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Menendez Delivers Floor Speech Condemning Russian Aggression near Crimea and Requesting Manafort Briefing

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered a floor speech that condemned last weekend’s attack by Russia on Ukrainian ships, outlined clear steps for the United States to take to shore up Ukraine’s maritime security, and called on President Trump to unequivocally denounce the Kremlin’s escalating aggression. In addition, Senator Menendez also called on the Administration to brief the U.S. Senate on the veracity of reporting by the Guardian today revealing that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort repeatedly held secret talks with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London.



Below are his remarks as delivered: 

“I rise today, as I have many times before, to stand up for a free and independent Ukraine. I come to the floor to unambiguously call out and condemn the Russian government’s escalation of aggression and the increasingly dangerous situation in Ukraine. Over the weekend, Russian forces sharply escalated their campaign in Ukraine by attacking and seizing three Ukrainian vessels with 23 crew members and temporarily shutting down commercial shipping through the Kerch Strait. Ukrainian sailors were injured and required medical attention. 

“This was an outrageous violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, so I want to say this clearly and unequivocally.  The Kremlin must immediately return the vessels and sailors to Ukraine.  The Kremlin must not obstruct the free passage of shipping through the Kerch Strait moving forward. And we here in the United States must take the Kremlin’s actions seriously, in word and in deed.

“For the Russian government’s actions on Sunday marked a sharp escalation in Putin’s ongoing assault on the international rules based order, this time on freedom of navigation in the high seas. Indeed, this was an act of war. And Sunday’s attack comes in the context of ongoing Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine for the past four years.

“For the past four years, Ukrainian forces have endured an unrelenting assault, rendering the Donbas economically shattered and ungovernable.

“For the past four years, 1.5 million displaced people have lived lives of uncertainly, not sure when and if they’ll ever be able to return home.

“For the past four years, Ukraine has struggled to rebuild its economy and reform its institutions while fighting a hot war and suffering regular casualties.

“For the past four years, Ukraine has been on the front lines of a struggle against the Kremlin’s vision of a world that is not guided by democratic values, not buttressed by fundamental freedoms, not governed by a rules-based international order, but instead ruled by Mr. Putin and a corrupt cabal of oligarch insiders.

“Despite years of aggression, Putin’s latest escalation marks an even more insidious turn. Apparently, the Kremlin no longer seeks to hide behind lies of ‘little green men’ or ‘Russian backed separatists.’  The Russian government, with no pretense or obfuscation, fully admitted to directly firing on Ukrainian forces and seizing their ships.

“Beyond the military component, this attack tells us that Putin is ramping up an economic war on Ukraine.  Since the spring, Russian vessels have blocked Ukrainian commercial ships from sailing through the Kerch Strait, costing Ukraine millions in lost revenue from exports and blocking imports critical to the Ukrainian economy. This weekend, Moscow opened up a new front in the war, one that could ultimately do the most damage to Ukraine’s viability as a state.

“Russia’s actions show that its leaders are emboldened, unchastened and on the march. Clearly, our response to Russian efforts to undermine our security, our foundational democratic values, our institutions, and the rules-based international order has thus far been inadequate. Certainly, the State and Defense Departments have taken some steps to counter Russian aggression.

“Ambassador Kurt Volker, who has led efforts to fully implement the Minsk Agreements, has shown clear-eyed leadership in calling out the Kremlin and holding Putin to account. Our Assistant Secretary for Europe Wess Mitchell has done much of the same. 

“Secretary Jim Mattis has consistently supported a strong military presence in Europe to counter Russian aggression. Nikki Haley, our UN Ambassador, issued the first statement from the administration following Sunday’s attack and was appropriately firm.

“Come to think of it, I can’t think of any player within the Trump administration who is soft on Russia. Except one, of course. The President himself.

“Just yesterday, when asked by reporters about Russia’s escalation in Ukraine, President Trump said ‘we don’t like what’s happening either way.’ In other words he once again fell back on the same-old “both sides” excuse he keeps in his back pocket whenever asked about Russia’s bad behavior.

“That’s not the kind of clear and unequivocal denouncement the people of Ukraine or the world needs to hear from an American President at a moment in which the international democratic order is under attack. But unfortunately it’s what we’ve come to expect from President Trump, who repeatedly subverts his own Administration’s positions and efforts on Russia.

“The work of Mattis, Volker, Mitchell, Haley and countless others has been repeatedly undermined by a President who has abandoned America’s interests and betrayed our core principles time and time again, from the fiasco in Helsinki to an exchange in Paris just weeks ago when he greeted Putin with a giant smile on his face.

“The President has had many opportunities to restore confidence to the American people and reclaim America’s global leadership on Russia policy. While he’s repeatedly failed to do so, yet another opportunity lies before him this week at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, where he is scheduled to meet with Putin. 

“If ever there was a time for this President to defend our country, our principles and those of our allies, this would be it. If ever there was an opportunity for American leadership, this would be it. If there was ever a time for President Trump to find his spine on Russia, this would be it.

“In the meantime, President Trump must use this week’s opportunity in Buenos Aires to send a clear message to Putin that we will not tolerate its increasingly aggressive behavior in Ukraine.

“Here’s what I believe the President must do.

“First, the United States needs to increase assistance to our friends in Ukraine in the face of continued aggression in Donbas and now in the Kerch Strait.  The Trump Administration must immediately increase security assistance to Ukraine, including the provision of lethal maritime equipment and weapons.  In addition, we must bolster intelligence sharing with Kyiv and assist Ukraine’s efforts to improve its maritime domain awareness.

“Second, NATO has a critical role and should consider increasing exercises and its presence in the Black Sea. The U.S. has maintained an active presence in the South China Sea to protect shipping lanes. NATO should move quickly to establish such a presence in the Black Sea.

“Third, the U.S. should increase sanctions pressure on Russia immediately. This is long overdue. The president is required to impose sanctions on Russia under the CAATSA law. Several mandatory provisions of the law remain ignored. I would offer that now would be a good time to follow the law. But imposing sanctions alone does not constitute a real strategy.

“Fourth, Sunday’s events present an important opportunity for American engagement with likeminded allies across Europe. Now is the time for serious diplomacy and coalition building in the face of this threat. Our European friends spoke out in full opposition to Russia’s attack on Sunday. Now let’s see if we can work together to turn words into action and deter such Kremlin attacks in the future.

“Finally, as the situation in Ukraine grows more perilous we in the United States Senate must also live up to our national security responsibilities. Following the president’s failures in Helsinki, Senator Graham and I, along with others, introduced the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, known as DASKA.

“This legislation is more than another sanctions bill. It charts a comprehensive way forward for how the US can better defend its interests and those of our close allies against Putin’s unrelenting assault on our values, security, economic interests and the rules-based international order.

“After months of Senate hearings on the legislation, we have nothing to show for it as both the Senate Foreign Relations and Banking Committees have refused to mark up new legislation to respond to the Kremlin threat. Refused.

“What are we waiting for? What are we waiting for? The alarm bells are ringing and yet the Senate Republican leadership is sound asleep!

“They’re asleep as Trump concedes more ground to the Kremlin in Ukraine and in cyberspace; asleep while Russian ships ram Ukrainian vessels in international waters and injure brave Ukrainian sailors; asleep while Vladimir Putin pounds away at our points of vulnerability.

“The American people deserve a vote on DASKA before we leave for the holidays. Anything less would be mark a shameful abdication of our responsibility to protect and defend our national interests. I hope this chamber will wake up to this growing threat.  Perhaps Sunday’s attack will be ringing alarm clock that compels this body and the international community to act.

“Finally, the American people cannot afford a weak performance by President Trump at the G20 summit, like we saw in Helsinki.  We cannot afford such a performance. President Trump, this is your opportunity to finally show American leadership in defense of our principles and our close allies across Europe.  The time is now. It is critical, and we await see that, in fact, the President can rise to the moment. 

“Now, finally, Mr. President, on another matter: I want to address breaking news of the day on a related matter. Just today we learned from an exclusive report in the Guardian that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort repeatedly held secret talks with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange within the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

“These revelations, reported publicly in the Guardian, if true, raise serious new questions about the Trump campaign’s possible relationship with WikiLeaks, including the timed-release of hacked emails orchestrated to inflict maximum damage on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. According to the published report, Manafort visited in 2015 and then again in the spring of 2016, just in time for Trump to name him RNC convention manager.

“Sources in Ecuador say Manafort’s meetings with Assange may have been purposefully kept off the embassy’s official visitor logs. It is essential that Ecuador’s current government publicly and swiftly confirm whether former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and his administration allowed these meetings to take place. Given that Secretary Pompeo met with Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Valencia yesterday morning, the day before this report comes out, the State Department and the intelligence community must immediately brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Mr. Manafort’s interaction with Mr. Assange, as well as the Ecuadoran government’s role in any meetings.”

“This is critical. This is critical for us to know, and I hope it won’t take other actions to get clarity. I’m already concerned that tomorrow we’re having an all-members’ briefing on what happened with Saudi Arabia and the murder of Mr. Khashoggi and there won’t be anyone fro the intelligence community there. Where’s Gina Haspell, the head of the CIA? She went and listened to the tapes. Her agency is reported to have come up with conclusions that say “Yes, the Crown Prince knew and was involved.” Yet we’re going to have a briefing without anyone from the intelligence community there. It’s an affront to the Senate that has responsibilities, oversight and otherwise, to understand what is the appropriate action of this body as it relates to US foreign policy and this particular ally.

“But we’re not going to have anyone from the intelligence community. To me, that’s the ultimate cover-up. So I want to know what happened. Whether or not this Guardian report is true. I want to know from the intelligence community what is their determination. I don’t want it characterized by someone else. I want to hear it directly from them. Only then, can we actually act in a way that is both concerted and with the knowledge necessary to make the informed decisions on critical US foreign policy.

“With that, Mr. President, I yield the floor and observe the absence of a quorum.”