On the day of the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered keynote remarks at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York on the United States’ relationship with Russia, with Europe, and the future of the American-led international order.
Senator Coons' remarks, as delivered, are below:
Well, good morning. Wow, good morning. As we meet here this morning, literally right now, our president, Donald Trump, is concluding his first ever one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin halfway around the world in Helsinki. I am grateful to be in this special place, at this time, famous for its spirit of consensus and dialogue, to be able to reflect with you on what this challenging moment may mean for the future of US-Russia relations, and of our republic.
My goal this morning is to offer my views on Russia, on our post-Cold War history, how we came to our current place of deep tension and division.
I’ll also comment on how our own domestic partisan divisions are increasingly reflected in our views of Russia and how that limits our ability to craft successful bipartisan strategy.
And finally, I will conclude with a few suggestions about how we in Congress can try to bridge that divide and come up with an appropriate path forward.
Let me just start by saying thank you, Michael, for that warm welcome and for a terrific dinner last night, and for your leadership of Chautauqua. I think he deserves a round of applause. I don’t know if you were here for worship with Father Greg Boyle this morning but I could use another hour or two or week or month of that sort of affirming spirit. And I’m grateful to Matt Ewalt, who worked with my staff to make this possible, in fact, really all of what I’m going to say this morning was made possible by my incredibly talented foreign policy lead staffer, Tom Mancinelli. Tom, would you stand up for a moment so I can embarrass you? Tom’s an eight-time Chautauquan and would not relent until I consented to come here and deliver this speech for him this morning. And last, I want to thank you for choosing to spend some of your summer with me as I attempt to offer some insights into where we’re going with Russia and the West.
It is an honor to be here in Chautauqua to address you on this impressive stage in this historic amphitheater. It’s my first visit to Chautauqua but I can tell you I am determined to make sure it’s not my last. I arrived yesterday afternoon, and I’ve immediately fallen in love with these grounds and was up earlier than I should have been, taking a long, contemplative walk and snapping far too many pictures of sunrise.
This is a remarkable place and I realize how hard it will be to describe for my colleagues and others who haven’t been fortunate enough to visit yet. As I looked for some help I found that The New York Times had called Chautauqua an “edification vacation.” I like that, but I’ve been thinking about how I define Chautauqua. Is it an institution that provides adult educational courses and entertainment and relaxation? Is it a way of being? Or is it, at best, a verb? I think Chautauqua is a verb, meaning to educate oneself and to engage, to commit oneself to lifelong learning, to personal well-being, whether intellectually, spiritually, physically, or culturally, to come together to hear each other, and to make a difference.
I can already tell that Chautauqua is a place where people worship, and learn to listen to one another; people here ask thoughtful questions; they respect alternative views based on scholarship, research, and science. In other words, utterly different from the United States Senate in which I serve.
Yes, I know this is no news flash to you, that our civil discourse is suffering today. And too often our elected officials are just not listening to one another. In my eight years U.S. senator, I have seen firsthand how tough it is work across the aisle and solve the real challenges facing our country. As we become more and more divided it becomes harder and harder to forge complex policy compromises on things from immigration to health care, tax policy, criminal justice reform, to tackle inequality or improve education. As you know, alternative points of view in politics today are scorned, and Americans increasingly self-select their news to reaffirm their own beliefs and biases, and we retreat into our own corners and use our new social media tools to lash out at those with whom we disagree from a distance without having to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye, and share a respectful conversation. We seem to no longer just disagree; we have to be disagreeable while doing it. And the Senate, an institution once hailed as the world’s greatest deliberative body, is following right along and getting bogged down in petty politics instead of engaging in purposeful debate.
That said, I do want to share with you, there’s a few bright spots on Capitol Hill, things that motivate me to get up early and take the Amtrak train from Wilmington to Washington every morning. The spirit of Chautauqua does exist on Capitol Hill, and I wanted to give you just three encouraging examples. Every Wednesday morning at the weekly bipartisan prayer breakfast, senators come to get together away from the daily noise and the partisan grind, and listen to one another, trust one another, and share stories. To speak about personally important topics, about values, and their own faith journeys.
The Senate gym, believe it or not, the Senate’s only gym, is also a place of unique comity, (I don’t mean comedy in terms of our frail and broken bodies as we attempt, pathetically to exercise). I mean C-O-M-I-T-Y, comity, because we do actually, away from the press and the lobbyists and the staff, manage to get along. And both rail at the televisions on which we hope to appear later that day.
Finally, and most importantly, I have found that when Democrats and Republicans travel together overseas to confront the challenges facing our country, we end up building bonds of genuine goodwill and friendship. These visits remove us from the daily partisan rancor of D.C. and allow us to see our country from a distant perspective, and as was referenced in my introduction, I just returned from a tremendous and productive bipartisan trip to Helsinki, to four countries in Europe just 10 days ago. And that trip helped restore my faith in the possibility of bipartisan congressional action.
So the Senate is not entirely hopeless, and I do hope to bring the spirit of Chautauqua back with me, a spirit of open mindedness and tolerance and a renewed sense of civil discourse, because we’ve got something to learn from one another if we’re going to get anything done.
But I am not here today to discuss the loss of civility and the path forward in the Senate, but to offer some insights into this week’s theme: Russia and the West.
As I said in opening, our conversation could not be timelier as President Trump is just about to conclude his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, and on Friday, the Friday just passed, the deputy attorney general announced the indictment, the very specific and detailed indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for their interference in our 2016 presidential election. I’ll tell you, in this disorienting 18 months just passed, this may not be the first speech I give where halfway through I noticed every head goes down as folks furiously follow the latest development on Twitter. I gave a speech about the Iran nuclear agreement, and I was halfway through the speech, looked up and realized I had lost the entire audience, and then looked over at my own phone which was angrily buzzing like some sort of captured hornet. The president had just tweeted something that had changed the course of our engagement with the world on trying to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. So I know that the things I say right now will be influenced by things going on right now halfway around the world.
Today’s meeting, today’s summit in Helsinki holds great consequence for the U.S. relationship with both Russia and Europe, and for the future of the American-led world order, which has helped promote global peace and stability since we led its creation after World War II. And I am gravely concerned that President Trump fails to understand Putin, to grasp the nature of Putin’s Russia, and will fail to deliver the right message today.
So, I begin the week with a stark warning. The current Russian government under Vladimir Putin is a persistent danger to our democracy, to our European allies, to democracy globally, and to the rule of law. At a time when overseas China and North Korea, Iran, and terrorism command our attention, we ignore Russia at our peril. Vladimir Putin plays a weak geopolitical hand very well and he is incredibly aggressive and agile. Only a clear-eyed and truly bipartisan strategy to confront Putin’s Russia and contain it will prevent him from further damaging our society and our interests. At the same time, it is important to remember that Russia is a great civilization worthy of our respect and engagement. And a better understanding of Russia will lead to better policy and, potentially, a more constructive relationship.
Let me remind you why we are at this current very low point in our bilateral relations with Russia. Putin, Putin himself, has sought to undermine the international order through direct, overt military aggression, such as his invasion and continued occupation of part of Georgia that began back in 2008 and his invasion and occupation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine in 2014, his ongoing support for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has massacred hundreds of thousands of its own civilians, and his intentional interference in our 2016 election, the thing that defines us as a democracy.
In January 2017, the United States intelligence community, all of our agencies involved in telling us what’s going on around the world, unanimously concluded, as they say, with high confidence that President Putin personally ordered an influence campaign, and I’m quoting here, to “undermine public faith in the United States democratic process, to denigrate Secretary of State Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” Kremlin efforts combined covert intelligence operations such as cyberattacks and “overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or” so-called “trolls.”
On these points, our intelligence community, trusted professionals dedicated to our nation’s security, could not have been clearer. And on the consequences, our intelligence community concluded Russia “apply the lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. 2016 presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide against U.S. allies and their upcoming elections” and our own elections in 2018.
I am gravely concerned that President Trump is failing to see clearly the challenge Russia poses to our democracy and those of our European allies. Just last week at the NATO summit, Donald Trump again blasted our allies, denouncing them for being “delinquent” in their dues and said his meeting with Putin, today, who he has called a “strong leader,” would be the earliest, excuse me, easiest meeting of his week. Not a meeting with the prime minister of the United Kingdom, not a meeting with the chancellor of Germany, not a meeting with our treasured NATO allies. The easiest meeting of the week would be with Vladimir Putin. What exactly happens at the summit today in Helsinki may well remain, like Russia itself, a great mystery. But I think it’s important for us to delve into ‘what does it mean for the United States and Russia to be at this point, and to have a better relationship at some point?’
Let me start by sharing my own history of travel to Russia because I think it is illustrative of a few important larger points.
Back in 1993, in the Chautauquan spirit of lifelong learning and cultural curiosity, I traveled to Russia with an Amherst classmate and friend, Kelly Smith, then an associate professor of Russian studies at Hamilton College in upstate New York. I was excited about learning more about Russia at a critical turning point in its history, as it emerged from the end of the Cold War and struggled to figure out what kind of country it should be.
During my trip, I took in Russian fine art at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. I met with inspiring, determined young entrepreneurs hoping to channel innovation and creativity to bring prosperity to their country, their families. Yet all the hopes of that era largely failed to materialize. Indeed, Russians today now look back upon the 1990s as an unsettling and difficult time. They call it the “wild 1990s” because of the great instability in Russian politics, economics, and society. While a small group of oligarchs enriched themselves by building massive empires, most Russians experienced food shortages, job loss, and widespread insecurity.
During my visit, I saw all of that first hand. As Kelly and I flew into and landed in Moscow, we could see the Russian Parliament building blackened and damaged by recent shelling by Russian tanks. At the time, President Boris Yeltsin was in a constitutional stand-off over control, over whether he had the power to dissolve the parliament, which he had just tried to do. The parliament rejected his move and in turn attempted to impeach Yeltsin and proclaim his vice president the new leader of Russia. There was no court intervention; there was no balance of powers between powers. This standoff was one by Yeltsin, through force of arms, laying the foundation for today’s broad and powerful presidency by Putin.
The travails of post-Cold War Russia represent a lost opportunity. Economic dislocation, widespread political corruption, and Yeltsin’s consolidation of power tarnished democracy and capitalism in the eyes of many Russians and prevented their nation from fully joining, and benefiting from, the U.S.-led international rules-based system. The sense of chaos and of humiliation, which I saw in the streets of Moscow, and the faces of those widows of the war dead who were selling their late-husbands’ war medals for kopecks so they could feed their families, that sense of lost glory, which I glimpsed in the museums of St. Petersburg, all helped facilitate the rise of Vladimir Putin – who promised law, order, and a return to prestige that characterized centuries of Russian history. And all of this set us on the path towards the distrust and confrontation that hinders our relations with Russia today.
I share this personal travel log because this period represented a critical turning point for Russia and informed my own understanding of the contributions, the challenges, and the motivations of millions of average Russians. It offered me a chance to form my own attitude towards Russian culture, history, and its people.
Now, 25 years later, American attitudes towards Russia today are worth examining. Wilson Center scholar Matt Rojansky laments the treatment of Russia in most of our national debate and popular culture today. He writes that Russia is quote somehow both a great menace –capable of stealing our secrets, manipulating our leaders, brainwashing our electorate – and yet Russia and Putin personally is so often the butt of jokes on late-night television, not even deserving of even the grudging respect a wise warrior accords his toughest adversary.
In a poll taken by the Pew Research Center in March, nearly 70 percent of Americans, regardless of political party, have an unfavorable view of Putin. And just 16 percent view him favorably. However, there is a worrisome sharp and growing partisan divide. The number of Republicans viewing Putin more favorably more than doubled from in the last two years, from 11 percent to nearly 30 percent. And nearly 80 percent of Democrats viewed Putin unfavorably in 2017 as opposed to 60 percent in 2015.
Nearly forty percent of Democrats name Russia as the country that represents the greatest danger to the United States, the highest percentage of Democrats saying that in 30 years. But back when I visited Russia, almost identical numbers of Democrats and Republicans said Russia was the greatest threat. Today, almost twice as many Democrats view Russia as the greatest threat as do Republicans, 40 to 20.
So for those of us who grew up in the Cold War, conditioned to think of Soviet Russia as the enemy, the existential enemy, of the United States and everything we stand for, we may find it hard to imagine otherwise. But for those who’ve grown up in the post-Cold War period, when school children no longer participate in air raid drills, and a sense of the United States as the leader of the free world, because there is a world behind an iron curtain, we have attitudes much less uniform and more reflective of attitudes toward President Trump.
So our challenge today when dealing with Russia is similar to dealing with ourselves. How we can manage and improve relations at a time when merely mentioning Russia sets many Americans off into their own political tribes, one that sees Russia as a grave and increasing threat, and another that sees Russia as a benign power that’s fine with which we should just get along? In many ways our own attitudes towards Russia serve as a microcosm for the division and the lack of civil discourse and trust to which I alluded a few moments ago. So how do we break free from these stereotypes and have an informed view of Russia? I think the first thing, and exactly what Chautauquans would do, is to have a better understanding of what Russia is, of what it is about.
Russia is not some recent artificial geopolitical creation, but a proud nation with a history that stretches back a millennium. It is vast, almost twice the size of the United States. It stretches across 11 time zones, from St Petersburg on the Baltic to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. But its declining population of about 140 million is slightly larger than Mexico’s. And its current gross domestic product ranks about 12thglobally, comparable Spain or Australia or South Korea. Its GDP is the same size as Michigan. Its economy is heavily dependent on oil and minerals. Yet, despite Russia’s diminished status, its writers, its composers, its scientists have influenced the course of global culture and European history for centuries.
In a place like Chautauqua where you celebrate literature, music, movies, and dance, it is worth taking a moment to consider just how much Russia has contributed to human civilization. Fyodor Tyutchev, a 19thcentury poet and statesman, observed Russia “cannot be understood with just the mind.” You have to be exposed to it through the spirit. So I’m glad this week you will be exposed to Russian arts – and the feelings and emotions they evoke – this week, you will have a deeper comprehension of Russia.
And indeed, the ballet dancers on these Chautauqua grounds might dream of one day dancing like Anna Pavlova to a score by Rachmaninoff at the Bolshoi in Moscow. We ignore their deep cultural heritage at our own loss.
Russia has also played a key role in European politics and security. It played a key role in countering two major threats to the European balance of power – Napoleonic France in the 19th century, Nazi Germany in the 20th, their advances both exhausted in the Russian winter. And Russia today remains a nuclear-armed great power that continues to wield influence through its military might, shrewd diplomacy, and sway over international energy markets.
We should respect and understand any country with such immense reach and influence.
At the same time, there is a very dark side to Russian history. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn wrote movingly about the Gulag Archipelago, documenting the Soviet era’s forced labor camps to which millions disappeared. In the 1920s and 30s, the combination of Stalin’s political purges and profound, intentional mismanagement led to devastating famines, one in particular in Ukraine, and in combination killed at least five million innocents
Today, we cannot and should not be naïve about the threat Russia poses to the United States and our European allies. A few years ago I had a fascinating conversation with a chairman of the Joint Chiefs. We were assessing relative global threats and how much time we were spending on them. At that point, while analysts were spending most of their time focused on Al Qaeda, on the Taliban, on the Islamic State, on jihadist terrorism, and this seasoned admiral reminded me that only Russia had a nuclear arsenal destroying not just the United States, but of ending life on this planet.
He said we would be wise not to undervalue the importance of getting our strategic relationship with Russia right, while recognizing the inevitability of strategic confrontation and tension in our current alignment. Russian leadership does not share our values or our interests. Its armed incursions into Georgia and Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea, its support for Bashar al-Assad, its murder of its own journalists and minority politicians and human rights activists, its undermining of democracy in America and around the world, all demonstrate this fact.
In perhaps the most alarming recent development about the potential for conflict, we actually had an incident where U.S. troops were in direct military conflict with Russians in Syria. This happened just in February. In the deadliest clash since the end of the Cold War, U.S. airstrikes and direct combat action killed 200 Russian mercenaries fighting alongside Assad’s forces in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. This is further proof that fears of military conflict between the United States and Russia aren’t misplaced. They are testing us and will likely will do so again.
However, Russia seeks to weaken the United States is subtler ways, and perhaps more effective ways, via an information war and propaganda campaign. I made reference earlier to the unclassified 2017 U.S. intelligence report, and I encourage all of you to read it. It’s available online. If you think all of this is fake news, take a few minutes and read last Friday’s indictments calling out the Russian military intelligence officers by name, even their Russia translated Cyrillic names, and describing in great detail their campaign against our last election, or read the January 2017 intelligence community declassified report. My colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia deserve real credit for digging in, doing the research, and endorsing the conclusions of this report. I’ll remind you that senior Trump administration cabinet officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis have endorsed this conclusion too. However, our ongoing challenge is that President Trump has himself refused to fully and publicly accept these findings and, stop dismissing the ongoing investigation as a ‘rigged witch hunt.’ And to take needed action to stop them from happening again.
Earlier this year my fellow Democrats – Folks I take no joy in delivering this message: it is deeply discouraging to me to have to say anything that speaks ill of our president when he’s outside our nation on foreign soil, but the timing of this speech, and the timing of that summit, were set, perhaps by providence or accident. And I think this is a time that calls for us to speak clearly about where we are.
Earlier this year, my fellow Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee released a minority report on Russian meddling in European elections. We thought it was important for Americans to understand that what Russia did to us in 2016 was not unique, but part of a thorough and well-developed decades-long Russian strategy to undermine democracy and the rule of law across Europe. These tools include cyberattacks, disinformation, support for fringe political groups, and the weaponization of energy resources, support organized crime and literally the export of corruption. Putin has spent vast sums on very capable and sophisticated propaganda outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik, with slick production values and a very wide reach around the world. He has invested heavily in rebuilding Russia’s military, and he has become a culture warrior on behalf of the revived Russian Orthodox Church, trying to exploit faith to exert regional influence and has launched a crusade that is anti-Muslim, anti-Chechen, and anti-LGBTQ, and undermines human rights throughout Europe.
The Kremlin is likely to step up these attacks on democracies around the world, including in our own elections coming up in 2018 and 2020. Don’t take my word for it. President Trump’s own director of national intelligence, my former Senate friend and colleague Republican Dan Coats of Indiana, said as much just Friday. DNI Coats cautioned, and I quote, that the “warning lights are blinking red” and labeled Russia the “most aggressive foreign actor” that “continues its efforts to undermine our democracy” ahead of November’s midterm elections.
Republicans in the Senate, Democrats in the Senate, Republican senior leaders in the Trump administration have a uniform view of what is underway. There’s just one figure missing.
Across Europe, some countries have developed effective countermeasures and attempted or succeeded in building resilience in their societies to Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare. European governments and institutions have recognized Russia’s malign influence and publicly chastised the Russian government and leaders for such brazen and hostile behavior. Many Europeans, especially in Scandinavia and the Baltic states, who have personal memories of Soviet occupation, are well-informed and ignore or push back on these Russian disinformation efforts. The Europeans are devoting more and more attention and resources to a complex collective response. We would be wise to learn from them.
If we think Russia is going to stop attempting to divide us and undermine our way of life, absent leadership and firm action from the United States, we are deluding ourselves. Putin will only stop when we stop him.
The question then is how do we move forward in our relationship with Russia, while being clear about its intent to alienate the American people from our own government our own democracy, drive a wedge between the United States and its valued European allies, and assert itself militarily in places like Syria?
Let’s refer to the post-Cold War period of bilateral U.S-Russian relations as a potential guide and a way to better understand how we got here.
The end of the Cold War, now more than 25 years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, provided the nations of Eastern and Central Europe with the freedom to pursue independent foreign policies and choose their own political and economic relationships and their own security guarantees for the first time in a generation. The goal of U.S. policy became the creation of a Europe “whole, free, and at peace.” The eastward expansion of NATO was considered a natural way to realize these ends.
And the spread of democracy was seen as both a moral and strategic imperative in the aftermath of the Cold War. It was in our strategic interest because the great struggles of the 20th century were not between democracies but between democracies and dictators, whether they were fascist or communist. Therefore, the spread of democracy, we believed, would reduce the possibility of a new, great power conflict, and morally, was a necessary response to the tens of millions of lives lost in the great conflicts of World War I and World War II. The end of the Cold War was thought to herald the ultimate victory of liberal democracy and the rule of law as the best way to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of war of the 20thcentury, and to deliver prosperity, and protect the rights and liberties of individuals across a few dozen countries.
So what happened? What happened? NATO expanded in several waves. When the Cold War ended in 1989, NATO was made up of 16 countries. In the European heartland, the easternmost part of the NATO alliance was in Berlin, roughly 900 miles from the Russian border. After German reunification and seven waves of NATO expansion, the alliance now butts right up against Russia in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and includes the former core of the Warsaw Pact: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic.
And last June, NATO welcomed its 29th member, tiny Montenegro. Just two years ago, in July of 2016, then-President Obama addressed heads of state at his final NATO Summit in Warsaw. He said, “Nobody should ever doubt the resolve of the NATO Alliance to stay united and focused on our future. Just as our nations have stood together over the past hundred years, I know that we’ll stay united and grow even stronger for another hundred more.” He said, then in 2016, that the NATO alliance was “as strong, as nimble, as ready as ever… and the door to NATO membership remains open.”
It is not surprising that Russian leaders see NATO and its expansion very differently. Famously, Vladimir Putin claimed the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was not the Holocaust, was not the First or Second World War. Vladimir Putin claimed the greatest catastrophe of the 20thcentury was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin believes Russian interests have been ignored in the aftermath of the Cold War and he seeks to restore Russia to what he views as its rightful place as a leading powers in the world. And a major element of this strategy is the achievement of military triumph. With the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin is the first Russian leader since Stalin to preside over an expansion of territory under the control of Moscow.
And during his 2007 speech at the Munich Regional Security Conference, Vladimir Putin declared, “I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the alliance itself or security in Europe. On the contrary, it is a provocation that reduces mutual trust. And we, Russia, have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”
Were we wrong to pursue NATO expansion? No. No. The idea was that, like Germany or Japan after the Second World War, Russia having lost the Cold War, would have an incentive to join the international community, perhaps even partnering with NATO and the multilateral institutions we helped build following the Second World War.
The idea was that the West, led by the United States, would offer Russia real diplomatic incentives. We supported Russia’s joining of international financial institutions, like the IMF, and provided Russia and former Soviet Republics with billions in foreign assistance to stabilize their economies and ease their transition to democracy and capitalism.
U.S. policy makers at the time assumed that with modest support, Russia and a dozen former Soviet countries would gradually transform themselves into more capitalist, more democratic societies willing to help and join and sustain the same multilateral institutions the United States build following Second World War. And most former Soviet republics did. But Russia has now clearly chosen to reject the overtures of the West.
You see, Putin, in my view, is not a builder. Putin is not a builder who wants to join with the rest of the world community to improve the lives of the average Russian. He hasn’t generated real and enduring growth for the Russian economy; he prefers to play the role of spoiler, seeking to disrupt the societies of the United States and Europe rather than focusing on how he can improve the lives of the average Russian.
While Putin believes the United States has not honored its post-Cold War pledges, Russia too has broken its promises. In 1991, Russia signed with the United States the Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine, newly independent, agreed to give up its 1,900 nuclear missiles in exchange for security guarantees. Under the accord, Russia explicitly agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine” and “refrain from the use of force” against it. Putin abandoned those pledges in 2014 when he invaded and annexed Crimea and sent Russian forces into eastern Ukraine, a conflict that continues unabated today.
And so today, today Presidents Trump and Putin meet in Helsinki. It is not necessarily a bad thing for our president to be open to conversation with our adversaries and authoritarians. At the height of the Cold War, American presidents of both parties held productive summits with Soviet leaders. Kennedy met Khrushchev; Reagan met Gorbachev, and President Bush met with Gorbachev in Helsinki. I believe a U.S.-Russia summit could have been constructive, but only if it began with President Trump holding Putin accountable for his latent interference on our 2016 elections and those of our allies in Europe. Only by pushing back forcefully on his support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, his intervention and invasion in Crimea, could President Trump possibly have a hope of a productive summit that defends our values and security. For President Trump to fail to confront a hostile power for interfering in our democracy is to fail to defend our nation. And it makes us less safe.
So what happens from here? I am concerned that President Trump, in his eagerness to resolve tensions with Putin or brush them aside, is in the process right now of dealing a critical blow to the and security, unity, and strength of NATO, which has been crucial to our security and prosperity for 70 years. At no point in his presidency should Donald Trump recognize the annexation of Crimea. I will tell you as a young man who was fond of maps I always noted this little box on the bottom-left corner of all of our maps, 70s, 80s, 90s, that said “the United States refuses to recognize the Soviet annexation of three Baltic republics in 1940.” For a long time that seemed like a sad historical footnote that would never become true. Yet just ten days ago, with Republican colleagues, I was in the capital of Latvia, and just the year before in the capital of Estonia, meeting with the proud presidents and ministers of defense and foreign affairs of independent Baltic republics, today our NATO allies. If we are to maintain their security, our president must not reduce our troop presence in Europe, as he recently threatened to do, or cancel abruptly, or decrease our military exercises with our EU partners. And I’ll tell you, after conversations in Finland in particular, it is clear he must keep the door to NATO expansion open.
As you perhaps can tell, I’m not entirely optimistic. So in the absence of executive leadership, let me answer the question ‘Isn’t there a role for Congress here? Isn’t there something you will do, Mr. Senator,’ and let me suggest four concrete ways in which Congress can respond to Russia and maintain our critical alliances.
First, the United States and the European Union must maintain sanctions on Russia. Last summer, President Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or the whimsically-named CAATSA, after the Senate passed it by a veto proof margin of 98 to 2. The bill includes a wide array of mandatory sanctions to hold Russia accountable for its malignable actions that I’ve detailed.
But the Trump administration has not fully implemented the sanctions, including on Russian banks and financial institutions, Russian crude oil products, Russians who engage in human rights abuses and Russians who transfer arms to Syria. As I have said repeatedly, Putin will only cease these actions when we impose costs on him and others for Russia’s misbehavior abroad. The administration should fully utilize the tools Congress has given them to punish Russian adventurism.
Second, the United States has to maintain a strong military posture in Europe. After the Cold War, both Democratic and Republican administrations dramatically reduced our military footprint on the continent. And now Russia’s actions, especially in Georgia and Ukraine, demonstrate our forces are needed in greater numbers to ensure stability in Europe, to deter Russian aggression, and to reinforce our NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
This effort began under the previous administration and has transformed into the European Defense Initiative which enhanced the U.S. troop presence, military exercises and training, and defense infrastructure for rapid deployment across Europe. I just visited one of these sites outside of Riga, the capital of Latvia, where Canadian troops are leading one of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence battle groups. And I voted on the Senate Defense Appropriations bill for the $6.5 billion of investments in our joint security that is required.
An important part of our policy has to be convincing our NATO allies to invest more in our common defense. President Trump is right on this issue. I may wish he went about making his demands of our allies in a different way, maybe a more private way, but he is absolutely right. Previous presidents have all pushed for increased European defense spending. I wish our president celebrated the success he has had in getting allies to grow NATO’s joint budget by $14 billion since he took office. All but one of our 28 NATO allies are increasing defense spending, 26 are sending more troops on joint NATO missions, 16 are on track to spend 2 percent of their GDP by 2024, an approved-upon NATO target. But instead of accepting this success and saying ‘let’s move forward,’ our president continues to gripe as if these are unpaid dues to some country club, without recognizing that 1,044 non-American NATO troops have died fighting alongside ours in Afghanistan. Two of the four countries I just visited had their first combat deaths since the Second World War. Fighting where? In defense of us. After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Article V, the collective security provision of the NATO treaty was actually invoked for the first time. And while it is right to press our allies to invest more in their security and our common defense, it is wrong to mistake them as freeloading on our generosity when their own young men and women died.
Third, non-defense efforts by the U.S. are a critical part of our approach to Russia. I had a memorable conversation last year with a Ukrainian leader who said to me, “If you don’t defend your own elections, if you won’t defend your own democracy how can we count on you to help defend ours?” As part of our effort to counter Russian disinformation, Congress should pass a law requiring our social media companies to expose fake accounts and Russian bots and disinformation.
We invented Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Snapchat and all this stuff and yet allow it with virtually no accountability whatsoever to be used as a willful tool to mislead and undermine our own citizens as they vote. In, for me, a memorable hearing with Mark Zuckerberg right in front of me, I said, “What about a paid political ad bought in Moscow and paid for in rubles didn’t raise some questions?” “Senator, we didn’t know those details.” Are you kidding me? You know whether I’ve met my daily steps goal! And if we are to defend our democracy and expect informed citizens of our allies, our ongoing robust support for independent and objective journalism: Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America, that can present a counter-narrative to Sputnik and Russia Today is critical.
We ourselves, have to do a better job as citizens of discerning real news from fake news, and educating our own families and social circles about the difference. In response to the Russian campaign of propaganda and information warfare, our government created the Global Engagement Center to counter trolls and bridge gaps between Silicon Valley tech companies and Washington government agencies. And I worked with my friend, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, to secure $300 million for this program and others designed to use our strengths to push back against ways that Russia uses our weaknesses against us. The United States must strongly support these kinds of institutions to help build our own resilience against Russian efforts to sow discontent and division. Collectively, these efforts, if successful, will limit Putin’s ability to manipulate elections.
We also have to work with Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian energy exports and in particular to convince it to discontinue the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. On this point, President Trump is also correct. Look, as long as Russia dominates the provision of energy to Europe it will continue to hold a veto over many European policies and will be in a position to weaken and marginalize countries like Poland and Ukraine.
Further, Moscow is literally exporting corruption to its neighbors to expand its influence. By helping our partners defend rule of law, to defend independent judiciaries, and fight corruption, and by demonstrating to the people of Eastern Europe that they’re better off as a result of being able to do business with the European Union and the United States, we can mitigate Russia’s growing sway over these societies.
Finally, the United States has to support human rights and democracy. Do you remember when that was the first principle of our co-chair the Senate Human Rights Caucus with Senator Tillis, these are all Republican colleagues, and they understand the central role that fighting for human rights plays in fighting for democracy. In February, I joined my friend Senator Marco Rubio in working with the DC city government to name the street in front of the Russian Embassy after Boris Nemtsov. Some of you may ask, ‘who is this Boris Nemtsov?’ A Russian physicist and liberal politician who served as governor of Nizhny Novgorod. He helped introduce capitalism to the post-Soviet economy. He was an outspoken critic of Putin until February of last year, when he was assassinated on a bridge near the Kremlin, joining, sadly, a long list of Russian men and women, journalists, human rights activists, minority party politicians targeted for harassment, arrest, and murder after standing up to the Kremlin. I took this action with Senator Rubio to give a voice to someone Putin tried to silence, and it is my hope that someday Russian diplomats who travel in and out of the Embassy in Washington, representing a future Russian republic, will be proud to walk alongside street named for Boris Nemtsov.
During the Cold War, we were prepared to go to war at a moment’s notice, and nearly did on several occasions, yet at the same time, we negotiated cultural, scientific, and strategic nuclear agreements with that enemy were prepared to fight at a moment’s notice, the Soviet Union. We found areas of real and deep and meaningful cooperation despite the real tension between us. There is no reason why we cannot do the same today. We need Russia’s cooperation to combat the consequences of climate change, especially in the Arctic. We need their help in applying pressure to North Korea and Iran, and we need their partnership in combating international terrorism. Yet if we fail to recognize the reality of strategic confrontation under Putin, if we abandon our willingness to fight for our values, we will never achieve lasting cooperation based on anything other than a Russian tactical effort to gain short term advantage over us.
Two weeks ago, as I mentioned, I was with four colleagues on a bipartisan, bicameral delegation to Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, and Finland. I joined the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and I joined the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It was ahead of the NATO summit and today’s meeting between Trump and Putin. And my colleagues thought it was important to hear from and reassure European leaders that Congress stands behind NATO, the EU, and the transatlantic alliance. In conversation after conversation with presidents, prime ministers, speakers of parliament, ministers of defense and foreign affairs, our delegation represented our country and presented a united view of what American foreign policy towards Europe and Russia should be.
And following that trip, we returned to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where last week we passed a bipartisan resolution to reemphasize the strategic importance of NATO and insist that there be no recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
So folks, we have a fight on our hands. As my father, who served in German in the first infantry said to me as he lay dying last February, “Once to each American generation falls a moment, a moment when we must stand and act. To prove that we believe what we say. To demonstrate to the world that our democracy is more than some carved word on a marble monument, but a thing for which we are willing to stand up, to serve, to fight. Not against each other, but together. In a way that makes real promise of America to the world. Chautauquans, today is that moment.
So this week as you study Russia, we have to approach it with pragmatism and eye toward mutual cooperation, while being critical and clear about the role the United States must play in combating Russian aggression and preserving American democracy and the world order we’ve built. Our democratic world order is at greater risk today than at any time in my life and I am certain that it is worth fighting for. Why? Because I’m convinced that a world committed to democracy, a world committed to the rule of law, a world committed to human rights, and individual liberty, is a more stable, more prosperous, more secure world for our allies and our nation. Thank you, and with that I look forward to your questions.