Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland yesterday outlined U.S. and allied efforts to accelerate military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion, and plans to tighten sanctions further on Russia with the cooperation of countries around the world. Nuland testified in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, shortly after President Joe Biden announced that the United States would block oil imports from Russia, in addition to the sanctions already imposed since Russia’s onslaught began on Feb. 24.
Nuland and members of the committee expressed concern that conditions would continue to deteriorate in Ukraine. Committee Chairman Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said, “I am afraid – and I hope I’m dead wrong – that this may be just the beginning of the fight for Ukraine’s existence…We are prepared to support the Ukrainian people. But it may be a long road. So while the response of the past 12 days is valiant, it cannot be the end.”
Menendez acknowledged that the Ukrainians are fighting for more than their own physical and national survival. “The fight for Ukraine is a fight for democracy. A fight for freedom.” Nuland said Putin is “testing the foundations of international law and he is testing us all,” and added that “Ukrainians are fighting for their nation’s survival, but they are also fighting for all of us.”
Senators urged the administration to speed the process of delivering the military aid Ukraine needs to shore up its defenses against Russia’s approximately 150,000 troops and their artillery, and to rush more humanitarian support for civilians fleeing either to other parts of the country or across borders. Congress is moving to provide additional funding as early as this week. Senators who oppose the administration’s negotiations to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal that President Donald Trump jettisoned expressed concern that Russia might benefit from any such arrangement. And several committee members said they opposed any plans to supplement U.S. energy supplies with oil from Venezuela.
Nuland said the administration is moving urgently to both provide the needed aid to Ukraine and ensure that sanctions against Russia exert maximum pressure on Putin from countries and economies around the world.
“From the U.S. perspective, the endgame is the strategic defeat of President Putin in this adventure,” Nuland said.
The following are among other highlights from the hearing:
On military assistance:
–Two-thirds of a new $350 million package of military aid that Biden and Blinken authorized 10 days ago has arrived in Ukraine, part of more than $1 billion in such assistance that the U.S. has provided for Ukraine to defend itself in the past year, Nuland said. The United States also is facilitating similar – and in some cases such as Germany unprecedented — assistance from others.
–Nuland said the administration was caught off guard by a Polish government announcement just before the hearing that it would provide 28 MIG-29 fighter jets to the United States for Ukraine to use in its defense. The two countries had been discussing the idea of Poland providing the jets directly to Ukraine, and the United States backfilling Poland’s supply of fighter aircraft with F-16s. Nuland said the Polish government had not consulted with the United States in advance of the announcement about the new sequencing. The Department of Defense rejected the Polish offer later in the day. As the Associated Press put it, the Polish arrangement “raised the concerning prospect of jets departing from a U.S. and NATO base to fly into airspace contested with Russia in the Ukraine war.” Nuland told the committee that Poland was a “natural partner” for Ukraine on the transfer of the Soviet-era fighter jets, including for training.
–Cardin urged that the Biden administration keep the committee apprised of any delays in getting critical fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian military, saying “We would like to see those planes there yesterday.” Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) noted that Slovakia also has 11 MIGs and Bulgaria has 13 that are being considered for transfer to Ukraine. Nuland said there are “a number of factors to consider here, and there are mixed views among allies and even within the administration.”
–The number of U.S. troops now in Europe and on its waters for reassurance to NATO allies has reached 100,000, Nuland said. (Most estimates had put the number prior to Russia’s onslaught at about 80,000.) The United States has more than doubled the number of forces it has in Poland.
–The Ukrainians have received “a large number” of counter-battery radars to defend against Russian missiles, Nuland said without going into detail, and the United States is considering other such assistance as well. She noted, however, that a system such as the U.S.-provided “Iron Dome” air-defense system that Israel uses against rockets from the Gaza Strip takes extensive time to set up, including training time.
–On the prospect of Kazakhstan possibly aiding Russia in its war against Ukraine, Nuland said that seems unlikely, especially after the recent incident in which Russian forces entered Kazakhstan, ostensibly to help suppress protests, but were essentially urged by the government to leave days later. Nuland said she thinks Putin will fail in any efforts to persuade the Kazakhs or other members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to join in his war, though their dependence on Moscow puts them in difficult positions.
On humanitarian aid:
–The number of Ukrainians who have fled the country now exceeds 2 million, and the number who’ve fled their homes for other parts of Ukraine is at 1.2 million, and both numbers are rising. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) said half the refugees are children, and that the exodus over 12 days exceeds that from Syria over three years. He said the United Nations is planning for 5 million refugees and 7 million Ukrainians displaced internally.
–The United States last week announced an additional $54 million in humanitarian aid for Ukraine, in addition to food, medicine, health care, shelter support and other assistance already in place. Nuland said the United States began stockpiling aid last year, when Putin began massing troops on Ukraine’s border and that it is sending more now.
–Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) said he expects passage on March 10 or 11 of an omnibus bill with “major humanitarian assistance” for Ukraine. Coons said it may be as much as $12 billion, half of which would be “dedicated for the humanitarian crisis.”
–Nuland said yesterday was a “third day of disappointment” on implementing humanitarian corridors to get civilians out of combat zones and get food and medical supplies and other humanitarian aid in. United Nations agencies have been the main negotiators. Another effort was underway in Mariupol on Ukraine’s southern coast, but the Associated Press reported that the new attempt failed once more, severely endangering civilians.
–Asked by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request to the British Parliament yesterday to designate Russia as a terrorist country and whether Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism, Nuland replied, “We have not put it that way before. But I have to tell you that every day that goes by that they commit these brutal acts on the ground, it’s something we should look at.”
–About 40 countries are participating in sanctions against Russia, constituting more than half the world’s economy. “We’re seeing a continued flight of capital, a tumbling of the ruble – it’s lost half its value, rising inflation, higher borrowing costs, and evaporating access for Russia to global financial markets. There is more on the way from the G-7, our EU partners and countries around the world if Putin doesn’t end this vicious war.”
–Menendez called for additional sanctions, including “every major bank” in Russia to be cut off from SWIFT, “holding Belarus and the Lukashenko regime to account for their role and acquiescence,” and “pressuring those countries who have not yet ended economic ties or arms sales [with Russia] to do so.”
–The Biden administration has now imposed similar sanctions on Belarus as it has enacted against Russia, based on the aid that the regime of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has provided to Putin in the invasion, and Nuland said there are more sanctions to come against its leaders. At the same time, she said, Putin’s aim of getting military cooperation from the Belarusian military has not come to fruition, as Belarusian soldiers especially show a “lack of enthusiasm.”
–Committee members pressed for the Biden administration to have secondary sanctions ready to go in the event that certain countries help Russia skirt the penalties that the United States and its allies have imposed.
–Nuland said the U.S. and its allies are pressing China, which just reported its slowest economic growth in 15 years, to take the “opportunity for leadership” in not propping up Putin’s regime.
On the effect of the war on other countries of the region:
–Several members of the committee expressed concern that Putin, if successful in Ukraine, may try to expand his aggression to capture more of Georgia and Moldova than the enclaves he already controls there. Risch said, “I’m particularly concerned about the situation in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, which has one of the largest refugee populations per capita. It is struggling with high Russian imposed energy prices, and may have to deal with the activation of the 1,500 Russian troops in its occupied region of Transnistria.”
–Nuland noted the longstanding U.S. military cooperation with Georgia, whose troops, like those of Ukraine, served in the NATO mission in Afghanistan even though the country isn’t a member of the alliance. And she cited Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit over the weekend to Moldova “with the intent of offering support.” She noted the “short hop” from Odesa, a strategic Black Sea port that Russia inevitably will seek to wrest from Ukraine, to the Russian-controlled Transnistria enclave and then on to the rest of Moldova. She said Moldova’s leaders are concerned about both border security, having already received 230,000 refugees from Ukraine (120,000 of whom are staying), and energy security, as the country receives a large portion of its energy from Russia.
On Russia’s involvement in the talks over a possible return to the Iran deal (known as the JCPOA):
–Menendez, Ranking Member Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and other members of the committee expressed concern that Russia, as one of the negotiating parties, might benefit from a return to the Iran deal, which the Biden administration has been negotiating for much of the past year, if the deal results in a lifting of sanctions on Iran that would allow it to buy oil from Russia. Risch advocated putting the Iran deal “on ice” for six months while the war in Ukraine is going on.
–Members also expressed concern about reports that Russia is seeking to leverage its role in the Iran talks to gain sanctions relief. Nuland agreed, saying, “Russia is trying to up the ante and broaden its demands with regard to the JCPOA, and we are not playing `Let’s Make a Deal’…There may be some in Russia seeking to get extra benefits for their cooperation and participation in seeking to get Iran back into the JCPOA, but they are not going to be successful.”
–At the same time, Nuland said, a delay in a deal to return to the JCPOA would be ill-advised. “The last thing we need is this war and an Iran with nuclear weapons.”
On U.S. Talks With Venezuela Over Oil Supplies
–Menendez, Risch, and other members expressed concern that the Biden administration may be discussing possible oil purchases from Venezuela to make up for the loss of Russian imports (see sanctions above). Global sanctions against Russia “should not be undercut by propping up a dictator under investigation for crimes against humanity in Caracas,” Menendez said. Risch echoed that appeal, saying, “We are in the enviable position of having the oil and gas reserves needed to increase production in our own country right under our own feet.”
–Nuland said the primary purpose of an administration visit to Caracas over the weekend was part of continuing efforts to gain the release of American oil executives being held there, though she did not foreclose the idea that discussions included energy supplies. With the U.S. ban on Russian oil imports, specifically heavy fuel that only a few countries produce, “you have to find a way to get more capacity.”
–In response to a question about reports that Ukraine may have biological or chemical weapons, Nuland said Ukraine has biological research facilities that the United States fears Russia “may be trying to gain control of.”
–In the March 2 vote in the U.N. General Assembly on a resolution to condemn Russia’s aggression, while the vast majority of 193 UNGA member states – 141 of them – supported the resolution, 35 abstained, including China. (Five voted against it: Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia, and Syria). Nuland said the United States and allies are trying to persuade China and other countries that “neutrality is not an option.”
–The United States is supporting “a large number of Russian independent journalists who are active” outside Russia and make use of networks such as the Telegram messaging app to convey truthful information back to Russians inside the country, where the government has clamped down yet further in recent days on freedom of the press and speech, including shuttering the last major independent television and radio stations.
–Nuland said the United States is developing an overarching strategy for the Black Sea region, including military, economic, and environmental issues. She suggested the U.S. government underestimated the effect of Putin’s control of the Crimean Peninsula there since 2014. “I think we have not taken appropriate account of what it meant when Putin seized Crimea and then began putting all kinds of advanced weaponry on it, and that gave him the capacity to close aspects of the Black Sea in a way that we cannot tolerate, and we need to get back to that business,” she said.
In addition to her oral remarks and answers to members’ questions, Nuland submitted written testimony, available here.