WASHINGTON — Top Central and Eastern European diplomats came to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to support nonmilitary and military means to counter Russian influence in the region.
Representatives of Poland, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine accused Russia of waging hybrid warfare against them: cyberattacks, propaganda, threats of force and other means just shy of conventional warfare.
Lithuanian Ambassador Rolandas Krisciunas, for example, described "cooked" Russian broadcasts that discouraged Lithuanians from supporting the country's NATO membership. "They're pushing: 'Let's be neutral; why should we be a NATO member?' " he said.
In response, the diplomats voiced support for NATO, US foreign military financing and the U.S. Department of Defense's European Reassurance Initiative — just as U.S. President Donald Trump is considering deep cuts to the U.S. State Department, as much as 37 percent. The testimony also came as a bipartisan group of senators is pushing legislation that would require the president to get approval from Congress before easing U.S. economic and financial penalties against Moscow.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, told reporters ahead of the hearing he wanted to make the case for foreign aid as a national security tool, a point he said the Trump administration's "budget clearly doesn't" understand.
"Soft power is a way to combat radical Islam, a way to push back against Russia without hard power," said Graham, R-S.C. "I'm trying to make the case that Russia needs to be sanctioned not only for interfering in our democracy, but democracies around the world."
Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin called on lawmakers to support his besieged nation with American defensive weapons, which he said would "make a powerful statement to the Kremlin." He also credited U.S. training of Ukrainian troops for their success in repelling attacks.
Klimkin said the U.S. must not ease sanctions. "Until Russia gets off Ukrainian land, there must be no easing up of sanctions. If anything, they should be increased," he said.
Even as Trump has rattled European leaders by seeking better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and questioned the value of NATO, Klimkin said he had just met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who gave Kiev his full support in the conflict with Russia.
For Lithuania's part, Krisciunas said his country is exploring an air defense capability for the Baltic region, closer cooperation against hybrid threats and plans for RAID surveillance systems on its borders. The RAID towers are made by Raytheon.
Estonian Ambassador Eerik Marmei praised the U.S. foreign military financing program and the European Reassurance Initiative, which funded $75 million in infrastructure development and anti-tank weapons for the country. The American presence in the Baltic states, he said, "should remain."
Following the Russian seizure of the Crimean Peninsula, the U.S. launched periodic rotations of armored and airborne brigades to Poland and the Baltic states. The U.S. State Department also received some funding to increase security assistance to non-NATO partners, including Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.
On the nonmilitary side, Krisciunas called for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to boost its signal and coverage and extend its duration from 10 to 24 hours per day.
"I'm still old enough to remember the Soviet times, my father was listening, I was a kid at that time," he said. "The more word of freedom you can spread in the region, that will destroy the [Russian] monopoly on the news."
Polish Ambassador Piotr Wilczek also praised not only the reassurance initiative but cultural exchange programs, like the the Fulbright U.S. Student Program — which he called "underestimated."
When Delaware Democratic Senator Chris Coons pointedly asked whether the proposed U.S. State Department cut would make the diplomats' countries feel safer, Wilczek replied: "I think this is just a rhetorical question.
"We will not feel safer when the budgets for these programs will be cut," Wilczek said. "We hope it's just a deliberation, a kind of, you know, tweeting — not really a decision, because this sounds really dangerous."
America's foreign aid budget makes up less than 1 percent of overall federal spending. Nevertheless, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has emphasized it as a target for budget cuts, telling Fox News on Saturday the account faces "fairly dramatic reductions."
"We are going to propose to reduce foreign aid and we are going to propose to spend that money here," Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney said the cuts would help the administration fund a proposed $54 billion expansion of the U.S. military budget. The Trump administration is expected to release its budget proposal on March 16.
"The overriding message is fairly straightforward: Less money spent overseas means more money spent here," Mulvaney said.
Beyond Graham, other Republican critics of deep U.S. State Department cuts include Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif.; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.; House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas; and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.