President Biden's nominee for ambassador to Russia told senators on Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is cracking under pressure from the U.S. and its allies, urging lawmakers to stay the course on supporting Ukraine.
"My impression of President Putin and his mindset is he thinks that he is more patient than we are," Lynne Tracy, who now serves as U.S. ambassador to Armenia, said. "That he can wait us out, that our unity of purpose and will, will crumble before his does and I think that, that needs to be demonstrated to him that that is not an accurate calculation."
Tracy was speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Biden nominated Tracy in September following the exit of former Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the panel, told The Hill he would like to see a floor vote for Tracy's nomination as early as next week, saying it would depend on the 28-year veteran diplomat fulfilling outstanding questions from the committee that were not answered in her hearing.
"As far as I'm concerned, if she gets answers to those questions up, then I'd like to see her have her vote as early as next week if it's possible," he said.
Tracy was a deputy chief of mission to the embassy in Moscow between 2014 and 2017. She took on the role shortly after Russian forces aided separatists in eastern Ukraine and invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
"Our relations were hurtling downward and we faced regular harassment of our staff," she told the panel.
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed support for Tracy's nomination and emphasized the importance of having in place a top U.S. official to reestablish lines of communication with the Russian government that have become "greatly attenuated and they are quite infrequent."
Priority conversations surround reducing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used in the conflict, Tracy said. She added that she would push the Russian government to fulfill its obligations to allow U.S. inspections of Russian nuclear weapons sites under New START, the 2011 agreement between Washington and Moscow to address nuclear nonproliferation.
The State Department said the Russian government unilaterally rejected participating in nuclear talks related to the treaty that were scheduled to take place in Egypt this week.
Tracy said that the Biden administration remains open to negotiating a new nuclear agreement when New START expires in 2026, but that Russia needs to show it is serious.
"It's not a gift to Russia, it's a right that we have for treaty implementation, and those inspections are very important - obviously Russia receives some of those same rights. But I think this can be one avenue of, at least verification," she said. "It's hard to talk about trust in the current climate."
Tracy said that the administration views working with Russia on fulfilling the obligations of the treaty as an "instrument of stability," but added that she would be another voice in Moscow echoing the administration's warnings to Putin of the unacceptable use of nuclear weapons.
Tracy said another top priority for her position as U.S. envoy in Moscow is to work toward the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, two Americans whom the State Department say have been imprisoned by Russia for political purposes.
Tracy said that she would also work for the humanitarian release of Marc Fogel, who was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony over a drug conviction. Lawmakers from both parties say Fogel was in possession of a small amount of medical marijuana.
Outgoing Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who introduced and supported Tracy's nomination at the beginning of the hearing, questioned what more the U.S. can do to bring Putin to the "bargaining table" to withdraw from its war in Ukraine.
Tracy said she has observed recent public moments for Putin that suggest the war is putting stress on him. This includes a highly choreographed meeting between Putin and mothers of Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine.
"The very fact that he felt the need to do that I think showed some pressure," she said.
Tracy also pointed to Putin having to acknowledge "questions and concerns" raised by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a conference in Uzbekistan over what the Russian leader calls the special military operation in Ukraine, following an agreement between the two men on a "no limits" partnership shortly before the Russian invasion on Feb. 24.
"The fact that he had to say that publicly was a pretty big deal," Tracy said, "and we saw some other interactions at that particular conference that I think, again, showed that some of Russia's partners were, and are, uneasy with the course that Russia's been taking."
Tracy said these pressure points are having an effect.
Portman asked if Putin thinks "his missile supply will last longer than our patience?"
"He may, but his missile supply appears to be running low," Tracy said.
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