Republican Sen. Rob Portman on the Ukraine crisis, Biden’s State of the Union address

A day after his State of the Union address and amid a looming Ukraine crisis, President Biden is now seeking momentum for his agenda at home. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the president's address and how the Biden administration is reacting to the Russian invasion.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For reaction to President Biden's State of the Union address, and especially to what the administration is doing with regard to Ukraine, we turn to a Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, the co-chair of the Senate's Ukraine Caucus, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.

    I spoke with him moments ago.

    Senator Portman, thank you very much for joining us.

    What is your reaction to what President Biden had to say last night about Ukraine and your reaction to the overall response of this administration to that crisis?

  • Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH):

    I thought the Ukrainian comments were the strongest part of the speech, and so did others. As you saw, it got a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.

    It's really important that we stay unified, not just as Americans, but also with freedom-loving countries all around the globe, because it's really the only chance we have to be able to be successful here. And to stand with Ukraine is the right place to stand for everyone, by the way, including countries that have yet to step forward, like China. You're either with tyranny or you're for the people of Ukraine. So I was encouraged to see that part of the speech be so well-received.

    I did advocate for more sanctions earlier on, so-called pre-invasion sanctions. We were not successful in getting that done. But the sanctions came, and they came extensively, and tough sanctions once the invasion happened.

    I had hoped that we could do it before the invasion, because I thought it might have had the effect of changing Vladimir Putin's mind. I don't know that. But now we're where we are. So we need to continue to tighten the noose on the Putin economy. And, of course, we should cut off the oil from Russia. That just makes no sense to me.

    We will have to make some adjustments in terms of our refinery capacity, but it's only 4 percent of our oil. But we certainly shouldn't be sending millions of dollars every day to the Putin regime to help finance this war.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you about several of those things, Senator, but I also want to ask you about your comment that the United States needs to be speeding more lethal assistance to Ukraine.

    Today, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the administration — I'm quoting — he said it's very actively working every day, every hour, to provide assistance, make sure it gets to where it needs to go.

    I think you have a good idea of what the administration is sending, but you're saying that's not enough?

  • Sen. Rob Portman:

    Well, first of all, I appreciate the fact that the American people are funding so much support for the Ukrainian people, allowing them to protect themselves.

    Ukrainians have not asked for us to be on the ground over the years, but they have said they need more help. And I have always been a strong advocate for that. We're finally doing it in larger numbers. And that's great.

    There are two areas where I think we could help a lot more. One is with regard to aircraft, which they desperately need, as you know. The Europeans had talked about providing MiG fighters, which the Ukrainians can operate, as compared to our fighters and our bombers, for that matter. And yet, today, there was news that perhaps some of that was being pulled back.

    I think it's in the United States' interests to be involved here and to compensate European countries who are willing to provide the kind of fighters that the Ukrainian pilots know how to fly and can be effective in using. So I think that's one area where we should be doing more in the air.

    Second is with regard to drones. Again, our drones are probably not appropriate, because it requires months, if not years of training. But there are other drones that are on the market where the United States could help with regard to, again, purchasing those, in essence, or compensating countries like Turkey to provide that capability.

    We have all seen this horrible image of miles and miles of Russian tanks and armored vehicles moving toward Kyiv…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Sen. Rob Portman:

    … and no resistance.

    And part of that is that the airpower superiority that the Russians have is making it difficult. So I think there are things we could do that are a little more creative to do something in addition to the small arms we are sending, which is needed, to the Javelin missile to knock down the tanks, and the Stingers to the knock down the airplane.

    So, I think there's more we can do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, just quickly on that, you don't have concern that, in sending some of these supplies, assuming they can get there quickly enough, could be intercepted by the Russians at this point?

  • Sen. Rob Portman:

    Well, that's always possible, but the Russians are not — their presence is not in Western Ukraine at this point.

    So we still have the ability to send things in through Poland, through Romania, through Hungary. So we have the opportunity to do it now. And we ought to take advantage of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned the oil a moment ago, Senator, saying that the U.S. should stop buying oil. You have advocated for more energy independence in this country.

    There is, as you know, pushback from those who say, yes, we need to do all we can to hurt the Russians, but we also need to think in the future about climate change. And this country, rather than going all in again on oil, needs to think long range.

  • Sen. Rob Portman:

    Well, there are two obvious answers to that, Judy.

    As you know, one is that the Russian oil is a lot dirtier than our oil, including how they produce it. And if you look at the methane map of the world, you see the flares all over Russia as to their natural gas and their oil production. So it's certainly not a good bargain from an environmental point of view to bring oil all the way from Russia to the United States, and all the energy costs associated with that, in addition to how they produce it.

    Number two — so substituting it with North American allies would make sense from an environmental point of view. Number two, we do have the opportunity to do more in our country. And we should, because it's important that we do what we can to keep gas prices down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many things to ask you, Senator. I just have time for one more.

    I do want to come back to President Biden's State of the Union, his — several calls he made for cooperation, working with Republicans. And one of those areas is beefing up American manufacturing, including in your home state of Ohio. He mentioned Intel. He talked about GM.

    Do you see these as ventures that are good for the economy of the country and for Ohio?

  • Sen. Rob Portman:

    I do. And I think the COMPETES Act, which is something that passed the Senate, a different version passed the House, it's very important to be enacted. That's what he talked about last night, in terms of providing help for the semiconductor industry, the so-called CHIPS Act.

    I'm all for that, partly because Ohio will benefit because of Intel, but, more importantly, because our country needs to be able to compete and win in this area. We only make about 12 percent of the world super semiconductors now. And you seen this with regard to our supply chain problems. Whether it's automobiles or electronics or washing machines or other things, they all use these chips.

    So it's important that we have the ability to rely more on U.S. sources. So I think this is an opportunity for us to do it on a bipartisan basis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, we thank you very much.

  • Sen. Rob Portman:

    Thanks, Judy. Appreciate it.

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