Title

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Bill Browder, Putin Enemy No. 1
GQ
Sean Flynn
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The harrowing tale of Bill Browder—how an American-born businessman became an enemy of the Russian state, how he has to live in constant fear, never knowing if the long arm of the Kremlin will snatch him, or kill him—is its own kind of daily terror. But what Browder’s story tells us about the way Vladimir Putin operates, and what he might want from this country, should scare us all.

William Browder took his family on vacation in July, though he won't say where because that is one of those extraneous bits of personal information that could, in a roundabout way, get him bundled off to a Siberian prison or, possibly, killed. For eight years, he's been jamming up the gears of Vladimir Putin's kleptocratic machine, a job that seems to often end in jail or death, both of which he'd very much like to avoid. He'll concede, at least, that his leisure travels took him from London, where he lives, through Chicago, where he changed planes. As he walked through a terminal at O'Hare, he got a call from a New York Times reporter named Jo Becker.

"Do you know anything," she asked, "about a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya?"

Browder stopped short. "Yes," he said. "I know a lot about her."

One of the most important things he knew was that Veselnitskaya had spent many dollars and many hours trying to convince Washington that Browder is a criminal. More than a decade ago, Browder was the largest individual foreign investor in Russia, managing billions in his hedge fund. Then, in 2009, one of his attorneys was tortured to death in a Moscow jail after exposing a massive tax fraud committed by Russian gangsters. His name was Sergei Magnitsky, and Browder has spent the years since trying to hold accountable anyone connected to Sergei's death. The most significant way is through the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a 2012 U.S. law that freezes the assets and cripples the travel of specific Russians, many of whom have allegedly laundered millions of dollars in the West.

The Kremlin hates that law. Putin's hold on power requires the loyalty of dozens of wealthy oligarchs and thousands of complicit functionaries, and their loyalty, in turn, requires Putin to protect the cash they've stashed overseas. Putin hates the law so much that he retaliated by banning Americans from adopting Russian children—yes, by holding orphans hostage—and has said that overturning the Magnitsky Act is a top priority.

That's where Veselnitskaya comes in. As a lawyer, she represented a Russian businessman trying to recover $14 million frozen by the Magnitsky Act. More important, she was involved in an extensive 2016 lobbying and public-relations campaign to weaken or eliminate the act, in large part by recasting Browder as a villain who conned Congress into passing it. That was not empty political spin for an American audience: The Russians really do want Browder in prison. In 2013, a Russian court convicted him in absentia (and Sergei in his grave) of the very crime Sergei uncovered and sentenced Browder to nine years in prison. Later, it got worse. In April 2016, Russian authorities accused Browder of murdering Sergei—that is, of killing the person on whose behalf Browder had been crusading, and who the Russians for seven years had insisted was not, in fact, murdered.

The campaign was oafish yet persistent enough that Browder thought it wise to compile a 26-page presentation on the people behind it. Veselnitskaya appears on five of those pages.

"I've been trying to get someone to write this goddamned story," Browder told Becker on July 8. "She's not just some private lawyer. She's a tool of the Russian government."

But why, Browder wanted to know, was Becker suddenly interested?

"I can't tell you," she said. "But I think you'll be interested in a few hours."

Browder flew off to the place he won't name, switched on his phone, and scrolled to the Times website. He drew in a sharp breath.

He exhaled. F***.

Donald Trump Jr. told the Times that the June 9, 2016, meeting had been about adoptions, which demonstrated either how out of his depth he was or how stupid he thought reporters were. If Veselnitskaya had been talking about adoption, she of course had been talking about the Magnitsky Act.

Which meant she'd also been talking about Bill Browder.

He read the story again, closely. Browder wasn't sure what the implications were. But if he'd known about it in real time—that the staff of a major-party presidential candidate was listening intently to those who accuse him of murder and want him extradited and imprisoned—he would have been terrified.

"Putin kills people," Browder said to me one afternoon this autumn. "That's a known fact. But Putin likes to pretend that he doesn't kill people. So he tends to kill people he can get away with killing."

Browder did not say this as if it were a revelation. (And technically it's an allegation that Putin has people killed, albeit one so thoroughly supported by evidence and circumstance that no one credibly disputes it.) Rather, he told me that by way of explaining why he was telling me anything at all: The more often and publicly he tells the story of Sergei Magnitsky, the less likely he'll be to get poisoned or shot or tossed out a window, which has happened to a number of Putin's critics. If anything does happen to him, he reasons, the list of suspects would be short.

He spoke softly, methodically, though with great efficiency; not scripted, but well practiced. We were in the conference room of his offices in London. Afternoon light washed through a wall of windows, threw bright highlights onto his scalp, sparked off the frame of his glasses. Browder is 53 years old, medium build, medium height, medium demeanor, and was wearing a medium-blue suit. He does not look like a threat to Russian national security, which the Kremlin declared him to be 12 years ago. Still, there is a hint of steel, something hard and sharp beneath all of the mediumness; if he confessed that he'd served in the Special Forces, it would be a little surprising but not shocking.

It was late September, and Donald Trump had been president for 248 days. In the weeks after the election, Browder was "worried and confused." Trump has a creepy habit of praising Putin, but he'd also surrounded himself with Russia hard-liners like General James Mattis, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo—secretary of defense, ambassador to the United Nations, and director of the CIA, respectively. Browder war-gamed the Magnitsky Act but didn't see any way that Trump could kill it—Congress would have to repeal the law—only a chance that he might refuse to add more names to the target list. (Five people were added to the list last January, bringing the total to 44.) He figured the same was true with the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which President Obama signed shortly before leaving office, expanding the targeted-sanctions tool to human-rights abusers worldwide. The Russians hate that law, too, because having "Magnitsky" in the title reminds the entire planet where the standard was set and by whom.

The first months of the new administration unspooled, spring into summer. Trump's flirtation with Putin persisted, but with no practical effect. "The Russians got nothing," Browder said. Congress, in fact, imposed its own sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, cutting Trump out of the loop entirely. "I watch this like a hawk," Browder said, "and so far they've gotten nothing. There's not a single piece of Russian policy that's gone Putin's way."

But then, in July, the Times reported that Veselnitskaya had met with Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager at the time, in June 2016. That shifted the calculus. "America has been my staunchest ally," Browder said. "It wasn't an assumption but a question: Had they flipped my biggest ally?"

That was still an open question when we met in London. Much more had been reported about Trump and Russia. Other contacts and communications were known, and details kept evolving, an endless, sloppy churn of information. There was more, too, about the meeting with Veselnitskaya, which happened two weeks after Trump secured the nomination: It was attended by eight people in all, including Rinat Akhmetshin, who is usually described as a former Russian military-intelligence officer, though that generously assumes that any Russian spook is ever fully retired from the spy game. Browder has another PowerPoint presentation on him. Additionally, Manafort's notes on the meeting reportedly mentioned Browder by name.

This is all bad. "They were in a meeting to discuss Bill Browder, the Magnitsky Act, and how to get the Magnitsky Act repealed," he said. "Now, what [the Russians] were offering in return, we don't know. But if it had just been a courtesy meeting, only one of [the Trump team] would have showed up."

Maybe no one will ever know what, if anything, the Russians offered. But there's no doubt what they wanted, and how badly. In a four-page memo prepared for the meeting by Veselnitskaya (and later obtained by Foreign Policy), the Magnitsky Act was inspired by "a fugitive criminal" who ripped off the Russian treasury and then went on a worldwide publicity tour to, apparently, cover it up. "Using the grief of the family of Magnitsky to his own advantage, Browder exposes them as a human shield to distract attention from the details of his own crime," she wrote. Passage of the Magnitsky Act, moreover, marked "the beginning of a new round of the Cold War."

That is an assertion as grandiose as it is belligerent. And yet it is not wholly inaccurate. To understand why the Kremlin is so perturbed, it helps to understand Bill Browder. In many ways, he is the Rosetta Stone for decoding the curious relationship between the Trumps and the Russians.

Browder's grandfather Earl was a communist. He started as a union organizer in Kansas and spent some time in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, where he married a Jewish intellectual and had the first of his three sons, Felix. The family moved to Yonkers in 1932, where Earl became secretary general of the Communist Party USA. He ran for president twice, in 1936 and 1940, and Time magazine put him on its cover in 1938 above the headline COMRADE EARL BROWDER. His fortunes fell in 1941, when he was convicted of passport fraud. His four-year sentence was commuted after 14 months, and he was released into relative obscurity until the 1950s, when he was harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Bill's grandmother steered her boys away from politics and toward academics, in which they wildly overachieved. Felix enrolled at M.I.T. at the age of 16, graduated in two years, and had a Princeton Ph.D. in math when he was 20. He met his wife, Eva, at M.I.T., a Jewish girl who'd fled Vienna ahead of the Nazis and spent her teenage years in a tenement with her impoverished mother.

Felix and Eva had two boys. Their first, Thomas, took after his father: University of Chicago at 15, doctoral student in physics at 19. Their second, Bill, did not. He liked to ski and smoke and drink. He got kicked out of a second-tier boarding school and barely got into the University of Colorado, which was fine with him because it was a notorious party school. By his account, he spent his formative years rebelling against everything his leftist-intellectual family held sacred.

"Rejecting school was a good start, but if I really wanted to upset my parents, then I would have to come up with something else," he wrote in his 2015 book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice. "Then, toward the end of high school, it hit me. I would put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss off my family more than that."

He started studying, transferred to the University of Chicago, got into a two-year pre-MBA program at Bain & Company, in Boston. He parlayed that and an essay about Comrade Earl Browder—from communist to capitalist in two generations!—into a seat at Stanford. Out of genealogical curiosity, he began thinking about Eastern Europe. "If that's where my grandfather had carved out his niche," he wrote, "then maybe I could, too." He got a job with a consulting firm and moved to London in August 1989. Three months later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled. Eastern Europe was wide open for business.

His first account was consulting for a Polish bus manufacturer that was bleeding cash. It was miserable work in a miserable little city, but while he was there his translator explained the financial tables in the local newspaper. With the fall of communism, nationalized companies were being privatized and their stocks were offered at fire-sale prices: A company with $160 million in profits the previous year had a stock valuation of only $80 million.

Browder invested his entire savings, $2,000, in Polish stocks. He eventually walked away with $20,000. He'd found his niche.

By 1993, he was in Moscow, investing in staggeringly undervalued stocks: He invested $25 million and turned a $100 million profit. With money that good and almost no Western competition, Browder, in 1996, raised enough cash to open his own fund, Hermitage Capital.

Over the next decade, Hermitage did exceptionally well. The downside, though, was that the economy wasn't transitioning from communism to capitalism so much as it was devolving into gangsterism. Corruption was endemic. A handful of oligarchs looted and swindled at their leisure. Browder countered by positioning himself as an activist shareholder; he and his staff would piece together who was ripping off what, name names, try to impose a modicum of order on a lawless system.

When Vladimir Putin rose to power, Browder believed he was a reformer eager to purge the kleptocracy. In 2003, for example, Putin arrested the country's richest man, oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, charged him with fraud, and displayed him in a cage in a courtroom until his inevitable conviction. In the context of the time, many critics saw the ordeal as a capricious show trial orchestrated by an authoritarian thug.

Not Browder. "I would trust Putin any day of the week," he told The Washington Post in early 2004. "It's like being in a lawless schoolyard where there's bullies running around and beating up all us little people, and then one day a big bully comes along and all the little bullies fall into line. That's what the state is supposed to be—the big bully."

But Putin, he discovered, wasn't pushing for good corporate governance. He was taking over the rackets. Putin put Khodorkovsky in a cage for the same reason Vito Corleone put a horse's head in Jack Woltz's bed: to send a message. Oligarchs could steal, but they had to pay tribute.

Oligarchs no longer needed to be named and shamed; they needed to be kept in line and to keep earning. At that point, an activist shareholder like Browder became an expensive nuisance. Browder was kicked out of the country on November 13, 2005.

For a while, he thought the Russian bureaucracy had made a mistake by canceling his visa, confusing him with someone else, perhaps, or misfiling some paperwork. He enlisted the help of British diplomats—Browder had been a British citizen since 1998—to no avail. There had been no mistake. Browder had been declared a threat to Russian national security.

Hermitage Capital remained in business, though, its office run by Browder's staff while he oversaw operations from London. But in Moscow, the pressure only increased. In June 2007, security forces raided Hermitage and the office of the law firm it employed. They carted away computers and files and, interestingly, all the corporate seals and stamps. At first, none of that made sense.

But then Sergei Magnitsky, a 36-year-old Muscovite who handled tax matters for Hermitage, started digging around. He eventually discovered three of Hermitage's holding companies had been used by Russian gangsters to swindle $230 million in tax rebates. It was a straight-up robbery of the Russian treasury. The scam wasn't unheard of, except the amount was perhaps the largest such tax fraud ever uncovered in Russia.

Browder and his staff reported the theft to the authorities and the media in the summer of 2008. They even named suspects, including some of the security officials who'd earlier been involved in the office raids. Nothing happened. Then, a few months later, on November 24, 2008, Sergei was arrested at his home.

He was held for nearly a year in various prisons, overrun with rats and damp with sewage. According to complaints Sergei wrote, he was fed porridge infested with insects and rotten fish boiled into mush. He contracted pancreatitis and gallstones but was refused treatment. Yet he was repeatedly told he would be released if he would recant his allegations and, instead, implicate Browder as the mastermind of the tax scam. He refused every time.

Almost a year after he was arrested, desperately ill, Sergei was handcuffed to a bed rail in an isolation cell. Eight guards beat him with rubber truncheons. A little more than an hour later, he was dead.

Before Sergei was killed, Browder had been lobbying anyone he could think of to pressure the Russians into releasing his accountant. One of the agencies he approached in the spring of 2009 was the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency in Washington that monitors human rights in 57 countries, including Russia.

Kyle Parker, one of the Russia experts there, wasn't interested. He knew who Browder was—the money manager who'd championed Putin, the guy who'd made the rounds of Western capitals a few years earlier trying to get his visa restored. He assumed that's what Browder was still after. "Not gonna be able to make it," he e-mailed a colleague scheduling the meeting. "Unless much has changed, I see this meeting as info only and would not support any action on our part."

He eventually met with Browder, though, and he listened to the story of Sergei. Parker understood, but it didn't seem especially uncommon. "I was thinking: Why is Bill trying to suck us into a pissing match between competing criminal groups?"

Parker didn't even include Sergei in a 2009 letter to Obama highlighting the commission's most pressing concerns.

After Sergei had been killed, Browder went back to the Helsinki Commission.

Parker told him how sorry he was. He told him that he cried when he heard Sergei was dead, that he read about it through teary eyes on the Metro, riding the Red Line home to his wife and kids. He said he was going to help.

"Here you have this Russian hero almost of a literary quality in Sergei Magnitsky," Parker told me. "He wasn't a guy who went to rallies with a bullhorn and protested human-rights abuses in Chechnya. He was a bookish, middle-class Muscovite. I see Sergei metaphorically as that Chinese guy standing in front of the tanks, but with a briefcase. He provided an example for all the other Russians that not everybody goes in for the deal, not everybody is corrupt, not everybody looks the other way when people are swindled."

What Browder wanted was some form of justice for Sergei, though what form that would take was unclear. He'd researched his options for months. The Russians weren't going to prosecute anyone—officially, Sergei died of heart failure. There was no international mechanism to hold Russian nationals criminally accountable in another country. "Eventually," Browder said, "it became obvious that I was going to have to come up with justice on my own."

He outlined a three-pronged approach. One was media, simply getting Sergei's name and his death and the reasons for it into the public consciousness. He talked to reporters, and he produced a series of YouTube videos, short documentaries on the people allegedly involved in Sergei's death.

The second was tracing the money. "They killed him for $230 million," Browder said, "and I was going to find out where that money went." It was parceled out to dozens of people, tucked away in Swiss accounts and American real estate and Panamanian banks, some of it held by proxies; part of it allegedly ended up in the account of a Russian cellist who happened to be a childhood friend of Putin's. By mining bank transfers and financial records, Browder and his staff have accounted for much of it, including $14 million allegedly laundered by a Cypriot company into Manhattan property. (The Justice Department froze those funds in 2013 but settled with the company, Prevezon, last summer for $5.9 million. Prevezon's owner, a Russian named Denis Katsyv, is represented by Natalia Veselnitskaya. The case did not allege that he had any role in Magnitsky's death.)

The final prong was political. Browder had heard about an obscure regulation that allows the State Department to put visa restrictions on corrupt foreign officials. But in the spring of 2010, the Obama administration was attempting to normalize relations with Russia—a "reset," as Obama famously put it. People die horrible deaths every day, and it's terrible and it shouldn't happen. But Russia is also a large country with a significant sphere of geopolitical influence and a lot of nuclear weapons. In that context, a dead middle-class tax lawyer wasn't relevant.

But what if, Parker suggested, they went to Congress? What if the legislature, rather than the administration, took action?

That was also a long shot. Getting any law passed is difficult, let alone one the administration opposes. But Browder told Sergei's story to congressional committees and individual senators and congressmen, and he kept telling it until the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law 11 days before Christmas 2012.

The act originally named 18 Russians, including bureaucrats implicated in the original scam; investigators Sergei had accused of being involved and getting a cut of the $230 million; jailers who tormented him; and two alleged killers. As more of the stolen money was traced, more names were added to the list. Everyone on it is banned from entering the United States and, more damaging, cut off from the American banking system. That has a ripple effect: Legitimate financial institutions all over the world monitor the Treasury Department list of sanctioned individuals and are loath to do business with anyone on it. "That's what people hate about it the most," Browder said. "It makes you a financial leper."

And that matters to Putin, Browder maintains, because the Russians on the list are not independently wealthy, like, say, Bill Gates or Richard Branson. "They're dependently wealthy," he said. "They're dependent on Putin." If the deal is that corrupt Russians can keep their cash in return for their loyalty, the Magnitsky Act is an enormous thorn in Putin's side. If he can't protect anyone's pilfered money, what's the point of loyalty? Putin surely understands that, because he was so transparently rattled: Taking orphans hostage is not the reasoned reaction of a man merely annoyed.

Browder initially wanted to call the law the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act. But Parker never took to that. "Banning some corrupt officials from coming here isn't even close to justice," he said. "But it's a legislative monument to Sergei Magnitsky until one day Russia builds a stone monument to him. Because I have no doubt he'll be seen as the Russian patriot and hero that he was."

Not quite three weeks after the Times broke the story of Veselnitskaya lobbying the Trump campaign to get rid of the Magnitsky Act, Browder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about, primarily, how Russian operatives wield influence and frame their propaganda. Eight years after he'd started targeting a handful of Russian crooks, Browder was suddenly very relevant to a much larger political storm.

He flew home to London after he testified but had to return to the United States in early August. He checked in at an airline counter in Heathrow but was told there was a problem with his visa. He'd been flagged by Interpol, which had issued a red notice on him. It's basically an international arrest warrant, and it was the fourth requested by the Russians for Browder. Technically, a member nation is supposed to extradite him to the country that asked for the notice. But the British, along with other sensible Western nations, stopped taking Russia's attempts regarding Browder seriously years ago.

In the end, it was only an inconvenience. But what if he'd been in, say, Finland when that notice popped up? The Finns are fine people, but they also have a 500-mile border with Russia. Would letting Browder go be worth risking an international incident with a bigger, more aggressive neighbor? He can make a reasonable case that, no, he would not be worth it. "I'm very realistic about who's coming to my defense," he said. "I am my defense."

So he's careful. He avoids countries that might be friendly to Putin. Much of the Third World is out. So is Hong Kong. He'd be fine in Japan, but only if he didn't fly over Russian airspace. What if the plane has trouble and makes an emergency landing in Novosibirsk? That's where Khodorkovsky was seized and hauled off to a cage.

Even in London, he's cautious. He won't talk about his family or where he lives. He varies his schedule and his route to work every day. He doesn't eat in the same restaurant twice in succession, or in any restaurant with predictable frequency; Russian agents have reputedly twice poisoned dissidents in London. He told me the British government has rebuffed at least a dozen requests to extradite him, and American intelligence has warned him that Russian agents planned to grab him off the street.

Years ago, a Russian living in London came to Browder's staff with information about certain wealthy, corrupt people in Moscow. He was cagey and shifty and, at first, it seemed like he might be a Russian agent trying to plant false clues. But his information checked out and Browder learned who he really was. His name was Alexander Perepilichnyy, and he was nervous because he believed he was on a Russian hit list.

On November 10, 2012, Perepilichnyy dropped dead in front of his house in Surrey. There was no obvious cause of death—no heart attack or stroke or aneurysm—and an inquest wasn't opened until last June. Perepilichnyy wasn't a well-known dissident, so no one thought to take a hard look when he died. "They got away with it," Browder said, meaning the Russians. "That's a perfect example of why you don't want to be an anonymous guy who drops dead."

So Browder is deliberately not anonymous. He does not live in cloistered fear. When a car service got confused trying to pick him up for a photo shoot—definitely a way to not be anonymous—we took the Tube a few stops, then walked through Kentish Town to the studio. There was no security, just two men wandering around London. He has hobbies that he asked I not name, but none of them are solitary or sedentary. "One thing I can tell you," he said, "with the threat of death hanging over you, you live life to the fullest." He laughed a little.

In this new version of his life, Browder is still most often referred to as a financier, but that's only marginally true. He gave all his investors their money back, and manages only his own now. Justice for Sergei—and aggravating Putin—is his full-time job. His staff of 11 tracks money launderers, deciphering which flunky is fronting for which oligarch, sniffing out the rest of that $230 million. He lobbies other governments to pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. The United Kingdom has one, as does Estonia. Lithuania is close, and Canada passed one in October. "Unconstructive political games," Putin told a Canadian interviewer immediately after, orchestrated by "the criminal activities of an entire gang led by one particular man, I believe Browder is his name."

And Putin wasn't finished. A week later, Russia slipped another red notice into Interpol's system. For the second time in three months, Browder was temporarily barred from entering the U.S. It's relentless, Putin clawing at him, thrashing. "Their main objective is to get me back to Russia," he said. "And they only have to get lucky once. I have to be lucky every time."

"Everything Bill's done has cost him tremendously," Parker said. "It's cost him money, restricted his personal freedom. And he didn't have to. He was out of Russia. He could have done what many did and walked away. Bad things happen, right? But here's a guy who's proven whatever he needed to prove to himself. He made his money. Now here's a way to find meaning. It's also a debt of honor."

No, it's more than that. "It's penance," Browder said. Sergei Magnitsky was an ordinary Muscovite who happened to work for an American who annoyed Vladimir Putin. "Sergei was killed because of me. He was killed instead of me." He let that hang there a moment. "So, yeah, it's all penance."

Sean Flynn is a GQ correspondent.

This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue with the title "Putin Enemy No.1."

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    Sixty-six years ago, ordinary Hungarians bravely stood up to Moscow’s empire of oppression. Yet, on its anniversary, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took aim at Europe, a curious choice given Russia’s imperialist war against Ukraine right at Hungary’s doorstep. “Let’s not bother with those who shoot at Hungary from the shadows or from the heights of Brussels. They will end up where their predecessors did,” Orbán told crowds in Western Hungary last Sunday. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, European solidarity and the transatlantic alliance have been put to the ultimate test. Amid the horrors of Russia’s genocidal war, many nations have risen to the occasion. But Hungary’s Orbán has shown his stripes: He has openly aligned himself with Vladimir Putin, and his government has demonstrated itself as an unreliable partner to the West, even as it happily avails itself of the West’s military protection and economic might. In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a direct appeal to Orbán in front of European Union leaders, saying, “You hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not? You hesitate whether to let weapons through or not? And you hesitate whether to trade with Russia or not? It’s time to decide already.” Since then, Orbán has given Zelensky his answer: On every count, Hungary stands with Russia. A member of NATO since 1999, and the EU since 2004, Hungary has bitterly opposed stronger Western sanctions against Russia, strengthened energy ties with Russia, banned lethal aid from passing through its territory to Ukraine, and is dragging its feet on NATO expansion to Finland and Sweden — the only NATO ally aside from Turkey to do so. Even more glaringly, Orbán has publicly blamed the West for provoking Russia’s actions in Ukraine, an utterly indefensible position given the genocidal war Russia has waged without provocation. In a July 23 speech, Orbán told a Hungarian-minority audience in Romania that his Russian counterpart’s justification for the war in Ukraine “does make sense, and it is worth taking seriously.” In the same speech, he made abject claims that Ukraine cannot win the war; that NATO expansion is to blame for Russian aggression; that the United States is using energy as a foreign policy weapon; and that Russia will continue to push the front line as long as NATO countries supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. Hungary’s defense of Russia’s brutal repression abroad is a natural extension of its growing authoritarianism at home. Orbán has transformed Hungary into an illiberal autocracy. Fidesz, the country’s ruling party, has systematically eroded democratic freedoms in Hungary since it came to power in 2010. Orbán has manipulated election laws to benefit Fidesz, packed the Constitutional Court with cronies, and consolidated media control to amplify his party’s propaganda. Civil society is unable to function freely due to restrictive laws, and many individuals and groups are subject to smear campaigns. It’s time to get tough on Hungary.  Hungary has caused a fracture in NATO’s united front against Russia, which is a grave security and credibility risk for the organization. Hungary acts as Russia’s best advocate in Europe with impunity, which not only undermines transatlantic unity, but signals NATO weakness. As a result, members of the alliance should consider downgrading relations with Hungary, especially since NATO is founded on the principles of “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” principles that Orbán has been intentionally eroding. Bilaterally, the United States cannot sit back silently while a NATO ally aligns itself with Putin’s Russia under thinly-veiled claims of “neutrality,” and simultaneously dismantles democracy domestically. It is important that the United States speaks with a united voice — Democrats and Republicans alike — to condemn Hungary’s allegiance to Russia. We should ramp up support for independent journalism and civil society in Hungary, as well as consider other tools to limit our economic investment and military partnership with Hungary if the government’s belligerence continues. The United States has leverage, and we should demand better from a NATO ally. Jordan Warlick is a policy adviser for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission). Follow her on Twitter @jvcwarlick.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing on Russia's Genocide in Ukraine

        Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep Steve Cohen joined a panel of four experts moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Cecire to discuss Russia’s genocide in Ukraine. The four panelists included Dr. Timothy Snyder, Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University; Ms. Maria Kurinna, Ukrainian human rights activist and international advocacy advisor at ZMINA; Dr. Eugene Finkel, Kenneth H. Keller Associate Professor of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University; and Dr. Erin Rosenberg, Senior Legal Advisor, Mukwege Foundation; Visiting Scholar, Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights. The panelists unanimously agreed that Russia's  invasion of Ukraine meets the definition of the term genocide as defined by the Genocide Convention. According to that definition, genocide occurs when any of the following acts are committed with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such”: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births withing the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group According to Snyder, Russia is unambiguously committing the five types of crimes outlined in the Genocide Convention. However, Russia’s clear statements of genocidal intent in its public statements and the media make it a unique case from a historical perspective. Kurinna spoke to her family’s experience in Luhansk and underscored how Ukrainians are being targeted with death threats and torture for supporting the Ukrainian national identity. She emphasized the importance of identifying Russia’s actions as a genocide distinct from other violations of international law, such as war crimes and mass killings. She called on the US to lead other democracies in labelling Russia’s actions as a genocide. Finkel added that words matter, and the decision to label Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a genocide has political, legal, historical, and moral significance. He stated that we have a moral imperative to stop the genocide that is currently happening and decide whether we are serious about genocide happening “never again.” Rosenberg concluded the panel portion of the briefing with an analysis of the genocide from an international law perspective. She asserted that Russia’s actions do qualify as genocide under the genocide convention and that the Ukrainian nationality is a protected group. However, she added that genocidal intent must be tied to a desire to destroy the group physically or biologically, not just culturally. Further, Rosenberg delineated the unique roles of the US Congress and executive branch under the genocide convention and stressed that while the US must take action to declare Russia’s actions a genocide, it should not seek to reproduce judicial processes when doing so. During the Q&A, the panelists stressed the need to understand Russia’s genocide in Ukraine in a global context and described the precedents that action – or inaction – will set for international security in the decades to come.    

  • Joint Statement by Members of the Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

    Washington, DC - Today, Helsinki Commission Cochairman Rep Steve Cohen and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson, Counter-Kleptocracy Caucus Co-Chairs Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Rep. Tom Malinowski, and caucus members Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Rep. Peter Meijer, Rep. Maria Salazar, and Rep. Abigail Spanberger, issued the following statement on their joint efforts to authorize the President to transfer the legally forfeited assets of Putin-connected kleptocrats to fund the reconstruction of Ukraine:  “We call on Congressional leadership to make every effort to include our bipartisan language allowing transfer to Ukraine of forfeited assets of Putin-connected kleptocrats. This effort was bipartisan from the get-go and remains so.   “This language is a page long and was included in the House-passed defense bill in July, following the House’s passage in April of a bill on Russian asset seizure. As Iranian drones flatten civilian targets across Ukraine, Congress should be able to review and negotiate a one-page legislative provision with a sense of urgency. If opponents have substantive concerns, they should have provided those at any point over the past six months.  “This is a matter of basic fiscal responsibility. With the inclusion of this provision, we would ensure that Putin’s corrupt cronies pay for part of Ukraine’s reconstruction. While we ask the American people to contribute to the success of freedom in Europe and around the world, we should make the same demand of dark money linked directly to the crimes of Putin‘s closest friends and allies.  “Furthermore, this provision would only apply to the assets of Russian criminals that have been forfeited under existing criminal laws. These laws have been thoroughly tested by the courts and are frequently used against narcotics and sex traffickers. For example, federal authorities can auction off assets of fentanyl traffickers—like speedboats used for smuggling—to remediate the harms suffered by their victims.  “We call on Speaker Pelosi, Leader McCarthy, Leader Schumer, and Leader McConnell to work vigorously to ensure inclusion of this measure in the final defense bill.”

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Putin's Attacks on Civilians and Declaration of Martial Law

    WASHINGTON—In light of Vladimir Putin’s continuing terror attacks on Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin has no right, or military ability, to claim swathes of Ukraine’s territory as part of Russia, including areas that Ukrainian forces have recently liberated. Attempting to declare martial law in these areas is a cynical ploy to legitimize the illegitimate, to make real the unreal, and paves the way for further Russian terror and genocide against the Ukrainian nation. “This month’s widespread and deadly strikes on civilian targets—including apartment buildings, playgrounds, and energy facilities and other critical infrastructure—demonstrate a desperate effort to conceal the Kremlin’s ongoing military collapse and to break the will of the Ukrainian people. But Ukrainians’ resolve will not waver, nor will our commitment to their freedom. “We will continue to support Ukraine in every way we can so that they can defend themselves and the democratic ideals we share. And we will call this war what it is—Russia’s genocidal, imperial conquest against a free people.”

  • Tribute to Robert Hand for Forty Years of Service at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

    Recognizing Robert “Bob” A. Hand for 40 years of service to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Whereas Robert (Bob) Hand has given 40 years of faithful service to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, making him the longest serving staff of the United States Helsinki Commission to date; Whereas he is a highly respected expert on the Western Balkans with his work being invaluable during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he was focused on holding accountable those responsible for atrocities such as the Srebrenica genocide in 1995 and the murder of the Albanian-American Bytyqi brothers in Serbia in 2001, and he kept Commissioners up to date on developments in the region, including in Albania, where he is also known for his expert analysis; Whereas having served on numerous United States delegations to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meetings, observed dozens of elections, and served as a mission member on one of the OSCE’s first field missions, the OSCE Missions of Long Duration in Kosovo, Sandjak, and Vojvodina while stationed in Novi Pazar in 1993, Bob’s institutional expertise and memory on the OSCE has been vital to both the Helsinki Commission and the Department of State; Whereas in his role as the Secretary of the United States delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), Bob deftly and tirelessly guaranteed that the delegation was always well-prepared to engage with our counterparts from other countries and that our proposals and resolutions had the best possible chance for adoption; Whereas his deep expertise on procedural matters and election monitoring, among other processes, made him an extraordinarily effective advocate and negotiator for United States interests and for human rights and democracy throughout his time as Secretary of the United States delegation; Whereas no major meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly could be considered “typical”, with an enormous variety of subjects discussed, new procedures created, and different Members of Congress participating on the United States delegation from meeting to meeting, Bob rose to a huge diversity of challenges as Secretary of the United States delegation, and he ensured that Members could meaningfully participate and contribute, and that the United States presence was impactful in every meeting he coordinated; Whereas during annual sessions in particular, Bob’s calm demeanor and deep knowledge of OSCE Parliamentary Assembly processes helped all members of the delegation, whether Commissioners or not, whether it was their 1st or 15th time at an OSCE PA meeting, to know where they were supposed to be, when they were voting, what issues were at stake, and when they were scheduled to speak; Whereas ahead of OSCE’s yearly gatherings, Bob skillfully collected signatures from other delegations for United States initiatives in the Parliamentary Assembly as well as secured support from Members for important supplementary items and amendments fielded by other delegations; Whereas at the 2022 OSCE PA Annual Session in Birmingham, Bob worked diligently with several other delegations to ensure that a critical resolution condemning Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was adopted with the strongest possible language; Whereas the United States delegation had a 100-percent success rate at the 2022 OSCE PA Annual Session with the joint Ukraine resolution submitted by the United States, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian delegations, and all United States amendments to committee resolutions and supplementary items adopted; Whereas over the years, Bob guided the United States delegation through elections for OSCE PA leadership and helped secure positions for United States Members as OSCE PA President, Vice Presidents, and committee Chairs to make up the OSCE PA Bureau as well as positions on ad hoc committees and appointments as Special Representatives on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, Human Trafficking Issues, and on Political Prisoners; Whereas Bob was instrumental in ensuring that the COVID pandemic in no way diminished the United States delegation’s consistent and meaningful impact, and that United States objectives were advanced at each and every opportunity despite the unprecedented shift to online formats spanning multiple time zones; Whereas Bob was always guided by a clear sense that what the United States says matters in a body such as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, he prioritized principles over dialogue for its own sake, and he served the Commission’s mandate faithfully and tirelessly; and Whereas his longstanding relationships with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly leadership, staff, and other parliamentarians mean his departure will be felt not only by the Commission but by many of our friends in the OSCE region who have worked with him over the years: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the House of Representatives— (1) recognizes Robert A. Hand’s 40 years of dedicated service to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (United States Helsinki Commission); (2) appreciates his sound policy guidance on the Balkans and other regions throughout his time with the Commission; (3) congratulates him on his successes as Secretary of the United States delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly; and (4) wishes him all the best in the next chapters of his personal and professional endeavors.

  • Decolonizing the Russian Empire

        Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine has shocked the world for its brutality and aggression. But the Kremlin’s violent designs in Ukraine, and other military adventures in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, are part of a larger and longer legacy of Russian imperialism that directly threaten its neighbors and imprison a multitude of nations within its authoritarian empire. This side event explores the destructive effects of Russian imperialism and how the unfolding genocide in Ukraine is a natural outgrowth of these colonial policies. Drawing on regional perspectives of those victimized by Russia’s brutal empire, the panel will highlight the realities of Russian colonialism and what a process of decolonization—elevating marginalized voices and providing for their full political and civic self-expression—would mean for Russia and for its neighbors.

  • My "Hell" in Russian Captivity

    Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine include the brutal and unlawful detention of thousands of Ukrainians. At this hearing, Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, a well-known Ukrainian volunteer medic who was detained in Mariupol in March and held by the Russians for three months, testified about her capture, the deplorable conditions of her captivity, the plight of those who continue to be detained unlawfully, and her lifesaving work since 2014 providing medical assistance to those wounded by Russia’s war.   Taira outlined the daily experience of torture, psychological manipulation, and inhumane living conditions she and others were subjected to by their Russian captors. She explained that she was detained during a document check, and when a guard recognized her name, she was singled out for especially cruel treatment.    Held in the occupied territories but under the direct control of Russian forces, Taira spent three months in captivity. Her captors attempted to force a public confession from her for crimes she had not committed. Taira knew they would use this footage to drive the Russian propaganda narrative of Ukrainian cruelty and defend their own atrocities. She had seen footage of friends and colleagues admitting to crimes she knows they did not commit in order to escape the torture that she herself faced. Taira noted that the Russians spared no one, capturing and torturing civilians as well as soldiers.   After thanking the United States for all the support it has given to Ukraine, she asked for help fighting Russian propaganda. She believes that the world must challenge Russian narratives. Taira requested additional shipments of modern weapons from the United States, stating that Ukrainians have proved themselves as responsible stewards of American weaponry and will use them to continue fighting with honor. She also asked for American help in facilitating international access to prisons in occupied Ukraine, in order to ensure fair treatment of prisoners according to the Geneva Conventions. Finally, Taira requested that the United States designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, continue supporting Ukraine financially, and recognize the violence and oppression committed by Russia in Ukraine as a genocide.     

  • Helsinki Commission Slams Shutdown of Novaya Gazeta

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today condemned the shutdown of Novaya Gazeta in Russia, following the decision of a Moscow court to strip the outlet of its print media registration. They issued the following joint statement: “The Kremlin assault on the last vestiges of independent media in Russia confirms that Vladimir Putin is afraid of the truth. Novaya Gazeta has been a pillar of free Russian media since it was founded in 1993 by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, with the support of late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Putin has spent years attacking truth-tellers in Russia’s information space in order to build a country where lies and distortion of reality serve his interests. Russia’s horrific war against Ukraine, the atrocities committed by the Russian army, and the state-sponsored justification and praise of this violence are the terrible consequences of this dark and cynical manipulation. Russia needs independent journalism now more than ever.” In March 2022, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Putin’s War on Truth,” which examined Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on independent media in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission leadership lauded the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Russia’s Dmitry Muratov, longtime editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta. Muratov dedicated his Nobel Prize award to his slain Novaya Gazeta colleagues Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova. In a November 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing on violence against journalists and impunity in Russia, Muratov, who provided testimony, said, “I would like to ask you a huge favor. In every meeting, in any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions. Please try not to be too polite.”  

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Discusses Role as Special Representative for Political Prisoner

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep Steve Cohen (TN-09) today spoke at a virtual hearing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA)about his new role as the assembly’s special representative for political prisoners. Co-Chairman Cohen thanked OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden for naming him to the special representative role and expressed his disappointment at the increased need to call attention to attacks on human rights as conditions around the world continue to deteriorate. He spoke in particular on the cases of Russian politicians Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, as well as politicians, journalists and dissidents in Belarus, Egypt, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Co-Chairman Cohen said of Kara-Murza, arrested after returning home to Moscow: “I will not let him be forgotten.” He also said in part: “I appreciate President Cederfelt’s appointment and her faith in me to execute this position as special representative on political prisoners. I take it very seriously and have been working on it regularly, notifying through posts on social media, press releases and calling on governments to release political prisoners. Unfortunately, this role is becoming more and more significant as we have more and more political prisoners… “I’ve contacted Secretary Blinken to work with him and the State Department. We’ve brought attention to political prisoners not only in Russia and Belarus but also in Myanmar and Egypt and, unfortunately, in several of the OSCE countries there are political prisoners as well…Conditions all around the world are getting worse…and Russia is the worst.” See his entire remarks here.

  • Ukrainian Medic to Testify on “Hell” in Russian Captivity, War in Ukraine at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: MY “HELL” IN RUSSIAN CAPTIVITY Taira Paievska on Russia’s War in Ukraine Thursday, September 15, 2022 9:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine include the brutal and unlawful detention of thousands of Ukrainians. At this hearing, Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, a Ukrainian volunteer medic who was detained in Mariupol in March and held by the Russians for three months, will testify about her capture; the deplorable conditions of her three-month captivity; the plight of those who continue to be detained unlawfully; and her lifesaving work since 2014 providing medical assistance to those wounded by Russia’s war. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, Ukrainian veteran and volunteer paramedic; Commander, “Taira’s Angels” Dr. Hanna Hopko, Co-Founder, International Center for Ukrainian Victory; Former Chair, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Parliament of Ukraine

  • Helsinki Commission Alarmed By Reported Transport of S-300 Missile Systems by Russia into the Black Sea

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Sparta II, a Russian cargo ship, transported S-300 missile systems through the Turkish Straits, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are alarmed by Russia’s reported transport of S-300 missile systems through the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea.  As Russia is waging a bloody, unprovoked war against Ukraine, it is critical that any supplies of arms to Moscow be cut off as quickly and efficiently as possible. Any additional weapon in the hands of the Kremlin would mean another Ukrainian who would lose his or her life to the aggressor. “As the gatekeeper to the Black Sea, Turkey must do everything in its power to stop the flow of arms to Russia. We are perplexed that while third parties were able to spot the ship as it was entering the straits, it appears the Turkish government failed to prevent it from delivering the missile systems to Russia. Such systems will inevitably be deployed to commit crimes against humanity. “We are sure that Turkey does not want to be complicit in this by failing to carry out its responsibilities. We urge Turkish authorities to clarify their role in allowing the Sparta II into the Black Sea.” 

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeniy Roizman

    WASHINGTON—Following the arrest of the Kremlin critic and former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeniy Roizman, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “The arrest and prosecution of Yevgeniy Roizman is another milestone in the Kremlin’s descent into a full-blown dictatorship. “Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine is what dishonors the Russian military. Mr. Roizman simply has reminded his fellow citizens of that truth. “As Mr. Roizman noted in a recent interview covered by the New York Times, ‘the worst thing is when you suddenly see that there is a lot of evil, that evil is winning, that evil is being supported. Evil can only win when it joins together with a lie.’ “Mr. Roizman also served as the mayor of Yekaterinburg, the same city where Brittney Griner played since 2014. “The Russian government should drop all the charges against Mr. Roizman and not put any restrictions on his work and activism, and I continue to call for the immediate release of other political prisoners including Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexey Navalny, and Ilya Yashin, as well as Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan, Marc Fogel, and other journalists, dissidents, and wrongfully detained individuals in Russia.”  

  • It’s Time to Throw NATO’s Door Wide Open

    NATO was meant to be a harbor for the weak and imperiled. It should be again. June’s NATO summit in Madrid was by every account a historic event. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine andbroader belligerence against Europe, NATO unveiled a muscular new strategic concept and invited Finland and Swedento join the alliance—an epochal moment for the two traditionally neutral countries and a major statement for thealliance’s “open door” policy. Yet looming over all of this are the uncertain fates of the two countries most suffering from Russian aggression: Ukraine and Georgia. Both nations were promised membership in the alliance during the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, yet bothremain outside of it. Now, the enormous human and material toll of Russia’s genocidal, neo-imperial war in Ukraine hasput NATO’s extended and unfulfi lled promises into sharp, indelible relief. Obscured by ambiguous technicalities, the alliance’s failure to provide Ukraine and Georgia with a concrete pathway to membership was clearly an unintentional but predictable invitation to Russian aggression. As Ukrainians desperately defend their homeland and count civilians and their children among those killed, the moraland strategic poverty of Ukraine’s deferred accession is laid bare. NATO and its members must now reckon with thewages of a passive approach and rethink the alliance’s founding purpose. The bloc was never meant as an exclusive country club of the rich and strong but rather a harbor for the weak and imperiled. It should be again. In April, while observing the Hungarian parliamentary elections, I saw for myself the heartrending humanitarian crisis on Ukraine’s borders with Hungary and Slovakia. I saw children who had traveled great distances with their families, clutching the meager mementos of home; I met Ukrainians who traveled back and forth across the borders, bringing supplies from the European Union into western Ukrainian cities; and I saw the humanity of volunteers giving some measure of comfort and welcome to weary refugees who had, at long last, reached the promise of safety at the European Union’s frontiers. But what I didn’t see were any great barriers or edifices of geography to suggest the line where, on one side, NATO would risk nuclear war in the people’s defense and on the other side—in Ukraine—it would not. In the United States and Europe, discussions about the borders between NATO and the rest of Europe are treated like immutable features of geography or acts of god, as though certain states and people are afforded divine predestination into the Euro-Atlantic’s rarefied elect. Decisions in the run-up to the war to withhold crucial assistance or provide security guarantees were often justified based on Ukraine’s non-membership in NATO, even though concrete pathways into the alliance have never been offered despite the 2008 declaration. The idea that Ukraine and Georgia were somehow unready or unable to meet NATO’s technical criteria has always been a problematic argument. At no point has NATO established hard, technical benchmarks for membership—clear, achievable standards for entry—and doing so might have risked Ukraine and Georgia passing muster, potentially embarrassing the countries that were categorically opposed to their accession. Realistically, NATO enlargement has always been a political decision. More recent fixations on technical “readiness” and process were introduced after the Cold War to amplify NATO’s turn from a Cold War bulwark to a carrier of Euro-Atlantic values and to manage booming Eastern European demand for membership. But today, Moscow’s threat to Europe’s peace is all too apparent again—and devastatingly so in Ukraine as well as in Georgia. In response, NATO should change with the strategic landscape—not with “retrenchment,” in which it builds its walls higher while Ukraine and other threatened partners burn, but with aggressive enlargement. NATO is generally considered something of a walled garden—a protected redoubt of relative peace, prosperity, and predictability. However, this reputation elides the seismic strategic revolution that founding and early expansion represented. Firmly in the nuclear age and facing Soviet expansionism after two horrific continental wars in the first half of the 20th century, the United States sought to create structures to arrest Europe’s ruinous cycles of great-power war. Against thevery real risk of Soviet imperialism and a potential third World War, NATO created a protected sanctuary around Europe’s most threatened, impoverished, and war-torn countries. “I am sure,” then-U.S. President Harry Truman said just a year before NATO’s founding, “that the determination of the free countries of Europe to protect themselves will be matched by an equal determination on our part to help them.” To create the rules-based paradise of modern Europe, the United States and its closest allies drew a line in the face of Soviet expansionism and said: No further. Despite war weariness and the steep task of reconstruction, the North Atlantic founders pooled their military power and political determination as well as risked a third World War in Europe’s defense. The countries that joined were hardly all first-rate military powers, economic dynamos, or stable democracies—manywere politically unstable, militarily sapped, and economically broken. Several, such as Portugal and Spain, were military dictatorships. The principal continental combatants in World War II—Germany, France, and Italy—were quite literally ruined by the war and took decades to recover. Yet the United States and the other original NATO members didn’t quibble interminably over the vagaries of a threatened partner’s democratic credentials or its uptake of various technical or military reforms, and they generally accepted European states that sought Washington’s protection and a Western orientation. This wasn’t because of Western indifference to democracy but rather a recognition that democratization under the shadow of an imminent Soviet threat was essentially impossible and that a country swallowed by Moscow’s imperial agenda had no chance of true self-determination—much less democracy. Speaking of NATO’s purpose, then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson described it as “designed to contribute to thestability and well-being of the member nations by removing the haunting sense of insecurity” posed by Soviet expansionism. It took time, but the strategy paid off. Under NATO and the United States’ nuclear umbrella, great-power war was avoided, Europe democratized and prospered, and the Soviet Union and its brand of colonialism was dismantled, freeing tens of millions of people. With Russia again in the throes of despotism and expansionist militarism, the conditions that accompanied NATO’s founding are all too familiar. Russian aggression in the heart of Europe is an incontrovertible reality—as Ukraine’s blood-soaked lands so clearly attest—and there is no reason to believe or expect Moscow to stop until and unless it is stopped. NATO must meet the moment. Dithering over peacetime technicalities defi es NATO’s original purpose to secure Europefrom the specter of Moscow’s violently imperial agenda. This is not a return to the Cold War, but it is no less a civilizational struggle against a military dictatorship in Moscow. This threat is particularly plain and present for the millions of Ukrainians and Georgians who have had no choice but to suffer on the wrong side of the geopolitical train tracks. NATO should return to its roots and fling open its doors to all those in Europe at risk of Russia’s predations. How can this be done? NATO decisions, including membership, require consensus. Transitioning to a wartime open door policy will require a major shift in thinking. For one, the United States, as the ultimate underwriter of NATO’s military might, should take steps to provide robust security assistance and assurances to threatened partners—such as those promises it has given Finland and Sweden until their accession is complete—and encourage other like-minded allies to do the same. Similarly, NATO handwringing over outstanding territorial disputes—almost always created or supported by Moscow—should officially become a nonissue. Russia should not be rewarded for cultivating and backing violent separatist movements that inoculate the parent countries from NATO accession. If anything, Russian meddling and aggression evinces the necessity of NATO’s protection. This is simple in principle but admittedly difficult in policy amid hot war. How can Ukraine join NATO without triggering a global conflict? First, the United States and its allies can all do more to ensure that Ukraine has military dominance overits own territory and win its war of independence. Mystifying gaps that undermine Western sanctions policies demand attention—such as continued European dependence on Russian energy, U.S. imports of Russian steel, and the growing role of China and other countries in the Middle East, Eurasia, and Asia (including friends and partners) to bypass or ease the impact of international trade sanctions. Likewise, U.S. hesitance over delivering heavy arms and munitions to Ukraine must end. The delivery of U.S. artillery and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) platforms have completely changed the momentum of the conflict in recent weeks; more longer-range munitions and Western fast-jet capabilities could help Ukraine expand the initiative against Russia’s high-mass but low-morale attacking force. Second, the United States could consider extending its nuclear umbrella over Ukraine to erase Russia’s nuclear advantage and any temptation it may have to use nuclear weapons as Russian conventional losses mount. Doing so would only be a stronger and clearer statement of current U.S. policy that Russia’s use of weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable” and “entail severe consequences,” as U.S. President Joe Biden has already said. Against such a horrifying possibility, the West could stand to be much clearer on the evident downsides of such a strategy, which would itself violate Russian nuclear doctrine. And third, the United States can and should have discussions about certain security guarantees for free areas of Ukraine, such as via the provision of the most advanced Western arms or direct Western air defense coverage. For Georgia, and even for a country like Moldova should it so choose, it is even clearer: Provide support and security guarantees over non-occupied regions. Finally, democratic principles should remain a core requirement for NATO. Although the exigencies of the moment maynot allow the luxury of waiting for perfect democratization to develop before entry, NATO can and should create more robust and independent internal mechanisms to monitor and highlight vulnerabilities, advise and assist all members with undertaking difficult reforms, and hold members accountable for sustained and significant democratic backsliding. As Ukraine’s brave people fight for survival and every inch of their homeland against Russia’s overwhelming and genocidal war, it is impossible not to wonder what might have been had NATO understood in 2008 in Bucharest or in 2014 in Wales what horrors could have been prevented if Ukraine had been spirited into the alliance, along with Georgia. Ukraine will win this war, and Russia will lose—but in many ways, it is already too late for Ukraine and Georgia, having been so thoroughly and persistently victimized by Russian aggression. Yet each moment they are left to fend for themselves only compounds the error—and the shame.

  • NATO Refocused, Europe Reinforced

    By Jessika Nebrat, Max Kampelman Fellow​ Following the escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is playing a role it has not filled in years. Forced to reconcentrate its attention to Europe’s defense, NATO allies are demonstrating persistent resolve in countering Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. In doing so, NATO returns to a core facet of its founding mission: the defense against Moscow’s militarism. While NATO represents just one facet of the Euro-Atlantic security infrastructure, it is perhaps the most robust organization bound by formal agreements, dedicated to peacekeeping, and capable of enforcement. Its mission to “guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means” echoes the first dimension principles outlined by the Helsinki Final Act, and aligns NATO with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. Helsinki Commission. In supporting each other’s work, these institutions mutually reinforce their shared values and bolster European security. History of NATO In the aftermath of the second World War, the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations sought to boost European economic reconstruction and protect themselves from Soviet domination. The 1947 Treaty of Dunkirk predated NATO in promoting Atlantic alliance and mutual assistance between France and the United Kingdom. The agreement was expanded in March 1948 as the Treaty of Brussels to engage Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in military, economic, social, and cultural cooperation. In the same month, the United States hosted talks intended to unite both North American and Western European allies; as a result, NATO was officially signed into existence on April 4, 1949. The 12 founding member nations derived their legitimacy from United Nations (UN) Charter Article 51, which affirmed the right to collective defense. The foundational NATO Treaty mentioned collective defense only after declaring the parties’ commitments to finding peaceful resolutions of disputes, upholding UN principles, strengthening free institutions, and promoting economic collaboration. The Alliance formally defined its principal objectives to deter Soviet expansionism, oppose nationalist militarism on the continent, and bolster European political integration. Though it sought to deter military aggression, NATO’s original treaty did not provide any means of enforcing the agreed-upon principles. It was not until after the USSR’s 1949 detonation of an atomic bomb and the 1950 start of the Korean War that NATO approved a military command structure. In response, the Soviet Union established the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Though neither of the two ideologically opposed organizations used force during the Cold War, they engaged in an arms race that persisted until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. NATO after the Cold War Once NATO no longer had to defend against Soviet expansionism, the Alliance broadened the scope of its peacekeeping and security enforcement missions. In the 1990s, NATO forces were deployed: to Turkey during the Gulf Crisis; upon request to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States nations as part of a humanitarian mission after the fall of the USSR; to enforce a UN arms embargo and no-fly zone over former Yugoslavia; and in the Central Mediterranean during a period of tension with Libya. In the 21st century, NATO forces were also deployed during: the Second Gulf War; to the US and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the only Article 5 invocation in NATO history; to mitigate rising ethnic tensions in North Macedonia; to counter terrorist activity in the Mediterranean; as counter-piracy escorts to UN World Food Programme ships transiting the Gulf of Aden; to train Iraqi security forces; to enforce a no-fly zone after the popular uprising in Libya; for peacekeeping in Sudan; and to provide disaster relief throughout Europe, the Middle East, and in the United States. NATO currently maintains active operations in Kosovo, the Mediterranean, Iraq, and throughout the African Union; it recently ramped up air policing as part of a peace-keeping response to the Russian Federation’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the escalation against Ukraine this past February. Kremlin Narrative against NATO Over the years, Moscow has repeatedly resisted NATO enlargement – especially for countries it claims within its sphere of influence. Putin asserts that during a 1990 summit between President George H. W. Bush and President Gorbachev, the United States promised no further expansion of NATO; civil servants present at that meeting have refuted this claim, as has Mr. Gorbachev himself. In his conversation with Bush, Gorbachev repeatedly affirmed that nations have the right to make their own alliances. Though internal U.S. analyses of the 1990s suggested that expansion eastward may not be politically expedient, such positions never became official policy. The United States has remained resolute in its recognition of sovereign choice, and expansion has been driven by requests from former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states wary of Russian revanchism. The Kremlin has deployed an opposing narrative to justify Russian military engagements in Georgia in the early 2000s, and more recently in Ukraine. Putin sees the inclusion of either nation in NATO, and the political and economic liberalization that go with it, as threats to his regime’s stability. NATO membership would limit Russian interference in the internal affairs of either state. Additionally, if Russia’s neighbors and fellow post-Soviet states can become true democracies, provide higher quality of living, and ensure the rule of law, then why can’t Putin’s Russia? Any argument that NATO expansion threatens Russia misrepresents the organization, which is a diverse coalition dedicated to mutual defense and development. Moreover, such an assertion overlooks the efforts NATO has made to include and collaborate with Russia in the pursuit of cooperative security. NATO Back to its Roots By illegally and brutally invading Ukraine in February 2022 – a dramatic escalation of the grinding conflict started in 2014 – Putin has galvanized European and Western unity. Hearkening to its origins and returning attention to Eastern Europe, NATO is recommitting itself to “counter Russia’s attempts to destroy the foundations of international security and stability.” The international community is largely on board. In its collective attention beyond security, NATO – alongside other organizations – highlights not only the potential for, but the responsibility of the international community to condemn human rights violations, uphold the rule of law, and pursue economic health, all efforts that further challenge the Kremlin’s narrative that it can lead (or that there even needs to exist) an opposing bloc. Alarmed by Moscow’s renewed expansionism, Sweden and Finland have abandoned decades of neutrality in favor of NATO membership. They are on track towards the fastest accession process in history, and anticipate a smooth integration. Both already engage in the wider European community through membership in such organizations as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Their force structures are robust, and well-versed in NATO procedures following decades of partnership; their accession will secure northeast Europe, expand NATO’s border with Russia, and reinforce NATO presence in the Arctic and Baltic Sea. Although the Kremlin initially vowed “military and political repercussions” were Finland and Sweden to join NATO, such threats have dulled to warnings about the installation of NATO military infrastructure nearer Russia’s borders; as Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership neared finalization, Putin even expressed “no problem” with these states joining the Alliance. It remains to be seen how this change will play out. After decades of orientation towards international stabilization, humanitarian, and counterinsurgency mission sets, NATO has been refocused on European deterrence and defense following the Kremlin’s violent assault on Ukraine. In addition to condemning Russia’s invasion and supporting Ukraine via such measures as the Comprehensive Assistance Package, NATO plays a critical role in championing European collective defense and discouraging any expansion of conflict.    

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Calls for the Release of Political Prisoners in Belarus

    Washington – On the second anniversary of the sham presidential election in Belarus, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Two years ago today, Belarus’s autocrat Aleksander Lukashenko put up a show of an election that he had hoped would legitimize his unconstitutional power grab. Despite the many and well-documented cases of election abuse, the people of Belarus did not fall for the tricks of the one-man ruler of Belarus. They voted Lukashenko out, but, predictably, he refused to leave. He ignored the will of the people and chose vicious violence to suppress the peaceful dissent. “In the year following the unprecedented in scale peaceful rallies against the 2020 election results, Lukashenko’s troops arrested, tortured and imprisoned a reported 35,000 Belarusians for the simple act of demanding the government respect their choice and rights. He personally presided over the largest ever domestic repression that saw thousands behind bars and tens of thousands flee the country, including the opposition leader and likely legitimate winner absent election fraud, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been welcomed by neighboring countries. “Since that time, Lukashenko has continued a crackdown on civic participation in Belarus with arrests of civilians protesting the Russian war in Ukraine, changes to Belarus’s non-nuclear status, and the ongoing Lukashenko regime during last year’s March 25th anniversary of Belarus’s ‘Freedom Day,’ adding to the already sizeable number of politically motivated detainments in the country. “There are now close to 1200 individuals languishing in Belarusian prisons for speaking out against authoritarianism, corruption and war. Included among the political prisoners are: Syarhey Tsikhanouski, husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and potential candidate against Lukashenko detained in May 2020; Roman Protasevich, journalist and opposition figure accused of inciting mass protests and detained after a false bomb threat forced the landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 destined for Lithuania in Belarus in May 2021; Sofia Sapega, Russian citizen and girlfriend of Protasevich who also was aboard Ryanair flight FR4978; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Belarus Service journalists Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk and Aleh Kruzdzilovic; and Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna Human Rights Centre, a human rights organization based in Minsk that provides financial and legal support to political prisoners. These are but a few names representing political candidates, oppositionists, activists, journalists and other Belarusian and non-Belarusian citizens detained by Lukashenko’s regime. “Lukashenko must immediately order the release of all political prisoners and wrongfully detained individuals and stop the systematic violations of human rights.  I call on the U.S. Department of State and our allies abroad to work together during this time of heightened tension with Belarus and Belarus’s benefactor, Russia, to ensure the unjustly imprisoned Belarusians are released at the earliest date possible.”

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest July 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. Ilya Yashin, a Russian patriot and a fierce critic of the war in Ukraine, is one of the victims of this regime. “Ilya spoke out against the war despite the cynical law Russia has adopted that punishes people speaking the truth on this conflict with up to 15 years in prison. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and is facing a lengthy jail term for no crime other than publicly speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ilya is a political prisoner and should be given all protections afforded by this status. The Russian government has a complete disregard for international law and customs but if they have an ounce of respect for their own laws, they will immediately release Ilya and other political prisoners.” Ilya Yashin, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement, is a member of a Moscow city district council. Throughout his career, he advocated for fair elections, rule of law, and democracy in Russia. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Yashin was one of the few Russian opposition activists who had not been killed, forced to flee, or imprisoned.

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