WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, delivered the following opening remarks at a hearing Tuesday entitled, “The European Union as a Partner Against Russian Aggression: Sanctions, Security, Democratic Institutions and the Way Forward”:
“I particularly appreciate this hearing. I think it's very, very important that we share a lot in our transatlantic partnership, and one of the things we share is that we are all targeted by Russia's activities to our democratic institutions.
“But before I comment about the specific subject, I join you in our concerns about what happened in St. Petersburg, and I issued a statement about that terrorist attack. But this morning, we're learning that there was now another gas attack in Syria that looks like it was not chlorine, that it was a more serious chemical agent, could very well be sarin, even though we've been informed that all of those gas elements were removed from Syria.
“And the number of victims appears to be much more serious than any recent attack of chemical weapons in Syria. And that this could only be done by the Assad regime, and of course Russia is supporting the Assad regime's use of this type of warfare.
“So, Mr. Chairman, it just points out the seriousness of the activities that are taking place in Syria. The fact is that Russia is enabling the Assad regime to break any form of standards as far as the use of chemical weapons, and now women and children again have been murdered as a result of the Assad regime's commission of war crimes. I expect that the international community needs to stand stronger to make sure those that are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable.
“As we all know, the Russian government sought to influence the U.S. presidential election last November. They attacked the United States. As elected officials, it's our solemn responsibility to understand what happened and to ensure decisive, comprehensive action that protects our democracy.
“Vladimir Putin has not rested on his laurels since November 8. A number of European countries have important elections this year and we're seeing some of the same tactics of disinformation and interference across the continent. Putin's elections interference is more strategic and sinister than just meddling. Putin as the head of a regime based on corruption and cronyism, has a fear of democracy, which is why he works so hard to suppress it at home and abroad.
“His aim is to undermine the international democratic values and structures that have kept the world safe for 70 years and enshrined fundamental human rights. Breaking up the European Union, shaking confidence in the American electoral system, these tactics are part and parcel of a bigger aim. So the nature of our response is critical and the stakes could not be higher.
“And to this point, the administration's Russian policy has been contradictory and confusing with high-level officials contradicting the president's positions.
“I am particularly concerned about the upcoming elections in France and Germany.
“In France, we have already seen a slew of WikiLeaks and fake news stories discrediting candidates. This is the same Kremlin playbook that we saw in last year's elections here. There are reported financial ties between the Kremlin and the far right National Front Party and its leader, Marine Le Pen just met last week with Putin in Moscow.
“With the first round of voting fast approaching on April 23 and a subsequent two-week period until the second round, French voters sit squarely in the sight of Putin's weapons of disinformation and interference.
“Germany has been at Putin's target for years. In 2015, members of the Bundestag and Chancellor Merkel's party were allegedly hacked by Russian government elements. The head of the German Federal Criminal Police pointed last month to 10 offices that were hacked and said that the significant data drain could be used to influence upcoming elections in September.
“I'm also deeply concerned about the Russian government's increased presence in the Western Balkans. Putin's regime has increased pressure on Bosnia and Serbia. The Kremlin was behind a plot last fall to forcefully take over the Montenegrin parliament and install a new government hostile to NATO. Thankfully, Montenegro emerged unscathed and I'm proud that the Senate recently approved the country's accession into the alliance.
“The Russian government's assault on our European partnership requires a comprehensive, strong response. We have seen no action from this administration to counter fresh Russian disinformation. I am afraid that the administration's simply not serious in its response to this significant threat, a reckless posture given the stakes. Many of us in the Senate have refused to sit on our hands. I was proud to draft legislation earlier this year that now is supported by 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
“The Countering Russia Hostilities Act would codify and strengthen sanctions on the Russian Federation for its aggression in Ukraine, Syria, and the United States and establish a European Democracy Initiative to run in parallel to our security efforts to bolster European states' resilience.
“Members of this committee, on both sides of the aisle, are co- sponsors and the bill has been referred to our committee. It is a serious, substantive, and comprehensive bill and I hope it will be marked up soon. Americans, Europeans need to speak with one voice on this important -- of the Trans-Atlantic values we hold dear; democracy, human rights, and the just, accountable rule of law.
“We must develop an affirmative agenda to deliver on the democratic hopes of all of our citizens including our most vulnerable and marginalized. I welcome the ideas of how we can strengthen the ties between both Europe and the United States.
“I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today. We have a distinguished representative from the European Union and we thank you for being here. I look also forward to the distinguished members of our second panel.”