In an interview with DELFI, Schiff, who is an influential voice for the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives on foreign policy and national security issues, insists that the West must make President Vladimir Putin pay for his reckless policies and Russian people feel the consequences of their leader’s actions.
Looking back, what do you think were Russia’s goals in Ukraine? Has Moscow achieved them?
Moscow was taken by surprise by Ukraine’s rejection of its prior leader. And I think that Putin’s reaction was very ill-considered and dangerous and provocative by interfering in the sovereignty of neighboring Ukraine. Providing weapons and military personnel to separatists in Ukraine was a deeply destructive thing to do and no one is fooled about Russia’s complicity in the violence.
Not only have thousands of people been killed in Ukraine as a result of Russia’s belligerence, but a civilian airliner was shot down with the weapon system provided by Russia. So, it’s been deeply destabilizing and has really poisoned Russia’s relationship with much of the world. I don’t think that Putin is achieving his objective because he has permanently changed the orientation of Ukraine away from Russia and towards the West.
What more can we expect from Russia?
We can expect further excess of provocation within Ukraine whenever Ukraine is turning to the EU. When the EU Association Agreement is fully implemented, we can expect further destabilizing efforts. Whenever there are discussions on what level of autonomy certain parts of Ukraine may have, we can expect Russia to try to strengthen its hand by encouraging provocations of violence in Ukraine.
In the end, we may expect propaganda through Russian-language television in Ukraine as well as the Baltics. This is, I think, one of the more nefarious methods that Russia uses to destabilize Russian-speaking populations elsewhere. Given Russia’s claim to be the protector of Russian populations everywhere, it is establishing a very dangerous precedent which can lead to further confrontation between Russia and the West.
Do you think people in the Baltics should be worried for their security? While NATO and the US have made pledges to defend them, Russia is using a range of non-conventional warfare methods.
Yes, the non-conventional methods that Russia is using – we can expect that to continue and perhaps intensify. And chief among them are efforts to destabilize Russian-speaking populations within the Baltics, through the use of highly distorting Russian propaganda through Russian-language media. And, of course, the use of Russian intelligence services. NATO, I think, is properly stepping up its presence and commitment to the Baltic countries.
People of the United States recognize that we have an absolutely vital role to play that other countries are not in the position to play. At the same time, we want the rest of the world to share in the obligations of defending freedom. This is one of the reasons why we have pressed many other countries to increase their defence budgets.
The Baltics enjoy a very strong support in US Congress, a very bi- partisan level of support, we all take seriously our NATO collective defence and will be doing everything we can with our NATO partners to deter Russia from further act of aggression.
Should the US assist Ukraine with weapons?
I think that we need to continue to keep up the pressure on sanctioning Russia, and far from any discussion of loosening the sanctions, I think they should be further intensified. And I would like to see us provide military support to Ukraine. The Ukrainian military is never going to be a match for the Russian military.
Moscow continues with provocations in the neighbouring countries, like arresting an Estonian officer or continually violating Sweden’s airspace. What might be the purpose of such actions and how should we respond?
I think they have a dual purpose. One is to test the defences of the NATO countries, to see how quickly these countries can react to invasions to their airspace or their waters. But the other goal is to assure domestic political support for Putin. There are certainly many Russians that are worried about the increasing isolation of Russia in the international community and by poking concentration with its neighbours, Russia hopes to distract from internal problems and bolster Putin’s popularity.
I think the way we have to respond is by strengthening our defences, by deterring these provocative and dangerous Russian actions, by calling them out within international community, by further isolating them and by making Russia pay a price. And the most significant price is the economic price, because ordinary Russians have to be made to feel the negative consequences of the recklessness of their leader.
Russia has also stepped up its espionage and cyber attack efforts. Have you noticed that in the US?
Cyber attacks are a new frontier of warfare and Russia is one of the most provocative actors in this area, not only engaging in industrial espionage to help their defence industries, but also to try to disrupt systems and infrastructure in other countries. This is something that Estonia only knows too well, so does Georgia and other countries that are victims of Russian hackers, and this is going to be a threat that’s with us for a long time.
Because much as Russia disguised its armed forces by sending them into Ukraine, Russia disguises its state-sponsored hand in the cyber operations by polling them off on independent groups of Russian hackers that work in alliance with the Russian government.
Russians, I think, are one of the most sophisticated actors in the world of the cyber realm. They’re knowledgeable, they’re clever, they’re destructive and they’re willing to do damage. The only thing that we can do is to respond by improving our defences collectively, by calling them on the carpet internationally and by putting economic pressure on them. There isn’t going to be a silver bullet, we are simply going to have to intensify our efforts, because our adversaries certainly are.
You’ve mentioned propaganda. Is it possible to resist the sheer size of Russia’s efforts in spreading propaganda?
I think it’s very important that the countries in the region that have sizeable Russian-speaking populations work together, to create alternative Russian language media. I am well aware that people tune in to Russian TV not necessarily for the news, which is so badly distorted, but they tune in for soap operas, soccer games and other things. It means that in the Baltics and elsewhere, they are going to have to create alternative Russian language programing, so that people would tune in and get more objective news.
It has to go way beyond Radio Free Europe, because I don’t think those outlets can compete with the high level of production that they see on Russian TV. I think you really need Russian language programing that is on par with what has been plastered out of Moscow. It has to be indigenous, high quality TV and radio programming.
Could the US get involved on this front as well?
I think the United States can certainly help and we have worked in other parts of the world, for example, to create an Arab-language TV and production, so we have some experience in trying to match propaganda of others in other languages.
But I think it ought to be led by the countries in the region and people in the Baltics understand more what their own citizens would be interested in.