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Politics

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson says sanctions are not painless at home, but urgent to support democracy in Ukraine

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This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

The following interview transcript was auto-generated and edited for clarity.

Lori Walsh:

We're recording this on Tuesday, and the news from the war in Europe is going to change every minute and, certainly, every day. So I'm hoping we can focus on your role in the Ag Committee and impacts on American farmers. There are far reaching consequences to this war outside of the Ukrainian border.

Lori Walsh:

So let's start, if you would, with your role in the Committee for Agriculture and some of your concerns for how this might impact the South Dakota farmer, the American farmer.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

A third of all of the world's wheat is grown in Russia and Ukraine. And Russia's also a massive energy producer and, of course, production agriculture uses a lot of energy and things like fertilizer are very price sensitive to natural gas because that's a key input. So, although this is happening on the other side of the globe, I don't think any of us want to assume that we're entirely disconnected. There are going to be impacts.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

For me, us providing assistance, us providing aid to the Ukrainian people is absolutely worth it. I mean, even if there will be some ripple impacts. We're not going to commit men and women in uniform (boots on the ground) in Ukraine, but we've provided a billion dollars worth of military and security assistance. And there will be some rocky times for American ag producers and all Americans. But the Ukrainians are people that I think we absolutely need to stand with.

Lori Walsh:

We have seen President Putin say that he is trying to make his country "sanction proof." We've talked about energy independence in the United States. And I'm not holding those two up as equivalent, by any measure. But I am interested in your thoughts on this idea of whether or not any nation can truly stand alone anymore?

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

No, there isn't. I mean, you can do it, but it imposes tremendous costs. There's a balance. I think you want to work with your friends, you want to work with your partners. There are basic economic laws, like the law of comparative advantage that says when you work together, willing buyer and willing seller, everybody is better off. And I think you want to work with your friends and allies to make that happen.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

I get a lot more concerned when we start talking about adversaries, Russia and China, having a disproportionate amount of control over American food supply, American healthcare product supply, energy. These are basic building blocks that you have to have to be a sovereign nation. And the idea that either China or Russia would just be able to wake up one day, decide they wanted to injure America, press a button, and bring us to our knees that's not what we want.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

And so, I'm still a believer in free trade, but I think we are having a good conversation in America in recent years about what's the right way to calibrate those relationships. I think China has too much control over our economy. That's not as true for Russia. We do about $20 billion worth of trade with Russia every year. But Europe does $200 billion worth of trade to Russia every year. And Germany is beholden to Russia natural gas to a degree that right now, I can guarantee you, they do not want to be.

Lori Walsh:

Let's talk a little bit about the refugee crisis. As people flee Ukraine, what is our role in supporting our allies when it comes to those who are fleeing the war?

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

I think America is a part of the broader global community. And most every country acknowledges that legitimate asylum complaints, or asylum claims need to be honored. Refugees cannot just be allowed to fend for themselves. And now, I think you want to be sensitive, I think you want to be thoughtful about what is the carrying of each country? You don't just want the country that's the next country over to bear all of the brunt. But there will be needs that particularly the Eastern European countries will have in dealing with what will be perhaps more than a million refugees here in the weeks to come. And I think you'll see a bipartisan coalition in Congress be supportive of providing some assistance, and some aid to Eastern Europe as they deal with those refugees.

Lori Walsh:

Will we be accepting refugees on American soil?

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

Well, I think it is too early to know exactly what that looks like. But I think that, clearly, these are freedom loving people that are absolutely... I mean, I think the question to me is are these legitimate asylum claims? And if they are, it would not be surprising if some of them wanted to make their economic future in America. I just think we need to see how that unfolds in the days to come.

Lori Walsh:

Talk for a moment to the enlisted service person. I know several people whose children have been deployed to Poland, or have been transferred from their station in Germany. And they want to know, what's next?

Lori Walsh:

First of all, some of them are upset that they're not able to do more. And then, they want to know what their role is and how they will be supported because even though we say we are not sending troops into Ukraine, it's a volatile situation, it changes instantly. And I think they have a right to hear from their Congressman.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

Yeah. And there's, obviously, a range of opinions on this topic across America. I've had a lot of people contact me in the last couple of days, and they want American bomber pilots flying in and trying to destroy Russia's ability to prosecute war. And we're not going to do that. Then, we've got people who just don't even think and have rejected the idea, over the course of the last 78 years, that America would've any troops stationed in Germany, or Europe. And I don't agree with them either.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

But we are not going to have American men and women die on a Ukrainian battlefield. And there are a lot of reasons for that. I mean, in part, because what we need now is not escalation. And I think putting the American military in a shooting war against Russia would be exceptionally bad for global security and global strength.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

The reality is Ukraine is not a NATO member. Now, we have Article 5 commitments to other NATO members. And President Biden has said that he will defend every inch of NATO with American military might. But that's not true for Ukraine. And I think it's dangerous to treat non-NATO countries like they're NATO countries. I mean, these agreements come about over the course of decades, they're thoughtful and deliberately entered into. And I think there's a reason that you have a different set of obligations for people who are part of those treaties than you do for are people who are not.

Lori Walsh:

Does the potential for NATO membership for Ukraine change in the years ahead, then? What does this war tell us about whether or not they should be NATO allies?

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

Well, Vladimir Putin has been almost petrified of the idea of a strong and unified NATO on his doorstep. And Lori, I would just observe that I'm not sure anybody in the world could have done more to strengthen and unify NATO than he has done in the last six days. I think there are lots of people in European and American governments who have just rejected out of hand Ukrainian requests for NATO membership over the course of the last 10 years, where it's sort of been in a pending status, who now are pretty interested in trying to decide whether or not global security would be improved if Ukraine was a part of NATO.

Lori Walsh:

I want to go back, in the limited time that we have left, and just circle back to this idea of economic sanctions.

Lori Walsh:

We understand the impact on the price of gas, and inflation, and some of the challenges. I think many Americans are happy to make a sacrifice to financially help the people of Ukraine in any way we can. Others will say, there are things we can do to make that hurt a little bit less here at home.

Lori Walsh:

But I wanted to ask you about the trust industry in South Dakota, because we know money is stored in this trust industry from around the globe. Is there a connection between the trust industry and these sanctions? Will it be impacted? What is the intersection?

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

Yeah, I don't know, Lori. I'm not an expert on the trust industry and I don't know the extent to it. I mean, I think most of these sanctions have gone right to the ability of banks and the central bank in Russia to act as capital. And we do know that half of all of the Russian government's reserves across the globe are now inaccessible to them. And we know that the ruble lost a quarter of its value, and we know that the Moscow Stock Market has cratered.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

What little I do know about the South Dakota trust laws are that government can't set up a trust. And so, to my knowledge, you wouldn't have any scenario under which the reserves of the Russian Central Bank could be enrolled in a trust in South Dakota. So, I think the intersections are pretty limited.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

And I also want to say, when we talk about potential inflation on things like food and gas, there will be some modest impacts on Americans, potentially likely. They're going to pale in comparison to the size and scope of what Americans have been experiencing in recent months anyway. I mean, I don't want to play on their fear. The reality is we have had nearly unprecedented levels of inflation in this country, unfortunately, for a number of months. And this is not going to change that picture at the macro level.

Lori Walsh:

You are one of those congressmen who stays away from hyper- divisive rhetoric as a rule. It's time to support the American president as we look at providing a united front, but yet this is America, and we also get to criticize our American president as freely as we like, which is also one of our sacred duties and rights. Tell me how you look at the way President Biden's handling the war in Ukraine, and our international standing as Americans with all that in mind.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

Right. And, to me, there are a couple of tests that come immediately to mind. And, that is what are the motivations when somebody is providing criticism, are they interested in making America stronger? Or do they just want to throw sand in the gears? And then number two, what's their tone? Again, is their tone respectful? Does their tone seek to make things better? Or does their tone seek to make things worse?

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

And so, clearly Joe Biden and I disagree on a lot. There have been times I've been critical of him but, hopefully, South Dakotans understand that when I've been critical of him, both my tone and my motivation are trying to make things better. And so early on, when the president pushed out some sanctions, I thought they were underwhelming. I couldn't believe that as, we had been talking about this in DC months, that the first sanctions were, frankly, so weak.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

Now I do think though, in the last six days, we have gotten a lot better. I think the administration deserves some credit for pulling it together. And I think where we're at now is in a much, much better spot. I would like to see some additional sanctions from Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, and from America about energy export. I can't believe we're going to continue to allow Russia to sell natural gas and oil products to the globe, bringing into their pockets billions of dollars that they can use to finance a war, or to continue to enrich Putin and the oligarchs. I understand that we're nervous about the price of gas and natural gas in Europe, but sanctions that work are never going to be costless. And so, I think the administration gets much better grades today than they would've gotten last week. I'm still looking for us to... I think we've got one more letter grade to go as we try to get closer to perfect.

Lori Walsh:

Final thoughts: your message to the people of Ukraine right now.

Congressman Dusty Johnson:

We've been inspired by the fact that you everyday citizens, men and women, young and old, are taking up arms. We have been inspired by the fact that you have a will to fight. And I think Americans, after seeing what happened in Afghanistan, had begun to doubt whether people in other parts of the world had a will to fight. You and your leader, Zelenskyy and, frankly, so many others have shown us that you believe in freedom, you believe in democracy, you want to keep your children safe, and you are not going to roll over to the whims of a tyrannical dictator. We're going to pray for you. And we're going to continue to do what we can to give you the assistance you need to defend yourselves.