Ohio Sen. Rob Portman joined The Dispatch Podcast to talk about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. What is Vladimir Putin doing? Why should Americans care? Plus, Steve and David ask Sen. Portman about efforts to reform the Electoral Count Act.
On what is currently going on in Ukraine:
Portman: For the viewers who don't follow this closely they're probably wondering, “Why would Vladimir Putin want to do this? It just doesn't seem to make sense.” I think there are a few reasons, one of which is that Ukraine is slipping away. So eight years ago, they made a conscious decision to move away from the Russian-backed government, threw it out, and said “We want to have elected government of the people. We want to be democrats. We want to be like the EU and the United States and have a democracy and have a free market and have freedom of speech and freedom to gather and a free market economy.” And it's worked for them. They've got a pretty prosperous economy and they’re beginning to see the benefits of that. And I think, frankly Vladimir Putin sees that in the polling. He sees that in the investments in Ukraine and he's thinking “My gosh, if I don't move now, pretty soon this country is going to be a Western country.” Second. I do think he has concerns that they will join NATO at some point because of their progress, and that that will put NATO on his border in a way that he finds to be problematic. NATO is a defensive organization. They're not interested in going on the offensive against Russia. They're just interested—they just want to join and they meet the criteria. Then bringing them under the so-called Title V umbrella, which is a mutual defense saying “We'll defend you if you defend us.”
On what Americans don’t understand about the Ukrainian conflict:
Portman: This is something that’s hard for us to understand here in the States, but he's [Zelensky] been at war for eight years. So I mean, when he ran for office, it was, the war was going on, his whole tenure there it's been going on. Since 2014, when they decided to move, you know, toward freedom and democracy there has been a constant fight and I've been there to the line of contact where Russian troops and equipment is literally in Ukraine in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. And you know, I had to duck because there was sniper fire and they said “Keep your head down.” And you know, you have to wear a helmet and a flak jacket and all that, so it's been a hot war. They later took over part of Ukraine called Crimea. And so it's, you know, for them, this is terrible what's happening—the build-up—but on the other hand, you know, it's a continuation, they think, in terms of this war that they've had with Russia now for eight years. They have lost, by the way, between 14,000 and 15,000 Ukrainians. That would be the equivalent of us losing about 120,000 Americans. Think if we had done that. I mean that’s more people than died in Vietnam and Korea and Afghanistan and Iraq, combined, in terms of American combat losses. That's in eight years they have lost that many Ukrainians. So for the Ukrainians, they kind of look at us when we say “My God, Russia. There might be a war.” Their reaction is, in part, “Yeah, we’ve been living with it,” and at some point you have to kind of live your life knowing that that threat is always out there.
On reasons why Americans should care about this crisis:
Portman: One, it's not just about Ukraine. So even if you are willing to say that that's not important enough, which I'm not, but some would, if you talk to people from the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia or Poland— say for example, or other countries in the region, they are scared to death because they think they are next. And you know, the buildup in Belarus is particularly problematic for Poland and Lithuania because they're right there at the border. And there's a huge buildup on their borders as well. So it's a domino effect, I guess it was called at one time. They're worried that if, if this happens, where will it stop? And again, that takes us back to 80 years ago. You know, World War II and when some people said to the then aggressor, which was Hitler and the Nazis, “Well maybe we can appease them, maybe we can give them what they want here in this country, and then they will stop” and quickly it was determined that that was not where it was going to stop. So I guess that's part of it. To me, the biggest one, though, is that the United States again in the post-WWII period has been the guarantor and effect of the great peace that we've seen, relatively speaking. They've been complex, obviously, but nothing like our great world wars. And it wasn't so much as the world's policeman. We've been kind of like the sheriff you know, we have a posse and the posse is other freedom-loving countries in Europe, but also in Latin America and Asia, Africa. And they look to us to be the leader partly because we are the largest economy and we have the most powerful military and we have the means to do it. We have the ability to project force for peace. Ronald Reagan famously called it “peace through strength.” And people are beginning to wonder a little about that. Afghanistan being the most recent example of it, the chaotic and precipitous pullout from Afghanistan made a lot of people wonder, “Is America still there as the guarantor?”
On President Trump’s recent statements about Mike Pence and the Electoral Count Act:
Steve: You saw the statement that President Trump put out the other day about Vice President Pence saying, if the vice president had absolutely no right to change the presidential election results in the Senate why are Democrats and RINO Republicans working to pass legislation that will not allow the vice president to change the results of the election? And then he went on to say that Mike Pence, what you're doing, tacitly acknowledges that Mike Pence did have the right to change the outcome. What do you say to the President? Does he have an accurate understanding of that? And what kind of conversations are you having about making changes?
Portman: Yeah, he might be right. I think the statute is really confusing and it's ancient. It's one of these—
Steve: But wait, you think he might be right? You think President Trump might be right that Vice President Pence could possibly have the unilateral authority to overturn the election?
Portman: Under the ECA, the Electoral Count Act…
Steve: Because it’s so vague?
Portman: …it’s very confusing. And it also is very confusing as to what the role is of individual members. You know, that one senator could require a vote, which happened by the way, you recall, in 2004 I believe it was, in Ohio. Barbara Boxer was the one senator. And you know, I think it's just, it's time to revisit the whole thing, partly because he may be accurate about that. So, by the way to my Republican friends, I sometimes raised the point that this is not about Mike Pence, he's no longer vice president. Kamala Harris is now our vice president. And would they want her to have the decision, you know, in the next election, two and a half years from now, to say, who won or who lost despite what every state certified? So I mean, it's just wrong for our country. It’s constitutionally questionable, in my view, because the Constitution clearly allows the states to make this decision, state legislatures in particular. So I think the whole thing may be unconstitutional, but at a minimum, let's clarify it and take out the ambiguity and that's what we're trying to do. I think Republicans and Democrats alike think that's a good idea.
On the likelihood of reforming the Electoral Count Act:
Portman: I think it's likely we can get it done because I just think when people learn more about it, they think it makes no sense. And by the way, they're shocked by the fact that, you know, for instance, one member of the United States Senate could take the certification from a state like Ohio and say, “This doesn't count. Let's have a vote on it.” It's just not fair. So I think we can get it done. I mean, Republicans and Democrats alike would like to clarify after an election’s over, you know, what the results mean? I think that's what this is about. So that's less controversial, frankly, than some other things Democrats want to do, which I disagree with, which is basically to take away the power from states by pre-empting it with a federal standard.