David J. Kramer on the Situation in Ukraine

Testimony before the Canadian House of Commons
Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development

“Situation in Ukraine”
by David J. Kramer
President, Freedom House
Washington, DC USA

Download a PDF version of David J. Kramer's remarks

I’m honored to appear before you via video from Washington, DC and greatly appreciate the interest from the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development in the situation in Ukraine.  Let me also pay tribute to the principled position taken by the Government of Canada regarding Russia and Ukraine.  I know that developments in Ukraine are of great interest to your county, and I commend you for your leadership in standing for sovereignty and territorial integrity and more broadly for freedom and human rights.

The democratic community of nations, in my view, has faced no greater challenge since the end of the Cold War than that posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his threats to defend Russian-speakers beyond Crimea, in other parts of Ukraine and in other neighboring states.  Putin’s brazen disregard for Ukraine’s territorial integrity is also an assault on the very concept of freedom and the ability of people to choose their own political destiny.  In the past 24 hours, we witnessed demonstrators in a number of cities in eastern parts of Ukraine seize government buildings.  The coordination involved in yesterday’s actions leads me to conclude that Russia had some role to play.  Putin is able to stir up plenty of trouble in Ukraine and elsewhere short of sending Russian forces across the border.  Accordingly, I believe it is a mistake to condition additional sanctions against Russia — “stage three”, if you will — on further Russian military moves.  Putin has many other ways and methods for destabilizing his neighbors, and we should not countenance such behavior. 

Let me offer thoughts on the threat posed by Putin’s Russia and how we should respond to it, and then turn to the challenges in Ukraine and what we should be doing to help that country. 

Putin’s Russia 

Vladimir Putin oversees a thoroughly corrupt, authoritarian regime and possesses a paradoxical, if not dangerous, combination of arrogance and self-assuredness with paranoia, insecurity, and hyper-sensitivity.  His paranoia increased — and with it his assault against civil society in Russia — following the “Color Revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-04, which scared him into thinking that Russia was next on the list.  His insecurities were fed by developments in the Arab world in 2011, when he watched like-minded leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya fall from power as a result of popular movements.  Fast forward to November 2013, when Ukrainians turned out in the streets again, forcing out Viktor Yanukovych as president and heightening Putin’s sense of insecurity.  Ukrainians’ demands, represented by the hundreds of thousands of protestors over the last few months, for more democratic and transparent government and closer ties with the European Union pose the biggest challenge to Putin’s grip on power in Russia.  Without Ukraine, Putin’s Eurasian Union vision will not be realized, but more urgently, to prevent a genuine, popular, democratic movement from taking root in Ukraine — and possibly providing a model for Russians in Russia — Putin invaded Crimea, fabricating the justification that he was protecting the rights of fellow Russians.  He continues to try to destabilize the interim authorities by, inter alia, maintaining tens of thousands of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine and raising the price of gas.

The irony is Putin’s professed concern for the welfare of Russian speakers in Crimea when he shows no such concern for the welfare of Russians living inside Russia itself.  On the contrary, after major protests against him in December 2011 and March-May 2012, Putin, since returning to the presidency in May 2012, has launched the worst crackdown on human rights in Russia since the break-up of the USSR.  This has led him to ratchet up pressure inside Russia on opposition figures and civil society activists.  Critics of Putin at universities are losing their jobs, news outlets and websites are being shut down, and anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism are reaching their highest levels in the post-Soviet period.

Reflecting his zero-sum thinking, Putin views efforts by Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other neighbors to Westernize and democratize as a threat to Russia’s “zone of special interests” and to the political model he has created in Russia.  Thus, he lends support to authoritarian regimes, whether in Kyiv under Yanukovych or Damascus under Bashar al-Assad.  By cracking down at home and interfering with (or invading) neighbors, Putin tries to strike the pose of a confident, assertive leader.  In reality, his actions reflect a worried authoritarian willing to resort to any means necessary to stay in power.  And staying in power is what drives Putin’s actions internally and across Russia’s borders.  His foreign policy is, in many ways, an extension of his domestic policy, and he justifies his way of governing Russia by perpetuating the absurd notion that the West and the U.S. in particular are threats.

Contrary to the claims of some commentators that NATO enlargement over the years is to blame for the current situation, Russia’s most stable neighbors are the three Baltic states and Poland, democracies rooted in rule of law, who also are members of the EU and NATO.  And yet Putin considers them a threat because of what they represent — namely, democracy, transparency, rule of law, and respect for human rights.  These are concepts that clash with the corrupt, authoritarian model Putin is intent on creating in Russia and along his borders.  Greater democracy in neighboring states, he fears, could generate demand for meaningful freedoms inside Russia itself.

While the onus for the ongoing crisis lies with Putin, it is important that we not forget Viktor Yanukovych’s culpability in this as well.  Yanukovych bears responsibility for leading a thoroughly corrupt, increasingly authoritarian system in Ukraine and for the deaths of more than 100 people killed during the violence of the past few months; he should be put on trial.  Democratically elected in early 2010, Yanukovych forfeited his legitimacy over the years through the massive corruption he and his family engaged in, his unconstitutional actions, and his decision to use force against peaceful protestors as early as November 30-December 1.  Yanukovych put his personal, corrupt interests above those of his country.   

The Western Response to Russia

The outcome of the Russia-Ukraine crisis — and the response of the West — may determine the prospects for democracy for Russia’s neighbors and well beyond Eurasia.  After a hesitant start, Western states have shown resolve through imposition of visa bans and asset freezes on Russian government officials, businessmen, and even Bank Rossya.  But we must do more and go after higher level officials and more businessmen close to Putin such as Igor Sechin of Rosneft and Aleksei Miller of Gazprom.  By imposing further sanctions now, we would aim to preempt, rather than react to, the possibility that Putin will invade other parts of Ukraine, or even Moldova.  Putin himself needs to be added to the list if he refuses to return to the status quo ante.  Sanctions against Russian banks and state-owned enterprises, especially any doing business in Crimea, should be adopted, and broader economic sanctions should be considered.

Since Putin’s move into Ukraine, the Russian economy, already facing serious problems, has seen the ruble drop sharply, the Russian stock market fall some 20 percent, capital flight soar — possibly as high as $70 billion this quarter alone compared to $63 billion all of last year — and Russia’s credit rating lowered to negative.  Investor confidence is badly shaken.  Putin and his circle are vulnerable to imposition of such sanctions, given that many of them keep their ill-gotten gains in the West.  Closing that option to them is certain to get their attention and possibly lead them to rethink their position, even if it may not lead to an immediate turnaround in Putin’s takeover of Crimea.  Moreover, Russia’s economy is much more dependent on access to Europe for its oil and gas than Europe is dependent on Russian supplies.  Russia is significantly integrated into the global economy, particularly with Western states, giving us leverage over Russia, if we choose to exercise it, and them vulnerability.

I commend the U.S. and Canada for taking the lead on imposing sanctions and hope that the European Union will pick up the pace, though I appreciate that trade between the EU and Russia is more than 10 times that between the U.S. and Russia.  That said, this is no time for business as usual.  It was appalling to see the leadership of the German conglomerate Siemens recently travel to Moscow to meet with Putin, essentially embracing him and reassuring him of their continued business no matter what steps the West might take.  

Unless we impose a serious price on Putin for his aggression, his appetite may not be sated with just Crimea.  Many more countries with sizable ethnic Russian populations, including Moldova, Kazakhstan, and even the Baltic states will be at greater risk unless Putin suffers serious consequences for what he already has done.

Helping Ukraine

Addressing the Putin challenge is critical, but no less important is the need to help Ukraine recover from the turmoil of the last few months, the corrupt leadership of the last two decades, and the economic crisis that it faces once again.  Making life doubly difficult for the interim authorities in Kyiv are two facts: the threatening presence of tens of thousands of Russian forces along the border and the loss of Crimea.  Nevertheless, the interim government and parliament have no choice but to adopt various reforms required by the IMF and to ensure that Ukraine advances toward democracy and rule of law.  The West can and must help.  Over the next weeks and months, Canada, the U.S. and the EU can best aid Ukraine by taking these steps:

  • Refusing to give up on Crimea by demanding a return to the status quo ante.  Conducting a rushed referendum under the barrel of Russian guns, without any efforts to involve Ukraine’s central government, is both illegal and illegitimate. No reputable government or body has recognized the referendum, and none should give the impression that this issue is settled.   
  • Disbursing funds from the financial package that the U.S., European Union, Canada, IMF and World Bank have put together, totaling more than $20 billion, to help stabilize the Ukrainian economy.  Adding to the challenge is Russian economic pressure, trade cutoffs, and a spike in the price for Russian gas.  Equally important is assistance in recovering stolen assets from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars, and assistance with energy reforms and development of alternate energy sources. 
  • Preparing for delivery of humanitarian assistance to Crimea, especially on behalf of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tartars living there, who together constitute some 35 percent of the region’s population.  They effectively have been disenfranchised from their country.  The Crimean Tartars in particular, whom Stalin exiled to Siberia in 1944 and only returned to Ukraine’s Crimea as the Soviet Union was collapsing, are distraught at falling under Russia’s thumb once again. 
  • Insisting that the Ukrainian presidential election slated for May 25 stay on schedule.  Some parties in Ukraine, and in Moscow, are urging postponement of the election, arguing that the country needs more time to prepare and can’t hold them as long as Russia occupies part of the country, though the real reasons are more self-interested in nature.  This would be an enormous setback to Ukraine’s need to elect a legitimate new leadership as soon as possible.  The sooner Ukraine elects a new president in a credible, democratic fashion, the better off the country will be.  Assistance should be provided to local civil society organizations that do election-monitoring kinds of work as well as for long- and short-term observers, working closely with the OSCE/ODIHR.
     
  • Independent media must be able to operate during the electoral period to ensure that the public is informed both about the conduct of the elections and the important policy issues around which the elections revolve; this is especially needed in the regions where information is scarce and violations plentiful.  Special scrutiny should be devoted to the formation of an impartial election commission and unhindered participation in the voting process by all registered Ukrainian voters wherever in the country they may be located.
     
  • Assisting development of real democratic institutions so that Ukraine doesn’t squander yet another opportunity, as it did after the 2004 Orange Revolution, for lasting rule of law and liberalization.  This would include strong support for Ukrainian civil society and a free press, both of which played critical roles in the protests.  It would also entail protecting the country’s religious and ethnic minorities, combatting hate crimes, and promoting tolerance.  The presence of some radical elements in the opposition movement and the new governing structure should not give license to any extreme statements and actions by radical groups.

"It's all about freedom," Acting Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk during his meeting in Washington with President Obama March 12. "We fight for our freedom, we fight for our independence, we fight for our sovereignty and we will never surrender."  If Ukraine, with Western help, is able to fend off Putin’s aggression, then freedom in Ukraine and, for that matter, around the globe, will have scored a major victory against one of the most threatening authoritarian regimes in the world and one of the biggest challenges to confront the democratic community of nations.  

Thank you for your attention.

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