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Senatorial candidate J.D. Vance speaks at a rally in Mason, Ohio. (AP) Senatorial candidate J.D. Vance speaks at a rally in Mason, Ohio. (AP)

Senatorial candidate J.D. Vance speaks at a rally in Mason, Ohio. (AP)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg February 21, 2022

J.D. Vance says transgender rights drives looming conflict in Ukraine

If Your Time is short

  • Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance said the State Department’s focus on transgender rights is inflaming the conflict with Russia in Ukraine.

  • Russia has placed as many as 150,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders.

  • Russia has said Ukraine’s ties to NATO are a key threat to Russia’s national security.

As the prospect of a ground war hangs over Ukraine, Ohio Senate hopeful J.D. Vance said he doesn’t "really care what happens to Ukraine, one way or the other."

Speaking to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, Vance, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said there’s no reason for U.S. military intervention.

"We didn't not serve in the Marine Corps to go and fight Vladimir Putin because he didn't believe in transgender rights," Vance said Feb. 19. "Which is what the U.S. State Department is saying is a major problem with Russia."

Vance went on to say he is "sick of Joe Biden focusing" on Ukraine at the expense of dealing with problems on the border with Mexico.

Whatever the troubles on America’s southern border, Russia’s transgender policies are not affecting the current tensions in Ukraine.

The U.S. and its NATO allies estimate that since last spring, Russia has moved as many as 150,000 troops within striking distance of Ukraine’s borders. 

"That is by any means, by any estimate, a massive number of forces," State Department spokesman Ned Price said Feb. 16. "We also know that the Russians have capabilities when it comes to electronic warfare, when it comes to aerial capabilities, any number of tactics they could employ, whether on their own or together as part of a broader onslaught."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said a Russian attack could come at any moment, if Russia wanted.

"They have enough troops and enough capabilities to launch a full fledged invasion of Ukraine with very little or no warning time," Stoltenberg said Feb. 17. "That is what makes the situation so dangerous."

President Joe Biden has said the warnings of war are aimed at forestalling it.

"We’re calling out Russia’s plans loudly and repeatedly, not because we want a conflict, but because we’re doing everything in our power to remove any reason that Russia may give to justify invading Ukraine and prevent them from moving," Biden said Feb. 18.

Europe hasn’t seen sustained warfare on its turf since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and that didn’t involve the prospect of Russian forces driving combat operations. With Ukraine, the potential scale of a military conflict is orders of magnitude bigger.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly said that Ukraine’s future relations with NATO present a prime concern for the national security of Russia. One of his key demands is that NATO promise never to let Ukraine join the western alliance. NATO members have rejected that demand.

Vance opposes overseas military engagements, and he casts this as an optional activity for the U.S. But that doesn’t mean Biden is focused on this because he wants to protect transgender rights.

Attacks on transgender people are one item in a very long list of concerns the State Department cited in its 2020 human rights report on Russia. The report’s first concern, however, is Russia’s "occupation and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula."

Then the report gets into "extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances; pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers," and the list goes on.

In another section, the report underscores the poisoning of Putin’s political opponents, like Alexei Navalny.

The Vance campaign pointed to a State Department fact sheet on Russia’s Top 5 Persistent Disinformation Narratives. The list included the Russian theme "that Western civilization is collapsing and has strayed from ‘traditional values’ because it works to ensure the safety and equality of LGBTQI+ people and promotes concepts such as female equality and multiculturalism." Russia might be invoking that message, but that says nothing about the U.S. motivations to get Russia to back down over Ukraine.

The human rights report is just one way the U.S. assesses other countries. The intelligence community has its own version in its annual threat assessment. Russia figures prominently in the 2021 installment. 

It devotes an entire section to Russia, saying, "Moscow will continue to employ a variety of tactics this year meant to undermine U.S. influence, develop new international norms and partnerships, divide Western countries and weaken Western alliances, and demonstrate Russia’s ability to shape global events as a major player in a new multipolar international order."

It makes no mention of transgender policy.

Our ruling

Vance said that Biden risks war with Russia because Putin doesn’t "believe in transgender rights."

There is a risk of war, but it is because of Russia’s focus on Ukraine’s ties to the west and the buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine’s border.

The State Department noted the threats against transgender people as one issue among many in a report on human rights. It gave much more space to the danger posed by Russia’s military policies in its most recent annual threat assessment.

The risk of war in Ukraine is not affected by Putin’s attitude toward transgender rights.

We rate this claim Pants on Fire.

Update: This story has been updated to include a response we received from the Vance campaign shortly after initial publication.

Our Sources

JD Vance, tweet, Feb. 19, 2022

U.S. State Department, Press Briefing, Feb. 16, 2022

North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Feb. 17, 2022

U.S. State Department, 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Russia, March 30, 2021

U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Annual threat assessment, April 9, 2021

White House, Remarks by President Biden providing an update on Russia and Ukraine, Feb. 18, 2022

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA reveals criminal drug networks are flooding the U.S. with deadly fentanyl, Dec. 16, 2021

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J.D. Vance says transgender rights drives looming conflict in Ukraine

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