Congressman Jeff Fortenberry Talks Russia-Ukraine

Feb. 25, 2022, 3:44 p.m. ·

Jeff Fortenberry Headshot with the congressman in a dark suit and a yellow and blue striped shirt with the American flag over his shoulder.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Jeff Fortenberry)

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Nebraska Public Media News' William Padmore interviewed Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry Friday on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News: Why should Nebraskans care about this? Why should we be concerned about what's happening in Europe?

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry: It's a very important question, William, and for many people, this whole incident is so jarring-and even for some Nebraskans reminiscent of a time far, far away, where tens of millions of people were killed in World War II. I just received a phone call from a Vietnam veteran, for instance, who can't understand how an authoritarian crackdown like this could happen by Russia in a neighboring independent country. He fought 50 years ago against this type of threat, and now we're watching it unfold. Again, I think what has happened here is with the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the end of the Cold War, a little bit of history, there was a drift, we assumed Russia would transition into some sort of thriving Jeffersonian democracy with free markets. Instead, the economic toils upon those people led to a strong man named Putin. He's been able to build up his military through his oil and energy reserves. And now he's exercising this very strange ethos of belligerent nationalism reviving the Russian nationalist myth. Putin is unhinged. Thankfully, the Ukrainians are fighting back, but their capacity is very limited. A Europe must awaken to the reality of this threat. And it's almost unthinkable that as Russia presided over the United Nations Security Council, they were simultaneously planning the invasion of Ukraine. Now, specifically back home, we are thousands of miles away. This affects gas prices and affects America's standing in the world. We are an active member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was founded after World War II to have a united Europe to stand against the Soviet threat. For all of these reasons, we have to care.

William Padmore: Are we looking at a country that's about to be toppled or the democratically elected government is about to be toppled by a military force? Is that the kind of world we're living in again, right now?

Jeff Fortenberry: Unfortunately, yes, I think we've been lulled to sleep by a lot of factors, but there are other things that Americans can do. The sanctions are important, economic leverage against the Russians and certain Russian interests. However, it is not a complete package. Part of the reason we're in this problem, to begin with, is we are no longer an independent energy-producing nation, we are once again dependent upon foreign sources of oil and energy. Just a year or so ago, we were independent, a Made in America energy strategy, getting us back to where we are no longer dependent upon the world and the world becomes actually dependent upon us gives us the ability to protect Europe, from the energy leverage that Russia has over this. Remember, Russia sells a lot of gas to Europe. What that means is Russia gets cash from Europe. Russia has taken that and plowed it into its military buildup. So a very important strategy here is to stop the Russians from violating this deep sense of what has been presupposed as an international norm. Not only human dignity but the inviolable, borders of an independent sovereign nation of Ukraine. Independent Energy Strategy here in America will help us have the diplomatic economic leverage that we need against them. Secondly, Europe must awaken from its slumber. America cannot continue to carry the burden that we have of NATO as we have for so many years. It is unfair to ask American young men and women to potentially die over a war in Europe when European young men and women will not do the same. For instance, today Germany delivered 5000 helmets to the Ukrainians, helmets, helmets. That's nice. But it shows a passivity and inability for them to recognize the real clear danger, an inability for a country of that size - which is 80 million people, has a huge economy, leads Europe - to not be serious about the types of military, muscular military defensive strategy as a part of NATO to push back against the Russians and at least defend Europe from any further incursion.

William Padmore: What do you make of Russia's claims that it has legitimate security concerns that the West failed to recognize?

Jeff Fortenberry: It's a good question and a thorny question. For America and the West, again, we operate off an assumption that independent sovereign nations who have their own culture, their own governing capacity, that is built in this proposition of human dignity and a peaceful transfer of power, can decide for themselves how they want to create security. Now, with that said, after the Cold War fell in the 1990s, a huge opportunity, I believe was blown, to actually help Russia transition and the entire world transition from mutually assured destruction to mutually assured security. And so Russia drifted (through) economic hard times, along comes a strong man that again, revives the Russian nationalistic myth, he's underwritten by oil and gas revenues, has the capacity to build up as military, claims Ukraine as a part of the greater Russian Empires kind of trying to reconstitute the old Soviet empire if you will. That's what's led us to this moment. That point is a negotiable point, but it's interesting that Ukraine is kind of a hinge, if you will, between the East and the West. The western part of the country leans toward Europe, the eastern part of the country leads more leans more toward Russia. So they have been a kind of a traditional buffer. So there might have been other ways to negotiate something around the idea of Mutually Assured Security versus hard lines that have been set up now. Let's be clear though. For Russia to have undertaken a massive military invasion of a sovereign nation violates every charter, every international agreement, many of which Russia participates in, they've undermined their ability to be a leader in any international setting, claiming legitimacy for this type of operation. This is not how you do things. This is not sane, it's not civilized, and it's going to be counterproductive, particularly if this is a long-drawn-out bloody conflict if the Ukrainians fight.

William Padmore: So where do we go from here? Right? Because the buzz that's on everyone's lips right now is World War III. And I know that nobody wants a world war three. But when you have Russia aggressing against a weaker neighbor, now right on NATO's doorstep, where are things going, because it doesn't look like it's a very nice place.

Jeff Fortenberry: It's a very dangerous, volatile situation and we're really only a day and a half or so into a war whose outcome is not yet determined. What I suspect will happen is Ukraine will hang on, I've been very surprised by the capability that they have shown thus far. Listen, I've voted and others have voted to support giving them lethal aid and basically defensive aid, but we can't help a country if they're not willing to fight themselves. They are showing that will to have self-determination and protect their homeland as any of us have, any of us would. The Russian superiority and the technological prowess that they have is going to clearly make Ukrainians highly vulnerable, and unlikely to hold on for the long term. What Russia is trying to do is topple this government, set in motion a series of puppets that would then rule Ukraine, and claim that they've somehow reestablished some order and security for themselves. That'll sit in stasis, their military will stay there for a while unless there's an insurrection that is actually viable. I predict that's well, what will happen. In the meanwhile, again, Russia has undermined its economy by doing this. If the Germans will hold and cut off Russian gas and stop sending the money, basically. If we can transition to an independent energy strategy if the world holds to tighter sanctions, and NATO regenerates the will and strength with better burden-sharing, not just from America, but from other countries, that puts a bulwark against further Russian aggression. I think that the Russians predicted that this would happen faster than it has for them and the consequences have been more severe than they initially predicted. So it gives us some little hope, again, of the capacity for Ukraine to make a stand as they rightfully should, to resist this Russian aggression, to stop Putin's again nationalistic myth to recognize maybe over time, that this was a mistake and pull back their weaponry and their armies. That's perhaps a long shot, but that's where we're at.

William Padmore: Over the past few days, a couple of very high profile conservative individuals, I'm thinking specifically here of Tucker Carlson and President Trump, they've come out either praising or expressing sympathy toward President Putin and his strategy and some of his claims.

Jeff Fortenberry: Well, I don't know the full context of what you're referring to. Perhaps it was just a comment on this type of World War II blitzkrieg and how successful it's been versus some sort of affirmation of what Putin has done. I don't think that's correct. We can affirm what he has done. There are ways to enter into negotiated and civilized behavior between the nations to assure security and taking over a sovereign nation, killing civilians, claiming that this is in that which is a farce in Russia's security interest, claiming that NATO would be a security threat to Russia, even if Ukraine inch that way, that's all a farce. It's all a sham. Putin has nationalistic expansionist ideals. They're tied up in the Russian ethos, they're tied up in the fact that he's a strong man and has a strong military, and it's tied up in the fact that he's received revenue from gas expenditures in Europe primarily. I'm telling you, William. A better strategy here, particularly in the short term is American energy independence, and Russia has to be cut off from gas sales to Europe. It will undermine their economy. It'll cut off their ability to fund their military, and then we have better diplomatic leverage, find some solution here.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.