WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, delivered the following keynote address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Fourth Annual Transatlantic Forum on Russia Thursday. The Senator also answered a question at the end of his remarks about what he’ll be looking for in upcoming confirmation hearings of Trump Administration national security officials:
“Heather [Conley], thank you very much. It really is a pleasure to be here at CSIS. I very much appreciate your expertise on the subject matter we are taking up today and I always look forward to an opportunity to leave the hill – unfortunately I have to go back later today. It’s been an interesting time since last Tuesday’s election. But I do congratulate you, Heather, your expertise on Russia is very well known, of course Dr. Brzezinski and your recent report on Russia’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe is a nonpartisan, clear-eyed report on information we really need to better understand about our challenges with Russia going forward. So, it’s good to be here but before I comment on the Russia circumstance and what our policies need to be going forward, I’ve got to comment on what happened in the U.S. elections.
“Now obviously I’m extremely disappointed and very concerned about what a Trump Administration will mean on foreign policy in many parts of the world. Of particular concern is Russia and the comments that he made about Russia so I will underscore over and over again American values. We respect the election results and I will do everything in my power to make the transition to the Trump Administration as smooth as possible so that he has all the tools he needs in order to be a successful president.
“But I have a responsibility and that is to make sure that if he deviates from U.S. values and our constitution, that there’s oversight and there will be voices that will raise these concerns. So when he talks about Russia, I do underscore, Heather, that Russia is a global bully and an adversary and not, definitely not a partner. And that is not shared just by Democrats, that’s shared by Democrats and Republicans. Senator McCain’s speech at the security conference was pretty clear about his concerns. Senator Graham yesterday calling for hearings in regards to Russia’s cyber activities in the United States. There are Democrats and Republicans that are, I think most members of Congress, that are very concerned about Russia’s activities and how we try to reconcile that with statements that Donald Trump made during the course of his campaign. We can only hope that President Trump will seriously take the warnings and assessments from our intelligence community and security professionals into consideration as he makes his decisions on our foreign policy with Russia.
“My role as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be to work with the administration, that’s my hope, because we’re stronger when America speaks with a united voice but if that’s not consistent with the values of this country then I will speak out and my background quite frankly is very much influenced by my work in the OSCE and the Helsinki Commission where I fully understand that the security of a country is very much dependent upon its ability to defend its borders, its military, but also its economic strength and how it allows its population to get the benefits of the wealth of the country. And the human dimension, and Helsinki is best known for the human dimension, how a country treats its own citizens, how it respects human rights, how it deals with freedom of speech and free and fair elections are all critically important for the security of a country and it is very important for United States’ security.
“So when I see violations of sovereignty by China in the South China Sea, I speak out and will continue to speak out. When I see Iran support terrorism, I speak out and will continue to speak out. So when I see human rights violations in Ethiopia or in Venezuela, I intend to use my position in the United States Senate to speak out. And I will certainly speak out about Russia’s violations of so many international norms. It threatens global security. What we see in China or Ethiopia or Venezuela or Iran or Russia, they have a common problem in that in each of these countries there’s a lack of commitment to the basic human rights of their own citizens, corrupt governments prevail. They are repressive of civil society, and the opposition. Governments that prevent democratic institutions from being able to be developed or to be able to be used.
“So that is the reason why I’m going to talk a little but about Russia, before I do I need to comment about the United States because we are far from perfect. Our commitment to rights are solid but you must look at problems in our own country. Look at the most recent election. I meet with parliamentarians from other countries regularly and I’m proud of our democratic institutions and we are a model for the world. But I tell them don’t pattern the way you conduct elections how we conduct elections. Our elections are too long, by the way, the election for president in 2020 began last Wednesday. Our length of our elections, the cost of our elections, the fact that the people of the District of Columbia do not have voting representation in the United States Senate and House of Representatives. These are violations of international norms and we should do better. We’ve seen in our own criminal justice system that we need to improve. But we are continuously striving for equality. That’s our values. In 240 years we’ve made a lot of progress and are continuing to make progress. And it’s through U.S. leadership globally that these principles have been forwarded.
“Russia has shown a disregard to the well-established international norms, the Helsinki values, the treatment of their own people. It starts with the repression of its own citizens within Russia. Human rights defenders are marginalized. Political party opposition are marginalized and the shadow of their former self. Civil societies are attacked. Independent press is attacked. NGOs have a hard time existing in Russia today. These are all targets of the Russian government and reminds you of the dark days in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union.
“The targets of Russia go well beyond its own citizens. It goes to its neighbors. You’ve seen a disregard for the sovereignty of Ukraine. The OSCE monitoring mission has made the observations that this is not a cold war, this is a hot war that is taking place in Ukraine today with active support from Russia. In eastern Ukraine, Russia is very actively engaged in stoking the fires of war. And it was interesting after Russia’s aggression, taking over Crimea, they negotiated the Minsk Accords. I believe its cover that they are trying to say they are working constructively when in reality they never intended to adhere to the Minsk agreements and they haven’t. They continue to occupy Crimea, and what I find extremely disturbing is that Russia was very much encouraging corruption within Ukraine itself. And when one looks at what is the greatest challenge to an independent, democratic, stable regime in Ukraine it is dealing with corruption. Russia understands that and has tried to marginalize the ability of Ukraine to move forward. This is not unique. When you see what’s happening in Ukraine today you take a look at Moldova or Georgia and you see Russia violating the sovereignty of those countries, why? Because they know as long as Russia is present in Moldova or Georgia it’s much less likely that those countries will have full integration into Europe which is one of their objectives, to interfere with their neighbors.
“But Russia does not only influence those countries, it is directly involved in trying to influence Europe itself. Since 2000 they’ve sought to erode the confidence in democracies as a governmental model. They spend billions of dollars to compromise the effectiveness of democracies in Europe. They’ve used the democratic institutions to try to bring down democratic institutions. That’s been Russia’s game plan and they have created violence in Montenegro after their parliamentary elections as an effort to try to avoid the approval of the accession of Montenegro into NATO. So Russia’s very actively engaged in Europe but it’s not limited to Europe.
“We all know about what they’re doing in Syria; they’re directly supporting the Assad regime. Now I know Secretary Kerry and I know he’s very careful in the words that he uses but when Secretary Kerry tells you that we need to investigate Russia for violation of war crimes, you know that there is direct evidence that Russia has committed atrocities. We know that convoys, humanitarian convoys, have been attacked by Russia. We know that Russia has supported Assad’s use of barrel bombs. We know that part of the Syrian strategy is to use civilian populations as tools of war, which is direct violation of international human rights, all with Russia’s support. And now we know they also use chemical weapons, even though Syria is a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention, this is unprecedented to see these types of violations. And Russia allows the Assad regime to continue with the direct support in these activities. They claim that they are fighting terrorism. In reality they are allowing terrorists to continue by preventing us from focusing on ISIL and the terrorist threats within that region.
“So it’s not sufficient that they’re interfering with their own people, their European neighbors, the Middle East, they’ve now come to America and Heather you’re right they are attacking us through the mouse, we know that. Let me quote the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence they are confident “that Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions including from US political organizations, only Russia’s senior most officials could have authorized these activities, an attack against the United States.” The question now becomes how should the United States respond? We must respond, we’ve been attacked.
“So that’s why I wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to take action, direct and proportionate response to the activities that Russia has done on America. And I hope he will take action, he still has time as president and has authority as president to take action. I know that he is considering that and I hope that he will use the power that he has to respond to the attacks on our country. But Congress also needs to act, needs to act regardless of who was going to be elected next president of the United States. I think it’s very more important now. I will shortly be introducing legislation comprehensive legislation to deal with these violation of international norms. I’m consulting with both Democrats and Republicans, I hope there will be broad support, it will respond to the cyber-attack on America, will put on the table expanded, and targeted and sectoral sanctions on individuals including Russian officials found complicitous in these illegal actions. I will put on the table the ability to use a measured, cyber response to shine a light on those who are responsible.
“In regards to the continued activities in Ukraine and Syria I believe we need new sanctions on individuals in key sectors of the Russian economy. We need to consider prohibiting U.S. or third party individuals from investing in Russia’s planned privatization of state owned assets and the sale of sovereign debt. They’re using assets from Americans to help finance their terror in Syria and violations of international human rights in Ukraine, they’re using these resources against us. We must make it more difficult for them to be able to obtain that capacity. We should target Russian oligarchs; they shouldn’t be allowed to park their illegal gains in the United States. We’ve seen this be a very effective tool. Oligarchs want to cover their bets and want to keep their assets in dollars. We can make it more difficult, in some cases impossible for that to be done and we should expand that capacity to make sure we can do that.
“I very much want to work with Europe. I don’t think we can work in isolation. One of the lessons that we learned from the Iran sanctions was that Congress imposed very strong sanctions on Iran. We took the leadership; U.S. took the leadership. As a result of U.S. leadership, Europe responded, and they also imposed sanctions against on Iran that brought them to the negotiating table to negotiate an agreement.
“I think the same is true in our response to Russia. We know that our European allies are threatened. We need to work with them so that we have an effective pressure on Russia to change their activities. We also need to support our friends; they are on the frontlines of Russia’s interference as I very strongly supported President Obama’s initiative: The European Reassurance Initiative, that was very helpful in a way that they know we are there and we will work to protect their sovereignty. That’s a very important part of U.S. foreign policy.
“But we also need to consider a European Democracy Initiative. Make no mistake about it. Russia uses energy; they use economic pressures to corrupt individuals and institutions in other countries. We need to provide assistance to help build and strengthen democratic institutions in European countries so that they can continue to have truly independent media and investigative journalists. They need anti-corruption strategies to prevent Russia from trying to invade through corruption. They need independent judiciaries and prosecutors. They need the U.S. leadership; they need the U.S. help and leadership, and that’s very true in NATO.
“One of the things that this Congress can do and should do, which would be a clear message, not only of our resolve against Russian interference, but in regards to a strong and growing NATO is to approve Montenegro’s succession into NATO. We can do that now and should do that now.
“We need stand up with human rights defenders within Russia and put a spotlight that they are not alone. Yesterday I mentioned Ildar Dadin. He’s a Russian activist who was convicted under a law that said that because he was doing an outside demonstration, he violated Russian law, and he was sentenced to two and half years in prison. We received a communication that was secretly gotten out of prison about his torture is reminiscent of other cases we’ve seen in the past. When we put a spotlight on individuals, they know they’re not alone, and they know that the international community is watching.
“Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a person who became a part of my life. We spent a lot of time trying to advance human rights but until you can put a face on it it’s tough to get action. Sergei Magnitsky was a young attorney representing a U.S. client who found major corruption in Russia, did what any lawyer should do, reported it to authorities. As a result, he was arrested, tortured and killed.
“We were able to get the United States Congress to take action. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t easy. Administrations always have problems with Congress taking action, by the way, but we got the Magnitsky Act passed, which says that those who have committed these atrocities will not benefit from our financial system and will not have a chance to visit our country. These are privileges that we do not have to give. It was an important message to human rights defenders that we’ll stand with them and take action to help them. It was also a clear indication to countries like Russia: ‘you need to deal with your own problems,’ otherwise it is of international concern and that’s exactly what the Helsinki Accords speak to, that what happens in your own country is a matter of international concern and we have a right to act. But it also showed U.S. leadership so other countries would act, and similar laws have been passed in other countries to show that U.S. leadership makes a difference. When we lead, we get other counties that are willing to join us in this effort.
“And lastly, let me say we need to bolster our capabilities to better understand Russian culture. We have to recognize why is Putin so popular within his own country? There is a reason for this and we need to expand Title XIII programming to strengthen academic and language skills in the region.
“The U.S. must lead through its democratic principles. President Putin and the world would have us believe in a dark vision of ourselves. We can’t accept that. It was Dr. Martin Luther King who said that “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Through U.S. leadership we responded during World War II and the aftermath of that war. We’ve been in Asia, in the Korean peninsula, we’ve been in the Middle East. We have provided hope and light in dark times and we’ve done that through our values of expanding understanding and recognizing that diversity is our strength. That’s been American values and that has given hope to people around the world. It’s needed now more than ever before.
“Look, I recognize that what I outlined here may or may not be in line with President-elect Trump’s vision of Russia, but I believe that these core values, standing up against violations of international law, against war crimes, against human rights violations, speaking up for democracy and freedom of speech, must be at the forefront of America’s policy agenda.
“It is my hope that as President Trump, as he contemplates the world around him and the real world legacy that we all hope to leave to our children and grandchildren, as he contemplates the challenges facing our nation and our world today, and for the balance of the 21st century, that he sets aside the blustery rhetoric of the campaign when it comes to our national security, and that he embraces the very democratic values that have allowed him to peacefully take office as the leader of the free world, his actions will help shape our world and it’s only by embracing American values and international norms can we best advance our shared goals. To that end I will fight every day that I am in the United States Senate to achieve those objectives. Thank you.”
Heather Conley: “Senator Cardin, on behalf of the entire audience let me say thank you, and we needed that. And to say all trans-atlanticists say ‘Amen.’ Thank you so much for that wonderful and meaningful keynote address. We’d love to keep you here all day but we know you have to back to the Hill. May I ask you one question before we let you go? As we are all watching with baited breath some of the key announcements of Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National security Advisor – the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has a unique role in confirming the next Secretary of State. Using what you have just said, as you sit there through a confirmation hearing, what are you looking for in the individuals that you will confirm that deal with Russia policy, what are you looking for in their statements that meet the values that you outlined in your speech?”
Senator Cardin: “Heather, it’s a very important question. President Trump is entitled to have his team in place. He won the election, he’s going to be our next president. There are a lot of people that seem to be within the Republican tent on foreign policy that have the knowledge, the expertise, the experience, are committed to U.S. values, that he can choose. So I want him to pick a person who is known for his or her skills, diplomacy, that understands the international community, that has a commitment to U.S. values. I want that type of person. And there are plenty of people out there. So I’m hoping he will choose wisely. This is one of the key positions in his administration, but Congress has a responsibility. The advice and consent clause of the Constitution is there for a reason so we have a responsibility to vet any nominee through a hearing process and through how we go through the background of an individual and that will be done, particularly depending on the person that he nominates.”
Heather Conley: “Once again, please join me in thanking Senator Ben Cardin for a fantastic address.”