BOARDMAN, Ohio (WKBN) — U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, was among 62 legislators from around the world to observe the presidential election in Ukraine on Sunday.
He served as an official election monitor with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Among his colleagues was U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland.
Portman spoke on Monday with Ohio reporters on a conference call from Europe about the experience, as well as a Memorial Day visit to troops stationed in Poland.
“I was able to go to six polling places, and again, along with Sen. Cardin and other parliamentarians, ensure that this election was fair and free,” Portman said.
The election results are not final, but billionaire candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko is claiming victory with about 54 percent of the vote. In all, 21 candidates ran to be the troubled country’s next leader.
Portman called it an inspiring experience.
“The Ukrainian people were determined to vote. They were coming to the polls in big numbers,” he said.
The senator said he and his colleagues walked the public square where earlier this year more than 100 Ukrainians lost their lives after being shot and killed by snipers while peacefully demonstrating against the government.
“The public square was filled with people who are concerned about the future of the country and they were rising up against the Soviet-backed government that was in place,” Portman said.
He said Poroshenko has a lot of challenges ahead, including economic recovery and dealing with the separatist movement in the East, much of which he said comes from Russian support.
Portman said he had the opportunity to meet with Poroshenko the night before the election, but he chose not to.
“I thought it was really important that the United States contingency there not take sides in the presidential election. We did not have a favored candidate. What we favored was a fair process,” he said.
He said the election results are very positive and he thinks the Ukrainian people feel the election is a new beginning for the country and the people he spoke with were excited about the opportunity to vote and start on a new democratic path that is western leaning.
He also said that there were two provinces of Ukraine that were unable to vote because of continued violence, but the 10 percent of the country that was unable to cast their ballot should not take away from the legitimacy of Sunday’s election.
Portman spent his Memorial Day across the border in Poland, meeting with several hundred U.S. troops stationed at Lask Air Force Base since the Russian annexation of Crimea. He said it’s important to remain strong allies with Poland and Ukraine.
“I think it’s going to remain really important that the United States and our European allies stand firm with Ukraine as they navigate what are going to be some challenging times ahead,” he said.
It is why he sponsored the Russian Aggression Prevention Act, which increases sanctions and military support to reduce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on the region.
Portman said the legislation would provide an additional $100 million in military support, but it would focus on defensive weapons such as anti-tank, anti-aircraft and small arms. He said it also calls for training for Ukrainian soldiers so the country is better equipped to defend itself.
He said the legislation calls for increased sanctions against Russia, imposing some of those sanctions on some of the key energy companies that give Russia some of its power.
Portman said another problem in Ukraine and the area in general is their dependency on natural gas from Russia. To combat that, the Russian Aggression Prevention Act would allow the U.S. to export it.
“We are now the world’s largest producer of natural gas. The Russians are probably number two. It allows liquid natural gas to be exported to these countries in the region so the European countries are not so dependent on Russia for their energy needs,” Portman said.