Graham, McCain Welcome Putin Foe to Congress

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel upon his arrival to discuss the Ukrainian peace process at the Chancellery on October 19, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The Senate’s top foes of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday used their bully pulpit to give one of his leading domestic critics a public opportunity to lambaste the leader.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who leads the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, held the second hearing in a month on the need to boost spending for Eurasian democracy assistance and invited his longtime ally, Armed Services Chairman John McCain to introduce one of the witnesses, a Russian dissident who has twice nearly died from alleged poisoning.

“It’s very clear that Vladimir Putin has decided that he will eliminate his opponents and anyone who stands up for democracy and freedom and he does so with relative impunity,” the Arizona Republican said in introducing the pro-democracy campaigner Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice chairman of Open Russia, which promotes Russian civil society.

“Twice in the past two years, in May of 2015 and just last month, both times in Moscow, I experienced a sudden onset of symptoms consistent with poisoning that led to multiple-organ failure and left me in a coma and on life-support,” a recovered Kara-Murza testifed. “Doctors estimated the chance to survive at about 5 percent. And both times, the reason for this poison was named as ‘undefined toxin.’ So I’m very fortunate and certainly very grateful to be sitting here today.”

Following the second apparent poisoning attempt, the Republican and Democratic heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Europe subcommittee wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, asking him to “pay close attention” to the welfare of Kara-Murza, who lives in Washington but travels frequently to Moscow.

Kara-Murza rose to prominence in recent years as one of the most outspoken foreign advocates of the 2013 Sergei Magnitsky human rights law, which authorizes sanctions against individuals who murder or threaten Russian human rights and anti-corruption activists. Congress last year made the law’s sanctions’ reach global and also added “significant acts of corruption” as a sanctionable offense.

“We hope that the Magnitsky Act continues to be implemented it its full-extent, without regard for rank or influence,” Kara-Murza said.

He said it was “vital” for the United States to continue to engage with Russian civil society and asked lawmakers to support the development of independent Russian-language media, people-to-people exchanges facilitated by special visa regimes and U.S. funding for civil society-focused NGOs.

Laura Jewett, regional director for Eurasia at the U.S. government-funded National Democratic Institute, echoed the Russian dissident’s call for more funding to support efforts to push back against Russia’s increasing attempts to sow discord in Europe through its financial backing of far-right fringe political parties and coordinated media misinformation campaigns.

“The tools of hybrid warfare being tested in Eurasia today will be deployed on our own shores tomorrow,” she said. “We’re already experiencing this. Democracy assistance as a defense against authoritarian aggression in Eurasia is an essential investment in sovereignty, stability and global security.”

Graham promised to include an unspecified amount of funding for a new “counter-Russia account” in the annual State-Foreign Operations spending bill his subcommittee produces. He has previously talked up this idea.

The South Carolina Republican’s determination to increase spending in Eurasia on “soft power” items like civil society, democracy promotion and independent media stands in stark contrast to the signals coming from the White House. Earlier this month, the fiscal 2018 budget blueprint released by the Trump administration requested steep cuts of 31 percent in total funding to the diplomacy and foreign aid budget.

“I think that it is time that we push back against Putin’s efforts to dismantle democracy around the world,” Graham said, adding he was heartened by the recent weekend anti-corruption protests around Russia by hundreds of mostly young people.

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