WASHINGTON (CN) – Senators from both sides of the aisle were in consensus Thursday that Americans need and deserve to know the extent of Russian interference in the election.
Though 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was designed to help President Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton, congressional investigations of these intrusions appear to have stalled.
At a meeting of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee this morning to discuss the future of U.S.-Russia relations, Sen. Tim Kane expressed concern that time for a serious investigation might be running out.
“This was an attack on the United States,” said Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who had been Clinton’s running mate. “And if we treat it in a lackadaisical manner, we lose credibility as a partner with anyone in the world.”
The congressional investigations of Russian interference are set to include an examination of any improper contact between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
“I am deeply worried that the president and some members of the administration want this to go away – and that’s going to create challenges,” Kaine said.
With Russia reportedly ratcheting up its interference in upcoming elections in France and Germany, partisan daylight at Wednesday’s hearing was strikingly minimal.
Aside from noting an urgent need to complete an investigation, senators on the committee also wrangled with how the new administration could forge better relations with Russia, while simultaneously holding it to account for its military and cyberagressions, most especially its interference in democratic electoral politics in the U.S. and the EU.
Although the senators and witnesses seemed to largely agree that the United States should work with Russia where it can to prevent further deterioration of diplomatic relations, all underscored that Russian President Vladimir Putin poses a threat to post-Cold War order in Europe and in the NATO alliance.
“The peace that we established in Europe in 1945, and that we reinforced at the end of the Cold War in 1989, has been the basis of the unprecedented security and prosperity that we have enjoyed for the past 25 years,” said retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, former supreme allied commander for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“It put an end to the unbridled great power rivalries that gave us World Wars I and II, the most destructive wars in human history,” Breedlove’s written testimony states. “We have a vital interest in maintaining a strong NATO and vibrant Europe.”
In terms of supporting NATO and protecting the liberal democratic European order from the perceived threat of Russian aggression, a unified bipartisan voice emerged during the hearing. Julianne Smith, director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security, captured this sentiment in her written testimony to the committee.
“Russia is engaged in a sophisticated, long-term strategy to undermine the rules-based order that the United States and its allies constructed after World War II,” Smith said.
“Russia’s tactics aim to undermine our democratic institutions, sow divisions within NATO and the EU and carve out a sphere of influence,” she told the committee.
“Because of Russia’s blatant and continuous efforts to undermine U.S. interests at home and abroad, the role that Congress plays to defend these interests is more important and necessary than ever before,” she said.
Smith and Breedlove agreed with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., that protection of our European allies requires some type of initiative to shore up European democracy and protect democratic institutions from Russian sabotage. But the U.S. is lagging far behind on this effort, Smith said.
On top of that, Breedlove noted that the U.S. has failed to define what constitutes a cyberattack, and it has no clear policy for how to respond. While the U.S. shirks away from responding offensively, he added, its opponent “has taken the gloves off completely.”
Smith noted that Russian aggression – both military and cyber – have long been underway in Europe. But the U.S. so far lacks an effective strategy to help counter it, and that she said is making our European allies nervous. Conflicting messages from Washington are only making matters worse.
“I’m going to be honest, this period in the transatlantic relationship is dire,” Smith said. “And our allies are nervous and very anxious about what’s happening on their own continent, what’s happening in the transatlantic relationship.”
“And frankly some of the comments they’ve been hearing come out of Washington about the value we place on the NATO alliance and our views toward the European Union,” Smith added.
European countries are under enormous pressure now from the migration crisis, weakened economies, counterterrorism challenges, Russian attempts to undermine their democratic systems and the rise of far-right parties, Smith noted.
Later in the hearing, Smith expanded on her assertion that conflicting narratives from Washington have added to European worries about U.S. commitment to the EU, NATO and U.S. Russia policy.
Recently Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the UN Security Council that the U.S. would leave sanctions against Russia in place unless it withdraws from Crimea and de-escalates violence in eastern Ukraine.
“What they’re waiting for is some clarity on which view will prevail,” Smith said. “Will what we heard from Ambassador Nikki Haley recently about Ukraine and Russia hold to be true, or will we in fact see an administration and a president moving toward a grand bargain?”
The Trump administration has said at times that the U.S. should work more closely with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
But Smith and Bleedlove said such a “grand bargain” would be wrought with difficulty and would have very little benefit for the U.S.
“This is of deep concern to our European allies,” Smith said.