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Democratic Change in Ukraine Provides a Backdrop of Success at the 12th OSCE Ministerial
Wednesday, January 12, 2005

By Elizabeth Pryor, Senior Advisor

The twelfth Ministerial Council Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) took place in Sofia, Bulgaria, December 6-7, 2004.  The United States Delegation was led by Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, who is a Helsinki Commissioner, headed the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in his role as President of that body.  Secretary Powell noted that the United States “bases its faith in the OSCE’s future not just on past successes, but on the significant contributions this pioneering organization is making today,” citing among other achievements the preparation of landmark elections in Georgia and Afghanistan. Congressman Hastings spoke of the important work of the Parliamentary Assembly in promoting democracy, in fighting terrorism and in election monitoring, and called for more OSCE involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia.  He concluded:  “The OSCE has enormous potential to help Europe and the world to become places of peace, stability and co-operation….the world will be more dangerous without it.”

During the meeting ministers strengthened their commitment to use the organization to fight terrorism, taking several decisions that make it more difficult for terrorists to operate in the region.  They also encouraged OSCE participating states to adopt measures to fight corruption, including ratification of the UN Convention against Corruption.  They underscored the important political role of the OSCE Secretary General, gave impetus to the implementation of earlier decisions on promotion of equal opportunity for women and men, and reiterated their commitment to combat racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. They also pushed for quicker and better implementation of OSCE methods of eliminating stockpiles of conventional armaments and ensuring proper export documents for small arms and light weapons. New agreements to protect child victims and more vigorous attention to penalizing sex tourists, and other individuals who prey on children, enhanced earlier OSCE actions to counter human trafficking.  Ministers also agreed to augment activities that would address economic instability, through the organization’s Economic Forum.

In addition, ministers welcomed the intention of the OSCE Chairman to appoint three distinguished personal representatives to combat discrimination and promote tolerance. This decision stemmed from significant meetings during the previous years which registered OSCE concern at growing instances of intolerance, some of them acts of violence.  The Bulgarian chairmanship subsequently appointed Anastasia Crickley of Ireland as the special representative to combat racism, xenophobia and discrimination; Gert Weisskirchen of Germany as the special representative to combat anti-Semitism; and Ömür Orhun of Turkey to be special representative to combat intolerance and discrimination against Muslims.     

The measures taken to reduce the ability of terrorists to function in the region are especially significant. Ministers pushed to complete an agreement on comprehensive and uniform standards for border security; new methods of information exchange about the use of the Internet by terrorists–including an international meeting by experts; strong coordination with other international organizations to ensure the security of shipping containers; and a harmonized method for relaying and compiling information on lost and stolen passports through Interpol.  If agreed within the next year, as ministers hope, and implemented vigorously, collectively these decisions can dramatically curb the ability of terrorists to move people and weapons easily and change identities without detection.

Texts of all of the decisions can be found at www.osce.org.

*   *   *   *   *

Negotiation at Sofia was difficult.  A U.S. proposal to extend and augment the provisions of a June 2004 NATO anti-trafficking plan failed to be agreed.  A Russian-proposed text that would have changed the perimeters of OSCE election monitoring was also blocked. No joint statement of the ministers could be concluded.  An important decision to extend the mandate of the OSCE Border Monitoring Operation in Georgia was not agreed. In all of these negotiations, the Russian Federation was isolated, either in its demands, or in its refusal to join consensus. Secretary of State Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly disagreed in their interventions about the validity of OSCE operations in the former Soviet Union.  Secretary Powell took issue with Lavrov’s assertion that OSCE’s focus on the region was disproportionate, pointing out that the United States has used the organization to discuss its own difficulties, including the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq. 

There is a long history of such disagreements within the OSCE. One need only look at the negotiating record of the original Helsinki Accords to note the seemingly insurmountable gulf that existed in 1975. At that time negotiations were complicated by disputes between the West and the then-powerful neutral and non-aligned nations, as well as between East and West. Those talks took place in an atmosphere of a near-zero diplomatic interaction between many of the countries. Yet skillful negotiation and a larger vision won the day.  Over the years the Helsinki process has witnessed stand-offs over the status of fixed–wing aircraft in the negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE); over development of new standards for media freedom; on the creation of the field missions for which it is now so celebrated; on the division of roles in election monitoring and hundreds of other issues. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the organization is that it assumes strong disagreement among the participating States. The glory of the OSCE is that it has not seen this as an obstacle to progress, but has always kept its dialogue open and lively and found creative ways to search for common ground.  Those debating today’s issues should find the successful negotiations of the past both encouraging and instructive.

In the wake of Russian intransigence, a number of newspaper comments and internal accounts of the ministerial meeting have been unduly pessimistic, with some commentators even extrapolating about the near demise of the OSCE. The disappointment seems to center on the inability of the 55-nation organization to agree to the joint statement that traditionally concludes these meetings. The fate of the highly effective Border Monitoring Operation is of real concern and should be the object of concerted, expert diplomacy by all OSCE States.  But the vitality of the OSCE is not in question, and it is striking that such an array of senior observers has limited its definition of relevancy to an almost invisible statement, the kind that in today’s diplomatic world has decreasing impact or shelf-life.  Perhaps it would have been better if those in Sofia had agreed to a joint statement, but it is largely irrelevant that they did not.

For, over the past few years, the OSCE has seen stunning proof of its true relevance:  the influence of its agreed standards of conduct and its continuing ability to inspire those who are courageous enough to fight for democracy and then make it stick. This year’s Sofia meeting was dominated by Ukraine’s remarkable democratic ferment.  In Sofia, negotiations took place against a backdrop of the Ukrainian people embracing systems of liberty and justice.  Just as evident was the ineffectiveness of the oligarchs, petty tyrants and reactionary ideologues who had tried to stifle this heady movement.  The excitement and optimism were palpable as the news reports – first of the crowds in Independence Square, then the courageous actions in the parliament and courts – came filtering into Sofia’s old communist Hall of Culture, itself a symbol of the OSCE’s ability to effect positive change.

There is no doubt that the events of these historic weeks owed much to three decades of the OSCE’s tireless and patient work.  First, the Helsinki process eroded the bulwark of communism; then through its mission in Ukraine and its support of many valiant NGOs, it persistently promoted the rule of law and free processes over the false security of re-emergent authoritarianism.  If it all seemed a little familiar, it was because the 2003 Maastricht ministerial meeting was colored by a similar public demand for democracy in Georgia, also a product of OSCE’s influence and persistence. And, four years ago, we welcomed another electoral surprise as Serbia’s citizens demanded the right to a valid election and a future that they themselves would determine.

All of these developments are very heartening.  They attest to the indomitable will of people everywhere to live in freedom and of the important way OSCE principles support them.  The continuing quest for democracy in Europe is the true measure of the OSCE’s success.  No anodyne statement, no “family photo” of beaming foreign ministers, could possibly illustrate the OSCE’s importance as have these real and hopeful events.

That the OSCE remains the major player in promoting European unity and security is also apparent in the rhetoric of some leaders who want to sabotage its work.  Notable among them are Alexandr Lukashenko, the autocrat in Belarus, who openly resists fulfilling the commitments made freely by his country, and Sparmurat Niyazov, who holds Turkmenistan under dictatorial rule. Unfortunately, others are following in this path, Vladmir Putin among them.  These increasingly authoritarian leaders see that the high principles of the Helsinki Accords can motivate people to demand their rights and thus discourage selfish governmental policies and foreign adventurism.  They want to thwart OSCE influence precisely because it stands in the way of backsliding toward the uncontrolled exercise of personal power.  Ironically, their refusal to cooperate on OSCE policies that continue the forward momentum toward freedom only serve to point up just how successful the organization has become.

As it moves to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Accords the OSCE has much to be proud of.  But it also has a great deal of work ahead of it.  The participating States of the organization must be certain that they continue to stabilize both borders and the democratic institutions of Georgia.  Unresolved conflicts continue to fester in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh, and the situation in Kosovo remains fragile and tense.  Human rights are jeopardized in much of Central Asia, with the OSCE often the lone voice in their defense.  Several states have crossed the line into totalitarianism.  Well-established democracies, including the United States, need to be eternally vigilant, lest we take our fundamental freedoms for granted and allow our high ideals to be eroded.  None of this is evidence of OSCE ineffectiveness, but of our continuing need for its guidance.  The process of promoting human rights is continual.  It is essential that the OSCE is there to remind us that we must never become complacent.

Among the most important decisions the OSCE took at Sofia was the reassertion of the important political role of the organization’s Secretary General.  The Helsinki Commission hopes that this year, when a new Secretary General will be selected, participating States will choose a strong individual, a person of proven and inspirational leadership and managerial excellence.  OSCE ministers also chose to appoint a panel of eminent persons to advise on any directional adaptation that may help strengthen the organization.  Once again, members of the Helsinki Commission trust that people with innovative ideas and recent expertise will be chosen.  One fitting recommendation that could be made by the panel would be to call a review conference to evaluate the vitality of organizational structures and the commitment of its participating States.  There is a long tradition of this kind of self-assessment at the OSCE and such a move would be especially appropriate in the anniversary year.  It would also address the call made by several states to take a comprehensive look at the future work of the OSCE.

All European institutions play important roles for ensuring the security of the region.  Yet, OSCE remains the most agile instrument for promoting our dearest and most enduring values.  It is not about quick fixes or flashy actions, but works slowly over the long term to create true stability and cooperation.  Other institutions may also help motivate nations to take a path compatible with democracy.  But only the OSCE has the inclusivity, the agreed values and the presence on the ground to get them over the finish line.

Sofia a failure for lack of a joint communiqué?  No, not at all.  If you are looking for a “statement” of the OSCE’s vitality, read it in the faces on Independence Square in Kiev; in the recent history of Slovenia, its incoming Chairman; and in the fear with which it is regarded by those who would wield disproportionate power over their citizens.

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  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Ways to Counter Oligarchs, Enablers, and Lawfare

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: COUNTERING OLIGARCHS, ENABLERS, AND LAWFARE Wednesday, April 6, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As influential proxies of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, Russian oligarchs work to weaken Western democracies from within. They pay Western enablers—especially lawyers and lobbyists—millions to use their standing in democratic societies to generate policies favorable to the authoritarian regime in Russia and to silence its critics. This hearing will examine ways to counter tactics oligarchs use to launder their money and reputations and stifle dissent. Witnesses will discuss their experiences investigating oligarchs and enablers, as well as the risks of doing so, which include abusive lawsuits filed by Western lawyers on behalf of Putin’s proxies. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Shannon Green, Executive Director, USAID’s Anti-Corruption Task Force; Senior Advisor to the Administrator Bill Browder, Head, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Daria Kaleniuk, Executive Director, Anti-Corruption Action Centre Scott Stedman, Founder, Forensic News  Anna Veduta, Vice President, Anti-Corruption Foundation International

  • With oligarchs in the crosshairs, alleged Western 'enablers' attract fresh scrutiny

    As governments scramble to seize high-profile assets owned by Russian oligarchs, a quiet effort is gaining momentum in the West to target their alleged “enablers” – the lawyers, lobbyists and money-handlers who critics say help them hide, invest and protect their vast wealth in U.S. and European institutions. “The yachts and jets and villas get the most attention, but a lot of the oligarchs’ money is in private equity and hedge funds – places we can’t see,” said Maira Martini, a researcher with the corruption watchdog Transparency International. “That’s the money that really matters to them.” For decades, wealthy business tycoons with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin have enlisted the services of reputable bankers and lawyers in the West to navigate loopholes that obscure their identity. While it's not necessarily illegal to use obscure entities and agents to protect finances, critics say the laws need to be strengthened to create more transparency. rganized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global investigative reporting platform that focuses on corruption, organized crimes and illicit financing, claims to have uncovered over 150 assets worth $17.5 billion held by 11 Russian elites and their alleged enablers, while a Forbes report identified more than 82 properties across the world -- a collective of $4.3 billion -- held by 16 sanctioned Russian oligarchs. Assets that have surfaced are likely only a fraction of these oligarchs' actual wealth. The true extent is difficult to track because they often use a convoluted network of shell companies, obscure entities and stand-ins to keep their finances hidden, experts said. But now, with war raging in Ukraine, lawmakers and corruption watchdogs are calling on governments to close those loopholes and crack down on the middlemen who know how to exploit them. “Putin’s oligarchs cannot operate without their Western enablers, who give them access to our financial and political systems,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. “These unscrupulous lawyers, accountants, trust and company service providers and others need to do basic due diligence on their clients to ensure that they are not accepting blood money. This isn’t rocket science – it is common sense policy to protect democracy.” In Washington, Cohen and others have introduced the ENABLERS Act, which would require real estate brokers, hedge fund managers and other entities to “ask basic due diligence questions whenever somebody comes to them with a suitcase full of cash,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., the lead sponsor of the bill. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of journalists and newsrooms that have tracked the wealthy's tax havens and financial secrecy, has identified at least a dozen networks of facilitators, offshore agents and banks across the world that have allegedly helped Russia's elites move and hide their money based on its analyses of public records and leaked financial documents the group has obtained over the past decade. This includes a range of actors, from global offshore law firms that create shell companies and other obscure entities to help wealthy Russians keep their finances clouded, to one-man shops in offshore tax havens that help set up "nominee" shareholders and paid stand-ins to conceal the real owners of entities. ICIJ also points to the roles of major law firms in helping shape the modern tax avoidance system as well as the roles of big financial institutions and banks in helping wealthy Russians move their money. Last year, The Washington Post, as part of its collaboration with ICIJ's Pandora Papers project, reported on how South Dakota, with its limited oversight, vague regulations and trust secrecy, has become a tax haven for secretive foreign money. Malinowski stressed that the United States "has become one of the easiest places in the world for corrupt kleptocrats around the world to hide money." “What we've basically allowed is a system where people can steal their money in countries without the rule of law and then protect their money in countries like ours where they can count on property rights and courts and privacy rules to safeguard his loot for life," Malinowski said. "We should not be complicit in the theft that supports dictatorships like Putin." Experts warned that sanctions and asset seizures, while effective in the short term, may be toothless over time if secrecy loopholes remain in place. On Wednesday, Transparency International published an open letter calling on Western leaders to take steps to stem rules that foster opacity. “To disguise their wealth and keep them out of the reach of law enforcement authorities, kleptocrats will turn to lawyers, real estate agents, banks, crypto-service providers and banks in your countries,” the letter reads. “You must redouble your supervision efforts over the gatekeepers of the financial sector.”

  • Chairman Cardin Emphasizes the Importance of the Global Magnitsky Act

    Madam President, reserving the right to object to the request from the Senator from Idaho, it is my understanding that the Senator’s modification would not include provisions that were included in the Housepassed legislation that modifies the global Magnitsky sanction regime. I just would like to speak for a moment, if I might. There is no question that we stand with the people of Ukraine against the unprovoked attack by Mr. Putin. We are inspired every day by the courage of the Ukrainian people and by their inspirational leader, President Zelenskyy. The United States has shown leadership, and I congratulate the Biden administration. We have led the free world in providing defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend itself. We have provided humanitarian assistance, joining the global community, including dealing with 3 million Ukrainians that are now refugees in other countries and 10 million that have been displaced as a result of Mr. Putin’s unprovoked attack. And we have led on sanctions. We have led in getting the global unity to impose sanctions against not just the Russian sectors, but also against individuals. And when Mr. Zelenskyy spoke before the Members of Congress, he specifically mentioned the importance of these sanctions; and he asked us to expand those covered by the sanctions to include the enablers, those that are enabling Mr. Putin—the oligarchs—to be able to fund his aggression against Ukraine. So what did the House send over to us? In their bill, they sent over a global Magnitsky modification. It is identical to legislation that was filed by Senator PORTMAN and myself that included the revocation of PNTR for Russia, along with the global Magnitsky. First and foremost, it removes the sunset that is in the legislation that would sunset this year. Mr. Zelenskyy asked for us to be resolved in being willing to stand up to Mr. Putin, that it would take some time. A clear message is that we remove the sunset on the global Magnitsky statute. And we know how difficult it is to get legislation passed in this body. It also expands the global Magnitsky to include the enablers—exactly what Mr. Zelenskyy asked us to do—those that enabled—the oligarchs that allowed him to be able to finance this. The language that is included in here is very similar to the language that was included in President Trump’s Executive order. This is critical legislation. Now, let me just tell you how appropriate it is that it is included in a PNTR bill—because the first Magnitsky sanction bill—and Senator WYDEN was very important in getting this done—was included in the original PNTR bill for Russia, and we were able to get it done at that time. We then made it a global Magnitsky, and my partner on that was the late Senator McCain. It has always been bipartisan. My partner now is Senator WICKER. The two of us have joined forces to make sure we get it done now. It is critically important in order to impose banking restrictions on those that are targeted under the global Magnitsky, as well as visa restrictions on being able to travel. How important is it? Ask Mr. Usmanov, who is one of the principal oligarchs to Mr. Putin, who solves Mr. Putin’s business problems. Guess how he solves those problems? Well, his yacht has now been confiscated in Germany. That is how important these sanctions are and how we have to move them forward. So, if I understand my colleague’s request, it would deny the opportunity for us to act on the global Magnitsky, which Mr. Zelenskyy has specifically asked us to do. We would lose that opportunity. We would be sending this bill back to the House that is not in session, which means there will be a further delay in repealing PNTR for Russia, which is something we need to do now, today. We can get it to the President for signature today under the majority leader’s request. And as the majority leader has indicated, I support the energy ban—I support the Russian energy ban. President Biden has already taken steps to do that. And I agree with my colleague from Idaho. I would like to incorporate that in statute, but there is no urgency to do that as there is on repealing PNTR and the global Magnitsky. That is the urgency. That is what we need to get done today. That is what we can get to the President this afternoon under the majority leader’s request, and that will be denied if my friend from Idaho’s request were granted. So, for all those reasons, I object.

  • Containing Russia

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe. Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them. At this hearing, military experts and strategic thinkers explored options for curtailing Moscow’s ability to wage war on Ukraine and neighboring states, especially those outside the protective umbrella of NATO. The hearing began with brief remarks by Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Doing More

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. This briefing convened military and strategic experts to discuss ways to further assist the people of Ukraine as they resist Russia’s invasion. The discussion examined air defense strategies, the feasibility and implications of no-fly zones, and other forms of materiel support. Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Options to Contain Russia to Be Explored at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: CONTAINING RUSSIA Opposing Russian Imperialism in Ukraine and Beyond Wednesday, March 23, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe.  Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them.  At this hearing, military experts and strategic thinkers will explore options for curtailing Moscow’s ability to wage war on Ukraine and neighboring states, especially those outside the protective umbrella of NATO. The hearing will begin with brief remarks by Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova. The following witnesses also are scheduled to testify: General (Ret.) Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Distinguished Professor of the Practice and CETS Senior Fellow, Georgia Tech  Dr. Michael Kimmage, Former Policy Planning Staff, U.S, Department of State; Professor of History, The Catholic University of America; Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States  Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy   

  • Experts to Explore Options to Further Assist Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DOING MORE Assessing Ukraine’s Defensive Needs Friday, March 18, 2022 10:30 a.m. Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. This briefing will convene military and strategic experts to discuss ways to further assist the people of Ukraine as they resist Russia’s invasion. The discussion will examine air defense strategies, the feasibility and implications of no-fly zones, and other forms of materiel support. Expert statements and a brief, moderated Q&A will be available live to the public. This will be followed by an informal, off-the-record discussion for congressional staff and U.S. Government personnel. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: General (Ret.) Wesley Clark, Senior Fellow, UCLA Burkle Center; Founder, Renew America Together Dr. Stacie Pettyjohn, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security Dr. Matthew Koenig, Professor of Government, Georgetown University; Deputy Director, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security Director, Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council  

  • International Court orders Russia to suspend invasion of Ukraine

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin joined ABC News to discuss a resolution submitted by himself and others, which was recently adopted by the Senate and called on the Putin regime to be held accountable for war crimes committed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine."I hope that one day in the near future we'll see [Mr. Putin] at the Hague, tried as a war criminal," he said. On March 23, the U.S. Department of State published a statement confirming that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

  • "Game-Changer"

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the international framework that has kept the peace in Europe since 1945, at a time when Baltic states Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia already faced complex and evolving security challenges. Beyond Putin’s existential threats, the Baltic states now must deal with a Belarus that has become little more than a staging area for Moscow to wage war on its peaceful neighbors. China’s economic and diplomatic pressures also continue to weigh heavily. Yet these three relatively small countries nevertheless are demonstrating courageous, principled, and effective leadership on the international stage. On March 17, 2022, the Helsinki Commission heard from the chairs of the foreign affairs committees of the national parliaments of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. The three witnesses offered views on opportunities to address the deteriorating security situation in Europe, including and especially through partnership with the United States. Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) opened the hearing by acknowledging the vulnerable position the Baltic States are in as they face security challenges from Russia, Belarus, and China. He also praised the economic, military, and moral support the Baltic States have provided to Ukraine. “Once again, in this crisis the three Baltic countries are punching above their weight,” he said. “And I have every expectation they will continue to do so.” Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) emphasized the longstanding bonds between the Baltic countries and the United States, particularly throughout the era of Soviet occupation. “I suspect if the three Baltic countries were not members of NATO, you might have already met Vladimir Putin’s armies… we want to assure you that we are with you.” Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) underscored the deep and bipartisan commitment of the United States to Article 5 of NATO. “We stand with you on your sovereignty and will be there to protect the sovereignty of your countries against any attempt by Russia to interfere with that,” he said. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) expressed appreciation for the commitment Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have shown to promoting independence and freedom in Europe, and to their NATO membership. “The Baltic allies have been on the forefront of trying to stop the advance by Putin,” he said. He also praised the support the Baltic states are providing to Belarussian dissidents, activists, and opposition politicians. Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07) stressed the importance of the current moment for Baltic security and highlighted the Baltic Security Initiative, which bolsters the defense capabilities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in areas including air defense, maritime situational awareness, ammunition, C4ISR, and anti-tank capabilities. He said, “If we draw any lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine, it’s that we need to ensure our allies and our partners are too prickly for any adversary or competitor to swallow.” Laima Andrikiene, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Seimas of Lithuania, testified that the global democratic order has been ravaged and called on the United States to position permanent combat forces in Lithuania in order to build credible defense against Russian military threats. She also urged international allies not to forget the threat China poses. “The case of Lithuania is a test for the entire democratic world of our ability to withstand economic coercion and to deter China from using coercion as a regular foreign policy tool to advance its goals,” she said. Marko Mihkelson, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu of Estonia, warned of the brutality and ruthlessness of the Russian war machine, referencing his prior career as a journalist, when he reported on the Chechen War. “Russia’s blatant aggression and military invasion in Ukraine has caused a fundamental shift in the European security architecture and threatens the peace and stability of democratic nations, not only in Europe but worldwide,” he said. “The future of our common security will be decided in Ukraine.” Rihards Kols, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Saeima of Latvia, described the hybrid warfare tactics Russia is employing and the importance of supporting a well-educated and informed society in order to counter hybrid threats. Kols advocated for decisive action against Putin and warned against hesitance. He said, “Nothing is more provocative to a dictator than the weakness of free nations.” Members asked the three witnesses a range of questions on how best to defeat Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and deter further aggression by Putin’s regime against the Baltic states and elsewhere. Related Information Witness Biographies Press Release: Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting; Delegation Also Travels to Lithuania to Support Crucial NATO Ally.  Field Hearing: Baltic Sea Regional Security

  • Sen. Cardin: U.S. should increase sanctions on Russia

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin spoke with José Díaz-Balart of MSNBC following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's address to Congress. Chairman Cardin discussed U.S. support for Ukraine in providing defensive weaponry and humanitiarian assistance. "[Zelensky's] message was clear: we need staying power to isolate Russia and Mr. Putin, we need to increase the cost by increasing the sanctions, and we need to provide Ukraine with the lethal defense weapons it needs in order to protect its skies," he said.

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Biden to Designate Ukraine, Georgia as Major Non-NATO Allies

    The Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe, has called on the Biden administration to upgrade the United States’ defense relationship with Ukraine. The commission seeks to help facilitate military and economic assistance to Kyiv as Russian forces move to encircle the Ukrainian capital. In a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden obtained by Foreign Policy, the commission urged the administration to designate Ukraine and Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008, as major non-NATO allies (MNNA) and to reinvigorate U.S. support for the NATO accession of both countries.  “Although the United States has consistently supported Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership, Russia’s occupations and ongoing invasion expose the tragedy of long-stalled Euro-Atlantic enlargement,” wrote the commission, which is led by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen. “Absent strong and proactive U.S. backing for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to take ample advantage in his aspirations to upend security and cooperation in Europe and his neocolonial agenda,” the letter said. Both Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership to the defense alliance during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008. But despite extensive reform efforts, neither country has been offered a timetable for accession.  The United States has provided billions of dollars of military assistance to Ukraine since it was first invaded by Russia in 2014, with more than $1.2 billion approved over the past year. “This designation is a fair reflection of our current bilateral defense relationships and does not commit the United States to military action,” the commission letter said, which also recommended that the administration consider extending the status to other non-NATO members along Europe’s eastern flank: Finland, Moldova, and Sweden. Much of U.S. military aid for Ukraine has been approved through a range of ad hoc government funding mechanisms. Granting the country MNNA status would open a variety of established channels to facilitate arms transfers, financial assistance, and information sharing, smoothing the way for further cooperation. It would also send a powerful signal of support for both Kyiv and Tbilisi. Unlike NATO membership, MNNA status does not entail any mutual security and defense obligations. On Thursday, the White House announced it would designate Colombia and Qatar as major non-NATO allies, bringing the total number of countries to receive the title up to 19.  The title has usually been reserved for countries with no ambitions or prospects of joining NATO, which prompted the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to express wariness about the designation last year. “MNNA is a status for countries that do not plan/can not force political or geographical reasons to join NATO. This is definitely not about us,” she wrote in a Facebook post.  NATO accession is decided between the 30 members of the alliance, and an MNNA designation by the United States would not necessarily impede Ukraine’s membership prospects.  The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was founded in 1976 as an independent government agency to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a major Cold War-era diplomatic agreement that sought to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and the West as well as establish human rights and security norms. The commission is made up of 18 members of U.S. Congress drawn from both parties and representatives from the U.S. departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

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