Michael McFaul Testifies on Russian Threat to the U.S. Before House Committee on Foreign Affairs
The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment held a public hearing on Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in response to a U.S. intelligence report that accused Russia of paying bounties to Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
The hearing, “Exposing and Demanding Accountability for Kremlin Crimes Abroad,” included testimony by Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Following is a transcript of McFaul’s prepared oral testimony:
Chairman Keating, Ranking Member Wilson, and other Members of this Committee, thank you for having me today.
I’ve submitted a longer written testimony which covers all the questions I was asked to address for today. In my five minutes now, I’ll just highlight a few points.
First, as a caveat, I want to underscore that we still need greater clarity on what Putin did in Afghanistan and how Trump responded. My testimony today is just informed by what has been published in the media. The facts on the intelligence as we know them so far, however, are very troubling. The facts on Trump’s decision-making regarding this intelligence are equally disturbing.
Both however — Putin’s behavior and Trump’s behavior — follow consistent patterns. We should be disturbed, but not surprised by this latest episode.
First Putin. For several years now, Putin has behaved like a rogue actor in the international system, brazenly defying norms, rules, and laws and daring us to stop him. Let me remind you of the pattern.
In 2008, Putin invaded Georgia and recognized the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in violent violation of international law.
In 2014, Putin annexed Crimea, violating one of the most sacred norms of the international system since the end of World War II. No Soviet leader since Stalin had ever annexed territory during the Cold War. He also intervened in eastern Ukraine in support of separatists. That war continues today.
In 2015, Putin deployed the Russian air force to Syria to prop up a ruthless dictator, Mr. Assad, who has used illegal chemical weapons to kill innocent civilians. A U.N. panel has accused the Russian military of committing war crimes for bombing Syrian civilians indiscriminately.
In 2016, Putin of course violated American sovereignty, deploying multiple methods to try to influence the outcome of our presidential election, and amplify polarization in American society.
In 2016, Russian intelligence agents allegedly tried to orchestrate a coup in Montenegro, just as the country was moving towards joining NATO.
In 2018, Putin tried to assassinate Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom.
In 2019, Putin’s agents allegedly murdered Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Chechen-Georgian citizen, in Berlin. Last week, another Chechen dissident was assassinated in Austria.
This latest action in Afghanistan follows a pattern of lawless, rogue behavior.
Second, Trump. President Trump’s non-response so far also follows a consistent pattern.
As a candidate and ever since, Trump repeatedly has said very admiring things about Putin, and never a critical word.
In 2016, when asked about Putin’s oppressive methods at home, Trump responded by saying, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also….”
In 2017, when asked about Putin’s methods again, Trump defended the Russian leader by criticizing the United States, arguing “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
In 2018, perhaps most shockingly, Trump stood next to Putin at their summit in Helsinki and sided with Putin over our own Intelligence Community in stating that he did not believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
In 2019, at their meeting in Osaka, Japan, Trump and Putin laughed together about the evils of the independent media. Trump said, “Get rid of them … Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.” Putin replied, “We also have… It’s the same.”
So in 2020, Trump’s refusal to criticize Putin for this latest dastardly act is shocking and depressing, but not surprising.
I want to underscore that Trump’s embrace of Putin has negative consequences for U.S. national interests. We’ve been told to ignore Trump’s tweets, and just follow what the Trump administration does. But Trump’s personal actions have actually undermined sound Trump Administration policies towards Russia.
Strikingly, Trump’s attempts to befriend Putin have produced no tangible benefit for American security or economic interests. No new arms control agreement. No Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. No help in stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, or advancing Trump diplomacy towards North Korea.
No cooperation in Afghanistan, Syria, or Libya. No release of Paul Whelan from a Moscow prison. No restarting of adoptions. No trade deal.
But even worse, Trump’s personalization of diplomacy with Putin has undermined many Trump Administration policies towards Russia. For instance, the Trump administration has rightly strengthened NATO with new funding and new deployments. But Trump personally has undermined NATO cohesion by berating allies, especially Chancellor Angela Merkel, and announcing out of the blue his decision to reduce the number of U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany. Second, the Trump Administration rightly decided to prove lethal assistance to Ukraine. But Trump personally undermined this policy by trying to condition the transfer of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine to the opening of an investigation in Ukraine of Vice President’s Joe Biden son even though there is zero evidence of any wrongdoing. Third, the Trump Administration has rightly criticized Putin for human rights violations. But Trump personally has never said of word of criticism about Putin. I could go on. The point is that the Trump administration has tried to enact a smart policy towards Russia, but there is one guy in the Trump administration who disagrees with the policy and consistently undermines it — and he happens to be the President the United States. The pattern is clear.
Asking, therefore, what the Trump administration should do in response to these latest reports is a futile exercise if Trump himself will not even acknowledge Putin’s belligerent behavior.
Congress, however, can take several steps, independent of the White House.
First, proceed with more hearings. The American people, especially those who send their daughters and sons overseas to defend our country, have a right to know the facts.
Second, Congress should pass the DETER Act. We need to do all that we can to stop Russian interference in our presidential election, especially on Election Day. The DETER Act helps.
Third, Congress should enact new legislation to make Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty an independent, non-governmental organization with an independent board and a direct appropriation from the U.S. Congress. Doing so would be one more step of many others needed to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation.
In the long run, not unlike the Cold War, we need a bipartisan strategy to contain, deter, isolate, and sometimes engage Putin’s Russia. In my written testimony, I’ve outlined the broad contours of such a strategy. Maybe we will have time in questions to discuss those ideas in greater detail.
Thank you again, for inviting to appear before your Committee.