Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert Karem Remarks at Kyiv Security Forum

13 April 2018

Thank you, David for that kind introduction. I want to also thank former Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and the Open Ukraine Foundation for inviting me to speak at this prestigious conference.

Over the last decade, the Kyiv Security Forum has provided an invaluable platform for policymakers, international experts, the private sector, and the media to discuss pressing regional security issues.

I am honored to be with you today to provide some perspectives from the Department of Defense on some of these key issues, and also to reassert America’s continued partnership with Ukraine.

For obvious reasons, this conference has long focused on a particular challenge too often viewed solely through the lens of regional security. In reality, however, it is a global security challenge of the first order. I am talking, of course, about the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

America’s new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy both acknowledge a reality that many here have recognized for years: the revisionist aggression of Putin’s Russia poses a clear and present danger to the United States, to Europe, to the rules-based international order, to the global economy, and to the fundamental principle of national sovereignty – a principle over which Moscow has run roughshod.

For many in the United States, the threat posed by Russia was recently crystallized by evidence of Moscow’s efforts to interfere in our democracy, destabilize our politics, and undermine trust in our institutions. But the Kremlin’s efforts to exploit the openness of our society are not new, even if the tools of Russia’s 21st century agents can be wielded with iPhones and laptop computers. Nor have these active measures been reserved solely for the United States.

We see bold efforts to influence politics across Europe and around the world – echoes of Soviet Cold War-era “dezinformatsiya”. While Moscow’s political interference may capture headlines, the threat posed by the Kremlin’s cyber agents is not simply confined to the realm of politics.

In June 2017, the Russian military launched the most destructive and costly cyber-attack in history. The attack, dubbed “NotPetya,” quickly spread worldwide, causing billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia, and the Americas.  The threat to critical infrastructure from emboldened state sponsored cyberhackers is real, and it is growing.

So, too, is the threat posed by Russia’s military. President Putin’s recent speech touting Russia’s military modernization efforts may have been meant to spur the “patriotic mobilization” of an electorate that has long suffered bleak economic and political conditions.

But while Putin’s provocative rhetoric overstate Russia’s technological capabilities, it has been backed up by significant capital investments in offensive military capabilities that threaten strategic stability.

Russia has invested heavily in sophisticated anti-access and area denial (A2AD) weapons and deployed them to key locations that threaten Europe. Recent large-scale exercises, such as Zapad 2017, showcase Russia’s ability to employ these layered systems in conjunction with rapid offensive operations.

Moscow’s willingness to disregard legally-binding arms control agreements is equally troubling not merely because of the threat it poses to strategic stability, but because it suggests a more fundamental effort to challenge and rewrite the rules-based international order.

Russia has repeatedly disregarded its international obligations, including the INF Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Vienna Document, and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Moscow’s threats to international security are however not confined to its violations of arms control agreements. When the Kremlin isn’t using its UN Security Council veto to deny international consensus in confronting proliferators and state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, it is failing to enforce the UN Security Council resolutions to which it has agreed.

Welcoming Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander, Qasem Soleimani, to Moscow and selling Tehran advanced air defense systems makes a mockery of international law and emboldens Iran’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East from Yemen to the Mediterranean.

Moscow’s direct intervention in Syria offered President Putin an opportunity to join an international coalition’s efforts to defeat ISIS and to support a UN-backed political process to bring an end to the tragic Syrian civil war –a conflict that has left more than five hundred thousand dead and millions displaced.

Despite repeated entreaties by governments across the world, Putin has instead chosen complicity in Bashar Assad’s crimes against humanity by facilitating his brutal conquest and repression of his own citizens.

Russia’s own willingness to participate alongside Iran and Hizballah in the Syrian regime’s campaign against civilian populations from Aleppo to Ghouta is an outrage. As is the Kremlin’s complicity in Syria’s continued use of chemical weapons. America, in concert with its allies, is weighing options to respond to this grotesque violation of international law.

Of course, Moscow’s own willingness to use advanced, illegal nerve agents is in the news, but it is not new. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK is but an echo of the 2006 polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London.

These are not the imagined acts of fictional villains in James Bond movies, but the appalling provocations of a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council.

I have not specifically mentioned Ukraine in the above examples of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, but of course Ukraine has been subjected to nearly all of the threats to which I’ve referred.

For over a decade, Ukraine has involuntarily served as a laboratory, a test-bed, and a victim of Russia’s modernized “active measures,” cybersecurity attacks, and grey zone tactics.

Ukrainians have experienced political assassinations, little green men, and outright invasion and occupation.

Russia’s actions threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty and jeopardize its peoples’ inherent right to choose their own path.

Russia continues to arm, lead, train, and fight alongside forces that perpetuate a conflict in the Donbas, actions that are an affront to the widely accepted international norms that have maintained global stability since World War II.

And we are not just talking about Russia’s military actions. Just last month, Russia yet again demonstrated its willingness to use energy supplies as a political weapon, reducing gas flows to and through Ukraine. Longer term, projects like Nord Stream II serve to advance Russia’s goal of threatening Ukraine’s economy and connectivity to Europe.

The United States opposes the implementation of Nord Stream II, which would undermine European goals of energy diversification and energy independence at least as significantly as it would undermine Ukraine.

Russia’s activities in Ukraine have significant implications for European and global security. We fail to heed their lessons at our peril.

But what is to be done?

For the United States, we are emerging from a period of strategic uncertainty that has been exacerbated by prolonged defense budget shortfalls.

However, the National Defense Strategy and the National Security Strategy and provide clear guidance and prioritization for our efforts, and for our forces. Informed by this prioritization, we are investing approximately $700 billion in rebuilding and modernizing our military this year.

We are also moving to limit Russia’s ability to inflict damage on our country. From improving our cyber defenses to hardening our critical infrastructure to expelling Russian intelligence officers to combatting disinformation efforts, we are making a concerted effort to increase our resilience against grey zone tactics.

Russia will not be deterred from probing our defenses further until it recognizes the costs of its aggression outweighs the benefits. This is why we recently sanctioned seven Russian oligarchs and twelve companies under their control, in addition to 17 senior Russian government officials.

These measures, announced just last week, were taken on top of previous sanctions and indictments against Russians associated with fomenting conflict in Ukraine, waging destructive cyber campaigns, and subverting our democracy.

We have also taken unprecedented measures to crack down on Russian espionage and covert action in the United States by expelling 95 Russian intelligence officers and closing two consulates since December 2016.

But the challenge posed by Russian aggression is not for America alone to solve. All those who believe in national sovereignty and territorial integrity have a stake in deterring Russia and other revisionist powers from undermining the foundations of a rules-based order that has allowed for an unprecedented period of global peace and prosperity.

Power is relative, and Russia is only as strong as we allow the Kremlin to be. Collectively, the community of nations who believe that sovereignty matters is far stronger – or can be – than Russia and its few transactional partners.

Unfortunately, Moscow is determined to show that our community is divided, and our division and introspection emboldens Putin and others like him.

Together, we must stand up for our sovereignty, acknowledge the very real threats to our collective security, and commit to repairing our defensive capabilities.

The United States is doing its part by making investments through the European Deterrence Initiative. In 2018, the United States will spend $4.8 billion on Increased Presence, Exercises and Training, Enhanced Prepositioning, Improved Infrastructure, and Building Partnership Capacity. Additionally, EDI will provide $200 million in direct support to Ukraine through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.

For NATO members, defending our collective interests means having credible plans to meet Wales pledges to spend 2% of GDP on defense. It also means remaining committed to NATO reform efforts that increase Alliance readiness and improve mobility to better deter and defend against aggression. By instilling a culture of readiness, NATO will possess the ability to employ forces quickly in a crisis and move at the speed of readiness.

Other nations, too, should take seriously the need for military forces capable of defending sovereign territory and contributing to coalition missions against shared threats.

Our partners also have a stake in collective action to defend against Russian aggression. The response by nearly two dozen countries, including Ukraine, to expel Russian intelligence officers following Russia’s attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal is a good start.

Other opportunities to expose Russian threats to international peace and security abound, and Russian officials and oligarchs complicit in Russian malign activity in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere should face meaningful consequences, economic and diplomatic.

Today, I reiterate America’s steadfast support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia occupies Crimea and foments conflict in the Donbas through its illegal use of force, but we need not accept this aggression as a fait accompli.

Indeed, we must not accept Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Ukrainian territory, nor its attempts to destabilize Ukraine and deny its citizens the right to choose their own destiny.

We commend the sacrifices of Ukraine’s heroic soldiers and citizens who continue to stand on the front lines against Russian aggression.

Although fighting continues to rage in the east, a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine is on the table. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Ambassador Kurt Volker, our Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, responsible members of the international community are ready to support a peacekeeping mission that would provide peace and security throughout the contested territory and enable full implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Russia’s continued intransigence is all that stands in the way of an opportunity to bring peace to the Donbas. The U.S. and its Allies and partners will continue to press Russia to honor its Minsk commitments. Our sanctions will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered them. And our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns full control of the peninsula to Ukraine.

The United States remains committed to re-building the defensive capabilities of Ukraine’s forces and enhancing interoperability with NATO. Since 2014, we have committed almost a billion dollars in security assistance to Ukraine.

The U.S. is providing Ukraine with equipment to support its most critical operational needs.

And as part of the Joint Multinational Training Group, U.S. soldiers, together with a number of our Allies, continue to train with Ukrainian troops to not only enhance Ukraine’s tactical proficiency in the short term, but also to help build a durable, institutional training capacity to NATO standards.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States maintains a robust advisory effort to help advance the implementation of critical defense reforms which will help make Ukraine’s defense enterprise more effective and efficient.

Ukraine has made important strides on defense reform. In 2016, Ukraine adopted a Strategic Defense Bulletin, which provides a roadmap to NATO interoperability. We recognize Ukraine’s aspirations for eventual NATO membership and commend Ukraine for setting an ambitious goal of achieving comprehensive reforms. Progress on institutional reform to complement ongoing tactical and operations gains will be essential to advance Ukraine’s NATO goals.

Ukraine must continue to build on this progress. It is critical that Ukraine swiftly adopt a draft Law on National Security and ensure the law embodies Euro-Atlantic principles, especially those of civilian control and democratic oversight of the defense and intelligence sectors.

Adopting such a law will help Ukraine continue to develop more professional, sustainable forces capable of fully operating with Western forces and providing for the safety and security of all Ukrainian citizens.

Even as Ukraine fights an external battle against Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine, it faces an equally important internal battle against corruption. Comprehensive institutional reform, and anti-corruption institutions in particular, will instill public confidence and limit opportunities for external interference. For these reasons, the United States urges Ukraine to re-double its efforts to promote the rule of law.

Ukraine’s success depends on strengthening anti-corruption institutions, such as the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and a genuinely independent Anti-Corruption Court – one fully compliant with Venice Commission recommendations.

And of course, there is a defense component to the fight against corruption. Ukraine has one of Europe’s largest and most sophisticated defense industrial complexes. U.S. defense companies see enormous potential in Ukraine, but often cite a lack of transparency, competition, and corporate governance standards that dis-incentivize foreign investment and industrial cooperation.

The implementation of reforms in line with Western standards would open up vast new markets to Ukraine’s defense industry and allow for more efficient acquisition and procurement processes to better support the Ukrainian warfighter. Corrupt procurement mechanisms cheat Ukrainian citizens twice: first by stealing their money and second by weakening their military.

If Ukraine successfully wages a campaign to defeat corruption, not just in the defense sector but throughout its government institutions, it will counter Russian propaganda efforts aimed at undermining Western and Ukrainian confidence in Ukraine’s reforms. Ukraine’s fight against corruption is no less existential than its fight to defend its territory in the Donbas. Prevailing in both is a matter of national security.

During the Revolution of Dignity, the Ukrainian people clearly expressed their desire for a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine, fully integrated with the West.

The United States believes that Ukraine’s leaders and its people can deliver on the Maydan’s promise that upholds the universal values and core democratic principles of Western institutions.

And the United States remains committed to continuing our political, economic, and military cooperation in support of an even stronger and more enduring strategic partnership between our two great nations.

Thank you.