WASHINGTON – The Ukrainian American Bar Association held its 42nd annual meeting in the revered confines of the United States Capitol. The conference, titled “The Tenacity of Ukraine’s Democracy: Overcoming Obstacles and Aggression,” took place during the weekend of November 1-3, 2019, and featured 25 speakers, including American and Ukrainian diplomats, jurists, journalists, U.S. and foreign government representatives, members of Washington think tanks and attorneys.
Coming in the midst of Washington’s political infighting over impeachment, the conference had an added touch of both drama and history as a backdrop. It was the second year the UABA met on Capitol Hill.
The conference concluded with a banquet at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, with long-time advocate for Ukraine Bob McConnell, co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and the Friends of Ukraine Network, as the evening’s keynote speaker.
At the outset of the conference, the attendees, including congressional staff and government personnel, were greeted by UABA President Oksana Pelekh, who also expressed the UABA’s gratitude to the office of Congressman Andy Harris (R-Md.), co-chair of the Ukrainian Congressional Caucus, under whose sponsorship the event was held at the Capitol.
The first to address the group was Andrii Yanevskyi, chargé d’affaires, ad interim, of the Embassy of Ukraine in Washington, who spoke on “Current Political Developments in Ukraine,” although given the political turmoil raised by the now infamous telephone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, the topic could very well have been about current political developments in Washington. Mr. Yanevskyi diplomatically highlighted the positive U.S.-Ukraine relationship, which remains strong with continuing U.S. support vital to preserving Ukraine’s democracy and sovereignty.
The first panel discussion, “Ukraine – Subject or Serious Player in International Politics,” was moderated by award-winning journalist and chief of the Ukrainian Service of Voice of America Myroslava Gongadze. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst expressed his view that the controversy surrounding the Trump-Zelenskyy telephone call served to marginalize Ukraine and make it the subject of discussion rather than being recognized as a key partner for U.S. strategic and national security interests. He took exception with the view that Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was fired due to pressure from presidential candidate Joe Biden rather than pressure from “the entire Western community.”
Ambassador Herbst added that “Ukraine needs bipartisan support” and that there is “danger in the narrative that Ukraine is evil” because the U.S. needs Ukraine to succeed. He ended on an upbeat note, saying that he thinks everything “will turn out OK,” although he encouraged Ukrainian Americans to support candidates who are pro-Ukraine “because it’s in favor of the United States.”
Melinda Haring, editor of Ukraine Alert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, echoed the sentiment that Ukraine had become the subject rather than the player, comparing the situation to Russia’s view of Ukraine as a “subject or little brother.” But, she underscored that “Congressional support for Ukraine remains strong.” She noted that foreign investors in Ukraine are not satisfied with the legislative pace in Kyiv amid concerns about “shoddy drafting” of legislation. The challenge is that, “if Ukraine wants to be a serious player, it must reform itself.” But, “it’s time for Congress to support Ukraine with more weapons and coast guard boats.” She finished by saying that the Congressional Ukraine Caucus was “doing a fantastic job” and expressing hope that the caucus will continue its work.
The third panelist, Glen Howard, is president of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington policy research institute founded in 1984 by former CIA Director William J. Casey to assist Soviet defectors. Today, the foundation acts to inform policymakers on events and trends in those societies that are strategically important to the U.S. Mr. Howard suggested that Ukraine needs to have a strategy beyond sanctions, especially as it relates to Crimea. He described President Zelenskyy as more of a tactician than a strategist; although, he has surrounded himself with strategists, including Defense Minister Andrii Zahorodnyuk and Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk. He also identified Mariupol as the key to the Donbas and steel exports through the Sea of Azov, which Ukraine must protect at all costs.
He underscored that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “understands the importance of Ukraine to U.S. security.” Mr. Howard surprised the audience with his prediction that Secretary Pompeo will run for the U.S. Senate in Kansas and be replaced by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the former chief negotiator with North Korea.
During the Q & A, discussion again turned to the Washington melee, and Ms. Haring suggested that Ukraine “needs to fix itself and stay out of the U.S. fight.” Ambassador Herbst observed that “those who have no Ukraine interests in mind keep talking about corruption, corruption, corruption.” Ms. Haring ended the panel’s discussion with the comment that “people need to be sent to jail” in order for corruption reforms to succeed in Ukraine.
Judge Bohdan Futey, a co-founder of the UABA and former president and board member, addressed the topic of “Legal Challenges to the Government of Ukraine.” Mr. Futey began his remarks by commending President Zelenskyy’s address before the United Nations and his recognition that the rule of law is central to fighting corruption. He noted that there are 6,500 judges in Ukraine, of which 1,500 to 2,000 positions remain vacant, and he pointed out that Ukraine’s Constitutional Court is very different from the U.S. model, as decisions of the Constitutional Court are subject to review and may be rejected by the Verkhovna Rada.
Following a catered lunch in the Capitol, the program turned to a panel discussion of “Russia’s Aggression Against Ukraine: Are There Paths Toward a Solution?” Dr. Stephen Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Institute, opened his remarks by saying that “It is vital that Ukraine prevail, and vital for the United States.” He emphasized that European security is America’s security and that Russia wants what it has always wanted: that “Ukraine never exist as an independent sovereign state.” He stressed that Ukraine’s democracy worries Vladimir Putin and in a very pointed historical reference said, “Ukrainian independence and statehood threatens the very existence of the Muscovy state.”
Dr. Maria Snegovaya, fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, focused her remarks on graphs that charted Russian aggression during this century as a function of oil and gas prices. As oil and gas prices rose at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian military increased its activity by attacking the Russian province of Chechnya in the “Second Chechen War,” while blaming terrorist bombings in Moscow, which were orchestrated by the Russian FSB. In 2014, with oil and gas prices high, Russia attacked Ukraine, annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas region of Ukraine utilizing highly paid Russian and foreign mercenaries, “Spetsnaz” FSB units, Russian arms and missiles, and Russian military personnel. Dr. Snegovaya’s point was clear: Russia is an opportunistic aggressor that acts most aggressively when it feels economically strong.
The next topic, “Assessing Freedoms in Ukraine” was addressed by Ayla Bakkalli, the U.S. representative of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis at the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues and executive member of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars. Ms. Bakkalli also serves as an adviser to the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the U.N. on indigenous matters.
She said that during the last five years of occupation, the Russian Federation has engaged in the deliberate relocation of Russian citizens to the Crimean peninsula in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention; this is also a war crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
While Russia has stripped away human rights in Crimea, Ukraine has acted to preserve Crimean rights and institutions. “The Russian occupiers banned the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, and Ukraine challenged the ban at the International Court of Justice,” she said. “The Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the U.N. has sponsored over 30 resolutions before the U.N. General Assembly and Ukraine has utilized all democratic tools and mechanisms within the international arena and at home,” she noted.
Orest Deychakiwsky, for many years a key staff member of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), focused his remarks on the current human rights abuses taking place in the Donbas region of Ukraine occupied by Russian troops. He reviewed how Ukrainian POWs are held in deplorable conditions, subjected to torture, deprived of any medical services and not allowed visits by international relief organizations, including the U.N. and OSCE.
Mr. Deychakiwsky also cited the deprivation of religious liberty, with Russians banning churches by refusing registration for the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Baptists, the Pentecostal Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses and all those other than the Russian Orthodox Church. These abuses include the banning of the Ukrainian language, the closing of all non-Russian schools, the Russification of the area with the introduction of Donbas “patriotism,” the imprisonment of Ukrainians on falsified charges and the dismantling of any semblance of civil society. He noted that there are still hundreds of Ukrainians imprisoned in Russian jails and called upon Ukrainian Americans to voice their concern to their elected representatives in Washington and insist that sanctions against Russia be increased.
Adrian Karmazyn, special advisor, strategic communications and development, for the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, addressed “Media Freedom and the Media Environment in Ukraine.” He noted that Ukraine has “made significant progress in improving its media environment in the post-Maidan period, including advancing the professionalism of news coverage.” According to Mr. Karmazyn, the problem in Ukraine “remains that oligarchs still exert influence over the newsrooms.” The best hope for overcoming oligarch dominance “is that online sources are catching up and surpassing TV in popularity.” Unfortunately, the popularity of social media has made “the audience highly susceptible to fake news, distortions, bots, troll farms” and other forms of disinformation.
Mr. Karmazyn cited a positive development in the proposal by Minister of Culture Volodymyr Borodiansky to legislatively limit the ability of Russian citizens to own Ukrainian media and for Russian capital to finance Ukrainian media. He concluded that “these are signals that the Zelenskyy administration will not be letting down its guard in terms of battling Russian disinformation and that Zelenskyy regards Western-style free news media as essential to Ukraine’s democracy.”
The final topic for the day was “U.S. and European Perspectives on Ukraine’s Economic Situation.” As the world continues to hear Russia’s diatribe describing Ukraine’s economy as crumbling and in dire condition and Ukraine as a “failed state,” each of the speakers gave a hands-on assessment of increasing investment and growth in Ukraine’s economy.
Michelle Small, director, head of the Representative Office – North America, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), cited the fact that in 2019 the EBRD invested $1 billion in Ukraine, double the amount for 2018. These investments included long-term infrastructure projects like a railroad project and a road construction project in the Kherson Oblast.
Ivan Bilaniuk, an attorney and partner in the Cincinnati-based law firm of Dinsmore & Shohl, which dates back to 1908, stressed his firm’s increasing activities in Ukraine on behalf of U.S.-based clients and confirmed the quickening pace and growth of Ukraine’s economy and the strengthening of Ukraine’s currency.
John Didiuk, director, international project finance, for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) explained that OPIC provides loan guarantees to those who are investing in Ukraine. Under OPIC, the loans typically ranged in size from $1 million to $350 million. OPIC is presently insuring a number of energy-related projects that will reduce Ukraine’s dependence on outside energy sources, including a $400 million wind power project.
Mr. Didiuk announced that effective with the New Year, OPIC would be joined with the U.S. Agency for International Development Credit Authority in a new agency to be known as the United States International Development Finance Corporation or “DFC,” for the purpose of bringing private capital to the developing world. This new agency, funded with up to $60 billion in non-governmental funds, will play an expanded role in financing projects beyond providing loan guarantees to those investing in Ukraine. DFC will provide equity as well as debt financing, political risk insurance, and technical assistance and feasibility studies. It will support cooperation with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Saturday’s session began with welcoming remarks by Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, or as lawyers often describe the court, “the second highest court in the land.” Judge Tymkovich, whose great-grandfather emigrated to the United States, told a poignant story of growing up aware of his Ukrainian heritage and becoming ever more interested in Ukraine and its rich culture and history as he got older. He offered his regrets that he would not be able to attend the evening’s banquet because he was flying that evening to Kyiv on a judicial advisory trip. The audience responded with a very loud round of applause.
Andriy Futey, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, addressed the gathering on “The Role of the Organized Ukrainian American Community in Supporting Ukraine.” He began by saying that he looked forward to welcoming the UABA into the UCCA family of organizations in the very near future. He went on to describe the activities of the UCCA and the working relationship that has already been established between the UCCA, the Ukrainian National Information Service (UNIS) and the UABA in the area of legislation and congressional affairs.
Ivanka Bilych, a member of the UABA Board and president of VOLYA Institute for Contemporary Law and Society, addressed a too often overlooked topic: “Mercenaries and States’ Responsibility in the Armed Conflict in Ukraine.” She explained that the use of foreign fighters in war is actually dealt with quite extensively in international law. The 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism (ICSFT) establishes the international crime of donating or collecting funds with the intention that such monies be used to carry out any act that is prohibited by treaty. A total of 188 countries have adopted the ICSFT. Also, the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly. The convention entered into force on October 20, 2001, and has been ratified by 36 countries. Ukraine ratified the convention in 1993; the Russian Federation has never ratified the convention.
Conference attendees were treated to a special viewing of an abridged version of “Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother told Grandmother,” produced and directed by Matej Silecky. The film, which originally premiered to great acclaim at the New Jersey Film Festival, poignantly documents the stories of Ukrainian American survivors of the Nazi and Soviet atrocities during World War II who ultimately found their way to the United States.
UABA Board Member Markian Silecky, of the Polsinelli firm with extensive experience in Ukraine, and Olexiy Soshenko, managing partner at Redcliffe Partners, a Kyiv-based law firm that advises businesses and Western investors in Ukraine, addressed the topic of “U.S.-Ukraine Business Relations and the Impact on Law in Ukraine.” Drawing upon their combined experience, the speakers emphasized the abundance of investment opportunities in Ukraine. One understated opportunity in Ukraine is in oil well drilling and gas exploration, which Ukraine possesses in significant quantities. The energy sector also presents investment opportunities in non-traditional energy sources like wind turbine, solar and other renewable energy sources. Foreign investment in Ukraine moves the country forward economically, and it also positively affects the country’s laws, bringing such law closer to Western industrialized standards, they pointed out.
Following a catered buffet luncheon for conference attendees, Bohdan Shandor, chairman of the UABA Committee on Legislative Affairs, spoke on “Ukraine’s View from Capitol Hill,” saying that Ukraine continues to enjoy unprecedented bipartisan support on Capitol Hill even in the face of its being unwittingly dragged into a U.S. political quagmire. Ukraine and President Zelenskyy should be commended for capably handling the situation and staying above the fray, he noted.
Mr. Shandor went on to describe H.R. 3047, a bill that would grant Ukraine the status of a “Non-NATO Major Ally of the U.S.” and its benefits to both Ukraine and the United States such as: access to U.S. weapons technology and the utilization of Ukraine’s very capable military industrial sector to build weapons for NATO and the U.S. at significant cost savings to U.S. taxpayers and NATO. An example of this high-tech weapons capability is the ongoing debate over any sale of Ukraine’s advanced jet and rocket engine manufacturer, Motor Sich, to China.
Mr. Shandor noted there is strong bipartisan support for continued and even increased sanctions on Russia and concluded by asking rhetorically whether anyone in the room believed the sanctions were not working, as the Russians claim. He then produced foreign exchange data: as of December 1, 2013, before Russia’s invasion and any sanctions, the ruble was trading at 33.1 rubles to the U.S. dollar, on November 1, 2019, the ruble was trading at 64.2 rubles to the dollar – a 93.4 percent devaluation. A devaluing currency results in internal inflation, economic dislocation and economic malaise as Russians have to work twice as hard to afford any imported goods, including everything from autos to TV’s to food stuffs. “The sanctions are working,” he concluded.
The final speaker for the day was Congressman Harris of Maryland, co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, who welcomed the audience to the nation’s capital and chuckled at his topic, “The Ukrainian Congressional Caucus: How it works in an Age of Partisanship.” He said, “It may be hard to believe, but it really does work – even today.” He then described how the caucus meets regularly to review legislative proposals, bills that are to be introduced and ongoing developments in Ukraine. Most members of the caucus have a staff member assigned to track Ukraine affairs and represent the congressperson at meetings if he or she is unable to personally attend.
He noted that prior to the presidential elections in Ukraine, several Washington think tanks were asked to brief the caucus on expected election results in Ukraine and not one predicted that Mr. Zelenskyy would win. “Clearly, these folks have got to listen and know better,” he said, referring to the unnamed think tanks. He addressed the sanctions on Russia pointing out that the Russian economy is definitely feeling the effects of the sanctions as shown by the weak ruble and, “There’s a lot more that can be done on sanctions.”
Rep. Harris concluded his remarks by saying “the bipartisan support Ukraine receives in Congress is a reflection of the importance the United States places on Ukraine as a strategic partner to our country, and that’s not going to change.”
The conference adjourned earlier on Saturday in order that the UABA Board of Governors could meet and elect officers for the term expiring in November 2021.
The UABA banquet was held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the Capitol. Newly elected UABA President Bohdan Shandor served as the master of ceremonies for the evening and introduced the evening’s keynote speaker, Mr. McConnell of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and the Friends of Ukraine Network, made up of former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine, economic, energy and military experts dedicated to assisting U.S.-Ukraine relations. Mr. McConnell arrived on the Washington scene from Arizona when he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to be assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, where he headed the Office of Legislative and Governmental Affairs. Since that time he has been an ardent advocate for Ukraine and its development as a democracy governed by the rule of law.
Mr. McConnell began his remarks by citing an article in The New York Times from October 31, 1984, which was quoted in the biography distributed to the banquet guests. In that article, then Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, described Mr. McConnell as “indispensable” in helping push through a major crime bill. “He’s extremely competent and effective,” Mr. Biden said, “very savvy, a real straight shooter whose word is always good.” Mr. McConnell then asked to the audience’s laughter: “Can you imagine anyone, anyone on one side of the aisle saying that about someone on the other side today?”
He then lamented, “Yes, times have changed.” However, he pointed out that what has not changed is the threat posed earlier by the Soviet Union and today by Russia. This continuing threat underscores the need for maintaining bipartisanship, “but this critical bi-partisanship is in danger,” he added.
Addressing the Washington impeachment turmoil in stark terms, Mr. McConnell said, “Whatever your or anyone’s view on the current stories and headlines – Trump’s behavior or how Congress is handling the situation – it all equals a political sewer explosion for Ukraine and Ukraine’s place in Washington. Ukraine is the innocent victim, suffering immense collateral damage.”
He questioned why it is that anyone in the impeachment story who is of Ukrainian ancestry is labelled Ukrainian American, yet no one refers to “Rudy Giuliani as Trump’s Italian American lawyer,” or “Donald Trump as our German American president,” or “Adam Schiff as the Jewish American committee chair.” He added: “Today anyone with any ethnic connection to Ukraine is noted to be Ukrainian or Ukrainian American and it is reported as a negative. Ukraine is toxic.”
Mr. McConnell concluded by warning, “We cannot allow ourselves to be sucked into any of the partisan accusations and inferences.”