WASHINGTON (CN) – Painting a harrowing picture of Russian hybrid warfare, Eastern European diplomats told members of a Senate committee Tuesday that a strong NATO and a continued U.S. military presence in the region are essential to combat Russian aggression.
“The goal of Russia’s influence and activities in the European Union is to create tensions and sow confusion both between member states and within individual states,” said Eerik Marmei, ambassador of Estonia. “By doing so, the Kremlin hopes to influence the decision-making process and steer the narrative and outcomes towards its own interests.”
Addressing members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Marmei added that “Russia sees the problems ailing the European Union – including Brexit, the migrant crisis and the debt crisis – as signs of the weakening of the Western-led world order and it seeks to reconfigure power relationships in international politics.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the hearing of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee as it considers allocating money for a “counter-Russia” account.
Another reason for the hearing, Graham noted, is to find out what it’s like to live in Russia’s shadow and enduring the former superpower’s relentless attempts at undermining democracy. Graham noted that he does not believe that Russian interference changed the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, but that America must respond with bipartisan unity.
“It was the Russians who hacked into the Democratic National Committee, it was the Russians who compromised Podesta’s emails,” he said with regard to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. “In my view it was the Russians who provided that information to Wikileaks in an effort to interfere with our election. It is my belief if we forgive and forget regarding our own election, we’ll invite future aggression by other countries.”
According to testimony from six diplomats, Russia seeks to sideline NATO and thwart the integration of post-Soviet countries into Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community.
“The Kremlin increasingly sees Europe whole, free and at peace, not as an opportunity for prosperous coexistence, but as a threat to its geopolitical agenda and regime survival,” Lithuanian ambassador Rolandas Krisciunas said during the hearing.
“Moscow views the Western values – pluralism and openness – as weaknesses to be exploited,” he added. “Its tactics are asymmetrical, subversive, and not easily confronted.”
Taking the view the United States has abused its role as a world superpower, Russia is trying to correct the course by diminishing American supremacy and establishing a multipolar international world order, Krisciunas said.
As it demonstrated in its ventures into Georgia, Moldova, eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Polish ambassador Piotr Wilczek said, Russia sometimes uses outright military power to achieve these aims.
Noting the atmosphere of “uncertainty and security” in Ukraine, Wilczek said NATO is the best answer, and that continued American support is key for stability in eastern Europe.
“A long-term American commitment to the enhanced forward presence is absolutely essential,” Wilczek said, referring to NATO allied troops deployed in eastern Europe after the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.
“I would like to add that the presence of American soldiers in Poland as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve is of equal and paramount importance,” he said of ongoing efforts to respond to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
“Further congressional support for the European Reassurance Initiative would be greatly appreciated,” he added.
Pavlo Klimkin, the Ukrainian foreign minister, peppered the subcommittee with dire statistics about the situation in his country.
Describing Russian policies toward Ukraine as “the war,” Klimkin said the fighting has killed 9,800, wounded 23,000 and internally displaced 1.8 million Ukrainians. Russia has also seized 7.2 percent of Ukraine’s territory, he said.
“Millions of Ukrainian citizens live there under occupation and endless terror,” Klimkin said.
Klimkin estimates that 35,000 to 40,000 Ukrainian citizens were forced to flee Crimea.
“We witness murders, tortures, harassment, illegal detentions, enforced disappearances, intimidation, raids and searches, attacks on property and arrests under fabricated charges, and the persecution of journalists, human rights defenders and activists,” he said.
“The Russian authorities use such methods to eliminate any public opposition to the occupation of Crimea and to the current government,” he added. “For the same reasons local independent media and journalists have nearly all been co-opted, forced to flee, or run out of business.”
Klimkin said Ukraine is open to dialogue with Moscow, but that Russia must change its current policies and stance toward international law.
“Taking into account Russia’s actions, we see no ground to ease the sanctions or to change our policy vis-à-vis Moscow,” he concluded. “Congressional support for maintaining transatlantic unity and solidarity on the issue is indispensable.”
The Ukrainian foreign minister said Russia is trying to militarize Crimea to counter NATO in the Black Sea region.
Russia is preparing nuclear infrastructure and refurbishing Soviet-era nuclear storage facilities, and has deployed warships, missile systems and combat aircraft to the peninsula, he said.
Georgia’s ambassador David Bakradze said Russia’s 2008 invasion brought “a new wave of massive ethnic cleansing.”
Like Klimkin, Bakradze said Georgian civilians were killed, tortured, raped, and had their homes looted and burned.
“Georgian villages in the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia with a total ethnic Georgian population of approximately 35,000 were burned down and destroyed in order to preclude any return of the expelled population,” the ambassador’s written testimony states.
Russia used hybrid warfare, including blackmail, intimidation, economic embargos, energy cuts and cyberattacks to derail Georgia’s efforts to integrate with Europe, Bakradze said.
Meanwhile, Lithuanian ambassador Rolandas Krisciunas spoke about Russia’s use of disinformation, a distinct component of the hybrid nature of Russia’s tactics.
Russia uses lobbying, public relations, pro-Russian media including RT and Sputnik, propaganda, disinformation, fake news, trolls, leaks and conspiracy theories, he said.
All of this is done to discredit other states, harass those that criticize Moscow and confuse public opinion to influence decision making, Krisciunas added.
Krisciunas also called attention to Russia’s militarization of Kaliningrad, a tiny Russian exclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea.
Calling the exclave “the most militarized zone in Europe,” Krisciunas said Russia is expected to deploy short-range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles later this year to Kaliningrad, which hosts 25,000 permanent Russian troops.
“In our view, it is necessary to have forces and adopt military plans adequate for deterrence,” he said, “especially considering Russia’s anti-access and area denial and growing naval capabilities in the Baltic Sea. The best deterrence, therefore, and the only way to achieve regional stability, is to place U.S. and NATO troops in the Baltic States on a permanent basis.”