For Ukraine, 2019 was a year of elections – first the presidential election on March 31 and then the parliamentary elections less than four months later, on July 21. The presidential election brought a political neophyte to power in a landslide victory, while the Rada elections redrew Ukraine’s political map as newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s political party, Servant of the People, won 254 seats out of the 424 being contested.
At the beginning of the year, analysts said that the presidential race was wide open and unpredictable. National Deputy and two-time Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was the front runner, followed by incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and Mr. Zelenskyy, a showman and perhaps the country’s most popular comedian. None of the three approached the popularity among voters needed to win a simple majority. This, coupled with the fact that one-fifth of voters were still undecided made it difficult to foresee who the two final candidates would be for the likely runoff vote in April.
On February 4 the Central Election Commission said a remarkable 83 candidates had filed to run for president; 28 of the applications were approved, 22 were rejected, and 33 were still under consideration. By early March, the pool of candidates was 39, and nationwide polls showed that Mr. Zelenskyy had just over 17 percent support, while Ms. Tymoshenko had 11.9 percent and Mr. Poroshenko had 10.7 percent. The next two candidates were Anatoliy Hrytsenko (6.8 percent) and Yuriy Boiko (6.5 percent), and a whopping 25.4 percent of respondents were undecided. A poll conducted in March showed the same trends.
Our Kyiv correspondent reported that this uncertainty was giving diplomats and investors the jitters. At stake: completion of a $3.9 million lending program of the International Monetary Fund and hundreds of millions of dollars in supplemental loan guarantees from the West. Amid high-levels of perceived public corruption, Ukraine’s Western backers didn’t want to see five years of investment wasted after the election, the Reuters news agency reported on March 26. Reuters cited anonymous foreign envoys, with one saying that “we certainly know what we get with Poroshenko,” while “we think we known what we’ll get with Tymoshenko… With Zelenskyy we have no clue.”
As the election drew nearer, front-runner Mr. Zelenskyy was avoiding public forums, choosing instead to run a virtual campaign online and via social media, and holding semi-private meetings with foreign stakeholders, while his two closest competitors stayed on the campaign trail. As of mid-March, the polls showed Mr. Zelenskyy with 19.1 percent support, Ms. Tymoshenko with 14.2 and Mr. Poroshenko with 12.8. Given the “personal animosity between” the presidents of Ukraine and Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to see anybody other than Mr. Poroshenko win the election, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker said in a March 18 conference call with journalists in Brussels.
On March 31, 62.8 percent of eligible voters – close to 18.9 million people – cast their votes. That was higher than the turnout for the 2014 presidential election, which was 60.29 percent. As predicted by numerous polls, Mr. Zelenskyy emerged as the top vote-getter with 30.24 percent. President Poroshenko was a distant second with 15.95 percent of the vote. Mr. Zelenskyy won the plurality in most oblasts, while the incumbent carried two oblasts, Lviv and Ternopil, and led the voting outside of Ukraine, which was conducted in 101 polling stations in 72 countries. Behind them were: Ms. Tymoshenko with 13.40 percent, Mr. Boiko with 11.67 percent, Mr. Hrytsenko with 6.91 percent, Ihor Smeshko with 6.04 percent, Oleh Lyashko with 5.48 percent, Oleksandr Vilkul with 4.15 percent and Ruslan Koshulynsky with 1.62 percent. The rest of the field received under 1 percent of the vote.
The presidential election then headed to a second round. The main questions: Would Zelenskyy voters – many of whom were thought to have cast protest votes to reflect their dissatisfaction with the way things were going in Ukraine – continue to support him? For whom would the supporters of unsuccessful candidates vote? This was now a contest between an anti-establishment candidate and a veteran politician who touted experience and accomplishment over the fear of the unknown in his adversary, whom he called “a puppet of [oligarch Ihor]Kolomoisky.”
According to a nationwide survey by Rating Sociological Group that was conducted on April 5-10, Mr. Zelenskyy, 41, a politically unproven comedian, was the clear leader with 61 percent support among those who intend to vote. Multi-millionaire confectionary mogul Mr. Poroshenko, 58, had 24 percent support. Fifteen percent were still undecided.
Mr. Zelenskyy had shied away from the public and consistently ducked journalists; he conveyed messages through virtual platforms on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the Telegram cellphone application. In messages sent through the Telegram application to followers, the showman said he wanted to finalize the establishment of the long-awaited anti-corruption court, remove parliamentary immunity from prosecution, pay whistleblowers who uncover graft, create a separate unit to fight financial crimes and remove these powers from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and other institutions. His campaign was vague on national security and contradictory in terms of promises that don’t pertain to the president’s mandate. Mr. Zelenskyy’s consultants and advisers spoke for him, often contradicting each other on crucial issues. Personally, the candidate provided little insight into how he would establish peace in the Moscow-stoked war in the Donbas, aside from suggesting that the U.S. and Britain be brought to the negotiating table along with Germany, France and Russia, the latter of which had indicated it would not discuss the inter-state conflict based on the false assertion that it’s not a party to it.
Meanwhile, President Poroshenko questioned Mr. Zelenskyy’s absence beyond rare scripted appearances, and he urged voters on election day to not think about “Zelenskyy or Poroshenko, think about Ukraine and how to preserve it… and don’t allow [the country]to be transformed into Little Russia.”
Following his April 6 meeting with more than two dozen members of civil society, including corruption watchdogs, President Poroshenko promised to appoint judges to the newly created anti-corruption court in the coming days. He promised to correct the “two main mistakes” that he had made as president: staffing decisions and lack of communication – he has rarely given public news conferences during his term and neglected dialogue with public advocacy groups during the last two years. “Strategic communication was completely destroyed. The decisions were taken behind the scenes, and even if they were absolutely correct, they did not create trust in society,” he said. “I acknowledged this mistake.” Mr. Poroshenko also promised to not appoint business associates to key positions: “I want to emphasize the following: no business partners, no close people will be appointed by Petro Poroshenko while he is president, including during the second term.”
A so-called debate between the two candidates was held in a soccer stadium two days before election day. If the truth be told, it was a televised show, with the candidates ostensibly posing a few questions to each other and mostly hurling accusations. And the “moderators” were no more than timekeepers. As Reuters aptly characterized it: “The event was light on policy and heavy on theatrics, with supporters cheering and booing their respective candidates and shouting ‘Shame’ and ‘Go away’ in a gladiatorial atmosphere.” The real presidential debate in the TV studio of the state-run public broadcaster, as called for by law, never materialized as Mr. Zelenskyy did not show.
On election day, April 21, Mr. Zelenskyy trounced the incumbent, winning an astonishing 73 percent of the vote, with over 13.5 million voters casting their ballots for him. It was seen as a huge protest vote based on the electorate’s desire for new faces that were not part of the political establishment. It was also pretty incredible: a fictional teacher-turned-accidental president in a TV comedy was to become the president in real life. Mr. Zelenskyy’s strongest support was in the east, where nearly 90 percent of voters in Luhansk Oblast and 87 percent in Donetsk Oblast cast ballots for him. In a victory speech at his election night headquarters, he thanked “all Ukrainians who supported me [and]thank you to all Ukrainians who made a different choice… I promise that I will never let you down.”
On April 22, the day after the election, several thousand supporters assembled in the courtyard of the Presidential Administration building to thank President Poroshenko for his service. They were grateful for all Mr. Poroshenko had done during his five years in office: bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union and NATO, rebuilding the Ukrainian military that was decimated by the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovych, defending Ukraine on the world stage, strongly contributing toward an independent Orthodox Church for Ukraine, supporting the Ukrainian language after decades of Russification. It was a worthy and heartfelt send-off.
The newly elected president soon faced serious challenges. Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin signed a decree on April 24 that simplified the procedure for giving Russian passports to some 3.8 million residents of the occupied parts of the Donbas. The move signaled Moscow’s further stranglehold on the region and reduced the maneuvering room that Mr. Zelenskyy would have to negotiate a lasting ceasefire in the Donbas. In an e-mailed statement, Mr. Zelenskyy’s team said that, through the decree, Russia had “acknowledged its responsibility as an occupier state,” and that it doesn’t “bring us closer to achieving the ultimate goal: a ceasefire.” President Poroshenko, in a video address, said that “the Russian Federation has crossed another red line, openly and disrespectfully torpedoing the peace process in the Donbas.” Moscow brushed off the criticism, and Mr. Putin stated that the move was “purely a humanitarian matter.”
The Russian president continued to test the president-elect by further encroaching on Ukraine’s sovereignty. The Kremlin banned oil and coal exports to Ukraine, expanded the issuance of Russian passports to include Ukrainians born on the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and Ukrainians who have Russian residency or asylum status, and continued its creeping annexation of the Azov Sea.
Mr. Zelenskyy mocked the Kremlin leader in a statement directly addressed to the Russian people on April 28. Obtaining Russian citizenship, he said, offers fewer freedoms than what Ukrainians enjoy: “The right to be arrested for a peaceful protest, the right to have no free and fair elections,” and the fact that “inalienable human rights and freedoms” don’t exist. Mr. Zelenskyy underscored that “Ukrainians are free people in a free country that is independent, sovereign and indivisible.” He then said that Kyiv will extend citizenship to citizens of “post-Soviet states,” including Russia, who seek “protection, asylum and… anyone ready to fight for freedom.”
At about the same time, the Zelenskyy team spoke of its priorities for the first 100 days of the new administration: to get bills enacted in Parliament on presidential impeachment and to remove immunity from prosecution for lawmakers, the president, judges and others to whom the law currently applies.
At the Verkhovna Rada, a sweeping law on languages was passed on April 25. A solid majority of 278 lawmakers voted for the bill that made Ukrainian the sole language in all government activities and for officials while performing official duties. Ukrainian dominance in media, culture and education also were ensured. The bill’s measures did not apply to private communication or language use in religious ceremonies.
The bill would be outgoing President Poroshenko’s last legislative legacy. “The law on the Ukrainian language does not mean that we want to ‘squeeze’ any other language,” he said. “This is definitely not the case. This law is about protecting our language. For no place in the world, except Ukraine, will it be protected.”
President-elect Zelenskyy criticized the bill’s spirit by saying “the state should promote the development of the Ukrainian language by creating incentives and positive examples rather than with prohibitions and punishments…” He said the bill should have been widely discussed in public, despite the fact that, since the first vote on the bill in October 2018, it had been debated among experts and civil society groups throughout the country. In addition, more than 2,000 amendments – most of which came from the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc – were considered before the second vote.
Mr. Zelenskyy spoke in early May about his priorities, underscoring that he would work “to defeat corruption rather than fight it” and to reduce monopolies in the opaque energy industry, while emphasizing that there is no alternative to European Union integration in foreign policy. He also said that to reduce graft he wanted to ensure that the public directly engages with officials as little as possible. “Our goal is a state in a smartphone,” he said.
Also in the first days of May, Mr. Zelenskyy took time to meet with Ukraine’s religious leaders from the Ukrainian Orthodox, Ukrainian Greek-Catholic, Muslim and Jewish communities. The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church’s Patriarch Sviatoslav said they discussed “the importance of the Ukrainian World Congress and the Ukrainian diaspora to support our country in the world, as well as the need for an appropriate response to the challenges of [Russia’s] hybrid war.”
Inauguration day came on May 20. The overarching theme of the new president’s inauguration speech was for Ukrainians of all geographic locations and persuasions to come together and continue building a nation. “We are all Ukrainians: there are no bigger or lesser, or correct or incorrect Ukrainians,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. “From Uzhhorod to Luhansk, from Chernihiv to Symferopol, in Lviv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipro and Odesa – we are Ukrainians. And we have to be one. After all, only then we are strong.”
The address received mixed marks. Its overarching message of national unity was commendable; the affirmation that “each of us is the president” and that “each of us is responsible for the country that we leave to our children” was encouraging; and the outreach to the Ukrainian diaspora around the globe was welcome. The president spoke of common dreams (“a path to Europe”) and shared pain (“each of us has died in the Donbas,” “each of us is a refugee”). The first task “is ceasefire in the Donbas,” the president said, adding that he is ready “to pay any price to stop the deaths of our heroes …as long as we do not give up our territories.” But there was no mention by name of the aggressor – an omission not lost on most observers. Mr. Zelenskyy also spoke several sentences in Russian during his speech – an attempt to be clearly heard by the Russian-speaking portion of the multi-ethnic population of Ukraine.
In the next few days, there was cause for worry about the new president’s first steps. He signed a decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and announced pre-term elections for July 21 – a move that was challenged in court as a violation of the Constitution. He tapped Andriy Bohdan, Mr. Kolomoisky’s lawyer, as his chief of staff, once again raising questions about his own connections to that oligarch; he named several TV colleagues to his presidential staff. Most troubling and dangerous was the idea, voiced by Mr. Bohdan, that the issue of peace agreements with Russia – the aggressor in both the Donbas and Crimea – could be put to a nationwide referendum. Without going into detail, Mr. Bohdan also said Ukraine should be ready for compromise with Russia. All this came at a time when Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and his Cabinet of Ministers resigned, meaning that the Cabinet would operate in a caretaker capacity with limited power. Significantly, Mr. Groysman said his suggestion that the Cabinet and the Rada work together with the new administration to “shape a new agenda” was rejected by President Zelenskyy.
On May 27, Mr. Zelenskyy visited the frontline towns of Shchastia and Stanytsia Luhanska, the latter of which is the location of one of two civilian cross-points in that easternmost oblast. The presidential website noted that the new commander-in-chief “spoke with the soldiers about living conditions, the quality of food, the provision of equipment, housing and social benefits, as well staffing in subdivisions.”
On May 29 he met with the International Monetary Fund, after which he said the “IMF has always been a reliable partner of Ukraine in times when we need support.” Ukraine then had a $3.9 billion stand-by agreement with the Washington-based lender and needed to repay more than $5 billion in foreign debt in 2019. After the IMF meeting, Oleksandr Danylyuk, the newly tapped secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, told journalists that Ukraine would seek a longer-term deal with the IMF. (On September 27, Mr. Danylyuk resigned, apparently due to dissatisfaction with the Zelenskyy administration’s style of work, including on issues revolving around PrivatBank, once owned by oligarch Mr. Kolomoisky, as well as conflicts with Mr. Bohdan of the Presidential Office. On October 3 President Zelenskyy announced that Mr. Danylyuk would be replaced by Oleksiy Danilov, who had been serving as his deputy.)
Mr. Zelenskyy’s first foreign trip was to Brussels, where he visited European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) institutions on June 4-5 and emphasized Ukraine’s unswerving course toward further integration with both. Noting that a wide range of issues was discussed with European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker, including the EU’s consistent support of Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mr. Zelenskyy said that peace in the Russo-Ukrainian war can only be achieved through dialogue. “Our goal remains unchanged – the liberation of the Donbas exclusively through political and diplomatic channels,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, while urging the EU to keep existing sanctions on Russia.
Speaking with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, the president discussed reforming the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and other intelligence agencies, as well as the defense and industrial complex, and instituting overall civilian control over security and defense. On June 5 he told 1+1’s morning program from Brussels that he wanted to hold a national referendum on NATO accession.
Mr. Zelenskyy also paid visits to Paris on June 17 and to Berlin on June 18, meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Ukrainian president stressed that sanctions against Russia for its invasion and occupation of Ukraine’s territory should be maintained and even expanded. Sanctions “are the only means to liberate the occupied region, and restore our territorial integrity and sovereignty, and return them to our people,” he told the German newspaper Bild.
In this newspaper’s June 9 issue, we finally tackled the matter of the correct spelling of the new president’s last name. Here’s how we explained it: “The Ukrainian Weekly has adjusted the English-language spelling of the Ukrainian president’s last name to match the change made on the official website of the president of Ukraine (president.gov.ua). The official website first spelled the new president’s surname ‘Zelensky,’ but on May 30 changed all references to ‘Zelenskyy.’ President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s last name has also been rendered as Zelenskiy and Zelenskyi by various sources. The president’s foreign press inquiry office did not respond to a May 31 request from The Weekly for a clarification. Thus, we have made a decision to comply with the spelling now utilized on the official presidential website.”
The Rada elections
It seemed that the presidential election had just been held when it was time for Ukraine’s voters to once again go to the polls. But first, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine had to consider the legality of pre-term parliamentary elections called for July 21 by President Zelenskyy in a May 21 decree. The court began its hearings on June 11. Mr. Zelenskyy argued that his legal position is “indisputable and flawless” – one that he would prove in court. The main reason for calling snap elections is the absence of a governing coalition, he said. He also noted that many factors point to the “spirit of the law,” including low public trust of the legislature and popular support for dissolving the Verkhovna Rada. The court ruled on June 20 that the snap elections could take place.
In the meantime, political parties were holding their congresses in mid-June ahead of the elections. Polls suggested that five parties – three pro-Western, one populist and one pro-Kremlin – were expected to pass the 5-percent barrier for half of the 450 parliamentary seats based on a proportional voting system. A nationwide survey that the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology released on June 10 reported that the president’s Servant of the People party could capture nearly 49 percent of decided voters. The pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life party was polling in second place with 12 percent support, while Ex-President Poroshenko’s re-branded European Solidarity party and former Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party each had about 8 percent support. Polling fifth with 6 percent support was the newly established party of Ukraine’s most prominent rock star, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, which is called Holos Zmin (Voice of Change).
The Verkhovna Rada’s eighth convocation held its final plenary session on July 11 with a long-awaited political breakthrough – the adoption of a new Election Code. It came too late to be applicable to the pre-term parliamentary elections, though it will apply to the next local elections scheduled for 2020. The changes will not be applicable to the Verkhovna Rada until December 1, 2023. The main change is the shift from a mixed proportional-majoritarian system, in which 50 percent of national deputies were elected on the basis of votes for political parties and 50 percent in single-mandate constituencies, to a purely proportional one – with the critical difference that it will be with open party lists. Voters will also be able to vote not only for a party, but for specific candidates proposed by a party.
The July 21 parliamentary elections continued the biggest political shake-up in independent Ukraine’s history, as Mr. Zelenskyy’s landslide victory in the presidential election was replicated by a win on a historic scale by his party, Servant of the People. As predicted by opinion and exit polls, Servant of the People won a clear majority – the first time any party had achieved such a dominating position in the Verkhovna Rada. Servant of the People captured 254 of the 424 seats being contested (26 of the Parliament’s 450 seats remain unfilled because elections could not be held in areas occupied by Russia). It won 124 seats in voting for party lists and another 130 in single-mandate constituencies.
The four other parties that managed to pass the 5 percent threshold to get into the Rada lagged far behind. The pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life did somewhat better than expected, securing a total of 43 seats, the Batkivshchyna party obtained 26 seats and European Solidarity won 25. Mr. Vakarchuk’s new party Holos managed to just get in, winning 20 seats. Servant of the People came first in all but three regions. In Lviv, Holos pushed the party into second place. In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Servant of the People was second after the Opposition Platform – For Life. Voter turnout, at 49.84 percent, was the lowest in all of Ukraine’s parliamentary elections since 1991.
Soon after election day, representatives of Servant of the People confirmed that the first priorities for the new Parliament would be to complete the work left undone by the previous Verkhovna Rada, namely to lift the immunity from prosecution for national deputies, proscribe the illegal enrichment of officials and adopt a law allowing for the impeachment of the president. After that, the emphasis would be on more effective legal reform, stepping up efforts to curb corruption, enhancing legislation dealing with decentralization and liberalizing the economy.
The first session of the newly elected Rada was on August 29. Dmytro Razumkov, the former “political technician” turned politician and No. 1 on the Servant of the People party list during the parliamentary elections, was elected the Parliament’s chairman; Ruslan Stefanchuk, a professor of law, regarded as the main ideologist of Servant of the People, who also serves as the president’s official representative in the Rada, was elected first-deputy chair; and Olena Kondratiuk of the Batkivshchyna party, a relative unknown, became the second deputy chair.
During their initial session, the national deputies approved a new prime minister and Cabinet of Ministers, and replaced the prosecutor general. Oleksiy Honcharuk, a lawyer with right-liberal leanings, was appointed prime minister. He heads a revamped government, as the number of ministers has been reduced from 25 to 17 and some of the ministries have been transformed. The key position of prosecutor general was filled by Ruslan Riaboshapka, a former deputy minister of justice who had resigned from the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NABU).
Also that day, the Rada passed in its first reading a bill to lift the immunity of national deputies from prosecution in matters concerning criminal offenses. The bill was passed in its second reading at the next parliamentary session on September 3, thus becoming law. The measure was approved by 373 votes, with only the Opposition Bloc – For Life opposing it.
The case of Ulana Suprun
Ongoing efforts to overhaul Ukraine’s defective and corrupt health-care system took a serious blow on February 5 when a Kyiv administrative circuit court issued an injunction that barred its chief implementer – Dr. Ulana Suprun – from performing her duties as acting health minister. From the outset of her appointment on July 27, 2016, the Ukrainian American physician had stepped on the toes of deeply entrenched corruption interests. Dr. Suprun’s approach to ensure that “money follows the patient,” modeled after Great Britain’s health-care system, among other quality-care improvements, came to a temporary end when Justice Serhiy Karakashyan ruled in favor of the plaintiff, populist Radical Party lawmaker Ihor Mosiychuk of the Radical Party, who repeatedly challenged the legality of Dr. Suprun’s position as acting health minister. Judge Karakashyan ruled that she has dual Ukrainian and U.S. citizenship in contravention of the law. He also said that the term had expired for her to continue in the role of acting minister. Instead, he said, she could fulfill the duties of deputy minister of health. On February 14, Dr. Suprun was reinstated as acting minister of health, after the judge reversed his own injunction. The decision came after four days of deliberations based on a Justice Ministry appeal.
Dr. Suprun had been praised by the World Health Organization as well as foreign donors of Ukraine for removing long-entrenched opportunities for corruption in the country’s health care system.
On May 21, Acting Minister of Health Suprun spoke at the 72nd session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, telling that body about the transformation of Ukraine’s health care: “Over the last two and a half years, the path to universal health coverage and attaining SGD 3 [Sustainable Development Goals regarding good health and well-being] in Ukraine was built by redefining how health-care services are financed by creating the National Health Service of Ukraine, a single payer system. In just over a year, 27.6 million patients signed declarations with a family doctor of their choice. Over 1,900 primary care facilities and almost 25,000 doctors have joined the new system, making patient-centered medicine a reality. Multiple surveys show patient satisfaction with their family doctors at over 70 percent and disapproval in the single digits. Family doctor’s salaries have doubled and, in some cases, tripled or quadrupled. The system is built on a digital solution, where e-health is the source for billing, health data and quality assurance.”
Dr. Suprun’s position at the Ministry of Health remained precarious. During a live television broadcast on June 5 from Brussels, Mr. Zelenskyy said he didn’t expect Acting Health Minister Suprun, a Detroit native of Ukrainian extraction, to hold her post once a new government is formed. “Suprun? Ha-ha-ha. Well, there are different attitudes towards her. You know how she is called [Doctor death], don’t you know? Thank God I have another doctor in my family,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.
In response, Dr. Suprun said during the weekly government meeting on June 5, “I can’t arrive at any conclusions regarding what kind of person President Zelenskyy is.” She continued: “He has worked for a short period only. I hope that he will not make any conclusions without talking to me [first], and not having seen the [effect]of our work.”
On August 29, Dr. Suprun was replaced by Zoriana Skaletska, a leading NGO activist in the medical sector and a law professor.
And the war continues
On February 25 , the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said some 13,000 people had been killed, a quarter of them civilians, and as many as 30,000 wounded in the war in eastern Ukraine since it broke out in April 2014. “OHCHR estimates the total number of conflict-related casualties in Ukraine… at 40,000-43,000” from April 14, 2014, to January 31, 2019, the statement said, including “12,800-13,000 killed.” The estimated death toll included 3,321 civilians.
In a July 8 video statement on Facebook, Mr. Zelenskyy said he was ready to hold talks with Mr. Putin in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. “We need to talk? We do. Let us discuss who Crimea belongs to and who is not there in the Donbas,” the Ukrainian president said, adding that he wanted the leaders of the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom present at the talks. Mr. Zelenskyy said at a summit with top European Union officials on July 8 that peace could be returned to Ukraine only by way of diplomatic negotiations. “We want to stop this war, and we want to return peace to Ukraine,” he continued. “But this can be done with only one weapon: diplomacy.” He also said that sanctions must be upheld against Russia until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored. “Sanctions policy is the last civilized tool to achieve peace.”
Mr. Zelenskyy’s statement came amid concerns voiced by Ukrainian politicians and activists regarding the television “bridge” proposed by Russia’s state-owned Rossia-1 channel and Ukraine’s NewsOne television network, which is associated with Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin Opposition Platform – For Life party. On July 7, a Russian state TV presenter known for his fiery anti-Western diatribes, Dmitry Kiselyov, announced that the direct Russian-Ukrainian TV link called “We Need To Talk” would be held on July 12. Mr. Zelenskyy called the project “a cheap and dangerous PR tool” ahead of the snap parliamentary elections scheduled for July 21. He said that the purpose of the show was “to divide” Ukrainians into “two camps,” pro-Russian and pro-EU, ahead of election day.
A different Independence Day
On August 24 Ukraine celebrated the 28th anniversary of its renewed independence and attention was focused on the capital to see how the country’s new president would impose his new style on the proceedings. It was announced that the traditional parade would be replaced by a March of Dignity, and a separate procession, to be called the March of the Defenders of Ukraine, would also be held by Ukrainian war veterans.
Ukrainian Independence Day ceremonies began on the famed Instytutska street, where the president and his wife, in the presence of scores of children clad in white, paid tribute to the Heavenly Hundred, the heroes of the Maidan who were shot down by snipers at that site in the last stages of the Revolution of Dignity in February 2014.
The president greeted the representatives of the armed forces on the Maidan, delivered his speech to the nation from there, and proceeded to award medals for bravery and distinguished service. The music and entertainment adapted to the occasion was provided by a host of well-known artists, cultural figures and ensembles, including the famed Veryovka choir, Ukraine’s leading composer Myroslav Skoryk, the electro-folk music band Onuka, singer Tina Carol, and even a rapper. In his first Independence Day address, President Zelenskyy reflected on Ukraine’s epic state-building journey in the 10th century A.D. and called on fellow Ukrainians “not to quarrel over the past, but to unite for the future.”
The “unofficial” march though the center of Kyiv of the Defenders of Ukraine followed the official celebrations. Thousands of war veterans, relatives of the fallen and their friends, sympathizers, clergy and chaplains from various regions of the country, proudly moved as planned from the Taras Shevchenko University through the capital’s main streets via the Khreshchatyk to the Maidan. Many of them carried blue-and-yellow and military flags, portraits of fallen heroes and banners identifying their places of origin.
Foreign policy challenges
On September 14, speaking on the sidelines of the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in Kyiv, Ukraine’s new minister of foreign affairs, veteran diplomat Vadym Prystaiko, told RFE/RL that he hoped the West was pressuring Moscow as hard as it was pushing Kyiv for progress toward peace in the Donbas. Western countries such as Germany, France and the United States have become “so preoccupied by progress” that some in Kyiv are growing worried that they might force Ukraine into a bad deal with Russia for the sake of peace.
Four days later, he said that a meeting of the Normandy Four – which Ukraine had wanted to be held in September – would probably be held in October. Russia’s insistence on strict terms for its participation in a new Normandy Four summit – namely Ukraine’s acceptance of the controversial “Steinmeier formula” from 2016 as a precondition – set off alarm bells. The formula was keenly supported by Russia, and backed by Germany and France too. But Ukraine was wary of this scheme. The Steinmeier formula foresees the simultaneous implementation of both the security and political components of the earlier Minsk accords from 2014 and 2015, but the interpretation of the modalities of their implementation remained a stumbling block.
On September 19, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Mr. Zelenskyy’s envoy for the ongoing peace talks in Minsk, expressed his concern. He told the Associated Press that Ukraine is being pressured by France and Germany to agree to “all the demands that Moscow is making,” effectively empowering the “separatists” it has installed there through what would be phony local elections under Russian control. “I don’t have a lot of hope,” he added. “Zelenskyy will have a hard time – it will be one against three people,”
Mr. Kuchma reiterated the Ukrainian position: “Security comes first. You need to pull out the troops, pull out the heavy weaponry, give us back the border, and then we will hold free elections.” Subsequently, Mr. Prystaiko and other Ukrainian officials clarified that any elections in the occupied areas can be conducted only once Russian forces are withdrawn, under Ukrainian law and supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and that any local self-governance is limited and temporary. The question of how representative an election in the Donbas could be in the absence of 1.5 million internally displaced persons remained open.
As the date of the Normandy Four conference was again pushed back, Foreign Affairs Minister Prystaiko told the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in Brussels on October 14 that Kyiv seeks to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but not at any cost. “Ukraine is now and will stay a unitary state. We are not talking about a forceful federalization of Ukraine,” Mr. Prystaiko said “A second red line is that we are not changing our Constitution the way Russia wants it.” Mr. Prystaiko said Kyiv was ready to grant the areas held by Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions “some sort of self-determination within the process of decentralization,” which he said “is ongoing in Ukraine anyway.” Later that same day, he spoke of Kyiv’s plans for peace at a regular meeting of the European Union’s foreign affairs ministers in Luxembourg.
Despite continuing reassurances from the Zelenskyy administration that it would not yield on fundamental issues concerning Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, protests against what many saw as Kyiv’s potential “capitulation” before Russia by accepting the controversial “Steinmeier formula” intensified and spread. On October 6 more than 10,000 people demonstrated on Kyiv’s Maidan, making it the largest public protest since the Revolution of Dignity. Protests were also held in numerous cities all across the country. In addition, the oblast councils in the Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Khmelnytsky regions and the city councils of Sumy and Kropyvnytsky voiced their opposition to the Steinmeier formula.
The issue received considerable attention at the “media marathon,” a free-ranging press conference convened by President Zelenskyy on October 10. Pressed hard by journalists, he acknowledged that part of the reason for the current situation is shortcomings on his administration’s side in communicating about was happening and really at stake to the population. In the face of nationwide “No to Capitulation!” protests, Mr. Zelenskyy repeatedly insisted there were clear “red lines” that Ukraine would not cross. In the run-up to the Normandy format summit, now scheduled for December 9, the Ukrainian president said his main objective would be try to move the negotiations from talk to agreement on a specific timeframe for ending the war and “the return of our territory.”
Meanwhile, on December 3, three factions in the Verkhovna Rada – Mr. Poroshenko’s European Solidarity, Ms. Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and Mr. Vakarchuk’s Voice – issued a joint declaration listing the red lines that the Ukrainian president should not cross. On December 8, several thousand people took part in a rally on the Maidan, which was addressed by Mr. Poroshenko. Similar meetings were held in several other cities. In the evening, many of the demonstrators in Kyiv began a vigil outside the presidential building.
Once the four-way talks were held in Paris on December 9, they were greeted with cautious optimism for having reactivated the stalled negotiations based on the Minsk accords to end Russia’s war in the Donbas. Ukraine’s president managed to secure agreement on an exchange of all prisoners, a commitment to a general ceasefire and a follow-up meeting of the Normandy four within four months. However, many political issues related to the future of eastern Ukrainian regions controlled by joint Russian-separatist forces remained unresolved. Among the details that will need to be addressed before the next summit are: if and how the Steinmeier formula can be applied, when local elections can be held in occupied areas of the Donbas and what form of local-self-government will be given to them.
Back home in Ukraine, even the organizers of protests acknowledged that Mr. Zelenskyy had not crossed any red lines and ended their vigil outside his headquarters.
Prisoners of war, political prisoners
March 5 marked 100 days that the Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia on November 25, 2018, had spent as prisoners of war. The men were seized off three Ukrainian Navy vessels – the artillery boats Berdyansk and Nikopol, and the sea mule tugboat Yany Kapu – as they were sailing in the Black Sea toward the Azov Sea. The incident near the Kerch Strait was a clear violation of international law and an incontrovertible act of war. The seamen, who were held in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, were charged with trespassing on “Russian territory” and faced sentences of up to six years in prison.
Soon after the 100-day mark came the news that the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights had clearly stated that Russia is in breach of international humanitarian law and that the 24 Ukrainians are prisoners of war. “This is the first time that such an international body has spelled this out, demolishing Russia’s attempts to deny that the 24 men are POWs, and highlighting Russia’s continuing violations in trying to foist criminal charges upon the men,” the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group underscored.
On May 10, Ukraine argued during a hearing at the United Nation’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany, for the release of the crewmen and vessels that Russia had impounded. Joined by an international team of lawyers and experts, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Olena Zerkal argued that Moscow had violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea when its naval forces detained the 22 Ukrainian sailors and two Security Service officers who were aboard three vessels.
On May 25, the U.N. tribunal issued its ruling and ordered Russia to immediately free the 24 seamen. Nineteen judges voted for the ruling; the lone dissenting vote came from a Russian judge. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the Russian media that Moscow would not abide by the ruling. President Zelensky welcomed the tribunal’s ruling in a statement on the presidential website. He said Russia can “make the first step towards unblocking negotiations and resolving the problems it created in a civilized way.”
On May 10, activists in Ukraine marked the fifth anniversary of the arrest of Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov, who was serving a 20-year prison term in Russia on charges of terrorism that have were criticized by human rights groups and Western governments as politically motivated. Dressed in black clothes, with their mouths taped and hands chained, the demonstrators marched in Kyiv, stopping at 14 embassies of Western countries. A Crimea native, Ms. Sentsov had opposed Russia’s 2014 takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula.
In yet another case that was seen as politically motivated, 20-year-old Ukrainian Pavlo Hryb was sentenced on March 22 to six years in prison after he was convicted of “promoting terrorism” – a charge he said was fabricated by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Mr. Hryb’s father, Ihor, condemned the March 22 verdict as a “death sentence for Pavlo… who needs an urgent medical operation in order to live.” (Mr. Hryb suffered from portal hypertension, a condition that worsened in Russian custody, and needed heart surgery.) Ukraine denounced the verdict by the North Caucasus Regional Court, calling it “unlawful,” and Pavlo Hryb announced a hunger strike to protest the ruling as well as his treatment in jail.
Meanwhile, according to the advocacy groups Memorial and the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, Moscow still held more than 100 Ukrainian political prisoners in Crimea and Russia.
Finally, there was some good news on September 7, when 35 Ukrainian political prisoners and hostages were returned to Ukraine in an exchange involving the same number of detainees held by Kyiv because of their hostile activities on behalf of Russia. Eleven of the Ukrainians had been jailed on trumped-up political charges. These included Mr. Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko, who were sentenced to prison terms of 20 and 10 years, respectively, for allegedly plotting terroristic acts in Crimea. Mykola Karpiuk and Stanislav Klykh were accused of having fought on the side of Chechen rebels against the Kremlin in the 1990s, tortured and given sentences of more than 20 years each. Others had subsequently been detained while visiting Moscow, as was the case with journalist Roman Sushchenko in 2016, or even abducted after being lured by a “virtual” girlfriend on the Internet, as happened in August 2017 with Mr. Hryb while he was visiting Belarus. Volodymyr Balukh was arrested in December 2016 in Crimea and given a five-year prison term for not accepting Russia’s policies. And Crimean Tatar activist Edem Bekirov was detained in December 2018 while returning to Crimea from mainland Ukraine to visit his elderly mother. Others released were Oleksiy Syzonovych, a 62-year-old pensioner, Yevhen Panov and Artur Panov, all of whom were accused of plotting terroristic acts. Also among the 35 were the 24 Ukrainian seamen seized along with their three ships in November 2018. The ships, however, remained in Russian custody.
A controversial figure among the prisoners released to Russia was potential witness Vladimir Tsemakh, who had commanded an air-defense unit of the Russia-backed forces fighting in the Donbas at the time of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in July 2017, when all 298 people on board were killed. He had boasted about his role in shooting down the aircraft. President Zelenskyy gave assurances that there was no cause for concern. He stressed that Mr. Tsemakh had been properly questioned and that Dutch investigators had been given access to him. Indeed, the president intimated that the exchange had been held up because of this.
The three ships captured by Russia were finally released almost a year later, on November 19, but they were returned in very poor condition. Vice-Admiral Ihor Voronchenko said on November 20 that, because of their condition, the ships – two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat – were being moved slowly by other vessels. “They cannot sail on their own. The Russians ruined them – even took lamps, power outlets and toilets. We will show the whole world the Russian barbarism towards them,” Admiral Voronchenko said. The ships arrived at the port of Ochakiv in the southern Mykolayiv region.
At the end of the year, there was another prisoner exchange. On December 29, Ukraine and the Russian-backed “authorities” in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” carried out a prisoner exchange whereby 76 Ukrainian captives – 12 military personnel and 64 civilians – were swapped for 127 people who were released to Russia’s proxies. It certainly was not the “all for all” prisoner exchange foreseen by the Normandy format talks of December 9, 2019, nor was it an even swap. Moreover, no Crimean Tatars were among those released, nor were the political prisoners held in Russia. Nonetheless, there was real joy in Ukraine upon the return of those held by Russian-backed forces – some of them since 2015.
The prisoner swap was strongly criticized because of the terms on which it was made. Among the prisoners released by Ukraine were ex-officers of the Berkut implicated in the killings of protesters during the Revolution of Dignity in February 2014 and pro-Russian militants convicted of a terrorist attack in Kharkiv in February 2015. The Kyiv Court of Appeal on December 28 freed from custody five former Berkut officers charged with killing 48 Maidan activists; that same day a Kharkiv court sentenced the three militants responsible for four deaths to life imprisonment, but then promptly released them from custody. It was justice denied. Critics said President Zelenskyy – who called the swap “a great victory” – had gone too far in his concessions and that including these men in the exchange had undermined ongoing criminal cases. Mr. Sentsov, who had been a political prisoner before he was set free in a swap in September 2019, said Kyiv was giving up “real murderers” and that “everything Ukrainians fought for” was being undermined.
Mr. Zelenskyy responded by explaining that the transfer of the former Berkut officers was a condition of the prisoner exchange and saying “it was a difficult decision” and a “political” one. “If they had stayed, we would not have received our intelligence officers, would not have received the guys who were defending Ukraine, who were in Debaltseve,” he added. “We cannot bring the dead back. But we could bring those alive back,” he underlined, adding “that’s the main thing.” At the same time, he pledged: “It will not affect the cases of Maidan in any way. As I promised, we will finish the investigation of Maidan cases. Definitely.”
The Crimean Tatars
At the beginning of 2019, we published an analysis by Paul Goble which reported that Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars, said the goal of his nation is “the establishment of a platform for the return of Crimea on the basis of the Budapest Memorandum,” the 1994 accord under which Russia and the West agreed to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for its surrender of nuclear weapons. The Crimean Tatar leader had lobbied for the U.N.’s passage on December 17, 2018, of the resolution on the demilitarization of occupied Crimea in large part because “there for the first time was a reference to the Budapest Memorandum.” It is “very important,” he noted, that the United Nations specified that Russia’s militarization of Crimea is “a violation of the Budapest memorandum.”
March 18 marked the fifth anniversary of the Russian takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. That was the date in 2014 when Russian President Vladimir Putin, with great fanfare in Moscow, signed a treaty that made Crimea part of the Russian Federation. That spectacle followed the March 16 “referendum” in Crimea, which purported to show that nearly 97 percent of voters in Crimea favored “reunification” with Russia – no matter that the voting took place under conditions of military occupation, literally at gunpoint. Furthermore, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians and others who wanted to remain part of Ukraine largely boycotted the vote, which they saw as unconstitutional and predetermined; while “political tourists” were allowed to cast their ballots.
On July 8, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), by a vote of 94-7 with 11 abstentions, passed the “Resolution on the Militarization by the Russian Federation of the Temporarily Occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol, Ukraine, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov,” in which it reaffirmed its full respect for the sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine, which includes the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, the city of Sevastopol and maritime areas; reiterated its condemnation of the ongoing illegal occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation; reiterated its grave concern over the increasing militarization of the Crimean peninsula and the Russian Federation’s intention to deploy nuclear weapons in that area; and condemned the increasing militarization of the Sea of Azov, the Kerch Strait and the Black Sea by the Russian Federation.
On August 9, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, President Zelenskyy had a meeting with the representatives of the Crimean Tatar people. The meeting was aimed at deepening the cooperation of the Presidential Office, the president’s representation in Crimea and the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, and the coordination of efforts toward deoccupation of the peninsula and its reintegration, and the protection of Crimean Tatars who are being oppressed by the occupying authorities. Participating were Permanent Representative of the President in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Anton Korynevych, Mr. Dzhemilev, Chairman Refat Chubarov and Kurultai delegate Rustem Umerov. In order to record all human rights violations in Crimea, Messrs. Chubarov and Dzhemilev offered to raise in the international arena the issue of establishing a permanent monitoring mission on the temporarily occupied peninsula. They underscored that the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Group and the Special Monitoring Mission of the OSCE that operates in the temporarily occupied part of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts already have this right. Mr. Korynevych noted that the occupying authorities of the Russian Federation do not allow international human rights monitoring missions to enter the peninsula, as they understand that the evidence gathered could be used in international courts, in particular in the International Criminal Court.
The U.N. General Assembly on December 9 called on the Russian Federation to withdraw its military forces and end its occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula without delay. The resolution also condemned visits by Russian officials to the temporarily occupied Crimean peninsula, including those in connection with conducting military exercises, and expressed its deep concern over the use of seized Ukrainian military industry enterprises in occupied Crimea by the Russian Federation. It also called on all member states as well as international organizations and specialized agencies to refrain from any visits to Crimea that are not agreed with Ukraine. Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the U.N. Volodymyr Yelchenko was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “…what is more alarming is that the occupying power is taking steps to nuclearize Crimea, in particular by deploying carriers and other means capable of delivering nuclear weapons, as well as by actively developing nuclear infrastructure on the peninsula.” Titled “Problem of the Militarization of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol, Ukraine, as well as parts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov,” the resolution was co-sponsored by 39 countries; 63 countries voted in favor of the document.
At the end of 2019, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people announced plans for a March of Dignity against Violence and Occupation from mainland Ukraine to Russian-occupied Crimea. According to Mr. Chubarov, head of the Mejlis, they hope that this will help the U.N., the OSCE, the EU and other international structures in implementing the decisions taken with respect to Russia’s illegal occupation of the peninsula. “We are going home,” Mr. Chubarov stressed, after almost six years in which Russia has exiled virtually all leaders of the Mejlis from their homeland, as well as banning the Mejlis itself. The announcement came on the eve of the Normandy format summit involving the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany (December 9), where the issue of Crimea was not on the agenda. Mr. Chubarov said that silence about Crimea at the summit is a “gift” to Russian President Putin. The date of the March of Dignity, which is to take place in 2020, has not been announced.
Other developments of 2019
- Freedom House’s annual report on “Freedom in the World” was released in early 2019, covering developments during 2018. The organization issued separate reports on Ukraine and on Crimea, which Freedom House noted is under Russian occupation. While Ukraine was described as “partly free” with an aggregate freedom score of 60/100, Crimea was “not free” and had a score of only 8/100. Freedom House pointed out: “Since the occupation began, the Russian government has taken decisive steps to solidify ethnic Russian domination of the peninsula and marginalize the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities. The elimination of the Ukrainian language from school curriculums and the closure of most Ukrainian Orthodox churches since 2014 are indicative of this attempt to Russify the population.” Over all, the 2018 the monitoring organization’s report recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
- On January 22, a human chain was formed along Kyiv’s Paton Bridge over the Dnipro River to symbolically mark the 100th anniversary of Unity Day, when the Ukrainian National Republic and the Western Ukrainian National Republic united into one independent Ukrainian state in 1919. Such human chains across the Kyiv bridge are a tradition on Unity Day, which became a national holiday in 1991. The first human chain symbolizing Ukraine’s unity was formed on January 21, 1990, when 450,000 people united the cities of Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv and Kyiv.
- On January 24, Kyiv’s Obolon District Court sentenced ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, in absentia, to 13 years in prison on charges of treason and for abetting Russia’s war against Ukraine. A panel of three judges took turns reading the verdict for seven hours starting at 9 a.m. that related to five criminal counts. Insufficient evidence was found to convict the exiled former president of “encroaching” on the country’s “territorial integrity, which caused the death of people or other grave consequences.” A signed letter dated March 1, 2014, that Mr. Yanukovych allegedly sent to President Putin, asking him to send troops to Ukraine to “restore law and order” in the wake of the Euro-Maidan revolution in February 2014, was the prosecutors’ key piece of evidence.
- Ukraine has “turned the corner,” is back on investors’ radars and changing public perception beyond corruption and “war” about the country, Alexa Chopivsky, Ukraine House Davos (UHD) executive director, told The Ukrainian Weekly regarding the side venue’s performance at the annual World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Ms. Chopivsky noted that attendance on January 21-25, 2019, reached an estimated 8,000 visitors – or 3,000 more than in 2018 when UHD debuted. The event included the traditional Ukrainian Breakfast that Viktor Pinchuk, a magnate whose father-in-law is ex-President Kuchma, has funded for 15 years through a charity foundation.
- On February 19, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and European Council President Donald Tusk honored the memory of the Heavenly Hundred, the victims of Maidan clashes in the center of Kyiv during the Revolution of Dignity. “We, together with President of the European Council Donald Tusk, have honored the memory of the Heavenly Hundred heroes. Eternal memory and glory. Heroes never die,” Mr. Poroshenko wrote on Twitter that morning. The two men visited a memorial cross with the names of those killed in the center of Kyiv. They also familiarized themselves with the blueprints of the National Memorial Complex of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes and the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity whose construction is planned at the site of the death of the victims of Maidan clashes. February 20 has been set as the date to commemorate Heavenly Hundred Heroes Day in honor of courage, strength of mind and perseverance of citizens who gave their lives during the Revolution of Dignity (November 2013 through February 2014).
- Also on February 19, European Council President Tusk delivered a historic address to the Verkhovna Rada that placed Ukraine’s 2013-2014 revolution and subsequent struggle against Russian aggression in a broader European context. In his speech, Mr. Tusk said: “I can reiterate that Europe will never recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and will not drop the sanctions unless Russia fulfills its commitments. Nor will the EU accept any acts of violence in the Sea of Azov. I will do everything in my power to ensure that the EU remains united in this respect.” He told the Rada: “Those who are willing to sell out Ukraine are selling out the future of Europe. It is no accident that politicians who question European integration typically also question the integrity of Ukraine. Tell me what you think about Ukraine, and you will be telling me what you think about Europe,” Mr. Tusk underlined that “there can be no just Europe without an independent Ukraine. That there can be no safe Europe without a safe Ukraine. To put it simply: there can be no Europe without Ukraine.”
- On February 20, President Poroshenko spoke at the United Nations General Assembly debate on agenda item 67, “The situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.” He said: “Today marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the foreign military aggression against my country, Ukraine. …Five years ago 100 innocent lives, not only Ukrainians, but also Belarusians, Armenians, Jews and many others were lost in the name of Ukraine’s independence, dignity and freedom.” The president also stated: “While continuing its undeclared war against my country the Kremlin desperately keeps trying to convince the international community that it is not a party to the conflict. It says it is Ukraine’s internal conflict, where Russia is only an objective and impartial mediator. …Let’s set the record straight once and for all. There is no so-called ‘crisis in Ukraine’ nor ‘internal conflict in Ukraine,’ but an ongoing military occupation and armed aggression by Russia against Ukraine.”
- On September 25, President Zelenskyy addressed the U.N. General Assembly during the opening days of that body’s 74th session. He asked his fellow leaders to recall their first speeches from the U.N. rostrum: “Remember how important it was to tell the problems and troubles of your country and your people to the world back then. How important it was to be heard. I have the same feelings today.” The neophyte president went on to speak about the costs of Russia’s war and how the numbers of those killed, wounded and displaced grow every year, how Ukraine needs the world’s support. “…in today’s world, where we live, there is no longer someone else’s war. None of you can feel safe when there is a war in Ukraine, when there is a war in Europe.”