‘People are angry and hurt’: Idaho’s U.S. Sen. Risch visits Ukraine as Russia attacks

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Four months into Russia’s military assault on Ukraine, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, traveled over the weekend to the war-stricken nation to confer with the country’s president, take stock of the devastation and consider America’s role in the ongoing clash.

Risch, 79, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited central Kyiv for a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and a few other Ukrainian cities. While there, he toured the destruction from repeat Russian attacks on the region, seeking to see and hear about the damage for himself, he said, to help inform foreign policy decisions going forward.

Just a handful of hours after Risch crossed the border from Poland into Ukraine by car early Sunday morning, Russia launched several missiles at a residential block in Kyiv, also damaging a nearby kindergarten, according to news reports. The attack on the capital — Russia’s first in three weeks — included more than a dozen missiles, Risch said, with only three sneaking past Ukraine’s defenses.

“It’s one thing to get an antiseptic version in D.C., from people telling you, and it’s something else meeting with the people engaged in it,” Risch told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview while still overseas. “It’s heartbreaking to listen to the stories they tell. People are angry and hurt, and this is going to go on — what happened culturally — for a lot of generations.

“It’s what we went through in 1776, and, from now on, it will be part of the fabric of their culture,” he added, comparing it to America’s war for independence.

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, center, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, traveled to Ukraine over the weekend to meet with members of the nation’s delegation in and around the capital of Kyiv. He toured the destruction from Russia’s invasion of its neighboring country, and also met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his trip.
U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, center, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, traveled to Ukraine over the weekend to meet with members of the nation’s delegation in and around the capital of Kyiv. He toured the destruction from Russia’s invasion of its neighboring country, and also met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his trip.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has falsely claimed the offensive is based around ridding Ukraine of Nazis who are running his country’s neighbor to the west, maintaining a disinformation campaign through state-run media. The prospect of war ramped up as the post-World War II NATO alliance considered Ukraine for membership, and has ultimately led to significant sanctions against Russia by the international community since the start of fighting in February.

President Joe Biden condemned Russia’s latest strikes on Kyiv on Sunday afternoon from southern Germany, where he was attending the Group of Seven Summit.

“It’s more of their barbarism,” Biden said, standing next to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, The Associated Press reported.

Details about Risch’s visit to Ukraine were kept quiet ahead of his trip, for security reasons, a spokesperson for Risch’s office told the Statesman. The Idaho senator also stopped in Poland en route to Ukraine, to meet with four members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who are from Idaho, as well as receive a classified briefing from their commander, Risch said.

Ahead of a trip to Ukraine, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, met over the weekend with members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division stationed in Rzeszow, Poland, including four from Idaho and their commander, Lt. Colonel McCarroll. Idaho members include Pfc. Moriarty, Pfc. Murphy, Specialist Berrioscruz and Pfc. Rana.
Ahead of a trip to Ukraine, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, met over the weekend with members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division stationed in Rzeszow, Poland, including four from Idaho and their commander, Lt. Colonel McCarroll. Idaho members include Pfc. Moriarty, Pfc. Murphy, Specialist Berrioscruz and Pfc. Rana.

Fellow Idahoan on the ground in Ukraine

Also among Risch’s priorities while visiting Ukraine was connecting with another Idahoan.

Since May, retired U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Nick Maimer, a Boise native, has based himself out of Kyiv to help train civilian volunteers taking up arms in the fight against Russian aggression. On Sunday afternoon, the senator and former Green Beret dined in central Kyiv to talk about Maimer’s experiences and personal assessments of the war.

“The overall tone of the meeting was me giving him ground truth from a professional soldier’s point of view,” Maimer told the Statesman in a video interview. “They just wanted to know what it’s actually like, at least within my window.”

Maimer, 45, a 1995 graduate of Borah High School, said his stay in Ukraine is indefinite while he continues his work with members of the country’s Territorial Defense Force. The need for military resources remains high, he said, but he saw his hourlong meeting with Risch as productive, as well as important to express America’s continued support to Ukrainians and their struggle.

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, and Nick Maimer, left, a retired U.S. Army Green Beret, pose for a picture here during a meeting on May 26, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Maimer, a Boise native, arrived in Kyiv in May to help train Ukrainian civilians in the nation’s ongoing war with Russia.
U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, and Nick Maimer, left, a retired U.S. Army Green Beret, pose for a picture here during a meeting on May 26, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Maimer, a Boise native, arrived in Kyiv in May to help train Ukrainian civilians in the nation’s ongoing war with Russia.

“In this extreme situation, it’s obviously encouraging to them to know they’re not forgotten,” Maimer said. “If there’s persistent interest demonstrated by these visits, then naturally it makes people feel better.”

Risch acknowledged Maimer’s efforts are an uncommon resource in conflicts like the one evolving by the day in Ukraine. He applauded the endeavor, despite its challenges.

“He’s providing a service that Ukrainians really need, to a lot of volunteers trying to provide for their fellow Ukrainians,” Risch said. “It’s kind of a mixed bag, with some who are competent, and some who are not. But my judgment of what he’s doing is, it’s very much appreciated and much needed.”

‘Not my first time in a war zone’

Risch’s Ukrainian visit marked the fourth such U.S. envoy in the past three months to make the wartime excursion to meet with Zelenskyy.

Biden cabinet members, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, visited Kyiv in April. In May, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, then led a group of seven Democratic lawmakers on a similar trip, followed two weeks later by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and three other Republican senators heading over.

Each visit, in the midst of active battle between the two now-rival former Soviet states, came with its own amount of risk. Risch’s was no different, he said.

“It’s not my first time in a war zone. I don’t do front-line stuff, but on the other hand, I’ve been where these things happen,” Risch said. “You’re working toward what your goals are, to meet certain people, get information, and that’s what you’re focused on. If I felt it wasn’t safe, I wouldn’t have done it.”

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, traveled to Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and other members of the nation’s delegation on Sunday, June 26, 2022.
U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, traveled to Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and other members of the nation’s delegation on Sunday, June 26, 2022.

In fact, Risch said, based on his observations, Kyiv largely remained intact, with the bulk of the havoc near the capital so far occurring at its outskirts. For Kyiv residents — the roughly 2 million people who make up the half its population that haven’t fled — much of daily life appeared to be the similar to before Russia invaded, he said.

“The sirens go off every once in a while, which indicates not a sure attack, but a possible attack,” Risch said. “Obviously it’s no way to live, but, like I say, you look around and everybody is acting normal.”

The three-term senator, and former Idaho governor, said his Ukrainian trip was his “first convenient opportunity” to do so during a two-week congressional break. It came on the front end of Risch’s scheduled attendance at a global forum of international leaders in Brussels, from where he spoke to the Statesman.

Elsewhere, between Biden’s G-7 attendance, and a NATO summit in Madrid on Tuesday, Ukraine remains top of mind in the international community. The U.S. continues to discuss with partners additional funds and resources for Ukraine, at Zelenskyy’s repeated urging.

Last month, the U.S. agreed to send an aid package totaling $40 billion more to Ukraine in a largely bipartisan agreement. Risch voted in favor of the emergency military and humanitarian funding, while fellow Sen. Mike Crapo, Idaho’s other senator, was one of 11 Republicans to vote against it.

“I strongly support the United States assisting Ukraine in its own fight to remain free and independent from Russia’s totalitarian control, and providing assistance to Ukraine is a matter of both long-term national and economic security,” Crapo, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement at the time. “However, any further spending must be offset.”

At the G-7 summit, America joined ally nations in committing additional aid to Ukraine, including reports of a surface-to-air missile defense system. After his trip to Ukraine, Risch, too, on Monday continued to advocate for supporting the nation and its leadership under Zelenskyy, who he found to be “very engaging” and “very bright” from their meeting.

“I’ve been in war zones before, but I’ve never been in a war zone where people are actively working at rebuilding at the same time a war is going on,” Risch said. “The Ukrainian people are very, very resourceful, and know how to get things done. They’re fighting arguably the second-most powerful military in the world, doing it with limited assets, and holding their own — and, indeed, won battles. I can’t help but be impressed by that.”

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