Russia was behind the cyberattacks meant to undermine the 2016 U.S. election. There’s nothing fake about that news. It’s as real as it gets. All that’s left to determine now is what we do about it.
Getting to the bottom of exactly what happened is critical. On a recent trip to the Baltics, Ukraine and Georgia with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., we heard about websites being shut down and internet access limited after a Russian statue was moved in Estonia or members of the Ukrainian Parliament were invited to Lithuania. Ukraine itself has been targeted by Russian hackers more than 6,500 times in the past few months.
We heard similarly unsettling accounts at a hearing last month. This much is clear: Russia’s attempt to influence the U.S. election wasn’t its first time interfering with a democracy, and if we do nothing, it certainly won’t be its last.
Our allies in Eastern Europe are literally on the front lines of this fight. So if the best defense is a good offense, a good offense starts with them. And that’s why we must do everything we can to support them.
By imposing sanctions on Russia? Yes. By strengthening cybersecurity and providing material support? Yes. But also by strengthening our economic ties to these nations. Because Russia seeks to control not only the governments and elections of our allies. Russia also wants to control their economies.
Take the energy sector. Many countries in the region rely on Russian oil and natural gas to keep the lights on. Russia abuses this energy dependence by engaging in economic blackmail and price gouging. Efforts by countries like Lithuania to reduce reliance on Russian natural gas have been met with increased efforts by Russia to run a pipeline under the Baltic Sea.
And Russia’s interference isn’t limited to energy. In 2013, when Lithuania supported closer ties to the European Union, Russia targeted Lithuania’s dairy sector with harmful trade sanctions, which cost exporters more than $3 million per day.
These Baltic nations do not want to rely on Russia. They want to be seen as European nations. But they have little choice. After the Brexit vote, these countries are wary of their economic futures.
Will European commerce suffer without Britain in the E.U.? Will European countries be able to enhance trade in the region? These are the questions they are asking. As long as the answers remain unclear, it is difficult for our allies to take a strong stand to check Russia’s political interference.
That’s where the United States comes in. We can help these countries get out from under Vladimir Putin’s thumb. By assisting them in diversifying their economies, especially their energy sectors and their export markets, we can help them protect their democracies.
An opportunity and, we would argue, a responsibility exists for the United States to deepen our economic ties with these nations. That’s why we are urging the new administration to explore ways to strengthen bilateral and multilateral trade with countries that surround Russia.
Trade agreements with these relatively small nations would allow us to strengthen the political and economic independence of our allies in Eastern Europe. It’s also good policy for the United States because it’s an opportunity to open emerging markets for American businesses.
Other countries understand this too. While U.S. exports to the region have decreased, bilateral trade between Canada and Ukraine increased by 14 percent in 2015. China just signed a deal to buy 5 million bottles of wine from Georgia in 2017, and established an $11.5 billion Eastern European investment fund to help carve out new export markets for Chinese companies in the region.
The United States cannot afford to miss out on these opportunities. It’s this simple: If we strengthen economic ties with our Eastern European allies, we increase U.S. exports. At the same time, these economic ties are critical supports for our allies — allies that we need to push back on Russia.
On New Year’s Eve, together with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and McCain, we stood at the border of Eastern Ukraine. Two years after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, after 10,000 lives lost, there the soldiers stand, protecting their homeland and defending their democracy. For 25 years, our allies have been subjected to Russian aggression and invasions. But they are undeterred, unwilling to give up that which they fought so hard for: Independence. Freedom. Democracy.
The world continues to look to America for leadership. The United States, a beacon for freedom and democracy, must continue to stand with these young democracies. Not just in word but in deed.
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are members of the U.S. Senate.