Russian military aggression in recent years has flagrantly violated commitments enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act relating to refraining from the threat or use of force against other states; refraining from violating other states’ sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence; and respecting the right of every state to choose its own security alliances. The Commission’s hearing on May 17, 2017, closely examined Russia’s military threats in Europe – especially in terms of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its attempts to influence events in other neighboring countries – alongside its ongoing violations of arms control agreements and confidence-building measures.
Witnesses included Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and former Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense; Mr. Stephen Rademaker, Principal with the Podesta Group and former Assistant Secretary of State; and Ambassador Steven Pifer, the Director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brooking Institution and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.
In his opening statement, Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker reiterated that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has violated a number of commitments enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and other agreements, among them, the inviolability of frontiers or the principle of refraining from the threat of use of force against other states.
“The Russian leadership has chosen an antagonistic stance, both regionally and globally, as it seeks to reassert its influence from a bygone era,” Chairman Wicker said.
He was echoed by Representative Chris Smith, Co-Chairman of the Commission, who added that Russian aggression is more than a localized phenomenon.
“Russia is threatening the foundations of European security and recklessly endangering the lives of millions,” Representative Smith said.
Dr. Carpenter, the first witness to testify in the hearing, said that the Kremlin was relying on denial, deception, and unpredictability to advance its goals.
“In the non-NATO countries, Russia has proven it is willing to use military force to achieve its aims. In NATO countries, it is turning to asymmetric tactics, such as cyberattacks, cover subversion operations, and information warfare,” he said.
Mr. Rademaker, who testified next, noted that Russia will comply with various arms control treaties like Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), Open Skies, and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, only as long as it serves its interests. He concluded that the Kremlin sees security in Europe as a zero-sum game–diminishing the security of its neighbors keeps Russia stronger in Moscow’s view.
The third witness, Ambassador Pifer, focused on Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis.
“The Kremlin is not pursuing a settlement of the conflict, but instead seeks to use a simmering conflict as a means to pressure and destabilize the government in Kiev,” Ambassador Pifer said, adding that a change in Moscow’s policy is necessary to bring peace to Ukraine.
Ambassador Pifer also argued that the US should consider applying additional sanctions on Russia related to its annexation of Crimea. Mr. Carpenter later echoed those concerns and said that the US should focus on financial sanctions in order to increase its pressure on Russia. He also said that the Magnitsky Act is “vastly underutilized by both the previous administration and this administration.”
“If we do not check Russian aggression with more forceful measures now, we will end up dealing with many more crises and conflicts, spending billions of dollars more on the defense of our European allies, and potentially seeing our vision of a Europe whole and free undermined,” Mr. Carpenter argued.
Answering a question on where the Kremlin could be expected to agitate next in Europe, Mr. Carpenter pointed to the countries of the Western Balkans that remain, in his view, “in the crosshairs of Russian influence operations now.” He said that Serbia and Macedonia are particularly vulnerable and the potential for a full-fledged ethnic conflict in the Balkans is very high.
Mr. Rademaker added that the Western Balkan countries lie outside of NATO and therefore “present an opportunity for Russia.” He also expressed worries that the Baltic states, although members of NATO, are at risk as the Kremlin sees the area as a “near-abroad” and thinks Russia is entitled to play “a special security role” in the region.
“We need to begin to shape Russian thinking, that they have to understand that there are certain places that the West will not tolerate Russian overreach and will push back on,” Ambassador Pifer concluded. “And hopefully, as we shape that thinking, maybe Moscow comes around to a more accommodating view on some of these questions.”