Lest we forget – Moscow continues to engage in appalling behavior in Ukraine, violating international norms of civilized behavior with impunity. It seems that with all of the understandable focus on Ukraine’s elections and the inauguration of the new president, Russia’s ongoing aggression and human rights violations in Ukraine have taken a back seat. During my recent stint in Ukraine as an OSCE first-round election observer, there was little indication of a country at war. It is now in its sixth year. It is low-intensity, with fewer casualties than during its first few years.
The truth is, the war is basically at a stalemate. Negotiations have been at a standstill for quite a while (whether this will soon change with President Volodymyr Zelensky is an open question). People both in Ukraine and among Ukraine’s supporters in the West seem to be tired of it. Mind you, I am not pointing fingers at anyone – my own recent Ukraine-related activities and writings have focused on the elections, which have enormous implications for Ukraine’s future.
It is important that we not lose sight of the war and of Russia’s ongoing human rights abuses in the occupied territories and it is encouraging to know that the U.S. government and others are continuing to pay attention.
Almost every Thursday throughout the year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Permanent Council meets in Vienna, Austria, to discuss issues of concern to this largest regional organization in the world. At virtually every one of these weekly sessions, the U.S. Mission to the OSCE delivers a detailed statement on Russia’s ongoing violations in Ukraine. These excellent U.S. Mission statements (with input from the State Department in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv), are delivered in front of the representatives of the other 56 OSCE member states.
The statements chronicle and call out the Russian government on a host of violations of international law and defiance of OSCE principles and commitments in the Donbas and Crimea. Russia and its proxies are regularly criticized for their numerous violations of the Minsk agreement – ceasefire violations, putting the lives and well-being of innocent civilians at risk, including through the positioning of forces and firing of weapons close to homes, schools and businesses; failing to remove proscribed weapons; jamming and downing of OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) UAVs (i.e. drones); and limiting access to the SMM in the territories they control.
I wish the media would use these U.S. government statements as examples in their own reporting. These statements leave no doubt as to who the aggressor is. They often depict Russian aggression as “Russia’s manufactured conflict in eastern Ukraine.” You won’t see the term “separatists,” but the more accurate “Russia and its proxies.” Instead of the vague “Russia-backed forces,” you’ll see the more precise “Russia-led forces” or the more descriptive “forces that Russia arms, trains, leads and fights alongside.” These statements never leave any doubt as to the aggressor, making it crystal clear that this is no civil war. [At least the Western media uses this misnomer less frequently than it used to.]
In my Facebook or list-serve postings of these statements, I often urge supporters of Ukraine to read and disseminate these statements, as I believe they are an important, consistent tool in countering Russia’s “false-equivalence” narrative, its laughable denial of its own deep involvement. These U.S. OSCE Permanent Council statements address an important forum, as the audience consists not only of Russians diplomats who are not eager to hear them, but representatives from every European Union country, including those who are softer on Russia. They reinforce – on a consistent basis – the notion that the U.S. stands firmly with Ukraine.
These statements are not limited to the war in the Donbas. They address other Russian attacks on Ukraine’s sovereignty as well. For the last six months they have consistently condemned Russia’s unjustified holding of 24 Ukrainian sailors and, most recently Mr. Putin’s decision to expedite Russian citizenship for Ukrainian citizens. The hundreds of these statements delivered in the last five years also never fail to chronicle the latest egregious human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Various U.S. government reports also do an excellent job of cataloguing Russia’s human rights abuses in Ukraine.
The State Department’s 2018 Human Rights Report on Ukraine, issued in March 2019, documents restrictions and abuses by Russia. The report’s Executive Summary captures just how bad the situation is: “Russia-led forces in the Donbas region engaged in: enforced disappearances, torture and unlawful detention; committed gender-based violence; interfered with freedom of expression, including of the press, peaceful assembly and association, restricted movement across the line of contact in eastern Ukraine; and unduly restricted humanitarian aid.”
A report issued earlier this year by the governmental U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), describes the Russian-proxy warlords who run the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) as “…deeply suspicious toward religious groups other than the Russian Orthodox Church and [who] continue to persecute religious minorities through legal restrictions, confiscation of property, prosecution of clergy and harassment of congregations.” The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses and various Protestant denominations have been especially hard hit.
In illegally annexed Crimea, according to the State Department Human Rights Report’s Executive Summary, human rights violations included: “disappearances, torture and abuse of detainees to extract confessions and punish persons resisting the occupation; politically motivated imprisonment; [and] severe restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, assembly and association. Crimean authorities intensified violence and harassment of Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists in response to peaceful opposition to Russian occupation.”
Unsurprisingly, nothing has changed in recent months. Crimean Tatars and others who oppose the occupation continue to find themselves the victims of the Kremlin’s repression and brutality. According to the USCIRF report, restrictions on religious activity continue, especially against Crimean Tatars and other Muslims as well as Ukrainian Orthodox and Jehovah’s Witnesses. More than 100 Crimeans and other Ukrainian citizens such as Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Volodymyr Balukh, Emir Usein-Kuku and Pavlo Hryb are unjustly imprisoned in either Crimea or the Russian Federation for their political views or religious beliefs, in addition to the 24 crewmembers detained by Russia when it illegally seized Ukrainian navy vessels near the Kerch straits.
Many Ukrainian and international NGOs also report on human rights violations in occupied Ukraine. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group is especially detailed. In just the last two months, they have reported on numerous specific acts of repression and human rights violations, including the torture of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russian detention, new persecutions against Crimean Tatars, the confiscation of thousands of homes in the Russian proxy republics and the continued holding of well over 100 civilian hostages and prisoners of war, as well as the forcible handover of a Ukrainian Orthodox church to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Moscow’s ongoing repression of Ukraine’s sovereign territories has left numerous victims in its wake – a legacy of suffering that is more reminiscent of the late Soviet period than of 21st century Europe.
It is incumbent upon the West, led by Washington, to continue and intensify its support for Ukraine in countering Russia’s aggression and restoring sovereignty. This means continuing to speak out and report about the war and myriad human rights violations. It also means beefed up support for reforms in the military/security, economic, rule-of-law and other spheres, and, yes, the ratcheting up of sanctions.
Orest Deychakiwsky is Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. This opinion essay originally appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly.