The U.S. hailed the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine. Among those making statements was the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who said on May 27: “Sunday’s vote was a day of destiny for Ukraine and a turning point in the nation’s effort to overcome Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s democratic development. It also offers Ukraine a chance to turn a corner on a crippling legacy of corruption. The election also was important for the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] which is undertaking massive efforts in Ukraine aimed at fostering stability and encouraging democracy in Ukraine. These elections present an historic opportunity to build an independent, prosperous state based on the rule of law.” While hailing the “free and fair vote” in which he saw “ordinary citizens who were clearly determined to freely make their choice and be stewards of their own destiny,” Sen. Cardin said, “At the same time, I deplore the actions of those who have deprived Ukrainians in Russian occupied Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine their right to vote through violence, intimidation and fear.”
Also on May 27, President Obama called to congratulate President-elect Petro Poroshenko and to offer assurances of U.S. support for Ukraine. The next day the White House confirmed that the president, while on a trip to Europe on June 3-6, would meet with Mr. Poroshenko in Poland, where the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first democratic elections was to be marked. The private meeting in Warsaw took place on June 4, a day after President Obama pledged to spend $1 billion to send more U.S. military to Europe on a temporary basis. Simultaneous to the meeting, the United States announced it would send Kyiv an additional $5 million in equipment, including body armor and night-vision goggles, that could help in its battle against armed pro- Russian separatists in the east.
Vice-President Biden attended the inauguration of President Petro Poroshenko on June 7. He said the new president’s inaugural address was “impressive, but the substance was more important than the delivery.” During an afternoon meeting with Mr. Poroshenko at the Presidential Administration, he commended the declared plans to combat corruption, secure the border with Russia and end the violence in Donbas. “There’s a window for peace, and you know as well as anyone that it will not stay open indefinitely,” Mr. Biden said, as reported by Voice of America. Mr. Biden pledged $48 million to help Mr. Poroshenko “conduct key reforms, build law enforcement capacity and strengthen national unity.” Mr. Biden underscored: “America’s with you. That is not hyperbole.”
At the reception held for the foreign guests, among those in the U.S. delegation were Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Nuland, Sens. McCain, Murphy and Johnson, and Rep. Kaptur, as well as Ambassadors Geoffrey Pyatt, envoy to Ukraine, and Daniel Baer, envoy to the OSCE.
At his July 29 confirmation hearing, the U.S. ambassador-designate to Russia, John Tefft, a former ambassador to Ukraine, stated that the United States will “never accept” the Kremlin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and cannot ignore Russia’s actions in the Ukraine crisis. The annexation has “shredded the very fabric” of European security, he said. “The U.S. can’t ignore the fundamental challenge to the international order posed by Russia’s actions in the Ukraine crisis.”
A month later, with Russia’s incursions into Ukraine escalating, and Russian forces taking control of strategic points in Ukraine’s east, President Obama spoke in the White House briefing room on August 28. Noting that he had just spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he said: “We agree – if there was ever any doubt – that Russia is responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine. The violence is encouraged by Russia. The separatists are trained by Russia. They are armed by Russia. They are funded by Russia. Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. And the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see. This comes as Ukrainian forces are making progress against the separatists.”
Soon thereafter, Sen. Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met in Kyiv with President Poroshenko. Mr. Poroshenko noted that the Ukrainian armed forces had been making significant progress in countering terrorists until the Russian armed forces intruded. “It is crucially important for Ukraine to receive assistance in its struggle for freedom, democracy and sovereignty,” Mr. Poroshenko emphasized at the September 1 meeting. In turn, Sen. Menendez noted: “These events threaten not only Ukraine, but also the entire world. The first victims are the people of Ukraine, but they are not the only victims. This is an issue of global security.” The senator reiterated his call for the U.S. to supply arms to Ukrainian national forces and toughen sanctions against Russia, adding he would seek a joint session of Congress later that month to let the Ukrainian president make the case directly to U.S. lawmakers. Indeed, he and Sen. Corker sent a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner asking him to invite President Poroshenko, as did members of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus.
Another staunch supporter of Ukraine, Sen. McCain visited Kyiv in September in what was his fourth trip to Kyiv since the beginning of the Euro-Maidan in late 2013. Speaking at a press conference on September 4, he said: “I keep coming back, and I am here now, because I believe what is happening in Ukraine is about far more than Ukraine. It is about the principles of international order that have brought peace and hope to Europe, and much of the world beyond Europe, since 1945 – and whether a world based on these principles will endure or not.” He underscored that “what Vladimir Putin is doing to Ukraine constitutes an invasion of a sovereign country – if we obfuscate this truth because we refuse to face it – then we are living in Putin’s world.”
And, on September 10, Rep. Boehner announced that he would invite President Poroshenko to address a joint meeting of both houses of Congress on September 18. “Having President Poroshenko address Congress is another signal of our steadfast commitment to the aspirations of his people,” Rep. Boehner said. “It will be an honor and a privilege to welcome him to the United States Capitol.”
President Poroshenko addressed that joint session of the U.S. Congress, presenting his government’s position on the latest developments in Ukraine’s east and calling on the United States to increase its political, economic and military support of Ukraine. He opened his address with these words: “It’s impossible to imagine what I’m feeling right now. How symbolic is the unity of the United States Congress and solidarity with Ukraine. This is exactly what Ukraine now needs the most: unity and solidarity. Not only with the United States Congress, not only with the United States, but with the whole world.” The president went on to say, “I urge you not to let Ukraine stand alone in the face of this aggression” and he reminded his audience that the U.S. “made a commitment that it would stand behind Ukraine’s territorial integrity” 20 years ago in the Budapest Memorandum, when Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arms. President Poroshenko said Ukrainian soldiers need not only more political support, but more both non-lethal and lethal military equipment. “Blankets and night-vision goggles are important. But one cannot win a war with blankets,” he said. President Poroshenko’s address to the joint session of Congress was greeted with more than 10 standing ovations.
After lunch with Vice-President Biden at his residence at the Naval Observatory, Mr. Poroshenko proceeded to the White House for a meeting with President Obama. The White House that day announced a new $53 million assistance package for Ukraine – of which $46 million was for security assistance – in addition to the $238 million in aid already provided to Ukraine this year. None of the aid was in the form of lethal weapons and ammunition that the Ukrainian president was seeking. President Obama praised President Poroshenko for brokering a ceasefire in the eastern regions. And he said the United States is ready to support Ukraine in its negotiations with Russia. “You have a strong friend not only in me personally, but I think, as you saw in Congress today, you have strong bipartisan support here in the United States. And the people of America stand with the people of Ukraine,” he said.
Once the parliamentary elections were held in Ukraine, President Obama issued a statement addressed to the people of Ukraine: “On behalf of the American people, I congratulate the people of Ukraine on holding successful parliamentary elections on October 26. Despite a challenging security environment in certain regions, millions of Ukrainians turned out across the country to cast their ballots in an orderly and peaceful manner. At the same time, it is clear that Russian authorities occupying Crimea and Russian-backed separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine prevented many Ukrainian citizens from exercising their democratic rights to participate in national elections and cast their votes.”
Vice-President Biden paid another visit to Kyiv on November 20-21. According to RFE/RL, his messages was that “it is unacceptable in the 21st century for countries to attempt to redraw borders by force in Europe or intervene militarily because they don’t like a decision their neighbors have made.” Mr. Biden called on Russia to abide by the commitments made in Minsk to end the crisis in Ukraine. “Do what you agreed to do, Mr. Putin,” Mr. Biden said. At the same time, he called on the new government in Kyiv, which had not yet been formed, to work toward greater integration with Europe and work for Ukraine’s democratic and economic future. He said so long as Kyiv does that, the United States will be “at your side.”
Back in the United States, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Pyatt on December 8 spoke at the Atlantic Council, a leading think tank, to make the case that the U.S. and Europe must help Ukraine in protecting its territorial integrity, as well as assist the Ukrainian government in building a better future for its people. He listed what he saw as priorities for Ukraine: resolving energy issues, fighting corruption and tackling constitutional reform. Mr. Pyatt also said the U.S. must continue to help protect Ukraine, which is also being confronted by Russian President Putin’s “weaponized” media strategy aimed at trying to confuse the issues involved and sow a division between the U.S. and Europe.
In Washington the next day, Vice-President Biden told an audience at the National Democratic Institute that if the pro-Western government formed that month failed to reform the economy and fight corruption, the efforts of Ukrainians who risked their lives in street protests that pushed Viktor Yanukovych from power in February could be in vain. Ukrainians have a chance again, and “they can’t blow it,” he said, according to RFE/RL. “Freedom is over 25 years old and they blew it; the Orange Revolution and they blew it.” The vice-president warned, “They don’t have many more chances in the near term.”
Meanwhile, a former U.S. senator from New Hampshire, Gordon Humphrey, penned a two-part commentary in The Ukrainian Weekly (October 26 and November 9) in which he argued that Ukraine needs weapons now and told readers how they could help save Ukraine. Mr. Humphrey reported on the establishment by private citizens and Ukrainian American organizations of a new Ad Hoc Committee for Ukraine, whose sole purpose is “to encourage Congress to assert its constitutional role as an equal branch of our government to change U.S. policy towards Ukraine and send defensive weapons.” He cited two near-term goals: to encourage formation of a bipartisan Senate Task Force on Ukraine and to encourage senators to support the only bill in the Senate that would authorize defensive weapons, including antitank weapons for Ukraine.
That was the Menendez bill, S 2828, the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act of 2014, introduced back in September. In December, Rep. Kaptur introduced HR 5782, which mirrored the Senate bill. With the end of the 113th Congress and the holidays fast approaching, the Ukrainian community was urged to act to get the bills passed. Thanks to a broad mobilization of Ukraine’s supporters, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014 in its ultimate version as HR 5859 (the House passed the bill on December 11, the Senate on December 13). President Obama signed the bill on December 18, but in a statement released by the White House Press Office said: “Signing this legislation does not signal a change in the administration’s sanctions policy, which we have carefully calibrated in accordance with developments on the ground and coordinated with our allies and partners. At this time, the administration does not intend to impose sanctions under this law, but the act gives the administration additional authorities that could be utilized, if circumstances warranted.”
The Weekly’s editorial pointed out: “The fact that the U.S. Congress passed this bill that contains provisions for defensive weapons for Ukraine is historic. The bill states that ‘it is U.S. policy to assist the government of Ukraine in restoring its sovereignty and territorial integrity in order to deter the government of the Russian Federation from further destabilizing and invading Ukraine and other independent countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.’ It ‘directs’ the president to impose new sanctions; and it ‘authorizes’ him ‘to provide Ukraine with defense articles, services and training in order to counter offensive weapons and reestablish its sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ …the bill also directs the secretary of state ‘to submit a plan to Congress to meet the need for protection of and assistance for internally displaced persons in Ukraine’; and directs the secretary of state and U.S. Agency for International Development to strengthen democratic civil society in Ukraine, support independent media outlets and counter government corruption. Also, it directs the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to submit to Congress a plan for increasing and maintaining through Fiscal Year 2017 the quantity of Russian-language broadcasting into the countries of the former USSR in order to counter Russian propaganda; and it refers to prioritizing broadcasting into Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.”
The Weekly’s editorial cautioned: “Now that President Barack Obama has signed the bill, we can hope for some real assistance for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. But the bill gives the president flexibility; he can choose what to do, and what not to do. It must also be noted that, unfortunately, the bill was passed minus the section on granting Major Non-NATO Ally status to Ukraine. Thus, it remains to be seen how the new law is actually implemented by the Obama administration.”