Remarks by Assistant Administrator Brock Bierman at the German Marshall Fund: USAID's Countering Malign Kremlin Influence Development Framework

Tuesday, October 1, 2019
German Marshall Fund
On the Frontlines of Democracy: How are Frontline States Building Resilience to theKremlin’s Malign Influence?
USAID Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia, Brock Bierman
(Remarks as prepared)

 

I first want to thank the German Marshall Fund and the Black Sea Trust for hosting this important panel discussion.  Over the past few months, I have spoken at a number of venues about USAID’s efforts to counter the Kremlin’s malign tactics in the region.  

My goal for these engagements is straightforward. But I want to be clear about what CMKI is and what it is not. At USAID, we believe that foreign assistance should help nations to stand on their own and make their own choices.  We believe in governments that are accountable to their people. We believe in equipping institutions, businesses, and citizens with the tools they need to choose their own futures. 

Our view is this: Kremlin malign influence is undermining freedom -- not just the freedom of the countries in the region, but freedom for all of us. That means this struggle is far bigger than USAID, or any one organization or country can take on alone.  Safeguarding the principles that the Kremlin seeks to undermine will demand a broad coalition of partners -- each contributing their unique experience, expertise, or resources to support freedom, liberty, and democracy.  

Here in Romania, the people are experienced in pushing back against Kremlin pressure.  Whether the Kremlin decides to use energy as a political lever; or when Facebook and Twitter are flooded by pro-Putin narratives; or when cyberattacks threaten to disable essential online systems.  This experience can help others facing similar interference and can demonstrate effective means for self-defense.  And that is an important message to spread. 

It is also important to be clear about CMKI is not.  This effort is not directed against Russia or the Russian people.  This is about Putin and his aggressive foreign policy and authoritarian approach to governance.  

But before I get into mechanisms for pushing back against the Kremlin, let me be clear in defining what we see as the problem. The Kremlin is not interested in the self-directed development or freedom or choice for other countries.  It prefers to dominate. It prefers to enrich itself, rather than help its neighbors.  

At USAID, we define our mission as ‘a hand up’ and a way to advance the development of partners and allies.  The Kremlin, on the other hand, is more interested in subservience.  The Kremlin acts this way because it views the democratic and economic gains of others to be a threat to its own power.  This distorted view, if left unchecked, poses a fundamental threat to democracies around the world. 

Rather than focusing on building up its own nation, the Kremlin, seeks to benefit at the expense of its neighbors.  Putin props up his failing policies by waging a campaign to undermine core international institutions and to weaken support for democratic and free-market systems.  The Kremlin interferes in elections; wages information warfare; encourages corruption, seeks to marginalize and repress civil society, and undermines the rule of law.  For example, the armed and ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine that Putin continues to sponsor has caused thousands of deaths and other human suffering.  This humanitarian crisis continues to separate families and fundamentally disrupt lives in eastern Ukraine.  

In Moldova, the Kremlin’s extensive money laundering schemes corrupted judges, syphoned off at least a billion dollars, and caused major banks to close.  Ultimately, the Kremlin’s pressure on Moldova has prevented Moldova from investing as much in its own people as it should have.  The Kremlin is also using energy debts as a lever to gain equity in its neighbors’ energy infrastructure.  In Moldova and Belarus, for example, Gazprom has forced settling “payments” through the debt-for-equity swaps, thus gaining greater control over energy distribution networks.  In December 2016, hackers, most likely supported by the Kremlin, adopted a more subversive strategy and triggered a blackout in Ukraine.  And, if recent reporting is accurate, the Kremlin’s intention was much more nefarious than originally believed.  According to a recent article published in Wired magazine, the Kremlin hoped that its hack would trigger catastrophic damage and a much longer period of power disruption.  This potential vulnerability remains a serious concern to all public utilities in the region. 

Finally, the Kremlin wields its economic power to punish its neighbors who pursue independent policies.  Over the last 13 years, Moscow has twice slapped embargoes on Moldovan wine and brandy, a major portion of the country’s exports when it did not like the direction of government policies rather than work in the best interests of the people of Moldova.  More recently in Georgia, the Kremlin suspended flights to Tbilisi to weaken Georgia’s growing tourism industry. 

Evidence of the Kremlin’s malicious acts are plentiful.  USAID will not stand by as the Kremlin seeks to undermine the independence of sovereign nations.  USAID will continue to support those countries who want to chart their own independent paths to a better future. 

This is why USAID developed its Countering Malign Kremlin Influence development framework.  CMKI responds to this authoritarian pressure by increasing the economic and democratic resilience of our partner countries, and working to mitigate the effects of Kremlin aggression upon a range of development sectors. USAID’s CMKI framework is a development solution for a development challenge. 

The Kremlin’s actions seek to manipulate the hard won development gains made by countries over the course of the last 25 years.  The framework is USAID’s response.   Although Administrator Green launched the framework officially in Paris on July 4th, this work is already well underway.  

We are supporting journalists who are holding the powerful and corrupt to account and reporting important stories in a way that help citizens understand the impact of corruption on their everyday lives.  And we are helping media consumers sharpen their ability to separate fact from fiction.  With our support, investigative journalists have uncovered over $24 billion in money laundered from Russia through networks of corrupt judges, lawyers, and bankers.  These officials willingly funnelled money through the banking systems of countries like Moldova and Latvia into Western financial institutions.   USAID is supporting a coalition of independent outlets which reach an estimated 2.7 million people across multiple media platforms in ten countries.  These media partnerships serve as alternative sources of information to Kremlin-controlled media for those in the region who consume Russian language news.

In Moldova, we supported the creation of ProFakt, Moldova's first fact-checking network.  ProFakt experts from civil society, media, politics, economics, and agriculture, played an essential role in uncovering false narratives and disinformation efforts around the February elections.  

From Kyiv to Tbilisi, we are helping both governments and civil society organizations combat corruption and prevent illicit foreign interference.  This ensures that public officials and institutions serve the interests of the people.  In Ukraine, for example, USAID procured critical and urgent election cybersecurity equipment for the Central Election Commission, safeguarding the election from foreign disruption.   More broadly, we have increased support to grassroots organizations across the region.  By enabling civic actors to become effective watchdogs, we are helping partner nations to become more transparent and less vulnerable to malign Kremlin influence.  At the same time, we are also supporting programs that help civil society organizations advocate against the kind of restrictive NGO laws that the Kremlin has pioneered.

Unfortunately, the Kremlin does not limit itself to attacking democratic institutions and the rule of law.  It also seeks to leverage vulnerabilities in the energy and economic sectors.  In response, we are helping diversify energy supplies, so that partner nations have more say about where their energy comes from and how much they will pay for it.  

We are also helping build the cyber infrastructure these countries need to prevent intruders from ‘turning out the lights’ on critical systems.  Through the U.S.-Europe Energy Bridge Program, USAID is offering an alternative to Kremlin energy sources by promoting the development of energy infrastructure in the region via partnerships with U.S. equipment manufacturers and international financial institutions.

In Georgia, USAID’s programs help diversify the electricity market, in response to the Kremlin’s efforts to leverage its energy resources to manipulate Georgia’s economy and political affairs.  We are also working to expand cross-border electricity trade between Georgia and Armenia, which will further decrease the Kremlin’s leverage over both countries.  We are also helping governments to establish ‘rules of the road’ for doing business transparently and fairly so that their businesses can compete internationally and attract investment domestically.  

For example, in Moldova USAID is strengthening the country's regulatory bodies, combating financial crimes, and fighting systemic money laundering.  With our support, Moldova is diversifying its trade to create less dependence on any one market.  

Despite these challenges, there are reasons for hope.  The brightest signs of hope come from the citizens and governments we work with every day.  These brave people - journalists, judges, activists, leaders, voters - are champions of freedom. 

America’s interests are best served by partnership with free and independent peoples who can join us as equal partners to promote our mutual security and prosperity.  The Kremlin prefers to keep oligarchs rich, government elites powerful, and citizens disoriented, disenfranchised, and apathetic. To see this, look no further than the Kremlin’s recent efforts to suppress Russian citizen activists calling for more democratic local elections in their own country.  Sadly, the Russian people themselves suffer the most from the Kremlin’s misguided policies.  

I still vividly remember meeting teenage students in a cold high school classroom outside of Moscow in 1997.  They expressed disappointment in the state of their drab, dark school building.  One young student asked me, “Where are the Americans? You were supposed to be our white knights in shining armor.”  The truth is that America’s commitment to a more prosperous and democratic Russia remained alive and well throughout the years.  

In addition to traditional foreign assistance, thousands of American volunteers lent their time and expertise in a showcase of the American spirit.  But development does not happen in a day; it requires the sustained commitment of citizens, governments, and businesses. What I told her then and what still holds true today is that she was the best person to take charge of the future and that democracy cannot succeed without everyone’s participation.   

The teenagers I met in 1997 are now adults in their thirties, still trying to realize their democratic dreams in a Russia hardened by its leadership’s authoritarian tactics. I firmly believe that most Russian people still want the same basic rights and opportunities that we all want. They also want to leave behind a better future for the next generation.  

Governments that respond to the needs and wishes of their citizens in Europe and Eurasia can light the way for the people of Russia. These nations can demonstrate that citizen-responsive governance works.   

The fall of the Berlin Wall,  nearly thirty years ago, heralded the end of a system, which repressed individual freedoms, stifled individual initiative, and impoverished its people.  The collapse of Soviet-style communism also opened a new, and challenging chapter for a region yearning for freedom and representative government.    

Since that time and over the past thirty years, with the support of USAID and other partners, many of the countries of Europe and Eurasia have made enormous strides, overcoming major social, economic, and political challenges on their paths towards democracy, economic prosperity, and full integration with the wider community of democratic nations.  And yet, as we see in numerous examples throughout the region, many of these young states remain vulnerable to those who seek to manipulate them for their own self-serving ends. 

As a country on the frontier of this challenge, the citizens of Romania know better than most how precious, and how vulnerable freedom can be. 

As USAID Administrator Mark Green said recently, “We are committed to working with our development partners to promote citizen-responsiveness, elevate and protect fundamental human rights, advance equal justice, and expand the frontiers of freedom.”  This commitment obligates us to disrupt those who prevent citizens from enjoying these rights, building lives for themselves and their families, and making their voices heard.  This means countering Putin, the Kremlin, and authoritarianism.

Every time we expose a fake news campaign; every corrupt public official who is ousted; every new trading partnership established; every new energy source that is shored up; every time one country gets a little bit stronger, a bit more resilient, the entire region benefits.  

Every success puts these countries one step further on their journey to greater self-reliance, greater prosperity, and greater freedom and independence.  It also brings us closer to the day when Moscow realizes that a truly strong and great Russia will be a democratic partner working in harmony with its neighbors. We look forward to that day in Europe and Eurasia. 

Last updated: October 23, 2019

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