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From the Maidan to Main Street: Ukraine's Landmark Democratic Parliamentary Elections
Thursday, April 20, 2006

By Commission Staff

While pundits attempt to sort out the political meaning of Ukraine’s March 26th parliamentary elections to fill the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, the significance of the conduct of the elections should not be missed.  “Free and fair” was the resounding assessment of the OSCE-led International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) that also included observers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and the OSCE Office of Democratic Elections and Human Rights (ODIHR).  This unqualified positive appraisal – a first among the 12 former Soviet republics outside the Baltics that have conducted scores of elections since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union – underscores the consolidation of democratic gains made in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution following years of political stagnation.

These clean March 26th elections stood in stark contrast to the fatally flawed first rounds of the Ukrainian presidential elections that ushered in popular revolt sixteen months earlier.  Coming on the heels of the blatantly undemocratic presidential “elections” in neighboring Belarus a week earlier, comparisons were inevitable.  The Rada elections also followed a series of recent electoral contests elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which to varying degrees fell short of international standards.  The OSCE assessment in Ukraine returns the “free and fair” formulation to the lexicon of international election observations, departing from the heavily nuanced appraisals that have become common in recent years.  This development has potentially significant implications for future OSCE observations, especially with parliamentary and presidential elections expected in Russia in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, current President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, was appointed by the OSCE Chair-in-Office to serve as Special Coordinator for short-term observers.  Commission staff observed on Election Day, as part of the IEOM deployment of 914 observers coming from 45 OSCE countries including Russia.  In all, the group examined voting and the vote count in nearly 3,000 polling stations.  The Commission contingent observed balloting throughout the Kiev and Cherkasy regions.

The Ukrainian Government declined to invite observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an entity discredited in the eyes of many for its effusive praise of fundamentally flawed elections elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including Belarus’ undemocratic March 19 presidential contest.  The CIS stood out for its sharply critical evaluation of Ukraine’s December 26, 2004 presidential elections that resulted in Victor Yushchenko’s victory in elections widely considered to have met democratic standards.  Ukraine has refused to participate further in CIS monitoring missions.  The two dozen Russian Duma observers present offered tempered, mixed opinions about the conduct of Rada elections.  

Whatever shortcomings there were in these elections – and no undertaking of this scale is perfect – they appear to have resulted from late or otherwise poor planning.  Among these were delays in the formation of some district and precinct election commissions, the absence of a functioning Constitutional Court, long lines and crowding at some polling stations, and lingering inaccuracies in voter lists.  On the positive side of the balance sheet were the significantly freer media and decidedly more balanced media coverage; no systematic use of administrative resources; the transparent, consensual and professional administration of the elections at all levels; inclusion of domestic, non-partisan observers; and an overhaul of voter lists.       

Election day began early with polling stations opening at 7:00 a.m.  There were over 34,000 polling stations.  Adding to the vibrancy of the elections was the large number of domestic observers, an indication of buy-in on the part of Ukrainians young and old alike with many affiliated with particular parties or candidates and others representing NGOs. 

Upon entering the polling stations, one was struck by walls plastered with informational bulletins on candidates and parties.  Forty-five parties and blocs vied for seats in parliament.  While the international community was mainly focused on the parliamentary balloting, voting was also underway for regional and local government.  Voters were thus presented with four lengthy ballots: national and regional as well as local councils and mayoral races.  While some older voters were befuddled by this collection of papers, most voters seemed to take it in stride.  Election commission poll workers seemed attentive to their duties.  This was put to the test in the complicated tabulation process that began, once polling stations closed at 10:00 p.m., typically involving the sorting and counting of thousands of papers.  Processing the Rada results alone went into the wee hours of morning, with the three remaining stacks of ballots from other contests proceeding well past daybreak.

The undeniable success of the domestic observation in these elections, buttressed by years of investment in training and support by the United States and others, raises obvious questions about the need for future international observations in Ukraine.  Has the time come to “graduate” Ukraine from such scrutiny and leave that necessary task to Ukrainian stakeholders themselves?  Many believe the March 26th elections confirm that that time has come, especially if Ukraine continues on its increasingly democratic trajectory.  The greater and more prominent role of domestic observers, also reinforces the notion that the time for Ukraine’s “graduation” has come.  Indeed, the OSCE should continue to encourage domestic stakeholders to prove themselves to their own people.

The Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square that featured so prominently in the massive demonstrations by orange-clad protesters in November 2004 and the jubilant crowds following Yushchenko’s victory a few weeks later, was calm on the Monday following the Rada elections.  Strolling past this bustling area, Ukrainians were going about their routines, perhaps an indicator that the politics of democracy has moved from the Maidan to the Main Streets of cities and towns throughout the country.

Whatever the pundits may declaim regarding the election results or the continuing strength of the Orange Revolution, what seemed palpable was a keen appreciation for the business of governing.  Neither a democratic revolution nor a single “free and fair” election are guarantees that the resulting government will be in a position to immediately deal with the basic needs of its people.  Overcoming these obstacles will have a profound impact on how the next government meets the political and economic challenges Ukraine faces at home and abroad.                  

What we can say with confidence is that the March 26th elections were a further essential step in the process of overcoming the legacy of the past – a history marred by foreign domination, genocidal famine, denial of political and cultural freedom, and more recently political stagnation.  Today, the people of Ukraine are removing the overgrowth of thorns – an image alluded to by the great poet Taras Shevchenko – that prevented them for so long from pursuing their own pathway to a brighter and more prosperous future.

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  • Conflict of Interest?

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Beyond Combatting Anti-Semitism: The Need to Actively Foster Jewish Life Dr. Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, led a discussion on the challenges and successes of states, cities, and societies in fostering vibrant Jewish communities to both resist the spread of anti-Semitism and uplift Jewish history, culture, and tradition. Panelists shared examples of initiatives to restore cemeteries and monuments, open museums, and compile educational and cultural resources online. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, illustrated the interconnectivity between fostering Jewish life and democracy by discussing recent legislative backlash against Jewish religious practices like circumcision and kosher preparation of meals, further stressing that regulations on these practices must not be prohibitive and should be formed in collaboration with Jewish communities. The Centrality of Education to Address Anti-Semitism and Anti-Roma Discrimination A session moderated by Kishan Manocha, ODIHR’s Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, highlighted the importance of new and innovative education initiatives to address root causes of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination. Panelists highlighted the need for cross-cultural exposure to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Roma attitudes and build greater connections between those inside and outside Jewish and Roma communities. Policymakers noted the ability to use interactive and digital tools to address histories of discrimination, related not only to the Holocaust but also to Jewish history and contributions to culture and the world. Despite advancements, participants acknowledged that challenges remain: online courses suffer from low completion rates and some curricula address the subject of anti-Roma discrimination only tangentially.  Panelists agreed that addressing anti-Roma discrimination also requires a holistic, inter-curricular approach that builds upon knowledge both of the genocide of Roma and Sinti, and of their histories and cultures. To close the conference, Plenipotentiary of Poland’s Ministry Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Paweł Kotowski called on participants to continue their important work to defeat anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Intersection Between Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: CONFLICT OF INTEREST? Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey Wednesday, February 16, 2022 11:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3Je5Ck4 Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.   The briefing will investigate the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also will explore practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Soner Cagaptay, Director, Turkish Research Program, Washington Institute for the Near East Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist, Amnesty International  

  • Sen. Cardin details possible Russia sanctions, says Putin will pay ‘very heavy price' if he invades Ukraine

    Watch the latest video at foxnews.com Russia will face the "strongest possible" sanctions if they invade Ukraine, in the form of heavy economic and political consequences, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said Sunday. Cardin, D-Md., appeared on "Fox News Sunday" to discuss what the possible sanctions against Russia could look like in a "strong bi-partisan effort" that he said is almost complete and has the support of President Biden. "We hope to show Mr. Putin that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and the House, and that the White House, are united," Cardin said. "That if he does do further incursions into Ukraine he will pay a very, very, very heavy price from the economic point of view and the isolation politically." Cardin said that the possible sanctions will include both financial and personal consequences for Russia’s current aggressive activity outside the Ukraine border. U.S. officials have said Moscow has assembled at least 70 percent of the military firepower it likely intends to have in place for a full-scale invasion. The sanctions would affect Putin personally, the Russian economy, and the financing of Putin’s activities, Cardin said. The senator added that other individuals affected would include those who use the international banking system to finance Putin’s political agenda. "These are gripping sanctions that will have an impact on the bad actors and the Russian economy in general because it is financing through corruption Putin’s political agenda," Cardin said. Leaders have given few hard details to the public, however, arguing it is best to keep Putin guessing. Cutting Russia off from international banking would be one of the toughest financial steps the U.S. and its European allies could take. The move could cut Russia off from its international profits from oil and gas production, which account for more than 40% of the country’s revenue. One tactic the U.S. has previously used is sanctioning the immediate circles of leaders, their families, and military and civilian circles.  Putin and his friends and family could face that as well, along with Russia’s powerful business oligarchs and its banks. That includes Putin’s family and a woman reported to be Putin’s romantic interest, Alina Kabaeva, who won Olympic gold in 2004 in rhythmic gymnastics. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

  • Poland's Leadership of the OSCE in a Time of Crisis

    Poland has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—at a time when it will need to do its utmost to uphold fundamental tenets increasingly under attack. The region is facing serious challenges, ranging from the real possibility of a renewed Russian assault on Ukraine to the repercussions of COVID-19. Other regional challenges include protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, as well as the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitic attacks and rhetoric are on the rise, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. Combating human trafficking and countering terrorism and corruption also are high on the OSCE agenda. At this hearing, Polish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Zbigniew Rau discussed Poland’s priorities in the OSCE and how it will address the challenges it will likely face in 2022. Related Information Witness Biography

  • Ambassador (Ret.) William B. Taylor: 'I believe Putin will blink'

    At a February 3 Helsinki Commission hearing on Russian aggression toward Ukraine, William B. Taylor, an expert on Russia and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Commissioners,  "I believe President Putin will blink. I think Presidents Biden and Zelensky are staring him down successfully. Putin appears, for now, to be seeking negotiations. He has complained about but has not rejected the responses from the United States and NATO to his demands."

  • Russia's Assault on Ukraine and the International Order

    Russia’s Ukraine gambit is the most flagrant manifestation of the Kremlin’s assault on the international order. Moscow’s actions degrade the security environment in Europe and are a direct attack on settled international norms, including the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples affirmed in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On February 2, 2022, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The hearing included testimony from three expert witnesses on the motives and intentions of the Kremlin, how the West can continue to support Ukraine, and the ramifications of Putin’s belligerence for Europe and the international order. Helsinki Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by highlighting the unity displayed between the United States and Europe in response to the threatened invasion. He commended the Biden administration on its efforts to enhance deterrence and reinforce NATO’s eastern flank, while ensuring a diplomatic path remains open to Russia should it wish to find areas of cooperation; he emphasized that the sovereignty of Ukraine and freedom of Europe would under no circumstance be bargained away. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) noted that Putin considers Ukraine’s evolution into a budding democracy “with its open market of ideas, vibrant media, and a strong civil society” as a threat to his regime and repeated the importance of a free and sovereign Ukraine for the security of Europe. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) highlighted Russia’s participation in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, saying, “Putin is now treading underfoot the principles at the heart of the Commission’s work, principles agreed to by Mr. Putin’s predecessors in Moscow.” He also underlined importance of ensuring passage of defense appropriations to our defense commitments abroad. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) praised the strong bipartisan stance exemplified by the hearing regarding the need to deter Russia; Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress, as well as Transatlantic allies, were “firmly united in support of the people of Ukraine” Dr. Fiona Hill, senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, testified on Putin’s motives and likely worldview, citing Russian interventions in Georgia, Armenia, and Belarus. “From Russia’s perspective, the United States played no significant role in addressing these upheavals,” she said. She noted that the 2024 presidential elections likely are influencing Putin’s need to act now. Dr. Hill closed by emphasizing the importance of definitively countering Putin’s narrative regarding Russia’s aggressive posture. “We need to reframe this crisis for what it is, as the administration has just done in the United Nations,” she said. “This is not a proxy conflict. This is not aggression by the United States or NATO. This is not a righteous effort to counter some great historic wrong, as President Putin says. This is an act of post-colonial revisionism on the part of Russia.” Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, testified on the current needs of the Ukrainian army, as well as potential countermeasures Ukraine’s Western partners can take to address Russian aggression. He highlighted President Zelensky’s request for funds to support a significantly larger Ukrainian army, as well as continued diplomatic support from the West. General Hodges also underlined that a common approach among NATO Allies, including and especially Germany, would be necessary to prevent a new Russian offensive. “We need to take the initiative instead of always reacting to whatever the Kremlin does. But we have to do this in unity with our allies,” he said. Lieutenant General Hodges closed by urging NATO to remain clear-eyed about the nature of diplomacy with the Kremlin. “They are not boy scouts. They use chemical weapons, poison and murder against their own opposition, and they use cyber and disinformation to destroy lives and trust in our democratic system,” he noted. “We should talk, but we need to understand with whom we are talking.” Ambassador (Ret.) William Taylor, Vice President, Russia and Europe at the United States Institute of Peace, commended the resolve and unity shown by President Biden and President Zelensky, suggesting that this had been surprising to the Kremlin. He surmised that the effectiveness of the Western response had, to date, successfully deterred a full-scale invasion and there was reason to believe that Putin currently remains engaged on a diplomatic track. Ambassador Taylor underlined the stakes in the current confrontation and their relevance to U.S. interests, describing Ukraine as “the frontline of the battle between democracy and autocracy. We should support them. With that support, they will prevail. Putin will lose.” Members raised a broad range of concerns with witnesses, questioning them on issues ranging from the influence of public opinion and oligarchs on Putin’s thinking, to the most efficient timing of sanctions. Witnesses were united in their praise for the bipartisan consensus on countering Russian aggression demonstrated by Congress, and adamant in their call for continued resolve and determination in the support of Ukraine. Related Information Witness Biographies Putin Has the U.S. Right Where He Wants It - Dr. Fiona Hill  NATO Must Help Ukraine Prepare for War - Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges  After U.S.-Russia Talks, Risk of War in Ukraine Still High - Ambassador (Ret.) William B. Taylor

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest January 2022

  • Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: POLAND’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE IN A TIME OF CRISIS Thursday, February 3, 2022 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Poland has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—at a time when it will need to do its utmost to uphold fundamental tenets increasingly under attack. The region is facing serious challenges, ranging from the real possibility of a renewed Russian assault on Ukraine to the repercussions of COVID-19. Other regional challenges include protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, as well as the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitic attacks and rhetoric are on the rise, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. Combating human trafficking and countering terrorism and corruption also are high on the OSCE agenda. At this hearing, Polish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Zbigniew Rau will discuss Poland’s priorities in the OSCE and how it will address the challenges it will likely face in 2022.

  • Russia’s Assault on Ukraine and the International Order to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S ASSAULT ON UKRAINE AND THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER Assessing and Bolstering the Western Response Wednesday, February 2, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russia’s Ukraine gambit is the most flagrant manifestation of the Kremlin’s assault on the international order. Moscow’s actions degrade the security environment in Europe and are a direct assault on settled international norms. These include the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples affirmed in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Witnesses will examine the latest developments in the Kremlin-driven crisis in and around Ukraine and the urgency for the United States to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and deter further Russian aggression. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dr. Fiona Hill, Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair, Center for European Policy Analysis Ambassador (Retired) William B. Taylor, Vice President, U.S. Institute of Peace

  • Half Measures Are Worse Than Nothing in Ukraine

    Europe begins the new year on the brink of major war. Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops and heavy equipment along Ukraine’s border and issued an ultimatum to the West demanding it trade Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its peace. Such demands are a strategic nonstarter, but the seriousness of the Kremlin’s threats appear all too real. To stop this war before it begins, muddling through is not an option; this demands immediate and bold action. Russia claims its 100,000-plus troops at Ukraine’s doorstep is a response to NATO enlargement and its infrastructure in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. These arguments are unconvincing. The Kremlin has used NATO as a straw man for its grievances, yet Russian disquiet has little to do with NATO itself, which has no immediate plans to expand anywhere near Russia and would not threaten Russia if it did. Although the United States and its European partners have provided material and technical military assistance to Ukraine, it has not changed the region’s balance of power. Instead, Russia’s demands evince anxiety over global status and the possibility that its borderlands may be able to escape from its grip. In particular, Ukraine has the size and industrial capacity to make it a credible economic and military power regardless of whether it joins NATO. For Russia, a strong and hostile Ukraine is intolerable, even though Russian aggression husbanded Ukraine’s pro-West turn. By supporting Donbass separatism and annexing Crimea, the Kremlin stoked patriotism in Ukraine, lanced Ukraine’s most Russia-friendly population, and earned Kyiv’s hostility. Ukraine is not the only country for which this applies, but it may be the most significant given its size, geography, and symbolic position in official Russian neoimperial mythology. War should be avoided at all reasonable costs. Another invasion would risk tens of millions of lives and further undermine Europe’s increasingly fragile security. The United States and Europe should be willing to negotiate in good faith to avoid wider conflict—so long as Ukraine, Georgia, and Eastern Europe’s sovereignty are preserved. However, acceding to Russia’s maximalist demands would strip Ukraine of its already battered sovereignty and invite a new Iron Curtain over Europe—consigning many millions of people to generations of domination and conflict. History and international relations theory may offer some guidance in this crisis. In the runup to the Peloponnesian War between the sprawling Athenian league and Sparta’s opposing empire, Athens faced a dilemma between its ally Corcyra and Corinth, a powerful member of the Spartan alliance. As chronicled by classical historian Donald Kagan in his On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace, Corcyra called on Athens for protection, but Athens was anxious to intervene lest it precipitate a ruinous great-power war with Sparta, which was increasingly fearful that Athens, the rising force in Greece, would eclipse Spartan power. Yet Athens worried that abandoning Corcyra would undermine its alliances and invite Spartan aggression. As a compromise, Athens deployed a mere 10 ships out of its vast 400-ship fleet to join the Corcyraeans in the hopes that it would be enough to deter Corinth’s advancing 150-ship armada. However, as Kagan notes, Athens’s symbolic deployment was not strong enough to deter Corinth—much less defeat it—but too aggressive to completely assuage Spartan fears about Athenian ambitions. In the ensuing Battle of Sybota, the Corinthian armada destroyed the combined Corcyraean-Athenian fleet, launching a spiral of events that led to the devastating Peloponnesian War. As the United States deliberates with its partners and allies to craft countermeasures against Kremlin aggression, the West should avoid its own 10-ship trap. In some ways, NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit decision is an example, where the alliance promised eventual membership to Georgia and Ukraine without a concrete pathway. This compromise left Georgia and Ukraine vulnerable while stoking the Kremlin’s strategic anxieties. The recently departed Columbia University political scientist Robert Jervis considered such problems in his international relations theory classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Jervis weighed deterrence against a “spiral” model, which posited that counterescalating in response to perceived escalation could provoke the opposite of the intended response. An attempt at deterrence could instead be viewed as further provocation. While deterrence preaches strength and resolution, the spiral model generally counsels conciliation. However, Jervis theorized that while the deterrence and spiral models are often presented as opposing, generalizable theories, their usefulness varies with the circumstances. He surmised that deterrence is applicable between two powers with genuinely incompatible positions, and the spiral model best applies to disputes between status quo powers where their perceived incompatibility is mostly illusory. One exercise Jervis suggests is to interrogate evidence that the second power is not engaged in revisionist aggression. In this case, a charitable reading of Russian actions suggests that Russia’s grievances are oriented to the security situation on its borders—the “belt of Russia’s vital interests.” In this interpretation, Russia’s historical influence along its borders need not be a cause for alarm on its own, much less for war. Indeed, if arms limitations and codes of conduct represent an acceptable compromise to defuse the present crisis without sacrificing the freedom or sovereignty of the states on Russia’s border, this is worth pursuing. However, which vital interests necessitate Russian dominion over its periphery? Although Russia’s perceptions of insecurity may be real, it is demonstrably not materially insecure, with a large, full-spectrum, and sophisticated military that is arguably the most powerful in Europe. Russia’s neighbors are far weaker, Western states largely disarmed after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and remnant Allied forces remained in Western Europe in compliance with the NATO-Russia Founding Act, even as Russia has significantly militarized. And Russia’s economic fortunes are far better served by peace and integration with the West, not conflict. However, the stability and integrity of European security architecture as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act remain fundamental to U.S. national security. Any countenance of the Kremlin’s broader abrogation of that framework and the restoration of a new Yalta Conference would reverse decades of peace and prosperity—and likely drive continental militarization that would only compound Russian security anxieties and conflict. It appears the West and the Russian regime’s positions are indeed incompatible. In response, the United States and its allies must be wary of the 10-ship trap. Although caution is often a virtue in national security and foreign policymaking, a moderate response to the enormity and notoriety of Russia’s belligerence would likely neither protect Ukraine nor satisfy Russian imperial appetites. Broad economic sanctions on their own are likely to be sufficient to forestall an invasion; and token, light deployments behind NATO’s high walls while Ukraine burns will inflame Kremlin paranoia without arresting or appreciably punishing Russian militarism. Negotiations and diplomacy should be given the time to work, and any kind of durable solution is unlikely to completely satisfy either party. However, the United States and its allies should undergird these talks with serious and significant measures to prevent another, greater war in Ukraine before it begins. As in Corcyra, half measures are unlikely to ameliorate the crisis and may only exacerbate them. What, then, do full measures look like? The critical factors here are speed and plausibility: steps that not only can be taken quickly but that Russia will believe Washington will carry through. Although economic sanctions have been broadly regarded as useful tools in this regard, most measures being envisioned are likely already baked into Russian calculations or may not have an immediate effect. In addition, the United States—and Europe, if it is willing—should significantly curtail Russian energy imports and aim to wean Russian hydrocarbons from European markets entirely—perhaps even going so far as to employ Defense Production Act authorities to stockpile and potentially surge liquefied natural gas and other fuel alternatives to Central and Eastern Europe. Boosting other energy sources on a strategic scale could also accompany this approach. Moscow must be convinced that military aggression will only dramatically increase and complicate what it believes are its existing security vulnerabilities. Toward that end, the United States and Europe could begin studying withdrawal from the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and planning can begin in earnest for repositioning heavy forces in Europe in the event of a wider Russian war. NATO can signal that new European applications for NATO membership would be welcomed and expediently ratified (perhaps even pre-ratified in some form), particularly from Sweden and Finland, should Russia go through with its militaristic gambit. Washington could also consider scenarios to provide aspirants—Ukraine, Georgia, and potentially the Nordics—with bilateral treaty guarantees prior to NATO accession. In Corcyra, the compromise of 10 Athenian ships only served to anger Corinth and Sparta as well as fed beliefs that war was not only necessary but an urgent enterprise. Against the colossal coercive symbolism and military reality posed by the Russian buildup—and the even greater weight of the Kremlin’s demands—the United States and Europe should prepare responses to match the moment. Michael Hikari Cecire is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. 

  • Defending Ukraine, Deterring Putin

    The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission, including Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Commissioner Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33),  convened a virtual briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty.  Panelists included Dr. Andrew Bowen of the Congressional Research Service, Robert Lee of Kings College London, Dr. Mary Vorotnyuk of the Royal United Services Institute, and Katsiaryna Shmatsina of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague. The discussion was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire. Cecire began the discussion by describing the apparent urgency of the situation on Ukraine’s border, noting that more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy offensive equipment had amassed in a potential war footing, in addition to thousands more troops already in states of high readiness and propositioned in and around Ukrainian territory. Dr. Andrew Bowen described the strategic environment in which the buildup is occurring, and noted that Russian political leadership has asserted that it regarded the presence of NATO and Western military and political influence on its border as a red line. Although Ukraine has no immediate likelihood of joining NATO, the Russian regime may regard Ukraine’s growing independent capabilities and partnerships with the West as indicative of a graduate deterioration of its own relative security position. As such, its military buildup may be intended to either compel a diplomatic accommodation with the West to forestall Ukraine’s continued Western path, or, if necessary, launch military operations to do so through the use of force. Dr. Bowen noted that Congress has played a significant role in supporting activities to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, including through the provision of lethal aid, and has also supported efforts to reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank in response to Russia’s aggressive actions. Robert Lee focused on Russian military capabilities currently arrayed at Ukraine’s border. He noted that tens of thousands of troops had been mobilized from Russia’s other geographic combatant commands and deployed to Ukraine’s border, including significant heavy offensive weaponry and specialized assets. According to some assessments, total Russian deployments may represent as much as two-thirds of its total combat power to in and around the Ukraine theater, suggesting a nationwide military mobilization and all the preparations for a major invasion. While the preponderance of Russian offensive assets suggests that it may have the capabilities in place for any number of offensive scenarios, including a move on Kyiv, it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the Kremlin has any intent to seize and hold territory. The Kremlin’s intent may be just to destroy or significantly degrade Ukraine’s military and undermine its broader strategic situation to achieve its aims. However, Russia also has activated some 100,000 additional reserve forces, which may be employed for a number of scenarios. Responding to a question from Co-Chairman Cohen, Lee observed that it was hard to determine the likelihood of a renewed Russian invasion, but that the risk is certainly greater than it has been at any point since the conflict began in 2014, and that the capabilities are all in theater for war. Co-Chairman Cohen also asked if the buildup today was proportionally similar to past buildups in 2014-2015, which was the last time Russian forces semi-overtly invaded Ukraine in large numbers. Lee replied that the current buildup is much more significant, though it is also true that the Ukrainian military is more capable today than it was in the past. Co-Chairman Cohen then inquired about past Russian casualties, which Lee described as being in the “hundreds” at least, though exact figures were not made publicly available. Co-Chairman Cohen then reiterated the gravity of the situation, and the seriousness with which he and the U.S. government was taking the issue. Cecire then introduced Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, who also made the point that the Russian regime’s full intentions were obscure, and not entirely knowable. However, she noted that the array of capabilities that the Kremlin has assembled on Ukraine’s border is suggestive, as are the demands the Kremlin has made in combination with the military buildup. On the latter point, she noted that there was an internal logic to Moscow linking its threatening posture over Ukraine with its demands with the West, because Russia’s war on Ukraine could be regarded as a kind of proxy war against the West as a whole. In a more comprehensive way, Russian demands seek a revised security architecture that would effectively undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as other non-NATO states like Georgia, giving Russia free rein over its periphery. While this may be a nonstarter for the West, Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that Russia likely would settle for an accommodation from the West that would reduce Western involvement in the region and leave Ukraine and other countries weak and vulnerable to Russian pressure. While some may find such a route appealing, she noted, such a response would not likely lead to a more constructive Russia, and could even invite more aggression as Moscow’s intent was never solely about or limited to Ukraine. As such, it is important for the West to remain resolute in defending and advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Katsiaryna Shmatsina spoke about Belarus’ role in the broader calculus. She recalled how, after Belarusian protests were being crushed by the regime, EU diplomatic leaders asked how Belarus might be used as an appendage of Russian strategic power. She noted that this appears to be the case in the ongoing episode with Ukraine, with the hybrid migrant crisis at the Belarusian border, the mooted possibility that Russian forces might use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine, and the solidarity Russia has showed with the regime in Minsk through the flights of nuclear-capable bombers—suggesting that Belarus is not merely a side act, but a key element of Russian strategy in the region. For his part, Belarusian President Lukashenko has been severely weakened by the protests and his subsequent reliance on Russian support, leaving him nowhere else to turn and cementing Belarus’s place in the Kremlin’s alliance system and regional strategy. Shmastsina counseled that the situation in Belarus should merit greater international attention, particularly from the West, because it is inseparable from the ongoing military buildup in and around Ukraine and another aspect of Russia’s broader campaign against the West. Rep. Veasey noted that in a past visit to Ukraine, the assessment was that Russia was not necessarily interested in taking and holding territory and asked whether this view was still accurate. Dr. Vorotnyuk replied that this was very likely the case, but ultimately that the likely Russian aim was to permanently weaken Ukraine and be able to “veto” its alignments with the West. Particular territorial objectives could also be under consideration, such as a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea—both of which Russia already holds—or a particular city, such as Odesa, and its port access to the Black Sea. Rep. Veasey then asked why Ukraine, but not Georgia, was being targeted in this way. Lee responded that Georgia no longer threatens to retake the Russia-held separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, and that Ukraine is a much larger country with a more capable military and economic capacity, which holds a unique place in Russia’s historical narrative. Rep. Veasey then raised the issue of corruption, which continues to be seen as a major issue in Ukraine as compared to, for example, Georgia, and asked whether this is a serious problem. Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that it was a major issue, but that it is not a justification for Russian aggression, and that Western assistance with Ukraine is very much helping to address issues like corruption and democratic governance. Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Passage of Trap Provision in 2022 National Defense Authorization Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today welcomed the passage of the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) provision as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022. “By co-opting and undermining the rule of law to harass and intimidate dissidents and political opponents, corrupt regimes threaten our national security,” said Chairman Cardin. “Our provision will make it U.S. policy to fight exploitation of INTERPOL, including by naming and shaming member states that abuse its mechanisms. This amendment will protect the United States, our allies, and all those fighting or fleeing authoritarian regimes from extraterritorial and extrajudicial abuse.” “We’ve seen time and again how corrupt dictators take advantage of INTERPOL to intimidate and harass those who expose their immoral deeds, even after they have fled their homes and their country in search of safety,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The TRAP provision will protect these dissidents and ensure that our own institutions are not used against us—or them.” “There is no reason for any democracy, especially the United States, to be forced to play a part in authoritarian regimes’ blatant abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices,” said Sen. Wicker. “I am pleased Congress has taken action to name publicly the abusers, such as Russia and China, and prevent American law enforcement from having to do the dirty work of these repressive autocrats.” “INTERPOL should enable us to crack down on criminals worldwide,” said Rep. Wilson. “Instead, the criminals have taken over the institution, using it to target those who oppose them. The TRAP provision will protect the United States from this abuse and ensure that we do everything we can to restore the rule of law to INTERPOL.” “Increasing transparency and accountability at INTERPOL underscores the bipartisan commitment of the United States Senate to push back against countries, large or small, seeking to distort legitimate law enforcement cooperation to instead pursue political opponents or personal vendettas,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This new provision will strengthen protections for human rights defenders, political dissidents, and journalists, and pave the way for the international community to join the United States in pressing for reforms and standing against the abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices by China and Russia, among others.” The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act was introduced in 2021 in the Senate by Sen. Wicker and Chairman Cardin and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Co-Chairman Cohen and Rep. Wilson. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States name the worst abusers of INTERPOL and examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse.

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