WASHINGTON – More than two years have passed since Russia launched a campaign of aggression against Ukraine – and the casualties, physical destruction and economic damage continue to mount. On March 30, hundreds of people attended a forum on Capitol Hill focusing on the devastating impact of Moscow’s war against Ukraine and U.S. efforts to assist Ukrainians with the humanitarian, economic and security crises brought on by Vladimir Putin’s hybrid military invasion.
The event, the lead organizer of which was the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation (USUF), was held under the banner “Ukraine’s Battle for Freedom Continues” and was dedicated to “the people of Ukraine who bear the cost of war.”
In her opening remarks Nadia McConnell, president of USUF, said: “We are back here today to acknowledge the growing human and economic cost of Ukraine’s continuing battle for freedom. We gather to better understand the current situation and needs of those most affected by the war… This cost is not only in the growing numbers of deaths and ruined lives but also in terms of destroyed livelihoods. Factories, businesses and mines have been destroyed, while key enterprises producing unique technologies have actually been dismantled and relocated to Russia.”
Ms. McConnell reminded the audience about other deplorable aspects of Russia’s aggression: “The broader context continues to be the failure of diplomatic initiatives from Budapest to Minsk and Putin’s outrageous violation of human rights, most clearly personified by the detentions of Nadiya Savchenko and at least 31 other political prisoners and, of course the ongoing, deepening persecution of Crimean Tatars. Over 200 [Ukrainian] soldiers and civilians have been killed since Minsk II, and hundreds injured.”
In her presentation, the USUF president also emphasized the bipartisan support that Ukraine enjoys in the House and Senate.
Addressing the audience, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the Unites States Valeriy Chaly thanked the U.S. for its very strong support for enhancing Kyiv’s defense capacity, implementing reforms in Ukraine and strengthening its democratic institutions. He also emphasized the very important role that Washington plays in maintaining trans-Atlantic unity regarding support for and solidarity with Ukraine.
Ambassador Chaly called the war waged by the combined Russian-separatist forces, which has resulted in 10,000 deaths and 2 million displaced persons, “one of the biggest tragedies in Europe and for Europe in the modern era.” He also thanked the Ukrainian American community for its humanitarian assistance and advocacy on behalf of Ukraine.
Bill Clifford, President of the World Affairs Councils of America (WACA), a co-organizer of the day’s events, noted that the 95 chapters of his educational network across the United States have been keenly following events in Ukraine. He said the conference would play an important role in raising awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. During the concluding session of the forum, WACA, as a service to its members, live-streamed President Petro Poroshenko’s keynote speech.
In his opening remarks, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said that the European security architecture of the post-World War II era – which was built on the premise of respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all European states and refraining from the threat or use of force – is now under threat due to Russia’s invasions of neighboring countries and the occupation and annexation of their territory.
Ambassador Volker tied support for Ukraine and its pursuit of a European future to U.S. core values and interests: “We have as a nation a commitment to our own core values and our own security. We believe in freedom, democracy, market economy, rule of law, human rights, security and the ability of people to choose their own futures, their own destiny. That’s the United States, that’s what we believe in. And when we see these values being realized by people in the world who share those values and have the opportunity to establish those things for their own countries and be successful, we are living in a better world, we are living in a world where we can trade, where we can travel, where we can have friends and allies – we see a rising tide that benefits all of us, including the United States. We are more secure if Europe is secure.”
He went on to discuss Ukraine’s difficult security situation, noting that Ukraine is “in this gray area, where we have not made a commitment to Ukraine’s security.” He continued: “It is still in that stage of aspiring to establish its own strong democracy, its own strong economy, its own sovereignty, its own security. And how Ukraine fares in this balance should be of great concern for the United States not just because of what it means to the Ukrainian people but because of what it means for us and the world we live in when aspirations like that can thrive and that makes a better world for us, or where aspirations like that are squashed and that makes a far more dangerous world for us.”
Ambassador Volker, who is the executive director of the McCain Institute for Leadership, said that we know from history and decades of experience “that when we see our values advancing in the world we are safer, when we see our values retreating in the world we ultimately become the target of those threats against our own values and interests.” He concluded his speech by saying that “simply out of a raw sense of self-preservation and of national interest I think we owe it to ourselves and to our Ukrainian friends and allies to do much, much more to help Ukraine succeed today. I think if we do not we will live to regret it for a very, very long time.”
The human cost of the war
When introducing the first panel – “The Human Cost of the War in Ukraine” – forum moderator Orest Deychakiwsky, a policy advisor at the Helsinki Commission, noted that: “This being Washington the focus, probably understandably, tends to be more on the policy-related aspects that pertain to Ukraine and that, of course, is very important. But it’s also very useful and informative to hear from individuals knowledgeable and directly involved in assisting Ukraine, including NGOs working on the ground in Ukraine.”
Panelist Melanne Verveer of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security emphasized that in many ways the humanitarian crisis “seems invisible,” making it hard to mobilize assistance. She said there are growing tensions between displaced persons and host communities in Ukraine, soldiers returning from the front face problems of reintegration into society, women have disproportionately suffered job losses, and domestic violence and human trafficking are increasing. Ms. Verveer said that the Ukrainian government must take on a bigger role in coordinating humanitarian aid efforts, because everything cannot be done by civil society and the international community.
Ambassador Clifford Bond, who has been engaged in coordinating U.S. assistance to Ukraine, recognized the role of Ukrainian civil society as the “first responders” to the humanitarian crisis and admonished the international community for its “inadequate” humanitarian assistance for the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in need.
Dawn Calabia, senior honorary advisor for Refugees International, said that 2.5 million people are in need of assistance. She was critical of separatist authorities for hindering the work of humanitarian aid organizations, as well as of Kyiv for restricting social payments to civilians and their movement between separatist and government-controlled areas.
Dr. Ulana Suprun, founder of Patriot Defence and director of humanitarian initiatives for the Ukrainian World Congress, described her work in mobilizing large-scale, lifesaving tactical/medical training courses for soldiers, combat medics and doctors in Ukraine, who were woefully unprepared to deal with the surge in life-threatening battlefield trauma brought on by Russia’s military incursion. Dr. Suprun stressed that the effectiveness of medical assistance for Ukraine must continuously be assessed. “We don’t need shiny white ambulances at the front lines,” she said. “What we need are armored vehicles to evacuate the soldiers when they’re injured, or the civilians when they’re injured, when they’re under fire.”
Sandra Roelofs, former first lady of Georgia and spouse of Mikheil Saakashvili (the current governor of Ukraine’s Odesa Oblast) discussed her engagement in efforts to strengthen the health system in Ukraine. She also noted there is huge solidarity with and support for the Ukrainian people from the Georgian people.
During the panel discussion on “Economic Development in Rebuilding Ukraine,” Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council recognized the Ukrainian government’s achievements in energy reform and fiscal and monetary stabilization. Unfortunately, almost nothing has been done in the area of judiciary and prosecutorial reform, he said, which undermines property rights. Dr. Aslund said he believes that state enterprises must be sold with urgency and that a government led by technocrats would be the best option for Ukraine.
Edward Chow, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who recently visited Ukraine, said he found Ukrainians to be nearly universally disappointed with the pace of reform and demanding that the reform process needs to be re-energized. He also observed that the government needs to do a better job in explaining the benefits of reforms to the Ukrainian public.
Morgan Williams, president of the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council, said the international business community “is probably the best thing that Ukraine has going for it,” noting that throughout the period of the Euro-Maidan and the war in the east, foreign companies working in Ukraine have maintained their presence in and commitment to Ukraine, including by providing extra support for their employees and humanitarian assistance. International companies are ready to invest billions into Ukraine’s economy, Mr. Williams said, but will not do so until corruption is squashed and more reforms are implemented.
“They aren’t ready to put money back in Ukraine. And money is not going back into Ukraine even though all these major corporations have money… but they’re holding back, they are in kind of a holding, circling pattern… You are never going to get out of this crisis just with macroeconomic stability. You are going to have to get business moving, investing, growing, creating wealth, creating tax income or they [Ukrainians] are never going to get out of this hole they’re in,” he underscored.
Telegraphing the sentiments of members of the companies he represents, Mr. Williams criticized Mr. Poroshenko, saying that “the president of Ukraine has not done anything about corruption” and lacks “a sense of urgency” for implementing reforms. He said the attitude of the American business community toward Ukraine is: “It’s your turn Mr. President, to provide leadership and move this country ahead and then we’ll follow and we’ll put in a lot of money. We know that $5 billion, at least, is ready to go into Ukraine from international companies.”
Another panelist, Ambassador William Taylor of the U.S. Institute of Peace, offered some lessons from his reconstruction experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. First you need security, which means Russia needs to get out of Ukraine and Ukrainians need to regain control of the border, he said. Secondly, it’s important for there to be “local ownership” (responsibility) regarding rebuilding projects. Reconstruction assistance for Ukraine must go into competent, non-corrupt ministries, he stated.
Budapest to Minsk and beyond
Opening the panel discussion titled “From Budapest to Minsk and Beyond,” moderator Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, said that the Budapest Memorandum and the Minsk agreement are “two very unhappy and unsuccessful agreements.” He asked rhetorically what it means for U.S. credibility when Ukrainians feel cheated for agreeing to relinquish their nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances and now are subject to unchecked Russian aggression.
David Kramer of the McCain Institute read through the provisions of the Budapest Memorandum, which stipulates that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within existing borders will be respected and that the signatories, including Russia, will refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine, that none of their weapons will be used against Ukraine, and they will refrain from economic coercion against Ukraine – pledges that Moscow has been violating. Thus, said Mr. Kramer, the U.S. has an extra obligation to provide defense and support for Ukraine.
Mr. Kramer, who is a former president of Freedom House, noted some key problem of Minsk II: the U.S. is not involved in the process, Russia is the aggressor yet serves as an intermediary, and Moscow has not fulfilled a single condition of the agreement.
In response to Russia’s push for Ukraine to adopt constitutional changes creating a special status for the Donbas, Mr. Kramer said: “It’s none of Russia’s business whether Ukraine is a centralized, decentralized, federalized or confederated country – that is for Ukraine and its leaders, its Parliament and its people to decide… So I would favor ripping up [the Minsk agreements], starting over, inserting the United States into a leadership role that it should take, and pushing back against the aggressor, the guilty party here, which is Russia not Ukraine.”
Another panelist, Temuri Yakobashvili, a former Georgian ambassador to the U.S., voiced a similar opinion about Minsk: “I cannot imagine any Ukrainian leader implementing what is written in there. It would be political suicide for sure.”
Mr. Gershman cited an investigative report in the German publication Bild that presents evidence of the Russian government’s direct financing and control over the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” and Russia’s continued military aggression against Ukraine.
Reacting to the article, Ambassador Yakobashvili said: “Every single European leader knows it, American leadership knows it, the OSCE is documenting almost every day that [Minsk] is violated [by Russia]. The problem is that nobody has an appetite to act upon these violations. It’s not that we don’t know what is happening. We know but we are in a mode of self-imposed blindness… Yes, it takes leadership. We don’t have, for whatever reason, leadership that is going to challenge Russia. Who is challenging Russia? The people of Ukraine.”
U.S. government perspective
Thomas Melia, assistant administrator of the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided a U.S. government perspective on the situation in Ukraine. He said that Ukraine is waging a war on two fronts:
“On the one front, the external front, Ukraine faces continued Russian aggression, including attempts to stifle and undermine its democratic path, through political and economic pressure and continued military aggression in violation of international law. The U.S. stands at Ukraine’s side to strengthen its resilience and support Ukraine as it pushes back against this Russian pressure, aggression and occupation.
“The second front in Ukraine is a battle against an internal enemy that is equally pernicious and has held Ukraine back from progressing as a democratic and prosperous nation for well over two decades. While many of Ukraine’s neighbors have moved forward economically and politically after the end of the cold war, Ukraine often took steps backwards as politicians and oligarchs controlling the levers of power hollowed out Ukraine as corruption thrived and the economy stagnated. This battle for genuine democracy, for economic liberty, the battle against entrenched corruption and the battle for a new, European Ukraine envisioned by the Heavenly Hundred and so many others during the Revolution of Dignity has challenged existing power structures.”
Mr. Melia acknowledged that Ukraine has made important progress but added: “Today Ukrainians are demanding that their leaders think about what they can do for Ukraine rather than what they can take for themselves. That’s why it’s critical for Ukraine’s President Poroshenko and the political parties in the Rada to come together now to form a new government and put in place a real reform agenda that carries out the reforms and furthers European integration; to form a government that serves the Ukrainian people rather than the interests of the oligarchs, who know full well that their access to power will be diminished if the reforms that animated the Maidan take hold and are actually implemented. Every day that the reform effort is slowed is another day lost for Ukraine. Not only does halted progress erode U.S. and international confidence in Ukraine, but [it]hands Russia an undeserved, unearned victory.”
Keynote address by Poroshenko
The final event of the forum program was a speech by President Poroshenko. He began by expressing appreciation regarding America’s support for Ukraine: “I am grateful to the United States government for standing by Ukraine’s side over the last two years – the hardest two years in the history of my country. I am grateful to the Ukrainian American community which has been supporting Ukraine so actively in so many ways. And I am grateful to all people of goodwill who stood with Ukraine and extended their financial, in-kind and moral support. This support is vitally important for me and for the people of Ukraine.”
Most of Mr. Poroshenko’s speech focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine. He had come to Washington to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit. Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons and stockpile of highly enriched uranium are recognized as important contributions to global security and President Poroshenko drew attention to the issue.
“Ukraine remains among the key contributors to success of the Obama nuclear security initiative. And I am proud of that. What did we get in response? We got a security assurance under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum about [the]sovereignty of my country, territorial integrity of my country and about the independence of my country. Very clear: Give up nuclear weapons and receive security guarantee[s],” he said. “Sounds good, doesn’t it? But what has it turned [out]to be in reality? Russia simply defied its assurances to Ukraine and committed a direct armed aggression [against]my state. The Ukrainian patriots are losing their lives defending the same values that are dear to America and to Europe.”
He continued: “We are of one blood, we are of one mind and we are of one values. Democratic values. We, Ukrainians, are entitled to call upon the Western guarantors under the Memorandum to take all possible efforts to restore international justice and order, to help us in our battle for survival and [an]independent, democratic and European future. I believe that there is a real chance for President Obama to mark his presidential term with the settlement of the conflict in [the]Donbas.”
The Ukraine in Washington 2016 “Ukraine’s Battle for Freedom Continues” forum was organized by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, and co-sponsored by the House Ukraine Caucus and Senate Ukraine Caucus in cooperation with the Embassy of Ukraine and World Affairs Councils of America. The co-hosts of the forum were The Jurkiw Family Fund, the New International Leadership Institute, the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council, Meest, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and Winner Group U.S.A./Ukraine.
Videos of the conference proceedings can be viewed at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/user/usukraine.
Adrian Karmazyn is a special advisor for strategic communications and development at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation in Washington.