WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a nomination hearing on January 19 for Antony J. Blinken, who was President Joe Biden’s nominee for the position of secretary of state. Ukraine and Russia-related issues were dominant throughout the question-and-answer period of the hearing.
SFRC Chairman Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) welcomed Mr. Blinken to the hearing. The nominee was introduced at the proceeding by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus.
The hearing began with a brief opening statement from Mr. Blinken.
“We can revitalize our core alliances – force multipliers of our influence around the world. Together, we are far better positioned to counter threats posed by Russia, Iran and North Korea, and to stand up for democracy and human rights,” Mr. Blinken said.
The deliberation continued with questions posed to the nominee by the members of the SFRC.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) questioned Mr. Blinken, asking if he “supports lethal assistance to Ukraine,” given the nearly seven-year war waged by the Russian aggressor. The nominee retorted affirmatively, citing his op-ed in The New York Times about the need for military assistance to Ukraine.
Other senators also elaborated about the importance of lethal assistance to Ukraine’s military forces. In particular, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, commended the “build-up of lethal weapons to Ukraine for self-defense” purposes. He pointed out that the United States is at a turning point in its relationship with Ukraine and must “build upon success.”
The senator elaborated on his visit to Ukraine as an election observer in May 2014 – a trip he made along with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) – for the presidential election immediately following the Revolution of Dignity. He noted the free and fair elections in May 2019 for Ukraine’s newest president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and that he was a sponsor of the 2019 Ukraine Security Initiative that “supported weapons to Ukraine for them to defend themselves.”
In response to a question from Sen. Portman about aid to Ukraine, Mr. Blinken said, “I very much support lethal assistance and training to Ukraine…it has made a material impact” on the current situation.
Sen. Portman also raised the issue of the challenging battle against global disinformation campaigns and he asked the hearing to consider what might be done to combat disinformation.
Together with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Sen. Portman previously co-authored legislation for the establishment of the Global Engagement Center (GEC). The senator reported that the disinformation multi-agency bureau received $60 million in federal funding for fiscal year 2021 and Sen. Portman said he would like to see that future efforts for GEC are “resourced adequately and appropriately.”
Mr. Blinken agreed and he noted that, in his experience in the early days of aggression in Ukraine, “Russia was using information and weaponizing it.” The nominee said he welcomed the continuity of the work of the Global Engagement Center.
The topic of Russia-sanctions was mentioned by many senators on the Committee. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) spoke about existing laws within the United States to combat Russian aggression and its authoritarian regime.
“The Magnitsky Law and Global Magnitsky are great achievements and are effective tools” in the fight against corruption and abuse of power, Sen. Cardin said. He also urged the State Department nominee to “get more countries to include Global Magnitsky sanctions.”
Mr. Blinken welcomed the use of sanctions as a means of promoting democratic principles.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) raised the issue of the present situation in Russia with the arrest and detainment of opposition leader Alexander Navalny. Sen. Shaheen asked the nominee how the United States can continue to put pressure on Russia to stop its continued aggression against Ukraine.
Referring to Mr. Navalny, Mr. Blinken noted how extraordinary it was for “Vladimir Putin to be frightened of one man. I think it speaks volumes.”
Silencing the voice of millions of Russians protesting the arrest [of Mr. Navalny] “is something we condemn,” Mr. Blinken said. “There are a number of challenges posed by Russia…and this is very high on the agenda.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) focused his questions to Mr. Blinken on two topics: NordStream 2 sanctions and Iran. The senator stated fervently that billions of dollars of profit from the NordStream 2 pipeline would fund Mr. Putin’s continued aggression throughout the world and that he, along, with Sen. Shaheen, “proposed strong [NordStream 2] sanctions that passed in December 2019 and December 2020, and both sets of sanctions are mandatory, not discretionary.”
Mr. Blinken said that Mr. Biden “does not believe in the NordStream 2 pipeline…I know his strong conviction that NordStream 2 is a bad idea.”
In responding to Sen. Cruz and his enumeration of the NordStream 2 sanctions-regime, Mr. Blinken emphatically stated that the tool “you [Congress] provided is something we will look at.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that for Ukraine there is a “need of stable friendship with the United States.”
Mr. Putin “wants to disempower that nation [Ukraine] economically and politically,” Sen. Murphy said. He asked Mr. Blinken whether the United States can “give [Ukraine] the political tools and economic help in order to stay sovereign and independent?”
“I share your commitment to help [Ukraine],” Mr. Blinken responded, adding that Ukraine faces various challenges both external and internal. It faces an external threat from Russia, but it also faces challenges from within, including the fight against corruption, the need to strengthen democratic institutions, and the like.
“We have to have a comprehensive approach,” Mr. Blinken said, adding that he “supported the lethal arms provision to Ukraine.”
A riveting dialogue ensued as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) questioned the nominee about the United States position on the inclusion of Georgia in the NATO alliance. Mr. Blinken said that if a country “meets the requirements [for membership]” it should be granted that status. The senator then pointed out that Russia occupies Georgia and proxy troops are in Ukraine, thus, if those countries were in the NATO alliance, the United States would have to commit troops under the Article 5 clause.
Sen. Menendez, the ranking member, rounded out the nearly five hour-long hearing. The senator argued that Russia is a source of consternation for the committee, noting the recent arrest of Mr. Navalny, SolarWinds cyber warfare, bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the poisoning of Kremlin critics, the continued invasion of Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea.
The ranking member then asked Mr. Blinken a direct question. “Do you agree Russia should have consequences for its actions?”
“Yes,” Mr. Blinken said, adding that he agrees “in so many ways and thanks to Congress and this Committee, we have tools” to combat Russian aggression, whether it is Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017, the Magnitsky sanctions law, or support for Ukraine.
Following the confirmation hearing, the U.S. Senate voted on January 26 to confirm him as the 71st U.S. secretary of state. Following the Senate vote, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) penned a letter to Mr. Blinken, congratulating the new secretary of state and saying that the organization looks forward to working with him “in efforts aimed at strengthening the strategic partnership between the United States and Ukraine.”
Emphasizing the strategic partnership between Ukraine and the United States, the UCCA letter expressed hope that the current “situation in Ukraine, which affects U.S. national security interests and peace and security on the European continent, will remain a high priority during your helm at the U.S. Department of State.” The letter concluded with a request to meet with the secretary (in a virtual format) to discuss the concerns of the Ukrainian American community on Ukraine-related matters.