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Politics

Thune: U.S. should share air-defense systems with Ukraine

Thune photo.jpg

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

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has upended peace in Europe, shaken the global oil markets, and sent millions of civilians fleeing war. We talk with U.S. Senator John Thune about Congressional efforts to support Ukraine, why gasoline prices are impacted even though the U.S. uses very little Russian oil, and an American response to a humanitarian crisis.

Highlight:

U.S. Senator John Thune says the Biden administration should support a transfer of MiG-29 fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine.

“It is the one thing that President Zelensky has repeatedly asked us to do. Many of us are at a loss as to why the administration isn’t taking that step. I know they’re worried about escalation, but at this point, any weapon system we can provide for Ukraine that enables them to deflect the Russian attacks or get on offense in this war is something we need to do.”

The administration is facing backlash about its refusal to approve the transfer, citing concerns Russia would see the move as a provocation. The U.S. is sending other weapons systems into the war zone. The Biden administration has declined to outline what kind of weapons the U.S. is providing.

The following transcript has been auto-generated.

Lori Walsh:

Let's start with whether you think the US is doing enough and at the right time to really help the people of Ukraine. Where are we at?

Sen. Thune:

I think that there are a lot of things that probably should have been done a while back. And I've said this before: The best steps you can take are steps that deter bad behavior. I felt like when we had the vote in the Senate a few months back on sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, or what we call the Putin pipeline, that would've been a really good opportunity to send a message to Putin about, not only the US, but the West in terms of their willingness to impose economic sanctions that create a lot of pain for Russia because they are first and foremost, an energy economy. But we missed that opportunity. Since that time obviously, the administration has taken some steps on sanctions. I think it was under pressure from Congress eventually, that they agreed to do the sanctions on oil coming out of Russia.

Senator Thune:

Even kicking Russia out of what we call permanent normal trade relations, which enables other countries to impose tariffs on Russian products and products from Belarus is also something that the administration is now agreeable on. And so I'd like to think at least that the political pressure coming through the Congress is having some impact on the administration's decisions. And I think they need a little encouragement and push. The current thing that the big fight is over is whether or not the MiGs ... we ought to authorize some of those to go from Poland and into Ukraine. It is the one thing that president Zelensky has repeatedly asked us to do. And many of us are at a loss as to why the administration isn't taking that step. I know they're worried about escalation, but at this point, any weapon system that we can provide for Ukraine that enables them to deflect the Russian attacks or get on offense a little bit in this war is something we need to do and so.

Lori Walsh:

... and this is about air defense, for people who don't know the situation.

Senator Thune:

Correct.

And the concern I think the administration has is that Ukrainian pilots might fly into Russian air space and attack Russian installations. This is where I think we have to operate on what they're saying in good faith. And that is that they just want to police their skies and protect their people from attacks that might come from Russian aircraft that are flying into Ukraine. So that's one of those issues to me I hope the administration will come around on because I really think it's important. If we're going to do everything we can to assist the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom, that's certainly one element that we haven't delivered on yet.

Lori Walsh:

I want to go back and ask you to explain for listeners who are confused by the fact that the US really doesn't get a lot of oil from Russia and yet the global market is really shaken and our gasoline prices have gone up. Explain to people how that all ties together, because we're not a big importer of Russian oil.

Senator Thune:

No, but I think the conflict in Ukraine is a very timely reminder that energy independence is not only economic security, but national security. And I do think that if we're going to hit Russia where it hurts and bolster our own national security, we've got to do everything we can to get our energy producers off the bench and back in the game so we don't have to rely on former regimes for energy supplies. But to that point, the amount of Russian oil that comes into the United States on a daily basis represents about three to four percent of our total supply of energy. And as a consequence of that, cutting it off is something we can backfill, but it's the global supply that you're worried about. And the global supply, obviously in this case, is affected much by Russia because not only are they providing oil to the United States, they're providing oil to Europe and to Asia and other countries around the world.

Senator Thune:

And so the overall amount or supply of energy is very much affected and impacted by Russian energy. And a lot of people have described Russia as a gas station, masquerading as a country. They are an energy economy and that's where you can really hurt them. But it does affect global supplies and that puts upward pressure on prices. Now we already had prices going up dramatically prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But there's no question that sanctioning Russian energy is going to have some impacts on global prices.

Lori Walsh:

Let's jump to what you were talking about ethanol. If those regulations are lifted for year round ethanol use, how long does that take to see an impact?

Senator Thune:

I think it could happen fairly quickly. And this E15 letter that we sent out last week was signed by top Democrats in addition to Republicans, but I'm hoping it'll spur some action because the administration's policies right now on biofuels are backwards, and they could be leveraging American agriculture to complement what should be a dominant oil and gas sector. And I think if the president is really interested in climate, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not just supporting the auto unions, biofuels are a way to reduce that footprint and increase fuel supply. So the question is how quickly could it come online? I mean, I think if you allow E15 year round with a lot more infrastructure investment that needs to be made to accommodate E15 at a lot of the refueling stations around the country. But I think if Americans demand that and if it's a $1.20 cheaper than traditional gasoline, I think you'd see a lot of demand for it. And I think that not only the infrastructure, but the producers around the country will step up to the challenge.

Lori Walsh:

So for people who say, look, the US is the world's number one producer of oil and gas. Domestic oil production is expected to hit a record high next year. Everyone knows there's not going to be a huge amount of effort that, or policy that the administration can enact that will change oil prices before the midterm elections, and that this feels opportunistic to them. What would your response be?

Senator Thune:

Well, I mean, I honestly, although I think that their argument is going to be, and the president's been framing this argument already, that the spike in energy prices is all a result of what's happening in Ukraine. And energy prices were 40%, gas prices were 40% over last year, well before the conflict began there. And I just think that the message that has been sent to folks and they say there are these leases available, but you also have to authorize not only you have to be able to use the lease. And that takes permission. And there are areas in the country that have been taken off limits for example, the oil and gas production. There just are a number of things. I think the administration, if they were really serious about wanting to maximize the amount of oil and gas that we can produce in this country, they could do so. They have even discouraged financial lenders, financial institutions from making loans to oil and gas companies.

Senator Thune:

And that can change very quickly. I mean, the messaging, once the messaging on that changes. I just don't know how the president does that because he's got in his political base, a lot of people who really just want to, they want to see oil and gas production go away. And that'll be his challenge I think, trying to explain that issue over the course of the next several months. But Republicans are talking about that in the context of the broader issue of inflation, which is hitting a lot of sectors of the economy, but there's no question, but the transportation plays a big part of that because it's such a, it's a cost in everything. Everything you buy at the grocery store has to get there. And the estimate right now is that a typical household's going to pay $2,000 more this year for gasoline then they did last year. And I think that isn't lost on people and that's something that's going to be an issue that they probably pay attention to when they think about the economy and things that they care about as we get into the political season.

Lori Walsh:

Well, we didn't drive last year or the year before, like we did before. Right? There's been an increase of "revenge driving" and "revenge travel." That might settle down, I guess. I want to make sure, in the interest of time, that we go back to one of the most heartbreaking parts of this war in Europe, and that is the refugee crisis, two million people have escape to Poland alone. What is the role of the US military in a place like Poland to help support refugees? What are we doing?

Senator Thune:

Well, I think there's a role that the US and its allies can play. And it is incredibly disruptive. And so far these European countries, particularly Poland, obviously, which has had the majority of the refugees have been very welcoming. And, but they're going to need a lot of support. And I think that we, our NATO allies can play a role in trying to help provide the types of just meeting the daily needs of refugees that are coming into these areas. And that's going to be very hard. I mean, you're going to need housing, and clothing, and food and all the things that people need to survive. And maybe that's financial support from the United States. Maybe it's actually on the ground, having some of those NATO troops in there creating the environment where these refugees can not only hopefully survive, but get back on their feet again.

Senator Thune:

And we're going to have to figure out the longer term solution there. Clearly having almost three million people coming across the border into Poland, it would be if you think about that and even in this country where we have a much bigger population and a lot more real estate to accommodate that, that would be a huge disruptive event. And so we're going to have to do everything we can financially to support what the efforts that these countries are making. And again, through our NATO allies. And so far, everybody seems to be stepping up, but it's just a heartbreaking and tragic thing to observe and watch as you see moms and little kids completely displaced by Putin's war. And you think humanity has maybe moved past this level of kind of just evil behavior and then you get a reminder that that's not the case. And this has certainly been that for a lot of people.

Lori Walsh:

One more question, before I let you go and that is, we are just now getting reports of Russian American discrimination or actions taken against exchange students from Russia. I'd like to give you an opportunity to address how we should behave at this time here at home.

Senator Thune:

Again, there are a lot of folks with Russian heritage in other places around the world, including the United States. These are not people who are responsible for this thuggish leader they have in Russia right now. And again, this should not create an opportunity to mistreat people anywhere in the world, because someone happens to have Russian heritage, to me, doesn't suggest that's anything that we ought to abide or tolerate. There is no place for that. So you're just playing into their hands and kind of playing the same sort of game that Putin plays. And violence is never the solution, never the answer. I would hope that people with Russian heritage here in this country, that people would give them a break. And if they were in any way aiding and abetting what's happening over there, that's an entirely different thing. But people who are here who are just innocent, like so many people in Russia who don't support what their authoritarian leader is doing, are not responsible for and shouldn't be mistreated in this country.