Mr. President, thank you for convening today’s session on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Under Secretary-General Feltman, we are grateful for your unflagging attention to this alarming situation, and for the alarm that you sounded here today in very explicit terms.
While this is the Council’s first session on Ukraine in 2015, it is our 28th meeting on the crisis in the last 11 months, far more than on any other situation during the same period. We keep meeting on Ukraine because, despite countless commitments made to the international community to de-escalate – here in the Council, at Geneva, Minsk, Berlin, Normandy, and elsewhere – Russia continues to choose the path of escalation and obfuscation.
In addition to occupying Crimea, Russia continues to train, equip, and fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine. Indeed, Russia has so consistently broken its commitments and violated its obligations not to lop off part of another country, that some here may begin to accept Russia’s behavior as an unfortunate but inevitable reality – a new normal that would be dangerous for Ukraine and dangerous for international peace and security, because complacency would reward aggression and threaten the basic rules on which our collective security rests.
The current situation is dangerous. It is dangerous because Russia continues to train and equip separatists with heavy weapons and fight by their side, in flagrant violation of the September Minsk agreement, Ukrainian sovereignty, and international law. Even as we sit here today, the separatists – trained, supplied, and supported by Russia – are launching a full-scale attack on the strategic city of Debaltseve, inside Ukrainian-controlled territory, in blatant violation of the September 19th Minsk ceasefire lines, in an attempt to gain control of a significant rail juncture. The OSCE reported yesterday that at least 30 Grad rockets hit the city on January 19th, killing three civilians and wounding twelve. The OSCE confirmed that these rockets came from the direction of the separatist-controlled city of Horlivka. And yesterday, independent media reports that separatists blew up a rail-bridge connecting the port city of Mariupol to the rest of Ukraine. Thankfully there were no casualties, but now the city must rely on northern access via Donetsk, effectively isolating it and leaving it vulnerable to separatist attacks. These moves appear calculated and strategic in nature.
Since President Poroshenko announced the unilateral “silence regime” on December 9th that brought a brief respite from the violence, separatists and the Russians who back them have carried out more than 1,000 attacks against Ukrainian positions. Since late December, Russia has transferred at least a hundred additional pieces of Russian military equipment and material to separatists. These latest transfers come atop previous transfers of hundreds of pieces of Russian military equipment to separatists since September, including tanks, APCs, heavy artillery pieces, and other military vehicles.
The OSCE is allowed to operate at only two checkpoints on the vast Ukrainian-Russian border. Yet from these two checkpoints alone, monitors note hundreds of individuals in military-style dress freely crossing the border every week. The separatists have a larger fighting force, with more weaponry, than some European countries. Meanwhile, Russia is reportedly preparing to deliver its 12thresupply convoy to separatists in Ukrainian territory at the end of the month. If the past eleven deliveries are any indication, Russia will deny international monitors or Ukrainian authorities the ability to fully inspect the convoys. If Russia is indeed sending humanitarian aid, what does it have to hide?
The current situation is dangerous. It is dangerous because separatists continue to harass, threaten, and intimidate the impartial monitors deployed by the OSCE – monitors who serve on behalf of the international community. According to a January 14th OSCE report, the Special Monitoring Mission, or SMM, was stopped at a separatist checkpoint in Oktyabr by a hostile separatist commander who ordered the team’s car searched and said the monitors would be shot if a camera was found, even though cameras are a basic tool of documentation work. Separatist guards kept their guns pointed at the monitors during the exchange, the monitors said, even though the team posed no threat and, mercifully, had no camera.
The current situation is dangerous. It is dangerous because Russia continues to break commitments it has made to de-escalate. Ukraine and the international community have launched several serious efforts to seek a peaceful resolution to this conflict – including through the Trilateral Contact Group, the Minsk agreement, the Normandy group, and other negotiating fora. We continue to believe that there can be no military solution, and that political negotiations are key. Yet time and again, Russia’s words promise peace while Russia’s actions make war. Time and again, President Putin has extended an olive branch in one hand while passing out Grad missiles and tanks with the other.
The current situation is dangerous. It is dangerous because Russia’s actions are directly contributing to a humanitarian crisis. With each passing day, more civilians are killed and maimed. Many of us have seen the ghastly images of the January 13th attack on a passenger bus, which was struck while waiting at a Ukrainian security checkpoint at Volnovakha. Indelible images of the blood-soaked snow alongside the bus; of its blown-out windows, and the gaping holes left in its seats and curtains; of the gory steps to the back entrance of the bus. These images are unforgettable. Thirteen civilians were killed in that attack, and at least 16 more people were wounded.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, or SMM, said it, “conducted a comprehensive examination, focusing on five craters caused by explosions that had occurred during the incident. The investigation included comprehensive crater analysis of two specific blast craters, including the crater located 10 meters from the side of the passenger bus. In the SMM’s assessment, all craters examined were caused by rockets fired from a north-north-eastern direction.”
The conclusion of the impartial OSCE monitoring mission is that the craters at the crime scene were caused by rockets fired from the north-northeast direction from the checkpoint. This area is controlled by Russian-backed separatists, and multiple open-source reports have shown separatists firing Grad rockets from the territory to the north-northeast of Volnovakha. The same day the bus was struck, the SMM reported hearing Grad rockets fired from several other separatist-controlled areas. At first, separatists bragged on social media about the strike on a Ukrainian security checkpoint, but the postings disappeared after it was reported that a busload of civilians had been hit.
For every attack on civilians that makes headlines, there are dozens more – no less deadly – that go unreported. Since the conflict began, more than 10,000 people have been injured in the conflict. Nearly 5,000 people have been killed; approximately 800 of them since November, when the Council last met to discuss the Ukraine crisis. One of the attacks that did not make news occurred on January 11th. According to the SMM, mortars struck two houses in the government-held town of Hran, wounding a girl. She died of her injuries before she reached the hospital. She was three years old.
These are some of the reasons why the Russians’ most recent efforts to blame Ukraine ring so hollow. On Thursday, President Putin issued a last-minute invitation to President Poroshenko to discuss a new Russian-conceived so-called “peace plan” – a plan that would free Russia from the commitment it made in Minsk to withdraw its fighters and return control over the international border to Ukraine. The plan would seek to legitimize territorial gains made by separatists since September, as well as Russian personnel and military equipment on the territory of Ukraine.
We’ve seen peace plans like this before in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. When President Poroshenko did not accept Putin’s offer, Russia immediately launched a diplomatic and media blitz, claiming it was proof that Ukraine is not interested in peace. Let us pull the veil away from Putin’s peace plan, and call it for what it is: a Russian occupation plan.
We need to implement the peace plans we already have, peace plans Russia has signed and broken. If Russia is serious about peace, it should follow through on Minsk, which it agreed to more than four months ago. If Russia wants to end this conflict, the steps they must take are the same as they were on September 5, 2014: remove all military equipment and personnel from Ukraine; stop backing the separatists; allow unimpeded OSCE monitoring and return control of Ukraine’s international border to the Ukrainian government; and release all hostages, including those being held in Russia, such as Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko. We understand Ms. Savchenko has been on a hunger strike for nearly a month to protest her detention, and is suffering serious health problems. Yet Russia has taken none of the steps set out in Minsk.
In contrast to Russia, Ukraine has consistently taken steps to de-escalate the crisis, demonstrating measurable progress on several key commitments at Minsk and passing key reforms to reduce corruption and grant greater authority to its regions. In September and December, President Poroshenko announced unilateral ceasefires on the part of Ukrainian forces, resulting in brief, but significant, decreases in violence. Yet peace cannot be made unilaterally. Where Ukraine has been forced to respond to cynical attempts by the separatists and Russian forces to use the ceasefires to gain additional territory, the Ukrainian forces have tried to hold the agreed line.
Of course, the Ukrainian government must abide by international norms, even as it defends its land and its people. We are concerned by the European Council’s report on abuse in Ukrainian prisons and urge the government to conduct thorough, impartial investigations into its findings, as well as to develop a plan to address them. And we take seriously reports of the alleged use of cluster munitions in populated areas. All sides should take every feasible precaution to prevent any loss of civilian life, including by indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas.
There is a broader reason it would be dangerous to accept Russia’s actions as the new normal. We have seen this playbook before. Before eastern Ukraine, we saw it in Crimea. And before Crimea, we saw it in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Before Georgia, in Transnistria. The endgame in all of these Moscow-manufactured crises has been identical: to gobble up parts of neighboring countries and to create frozen conflicts. And Russia is consistently working to put these frozen conflicts under a deeper freeze. In recent weeks, for example, at the same time as Russia was flouting its Minsk agreements, President Putin was putting the finishing touches on another set of agreements – the so-called “treaties of alliance” – with de facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These treaties will compound years of violations to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
What is frozen in these conflicts? Instability is frozen. Violations of sovereignty are frozen. Militarization is frozen. In sum, all the problems that the United Nations, and the Security Council in particular, were created to address, are frozen. If Russia succeeds in achieving its aims, if we allow this behavior to become the new normal, this will not be the last time Russia uses this well-worn playbook.