Following the murder of Boris Nemtsov and amid concern that Russia is planning an offensive in Ukraine in the coming weeks, the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation met on March 4 to discuss Russia’s intentions and the U.S. response.

 

 

The subcommittee heard from a panel of former officials, politicians, and experts on Russia, including: Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia; Garry Kasparov, the former chess world champion and a longtime member of Russia’s opposition; Dr. Stephen Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council; Damon Wilson, executive vice president at the Atlantic Council; and Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) presided over the hearing.

 

Putin’s Aims

In opening the hearing, Johnson expressed concern over Putin’s pattern of aggression and spoke about the need to face reality and formulate an appropriate policy. Saakashvili said he believes that Vladimir Putin is trying to depose the government in Kiev and seize part of eastern Ukraine. Blank argued that Putin will move to take the coastal city of Mariupol as part of an effort to create a land bridge to Crimea extending to Moldova, but Pifer disagreed, saying that Putin hadn’t mentioned the concept of Novorossiya (the name for territory that is currently part of Ukraine but fell within the former Russian empire) for five or six months. Pifer and Wilson agreed that Putin may still take aggressive actions in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Kasparov argued that Putin cannot be negotiated with and is exporting his police state abroad as a model for dictators around the world. He said that Putin needs enemies to legitimize his regime and has found them in Ukraine and in “traitorous” internal opponents in Russia. Blank said that if Ukraine slips from Putin’s grasp, the entire legitimacy of the current Russian government is at stake.

 

Sending Arms

Blank argued that Russia’s invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine is currently the biggest threat facing Europe and disputed the notion that Ukraine is more important to Russia than to the West. Wilson agreed, saying that Ukraine is a serious problem for U.S. security. Panel members raised the question: What happens if Putin is prepared to follow through with his plans no matter what the cost?

Pifer argued that the U.S. has a moral obligation to help Ukraine defend itself and said the U.S. needed to be prepared to send weapons to Ukraine. He noted that most of the requests from Ukraine were for non-lethal materiel (e.g., secure communication equipment).

 

U.S. Allies

Blank said the U.S. must take the lead in transatlantic relations because the best check on Putin’s power is transatlantic cooperation. Saakashvili said that the Czechs, Slovaks, and others in Europe were willing to provide spare parts for Ukraine but would not act without U.S. backing. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) warned of the consequences of Europe remaining without a united policy on Ukraine. Panel members agreed that if the Ukrainian economy collapses, it will not matter whether the U.S. sends arms to the government or not.

 

Energy Politics

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked what the U.S. could do in the area of energy policy to help alleviate pressure put by Russia on its neighbors. Blank replied that the U.S. could eventually export oil to Europe—if the government reverses the long-standing ban on U.S. oil exports—while Pifer noted that there is little concern about Russia shutting off the gas supply to the EU, since around 75% of Gazprom revenues come from Europe.

 

Conditions in Russia

Kaine asked what conditions would be necessary for Russians to lose hope in Putin. Kasparov answered that Putin would never leave power willingly and that change would only become likely if the ruling elite and middle class both began to suffer and started to act cooperatively.

 

U.S. Response

Wilson argued that the West should leave open the option of inviting Ukraine to join the EU and NATO. Pifer added that the U.S. should continue not to recognize Crimea and called for maintaining sanctions and retaining the option of imposing additional ones, saying that they have not yet achieved their political goal but should remain in place until changes are seen from Russia. Kasparov said he wants the West to confront Putin more forcefully over human rights abuses and warned of the dangers posed by Russia’s propaganda machine. Panel members emphasized that ordinary Russians should be taken into account and be made to know that they have allies abroad.

 

Senators who spoke at the hearing:

Ron Johnson (R-WI), presiding officer
Tim Kaine (D-VA)
Cory Gardner (R-CO)
Christopher Murphy (D-CT)
Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)

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