Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Assistant Secretary-General Zerihoun, Ambassador Apakan, and Special Representative Sajdik, for your informative briefings. I’d also like to thank the Ukrainian delegation for calling this essential meeting. We recognize, as I think all members of the Council do, the critically important work OSCE teams are carrying out in the field, often at significant personal risk, as illustrated by the recent attacks on OSCE monitors. We also note the great work done by UN staff, again at significant personal risk, as evidenced by the detention of a UN staff member by Russian-backed separatists since April 8th – a staff member who should be released immediately and unconditionally.
The Security Council has not met to discuss the situation in Ukraine since December 2015 – a long stretch by recent standards. It would not be unreasonable to interpret the absence of meetings as a sign maybe that the implementation of the Minsk agreements is advancing. Yet, as we all know, and as we have heard starkly today, this is sadly not the case. Over the last several months, the conflict has worsened, violence has increased, and the challenges to Minsk implementation have only grown.
Before digging into these discouraging developments, it is important to remind ourselves of the root cause of this crisis. 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.
Let me begin with the situation in eastern Ukraine, where violence along the line of contact has reached its highest levels since the September 1, 2015 ceasefire was declared. According to the most recent report by the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, the SMM, from January 25th to April 10th, “the SMM recorded 11 consecutive weeks in which the number of recorded ceasefire violations was higher than in any other single week since early September 2015.”
On April 14th alone – and this one is shocking even by Ukraine standards – the SMM recorded more than 4,000 ceasefire violations, some 500 of them – on a single day – using heavy weapons that are prohibited under Minsk. Just yesterday, as others have noted, we were again reminded of the dreadful human toll of this violence, when an explosion killed four civilians and wounded at least eight more, along the line of contact. This cycle of escalation must stop.
As the fighting has increased, the unarmed international monitors whose job it is to document ceasefire violations and to try to deescalate the violence have found themselves denied access, threatened, and in some instances even targeted themselves. The climate, as has been noted by our OSCE colleagues, is a climate of impunity. On April 7th, an SMM vehicle that was driving deep into Russian-backed separatist-controlled territory – some 60 kilometers from the line of contact – came under small-arms fire. The same day, in separatist-controlled Luhansk, another SMM vehicle was blocked by Russian-backed separatist forces. When a monitor stepped out of the vehicle to negotiate their passage, a Russian-backed separatist cocked his rifle and pointed it directly at the monitor. These are not isolated incidents – according to OSCE reports, separatists have been responsible for more than 90 percent of incidents in which access has been restricted or denied during this month. This brings us back to a question we have asked many times before in this Council when Russia and the separatists it backs have denied impartial monitors and investigators access – from the invasion of Crimea to the inspection of the MH17 crash site, the question is: What do they have to hide? Why are OSCE monitors so scary that one needs to shoot up their car and cock guns at them and impede their movement? What are you hiding?
Working to ensure that a comprehensive and sustained ceasefire takes hold along the line of contact – and that OSCE monitors have the full and unfettered access they need to help monitor that ceasefire – is thesine qua non for the political steps set out in the Minsk agreements. Consider the steps of passing an electoral law, and holding free and fair local elections under Ukrainian law and in accordance with OSCE standards – this is critically important. We all recognize that. Yet to hold a democratic election, citizens and election monitors need basic security, basic freedom of movement, candidates must be able to express their opinions and assemble publicly without fear of violence or reprisals. 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.
In addition to deescalating the fighting and allowing full access for international monitors throughout eastern Ukraine, Russia must engage constructively and support serious efforts to propose an election law for areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, as well as support the steps necessary for an adequate security environment for elections in the Donbas that meet OSCE standards. Actions such as these – as well as the release of all hostages and detained persons – will help pave the way for further Minsk implementation, which should ultimately lead to Russia’s withdrawal of all forces and equipment from Ukrainian territory and restoration of Ukrainian control over its side of the international border.
Pulling back forces and abiding by the ceasefire is also crucial for improving the dire humanitarian situation faced by civilians, who are disproportionately bearing the costs of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. According to OCHA, an estimated 3.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of the ongoing conflict, approximately a million of whom live along the line of contact or in separatist-controlled territory. Yet they are only receiving a fraction of the aid they need – in large part because Russian-backed separatists expelled most UN and international humanitarian organizations in July 2015, and have not allowed them consistent access since. In a perverse cycle, Russia uses the dire humanitarian situation that it has helped fuel to send its so-called humanitarian convoys across the international border with Ukraine – all the while preventing Ukrainian and international authorities from inspecting these convoys. Again, if your convoys are filled with food and medicine, why prevent international inspectors from looking inside of them? Why? To that end, we again urge Moscow to honor its commitments in Minsk to ensure that the separatists allow the immediate resumption of full humanitarian access. As the Government of Ukraine seeks to address this Russian-manufactured crisis, it should facilitate the safe movement of civilians and commercial cargo across the contact line; it should keep checkpoints into separatist-controlled territories open, unless closing them is essential to ensure the security of civilians; and it should find ways, consistent with security and administrative requirements, to ensure that social, economic, and educational benefits are provided to internally displaced persons and other vulnerable populations, such as older persons and persons with disabilities.
Let me turn to another part of Ukraine – Crimea. It has been more than two years since Russia held its sham referendum. A referendum we must recall, where the question posed to voters – those who turned out – was join Russia or leave Ukraine? Some choice. And two years since 100 UN member states, including the United States, adopted a resolution in the General Assembly underscoring that the referendum has no validity, and affirming our shared commitment to “the sovereignty, political independence, unity, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”
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. Of course, the Mejlis will be allowed to keep its bank accounts – though now they may be used only to pay taxes and penalties to occupying authorities. On the day of the ruling, Crimea’s so-called chief prosecutor declared, “Today…we build a world in which every Crimean will be safe and joyful” – unless, you are a Crimean Tatar or another resident who happens to oppose the occupation.
Meanwhile, the crackdown on dissent in Crimea continues to deepen, as the few remaining independent journalists and other critical voices are methodically targeted. On April 18th, a high-ranking Russian justice official argued publicly for passing legislation that would treat questioning the legitimacy of the sham Crimea referendum as a “extremist activity” – punishable by law. The following day, the homes of at least seven journalists in Crimea were raided by authorities, one of whom is now facing up to five years in prison on charges of allegedly “call[ing] for undermining Russian territorial integrity via mass media.” In other words, for reporting that Crimea is part of Ukraine – as all UN maps show it is – you’re 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.
Let me conclude. I began my remarks today by encouraging us all not to lose sight of the root cause of this crisis – Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and Russia’s ongoing arming, training, and fighting alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine. Just as the root cause of this crisis has not changed, nor has the solution. 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 Minsk agreements offer the only pathway – one agreed upon by all sides – to deescalate this conflict, to restore peace to Ukraine, and to reaffirm the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that undergird all of our collective security. But to implement them, Russia and the separatists it supports must fulfill the very first step of abiding by an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, and grant full access to OSCE monitors. Together with the Normandy format leaders, the United States will continue to press for their full implementation 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.
I thank you.