The Cable

European Diplomats to Congress: For Our Sake, Don’t Cut Foreign Aid Funding

Foreign diplomats warn slashing U.S. military and foreign assistance could endanger allies under Russia’s shadow.

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President Donald Trump proposed slashing State Department and foreign aid budgets by nearly 40 percent. Now European diplomats are warning those cuts would be dangerous and expose European allies to further Russian aggression.

Six eastern European envoys, including the Ukrainian foreign minister, testified before the Senate Tuesday to urge stronger U.S. leadership in the region to hedge against Russia. While lauding U.S. military assistance and recent troop deployments to the Baltic region under the NATO flag, they also warned cutting funding to non-military assistance measures could strengthen Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare tactics.

“We will not feel safer when the budget for such projects will be essentially cut,” Polish Ambassador Piotr Wilczek told a panel of Senate Appropriations Committee members.

“We hope that it’s just a kind of deliberation — a kind of tweeting, not really a decision. Because this sounds very dangerous,” he said.

Wilczek, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, and the ambassadors of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Georgia all joined the panel urging the Senate to keep the flow of military and nonmilitary aid flowing to eastern Europe.

They pointed to the importance of U.S. foreign military assistance, but also smaller government-funded efforts, from Voice of America to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, that play an outsized role in bolstering post-Soviet democracies and countering Russian aggression. All are potentially on Trump’s budget chopping block. State and foreign aid could see their budgets slashed 37 percent, if the White House’s opening salvo in the federal budget process sticks. His proposed cuts showcase “a troubling disregard for the important role [the State Department] plays in U.S. national security, especially in regards to the transatlantic relationship” wrote Rachel Rizzo, research associate with the Center for a New American Security. 

But it’s not just his budget proposals that are rattling allies. During the campaign, Trump brushed off U.S. commitments to NATO allies and openly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. Top White House officials misled Congress on meetings with Russian diplomats during the presidential campaign season, which toppled Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and hamstrung Attorney General Jeff Sessions as Congress poises to investigate Russia’s interference in the U.S. election.

Since his election, Trump has walked back his NATO skepticism. But allies are fearful he could neglect or even spurn European allies to forge more cooperation with Moscow. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Brussels last month to soothe allies unnerved by Trump. Both administration officials offered reassuring noises, but with a “tinge of conditionality,” former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow told Foreign Policy, making clear Washington expects NATO allies to shoulder a bigger part of the defense burden.

The stakes are especially high for Ukraine and Georgia, both grappling with Moscow’s illegal annexation of swaths of their countries. Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister, detailed for Congress the size of Russia’s military footprint. In eastern Ukraine, he said the Kremlin has poured in 4,200 regular troops and 40,000 militants, more than 400 tanks, and 1,000 artillery platforms. Some 23,000 Russian troops are in occupied Crimea, he said.

He told the senate panel he received strong signals of support from his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday.

The Baltic States, unlike Ukraine or Georgia, are under NATO’s protective umbrella as full members. But they’re also staring down the barrel of Moscow’s military might. Russia bulked up its military hardware on NATO’s borders in the Baltic States and regularly conducts massive snap military exercises to showcase its force.

Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland has become the “most militarized region in Europe,” Wilczek warned. In October last year, Russia deployed nuclear-capable missiles to the region. Some defense experts now doubt NATO could reinforce the Baltic states quickly enough in the unlikely event Russia invaded. NATO is funneling troops led by U.S., Canadian, German, and British contingents to the Baltic states to deter that scenario. The deployment “makes a very substantial difference in terms of credibility of NATO’s deterrence,” Vershbow said.

Vershbow, also former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said a conventional Russian invasion was highly unlikely, but what’s more troubling is Russia’s hybrid warfare — prodding U.S. allies with subversive economic or political maneuvers to undermine their strength. That’s where U.S. foreign aid matters, helping fortify democratic institutions and counter Russian propaganda.

Eerik Marmei, Estonia’s ambassador in Washington, told the Senate Tuesday Russia’s hybrid antics weren’t limited to the former Soviet Union. “We, as neighbors to Russia, are just a bit more used to witnessing such behavior,” he said. “Upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany are a perfect theater for the Russian disinformation warriors,” he added. Those concerns have already borne fruit.

The Lithuanian ambassador Rolandas Kriščiūnas said Russian spies tried to “aggressively” meddle in his country’s domestic politics, adding Moscow was bankrolling Russian-speaking groups in the Baltic states to “incite ethnic tensions.”

The European envoys largely sidestepped the elephant in the room: Trump’s possible ties to Russia. But lawmakers did not.

“We understand the interference you’ve had. We now count ourselves among those who are facing the same kind of interference,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told the European diplomats.

“If we forgive and forget regarding our own election we’ll invite future aggression by other countries,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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