March 17, 2022
Video of Senator Sasse's interview is available here or by clicking the image above.
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to discuss the invasion of Ukraine.
"We can do more. The Ukrainians have demonstrated a will to fight, this is a population of freedom fighters on display, their courage on display for the whole world to see. And if it shoots, we should ship it because they're willing to fight. We don't need to do the fighting, but we should be doing the constant resupply. It should, the burden of proof should be on us about why we wouldn't supply every single weapon that they request."
Full Transcript is available below.
Joe Scarborough: Senator, I greatly appreciate your passion for Ukraine. I want to ask you this question because I think so many Americans agree with what you've said and what others have said. Understanding that we have allies we need to work with, understanding we have a tyrant who has threatened World War III and nuclear weapons repeatedly, understanding that we are shipping some weapons in there that obviously we're not announcing, what else beyond what President Biden said yesterday, what else do we need to get in there as quickly as possible?
Senator Sasse: Yeah, so we can talk some specific weapon systems but I think the bigger point, where you're actually headed, is the moral question of where this goes over the next three months and three years but at weapon systems, they need S-300s now. You had the Rob Portman clip about specific anti-aircraft stuff that's needed. They need more drones, they need more javelins, they need coastal defense systems, obviously Russia’s navy is trying to get involved in this, we've seen that in some of the bombings in the south. But more fundamentally, and I give the administration credit for certain things, bringing along some of the European central banks was hard work and it was important, because the U.S. doesn't have a lot of trade with Russia, and Europe does. So bringing along those central banks was important. There were all sorts of particular ways where the administration yesterday said a lot of the right things, but just because the pen was in President Biden's hand yesterday, doesn't mean that weapons are in Zelensky’s hands today, and at every point we’re too slow, and it feels like a huge part of the administration's audience is internal lawyers, and they do these offensive and defensive legal hairsplitting arguments. At the end of the day, every weapon we ship to Ukraine is a defensive weapon system because they're the ones being invaded. Ukraine didn't cause this. There's a fight for freedom happening in Ukraine, and every weapon we give Ukraine is defensive, and so the lawyers in the administration need to take a backseat, and the administration needs to tell people what they're for, not what they're against, because mostly what you hear out of the administration is self-deterrence.
Joe Scarborough: So you are, you're on the Intel Committee, you know, things obviously that even other members of Congress can't know. We, looking at this from the outside, really we hear about weapons systems going over there, but we can't move it. We can't see the movement. So, David Ignatius talked about going to the border and seeing a tremendous amount of weapons actually cross that border. So how, what can you tell us about what's not getting there, how it needs to get there faster? What are the roadblocks?
Senator Sasse: Well, so first of all, at the level of lethal targeting information, which is what we discussed together on your show, I don't know a week, a week and a half ago, the administration regularly starts the conversations by saying, “what might Putin think about this” and “what might he claim by press release would lead us to some terrible new place?” We should, of course, be cautious when you're dealing with a guy who, whether you think he's a madman or not, has a giant nuclear arsenal, and he would like to be perceived as a madman. But you don't start every conversation by saying because he has no moral bounds, and because he has a lot of nuclear weapons, everything we do should be guided by the argument that Putin might get really pissed about this, and therefore he might do what? Bomb women and children? I mean, the theater bombing yesterday that had children written on the roof, we know from some backchannel stuff, I'm not saying anything that crosses any intel lines here, but we know from some backchannel stuff that some encrypted apps that a lot of Russian military were using afterwards, they were cheering the fact that they had killed children. This wasn't some accidental bombing. They want to demoralize the population, and by us having an administration that goes out and almost always leads by saying “it might be dangerous to do this thing that would be perceived as escalatory,” you give Putin the advantage in that he always gets to move first, and he knows the bounds of every single tactical move he might make. We should have Putin worried, what might happen to him and to this war effort of his if he continues to escalate against civilian populations. And right now you don't get any of that moral and strategic high ground on the side of the information, excuse me, the administration, because there's so much legal parsing that happens in public.
Joe Scarborough: Well, Senator, there's also obviously concerned about World War III because you have Putin constantly talking about the use of nuclear weapons, people on state television talking about the use of nuclear weapons, diplomats talking about the use of nuclear weapons. I mean, sometimes our intel community gets it right, sometimes we get it wrong. I don't know where you were on the war in Iraq in 2003. I can tell you I was on these airwaves and I supported it. I was wrong about WMDs. The consequences were terrible, 4,500 Americans dead, the consequences of being wrong here, obviously, far more expansive. So, do you, I'm not asking you obviously to do the White House's bidding here, you would never do that, but do you at least understand these stakes are so momentous when we're talking about whether we get it right or get it wrong, could end up in a nuclear war?
Senator Sasse: Of course, and that's why I've said I'm not in favor of declaring a no-fly zone, because you don't get to declare a no-fly zone, you have to enforce one and that would mean putting American pilots in the air and getting into a direct shooting war with Russia. I'm not advocating that. But I am saying that you can't let Putin say because he has a nuclear weapon, every other thing he does can cause us to self-deter. There are 44 million Ukrainians, something like six or seven percent of the population has already fled. If Putin moves forward with targeting civilian populations for months or years, if the resistance could last that long, are we saying that at every point, he can escalate to this, he can escalate to death camps, he can escalate to that, and we'll just constantly say “well because Putin has nuclear weapons at no point can we do more.” We can do more. The Ukrainians have demonstrated a will to fight, this is a population of freedom fighters on display, their courage on display for the whole world to see. And if it shoots, if they'll shoot it, we should ship it because they're willing to fight. We don't need to do the fighting, but we should be doing the constant resupply. It should, the burden of proof should be on us about why we wouldn't supply every single weapon that they request.
Joe Scarborough: Right. Senator I'm gonna pass around to other people who have questions, right. I just want to step back a bit here and just talk generally about what we've seen over the past three and a half weeks. I would guess that we probably shared a lot of similarities in our, in our worldviews and have over, over our lifetimes. I believe in American exceptionalism. I've always been a strong proponent of NATO. I believe in Western civilization, and the extraordinary things that have come from Western civilization, responsible for feeding and freeing more people than any other civilization known in humankind. Talk about the last three, three and a half weeks, how important it's been to see NATO come together again, Germany's stepping up, liberal democracy, Western democracy, once again, taking its rightful place in the world, and just showing there is a difference between good and evil, and we're on the side of good.
Senator Ben Sasse: Yeah, absolutely. So, we have to recognize that Vladimir Putin is not a guy who will be stopped until someone stops him. And for his two decades in power, he's constantly assassinated political opponents, he's targeted civilians, he shot down civilian aircraft in Syria, genocide like behavior and violent chemical weapons attacks, and at no point has he been stopped in the past, and so that brings us to your point about the last three and a half weeks, what we have in the 40 million plus Ukrainians, and it's symbolized in Zelensky. It's not Zelensky alone, but he's been a model of courage on the global stage. And as he's done what he did, he's defied the international community's assumption that every leader facing a big army will just cut in and run. People said, “is he Ghani or is he Churchill?” For months in the intel space running up to this moment, and most people had to bet, they assumed he was going to cut and run, it turns out he didn't do that, he decided that courage requires standing up against the bully sometimes, and the Ukrainians are fighting not just on behalf of their kids and their future, but they're fighting on behalf of the whole free world as you mentioned. And so there's both idealism and realism at play in this moment, and we need to be doing everything we can to help the Ukrainians not simply lose more slowly, but actually have a shot at winning. The world needs the Ukrainians to win, and that means the Ukrainians need to be able to kill Russians, and to kill Russians, they need more weapon systems. They've got a will to fight. We know who Zelensky is, we know who the Ukrainians are. They, what he asked us yesterday is “who are the Americans?” and “who is the Biden administration?” He has the courage of his convictions. Do we have ours? We should, we're a superpower, we should act like it.
Jonathan Lemire: Senator Sasse. Good morning. It's Jonathan Lemire. Just in the last few minutes the White House has announced that tomorrow President Biden will be speaking to Xi Jinping of China and Ukraine is very much on the agenda. I know you have pretty strong feelings about China, so want to get your sense here. What would you say President Biden's message should be tomorrow on that call, and do you harbor any hopes that Xi Jinping who might be one of the few voices that Vladimir Putin might listen to, do you think Xi Jinping will tell him, “knock it off”?
Senator Sasse: Chairman Xi is not an honest broker in this, he's the guy who greenlit the invasion. Russia, as you know has 11 time zones, they were able to move essentially all of their troops back from the Far East to stage them in Belarus on the eve of the invasion, because XI was greenlighting this. We know that he didn't want the invasion to disrupt the Olympics, as he lied to the world about the genocide that's happening in Xinjiang of the Uyghurs, but he wanted to make sure the Olympics went off without a hitch, but then once Putin was free to invade, Xi viewed it as a scout run, as a dry run operation to look at how the world's community, how the US in particular, but how the world more broadly might respond to Xi’s ambitions to seize Taiwan. And so ultimately, hopefully, there's lots of conflicting intel on how the inner ring around Chairman Xi are responding to this, but hopefully they're seeing a world in a West that has a little more will than Xi thought when he greenlit Putin to do this. Putin wanted and Xi wanted behind him, to see Europe and the US embarrassed, but Xi also wanted to see that there wouldn't be much financial resolve, in response to an illegal, immoral, just completely indefensible invasion, like this of Ukraine, and he was hoping he would see a world that wouldn't stand up when he plans to invade Taiwan. And so hopefully President Biden leads with reality, and with truth about the fact that Xi is wrong morally, but he was also wrong in his calculus about the world's response.
Kathy Kay: Senator it’s Kathy Kay, when you look at the next few weeks, how, how, what's your biggest fear in terms of how this could spill over into the rest of Europe and bring the rest of Europeans this wall? How would that path go?
Senator Sasse: Well, three or four things to say first, the, the horrific starting point for every human. We all believe. We're supposed to believe, that all 7.8 billion people on this globe are created with dignity in God's image, and we're seeing women and children and civilian populations targeted, so I don't think we should ever in the real-politik conversation that you're rightly pointing us to lose sight of what's happening to civilians there. But at the real-politik level, I give the Biden administration credit for saying we'll defend every single square inch of NATO territory, the Polish border, and the Romanian border and beyond should be fortified more and more. We should be sending weapon systems not just to the Ukraine, but to the edges of NATO territory as well. Obviously, there are ways where confusion could lead to a direct US and NATO shooting war with Russia. We don't want that to happen. There have been some important prudential conversations about how the mix, for instance, might have been transferred in ways that wouldn't confuse Russian generals on the battlefield to think these were planes being flown in from NATO piloted by NATO as NATO was entering the war. But all of those tactical issues and prudential issues are ultimately soluble. We need to be leading with the moral reality of what Putin is doing is wrong, NATO and the US won't countenance it, and that doesn't require us to actually be in a direct shooting war with Russia. We don't need to be supplying the pilots, but we shouldn't be supplying the planes and munitions. And so, I don't really think this line is that hard, there's all sorts of adult prudence and caution required, but right now we have too much lawyerly hairsplitting.
Mika Brzezinski: All right, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Thank you very much.