“Make no mistake: the Putin regime has launched an undeclared war on the international order that has preserved peace and stability in the United States and Europe since World War II,” Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) said at a Brookings event today. In his remarks, the senator described how Vladimir Putin’s Russia is actively seeking to undermine the West, isolate the United States, and alienate people from their governments. “This is not a new cold war,” he said, “this is a new type of war.” Sen. Coons also outlined five actions that Congress should take to respond to the threat, emphasizing that members of Congress need to help their constituents focus on the threat. Finally, Sen. Coons called for bipartisan progress on the issue, and urged giving President Trump a chance to assemble his foreign policy team and to reconsider campaign trail comments.
Sen. Coons compared a 1950 National Intelligence Estimate delivered to President Harry Truman on the two goals of the Soviet Union to Putin’s aims today. Watch:
Vladimir Putin, Sen. Coons explained, “demonstrably does not support the liberal world order of the values that have created it and sustain it.” Instead, Putin “perceives it as fundamentally unfair to Russia and hostile to its interests” and is actively trying to undermine not only trust in institutions but in the “very concept of democracy itself” in the United States and throughout Europe. The senator, whose committee assignments include foreign relations and appropriations, argued that a “world committed to democracy and the rule of law … is a more stable and prosperous world in which Americans are safer and more economically secure.” Watch:
Sen. Coon’s also outlined specific cases in upcoming European elections that show evidence of Russian interference, including in France and Germany. Watch:
“The rise of far right, authoritarian, anti-immigrant parties threatens the very existence of the EU and America’s own well-being,” he added.
In his remarks, Sen. Coons not only described the nature and extent of Russia’s active measures to undermine western institutions and values, but he also outlined five policy actions Congress should take to effectively respond to the threat. The first item on the list is for Congress to “comprehend the nature of our conflict” so that it can make sure that the American people “share that understanding.” Watch:
Additional congressional actions include: maintain sanctions on Russia; back reformers in Russia’s neighbors that are under threat like Ukraine and Georgia; reassure allies and the American people of U.S. support for NATO and the European Union; and fully fund programs that support stability and prosperity, including civil society groups, journalists, and free elections.
Brookings President Strobe Talbott led a discussion and audience Q&A session with Senator Coons during which the senator expressed his concern that the American people and Congress are not sufficiently focused on the Russian threat, due either to the sheer volume of other issues at play and the perception that some Democrats are too focused on the outcome of the presidential election and not focused enough on the future. “I’m gravely concerned, bluntly, that my colleagues and our constituents are not that focused on this issue,” he said, and continued:
There is widespread concern and alarm among Democratic party activists about the last election, and about the impact of Russian meddling on the last election, and about pursuing the investigation into that where it should go or where it may go or to its conclusion.
What I keep trying to emphasize to friends and colleagues in both parties is that this is as much about our next election as it is about the last election. In my view, to the extent we narrowly focus on some public campaign to undermine or delegitimize President Trump, that is exactly wrong. It misses what is an ongoing Russian campaign of aggression against the very institutions of democracy and of the Atlantic alliance that really have been fundamental to our peace and prosperity and security over most of the last 70 years.
Responding to a question about concerns some European leaders—especially in Russia’s “near abroad”—have about U.S. commitment to NATO in reaction to comments made by then-candidate Trump and early in his administration, Sen. Coons noted that this “trajectory has calmed or cooled a little” in recent weeks with the formation of the administration’s national security and diplomacy team. Nevertheless, he said that “I think we cannot do enough to reinforce these relationships, these vital alliances, until President Trump himself says ‘we are committed to NATO, we are committed to Article 5, these are absolutely vital alliances’.” He elaborated on this point about NATO:
And while we all share the 2 percent of GDP by 2024 goal, we get a lot more out of the NATO alliance than a simple accounting metric of who invests how much money. We should be looking at the actual impact on our security and on collective security of the contributions of our European allies. And we frankly should be not measuring in a narrow accounting sense but valuing in a higher sense what it means to have an entire developed continent dedicated to capitalism, to democracy, to open and free societies. That itself is at risk and if we don’t start speaking with one voice, as leaders in the Senate, in the House, and the president, about that value, I’m concerned that the American people will not for long continue to sustain what has been an absolutely vital investment over the generations.
“I think this is a moment of grave threat to our entire system, to our democracy, and to our nation,” Senator Coons said at the end of the event. He expressed his optimism that a bipartisan, nonpolitical response to the Russia threat is possible, one that includes allowing the new president “the time to confront the world and the realities we face and to reconsider comments made in the course of a campaign.” Watch:
“It’s not about Trump, it’s about America,” Senator Coons concluded. “And if one thing may come out of this that is positive, it’s that Trump may succeed in making the Senate great again.”