State Department nominee: Russia's use of chemical weapons 'chilling and shocking'

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Russia’s use of chemical weapons against its main opposition leader and the Turkish president’s "provocative" and "destabilizing" comments about Cyprus took center stage Tuesday as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on President Joe Biden’s nominees for State Department posts.

The nominees include Karen Donfried for assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Mary Catherine Phee for assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, Anne Witkowsky for assistant secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations and coordinator for Reconstruction and Development, and Paloma Adams-Allen for deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the committee chair, questioned at the outset of the hearing why the Biden administration was slow to fully implement Section 231 of the "Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act" or CAATSA, which was passed in 2017 to counter Russian aggression. Menendez said the White House should have imposed sanctions on Russia for its role in the 2020 poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Donfried said, if confirmed, she intends to "stand up to Russia’s reckless and aggressive behavior."

“I find Russia’s use of chemical weapons chilling and shocking," she said. “I would absolutely agree with you that that legislation has been important in pushing back against Russian influence and countering its malign activities. And, if confirmed, I would indeed commit to the full implementation of CAATSA.”

Menendez also referenced Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments that peace talks on the future of Cyprus can only take place between “the two states.” He delivered the comments Tuesday to mark 47 years since the Turkish invasion that divided the island. Erdogan has attempted to establish the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyrus, which is only recognized by Ankara.

“I will say that over several administrations, we have been rather passive in my view, about this engagement and all we see is Erdogan continuing to encroach … in the exclusive economic zone of not only Cyprus, seeking to do so with Greece,” said Menendez, who noted that Erdogan’s comments breach United Nations Security Council resolutions. “It has played, in my view, a nefarious role in a variety of things in the region and unless we take an assertive role and push back, we are going to find ourselves with a significant challenge.”

Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund, said the situation should be referred to the Security Council and de-escalating tensions in the region is paramount.

“We need to encourage the international community to give a strong response to this action. We also need to work to de-escalate tensions in the eastern Mediterranean,” Donfried said. “This is a move that is clearly inconsistent with UN Security Council resolutions. … These actions are provocative, they are destabilizing for the region, and they are an impediment to any settlement for Cyprus that would be on the basis of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.”

In addition to heading GMF for the past seven years, Donfried served as special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

Phee is career member of the Senior Foreign Service and served as U.S. ambassador to Sudan from 2015 to 2017.

Whitowsky was most recently the Co-Director of the Task Force on U.S. Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism and a former deputy assistant secretary for Stability and Humanitarian Affairs in the office of the undersecretary of Defense for policy at the Pentagon.

Adams-Allen has served as president and CEO of the Inter-American Fund since 2017 and former deputy assistant administrator for USAID in Latin America and Caribbean.

The four nominees are among almost 50 for State Department posts that the committee will evaluate in coming months.

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