Victoria Nuland, U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 4 at a hearing titled “Ukraine Under Siege.” The hearing examined the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy in the face of Russia’s support for separatist rebels in the country’s east.

 

 

Nuland began the hearing by making a statement with three areas of focus. First, she addressed what Ukraine has been doing since the fall of Yanukovich’s “rotten regime.” Second, she discussed Russia’s implementation of the Minsk I and II peace agreements and the additional punitive measures the U.S. and EU will impose if Minsk II is violated. And third, she talked about new threats being posed to European security by such things as Russian energy policy, corruption, and propaganda. Nuland called the war in Ukraine a “manufactured conflict—controlled by the Kremlin, fueled by Russian tanks and heavy weapons, financed at Russian taxpayers’ expense, and costing the lives of young Russians.”

Nuland also detailed the State Department’s collaboration with the Broadcasting Board of Governors—the U.S. federal agency in charge of state-sponsored international media—"to ramp up efforts to counter lies with truth." In 2015, BBG is committing $23.2 million to Russian-language programming and it is requesting an additional $15.4 million for next year. “We are also requesting more than $20 million in foreign assistance and public diplomacy funds to counter Russian propaganda through training for Russian-speaking journalists, support for civil society watchdogs and independent media, exchange programs for students and entrepreneurs, and access to fact-based news on the air, on front pages, and online,” Nuland said.

 

On arming Ukraine 

Committee members expressed significant frustration over the issue of arming Ukraine. The majority of members agreed that defensive lethal weapons should be given to Ukraine in an effort to help stop the bloodshed and to show U.S. resolve to President Vladimir Putin. Nuland did not clearly state why the Obama administration is delaying a decision on this issue, prompting Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) to argue that “delay is denial.” Rep. Scott Perry (PA) noted that the U.S. agreed to send weapons and equipment to Syria to fight ISIS over the same concerns that exist in Ukraine and assessed U.S. policy in Ukraine as a “weak response.” 

Committee members also raised questions about the status of Crimea and about whether the Obama administration had “conceded” it to Russia. Nuland assured them that the Crimea issue was still on the table but that first it was important to make sure the Minsk agreement was functioning and then to “roll back” the situation. The issue of Crimea will be addressed in the future, Nuland said. 

Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY) expressed concerns over the three-fold increase in Russia’s defense budget, which he called an “ominous sign.” Nuland shared his concerns, especially in light of the country’s economic crisis, noting that “the Kremlin is prioritizing its foreign adventures over the priorities of the Russian people.” 

One of the most commonly raised questions was the body count on both sides of the Ukraine conflict. According to Nuland, there have been around 6,000 deaths of Ukrainians and “thousands and thousands” of Russians killed. Even rough estimates of the number of Russian deaths are difficult, since the Kremlin denies that its armed forces are involved in the conflict at all.

 

On sanctions 

Some members, including Rep. George Connolly (D-VA), argued that the sanctions policy is “not working.” But Nuland insisted that the sanctions are fulfilling their mission because the restrictions have dramatically increased Russia’s costs for sustaining Crimea and the rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine. The Obama administration is considering the possibility of strengthening sanctions on certain sectors of the economy if the Minsk II agreement is deemed a failure. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) proposed the further step of aggressively adding names to the Magnitsky list of sanctioned Russians to spur change in the Kremlin’s behavior. 

Multiple committee members said they thought Boris Nemtsov’s murder was a sign that Putin’s regime is continuing to deteriorate. One dissenting voice was that of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who is reported to have ties to the Kremlin, who said “our goal is not to defeat and humiliate Russia, but [to] help Ukraine.” 

 

House Foreign Affairs Committee members who spoke: 

Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman
Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking member
Brad Sherman (D-CA)
Christopher Smith (R-NJ)
Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY)
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL)
George Connolly (D-VA)
Tom Emmer (R-MN)
William Keating (D-MA)
David Cicilline (D-RI)
Grace Meng (D-NY)
Lois Frankel (D-FL)
Scott Perry (R-PA)
Matt Salmon (R-AR)
Ted Poe (R-TX)
Joe Wilson (R-SC)
Brian Higgins (D-NY)

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