PROVIDENCE — On the Rhode Island Report podcast, US Senator Jack Reed recounted the messages he exchanged with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and provided insights into decisions to send tanks to Ukraine.
Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, traveled to Ukraine in early January and met with Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials in Kyiv. He agreed that many people, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, might have underestimated how Zelenskyy would respond to Russia’s attack on his country.
“He’s a very talented gentleman, but I think, frankly, the whole world was surprised because that was the reputation he had: He was fairly young, he was an entertainer, a comedian,” Reed said. “But he might even have surprised himself. It was one of those moments where history calls upon you, and he answered.”
Reed said that when they met, Zelenskyy’s message was: “We’re never going to give up. We’re going to take back our country, and we need your help.”
In the past, the United States has provided support in other parts of the world. “But ultimately their ability to resist or their willingness to resist was not apparent, and we couldn’t do it for them,” he said. “Here, you’ve got a country that’s saying — frankly, like England (in World War II) — give us the tools and we’ll fight the fight.”
Reed said his message to Zelenskyy was that the United States appreciates what he and the Ukrainian people have done — and that “we’re with you.”
“We recognize that they’re fighting our fight, essentially, and this is not just a local dispute,” he said. “If Putin succeeds here, he will continue on. His dream is to create an imperial Russia, which would include pieces of all sorts of other countries, and that would also very dramatically involve NATO directly.”
For example, Putin might try to claim parts of Poland, which is a NATO country, Reed said. “We can, I think, not only stop Russia’s ambitions, but send a signal to the world that free men and women everywhere will resist autocratic regimes — like China if they attempt to seize territory illegally,” he said.
On Wednesday, Germany announced it will provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks and approve requests by Poland and other countries to do the same, ending weeks of hesitation and mounting impatience among Germany’s allies. The long-awaited decision came after US officials said Tuesday that a preliminary agreement had been struck for the US to send M1 Abrams tanks to help Ukraine push back Russian forces.
Speaking on Monday, Reed offered insights into the factors that went into those decisions. For example, he said Germany faced “a very sensitive political issue” in deciding whether to directly provide or authorize other countries to send German tanks to fight Russia, which Germany invaded in World War II.
“One dynamic is the fact that they’re very sensitive to what Putin has been claiming all along — that the Ukrainians are Nazis, that they’re going to attack Russia just like the Nazis did,” he said. “What if the Ukrainians are operating these German Leopard tanks? What’s Putin going to say? ‘Oh, they’re from Poland’? No, he’s going to say, ‘Oh, look, see, I told you, they’re Nazis — here they come again.’ And within Russia, that is a point of great sensitivity.”
When asked about the potential of Putin using nuclear weapons, Reed said, “We always have to consider that, and we always calculate that threat of escalation. And that’s one of the reasons why we started sort of an ad hoc way of getting equipment over there.”
The time has now come to provide adequate weapons for Ukrainians not only to resist but to go on the offensive, Reed said. “But every time we make that judgment, there is a very delicate calculation about what is the reaction in Russia,” he said.
During the podcast, Reed also talked about riding the rails to the new Pawtucket-Central Falls Transit Center, and he addressed the threats posed by an animal tranquilizer, known as “tranq,” that’s showing up in the local drug supply.
To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.