Sunday, May 1, 2016
Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister: ‘Just Get off Our Land’
It’s a simple challenge that any victim in history could demand of a criminal or invader. It brings to mind President Ronald Reagan’s famous exhortation to Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall.”
The simplicity and forthrightness of powerful declarations such as these can alter history. The latter one did so with the destruction of the Soviet Russian empire while the former one is still awaiting its fulfillment.
Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, recapping the devastating consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago during a special session of the UN Security Council on Thursday, April 28, offered an unpretentious proposal about how to end the war. All Russia has to do, Prystaiko said, “Just get off our land in the Crimea and the East of Ukraine.”
For 27 months, Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting and dying in combat with Russian troops and mercenaries that invaded and occupied Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk. For more than two years the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and others have been urging Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine so the region and world can return to peace and stability. They’ve reinforced their insistence with hard-hitting economic sanctions that won’t be lifted until Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk are returned to sovereign Ukraine.
Nothing has worked as Moscow remains recalcitrant and stubborn in its lawless occupation of three Ukrainian regions.
The UN Security Council meeting was the first called by Ukraine on this issue since December 2015. Last month, the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations convened a similar gathering of member-states on the occasion of the second anniversary of the UN resolution supporting Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. (See my blog of March 21) Member-states, with the obvious exception of Russia, have been regularly expressing their support for Ukraine.
Prystaiko said Ukraine has been enduring this war with Russia for two years, referring to the aggressor as a “formerly called brotherly nation.” That’s a term that I’d like to see cut in stone.
He said some 10,000 have been killed and 21,000 wounded. “More than 1.7 million of Ukrainians had to leave their homes and become internally displaced persons,” Prystaiko detailed.
“Every day Ukrainian families lose a son, a father, a husband, a brother. Every day Ukrainian men and women get wounded often becoming physically and psychologically handicapped for the rest of their lives,” he continued. “Only on April 23, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and five wounded as a result of militants’ shelling. Tonight, we witness another tragic death of three civilians and seven more wounded probably caught in cross-fire. This incident has to be properly investigated. Ukraine has already invited OSCE monitors to the site.”
Prystaiko apparently didn’t want to dwell on body counts but he did offer one poignant example of the war’s cost. “On a personal note, I recently saw an 11-year-old kid from the Ukrainian town of Mariupol being treated now in Montreal and taken care of by the Ukrainian community of Canada. A boy was on a walk with his brother and friends but was silly enough to pick up something from the ground after the bombardment. This cost him three limbs. More to it, he is not aware yet that he has no younger brother anymore,” he recalled.
War is hell.
Russia’s war has brought to Donbas a 34,000-strong military force consisting of the regular Russian troops as well as of foreign and local militants, Prystaiko said. Russian generals and military officers provide direct command-and-control of this illegal armed force, impressively heavily armed, he continued. “In particular, today terrorists have at least 470 tanks, 870 armored combat vehicles, 450 tube artillery systems, 190 MLRS, operated by so-called ‘upset miners.’ This is more than most of NATO members have in their armed forces and allegedly was acquired in the local hardware stores,” the minister observed.
Turning his attention to occupied Crimea, Prystaiko said Moscow is spreading its reign of terror against the pro-Ukrainian indigenous Crimean population. He said more than 130 criminal cases against Crimean Tatars have been brought, 21 representatives of Crimean Tatars were kidnapped, nine are still missing, and three were lately found dead.
Prystaiko said he calls on the UN Security Council to demand that Russia restore the rights of Crimean Tatars and ensure “the joke of the Crimean courts and prosecutor office would cancel their decision of the Mejilis ban.”
But better than that, he continued, “In a more broader sense – just get off our land in Crimea and the East of Ukraine.”
Yes, get out; Kyiv can take care of its nation, country and citizens very well without Russian intrusion.
With many options on the table, Prystaiko cast Ukraine’s lot on the side of the Mink Accords and a political settlement, which, sadly, Russia violates every day. But on a realistic note, the Ukrainian official, fully cognizant that controversial international issues are occasionally left indefinitely unresolved, stated that “Ukraine does not want the Russian aggression against Ukraine to transform into yet another item on the Security Council’s agenda that is regularly debated but brings no tangible progress towards settlement of the conflict.”
Prystaiko ridiculed Russian efforts in the UN and other forums to deny its invasion, saying Moscow’s lies are “well formulated” but upon close examination the reader will understand “who came to whose land and who is pouring more weapons, mercenaries and regular soldiers on day to day basis.”
He concluded by urging his international colleagues to remember that there are 120 Ukrainian POWs in Russia “among them member of the Ukrainian Parliament, and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Nadiya Savchenko, Ukrainian film-director Oleh Sentsov, native Crimean as well as other citizens of Ukraine Oleksander Kolchenko, Mykola Karpyuk, Stanislav Klyk, Henadiy Afanasiev; Valentyn Vyhovskiy, Oleksiy Chyrniy, Yuriy Soloshenko, Serhiy Lytvynov, and Oleksander Kostenko.
Prystaiko reiterated that Ukrainians – especially its best sons and daughters who already paid the ultimate price defending their homeland – are only interested in a lasting peaceful solution, which is just and fair.
“Anything short of that would be unacceptable to the people of Ukraine,” he cautioned. “We are ready to make our part of the way but I am afraid that all keys to sustainable de-escalation and subsequent long-lasting settlement reside in Moscow and they have to produce these keys and open peaceful, better future with no death, hatred and sanctions.”
Ambassador Samantha Power, US permanent representative to the UN, also joined the chorus of support for Ukraine. Her regular denunciations of Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have become examples of classic official testimonies in defense of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and indivisibility.
While the world placed its hope in the implementation of the Minsk Accords, Power said sadly Russia has not fulfilled its promises. Rather the conflict has worsened, violence has increased, and the challenges to Minsk fulfillment have grown, she said.
The root cause of the war, death and destruction is Russia.
“What is happening today is the result of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which began with its occupation of Crimea more than two years ago, and expanded with substantial military on the ground and weapons support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Every negative consequence of the conflict that we see today – every one – is traceable back to that original sin. We must not lose sight of that incontrovertible fact even as we focus on the issues and the human consequences in the present,” Power said.
Calling the Russian escalation “shocking,” Power said ensuring that a comprehensive and sustained ceasefire takes hold along the line of contact and that OSCE monitors have full and unrestricted access they need to help monitor that ceasefire is the essential condition for the political steps set out in the Minsk agreements.
She said Russian mercenaries have insisted that elections be held in their occupied oblasts but Power pointed out that democratic elections require basic security and freedom of movement and speech for voters and candidates. “Yet the climate created by the separatists in the parts of eastern Ukraine that they occupy is not a climate that looks anything like this.” Power said.
Though I do not favor regional elections demanded by foreign terrorists, Power was right to say that Russia must de-escalate the fighting and allow full access for international monitors throughout eastern Ukraine before elections are organized. She added that Russia must support “serious efforts” to propose election laws for Donbas, ensure security and release hostages. Most importantly, the US official believes that implementation of the Minsk agreement should lead to Russia’s withdrawal of all forces and equipment from Ukrainian territory and restoration of Ukrainian control over its land.
That’s the goal that should be sought by international pressure, sanctions, Minsk accords or military expulsion of Russia from Ukraine.
Power also addressed the dire situation faced by Crimean Tatars in their besieged Ukrainian peninsula. She said Crimea was invaded and occupied by Russian forces and ultimately annexed in a sham referendum.
“If you want a picture of the way Russian authorities govern on sovereign Ukrainian territory, just look at Crimea today. On Tuesday of this week, the Russian-controlled Supreme Court in Crimea declared the Mejlis – the self-governing body of the Crimean Tatars – an extremist organization. As a result, virtually all forms of Tatar political expression and organization have effectively been criminalized – no more speaking to the press – that’s a crime; no more convening meetings – a crime; no more holding elections – a crime,” she said.
Power related that the crackdown on dissent in Crimea continues to deepen, as the few remaining independent journalists and other critical voices have been methodically targeted. For example, she said, for reporting that Crimea is part of Ukraine – as all UN maps show it is, she noted – journalists are locked up. “How is that possible? In Crimea and in eastern Ukraine – as in so much of Russia – telling the truth is now an extremist activity. Go figure,” Power asked.
Without pulling any punches, Power placed the blame on this reign of terror squarely on the Kremlin.
“The root cause of this crisis – Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and Russia’s ongoing arming, training, and fighting alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine,” she said. “As has always been the case, the crisis manufactured by Russia can and must be ended by Russia – by stopping its arming, training, and fighting along separatists in eastern Ukraine – and by ending its illegal occupation of Crimea.”
The US ambassador and the Ukrainian deputy foreign minister insisted that the solution is in Moscow, which launched the war and controls its day-to-day escalation.
Power vowed that the United States will continue to press for the full implementation of the Minsk accords by all parties – “just as we will keep sanctions in place for as long as Russia continues to obstruct their implementation. And we will maintain our Crimea sanctions until Russia ends its occupation of the peninsula.”
Two years after invading and occupying Ukrainian territory, Russia’s aggression continues with impunity while the world deliberates. At the end of the day, after Russian Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin’s denials and lies, the echo of Vadym Prystaiko’s words continue to reverberate.
Which will it be?
“Just get off our land.”
“No tangible progress towards settlement of the conflict.”