Sen. Coons: Putin Is ‘Counting on Us Losing Interest’ in Ukraine War

One of the leading voices on the Senate foreign affairs panel weighs in on the conflict, Turkey’s change of heart, and NATO’s turn to Asia.

By , a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy, and , an incoming editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, on July 30, 2020. Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

The NATO summit in Madrid this week showcased a remarkable degree of unity around the need to bolster defense spending and strengthen the alliance to defend Europe from further Russian aggression, as well as adapt to the threat posed by a rising and belligerent China. The summit concluded with an agreement to add two new members to the alliance—Sweden and Finland—as well as fresh U.S. commitments to bolster its forces in Europe.

One of the more outspoken congressional voices on foreign affairs in recent years has been Sen. Chris Coons, a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the bipartisan congressional delegation that took part in the summit. Coons, a Delaware Democrat, has been unusually active in promoting U.S. interests in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and has been in recent months especially outspoken in the need for steadfast U.S. support for Kyiv as it fights for its survival against a brutal Russian invasion.

Foreign Policy spoke with the senator at the end of his Madrid visit about the next steps in U.S. assistance to Ukraine, Turkey’s role in aiding Kyiv and expanding the alliance, and what the pivot to China means for NATO.

The NATO summit in Madrid this week showcased a remarkable degree of unity around the need to bolster defense spending and strengthen the alliance to defend Europe from further Russian aggression, as well as adapt to the threat posed by a rising and belligerent China. The summit concluded with an agreement to add two new members to the alliance—Sweden and Finland—as well as fresh U.S. commitments to bolster its forces in Europe.

One of the more outspoken congressional voices on foreign affairs in recent years has been Sen. Chris Coons, a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the bipartisan congressional delegation that took part in the summit. Coons, a Delaware Democrat, has been unusually active in promoting U.S. interests in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and has been in recent months especially outspoken in the need for steadfast U.S. support for Kyiv as it fights for its survival against a brutal Russian invasion.

Foreign Policy spoke with the senator at the end of his Madrid visit about the next steps in U.S. assistance to Ukraine, Turkey’s role in aiding Kyiv and expanding the alliance, and what the pivot to China means for NATO.

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: One thing that seems to have been a constant refrain for months, from Ukrainian lawmakers, defense officials, is that they want the West and the United States to do more. Do you think the pace and scope of U.S. arms deliveries has been up to the task?

Chris Coons: So just to be clear, every time I’ve ever spoken to a Ukrainian leader, and we had a chance to talk to the mayor of Kyiv and to the deputy who runs [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky’s office in person as a delegation, they expressed gratitude for just how much we’re providing. I think it’s $6 billion in U.S. military hardware so far and billions in direct economic support. So I agree with you that there is a tension between just how much support we’ve provided in military hardware, in economic support, and humanitarian support, and the constant drumbeat of “We want more, we want more, we want more.” But they’re in a fight for their existence as an independent country, I don’t fault them at all. I came away from our briefings with [U.S. Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin, Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken, and President [Joe] Biden today significantly encouraged about the timing, the planning of the delivery, and the strategic relevance of the systems being deployed by the United States and some of our closest allies.

FP: You mentioned here earlier that one key will be increased provision of assistance, especially in the summer and the fall. Is there going to be enough domestic appetite, support in Congress, for another massive appropriation for Ukraine?

CC: Other senators obviously speak for themselves, but there seemed to be strong bipartisan support for that. Look, you know, not every senator gets up every day worrying about our place in the world and security and pushing back on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression. But Sen. [Mitch] McConnell, the Republican caucus leader, made a point of going to Kyiv personally with two of his most senior caucus members to meet with Zelensky and of corralling votes on the floor for the $40 billion aid package. I take that as a significantly encouraging sign that in the Senate there will continue to be strong support from our caucus leader, Majority Leader [Chuck] Schumer, and from Jack Reed and from Pat Leahy. I just think there will continue to be support as long as the Russians continue committing atrocities, as long as the Russians continue shelling civilians, massacring thousands of Ukrainians. 

FP: Speaking of Congress, do you have a notion of what the timeline might look like for approving Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO?

CC: I think it could be done as quickly as two weeks. I think we can get this done in our three-, four-week work session that begins when we return in the second week in July and ends the first week in August. I really believe we can get this ratification done in that period. We could do this in three days with unanimous consent. But there are one or two senators who I expect might drag their feet. And so we may have to grind it through the old-fashioned way with no notice and holdovers in committee meetings. It could take as much as three weeks. But this group is absolutely determined to move it through as quickly as we possibly can. 

FP: But what concerns do those lawmakers have?

CC: You’d have to talk to them. We took a vote in the Foreign Relations Committee on a bill that would prevent the president from unilaterally withdrawing us from NATO 21 to 1. You can guess who.

FP: One more on Congress. The U.S. is set to authorize the sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey suddenly, after Ankara gave way on the NATO issue. But that requires congressional approval, and given the sensitivity of Turkey on the Hill, is this going to be quite the slam-dunk vote as, say, accession? 

CC: Well, I don’t know that there is an F-16 sales package coming forward. No one has told me that. It’s clear to me that the Turks for some time have been looking for a life extension package for the F-16. But we met with the president, secretary of defense, secretary of state. Nobody mentioned it. To be more clear, the answer you got from our delegation leaders, these are separate issues. Finland, Sweden, accession. Turkey is a NATO ally, and what we may do with them in partnership going forward—I have not heard those linked. 

To be positive, one of the things I’ve raised in almost every meeting is Odesa, grain, and how we ensure both Ukraine’s economic vitality and the provision of critically needed sunflower oil and grain to tens of millions of people. The Turks are being very forward-leaning in offering assistance and using the Montreaux Convention and using, you know, their relationships with a number of the relevant parties to try and find a path forward for getting the grain out of Odesa. I think that would be a tremendous accomplishment 

FP: On that point. Lithuania had raised the issue of an international convoy system for Black Sea grain shipments. And we need Turkish cooperation for that. Do you see either a full-on Western maritime response to the grain issue, or even a terrestrial export of grain through Poland or wherever?

CC: There is a lot of work already being done to expand the rail and road capacity for grain transport out of Ukraine south to Romania, to ports on the Danube, west, northwest really through Poland. And I know there’s active discussion about how else we might get grain out. I think last month there was 2.5 million tons of grain. That’s still less than half of what a typical … Ukrainian grain export was. Obviously the Black Sea ports are critical, and the timing given the approaching date for the fall harvest is critical. But President Biden has publicly said, and we discussed this again today, that we are working to stand up temporary storage facilities that would at least allow—you have to empty the silos, or the harvest is going to go to waste. 

FP: And just to pivot real quickly, one of the big developments that came out of this summit was the strategic concept and sort of a pivot to China. Some say that’s not NATO’s bailiwick, that it’s not equipped to deal with China and has a role to play here in Europe. How do you view that?

CC: We did discuss this in virtually every meeting, and we met with, you know, the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland and the United Kingdom and Spain and … a common thread from our NATO partners and allies and our European partners is that NATO is a regional and collective security alliance and is principally focused on security in Europe and in the North Atlantic community. But China is increasingly having an impact on security globally, whether through cybersecurity, telecommunications, infrastructure, competition, innovation, intellectual property. And so at least how I read the strategic concept and how it has been explored in conversations we’ve had this week, yes, NATO remains a North Atlantic mutual security organization, a defensive alliance focused principally on security and stability in Europe. You can’t ignore the global role, the role in space and cyber, in the Arctic and maritime domain, and innovation and the economy that China plays. And so to ignore China in the first new strategic concept in 12 years would be to ignore the strategic framework of the strategic environment in which NATO will likely be operating for years to come.

FP: Did you get a sense in talking to people this week that everybody was on the same page about how pressing a threat China was? 

CC: Yes. Russia, Russia, Russia, China, China. Look, we’ve got a lot of things to worry about. Pandemic, hunger, refugees, energy, security. Russia, Russia, Russia, and China. But there’s been remarkable unity. I mean, really remarkable unanimity. Putin has had a remarkably focused impact on this globally. 

And I think President Biden was uniquely capable, as someone who has spent 50 years in the world community in foreign policy sort of pulling all these disparate allies and partners together. And one of the things I think all would give him credit for was making this strategic decision to proactively release critical intelligence in the days and weeks before [the Russian invasion] and then during, which has put us in a very different place in terms of American credibility.

To the point about the sustainability of the appropriations, everybody in this delegation is saying we need to do what we have to do as soon as we can do it to support Ukraine and to deliver resources. Because if this drags on for several years, Putin wins. That’s what he did in Chechnya. That’s what he’s done in Syria. If this turns into just an artillery battle, he is willing to be brutal and to find a way to destroy as much of Ukraine as he can. 

He is counting on us losing interest, and, frankly, look at the most recent elections. You know, there’s a number of countries where the longer this goes on and the more inflation and the cost of energy wears on our populaces, the more it’s a matter of time until one national election somewhere produces a disruption.

Keith Johnson is a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

Clara Gutman is an incoming editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. 

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