Sen. Mitch McConnell on Russia’s invasion: ‘The Ukrainians need help, they need it now’

Ukraine's President Zelensky addressed Congress Wednesday, pleading for President Biden and lawmakers to send his country more weapons and support to aid in their fight against Russia's invasion. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joins Judy Woodruff to discuss President Biden's response to the war in Ukraine, President Zelensky's address to Congress and unity among NATO allies.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for more on the situation in Ukraine and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's plea to Congress today for more aid, I spoke with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky a short while ago.

    Leader McConnell, thank you very much for joining us today.

    Between what you heard from President Zelenskyy this morning and the facts on the ground that you're learning, do you think there will be a significant increase in American support for Ukraine?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell(R-KY):

    I sure hope so.

    The president really needs to step up his game. He has frequently done the right thing, but never soon enough. We now know where we are. The Russians are in the country. We need to do everything we can to give them the tools to fight with.

    Many of these tools are in the hands of Eastern European NATO allies, who are anxious to help. And it appears, for example, in the case of the Soviet era MiGs in Poland, that the administration is actually discouraging some of our Eastern NATO allies from doing everything they wanted to do.

    We ought to encourage them to send everything to the Ukrainians that would be helpful to them. And then we have provided loan guarantees in a package that passed last week to give those countries new American equipment to upgrade the systems that they send into Ukraine, so that their own defense is not diminished by their helping their Ukrainian neighbor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the Poles were talking about sending the MiGs from a U.S. NATO base in Germany. You're saying you're comfortable with the U.S. doing that? Because the administration said that could lead to a more dangerous outgrowth of this, what's already a big conflict.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Yes, I just simply disagree.

    Putin is not trying to start a war with NATO. He's got his hands full in Ukraine. And what I don't like is Putin determining the conditions under which we assist Ukraine.

    Look, the Ukrainians need help. They need it now. Particularly do they need the kinds of weapon systems that go after not only helicopters, but higher-flying planes. Those systems are nearby in Eastern NATO countries. They want to help them. And we ought to be facilitating it, rather than discouraging it.

    Now, the one place I agree with the administration is, we can't have a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone in Ukraine. That would indeed be a direct conflict potentially between us and the Russians. But short of that, we need to do everything else we can. And I fear that we're not doing that and, even when we do take the steps that are needed, not soon enough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you're in agreement with President Biden then on the no-fly zone.

    But you may have heard President Zelenskyy today is saying that what's going on in his country is — could already be the start of World War III. In other words, now is the moment to close the skies over his country.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    There are several ways to do that.

    I just mentioned, Judy, there are weapon systems available in Eastern NATO countries that can effectively deal with Soviet airpower. They're from the ground. They're not air — airplane-enforced no-fly zone. And if we get those weapons to the Ukrainians, I think they can do the job themselves.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In other words, you're saying that you have information that the U.S. is actively discouraging that.

    But what I want to ask you, Mr. Leader is, President Biden has received credit from many for holding the alliance together, in an unusual way, in fact, with the war in Ukraine.

    Are you advocating that the U.S. get out front of the alliance?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Well, I think Vladimir Putin has done a lot to unify NATO. It's been remarkable to see the Finns and the Swedes potentially deciding to become NATO members. We will see. But public opinion has shifted dramatically there.

    You had a total change in Germany, with direct shipment of weapons, with their increasing their defense budget. Vladimir Putin has done a lot to unify NATO. And the president has been the beneficiary of that.

    I commend him for the role that he played in it. But I think fear of the Russians is the primary reason we have the most unified NATO we have ever had. And Putin certainly didn't anticipate that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Have you spoken privately with President Biden about this in recent days?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Not — no, not lately.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about — have you had conversations with President Zelenskyy?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Not directly. I was among those this morning listening to his inspiring speech. Talked to the Ukrainian ambassador.

    They're having plenty of outreach to us. The Ukrainians, I think, are doing a spectacular job of making sure we fully understand the carnage that's going on there. The video that President Zelenskyy showed today, it was very, very effective.

    I think you have got broad bipartisan support in Congress to push the administration to do much more quickly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator McConnell, as you know, the Biden administration is spending a lot of money to send military weaponry to Ukraine. They announced another $800 million worth today.

    But when it comes to financial sanctions, one argument that's been made is that, for them to be truly effective, there needs to be more financial transparency here in the United States, for example, real estate transactions, companies. Investors should be registered in the name of the person who's actually making that investment.

    Do you think that's the kind of reform that's needed here to back up sanctions on Russia?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Well, on the sanctions front, I hope we're doing everything we can to shut down the accounts of the oligarchs and others who are involved with the Putin administration, and squeezing Russia as tightly as we can in every single way.

    I'm not sure exactly what ought to be done in the area that you brought up. But the whole point of the sanctions is to squeeze the Russians, the enablers of President Putin, the oligarchs who surround him.

    And, really, I'd like to see us go even further and squeeze the whole country, because, if we took — if we sanctioned their energy exports, they'd be out of business.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you know, the administration has cut off oil supplies, oil and gas supplies from Russia.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    We have, but it's a very small amount compared to the dependency that Europe has.

    And if Putin keeps on, the Europeans may decide on their own to take even further steps.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other questions, Senator McConnell, the first one having to do with your earlier saying that one of the reasons Vladimir Putin was emboldened to go into Ukraine was because of the way the Biden administration handled the leaving of Afghanistan.

    However, Russian scholars, respected scholars like Stephen Kotkin, are saying, no, that it is — it is Russia's own autocratic, militaristic history, it's Vladimir Putin himself that are the complete and full reason that Russia has gone into Ukraine. What about that?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    I simply disagree.

    I think Putin has wanted Ukraine for a long time. He was waiting for an opportunity where he thought America was in retreat, pulling back from the rest of the world.

    There was a vivid picture of the evacuation of Afghanistan for everybody in the world to see that America was coming home and pulling in our horns and not inclined to take the forward position we have in the past. It was like a green light to Vladimir Putin. He wanted to do this for a long time. This is the perfect time to try to take back Ukraine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Mr. Leader a question about the Supreme Court nominee.

    Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, as you know, has been nominated by President Biden. The confirmation hearings begin in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.

    Her nomination has been enthusiastically endorsed by some prominent conservative judges, Thomas Griffith, Michael Luttig, who called her the — quote — "most credentialed and experienced nominee in history."

    What would be a compelling reason to deny her a seat on the court?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Well, as you know, the Senate is a co-partner with the president in the personnel business. He nominates, and we decide to confirm.

    One of the concerns that I have and many of us have is the integrity of the court itself. When I met with Judge Jackson, I tried to suggest to her in the nicest possible way that she might want to mirror the comments of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer in opposition to court-packing and to term limits for the Supreme Court.

    Both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer have been outstanding in beating back the voices of the left attacking the Supreme Court by suggesting that it be packed or term-limited. She decided not to take a position on that. I wish she had. I don't think that signals anything at all about how she might rule in a particular case, but simply the integrity of the court itself.

    That was disappointing. I think she is a very intelligent, clearly qualified nominee. The issue always is, are you a judicial activist or do you believe in the quaint notion that Justice Scalia always reminded of us, that the job of the judge is to follow the law?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you think not taking a position is enough to disqualify her?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    I haven't made a decision. I haven't announced how I'm going to vote. The hearings are next week.

    They will be thoroughly respectable, quite different from the way the Democrats treated Clarence Thomas, quite different from the way the Democrats treated Brett Kavanaugh.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Thank you.

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