WASHINGTON ― Before Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch took over as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was known as a quiet pragmatist, mostly making his mark behind the scenes. A loyalist to President Donald Trump, behind the scenes is also where Risch prefers to air his disagreements with the president ― which often draws comparisons with his more vocal predecessor, former Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
So it’s notable that in a Nov. 22 interview on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Conference, Risch made a public case for Trump to sign legislation to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, even as the president ― amid trade negotiations with China ― was wavering. (Trump has since signed the legislation.)
A key gatekeeper on U.S. foreign military sales, Risch opposes F-35 sales to ally and NATO member Turkey, and he practically personifies Turkey’s strained relations with Congress. He discussed upcoming committee action to sanction Turkey, his opposition to renewing the New START Treaty and his support for proposed sanctions on companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Your committee has been involved in the passage of the Hong Kong legislation, North Macedonia’s accession to NATO and Nord Stream 2 sanctions. What did I miss, and what’s next for the committee?
Turkey [sanctions] ought to be on that list. Lots of nominations, and those are a big part of my life.
On the Hong Kong legislation, that passed Congress.
With all but one vote.
With a veto-proof majority. And I’m sure that by now you’ve seen the president’s comments about vetoing this legislation. Congress seems very fired up on this issue. What would the reaction be to a veto?
Well, I didn’t hear the word ‘veto,’ I heard that he was friends with [Chinese President Xi Jinping]. I think people would be unhappy because they all voted for it. I think the situation on the ground in Hong Kong is why it’s important. This is a poster child for human rights violations, and in front of the whole world, and being done by an entity that’s big and strong and can abuse people. America is about democracy, human rights and freedom, and when you see those things being abused, it gets you fired up.
Is this a conversation about values in addition to interests?
I think more so a values conversation than an interests conversation. If you mean financial, yeah, sure that’s a conversation, but it’s much more about human rights issues. Anytime you start putting financial [interests] in front of human rights, that’s not a good thing to do. We are first and foremost about human rights, freedom and democracy.
For a time, you sought to delay action in your committee on Turkey sanctions. Now that the meeting between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has passed, and Erdogan doesn’t seem to be letting go of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, when are you going to hold the markup?
Just so you know, that meeting was more with me. Erdogan and I were sitting like this, and Trump was sitting here, OK? We had a spirited discussion about things between us. I started out about how pained this is because Turkey has been such a great ally of the United States for many many decades. They hit a fork in the road and took the wrong direction, and for months I’ve had their foreign minister, their defense minister and many, many others come in, and I’ve told them: “Let me tell you an absolute: You cannot have S-400 missiles and the F-35, you can’t do it.” And I think they really didn’t believe us. And I’m hoping that after the discussion I had with Erdogan directly ― and he looks to me like a guy that people probably didn’t want to take bad news to, OK? I was happy to take the bad news to him directly.
So he now knows where we are, and I have told him that no military hardware leaves the country without me signing off on it. I told him directly: “We have five F-35s right here with your name on them. They are not going to Turkey as long as you have S-400s in the country. They are not going to Turkey because I am not going to sign off on it."
Are you hopeful enough that Erdogan got that message that you’re not going to mark up sanctions legislation?
At the meeting between us, he was presented with a plan by the United States that would allow him to get out of the hole he’s dug himself into. He couldn’t have the S-400, but we could get him out of it without there being any financial detriment to them. I can’t go into the details of it, but they were talking along those lines in our discussions. He didn’t say “yes,” he didn’t say “no.”
I was willing to hold off on the sanctions because we had to bill from the House, and we had [Sen. Lindsey Graham’s] bill, and then you had a third bill that was mine and [SFRC ranking member Sen. Bob] Menendez’s bill ― which is the one that could become law. The others probably had some stuff that was too tough to become law. So in any event, I said at that time that I was wanting to hold off. On the airplane on the way home, Erdogan told the reporters that he hasn’t given up on the S-400s. As soon as I saw that, I said: “Well, I’m gonna take him at his word.” And if I’m going to take him at his word, no sense not to run the sanctions bill. So it’s my intent to move ahead with it sooner rather than later.
Congress already authorized sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, but the sanctions haven’t been imposed on Turkey. If the U.S. policy of opposing Russian arms sales is going to be viable, aren’t these sanctions necessary?
Yes, for more than one reason. First of all, the world’s got to know we’re serious about CAATSA sanctions. You can’t do this [buying S-400 missiles from the Russians]. And this is particularly true with a NATO member. [It’s] not compatible with membership in NATO, nor is it compatible for owning F-35s. It’s important that the world knows and in particular NATO partners know that we’re serious about this.
Let’s consider non-NATO partners. What is the takeaway for countries like India and Indonesia that are weaning themselves off Russian equipment and are probably watching very closely this episode with Turkey? Should they be exempt from CAATSA, and are they purchasing enough U.S. equipment to make the case that they should be exempt?
This isn’t about purchasing U.S. equipment. This is about purchasing Russian equipment. If they abandon Russian purchases and turn to Sweden, France or Germany, we’re perfectly satisfied with that. There’s no message being delivered about buying from America. This isn’t about that. This is about not buying from Russia.
Do they get a different kind of treatment now than Turkey?
This has got to be across the board. This isn’t something that’s got gray area in the middle, OK? This is something we feel very strongly about, and it needs to be enforced.
The New START Treaty is set to expire in 2021. You opposed it in 2010.
That is an understatement ― and I lost. I’d like to have that vote today.
Nine years later, you said Russia is developing new systems that should be limited by New START. So what now? Should the U.S. let the treaty lapse? If so, how do we avoid another Russia-U.S. nuclear arms race?
Under current circumstances we should let it lapse. I’m hoping current circumstances don’t continue. The world has learned since nine years ago what I couldn’t say, and I knew because I was on the Intelligence Committee — that Russia had been cheating for years and years and years, not only on that one, but on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
They’ve got to come to the table with a different attitude. And I think that it ought to be broad; in a perfect world I’d like to see a three-way treaty with the U.S. and China and Russia. Just between us and Russia, it’s going to be a heavy enough lift, so I don’t think you’re going to get China in there — but if Russia is acting in good faith, they should be interested, just as we are, in seeing that we also have an agreement with China. This is about preventing a nuclear arms race where you spend billions, if not trillions of dollars, on weapons that probably will never be used. A situation where people don’t have those weapons is in everybody’s best interest.
Do you see substantive work on the part of the administration to save the treaty to find a way to find some new viable path?
I don’t speak for the administration, but having had conversations with people in the administration, I can tell you that there are a number of people who share the same concerns I have about this.
Is there an effort to add sanctions to the National Defense Authorization Act for the Russian Nord Stream 2?
I’ve been working on that for the last two weeks, and you have to give [Texas Republican Sen.] Ted Cruz kudos on this. He’s been the point person on this. We’re all there, don’t get me wrong, but Ted has been particularly dogged about this.
What’s the reason for the sanctions push, and what do they entail?
The reason for the push is that this window is closing. A lot of Nord Stream is done already. If we’re going to stop it, and we think we can stop it with sanctions, we are told that there are a minimal number of entities that can actually do this construction ― I think it’s two firms ― and we have time, we have every reason to believe and hope, that when we sanction them they’re going to take it seriously because it will cost them dearly. I think if those sanctions pass, I think they shut down and I think the Russians are going to have to look for another way to do this — if they can do it. The Russians do not have the wherewithal to do this.
If this is in the NDAA, that’s a solid line drive?
It’s been negotiated between the House, the Senate, the administration and the banking committees.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.