Atlantic Council

NATO Engages 2019

“Discussion: Russia Resurgent: Deterrence and Dialogue after the INF Treat”

Speaker: Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT),

Member, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate


Moderator: Nik Gowing, Founder and Director, Thinking the Unthinkable


Location:  Washington, D.C.

Time:  12:30 p.m. EDT

Date:  Wednesday, April 3, 2019


NIK GOWING:  We are bending with what is changing, particularly up on Capitol Hill.  And partly because of that, we have Senator Chris Murphy here, who was due to be here a little later but because of events up on Capitol Hill he’s asked if he could come now.  And we’re going to have about five minutes to talk about the things that are challenging in your mind.

You’re on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator.  And you’ve just heard the secretary general.  He’ll be here as well shortly.  But particularly the concerns about Russia and what you’re seeing in your committee.  The kinds of things which perhaps the public doesn’t really want to understand, which goes much further than just interference in the political and democratic process and elections. 

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT):  Thank you for having me.  And I’m sorry that I was able to be here as scheduled.  We have these pesky votes in the United States Senate that interfere with the rest of our agenda during the day.  And so I have to be on the floor voting at my scheduled time.  So thank you for allowing me to come by and just share a few thoughts.  Thank you to all of our partners for putting this together.  Terribly, terribly important.

You are right that we spend a lot of time on the Foreign Relations Committee talking about all of these asymmetric, uneven threats that are presented to the United States and to the NATO alliance by Russia.  And you know, it commands us to deliver to the alliance some new resources.  And I lose sleep at night worrying about Congress’s ability to deliver those new tools to the U.S. military, to the State Department, to USAID, and to NATO.  We are far behind the Russians in understanding what new capacities our alliance needs.  And the alliance can’t do it without funding, without appropriations from the United States Congress.

So I’ll give you an example of the pull and tug here, Nik.  We for years have been talking about stepping up our anti-propaganda operation.  We passed a piece of legislation that I wrote with Senator Rob Portman of Ohio to establish a new center in the State Department, called the Global Engagement Center, supporting independent objective media around the world, ferreting out the Russian propagandists.  We passed it pretty quickly, but then this administration took a number of years before they’d accept the money.  We really had to convince everybody inside this administration this was worth doing.  Secretary Pompeo, to his credit, has stood up this new anti-propaganda center.  But it just speaks to how difficult it is for us to turn our wheels in order to catch up with the Russians.  And I hope that the secretary general’s visit today commands us to do more of that.

Out there – out there are a lot of people watching online.  There are a lot of members of the public who don’t really understand what NATO is about.  They’ve heard about it, but they don’t understand the kind of threats that the secretary general and SACEUR and others have put really clearly on the agenda.  It’s not just Russia.  It’s China too.

SEN. MURPHY:  It’s China as well.  I was in Europe two weeks ago.  I was in Dublin, which obviously partners with NATO on a regular basis.  And the Chinese embassy is exploding with people inside Dublin.  Why?  Because they’ve got a new 5G contract out, and there’s a lot of European and American data in Dublin.  And Huawei wants to be the permanent long-term hardware partner for that data.

And we have serious concerns about that, because the idea that a company that is so directly connected and affiliated with the Chinese government could switch on and off our data is something that should cause all of us to lose sleep at night.

And so while the Russians are much more overt and aggressive and outrageous in their online provocations – we catch them a lot more easily – the Chinese have a long-term play here, a long-term play to grab a hold of the tubes through which all of our data flows.  And we have to be just as vigilant about that.

GOWING: Do you think the public really understands the kind of seriousness? You’re a politician.  You have to get voted back into office each time or into your position.  I’ve heard politicians say we don’t want to frighten the public too much about what might be coming down the track in terms of destabilization of infrastructure, of supply lines, supermarket lines, just-in-time delivery and so on; that there’s something much more sinister, and it could be happening very quickly, which is not about kinetic weaponry.  It’s a different kind of weaponry.

SEN. MURPHY:  Yeah, listen, I think it’s an interesting question.  You always have to draw a fine – walk a fine line here.  You don’t want to – you don’t want to raise the alarm bells publicly more than you have to.  But you do need to get the American public to buy into the amount of money we are going to need in order to staff up domestically and globally to protect ourselves.

GOWING: Do you think they do?

SEN. MURPHY:  Well, listen, I think this issue of foreign interference, especially using technologies and means of interference, has become a political conversation in the United States.  So, you know, when you enter this space and talk about what the Russians are doing, there is a president of the United States who stands in the way of that honest debate happening.

And we’ve got to figure out a way to get over there, because right now, any time we try to have this conversation about foreign interference in domestic affairs, it sounds as if you’re picking a political fight with the president of the United States.  And that’s not what it’s about.  And we need the Republicans to help us with that.

GOWING: But the European Commission last week produced a devastating and very sinister report about China; the European Union, having wanted to accommodate China, now taking a rather different view as the Chinese move in and they buy ports. They buy infrastructure.

SEN. MURPHY:  Right.

GOWING: They buy companies. And that’s almost irreversible.

SEN. MURPHY:  So it begs for the United States, as I said at the outset, to resource our diplomats and resource our national-security infrastructure differently than we do today.  We have largely outsourced cyber in the United States to the United States military.  And if you’re in an embassy, you’ve got a State Department staffer who’s probably doing technology, energy, health care, and a whole bunch of other things.  You cannot chase the Chinese, you cannot chase the Russians, if you’ve got a State Department in which you have no people who are working every single day on technology and nothing else.

And so, once again, this begs for Congress to step up and appropriate the resources so that we have just as many people who are helping our European allies figure out what they do with Chinese technology offers as the Chinese do around Europe.

GOWING: Final question; I put it to everyone in the room just after the secretary general spoke. What is the unthinkable?  What are the unthinkables you should be thinking about, the unpalatables you should be thinking about putting on the political agenda for security risk and the kind of risks which affect a sovereign state?

SEN. MURPHY:  Well, listen, there’s a reason why we still have the 2 percent threshold.  I get it that we’re having an important conversation about all of the other ways in which you have to build holistic defense.  But I still worry about all those fight clubs and biker clubs that are being funded and supported inside the Baltics by the Russians, that are just there waiting for some kind of domestic instability to allow for an opportunity to do in a NATO country what the Russians have successfully done in Western – excuse me – inside Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in Ukraine.

And so we have to be constantly vigilant about the very quiet things that the Russians are doing that could ultimately lead to a traditional military confrontation.  We can’t lose sight of that conventional threat, even as we talk about all these new threats.

GOWING: Senator Chris Murphy, thank you very much indeed for making it over here.

SEN. MURPHY:  Thank you, everybody.  Thank you, everybody.  Appreciate it.  (Applause.)