Thursday, July 25, 2024

Op-Ed: Risch: Putin can smell weakness

by CHUCK MALLOY/Special to The Press
| May 16, 2022 11:19 AM

It’s painful for me to see President Biden talking about what’s happening in Ukraine.

His tough talk about Russian President Vladimir Putin committing war crimes, along with waves of economic sanctions, seems to have the effect of an angry parent taking away a teenager’s monthly allowance. His actions have done nothing to slow down the bombings and killings in Ukraine.

What’s missing to me is a show of strength — the kind displayed decades ago by Ronald Reagan in bringing down the Soviet empire. Biden could get Putin’s attention by pushing for Ukraine’s membership into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — and dare the Russian thug to take one more inch of Ukraine. But, no, Biden doesn’t want to offend the Russian president. Instead, our president he given the Soviets an outline of what he won’t do — which includes not pushing for NATO membership for Ukraine.

Well … I’m just an old guy who writes political columns. But Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has plenty of expertise in foreign policy and can talk about the Ukraine crisis from almost every angle. He, too, thinks that Biden has not done a good job overall standing up to Putin.

As Risch told me, “There’s only one thing that Putin respects, and that’s strength. The main thing he is most disrespectful of is weakness. If you show weakness, he will come after you like a shark to a bleeding dolphin.”

Risch gives the president more credit for his recent statements and actions, but says they should have come sooner. “They are trying to make up for that to a degree, it has been like somebody wanting to jump in a pool, but couldn’t make up his mind about putting a toe in the water for backing away. It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Risch is not shooting from the hip. He has talked with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and various diplomats and NATO allies. Risch has hashed out the issue with colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he sees a bipartisan commitment to resolve the crisis. Members have different ideas and approaches, but not on a party-line basis.

“I have a pretty good handle on this, and the only one that is happy with what’s coming out of the White House is the White House,” Risch says. “(The president) needs to rachet up the rhetoric, with a blend of good old-fashioned strategic ambiguity. Make Putin wonder what we are going do to do. Don’t telegraph what we are not going to do.”

And keep a sharp eye on other potential trouble spots, such as China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba.

“Regardless of the country you’re talking about,” Risch says, “if they see that we will stand by with our hands in our pocket while they decide to take over another country, that’s something that will go on and on.”

Of course, there’s no telling how long the conflict will continue or how it will end, but the senator thinks the economic sanctions are working without sending American troops to fight the battle. Americans would be widely opposed to having boots on the ground, he says, “and secondly, with our technology, we don’t need to do that in order to engage.”

One immediate impact in Idaho, and across the nation, is that people are feeling the pain at the gas pump. But Risch says that Idahoans should appreciate the plight of the Ukrainians.

“These people are going through exactly what we went through in 1776. They want their freedom. They want to govern themselves. They want to be a democracy and they want a rule of law. Those are our kind of people,” Risch said.

“This war is not just about Ukraine. The fight in Ukraine is a strategic challenge with long-term implications for the free world,” he said. “Ukraine is the opening move to tip the balance of power toward Russia and China to dominate the world for the next century or more. For the sake of our country, and the sake of the free world, the administration needs to get serious about supporting Ukraine with war-fighting materials so we can prevent a more sweeping conflict from coming to our shores.”

The stakes that Risch outlines are about as high as they can go.

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Chuck Malloy is a longtime Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at