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Senators tell RFE/RL Putin must be confronted about efforts to ‘undermine American democracy’

Sen. Christopher Murphy at the 50th Munich Security Conference 2014. ( Marc Müller/Munich Security Conference/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A group of U.S. senators says President Joe Biden should warn his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at a summit this month that he will be held accountable for his actions against the United States.

The three U.S. senators — Chris Murphy (D-CT), Rob Portman (Republican-Ohio), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) — told RFE/RL in Kyiv that while Washington and Moscow have areas where they agree, such as the New START treaty and denuclearization efforts, Biden should press the point during the meeting with Putin that his subversive actions against the United States will not be overlooked.

“We need to let Vladimir Putin know that we want to hold him and Russia accountable for their actions. Putin has been very aggressive towards the U.S., in his efforts to interfere in the U.S. election, the cyberhacking that’s been going on, the effort to put bounties on our troops in Afghanistan,” Shaheen said in a wide-ranging interview on June 2 that also touched on Ukraine’s NATO aspirations and its progress on reforms, and Moscow’s stifling of the Russian opposition and independent media.

Shaheen’s point was reinforced by Murphy, who added: “It’s incredibly important that Biden raises with Putin face-to-face Russia’s attempts to undermine American democracy.”

The senators were part of a delegation that has been touring Eastern Europe ahead of a June 16 summit in Geneva between Biden and Putin, their first meeting since the U.S. president was inaugurated in January.

The summit will be held with U.S.-Russia ties at their lowest levels since the Cold War after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula; the Kremlin’s ongoing support for separatists in Ukraine’s east, where more than 13,200 people have been killed since April 2014; accusations of Moscow’s interference in U.S. elections; and hacking attacks Washington says involved Russian actors.

Murphy, Portman, and Shaheen were critical of what they see as Moscow’s ongoing assault against the country’s independent media, highlighting the critical role played by outlets such as RFE/RL and stressing the need for Western support for a free press in countries with authoritarian regimes.

“You can’t have a democracy without a free press. We in the West need to speak out against the jailing of journalists in Russia, the threats to journalists,” Shaheen said.

Portman said that RFE/RL’s journalism is “frightening to the leadership of Russia and Belarus and other countries.”

The bipartisan congressional delegation visiting Kyiv encouraged Ukraine to continue reforms to solidify its democracy and expressed solidarity with the country in the face of Russian “aggression.”

Portman said Russia’s continued interference in the conflict in Ukraine’s east, and its presence in Crimea, mean that Putin should be told directly that he should finally allow Ukraine to be a sovereign country.

“Give back Crimea. It was an illegal annexation. We heard that there are Russian troops inside Ukrainian territory,” Portman said, adding that the recent deployment of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Crimea has not been completely reversed, despite claims to the contrary by Moscow.

“The concern that has been heightened in the last few weeks was the Russian deployment of 100,000 to 115,000 troops in the area. And when they said they would pull back to their bases, some reporters reported that, taking them at their word,” Portman said. “But the intelligence does not confirm that and it indicates that only a small number have left — maybe 10 to 20 percent based on the data that we have — and that the equipment was largely left behind, meaning that they could very quickly come back and rejoin that equipment and provide this additional threat to the sovereignty of Ukraine,” Portman said.

Touching upon the near-completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline — a bone of contention between Washington and Germany — Murphy said that Washington and Europe should have acted in coordination.

The United States and several Eastern European allies have staunchly opposed the project — aimed at transporting gas from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea by bypassing Ukraine — saying it will become a tool of geopolitical blackmail for Russia.

“Why we feel so strongly about Nord Stream 2 is because we don’t understand. You know, Europe joins us in sanctions against Russia but then allows it to build a pipeline. It’s a mixed message that we don’t understand,” Murphy said.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters on June 1 that Berlin and Washington are holding talks to try to settle the dispute over the pipeline, which is about 95 percent complete and could be finished by September.

The Biden administration on May 19 sanctioned several companies and ships for their work on Nord Stream 2, but waived penalties on the firm behind the Baltic Sea project — Nord Stream 2 AG — and its chief executive, Matthias Warnig, a close ally of Putin.

Shaheen said that the United States needs to take action to stop the project, with more sanctions already on the table in Congress, even though “it’s not clear whether we’re going to be able to pass” them.

“But I intend to do everything I can to try and stop the pipeline,” she said.

Referring to Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO, Portman said that Kyiv will continue to enjoy U.S. support in its drive to implement the reforms needed to demonstrate that Ukraine is adhering to Western values.

“NATO is both a military alliance and an alliance of values,” Murphy said, adding, “That’s why the reforms that are currently under way in Ukraine are absolutely critical.”

“To ask Ukraine to fight a war against an invading foreign enemy and to engage in dramatic political, economic, and social reforms, that’s a lot to ask, and Ukraine has stepped up,” he said, but pointed to the need for Kyiv to work harder to eradicate corruption.