As Russia mobilizes troops on the border of Ukraine and the United States places 8,500 troops on “heightened alert,” Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-23) acknowledged the grave threat of Russia to Ukraine and the need for artful diplomacy on the part of the United States and NATO to avoid a catastrophic escalation.
Running in the Republican Primary for a 7th Congressional District seat, Peterson told InsiderNJ that Ukraine should be able to reserve the right to become a member of NATO, and would not favor the United States placating Russian President Vladimir Putin on that score.
“We’ve got to stand tall,” he said. “This is 2022, and invading any country isn’t acceptable. “There are ways through economic sanctions and banking sanctions, that give us an option without having to put soldiers on the ground. We need to be prepared.”
Putin should not dictate American policy or infringe on Ukrainian sovereignty, said the Republican congressional candidate. That said, Peterson does not want to fall into the trap of a war with Russia over Ukraine by too hastily committing U.S. troops.
He favors helping Ukraine with intelligence and military arms (“so they have the ability to defend themselves”), and imposing – with the help of NATO allies – stern economic sanctions on Russia.
He favors enacting degrees of penalties should Russia move across the border.
“If they start rolling across Ukraine [and endanger other area European nations], at some point we’re going to have to do something [like a military option, an absolutely last resort],” Peterson said. “It’s a very [delicate situation]. It’s one of those things. We have to be strong, but you never back someone into a corner. You give them a way to save face. You don’t allow them to dictate absolute policy parameters, but you create a way for Putin to gain something out of this.”
Peterson has ancestors who came from then-communist Ukraine to Philadelphia, and has a profound sense of those people’s hardships at the hands of the Soviet Union. But again, he’s wary of putting American soldiers over there, and certainly not to start with, as “I would rathr see severe economic sanctions.”
“They don’t have the healthiest economy,” he added of Russia, drawing a comparison to then-President Ronald Reagan’s Soviet-weakening policy when the Soviets moved into Afghanistan, as a way of punishing the Russians by slow degrees if they move on Ukraine.
The Republican has significant doubts about the ability of the Biden Administration to do the job, and cites foreign policy weakness as its hallmark.
“This administration really failed in Afghanistan, and showed to the world an inability to stand with the people of Hong Kong,” he said.
He expressed doubts about the United States’ war readiness, too, with supply chain issues continuing to dog the country.
“People [like Russia and China] under those circumstances, will take the opportunity to see how far they can push it,” Peterson said.
He’s worried about the Biden administration taking the bait.
“We need to get Europe on board,” he said. “Germany is maybe harder than some of the others, because they’re hooked on Russian gas. I’ve seen some reports that say Germany would rather not participate if Russia invades. But we need to have our NATO allies on board. We need to tell Germany, for example, that we will open up the spigot on natural gas and oil so they’re not held hostage. We have to really look at this and stand firm.”
All the while, China is watching, he noted.
“Russia doesn’t have the ability for a long drawn out war,” Peterson said, underscoring Reagan’s Afghanistan policy as the model for how to handle Ukraine.
Unlike his district-mate, state Senator Mike Doherty (R-23), who does not favor Ukraine joining NATO in part because it would represent a threat to Russia and impair the West’s ability to effectuate peace, Peterson said Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and Crimea prove the need for Ukraine to reserve the right to join NATO.
“This is exactly why Ukraine needs to be in NATO; this is exactly why they need a defense system,” the congressional candidate explained.
Peterson speculated that Putin is conceivably paying back the United States and Biden in particular for vilifying him during the last presidential contest.
“Using him in our politics and saying the things about him, including this whole Russian collaboration with Trump, proved not to be true; it’s all a very dangerous game,” Peterson said. “I think part of the issue right now is the president [Biden] doesn’t instill any confidence. Moreover, we’ve watched our secretary of state [Antony Blinken] not show any strength in his negotiations, and part of the problem is how we are seen by other nations. My concern is that this administration, as weak as they are, will overplay their hand in a way that worsens the problem.”