Monday, March 21, 2016
Ukraine at War: Two Years Later
Peace and stability in Europe were suddenly shattered two years ago when Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, occupied it and ultimately annexed it in a fabricated referendum.
Soon afterward, Russian soldiers and mercenaries crossed Ukraine’s eastern border and occupied the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, setting up rogue territories akin to the confederated states of the Civil War and war-torn Nazi-occupied European countries during World War II.
Generally, the international community, including the United Nations has supported Ukraine and instituted economic sanctions against Russia, which, unfortunately, haven’t resulted in expelling Russia from Ukraine. Moscow continues to violate the Minsk truce accords, Russian heavy artillery and missiles still dot the countryside, and Ukrainian soldiers are being killed on the battlefront.
I had the privilege on Thursday, March 17, to moderate a session at the UN Trusteeship Council about Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations, the meeting commemorated the second anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s resolution on the “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” which was adopted in the wake of Russia’s belligerence against Ukraine.
On March 27, 2014, the General Assembly affirmed its commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. By a vote of 100 in favor to 11 against, with 58 abstentions, the General Assembly adopted the resolution that called on member-states, international organizations and specialized agencies not to recognize any change in the status of Crimea or the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, and to refrain from actions or dealings that might be interpreted as such.
In essence, the resolution disavowed the contrived referendum, orchestrated by Moscow.
The General Assembly also called on member-states to “desist and refrain” from actions aimed at disrupting Ukraine’s national unity and territorial integrity, including by modifying its borders through the threat or use of force. It urged all parties immediately to pursue a peaceful resolution of the situation through direct political dialogue, to exercise restraint, and to refrain from unilateral actions and inflammatory rhetoric that could raise tensions.
The resolution stated that the sham referendum has no validity and should not be recognized. This means that countries and businesses around the world should not fall victim to Russian pressure and admit that Crimea is Russia and redraw maps to indicate that Crimea is a part of Russia.
Today, some two years since the start of the Russo-Ukraine War of 2014-16, Crimea remains Russian occupied territory along with the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. And the war that was sparked by Moscow has claimed some 10,000 lives and resulted in millions of refugees. The occupying Russian junta in Crimea has launched a reign of terror against the indigenous Crimean Tatar people, denying them their human, religious and cultural rights, while quietly eliminating its leaders.
Last week’s session was opened by Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN. My remarks sandwiched powerful statements of support by some two dozen UN member-states, including Ukraine’s x-captive nation neighbors such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It is important that today the x-captive nations unite in their common defense against Russian aggression.
The permanent representatives and deputy permanent representatives underscored that the invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory are examples of Russia’s wanton disregard for international law, the UN Charter and regional peace, stability and security. One speaker even called these illegal actions “genocide.”
Some of the presenters also raised the illegal incarceration and trial against Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian aviatrix with true grit who was captured in Ukraine and abducted to Russia to stand trial on trumped up charges of killing civilian journalists. (See my blog of March 9, 2016)
Also speaking were Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Serhiy Kyslytsya and Mustafa Dzhemilev, commissioner of the President on the Affairs of Crimean Tatars and a Member of Ukrainian Parliament.
Ambassador Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of the US to the UN, one of the staunchest advocates of independent Ukraine against Russian aggression, added that day to her repository of great addresses in support of Ukraine.
The US ambassador passionately emphasized that Russia has been perpetrating crimes against Ukraine for a long time: “Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea is not a one-time violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but rather represents an ongoing, continuous violation, one that persists for every day that Russia continues to occupy the peninsula. The passage of time does not change the facts; Crimea was, is, and must and will remain part of sovereign Ukraine – and we refuse to accept Russia’s attempt to use force and to use propaganda to alter that fact.”
As for Russian violations of Crimean Tatar rights, she said: “Ever since the little green men first began to pop up in Crimea, human rights monitors have documented abductions of Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists, in which evidence points to the participation of occupation authorities and their security forces, suggesting these are cases of what we call enforced disappearances.”
Addressing Savchenko’s imprisonment, Power stated: “Nor is this pattern of abuse limited to Crimea. Also at this moment, Ukrainian pilot and member of parliament Nadia Savchenko – who was also detained in Ukraine and sent to the remote town of Donetsk, Russia to be tried under Russian laws for similarly preposterous charges – is awaiting her verdict. The prosecutor in her case is seeking a 23-year sentence.
“Imagine for just one moment if Oleg Sentsov or Nadia Savchenko were a citizen of any of our nations. How would we react? How would we expect our fellow UN Member States to react? We have to put ourselves in the shoes of Ukrainians more often – in the shoes of the Tatars, in the shoes of the people who live in Crimea without basic freedoms. I assure you that, if we do, we will start making a lot more noise about egregious actions like this.”
I especially liked the ambassador’s observation that Russia wants the free world to live in an upside-down world.
“We can’t accept that. We have to live in right-side up land, and we have to define and remind people about the norms that undergird the international system, on which all of our peace and security and human rights depend,” she declared accentuating that the free world will not succumb to Moscow’s wrongdoings.
It was encouraging to hear UN member-states express their support and solidarity for Ukraine and condemn Russia for its cruel aggression and war against Ukraine. During the session, Ambassador Yelchenko whispered to me, pointing to three occupants in the “bleacher” section of the Trusteeship Council room, saying, “They’re not supposed to be here but Russians want to know what we’re talking about.”
These and similar words of support for Ukraine have been articulated for nearly 25 months since Russia invaded Ukraine via Crimea. But the gnawing question remains: how long will the free world tolerate the military and political occupation of an independent UN member-state’s sovereign territory. Global political stagnation and inaction merely prolong the pain of this Russian crime against humanity and raise the possibility that even Ukraine’s friends may be lulled into tolerating Russia’s inverted view of events and accepting it has the new normal.
This is the question for the free world to ponder every day.