A bipartisan pair of senators on Wednesday relaunched a group meant to coordinate Senate efforts on NATO and demonstrate U.S. commitment to the alliance.
The Senate NATO Observer Group is being revived by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) after comments by President Trump during his campaign and early on in his tenure rattled NATO allies.
Both senators, though, downplayed the timing, saying Trump’s previous statements were not the impetus for their effort.
“I wish I could draw that connection,” Shaheen said at the launch event. “Really it’s the result of the threats from Russia… This is another opportunity for us in the Senate to show our support for the efforts to deter Russia and to make sure there’s support in the Senate for NATO.”
The Senate NATO Observer Group was first formed in 1997 amid an expansion of the alliance, but disbanded in 2007 when there was no round of new countries joining that year.
Since then, a resurgent Russia has annexed Crimea in a move much of the international community say was illegal, backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and meddled in Western elections, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Shaheen and Tillis began discussions to restart the group in fall 2017, they said, and have the support of Senate leadership and the administration.
Shaheen cited Montenegro’s efforts to join the alliance as evidence of the need for the Senate group. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the tiny Balkan nation’s bid to join the alliance, but not before an earlier vote was blocked by non-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
“From my perspective, there was a lack of urgency about the importance of getting that done and the message that sent to Russia and to other states, particularly in the western Balkans that might be inspired to join NATO,” Shaheen said of the Montenegro vote. “So I do think think this is an opportunity for us to be able to tout and underscore the importance of NATO for the United States.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump questioned whether he would come to the defense of NATO allies who did not meet their spending goals. He has continued to chastise allies for not meeting those goals, but has endorsed the Article 5 mutual defense commitment.
Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, and Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. European Command and supreme allied commander of NATO, spoke at Wednesday’s event, which Shaheen and Tillis pointed to as evidence of the administration’s support for their effort.
“Under [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has demonstrated its ability to not just threaten and invade NATO, but spreads chaos, disinformation and disruptive influence in the very heart of Western societies,” Mitchell said. “The Senate NATO Observer Group is an important tool for engaging and strengthening NATO at this critical time.”