WASHINGTON – On August 5, several months after President Donald Trump nominated him as the next U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Keith Dayton appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) for his nomination hearing.
The hearing was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic and included a panel of nominees, among them the ambassador-designate for Belarus. Members of the SFRC engaged with the prospective nominees via computer screens. Opening statements were followed by a question-and-answer period.
SFRC Chairman Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) opened the hearing and thanked the panel for their patience in the nomination process. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began with an opening statement about U.S. relations: “On this committee, you have stalwart champions of Ukraine.”
In reference to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sen. Menendez also mentioned that Ukrainian forces are “constantly challenged” holding back the Russian military. “It is important to speak in one voice on Ukraine.” The senator was referring to the robust bipartisan support that Ukraine has received since its independence in 1991, but most recently since the Revolution of Dignity and the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and illegal occupation and annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
In his opening remarks, Lt. Gen. Dayton related his experience and knowledge of Ukraine-related matters, as “Ukraine has been a part of my life for 40 years.” The nominee offered his opinion on the need to “counter Russian malign influence” and advance “our shared goal of Ukraine joining the Euro-Atlantic community as a full and free member.”
The ambassador-designate first visited Ukraine in 1980 and almost immediately recognized the deep pride in Ukraine’s history and people, but most notably the tragic suffering the nation has had to endure due to foreign powers.
Lt. Gen. Dayton concluded his oral testimony by stating that, “My military background and current role as Ukraine’s senior defense advisor provide me unique insight that I hope to leverage to assist Ukraine’s armed forces become an increasingly effective fighting force.” (Lt. Gen. Dayton’s prepared testimony appears on page 4 of this issue.)
Sen. Menendez began a line of questioning probing Lt. Gen. Dayton if he would meet with President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Guiliani while at the helm at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Continuing that line of questioning, the senator also asked the general if he would “report to appropriate authorities for any interference in the November 2020 elections.” In response to election interference, Lt. Gen. Dayton’s response was fairly succinct, “I see no reason not to do that.” The general continued by stating that he is aware he would serve in Kyiv “at the discretion of the president, but also at the disposal of the American people.”
Additional inquires by the ranking member related to how the general would boost morale at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and whether he was familiar with the newly introduced Ukraine Security Partnership Act bill. While the general had not read the details of the new bill, he was resolute in stating that he is a “team builder” and looks to bring that skill set to the U.S. Embassy.
Other senators took turns asking Lt. Gen. Dayton his opinions and viewpoints on several key issues. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) queried the general about his assessment of the current situation in Ukraine, both militarily and politically. In his response, the nominee was forthright in describing practical needs for Ukraine’s security, which includes the “Sea of Azov and the Black Sea as important entities,” and noted that Ukraine’s fledging Navy needs immediate assistance. His assessment of the war in eastern Ukraine was enlightening: “The situation in the east [Donbas] is stable… Could Russia invade? Yes, but they’d be bloodied.”
The questioning then turned to corruption and the fight against oligarchical control in Ukrainian politics. The nominee described their presence in Ukrainian politics as “very powerful.” When discussing the actions of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his team, the general mentioned that the president is “still popular, but he needs some help,” in his reform efforts.
The co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), spoke highly of Lt. Gen. Dayton, declaring that the general is a “star” and “the right person at the right time” to serve as ambassador to Ukraine. Sen. Portman then mentioned testimony submitted by the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) to the SFRC in support of Lt. Gen. Dayton’s nomination and requested that the written document be put into the record. (The UCCA’s written testimony appears on page 4.)
Continuing his remarks, the senator highlighted the threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty and pointed out that, as a strategic partner of the United States, Ukraine has made real strides in its reforms. Just last week, Sen. Portman, along with other senators introduced the Ukraine Strategic Partnership Act, which would support Ukraine’s security needs. (See story on page 3.) The senator elaborated, that as a result of the bill’s introduction, members of the Russian Duma insisted that Russia would thereby begin to supply weapons to areas of Ukraine already invaded by Russia. To that remark, Gen. Dayton responded “as if they [Russian regular forces] were not involved [already],” with over 400 tanks, 700 artillery pieces and the like.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) began her line of questioning centered on the Minsk process and its feasibility. “Should we consider coming up with a different agreement?” she inquired. “There have been discussions with Europeans if a new agreement is needed.” Sen. Shaheen also mentioned the distribution last year of over 1 million Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens and asked what the effect of that policy might be for Ukraine.
Lt. Gen. Dayton responded that the peace process is “not going well” and said he would have to assess the situation first-hand in Ukraine before recommending any changes. As regards the Europeans, Lt. Gen. Dayton replied in the affirmative that they are “steadfast in their sanctions… and I would consult with ambassadors of the Normandy process.” He also advised that the reactivation of a special envoy for Ukraine (a position previously held by Ambassador Kurt Volker) would be of substantial benefit.
A spirited discussion ensued when Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked if, in the general’s capacity as ambassador to Ukraine, he would meet with members of a U.S. presidential campaign. “The greatest strategic asset [that Ukraine has]is bipartisan support in Congress and… I would seek audiences with a critical eye,” responded the ambassador-designate.
Sen. Murphy then went on to speak of the efficacy of not just military/security assistance to Ukraine, but also critical political and economic support, noting that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aim is to sow strife in the country, not to amass troops in Kyiv. Lt. Gen. Dayton agreed that “Putin’s goal is to destabilize the country. Why fight when you can do it by other means.”
When asked in the last round of questions whether assistance offered to Ukraine from European countries, in particular Germany, had “done nothing” to support Ukraine, Lt. Gen. Dayton replied that “Germany could do more and likely will, and that little Lithuania does more for Ukraine than other countries.”
As the nearly two-hour nomination hearing was coming to a close, Sen. Menendez concluded the questioning by seeking reassurances that should any interference be prevalent in the November 2020 presidential election, the nominee would “report not only to the executive branch, but also to Congress.” In an emphatic response, Lt. Gen. Dayton replied: “Of course!”
Lastly, Sen. Menendez inquired about additional security assistance to Ukraine and asked what the nominee’s priorities would be in Ukraine, to which the general clearly responded that Ukraine’s “Navy and Air Force are two sectors that need the most work.” With regard to priorities, the general elaborated on his work at the Marshall Center in Germany and his interactions with many Ukrainian delegations, especially among the younger generations, underscoring that his priorities would have to be “rule of law and the judiciary. “ He explained that “The younger generation sees the judiciary as the problem” in Ukraine.
A confirmation vote for the nominees was not taken at the hearing and will be considered at a future date by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.