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Commission on security and cooperation in Europe

U. S. Helsinki Commission


We are a US government commission that promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Nine Commissioners are members of the Senate, nine are members of the House of Representatives, and three are executive branch officials.

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  Representative Joe Wilson


Representative Joe Wilson

  Senator Ben Cardin


Senator Ben Cardin

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    Today, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chair Senator Ben Cardin (MD) re-introduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act in the U.S. Senate in the 118th Congress. Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) as well as Senators Lindsey Graham (SC), and Marco Rubio (FL) joined Sens. Wicker and Cardin as original co-sponsors.  The HARM Act would require the Secretary of State to designate the Russian-based mercenary Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).  The Commission applauds this vital bipartisan legislation to hold Wagner accountable for the terror it inflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere. For more information click here.  The HARM Act was first introduced in the 117th Congress by Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (MI), along with companion legislation in the House of Representatives. On January 25, Helsinki Commission Ranking member Rep. Steve Cohen and Chairman Joe Wilson, along with Commissioners Marc Veasey,  Richard Hudson, Ruben Gallego and Brian Fitzpatrick and Representatives Ted Lieu, Maria Salazar and Marcy Kaptur, re-introduced the HARM Act in the House of Representatives. 

  • Helsinki Commissioners Urge Austria to Deny Visas to Russian Delegation Ahead of OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission leadership, Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson, Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, and Rep. Steve Cohen, on February 10, sent a letter to Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Schallenberg to reconsider granting visas to the Russian delegation to the Winter Meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, taking place in Vienna next week. The Winter Meeting will coincide with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, February 24th, 2022, and is set to be the first in-person gathering of the Parliamentary Assembly with Russian and Belarusian participation since the start of the war. The United States and European Union have sanctioned every member of the Russian delegation for having explicitly endorsed Vladimir Putin's war of aggression on Ukraine and his claim to have annexed vast swathes of Ukrainian territory.     Read the letter in PDF form above.

  • U.S. lawmakers want terrorist designation for Russia's Wagner Group

    WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - A group of Democratic and Republican senators said on Wednesday they would try again to pass legislation that would require the State Department to designate Russian mercenary company Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Led by Democrat Ben Cardin and Republican Roger Wicker, the senators said they had reintroduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) act - which was introduced but not passed before the end of the previous Congress - seeking to hold Wagner accountable for human rights violations by adding it to the FTO blacklist. Cardin and Wicker are co-chairs of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government agency that promotes human rights. Washington has been targeting Wagner for some time. The Treasury Department last month designated Wagner, which is fighting on the Russian side in some of the most intense battles of the Ukraine war, as a transnational criminal organization responsible for widespread human rights abuses

  • Cardin Appointed Co-Chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission for the 118th Congress

       WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD) has been named Co-Chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, for the 118th Congress. Cardin previously served as Chair of the Commission, which alternates leadership roles between House and Senate each Congress. Since 2015, Cardin also has served as the Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A third-generation Marylander, Cardin has been a national leader on foreign policy while representing the people of Maryland in the U.S. Senate, and before that in the House of Representatives. He has worked across party lines to further U.S. national security and to ensure that good governance, transparency, and respect for human rights are integrated into American foreign policy efforts. He is the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  “It has been an honor throughout the majority of my time in Congress to be an active member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission,” said Cardin. “As the connecting point with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Commission has united bipartisan lawmakers and the executive branch in the defense of human rights and democratic institutions at home and abroad. Democracy is resilient but it is fragile, and the Helsinki Commission has promoted the enduring values of democracy and multilateralism.   “These are difficult times of the OSCE region across much of its 57-member states. Russia continues its unprovoked and illegal war against fellow OSCE member Ukraine. Türkiye is dealing with the aftermath of unprecedented fatalities after the recent earthquake. COVID-19 had a crippling impact on our most vulnerable citizens and opened the door for some governments to exploit the pandemic to limit fundamental freedoms. Antisemitism and racist violence have raged in many OSCE-participating states, including the U.S. These challenges make it even more important that the U.S. Helsinki Commission continue to defend human and civil rights globally, encourage tolerance within societies, root out corruption and defend the basic principles of liberty and sovereignty,” Cardin continued.  Senator Cardin has been a Helsinki Commissioner since 1993 and previously chaired the commission in the 111th, 113th, and 117th Congresses. He is the author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, all of which have become law. He also a leader on pending legislation, including the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, which would designate the mercenary Wagner Group as a terrorist organization, a Senate Resolution calling for Russia’s actions in Ukraine to be declared a genocide, and the Combatting Global Corruption Act that would raise the profile of efforts to fight international corruption by publicly naming countries where corruption is rampant, and governments are not living up to commitments they have made to combat corruption. 


    WASHINGTON— Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) has been appointed by Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy to serve as Chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, throughout the 118th Congress.  "Since its inception more than 45 years ago, the U.S. Helsinki Commission has served as a model of how the U.S. policy-making process should work. Acting on the stability of Europe and U.S. transatlantic alliances, the commission has always united Republicans and Democrats in an unparalleled manner as it has defended some of the most important global issues from the Cold War and beyond. “Advocating on behalf of democracies living by the rule of law versus authoritarian regimes living under the rule of gun illustrates the goal of the Helsinki Commission and the work being done to support this objective globally. Among my legislative endeavors in pursuit of this aim, last Congress I led the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022, which became law, to ensure the U.S. was providing resources the people of Ukraine need to achieve victory over the war criminal Putin.  “Promoting peace through strength has never been more important and the OSCE is incredibly united in opposition to the war criminal Putin. Additionally, the European Union has provided $55 billion dollars of humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine. All NATO countries are also supporting Ukraine. “I am grateful for the opportunity to serve as Chairman, and I appreciate this honor and responsibility afforded me by the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy,” said Chairman Wilson. Chairman Wilson previously served as the Helsinki Commission House Ranking Member in the 116th and 117th Congresses. He also serves as a Member of the U.S. Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.  Throughout his life, Chairman Wilson demonstrated a tremendous passion to serve his country and uphold the foundations of democracy around the world, from working as an election observer in Bulgaria, to serving in the United States Armed Forces, the United States Army reserves, and the South Carolina Army National Guard.  At the Commission, Representative Wilson has co-introduced legislation such as the Counter-Kleptocracy Act, Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act, Guaranteeing Oversight and Litigation on Doping (GOLD) Act, and a resolution recognizing the International Day of Political Prisoners. As Chairman, Mr. Wilson has co-led the introduction of the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act in the House of Representatives, bipartisan legislation that would require the Secretary of State to designate the Russian-based mercenary Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). He has also co-led the introduction of the Combatting Global Corruption Act. The bipartisan, bicameral legislation formally designates combatting global corruption as a key U.S. national security concern. It would require the State Department to identify corruption in countries around the world and publicly rank their levels of corruption in a three-tiered system.    In addition to Chairing the Helsinki Commission, Mr. Wilson serves as a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he is the Chair of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia Subcommittee and a member of the Subcommittee on Europe. He is also the most senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, where he sits on the Subcommittee on Readiness and the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. Additionally, Mr. Wilson chairs the Republican Study Committee's National Security and Foreign Affairs Task Force for the 118th Congress, and serves as Co-Chair of the Bulgaria, French, UK, Korea, Ethiopia, Türkiye, Belarus, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Qatar, Republican Israel, Composites, and Counter-Kleptocracy caucuses.  Mr. Wilson is a founding member and Co-Chair of the EU Caucus.

  • Neutral Austria under pressure to get tougher on Russia

    VIENNA (AP) — Austria has come under heavy criticism for granting visas that will allow sanctioned Russian lawmakers to attend a Vienna meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The issue highlights the delicate balancing act the European country has engaged in while trying to maintain its longstanding position of military neutrality during the war in Ukraine. The Austrian government has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago but also stressed the need to maintain diplomatic relations with Moscow. Austria hosts several U.N. agencies and international organizations such as the OSCE, which was established during the Cold War as a forum for dialogue between East and West. Russia is one of the 57 nations in North America, Europe and Asia that participate in the Vienna-based organization. Moscow plans to send delegates to the Feb. 23-24 meeting of the OSCE’s parliamentary assembly, including 15 Russian lawmakers who are under European Union sanctions. Among them are Deputy Duma Chairman Pyotr Tolstoy and fellow parliament member Leonid Slutsky. In a letter to Austria’s chancellor, foreign minister and other officials, 81 OSCE delegates from 20 countries, including France, Canada, Britain, Poland and Ukraine, called upon the Austrian government to prohibit the participation of the sanctioned Russians. “It is important to remember that Russian parliamentarians are an integral part of the power system and complicit in the crimes Russia commits every day in Ukraine,” read the letter, which was seen by The Associated Press. “They have no place in an institution tasked with promoting sincere dialogue and opposition to the war.” The U.S. delegates to the Parliamentary Assembly were not among the letter’s signatories. U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter told reporters Friday that the Russian delegates “are not people who deserve to be able to travel to Western countries.” However, Carpenter added that it was “up to the Austrian government to determine whether they are going to grant visas or not.” Austrian officials haven’t commented on the letter. On Feb. 5, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg defended Austria’s decision to allow the sanctioned Russians to enter the country, arguing it was important to keep channels of communication with Moscow open despite the “brutal Russian attack against Ukraine.” The Austrian Foreign Ministry also insisted that as host to the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, it is legally obliged to grant visas to representatives of participating nations who want to take part in meetings there. Austria, which became a European Union member in 1995, has criticized Moscow and joined the sanctions the EU imposed against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. But unlike Finland and Sweden, which decided to abandon their non-aligned stances in May by applying to join NATO, Austria remains committed to the military neutrality it adopted in 1955. The Austrian government has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine but no weapons. Chancellor Karl Nehammer became the first and so far only EU leader to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin face-to-face after the war started. Nehammer traveled to Moscow in April 2022 in a fruitless attempt to persuade the Russian leader to end the invasion. Support remains strong for Austrian neutrality among the public and political establishment. “I believe that Austrian neutrality can still play a positive role today,” saysid Ralph Janik, an expert in international law and researcher at the Sigmund Freud private university in Vienna. “The alternative would be to join NATO, but every single Austrian politician is very well aware that this is not supported by the majority of the Austrian public.” Austria, which was annexed by Nazi Germany in the run-up to World War II, declared neutrality after the war under pressure from Western allies and the Soviet Union. It sought a role as a mediator between East and West and developed ties with Moscow during and after the Cold War. In 1968, Austria became the first Western European country to import gas from the Soviet Union, and its dependence on Russian energy increased in the following decades. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 80% of Austria’s natural gas came from Russia. It has since reduced the share to just over 20% by turning to Norwegian gas, according to Austria’s regulator for electricity and gas. The Austrian banking system is also closely connected to Russia. Austria’s second-largest bank, the Raiffeisenbank International, earned more than half of its profits in 2022 from Russia. The bank has come under intense pressure for continuing its business in Russia despite Moscow’s war against Ukraine, and is currently evaluating strategic options, including an exit from Russia. Vienna is also known to be a playground for spies, including from Russia, due to its lenient espionage laws. Despite its initial reluctance, Austria has expelled eight Russian diplomats who are believed to have been engaged in spying since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine. While there are no signs of a shift away from Austrian neutrality, some have called for the policy to be reassessed following the Ukraine war. Werner Fasslabend, a former Austrian defense minister from the conservative People’s Party, is among the few prominent voices arguing in favor of the country renouncing neutrality and joining NATO. With the end of Cold War and Austria’s accession to the EU, Austrian neutrality has “lost its function,” said Fasslabend, the director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. As a NATO member, Austria would “be in a better position to shape European security policy and will gain greater security,” he added, admitting that it was unlikely to happen given it would require changing the constitution by a two-thirds majority in the Austrian parliament. “This majority is not within sight,” Fasslabend said. Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

  • Let’s Radar! Blue/Yellow Ukraine USA Announces Radar Systems Continuing Crowdfunding Campaign for Ukraine

    Let’s Radar! Blue/Yellow Ukraine USA Announces Radar Systems Continuing Crowdfunding Campaign for Ukraine Friends of Blue Yellow Ukraine USA NFP, Inc PRESS RELEASE:  February 11, 2023 Blue/Yellow (USA (501(c)3) and Lithuania), along with 3 other NGOs have launched a campaign, ending 2/24, to purchase advanced multifunctional tactical radar systems able to detect small objects as well as missiles, for Ukraine: RADAROM!/Let’s Radar! Nearly $8M have been raised in under 10 days. That's 8-10 systems, which have a radius of 60 m. Many more are needed. Chicago, IL February 11, 2023 --( PR.com )-- Last year, Lithuanians raised ca. $6M within three days for a Bayraktar drone for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This year Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT), along with the organizations Blue/Yellow (USA and Lithuania), Laisvės TV (Freedom Television), 1K Fondas (1K Fund), and Stiprūs Kartu (Strong Together), launched a campaign to purchase multifunctional tactical radar systems for Ukraine: “RADAROM!” (Let’s radar!). Lithuanian private donors and businesses raised nearly $8M during the first week of the campaign which began on 1/30 and culminates on 2/24, the date of the full-scale brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, with a concert to support Ukraine. Ukraine has been working with old Soviet-produced radars not designed to detect and/or track small and low-flying objects. Russian missiles and drones pose a lethal threat to Ukrainian defenders and civilians. Modern technology has provided for sophisticated systems with advanced detection, communication and networking ability, appropriate for this current type of warfare. These new radars are unique in that they can detect all types, sizes, and speeds of objects moving in the sky. They allow for alerts so that protective action can be taken in time, for energy grids, water provision systems, or to evacuate targeted populations before a missile hits. Given the expected spring offensive by Russia, they are a critical game changer in preventing more needless deaths of Ukrainian citizens, and the continued destruction of their country. Radar prices range between $500K to $1.5M. Donations have reached nearly $8M since 1/30. In addition to individual donations, over 70 businesses have also actively participated in the campaign. These donations will allow for the purchase of 6-7 systems as of today, and hopefully 10 systems or more by February 24. The first system is expected in Ukraine this month. US-based donations are critical to this effort; radar systems are proactive, allowing many thousands of lives to be saved and critical infrastructure protected. A free and democratic Ukraine is key to a stable world. US residents and citizens can donate at the Blue/Yellow USA (501(c)3) website: www.foblueyellowukraineusa.org. Others can donate at www.radarom.lt. About Blue/Yellow Blue/Yellow for Ukraine (Lithuania) and Blue/Yellow USA (Friends of Blue/Yellow for Ukraine USA NFP, Inc, 501(c)(3)) have provided over $40 million in direct aid to Ukrainians, from civilians to defense forces, working with various actors from the state to other NGOs, since their founding (LT in 2014 and USA in 2019). We testified as one of four witnessing organizations at the US Helsinki Commission’s Congressional hearing on Crowdsourcing Victory for Ukraine. We are included in the top ten organizations worldwide aiding Ukraine by Forbes. Blue/Yellow for Ukraine LT is led by Director Jonas Öhman. The US organization is headed by MD Rima Ziuraitis. Öhman has received numerous awards for B/Y’s work in Ukraine from the EU Parliament, armed forces units, ministries and the Presidents of Ukraine and Lithuania. He is the only foreigner awarded the medal for “The Defense of Avdiivka.” He is former Swedish military, a filmmaker, journalist, and humanitarian activist for democracy and freedom. To learn more or donate, visit www.foblueyellowukraineusa.org, our Facebook and Instagram pages www.facebook.com/FOBlueYellowUkraineUSAorg, and follow us on Twitter @BlueYellowUKR. Contact Information: Friends of Blue Yellow Ukraine USA NFP, Inc Ausra Tallat-Kelpsa Di Raimondo 630-770-6551 Contact via Email foblueyellowukraineusa.org Read the full story here: Let’s Radar! Blue/Yellow Ukraine USA Announces Radar Systems Continuing Crowdfunding Campaign for Ukraine Press Release Distributed by PR.com

  • The Case for Supporting Ukraine Is Strong. But the Biden Administration Isn’t Making It

    President Biden has poorly explained why supporting Ukraine is in America’s interests. There are better arguments to make. Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is nearing its first anniversary, and the United States should be proud that our support has empowered Kyiv to push back against the Kremlin. But the Biden administration still has not clearly articulated why continued American leadership is needed and why the only acceptable outcome is victory for Ukraine. As a result, after one year of fighting, and as we face domestic issues such as inflation, crime, and an open southern border, the American people are asking questions about U.S. support for Ukraine. This is understandable. There is, however, a persuasive case for continued American aid to Ukraine. But we have to make that case. Public diplomacy starts at home. A few weeks before Secretary of State George Marshall went to Harvard to unveil the Marshall Plan in June 1947, his deputy, Dean Acheson, made a speech of his own in my home state of Mississippi. Acheson recognized that it was not just the Harvard faculty club whose opinion mattered — William F. Buckley’s first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book would also have a say. At Delta State University, Acheson argued that American engagement in Europe was “necessary for our national security.” In 1984, President Reagan made a similar point in Gulfport, Miss., at the height of the Cold War. He pointed out the need to strengthen our defense-industrial base, naval fleet, and ammunition stocks, saying, we can “never again allow America to let her guard down.” President Biden has not acted or spoken with the same strength and candor. Before February 24, 2022, he suggested that Russia might get away with “minor incursions” into Ukraine. The messaging most Americans heard from the White House last summer was “Putin’s price hike” — an attempt to dismiss concerns about the president’s failed energy policies. Instead of the president, Congress has led the charge at every step, both in explaining this effort to the American people and in provisioning Ukraine. The administration’s recent timidity in providing Ukraine with a handful of tanks allowed Europeans to hide behind the U.S. for months, rather than provide Ukraine what it needs in time to make a difference for the coming spring offensive. That hesitation was in keeping with endless debates we have seen about equipment like HIMARS and drones. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians are fighting courageously, but with one hand tied behind their backs. Recently, I took to the Senate floor to make the case for more, better, and faster advanced weapons deliveries to Ukraine. I offered four clear reasons why continuing to support Ukraine is in America’s national interest. The argument needs to be based on more than vague appeals to the rules-based international order, which persuade few outside the Beltway. First, Ukraine matters to the United States because the security of Europe is closely tied to our own security and prosperity. When Vladimir Putin says that he seeks the “collapse of Western hegemony,” he means the power of the U.S. and of our allies. Second, this is a good investment for us. Reporting indicates that the U.S. contribution to Ukraine as a percent of our own GDP so far has been less than that of Canada, the United Kingdom, and every Baltic country, at a clip of just 0.2 percent. The result of these relatively modest investments is that Russia’s military is significantly weakened and Moscow can no longer carry out a near-term invasion of any nation in the NATO alliance. Further, 40 percent of U.S. aid for Ukraine, or about $44 billion, is being spent here at home on our defense-industrial base and readiness. Third, the United States is leading a transformation in Europe’s security architecture that will make it far less likely that American service members will be put in danger in the future. For years, American force planners have agonized over hard choices about how to assist in Europe’s defenses. These choices have been made all the more challenging as a result of the “free rider” problem in NATO defense spending. With our allies committing to rearming, we may soon see that dilemma in our strategy for the European continent subside. Fourth, victory in Ukraine will help deter the Chinese Communist Party in the Indo-Pacific. General Secretary Xi Jinping is watching the other side of Eurasia closely, with an eye toward Taiwan. As Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida has stated, “Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow.” Last month, our allies in Tokyo committed to double their defense spending as a percent of GDP to 2 percent. Beyond those key reasons, it is important to understand that a long war for Ukraine would cost even more and favors Putin. Providing Ukraine with needed arms, including ATACMS, long-range missiles, and advanced drones like the Grey Eagle and Reaper could tip the balance in their favor and diminish the odds of a protracted conflict by better positioning Kyiv to end the war on the right terms. As we consider additional support, political leaders also owe the American people oversight of how their hard-earned taxpayer dollars are being spent. Twenty reviews of Ukraine assistance have been completed, with another 64 reviews ongoing or planned. As ranking member on the Senate Armed Services committee, I will continue that oversight. American support for Ukraine should not be taken for granted, in Kyiv or in Washington. It will be earned by legislators who persuade voters at civic clubs, at churches and faith institutions, and in conversations at local grocery stores, face to face. I will continue to have those tough discussions in Tupelo, Olive Branch, Jackson, Gulfport, and everywhere in-between. I invite my colleagues in Congress and in the administration to do the same across the country. The American people deserve no less.  

  • Hilltop View: Enhancing Cooperation as a U.S. Helsinki Commission Detailee

    Most Foreign Service officers (FSOs) associate details to Capitol Hill with Pearson Fellowships, which enable FSOs to gain invaluable legislative branch experience by working in a Congressional Office. Less well known is the senior advisor position at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), a.k.a. the “Helsinki Commission.”   CSCE is a unique institution. It was established by Congress in 1976 to implement the 1975 “Helsinki Final Act,” a seminal document addressing traditional security and economic concerns while stipulating fundamental commitments to human rights were integral to a comprehensive view of security in Europe. Among its initial signatories were 35 countries in Europe and Eurasia, including the Soviet Union, as well as the United States and Canada. “Helsinki” or the “spirit of Helsinki” was widely seen as the first thaw in the Cold War. Helsinki monitor groups sprang up throughout the Soviet Union and in Warsaw Pact satellites to hold governments accountable for endemic violations of human rights commitments.   Demitra Pappas, senior advisor to the U.S. Helsinki Commission, attends a side event at the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference, Sept. 28, 2022. Photo by Mahvish S. Khan   During a Congressional delegation visit to the Soviet Union in 1975, New Jersey Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick was so moved by her discussions with dissidents and Jewish refuseniks that she introduced legislation establishing a bipartisan Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Fenwick took this bold step over the strenuous opposition of the Kissinger-era Department of State, which saw the legislation as usurping executive branch authority and objected to human rights-centered diplomacy. CSCE was empowered to monitor adherence to Helsinki Final Act commitments, giving Congress a larger role to play in foreign policy. Today, the Helsinki Commission—comprised of nine senators and nine representatives from both parties as well as three executive branch commissioners (from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce)—continues its strong advocacy for human rights, security, and economic cooperation among the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the institutional successor of the post-Helsinki Final Act Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.   CSCE has a symbiotic relationship with the Department, with both a commission staffer embedded in the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) in Vienna and, since its inception, a senior FSO detailed to the commission’s professional staff to enhance cooperation between the legislative and executive branches. The Department’s Senior Advisor to the Helsinki Commission Demitra Pappas came to the latter position in September directly from USOSCE where she had been the arms control counselor, representing the United States in OSCE’s main political-military body, the Forum for Security Cooperation. In her new capacity, Pappas serves as a conduit between the Department and the Helsinki Commission, maintaining that vital link with Congress, which includes Helsinki Commission staff joining U.S. delegations to OSCE multilateral meetings. As with the Helsinki Commission, Russia’s war on Ukraine became OSCE’s singular focus in the lead up to the February 24 full-scale war, and has remained so in the past year.    From left: Co-chair Representative and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Special Representative for Political Prisoners Steve Cohen looks on as Yegvenia Kara-Kurza, wife of imprisoned Russian activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, speaks at the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference during a side event on political prisoners, Oct. 3, 2022. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Helsinki Commission   The detail to the Helsinki Commission position provides FSOs with up close experience and exposure to events such as the Ukraine war. For Pappas, the journey began from her first day, as a regular stream of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other frontline actors, as well as Ukrainian officials, sought out the commission staff to tell their stories. At Pappas’ first congressional hearing, CSCE called a single witness, “Taira,” a Ukrainian medic captured by Russian forces in Mariupol last spring who provided a harrowing firsthand account of the fall of the city and her subsequent detention and torture. At an OSCE human rights meeting in Warsaw in September, the commission organized a side event on political prisoners with the Ukrainian NGO “Center for Civil Liberties,” which was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace prize  along with the Russian NGO Memorial and Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatsky. Another commission side event in Warsaw on “De-colonizing Russia” focused on the national minorities that Russia now exploits as cannon fodder in the Ukraine war. That particular subject deeply rankled Kremlin propagandists and Russian officials, who accused the commission of seeking to dismember Russia.   This was not the first time CSCE drew the Kremlin’s ire. The commission authored the iconic Magnitsky Act, and many of the staff are persona non grata in Russia.   Pappas says her CSCE colleagues do not shy away from pushing the often self-imposed limits of U.S. policy. “For an FSO, it is refreshing to think outside the bureaucratic box and not be beholden to the interagency clearance process.” Currently, commission staff convene hearings and briefings on all aspects of the war in Ukraine and draft related legislation as well as articles and reports. While the commission chair—Sen. Ben Cardin—will revert to the House in the new Congress, the commission will continue to serve as a bipartisan bulwark of solidarity for Ukraine.   U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Shannon Simrell poses next to Ukrainian Parliamentarian Oleksii Goncharenko at an event hosted by the U.S. delegation at the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference, Sept. 28, 2022. Photo by Mahvish S. Khan   Engaging in “parliamentary diplomacy” through Congressional delegations to meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) is another important aspect of CSCE’s work. The PA convenes annual meetings in participating States and issues political declarations on States’ adherence to Helsinki commitments. OSCE PA has provided a platform of solidarity with Ukraine by building relationships among like-minded parliamentarians, with more flexibility than the consensus-based OSCE to denounce what are decried as Russia’s “clear, gross and uncorrected” violations of the Helsinki Final Act. CSCE Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen was named OSCE PA’s first special representative on political prisoners and uses the commission’s megaphone to advocate for their release.  Commission staff, as well as commissioners and Department advisors, also regularly serve as election observers in other OSCE participating States. During the November midterm election, the United States received the largest ever OSCE PA election observation mission with representatives from 40 countries.  Pappas reflected on the singular nature of this detail position. “This position is a unique opportunity within the Department for a Foreign Service officer to acquire knowledge of the legislative branch, and its activist role in defense of human rights and international security, as well as to experience diplomatic relations amongst legislative representatives from different countries, and observe foreign elections up close,” she said. Demitra Pappas is the senior advisor at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

  • Russia’s Biggest Weapon (and China, too) is Fossil Fuel-Generated Energy

    The capacity of a modern economy to produce food and goods for its citizens, and weapons and fuel for its military to project power, are the undeniable twin pillars of global power. Both depend on reasonably priced and readily available energy.  Almost 80% of America’s energy is supplied by oil, gas and coal. Only 20% comes from other sources such as hydropower, nuclear, wind and solar. Even the greenest of economies will need fossil fuel backup when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Wind and solar provide 5% of our total consumption and only 2% of the energy to power some 290 million vehicles. In other words, Americans literally run and fight on fossil fuels.  Russia, despite an economy smaller than Italy’s, has shown it could defy all international norms and invade a neighboring country because it has abundant energy. Weapons, and more weapons. First it was Javelins, then Howitzers, then HIMARS, then anti-missile and drone capability, then longer range ATACMS, then better tanks, now F-16s. Who can tell what the next weapon will be needed to defend against Russian aggression?  Russia has its weapons, too, and they are being paid for by the sale of oil, gas, coal, and fossil fuel-derived products like petrochemicals, fertilizers, etc. Russian missiles, planes, drones, tanks and artillery that shed Ukrainian blood and destroy homes, hospitals and electric-power stations are bought with Russia’s fossil fuel revenues. Energy is Russia’s greatest weapon as it makes possible all the others. Only with such revenues can Russia continue its devastation of Ukraine. A new Russian offensive is brewing, and it too will be financed by its energy revenues.  Russians from Putin on down are talking about a much longer war because they have the revenues to support one and they don’t have to worry about a citizen-taxpayer revolt or getting reelected.  While the U.S. and Europe have restricted their purchases and consumption of Russian energy, it is sold elsewhere. That energy sells at a discount, but Russia is still earning hundreds of billions of dollars from energy sales and thus able to continue its war for as long as Putin wants. In spite of sanctions, Russia sold over $350 worth of fossil fuels in 2022. In the meantime, Germany keeps its fracking ban.  To achieve peace in Europe and avoid potential wars elsewhere, one would think that America and the West would be increasing their own supply of oil, gas and coal and driving down prices on the global market. Such an initiative would also give fence-sitting countries like India and Brazil in the “Global South” alternative sources to substitute for Russian products.  One would also think that the West would understand that its ability to replenish weapons and ammunition being sent to Ukraine and resist aggression, anywhere, like Taiwan for example, is based on production, shipment and fueling with fossil fuels and decidedly not on wind and solar. There will never be an electric tank! And why not drive down the price that Russia receives for its energy while providing the economic and military security derived from fossil fuels? The answer from Europe and now America has been an emphatic “no”. Apparently, addressing the “climate crisis” takes priority over national defense, stopping Russian aggression in Europe, and securing reliable, affordable energy to run modern industrial economies.  The alternative - simultaneously furthering the technology of renewables like wind and solar while building up fossil fuels within an “all of the above” approach is anathema to those who believe religiously that climate change is an existential threat. Ironically, the same people are happy to substitute U.S. fossil fuels with oil from dictatorships like Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia. They don’t seem concerned that wind, solar and battery supply chains run mostly through Communist China.  An “all of the above” energy strategy would make it harder for Russia to finance its war, save Ukrainian lives and mitigate their suffering. It would show that America was willing to challenge Russia’s energy dominance now and into the future.  Sadly, the very opposite is happening. The U.S. is killing energy transport pipelines, curtailing permitting of refineries and natural gas export facilities, suppressing oil and gas leases and worst of all, stifling longer-term investment in the industry. Driven by an all-encompassing determination to limit CO2 emissions, Europe, and now America, have declared war of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Russia and China burn oil, gas and coal and emit greenhouse gasses at levels that dwarf the West’s.  Governments in Europe and now in America have utterly failed to see that by suppressing fossil fuels, they are ceding enormous power to countries like Russia, and Iran, China who use those very fossil fuels as a way to strengthen themselves and threaten others.  Energy has been weaponized and the West is in full energy-disarmament mode. The West is forfeiting its ability to gain peace through strength with energy being the all-encompassing weapon in national and alliance arsenals.  The Russian people have experienced far greater suffering when total war was being waged on their own territory and millions perished. This time, the Russian people don’t feel the brunt of the war so the pressure to end it is limited and Russia’s vast fossil fuel revenues are available to continue it, perhaps for years.  It is doubtful that that support for Ukraine from potentially fickle Western democracies could last that long. National economies and nations’ militaries still run on fossil fuels. There is no substitute for fossil fuel dominance, even on a longer-term horizon. To believe and act otherwise is suicidal. It’s the real “existential threat”. Don Ritter holds a Science Doctorate from MIT, was a National Academy of Sciences Fellow in the USSR and speaks fluent Russian, served fourteen years on the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce and Science and Technology Committees, served as Ranking Member on the Congressional Helsinki Commission, was the founding Co-Chair of the Baltic States-Ukraine Caucus, and created and led the National Environmental Policy Institute after leaving Congress. He is a founder and President & CEO Emeritus of the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce and  a Trustee of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) where he Co-Chairs the Museum Capital Campaign.  

  • Helsinki Commissioners Announce Re-Introduction of HARM Act

    Today, Helsinki Commissioners Steve Cohen, Joe Wilson, Marc Veasey,  Richard Hudson, Ruben Gallego and Brian Fitzpatrick along with Representatives Ted Lieu, Maria Salazar and Marcy Kaptur, re-introduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act in the House of Representatives, bipartisan legislation that would require the Secretary of State to designate the Russian-based mercenary Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).  The Commission applauds this vital piece of legislation to hold Wagner accountable for the terror it inflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere.  For more information click here.   The HARM Act was first introduced in the last Congress by Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (MI), along with companion legislation in the House of Representatives led by Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, Richard Hudson, and Marc Veasey.

  • Bipartisan reps introduce bill to designate Russia’s Wagner Group as foreign terrorists

    A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday to designate Russian mercenary company Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, sponsored by nine members of the lower chamber, would require the State Department to designate the Wagner Group an FTO within 90 days of becoming law. The lawmakers cited the paramilitary company’s history of human rights violations in Africa and ongoing deployment of private soldiers in Ukraine to fight with Russia, adding that the Wagner Group has received weapons from North Korea, a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism. “Where the Wagner Group operates, atrocities follow,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in a statement. “The HARM Act will identify Putin’s private mercenary group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and let the world know that its activities are both malign and illegal.” The Biden administration designated the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization last week and announced countries and entities supporting it would run afoul of the U.S. government. But an FTO designation would authorize the U.S. to slap criminal penalties on entities supporting Wagner Group, according to the lawmakers sponsoring the HARM Act. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said in a statement the Biden administration’s designation “does not go far enough” against Wagner, adding it should use the FTO label to “expose them in their true state as a murderous, criminal enterprise.” “The Wagner Group has been engaging in nefarious atrocities around the globe, all at the behest of war criminal Putin and his cronies,” Wilson said. Legislation to designate the Wagner Group an FTO was also introduced last year in both the House and Senate. There was a standoff between the Biden administration and some U.S. lawmakers last year over designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. The administration said the designation, which comes with a raft of restrictions and penalties, could do more harm than good for Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, formed the Wagner Group in 2014. The mercenary outfit has since meddled in conflicts across the world, from Africa to Syria and now Ukraine, where Wagner forces are fighting alongside Russian soldiers in the eastern Donetsk region. DOJ disrupts global ransomware gangTop FDA safety official resigns In November, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the European Council to adopt a measure that would place Wagner Group on an EU terrorist list. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who is vying for a Senate seat in 2024, also sponsored the HARM Act and called for “rebuking mercenary terrorist organizations like the Wagner Group.” “While Ukrainians stand up for freedom and democracy, the Wagner Group stands with authoritarian regimes like Russia,” Gallego said in a statement. “Declaring them a Foreign Terrorist Organization is a commonsense step to hold them accountable for their atrocities in Ukraine and across the globe.”

  • Helsinki Commissioners Announce Re-introduction of Combatting Global Corruption Act

    On Tuesday, Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen, Rep. Joe Wilson, and Senator Ben Cardin re-introduced the Combatting Global Corruption Act in both the House and Senate, along with Rep. Bill Keating, Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Senator Todd Young. This bipartisan, bicameral legislation formally designates combatting global corruption as a key U.S. national security concern. It would require the State Department to identify corruption in countries around the world and publicly rank their levels of corruption in a three-tiered system. For more information click here. The Combatting Global Corruption Act was first introduced in the 117th Congress. Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Senator Todd Young introduced the Act in the Senate, along with companion legislation in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Tom Malinowski and Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, Commissioner Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Rep. Dean Phillips are original co-sponsors of the legislation. 

  • The Crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh Highlights Russia’s Waning Global Influence

    Mariam Abrahamyan is a hard woman to get in touch with. She appears on the screen for just a few moments before the picture freezes and she drops off the video call. “Sorry,” she says after phoning back a minute later, “our power went out again and the internet went down.” For more than a month now, the 30-year-old Armenian mother of three has been cut off from the rest of the world by a near-total blockade on the only road in or out of Nagorno-Karabakh—a disputed territory nestled between Armenia and Azerbaijan—that she and her family call home. Regular supplies of food and medicine have been stopped by Azerbaijan, and locals say supermarket shelves are empty and pharmacies are running out of essential prescriptions, while officials warn a famine could now be on the cards. “We didn’t think it would last this long,” Abrahamyan says. “But what’s really frightening is not knowing when it will end. We made the decision to stay here, and I dread the day one of my children might turn around and ask why we chose to live in a place like this.” Nagorno-Karabakh has already seen two wars within Abrahamyan’s lifetime. In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union unraveled, erstwhile members Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a series of fierce battles over the mountainous region, with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris displaced from the region, and thousands killed on both sides. Nagorno-Karabakh is located inside Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized borders, but locked behind a line of landmines and defensive positions, and for three decades it was accessible only from Armenia. Governed as the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, its officials point to two referendums held in 1991 and 2006 as proof that those living there have chosen independence. But in 2020, Azerbaijani troops launched an offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh, conquering swathes of territory and leaving Karabakh Armenians in control of just their de facto capital, Stepanakert, and the surrounding area. Only a Moscow-brokered ceasefire ended the war, putting the sole highway linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia—known as the Lachin Corridor—under the control of a 1,500-strong Russian peacekeeping contingent, with Azerbaijani troops stationed behind the wire fence on both sides of the road. Yet with Russia bogged down in Ukraine, there are fears the battle-scarred Nagorno-Karabakh could see conflict once again as Moscow fails to step in. Road to nowhere On the morning of Dec. 12, a group of self-described Azerbaijani eco-protesters pushed past the Russian peacekeepers and set up camp on the Lachin Corridor, stopping traffic. They allege Karabakh-Armenians have been using the road to export illegally-mined gold at the expense of the environment, while importing landmines and other military hardware as the Russians watch on. Now, officials say the Russian peacekeeping convoys and a smattering of Red Cross relief vehicles are the only ones that are able to pass—nowhere near enough to replace the 400 tons of goods that used to arrive daily from Armenia. “We don’t see much of the Russians,” Adnan Huseyn, one of the Azerbaijani organizers of the sit-in says. “During the first few days, we had eye-to-eye contact with the peacekeepers, but there were no problems. We watched the World Cup together, which was actually nice. Most of the time they kept quiet.” While Huseyn’s group insists it is moving aside for humanitarian convoys and denies it is staging a blockade, Armenia alleges they were sent by Azerbaijan in order to spark a crisis and lay the ground for “ethnic cleansing” of the region. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, whose government has repeatedly cracked down on political protests at home, has described the demonstrators as the pride of the nation, while observers have been quick to point out few have any prior record of environmental activism. Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and author of several books on the conflict, has argued that the protesters had “evidently been sent there by the government in Baku,” and Western nations including the U.S. have called on Azerbaijan to unblock the road. Now, anger is building as the humanitarian situation grows dire and Russia appears reluctant to force a reopening of the road. “Armenia is a firm supporter of the Russian peacekeepers,” the country’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in December, as it became clear the protesters were there to stay. “But it is unacceptable for us that they are becoming a silent witness to the depopulation of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Broken promises In Stepanakert, propaganda posters of the Russian peacekeepers hang in shop windows, looking out over the rows of empty shelves. “Karabakh, live in peace,” one reads. For many ethnic Armenians in the breakaway region, Russian is a native language on par with Armenian, and Moscow has long been seen as a close ally. But since the 2020 war, many locals say their existence feels more precarious than ever and that Azerbaijan is intent on asserting control over their unrecognized state. In a poll published by the Caucasus Research Resource Center in January, fewer than half of 400 Karabakh-Armenian respondents said independence would help settle the conflict in the disputed territory. Almost one in four said they would prefer to be annexed by Moscow and given special status as part of the Russian Federation—slightly more than the number that back unification with Armenia. “I’m not political,” says Abrahamyan. “I only know that the Russians have a duty to protect us, and they’re not doing that.” On Dec. 24, a delegation of Karabakh-Armenians marched to the peacekeepers’ checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor, where the Azerbaijanis have been staging their sit-in, to demand the road be reopened. “The Russian officer there told us to go home and not to worry,” says Marut Vanyan, a 39-year-old blogger from Stepanakert who joined the group. “He told us the road would be reopened within two days, like it was before. That never happened.” According to Vanyan, one of the protest organizers told the peacekeepers that locals were losing trust in them and, if the worst comes to the worst, they would take their families and leave—with Moscow losing its foothold in the region. Three days later, dozens of men, women, and children walked to the gates of the peacekeeping headquarters to demand answers. “Putin, keep your word,” read one sign carried by a young boy. Guards told the crowd that they were unable to get hold of their commander, Major General Andrey Volkov, and he was the only one who could answer their questions. Many Karabakh-Armenians now fear a protracted blockade or another Azerbaijani military offensive could see them forced to flee their homes for good. Man from Moscow? Azerbaijan has long accused Armenia of being a Russian puppet state, pointing to Yerevan’s membership of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and the close economic ties between the two countries. At the same time, just two days before Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Aliyev himself traveled to meet with President Vladimir Putin and sign a deal upgrading their relations to alliance level. But the standoff between the two sides has only worsened in recent weeks after an enigmatic Russian-Armenian oligarch, Ruben Vardanyan, announced he was moving to Nagorno-Karabakh in September. The Yerevan-born billionaire was initially coy about seeking political office but, two months later, was suddenly appointed State Minister of the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, making him effectively the most powerful man in Stepanakert overnight. Since then, talks with Azerbaijan have broken down, with Aliyev accusing Vardanyan of having been “sent from Moscow with a very clear agenda.” Officials in Baku point to the fact that he has been sanctioned by Ukraine as proof of his close ties to the Russian state. Kyiv says his business interests “undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine.” Speaking via video link from his office in the blockaded region, Vardanyan rejects those charges. “People don’t understand when someone like me decides to give up his family and his lifestyle,” he says with a half-smile. “I decided it is the right time to be with my people and [the Armenian] nation.” The 54-year-old banking magnate is careful to avoid directly criticizing the role of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, but firmly denies Moscow has any undue influence over the region. “I can’t just pick up the phone and call Vladimir Putin,” he laughs, “the peacekeepers are only 2,000 people standing between the Armenian population and the sizable Azerbaijani army. It’s tough, and it’s clear Russia’s attention isn’t here—it’s in the West, given Ukraine.” Crisis in the Kremlin “For Putin, conquering Ukraine has become an all-encompassing issue and there’s little interest at the top for anything else,” says Jade McGlynn, a researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. “Moscow’s quest to increase its influence has left it a diminished and less formidable power in the South Caucasus. Putin may not see that, but the Foreign Ministry does—it’s just being sidelined. Junior diplomats are in despair.” While Karabakh-Armenians fear their calls for help are falling on deaf ears, others are questioning whether Moscow was ever a reliable security guarantor in the first place. “Russia is exploiting the conflict to further its own interests. Ultimately, its strategy is about maintaining an imperial grip on the region,” says Michael Cecire, a senior policy advisor at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a U.S. government agency. From Yerevan, Pashinyan is now calling on the international community as a whole to step up and put an end to the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, arguing a U.N. peacekeeping mission should take over if the Russians cannot fulfill their commitments. The U.S., along with the U.K. and a number of European nations, have expressed concern over the situation, while France has emerged as a leading ally for Armenia, tabling an unsuccessful motion condemning Baku at the U.N. Security Council. On Tuesday, RFERL reported that the E.U. has now agreed to send a monitoring mission to Armenia for as long as two years, in a sign that Brussels is concerned about the prospect of new clashes along the internationally-recognized border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the civilian team will not enter Nagorno-Karabakh, the move has been interpreted as a sign that the West is stepping up to fill the power vacuum left by Russia. But Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Britain, says that no outside power will be able to impose a solution to the standoff over the region. “Armenia’s problem is structural dependency—and now they’re looking to the West and hoping France will be their big daddy.” For Vardanyan, confined to the blockaded region he moved to just months ago, the outside world feels a very long way away, and he warns the Karabakh-Armenians can’t expect to depend on anyone but themselves. “It’s like a Russian fairytale—there’s a hero standing in front of a crossroads,” he says. “One way, you lose your independence, another, you lose your home. The third way is to fight. We don’t want war, but of these three options we have to make a choice, even if it is dangerous and you can lose your life. We need to be ready for this.”

  • How first transgender war correspondent is now fighting with Ukraine

    On a summer day in Zolochiv, Ukraine, a rocket dropped from the sky and exploded into a building across the street from journalist Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, who caught the blast on cellphone video. The artillery, one of many seen in the country for weeks, didn't just crater the sidewalk. It also led Ashton-Cirillo – the world's first openly transgender war correspondent – to be hit with a new perspective.  "There was this crazy shift in my perception of where my place was in the war," she said. "My mind had undergone a metamorphosis because it was not anymore me covering the war, I was basically living the war. ... I had become very conflicted regarding my feelings as to where I belonged." In Ukraine she had seen bodies of injured or killed civilians, moved food supplies for the military effort and befriended many a servicemember, all of which caused her to reflect on her work and eventually turn from photographing and writing about gunfire to being a part of it. Now a member of the Ukrainian armed forces, first as a combat medic and now focusing on hybrid warfare, the 45-year-old Las Vegas native is unshakable in the cause for Ukrainian freedom. "If I knew now what I knew nine months ago, I'm not certain I would have chosen this path," she said. "But because I did choose this path, the only way to go is forward, focused on mission, focused on my convictions and values as to why I'm doing this." A story of pivotal moments Ashton-Cirillo had covered the consequences of war before, reporting from the Syria-Turkey border on the refugee crisis during the country's civil war in 2015. With hesitation but no regret, she moved forward into the war zone in Ukraine. "When I went ahead and saw that the invasion had happened, I basically thought to myself: Am I really going to do this?" she said.  Even before entering Ukraine, Ashton-Cirillo faced expected obstacles getting into the country as a transgender woman. She intentionally flew into Berlin on her origin flight with an awareness that the city might be more progressive about her gender identity not matching the photo and details on her passport. At the Ukrainian border, she brought press clippings to prove her identity, fearful of being barred from the country. But in less than an hour, she heard all she needed: "Welcome to Ukraine." 'I was basically living the war' Initially without a combat helmet, a chest protector or press plates, she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to enter the city of Kharkiv, further into a dangerous area of the war zone. Ashton-Cirillo said that at the time, the risks of her decision weren't something she could process, but she now knows the choice was pivotal for her future. In Kharkiv and later Zolochiv, she witnessed bombings and rockets cratering buildings, hid in bomb shelters with Ukrainians, and shared photos, videos and dispatches of it all on her Twitter account.  Working as a freelancer for LGBTQ Nation, she largely focused on the effect of the war on LGBTQ Ukrainians, including Russian military forces targeting LGBTQ civilians in Ukraine and the expression of LGBTQ acceptance among Ukrainians through the arts. She grew closer with members of the Ukrainian forces and served as an army volunteer to deliver food supplies. In Zolochiv, the village's mayor even appointed her an official outreach coordinator so she could advocate for aid to its citizens. How war gave Ashton-Cirillo a changed perspective The gradual shift in Ashton-Cirillo's place in the war, from the professional to the personal, led her to consider what steps would be required for her to join the Ukrainian military. By August, Ashton-Cirillo was working so closely with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, she stopped reporting for LGBTQ Nation to avoid a conflict of interest. She began to write policy papers and analysis for units of the Ukrainian government, all the while considering how she could become more involved in the war effort. Il'ko Bozhko, former press officer for the Operation Command East for Ukraine and close friend of Ashton-Cirillo, said he shared his own experience and motivations behind joining the armed forces with her as she made the decision and went with her to formally apply to serve. "We had many conversations about it. It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision for her," Bozhko said.  She enlisted with the armed forces in October. 'The whole gender thing' In her time as a reporter and now as a servicemember, Ashton-Cirillo says, she experienced next to no pushback to her gender identity from Ukrainians, whose country has made slow but gradual progress in LGBTQ inclusivity. The country, like many in Eastern Europe, has a long history of oppression of sexuality and expansive gender expression. But in recent years it has become somewhat of a haven for those seeking gay nightlife and a marginally more accepting environment. Being LGBTQ is legal in Ukraine, but same-sex marriage is not. Ashton-Cirillo said she has seen progress in LGBTQ acceptance in the country because of the equity created by war and doesn't believe it will be reversed. As for how being transgender comes into play for her in her unit on a daily basis, Ashton-Cirillo called her gender identity a "non-issue" for those around her in Ukraine. "It didn't register as any big deal that I'm a trans soldier and in Ukraine," she said. "It turned out to be the easiest part of my time there. ... You are judged on your character, you are judged on your courage, and you are judged on your belief in freedom and your loyalty to Ukraine. I mean, nothing else matters." A unexpected role: Liaison between the US and Ukraine Initially, Ashton-Cirillo also didn't fully grasp the informal role she'd be playing as a sort of liaison between the U.S. and the Ukrainian Armed Forces because of her enlistment. When returning to the U.S. for the first time in December, she made two trips to Capitol Hill to speak with more than a dozen legislative offices, including members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Politicians regardless of party or perspective on the LGBTQ community have trusted her to deliver an unvarnished message from the other side, she said. "Where we are right now, in this moment, the Ukrainian government entrusted an American soldier to represent them in Washington, D.C., in the middle of a war," she said. "And oh, yeah, she's transgender." Ashton-Cirillo hasn't entirely abandoned writing. She is writing about her perspective on the war as a contributing columnist for media website Resolute Square. After the war, Ashton-Cirillo hopes to work on veterans rights in the U.S. or elsewhere with her knowledge of the challenges of reintegrating into life after a war zone. "It's easier to fight a world war against Russia as a transgender female than it used to be in the United States, trying to have to live a life where my gender identity is the No. 1 thing that comes up no matter what."

  • Standing with Russia, or staying silent, protects genocide

    This month, in a unanimous vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed Senate Resolution 713, which correctly identifies and designates Russian atrocities in Ukraine as genocide. Led by Ranking Member Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the resolution looks poised to pass the Senate, sending a clear message to the world where the United States stands during this moment of supreme moral urgency. This resolution, and its companion in the House, brings clarity and attention to Russia’s genocide in Ukraine. Every day seems to bring fresh, compounding evidence of Russia’s genocidal intent and patterns of action — mass graves and torture chambers that seem to pockmark every liberated territory; homes, schools, hospitals and kindergartens repeatedly and deliberately targeted by Russian firepower; civilians, including children and infants, kidnapped and herded into Russian so-called “filtration” concentration camps, where they are sorted for either Russification or the gulag or worse; and flagrant attacks against refugee and humanitarian convoys.  If you care to look, these images repeat themselves throughout Ukraine, and it is as safe a bet as any that newly liberated areas will bear the blistering scars of this genocide. Sure enough, mass graves and torture chambers have been identified in recently liberated Mykolaiv and Kherson, including an archipelago of torture sites specifically for children. This is the apogee of depravity. The physical evidence is shocking enough, but the Russian government’s very public embrace of a campaign of terror and genocide is incredible to behold. The summer before the invasion, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin penned, by his own hand, a 7,000-word ahistorical screed denying the existence of Ukraine as a state and a nation, highlighting his eliminationist agenda for all the world to see. And even since then, Russian government figures at every level have repeated this noxious and ridiculous denial of Ukrainian nationality, deliberately dehumanizing and mass violence-encouraging rhetoric about “denazification,” and outright, even gleeful, calls for mass killing and destruction. The official state mouthpiece, RIA Novosti, even published in April a detailed plan laying out the intended destruction of the Ukrainian nation. What is striking about this genocide is perhaps the clarity and openness by which it has been prosecuted. And the pattern of action is startlingly predictable; not just in Ukraine, but also in Russia’s past colonial wars in Syria, Georgia and Chechnya, where ethnic cleansing, deliberate and widespread targeting of civilians, torture and rape were employed widely and purposefully as rote tools of Russian warfare. So, what can we do about it? For one, we can and should give Ukraine every tool that it needs to win its war against Russia’s genocidal war of imperial conquest. The faster Russia loses — and lose it must — the faster its genocidal program is halted. But also crucially, Congress, the U.S. government, and the world must be willing to call this genocide for what it is. In June, our co-chairman, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) introduced House Resolution 1205, which later would be introduced in the Senate as S. Res.713. Both resolutions draw on the definition of genocide in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, to which the U.S. and Russia are both parties and which is codified in U.S. law.  The bill text illustrates how, as is well documented, Russia’s actions in Ukraine exhibits both genocidal intent and pattern of action along all of the Convention’s five acts in Article 2: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Only one must be in evidence for genocide to exist. But what can a nonbinding resolution do? In this case, speaking out is more than some mere symbol. Ukraine’s war for its homeland is being won not because of Ukrainian material superiority, but because of the justness of its cause and the morale of its people. For the United States to officially recognize the extent of Russia’s horrors is tremendously meaningful to Ukraine and Ukrainians who still, despite their victories, endure the unendurable. Around the world, such a designation also demonstrates that we do not tolerate such heinous crimes. Calling out Russia’s genocide demonstrates the gravity of the stakes not only for Ukraine and Europe, but for global peace and stability. It can marshal further support for Kyiv, help sap Moscow’s fraying relationships, and further isolate this repugnant, totalitarian regime in the Kremlin. If you stand with Russia, or stand silent, you protect genocide. And here at home, these bipartisan, bicameral resolutions can help signal to the American people the true stakes in Ukraine. That Europe’s security, and the principles that undergird it, is a bulwark for freedom around the world and under great threat by a regime that purposefully and unflinchingly engages in genocide for its own imperial, corrupt ends. It is important to emphasize, too, that the 1948 Genocide Convention is about not only punishing genocide, but preventing it, and if we are to be true to our collective commitment to “never again,” we must act now. Of course, the ongoing legal investigations remain important and authoritative. But in the interest of prevention, a political declaration and congressional action is not only justifiable but essential. Congress, particularly Reps. Cohen and Wilson in the House, and Sens. Risch and Cardin in the Senate, should be applauded for their leadership. And the Senate, particularly Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), should be credited for bringing this resolution to fruition. Hopefully the House will do the same, in this Congress or the next, inspire the whole world to speak out as well — just as we were inspired by similar legislative actions in Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Canada and Ireland.  Michael Hikari Cecire is a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Follow him on Twitter @mhikaric. https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/3780873-standing-with-russia-or-staying-silent-protects-genocide/

  • Congress Wants to Boot Russia From U.N. Security Council

    Two U.S. lawmakers heading up an independent U.S. government human rights watchdog have introduced a resolution that calls on President Joe Biden to boot Russia from the United Nations Security Council, just days before the Kremlin’s flagging full-scale invasion of Ukraine is set to hit its 10-month mark.  The bipartisan Helsinki Commission, which called on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to protest Russia’s standing as a permanent Security Council member in October, wants Congress to argue that Russia’s war has violated the “purposes and principles of the United Nations” and asks U.S. government agencies to take steps to limit Russia’s privileges at the U.N., though it gives the administration some free rein to determine how it might act.   In the congressional resolution shared with Foreign Policy, Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson said that Russia had committed “flagrant violations” of the U.N. Charter that call into question its right to hold a Security Council seat, including the illegal annexation vote in four Ukrainian oblasts, the perpetration of atrocities in Ukrainian cities such as Bucha, nuclear saber-rattling, and creating risks to the world’s food supply.  Ukraine has also advocated for Russia to be removed from the council, though experts remain skeptical that such efforts will work. The U.N.’s governing charter doesn’t contain any provisions for removing a permanent member of the Security Council. While countries can be removed from the United Nations altogether, doing so would require a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly, including the consent of the council itself. “Russia would have to agree to it, and it’s just not going to happen,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director with Human Rights Watch. China is also unlikely to agree to such a precedent.  Though House resolutions are not binding law, the move solidifies thinking both on Capitol Hill and within the Biden administration about how to curb Russian influence in Turtle Bay. The resolution pushes forward a previous effort from the Helsinki Commission—which was created in 1975 as part of a U.S. law that solidified the brief detente between the United States and the Soviet Union—calling on the State Department to initiate a process to strip Russia’s seat on the top U.N. body. One idea, backed by the commission as well as some legal scholars, seeks to challenge Russia’s status as the heir of the Soviet Union’s seat at the Security Council. As one of the initial signatories of the treaty that founded the Soviet Union, alongside Russia and Belarus, Kyiv could make a convincing claim to be the only successor state of the Soviet Union not to have flagrantly violated the principles of the U.N. Charter and issue credentials for one of its own diplomats to take the seat. As deciding on credentials is a procedural matter, it would only require nine of the 15 members of the council to vote in support of Ukraine, Thomas Grant, a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge, has noted.  The feasibility of such a plan remains a subject of debate. And three decades after Russia took over the Soviet Union’s seat, challenging such precedent could also prove to be an uphill battle. “You’re looking at three decades of recognition of Russia in this place,” Charbonneau said.  But Russia’s long-standing intransigence, along with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has gotten both the United States and Ukraine to begin thinking about alternatives to diminish Moscow’s influence. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Biden called for reforms of the Security Council, including the possibility of adding more permanent and nonpermanent members, such as for countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The United States also succeeded on Wednesday in ousting Iran from a United Nations panel on women’s rights.