Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat from New Hampshire, lead a large bi-partisan Congressional delegation to the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia in mid-November. We just days after the US House of Representatives was confirmed to flip to Republican control following the US mid terms. With that change in power comes a degree of uncertainty around the extent to which Congress can be relied upon to continue its support for Ukraine’s defense.
Senator Shaheen discusses how Congress’ approach to Ukraine may change when the Republicans gain control of the house next year, as well as the situation in the western Balkans, where Senator Shaheen recently returned from an official trip to the region in which she observed the Bosnian elections. She explains how Russian meddling may undermine democratic gains in the region and how Congress can better support democracy in the region.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
How Will the New Congress Treat US Aid to Ukraine?
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [00:00:00] Anyone in Serbia who thinks that their future may lie with Russia, they just need to look at what’s happening in Ukraine and question whether that’s the future they want. That [changes in aid] remains to be seen, but certainly there is strong bipartisan support for the United States’ involvement in the allied effort to support Ukraine. And we reiterated that yesterday. I’m here with a bipartisan delegation from Congress, both six senators, three members of the House. My co-lead of this delegation is the ranking member, so the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. Every place we have been, we have pointed out that the voices that have raised concerns, raised questions about the U.S. support for Ukraine are the small minority, they are the extreme voices, and that there continues to be a strong bipartisan majority in support of Ukraine.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:22] As we enter the new year, what do you foresee being Congress’s top priorities regarding Ukraine?
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [00:03:30] I think continuing to ensure that the resources are there, both humanitarian and the support for weapons systems and continuing the diplomatic effort. I think one of the things that has been so important has been the exchange between Ukrainians who have come to meet with members of Congress, members of Congress who have gone to Ukraine even after the war to see what’s happening there, to point out to President Zelensky and the Ukrainians that we continue to support them, and talking about why this support is important, I think is really critical. One of the stories that I have told my constituents in New Hampshire is of a meeting that I had with some women of the Ukrainian military. And one of the things that one of those soldiers said to me I found so urgent. She said, we are here to ask you for weapons so that we can fight the Russians, so that you don’t have to. And I think it’s that connection to our own national security, to the importance of defending democracy around the world that we need to continue to remind people of.
How does Congress fund humanitarian efforts in Ukraine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:47] Beyond the provision of military aid and funding military aid, are there other opportunities you foresee the incoming Congress could have regarding other types of funding, humanitarian funding, or more broadly supporting diplomatic efforts around Ukraine?
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [00:05:04] Well, I think all of the above, it’s certainly supporting those diplomatic efforts. We had a hearing with a member of our State Department in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this past week. And one of the questions that she got asked was about the morale in Ukraine. She had just come back from a visit to Kyiv to meet with our embassy staff and leaders of Ukraine and she talked about how high the morale was there in the embassy and that we recognize the sacrifices that Ukrainians are making; that personnel from the United States, from other countries who are serving in Ukraine are making, and we are here to stand behind them to support that. So those are diplomatic efforts. There is a lot of discussion about how we continue to support the grain shipments out of Ukraine so that the people in Africa and other parts of the world that are experiencing famine can get the food they need and help them understand that it is Russia that is trying to prevent those shipments from getting out of Ukraine. So, I think there are a lot of efforts that continue partly in official ways, like through the committee hearing process, but also through individual meetings that members have with each other and that we’re having with people from other parts of this allied effort, but also from Ukraine.
How has the Western Balkans been affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:33] So I know earlier this year you traveled to the Western Balkans. This is an area that has for many years been particularly vulnerable to Russian meddling and Russian malign influence. Are you seeing evidence of that in the wake of Ukraine? Or perhaps to put this another way, what political impact have you seen unfold in the Western Balkans stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [00:07:00] Yeah, absolutely. We continue to see Russian efforts to destabilize the Western Balkans, particularly to look at ways to stir up tensions that already exist in the region, to stir up conflict. I was there the beginning of October for the elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and one of the things we heard as I was visiting polling places and talking to people was about the disinformation that’s coming out of Russia to try and stir up those ethnic conflicts, support for the Republic of Serbs and their leader in trying to urge them to secede from the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina. So those continue. We see that in Serbia, where they’ve had historic ties to Russia, and China, by the way, is operating in the region in ways that are destabilizing.
How is China involved in the politics of the Western Balkans?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:56] Can you elaborate on China’s operations in the region? This is not something you hear too often about. What did you see?
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [00:08:03] Well, one of the things that we heard about is the effort to set up cultural centers to provide funding for an infrastructure project, something that we’ve seen across as part of their Belt and Road initiative. We’re seeing those conversations happening in the Western Balkans as well. I had a chance this morning to meet with the defense minister from Kosovo, and it’s one of the things he talked about that they’re seeing.
How can Congress support democracy in the Western Balkans?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:30] So what could Congress do to shore up Democratic gains in the Western Balkans? You know, the soft underbelly of Europe, it’s often called. What opportunities, what can Congress do to support democratic gains there?
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [00:08:43] Well, one of the things we need to do is pay attention to what’s happening. That’s at the most basic level, and that means going to the region. I was pleased that when I went in April, we went to Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia Herzegovina, and it was a bipartisan delegation. There were three senators who went. One of them had never been to the Western Balkans before. And so, making sure that we understand, have a better understanding of what’s going on there and what the people are asking for support. One of the things I heard this morning from the defense minister was the importance of Western investment in Kosovo, and I think that’s true across the Western Balkans. I have legislation that would try and encourage that kind of investment from the U.S. into the Western Balkans. So, I think we need to look at how we can encourage economic support, trade, obviously, and how we can continue to support efforts to make sure that stability continues in the country. So, efforts to try and encourage Kosovo and Serbia to resolve the differences that exist between those two countries, to try and encourage Croatia to play a positive role in the region, to try and look at things like the U4 mission that just got reauthorized at the U.N. to ensure that there is a European military force that continues in Bosnia Herzegovina so that it helps maintain stability. So, there’s a whole range of things that we need to do, and we need to continue to focus on that.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:15] In the coming year, from your perch in Washington, D.C., are there any indicators you’ll be looking towards in the Western Balkans that will suggest to you whether or not the democratic gains will be consolidated, or alternatively, if perhaps Russian meddling is accelerating?
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [00:10:34] Well, certainly a breakthrough between Serbia and Kosovo would be critical, I think, to see progress, looking at a breakthrough in Bosnia Herzegovina that allows them to form a government and move forward after their recent elections. They have been years without being able to form a government. Looking at Croatia and the role that they’re playing in Bosnia and hope that that would be positive in ways that would encourage stability in the country.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:02] I’m wondering if perhaps paradoxically, you think Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has maybe encouraged Serbia to perhaps engage more directly with Kosovo? You saw at the United Nations, for example, Serbia really vocally supporting Ukraine on some key votes. Have you seen any evidence that Serbia is more willing to negotiate with Kosovo beyond that rhetorical support that Serbia has given at the United Nations?
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [00:11:30] Well, I think that remains to be seen. There’s actually a meeting happening in Brussels tomorrow between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo with the European Union high representative. And hopefully one of the lessons for the Western Balkans of Russia’s unprovoked, brutal war in Ukraine is that that could happen to them. And for anyone in Serbia who thinks that their future may lie with Russia, they just need to look at what’s happening in Ukraine and question whether that’s the future they want. Do they want a future where there is a brutal dictator who can come in at any time, who can kill people, rape people, destroy cities? Or do they want the Western values that are being offered by the EU and NATO that say we are going to respect human rights, we are going to give people the opportunity for good jobs and prosperity in the future, and we are going to support those efforts. I think that’s the choice that people are facing.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:37] Well, Senator, thank you so much.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [00:12:39] Thank you.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:47] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.