WASHINGTON – As world leaders – among them the presidents of the United States, Ukraine and Russia – began arriving in New York in late September to address the United Nations General Assembly and discuss some of the major world issues, including the crisis in Ukraine, representatives of the Ukrainian and U.S. governments, Ukrainian American and other organizations, and Washington think tanks gathered at the Congressional Auditorium in the U.S. Capitol on September 25 for a discussion of that crisis, its causes and effects, and how they could and should be resolved.
The day-long forum, “Ukraine’s Ongoing Battle for Freedom: The Risk of Western failure in Political, Economic and Humanitarian Assistance,” also featured a video-recorded speech by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, in which he expressed his country’s gratitude for the support of the U.S. government and American people and for standing with them in their fight for freedom.
“Ukraine needs firm trans-Atlantic unity and world solidarity to push Russia into the framework of international law,” he told the more than 400 registered participants of the forum, which was organized by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. He stressed that Ukraine also needs adequate aid for the people suffering from this war and for the implementation of the Ukrainian “comprehensive agenda for reform.”
President Poroshenko singled out the “critical assistance” received from the International Monetary Fund and other institutions in helping Ukraine “to keep our economy afloat” and the humanitarian assistance gracefully provided by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other organizations, which, he said, “is a huge help for the many thousands of misplaced civilians, wounded soldiers and civilians… and a push for peace and security.”
Among other Ukrainian officials participating in the forum were Ukraine’s ambassador in Washington, Valeriy Chalyi, Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak and Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko. Ms. Jaresko focused her presentation on the current humanitarian and economic crisis in Ukraine, which has killed approximately 8,000 people and injured 18,000 more, most of them civilians, she said.
With 1.5 million people – 70 percent of them women and children – fleeing from their homes in Crimea, the Donbas and other parts of the country, Ukraine is suffering a major migrant crisis, she said, pointing out that this is the eighth largest such crisis in the world, and the least-funded.
As for the economic situation, she noted that the previous administration, the Yanukovych “regime-autocracy,” had brought about a financial meltdown and amassed enormous debt, “for which the country today must pay the price.” The hryvnia has lost 70 percent of its value; unemployment is high; the educational system and students are suffering; and retirees are not getting adequate pensions.
“We’re on the brink of a financial meltdown, all the while fighting a war to protect our freedom,” Minister Jaresko said, but she added that things are now improving and that she is optimistic about the future.
The U.S. State Department’s coordinator of assistance to Europe and Eurasia, Alina Romanowski, also expressed her optimism about the direction Ukraine is heading. She pointed out that there are reports about positive reforms in the police and judicial systems, and that economic reforms and improvements in the pension, budget and energy systems are “beginning to bear fruit.”
She noted that there have been some fair local elections and that Ukraine’s exports have increased – with exports to the United States rising by 36 percent, by 10 percent to Asia and by 6 percent to the European Union.
“Throughout this difficult but hopeful period, the United States’ message has been clear and unequivocal: We stand with the people of Ukraine in their search for justice, human dignity, security, defense of their territorial integrity and sovereignty, and a return to economic health, and for the European future they have chosen and deserve,” Ms. Romanowski said.
While a number of members of Congress had indicated that they would come by and address this Ukrainian Forum in the Capitol Congressional Auditorium, a number of them could not make it because of the surprise announcement that morning by the Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) that he plans to retire from his position.
Among those who did address the forum were Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas); and Speaker Boehner’s Ohio colleague in the House, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D), who co-chairs the House Ukrainian Caucus.
Rep. Royce, who recently visited Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk with a bipartisan Congressional delegation, stressed that the problem there is Russia. “Everyone wanted the same outcome. They wanted Russia out,” he said. “The only way we are going to get peace is Russia has to pull out.”
“It is absolutely imperative that the United States allow Ukraine to defend itself,” which would include providing it with anti-tank weapons, Rep. Royce added.
He pointed out that another “Achilles’ heel” in the situation there is the present dominance of Russian television in the dissemination of information throughout Eastern Europe, and he recommended the revival of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, which were so effective during the Soviet era.
He characterized the appointment of Ms. Jaresko, a Ukrainian American, to be Ukraine’s finance minister as “essential” to the proper development of Ukraine’s future – “because it took us generations in the United States to get to the point where we had reformed our institutions in the way in which they were functioning properly.”
He also called on the Ukrainian American community “to step up the effort to press harder on the House level, the Senate level and the administration to take the steps necessary to give Ukraine the backing it needs.”
The panel discussion featuring Ukraine’s religious leaders included Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate; Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Archbishop Stefan Soroka of the U.S. (via video from Philadelphia); Sheikh Akhmed Tamim, the mufti of Ukraine’s Muslims; Pastor Dale Armstrong, international director of the American Pastors Network, who has been involved in Ukraine for more than 20 years; and Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Ukraine since 1990 (via video from Kyiv).
Among the participants in the “View from Washington” panel were two former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine, Steven Pifer and John Herbst. The latter pointed out that Russia’s current focus on the Middle East may well help the ceasefire in Ukraine to last. The key to its resolution, he said, will be Ukraine and its Western supporters not letting up.
Also presenting their analyses on that panel were Orest Deychakiwsky (U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe), Edward Chow (Center for Strategic and International Studies), Katrina Lantos-Swett (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom); and the moderator, Ambassador Temuri Yakobashvili, head of the New International Leadership Institute.
Another former U.S. ambassador – to Kazakhstan and Georgia – William Courtney participated in the panel discussion about “Zones of Vulnerability” with the governors of two Ukrainian oblasts – Georgiy Tuka (Luhansk) and Ihor Rainin (Kharkiv), both via video.
Presenting an overview of the humanitarian crisis, Dawn Calabia, senior honorary advisor at Refugee International, described the areas at the border separating Ukraine and the Russian occupied territories, which are cut off from Ukraine and in need of food and other assistance. Co-panelist Neal Bratschun, a strategist with Armada, noted that 11 percent of Ukrainians are directly affected by that conflict and need $316 million in aid, of which $116 million (37 percent) is funded by the United States, the largest contributor.
The forum concluded after another panel discussion about the gaps in assistance to Ukraine, a “Clarion Call to Action” by retired U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, and a reception and “networking opportunity.”
The forum was organized by the U.S. Ukraine Foundation (Nadia K. McConnell, president) and co-sponsored by the House Ukraine Caucus and Senate Ukraine Caucus, in cooperation with the Embassy of Ukraine and Save Ukraine Now.