, has a longer range of 300 kilometers. In a war like this one, that is increasingly becoming an artillery duel, range is a decisive factor. These missiles would allow Ukraine to turn the tables on the Russians. Whereas Ukraine used to be out-ranged by the Russian artillery, with the ATACMS missiles, we would be able to help Ukraine to be able to strike important Russian targets with impunity themselves. This is important. Because Ukraine is now using these weapons in this counteroffensive in Kherson. The Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank here in Washington, D.C., has said recently this offensive to take out Russia is in the works, and Ukrainians are using HIMARs to strike targets effectively 50 miles away. It's helping.
“We made a difference. Former security adviser to the Ukrainian government, Alexander Kera, told Newsweek the state of Russian morale in the south means a counteroffensive has ‘an excellent chance of success.’ He continued, ‘The Russians suffer from poor morale, logistical troubles, and the horrors of HIMARs.’ So, the evidence is clear as to why we should continue to send them weapons they need to be able to not just survive but to win this conflict. By the way, we have hundreds of HIMARs in our stocks that are currently not with active units, so we have the ability to help more.
“This war has now crossed over the five-month mark. Since before the invasion began, I've come to this floor a number of times to talk about what needs to be done, as has Senator Shaheen and as have others. I have mentioned the fact that we sent billions in military aid and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and that it is working. Particularly, as we see with some of these new weapons, it's making a difference. It will help these brave warriors in their most vulnerable noncombatants, the kids and the children, be able to survive and be able, in the case of the military, to be able to start making progress to push out the Russian invaders.
“Democrats and Republicans alike have sounded the alarm with bipartisan pushes and legislation to help Ukraine. We have urged with success, by the way, that the U.S. cut off our own Russian oil and gas. We are now urging the Europeans to do the same. We have talked about the need for more weapons, for more sanctions to remove all of Russia's bank’s access to the global financial system or the SWIFT system, to suspend our tax treaty with Moscow, to explore options to remove other tax benefits, and to remove access to the U.S. market. All of this is necessary. Both on the military side, the humanitarian side, the economic side, and the sanction side in order to have a victory.
“I fear sometimes with regard to the military assistance, that we've been doing too little too late. We can't continue to do too little too late. This is a struggle. It's a struggle between freedom and democracy and the right of self-determination on the one hand and, on the other hand, Russian aggression unprovoked, a brutal conquest, authoritarianism, and tyranny. President Putin's ambitions lie well beyond Ukraine. We must show him that the West continues to stand united. We need to show Ukraine that the world stands with them. This is why it is so important that Sweden and Finland have chosen to join NATO, and we must support them in that.
“All of this, by the way, transcends the political spectrum, and I have certainly seen that. Senator Shaheen and I have shown that in our work to aid Ukraine, it’s not a political issue. It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue. We are stepping up in support of our democratic ally, together.
“As the fight rages on, the perseverance and self-determination of Ukrainians seems to grow even stronger. We have seen their resilience in the face of daily bombardments. We’ve seen their resilience in the face of Russia's broken promises. When counter to their commitments, Russia has attacked ports, as I said, and humanitarian corridors. The Ukrainian people are fighting for their homeland, for their families, for their freedom. And it is impressive and inspiring to see what they are doing.
“The Senate is going to break for an August recess here in the next few days, and even though we won't be on the floor every week to continue to fight for the Ukrainian people, we will do so with our work back home, with getting more people engaged and involved in America to help on the humanitarian side. We will continue to promote the fact that the United States’ national security interest is served by helping freedom and democracy.
“I want to note something President Zelenskyy said recently in an address to the people of Ukraine. He said, ‘Strategically, Russia has no chance of winning this war, and it is necessary to hold on so that even at the tactical levels, the terrorist state feels its defeat. No matter what happens and what the occupier’s plans are, we must do our job, protect our state, and take care of each other.’
“Let's help Ukraine finish this mission, protect their state, their democracy, and take care of each other. Let's give Ukraine the tools it needs to be able to do that. After these months of fighting and giving aid, the West must not falter during Ukraine's dire time of need. We must be there through victory for the Ukrainian people. Victory for self-determination, victory for freedom. With that, I'd like to yield to my colleague from New Hampshire, Senator Shaheen, and my partner in this effort.”