Havre Daily News: Tester: Ukraine situation authoritarian vs democracy

by Patrick Johnston

Sen. Jon Teseter, D-Mont., talked about a variety of subjects in an interview Friday including the developing situation in Ukraine, infrastructure and upcoming bills in the Congress.

The most pressing subject of the day was the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which Tester unequivocally condemned as a blatant attempt by an authoritarian power to take over a neighboring democracy, something he said everyone should care about regardless of party or politics.

“Anyone who’s concerned about democracy versus an authoritarian despot should be very concerned about this,” he said.

He said this is not some esoteric foreign policy matter in his opinion, but very much a matter of good vs. evil.

He said President Joe Biden has vowed not to send troops to fight in the conflict, but said if Putin attacks a NATO ally in the region that is another matter altogether.

Tester said he doubts that that will happen, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has proven himself to be less than predictable.

“I think anything is a possibility at this point because he’s such a wild card,” he said. “Do I think it’s gonna happen? I’d be surprised.”

He said he remembers the days of the Cold War and, while he doesn’t think people are, or necessarily should be, as concerned as they were back then, Russia’s actions clearly merit significant concern.

Tester said China’s refusal to back the U.S. in this matter is unsurprising, but he sees hope that India may prove itself more of an ally with time.

India has attempted to thread the needle in recent days, preaching a deescalation of violence from both Ukraine and Russia.

Tester said India has had dealings with Russia, but in recent years has been more sympathetic to the U.S. and he’s hoping for the best.

Turkey is a country he expressed little hope for receivng support from, given their own authoritarian leader President Tayyip Erdogan’s character, but, once again, he is hoping for the best.

On the other hand, he said, virtually all of Europe stands against Russia’s invasion, and the U.S. will maintain its alliance with Ukraine.

Tester said the country needs to be unified and using the Ukraine crisis to score political points is extremely inappropriate given how dire the situation, pointing out the U.S. history of uniting in times of crisis.

“Is the enemy Joe Biden, or is the enemy Putin?” he said. “If you think the enemy is Joe Biden, I would suggest you move to Moscow, truthfully.”

He said, as chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he receives regular briefings about countries like Russia and China that would make a lot of people hard pressed to sleep at night, and now is not the time of this kind of rhetoric.

Tester said the leaders of these authoritarian nations recognize the divisions in the U.S. and Europe and are happy to exploit them, so causing further division is just playing into their hands.

They see Europe divided by Brexit, they see America divided by domestic terrorism, he said, and “if you think they are unaware of this dynamic you are mistaken.”


Tester also discussed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill recently passed by Congress, which is already starting to see money flow into Montana.

He said the projects needed to repair and upgrade the St. Mary Diversion, which has been in dire need of rehabilitation for decades, have already seen money flow into them, as well as projects to improve the state’s highways via the Montana Department of Transportation.

He said the infrastructure package is planned to rollout over five years, but he is pushing hard to make projects start as soon a possible so Montanan’s can see tangible results as soon as possible.

“I think you’re going to see shovels in the ground as quick as the money gets out the door,” he said.

Tester said Kalispell and Missoula are already using the money to improve their airports, which is good, but other projects may, regrettably, take longer to get going, especially improvements to broadband infrastructure, which is much more logistically complicated.

Upcoming bills

Tester also talked about bills coming up in congress that are very relevant to Montanans, particularly those that deal with consolidation in the meat packing industry, which he has long argued has gotten out of hand.

He said bills are being rolled out to establish an office of special investigator to deal with potential violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act, another that would introduce country of origin labeling, one that would allow state-inspected plants to sell product across state lines and one that would prevent beef imports from Brazil. Those, he said, were just the ones he knew off the top of his head.

He said Biden is fully supportive of his efforts to curb consolidation in the industry and Sen. Chuck Grassley R-Iowa, is working with him to get the first of the bills to the floor, hopefully bringing some of his fellow Republican senators along with him.

Tester also talked about his recent efforts to expand Veterans Affairs health care coverage, particularly when it comes to toxic exposure, in this case burn pits.

“The VA has never done a good job of diagnosing what needs to be covered and what doesn’t, where benefits need to go and where they don’t,” he said.

He said he was hoping to pass a comprehensive bill to address all parts of this issue, the Cost of War Act, but ended up having to break the bill into three parts, the first of which passed recently.

The bill extends the window that veterans are eligible to sign up for VA health care to 10 years after leaving the service, which he said will help veterans not just with toxic exposure related issues, but with mental health care as well.

“Often-times toxic exposure, mental health those kinds of things don’t crop up when you step out the doors of the service, they happen years later and if you miss that window you’re screwed,” he said. “This extends that window.”

Tester said they are also working on bills to address prescription drug prices and inflation.

As for Biden’s Build Back Better plan, he said there is a chance that parts of it may come back to Congress as separate bills and he hopes to get as much as he can passed.

He said he believes the biggest concerns BBB would have addressed are housing, child care, climate change and senior care, and he’s hoping to see a bill that would address at least housing and child care.

As for climate change legislation specifically, Tester said, passing significant reforms in Montana, given the current political landscape, is difficult, but he thinks it can be done.

He said climate change is a serious issue to him not just as a legislator, but as a farmer.

He said last year’s weather was the worst year they had ever seen in his 45 years on the family farm.

“Not by a little bit, by a lot,” he said. “It was bad.”

He said the U.S. spent $140 billion last year on disaster response alone, and none of that takes into account crop insurance and a great deal of the secondary effects of climate change.

Tester said the U.S. can make serious efforts to transition their fuel sources and he has confidence that young people at places like Montana State University-Northern can come up with ways to do it and affordably, which is why he’s such a big proponent of funding research and development.