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Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on Russia's Infrastructure Terrorists

Friday, December 02, 2022

 

           HELSINKI COMMISSION
         COMMISSION BRIEFING NOTICE

Members of the Commission and their staff are respectfully invited to attend the following Commission staff-led briefing:

RUSSIA’S INFRASTRUCTURE TERRORISTS

Thursday, December 8, 2022
3:30 p.m.

Please Register Here

Russia, in its brutal war against Ukrainians, has been ruthlessly and methodically targeting Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and other civilian objects, plunging millions of Ukrainians, including children and the elderly, into darkness and cold. Schools, hospitals, maternity wards, and kindergartens have not been able to function. And while there are no reliable estimates on the number of civilian deaths that may be attributed to this infrastructure terrorism, it’s clear Russia is targeting infrastructure to maximize pain to civilians and damage their property. As a prominent Russian propaganda channel sickeningly put it, “… it is difficult to believe in victory when funerals come to your own friends, and you yourself are without light, heat and water, going to bathroom in a bucket.”  Russia’s goal is to demoralize and terrorize Ukrainians which is a crime against humanity under international humanitarian law.

Ukrainians have responded to this terror with heroic efforts to restore power grid, water, and heating to as many citizens as possible as fast as possible. However, Russia’s attacks continue and the Ukrainian grid teeters on the brink of failure under stresses no civilian power was ever designed to withstand.

This briefing will examine the extent of damage to critical infrastructure, the toll in human suffering, and what the United States can do to help Ukrainians survive this cruel winter.

The following panelist is scheduled to participate:

  1. The Honorable Oleksandra Azarkhina, Deputy Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine
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  • Helsinki Commissioners Announce Re-Introduction of HARM Act

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

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

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

  • Russian landmines will pose dangers to Ukraine long after the fighting is over

    Russia’s 10-month-old invasion is leaving an enduring scar on Ukraine even beyond the lives lost, the homes, the roads and the factories destroyed, and the cultural landmarks demolished.  The government in Kyiv said this month that an area of Ukraine slightly larger than the state of Georgia — about 60,000 square miles — is virtually uninhabitable because of the presence of land mines and other deadly explosives, planted in the frozen conflict dating to 2014 and the war that has ravaged large swaths of the country since Russian forces invaded in February. Even after the guns are silenced and even if the last Russian soldier has been forced back across the border, the challenges for Ukraine to return to normal will be staggering, analysts say. Countries around the world are offering support for Ukraine’s de-mining needs. U.S. officials expect it to be one of the largest such efforts since the end of World War II. Undertaking such a task is difficult enough during peacetime but seemingly insurmountable while the fighting continues. “Clearing this explosive contamination is a top priority for the government of Ukraine,” said Michael Tirre, with the State Department’s office of weapons removal and abatement. “The sheer magnitude of explosive hazard and contamination is overwhelming.” Since the start of the largest war in Europe since World War II, land mines and other unexploded ordnance have killed or maimed more than 1,100 civilians, U.S. officials said. Ukraine is one of the world’s top exporters of agricultural commodities such as wheat, barley and corn, but at least 10% of the country’s agricultural lands have been rendered untillable since the Russian invasion because of the presence of land mines and other explosives. A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that has driven back Russian forces in the south and east has only shed a more glaring light on the problem. “Russian forces in retreat have intentionally booby-trapped homes and civilian infrastructure. The consequences go well beyond the immediate danger to civilians and are far-reaching and potentially long-lasting,” said Demitra Pappas, an official with the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. A Human Rights Watch survey this summer reported that Russians had deployed at least seven anti-personnel mine models in parts of Ukraine, including at least one fragmentation mine that had never before been reported in combat. Both sides have used anti-vehicle mines as well. The human rights group noted that Russia, like the U.S. and China, did not sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty but remains bound by mine, booby-trap and other device restrictions included in the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. Ukraine has signed the 1997 pact. The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a report this month that mines caused major problems in the clashes between the government in Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region in the Ukrainian civil war that began in 2014. The first full winter of the Russian invasion has compounded the danger, the report said. “The misery and destruction inflicted by such hidden threats are immense,” ICRC Eurasia Director Ariane Bauer said in the report. “Blasts can be fatal or cause injuries such as blindness, burns, damaged limbs and deep shrapnel wounds. In addition to the loss of life and injury, unexploded ordnance frequently hinders or prevents access to essential services like hospitals or they make repairs to water and power facilities unsafe or prolonged.”  The Biden administration is providing more than $91 million worth of de-mining assistance to Ukraine over the coming year. About $47 million will go to Tetra Tech Inc. The consulting and engineering company, based in Pasadena, California, has been hired to help expand Ukraine’s ability to locate and remove mines. The first step is to establish a joint training facility that will allow government agencies in Ukraine to standardize and refine their training in clearing explosives and similar hazards. “Once the conflict ends, the work will shift from reactionary to stabilization and then into long-term clearance activities,” Todd Biggs, Tetra Tech’s vice president for munitions response, said from Kyiv during a de-mining briefing hosted this month by the Helsinki Commission. Building up resources Ukraine has more than 200 de-mining teams — about 1,000 personnel — and plans to double that figure next year. The teams have different specialties. Some conduct interviews with the public to find evidence of explosives, while others clear minefields and battle areas. “The teams will also include explosive ordnance risk education teams that are critical for teaching civilians how to recognize, avoid and report hazards,” Mr. Biggs said. “There are not enough teams to adequately cover all high-priority areas.” The explosive hazards left by Russian military forces kill and maim innocent Ukrainian civilians and block access to farmland, impede reconstruction efforts and prevent displaced people from returning to their homes.  U.S. and Ukrainian officials say Russian troops have booby-trapped children’s toys and even the bodies of people killed in the invasion, in a style reminiscent of the Islamic State group’s terrorist operations in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials said.  “ISIS terrorists sought to inflict as many civilians as possible and made people afraid to go home,” Mr. Tirre said.  Explosive experts said Russian munitions might have dud rates of 10% to 30%, meaning a massive number of unexploded munitions could remain in the ground for years to come, U.S. officials said. What they may lack in top-of-the-line equipment, the Ukrainian de-mining teams make up for it with grit and expertise, international explosive experts said. “The Ukrainian people are incredibly resilient [and] incredibly determined to resolve the problem,” said Tony Connell, with the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action. “I’ve never been in a country where the national staff is so determined to get rid of the problem.” Ukrainian personnel, including local police units, the military and state emergency services, are doing most of the de-mining work.  “These incredibly brave and skilled Ukrainian de-mining and explosive ordnance disposal teams have found and destroyed more than 500,000 explosive hazards,” Mr. Tirre said. “Clearing this explosive contamination is a top priority for the government of Ukraine.” Tetra Tech plans to deploy at least 100 de-mining teams into Ukraine by early next year, a dramatic increase from the 22 teams it was supporting at the start of the invasion. The company’s plan would create the only large-scale de-mining school operating within Ukraine. Other training was typically conducted outside the country. “Ukraine has substantial expertise, and our project is designed with this in mind,” Mr. Biggs said. “Ukrainian operators have experienced severe casualties. They urgently need this training and equipment.” The de-mining course usually takes four to five weeks, and the company recruits from local populations. The work doesn’t require any specialized background.  The local teams are taught how to recognize types of mines and how to carry out excavations. They also receive first-aid training. A 10-member team usually has an international leader, a driver, a translator and local staff. The Ukrainians appreciate offers of de-mining help by the U.S. and other countries but say it’s ultimately their responsibility to complete the task, Mr. Biggs said. “They definitely want to be in the lead. They want to fix the problem,” he said. “They don’t want to just rely on others doing it.” It’s hard to determine how much it will cost to completely clear Ukraine of the explosive hazards because a national land mine survey has not been conducted. Mr. Biggs said he had seen estimates of $73 billion. When asked how long it could take, Mr. Biggs said, “Several decades.”

  • The Case for Designating Wagner Group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization Is Still Compelling

    Earlier this year, we argued in Lawfare that the secretary of state should use his authority under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) to designate Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group and its affiliates as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Since then, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act in the 117th Congress (S.5164 and H.R.9381, respectively). The HARM Act would direct the secretary of state to designate the Wagner Group as an FTO and has bipartisan co-sponsorship. Though the bill did not make it to a floor for a vote before the conclusion of the 117th Congress, it is expected to be reintroduced in the 118th Congress. On Dec. 2, 2022, the secretary of state also designated the Wagner Group as an entity of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 for its indiscriminate targeting and murder of members of minority religious groups in the Central African Republic. This was followed on Dec. 21, 2022, by a ruling from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), which amended the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) based on BIS’s determination that the Wagner Group is to be considered a Russian or Belarusian “military end user” under § 744.21 of the EAR. This determination restricts the Wagner Group’s access to certain foreign-produced items (primarily but not exclusively weapons and munitions) that use U.S. technology.  While the IRFA designation and the Commerce Department’s actions are important steps, the need for effective tools to suppress the malign activities of the Wagner Group continues to grow. In the wake of Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, some committed by the Wagner Group, there also have been calls to designate Russia itself as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST).  However, an FTO designation, rather than an SST designation, provides greater latitude for the U.S. and is thus the preferable option between the two. We maintain that designating the Wagner Group as an FTO continues to be necessary, and the HARM Act is the right way to achieve that outcome. Since our original article was published, Prigozhin has given up all pretenses that the Wagner Group is a private company unaffiliated with the Russian state. Over the past several months, Wagner Group forces, with criminals recruited directly from Russia’s prisons, are reportedly fully integrated into Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. Reporting continues to tie Wagner Group members to regular violations of the law of armed conflict and the human rights of innocent civilians worldwide. Take, for example, the Wagner Group’s release of a horrific video similar to those recorded by the Islamic State. In this video, a Wagner Group deserter, Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was repatriated to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange, was murdered by Wagner Group members using a sledgehammer. Not only did Wagner Group owner Prigozhin not deny the video’s authenticity, but he also went so far as to comment publicly that “Nuzhin was a traitor” and “the dog died a dog’s death.” Beyond Ukraine, the Wagner Group continues to use murder and intimidation in the Central African Republic and other African states to obtain access to gold,  diamonds, and other natural resources to circumvent both financial sanctions on Russia and international sanctions against marketing diamonds from conflict zones. Reporting from the New York Times at the end of last year indicated that Wagner Group operatives, working in concert with the Russian Embassy, orchestrated the firing of the head of the Central African Republic’s Supreme Court to ensure that the country’s current president remains in power beyond his two-term limit as a puppet of the Wagner Group. Why the concern about controlling the Central African Republic? As the New York Times describes it, the country is rich in gold and diamonds, as well as timber. Prigozhin, several of his associates, and the Wagner Group are already subject to U.S. sanctions authorized under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which allows the Treasury Department to freeze assets within its reach and to prevent the entry of designated individuals into the United States. These sanctions also allow the U.S. government to block any transactions that are subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and that involve sanctioned individuals and entities (50 U.S.C. § 1702). Sanctions under IEEPA are most effective in discouraging banks with any presence in the United States from engaging in financial transactions with any sanctioned entities. For instance, BNP Paribas pleaded guilty to sanctions violations and was fined $8.9 billion in 2014 for processing financial transactions on behalf of sanctioned entities in the Sudan, Iran, and Cuba.  The December 2022 designation of the Wagner Group as an entity of particular concern under the IRFA highlights its persistent violations of human rights and use of terror worldwide. (On the IRFA, see this primer.) As an entity of particular concern under the IRFA, the Wagner Group joins the ranks of international terrorist groups like the Taliban, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab, and other international terrorist groups designated under this Act. While IRFA designation does publicly condemn the Wagner Group for religious-based human rights violations, such designation does not bring additional sanctions to the Wagner Group. The Dec. 21, 2022, amendment of the EAR is intended to prevent Wagner Group’s access to any U.S. products, to include products produced overseas using U.S. technology, by expanding U.S. sanctions under the Foreign Direct Product Rule (15 CFR § 734.9). We note, however, that the murders and massacres attributed to Wagner Group mercenaries over the years have been accomplished using Russian-made weapons and equipment and that therefore this action is likely to have limited impact in terms of preventing the Wagner Group’s paramilitary activities. It is not clear how effective the new sanctions will be in limiting the Wagner Group’s expansive mining and logging activities in a number of African countries, which do require commercial equipment, some of which may be subject to the Foreign Direct Product Rule. The expanded Commerce Department sanctions do not extend to non-U.S. products, nor do they cover the vast array of services required for commercial operations. The actions taken under authorities of IEEPA, the IRFA, and the EAR are unlikely to have a serious impact on the Wagner Group’s current ability to operate, especially in Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East.   It remains our view that the most effective tool against the Wagner Group remains the tool that has been used against other international terrorist groups: a designation of the Wagner Group as an FTO under the AEDPA. The major difference between an FTO designation and existing sanctions is that an FTO designation would bring into effect the U.S. material support to terrorism statutes. The extraterritorial reach of these provisions would make it a crime to provide material support to the Wagner Group and its affiliates. The Wagner Group relies on an extensive network of companies and foreign government officials to enable its various nefarious activities. Designating the Wagner Group as an FTO would put these individuals and entities on notice that their continued commercial dealings with the Wagner Group in all of its guises will put them at risk of violating the material support to terrorism statutes of the United States. Designation as an FTO will make it legally dangerous to provide support to the Wagner Group as it currently is to provide support to other FTOs, such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The HARM Act was proposed based on a legislative finding that the Wagner Group meets the statutory definition of a foreign terrorist organization and that the activities of the Wagner Group and its affiliates pose a threat to the national interests and national security of the United States, its allies, and partners. The HARM Act details specific activities of the Wagner Group and its affiliates that demonstrate that the Wagner Group engages in premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets. The HARM Act also demonstrates bipartisan congressional support for designating the Wagner Group as an FTO.    Since clear statutory authority already exists to allow the secretary of state to designate the Wagner Group as an FTO, it is not necessary for the Biden administration to wait for this legislation before taking action. The secretary of state could achieve the goal of the HARM Act in short order by designating the Wagner Group under the existing authority of the AEDPA.  We continue to believe that the designation of the Wagner Group as an FTO, which will enable use of the material support to terrorism authorities of the AEDPA, will be the most effective tool to combat the Wagner Group’s activities. Sanctions to date under other authorities are important but appear to have had limited impact in hindering Wagner Group’s operations either in Ukraine or in Africa. FTO designation and the use of the material support to terrorism statutes can severely hamper its ability to maintain its business ties with nation-states in Africa and elsewhere, conduct financial transfers, provide corrupting financial support to certain African leaders, and obtain logistical support for its overseas operations. This would be a significant step forward in severely limiting one of Russia’s most malicious instruments in its foreign policy toolbox. If it is unable to attract new clients, maintain its current ones, or recruit new personnel (beyond jailhouse recruitments), the Wagner Group’s viability as a private military company supporting the Kremlin’s foreign policy and financial gain will be seriously degraded.  Designating the Wagner Group as an FTO also strikes at a powerful Kremlin resource without endangering other equities in U.S.-Russia bilateral relations, especially important diplomatic lines of communication. Over the past several months, a number of people have argued that Russia itself, and not just the Wagner Group, should be designated as an SST—a designation currently applied to Syria, Iran, Cuba, and North Korea. As Jocelyn Trainer argues in a Nov. 29, 2022, Lawfare article, it is not clear what advantage would accrue to the United States by this designation, beyond making it more difficult to maintain lines of communication with the government of Russia necessary to ensure the two countries do not inadvertently stumble into a direct conflict. Diplomatic and military-to-military channels are essential to help avoid U.S.-Russia conflict and clearly communicate to Moscow the consequences it faces if, for instance, it uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Similar channels in Syria must also be maintained to prevent inadvertent conflict between Russian and U.S. armed forces conducting combat operations in close proximity to each other. Designating Russia as an SST is likely to lead to a break in diplomatic relations, which would hamper, if not destroy, those lines of communication. Unlike naming Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, designation of the Wagner Group and its affiliates as an FTO would have real-world consequences but with far less risk to bilateral relations than designating Russia as an SST. This designation could be revisited if Russia ever uses a nuclear weapon against the non-nuclear state of Ukraine. In the meantime, the best approach to ending Russia’s use of terrorism as a tool of its predatory statecraft is to concentrate effective U.S. government sanctions against the Wagner Group to deprive it of the resources it needs to operate. 

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

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

  • Standing with Russia, or staying silent, protects genocide

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

  • Saving Ukraine's Children

    Ukraine’s children are suffering serious injury and trauma due to Russia’s genocidal war on Ukraine. Almost two-thirds of the country’s children have been displaced. Thousands have been injured and, although UNICEF has said more than 1,000 children have been killed, that number is likely much higher as there is no reliable way to verify how many civilians have been killed in the most decimated areas of Ukraine, like Mariupol, where, for example, Russian forces bombed a theater housing hundreds of civilians despite clear markings that children were present. And in addition to its immediate danger, the effects of war on children could have lasting consequences. Many Ukrainian children have witnessed unimaginable violence, including the murders of their own parents or family members. They have had to endure the stress of almost constant bombardment, in fear for their safety. Others have experienced hunger, cold, and weeks spent hiding in wet, frigid basements without daylight or fresh air and without sanitation or healthcare. Disruptions to education may never be fully recovered. Ukrainian children are also being forcibly taken to Russia and put up for adoption into Russian families in an apparent effort to assimilate them, a practice that genocide scholar Timothy Snyder has said could be considered genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention. The U.S. State Department has said Russian authorities have deliberately separated Ukrainian children from their parents during so-called “filtration” procedures and abducted others from orphanages before putting them up for adoption inside Russia and estimated that the number may be as high as 260,000. Unaccompanied minors are also vulnerable to falling prey to human trafficking.

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

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

  • Ukrainian official rips Russia for ‘kidnapping’ more than 13,000 children

    A Ukrainian official slammed Russia for “kidnapping” more than 13,000 Ukrainian children amid its invasion of the country “under the guise of an alleged evacuation,” during a hearing held by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on Wednesday.  Nikolay Kuleba, the commissioner for children’s rights in the Ukrainian president’s office and co-founder of the Alliance for Ukraine Without Orphans, said Russia has deported 13,124 children during the war, citing a government portal.  He also noted that Russian state media had reported a “horrifying number of 712,000 deported Ukranian children.”  “The occupiers are kidnapping Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation,” he told lawmakers, accusing Russia of facilitating the deportations by simplifying their adoption process and bribing Russian citizens to adopt displaced Ukrainian children.   “To encourage ordinary Russian to adopt forcibly removed children they offer a one-time payment of maternity capital and state aide,” Kuleba said, adding adoptive parents were paid $300 per year for each child, and about $2,000 a year for children with disabilities. He also noted the Ukrainian children were not being deported into border territories but to areas of Russia further away from the border.   “The Russian authorities made a conscious decision to resettle deported children into the territories thousands of kilometers away from Ukraine,” he said.    Kuleba also claimed that Russian adopters were allowed to change an adopted Ukrainian child’s name and date of birth. “This means that it will be very difficult for us to personally find and identify our children in the future,” he said.   Kuleba said that there were several reasons Russia was stealing Ukrainian children, including making up for the demographic losses caused by Russian casualties in the invasion. He also said the Kremlin was pushing propaganda that Russians are saving the children from Ukrainian Nazis.   James Gordon, founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, told the commission that roughly 60 percent of Ukrainian children had been displaced from their homes since the conflict with Russia began, and that these children were highly distressed.  “Every child in Ukraine and all Ukrainian children who have left, are experiencing some level of distress,” Gordon said.  In addition to kidnapping, Kuleba said he had recently received reports from the Ukrainian Parliament’s Commissioner for Human Rights that Russians were torturing Ukranian children, “and have even set up separate torture chambers for this.” The Hill reached out to the Russian Embassy for a response to Kuleba’s claims.

  • No Safe Haven: Launching the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions

    Since February 24, 2022, Western countries have imposed sanctions against Russian officials, businessmen, and public figures who support Russian aggression against Ukraine by financial or political means. Personal sanctions have been effective in creating tension between Putin’s proponents and continuing to help Ukraine fight for its independence. The biggest issue of personal sanctions policy is desynchronization among the countries imposing them. For example, when the United States enacts sanctions against politicians, public officials, and businessmen who support Russia’s war, the European Union and the United Kingdom do not. A similar dysfunction occurs when the European Union and Great Britain enforce sanctions on individuals without equal participation from the United States. The unity of the West in imposing sanctions on those driving Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is essential for Ukrainian victory. This public briefing united seven legislators from the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. The panelists will announce the creation of the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions, which will synchronize the sanctions policy between the European Union, Ukraine, and the USA.

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on US-Europe Coalition for Russia Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—At a virtual kickoff event on December 13, Co-Chairman Cohen and Ranking Member Wilson launched the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions.   NO SAFE HAVEN Launching the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions   Tuesday, December 13, 2022 8:30 a.m. EST   Since February 24, 2022, Western countries have imposed sanctions against Russian officials, businessmen, and public figures who support Russian aggression against Ukraine by financial or political means. Personal sanctions have been effective in creating tension between Putin’s proponents and continuing to help Ukraine fight for its independence. The biggest issue of personal sanctions policy is desynchronization among the countries imposing them. For example, when the United States enacts sanctions against politicians, public officials, and businessmen who support Russia’s war, the European Union and the United Kingdom do not. A similar dysfunction occurs when the European Union and Great Britain enforce sanctions on individuals without equal participation from the United States. The unity of the West in imposing sanctions on those driving Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is essential for Ukrainian victory. This public briefing will unite seven legislators from the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. The panelists will announce the creation of the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions, which will synchronize the sanctions policy between the European Union, Ukraine, and the USA. The following panelists are scheduled to participate:   Representative Steve Cohen — Member of Congress, Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, United States Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson — Member of Congress, Commissioner of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, United States Member of Parliament Oleksii Goncharenko — Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament caucuses "For free Caucasus" and "For democratic Belarus", Ukraine Member of Parliament Dr. Robert Seely, MBE — British Conservative Party politician who has served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Isle of Wight since June 2017. Member of Parliament Eerik Kross — head of the Estonian delegation in PACE, Estonia Member of the EU Parliament Petras Austrevicius — serves on the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Lithuania Member of the Sejm Arkadius Mularczyk — Secretary of State for European Affairs, Leader of the Polish delegation to the Council of Europe, Poland    

  • OSCE’s 2022 Ministerial Council in Lodz: Russia Isolated as States Demand Accountability and Reaffirm Commitments

    By Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, Demitra Pappas, Senior Advisor Department of State, Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to OSCE   Foreign Ministers and senior officials from the 57 participating States and 11 Asian and Mediterranean partners of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened the OSCE Ministerial Council in Lodz, Poland on December 1-2. While the OSCE Ministerial is held annually, this year’s meeting was atypical, due to its taking place amid the greatest crisis in European security since World War II, namely Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. States Accuse Russia and Belarus of Violating Principles, Stand with Ukraine Polish-Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in his opening remarks pointedly blamed Russia for destroying the security order and attempting to undermine the Organization. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, abetted by Belarus, violated each of the politico-military, democratic, human rights, and economic and environmental commitments enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, an agreement that underpinned European security for nearly 50 years. Most fundamentally, the Lodz Ministerial underscored participating States’ desire to return to the founding principles of the OSCE - the Helsinki Final Act – and to call out Russia’s violation of each. Participating State after participating State took the floor to reaffirm their OSCE commitments and to call Russia to account.  Russia was entirely isolated, with only Belarus attempting, pathetically, to deflect blame on others for “corroding” the spirit of Helsinki. At each instance, participating States overwhelmingly reaffirmed their support for OSCE principles and denounced Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, declared solidarity with Ukraine, and demanded accountability for war crimes, the crime of aggression, and violations of international humanitarian law. Participating States also voiced strong support for the work of the OSCE’s autonomous institutions, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Representative of the Freedom of the Media in particular, whose mandates and funding are often in Russia’s crosshairs. Many participating States also noted the importance of the three “Moscow Mechanism” reports issued this past year to document Russia’s violations of international humanitarian law in Ukraine and its repression of human rights at home. A joint statement delivered by Finland on behalf of 42 other participating States condemned Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine and called for perpetrators to be held accountable. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Margareta Cederfelt advocated establishing a high-level body to assess reparations from Russia. Two other aspects of the Ministerial were unique. Absent were the annual negotiations among participating States on decisions designed to enhance existing commitments on cooperative security, which the Polish Chair assessed as unfeasible due to Russian intransigence. Also absent was Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, against whom Poland took a principled stand to exclude from attending. OSCE Continued Work in 2022, Despite Russia’s Objections States also used their interventions to welcome OSCE’s development of new approaches in 2022 with regard to sustaining its human rights work and presence in Ukraine to overcome Russia’s attempts to undermine the Organization.  In the years leading up to the Ministerial, Russia had increased its abuse of OSCE’s consensus-decision making to block the Organization’s budget, to close OSCE’s three field missions in Ukraine, and to prevent the convening of OSCE’s signature, annual human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). Yet despite its concerted efforts, Russia failed to block OSCE’s human rights work or eradicate its work in Ukraine. “On the contrary,” as U.S. delegation head, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland observed in Lodz, the OSCE “has said no to Moscow’s efforts to divide it, to paralyze it, to destroy it.” Nuland added, the Organization has emerged “even stronger, more flexible, more resilient” under Poland’s stewardship and that of Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid.   After Russia blocked the HDIM, the Polish Chairmanship convened the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference (WHDC) in September, conducting a full review of human rights commitments with the participation of more than one thousand governmental and civil society representatives in attendance. In November, the Secretariat stood up a donor-funded “Support Programme Ukraine” which reestablished an OSCE presence in the country. These are examples of how the OSCE has continued to promote Helsinki principles and deliver programming in spite of Russia’s attempts to undermine it. Side Events, Civil Society Parallel Conference Seek to Close Russia’s “Accountability Gap” A range of side events amplified concerns of participating States and civil society regarding the terrible human toll of Russia’s war and the need for accountability. The first side event explored the increased risk of human trafficking among Ukrainian citizens fleeing the conflict and the illegal abduction and forced adoption of Ukrainian children in Russia. The establishment of a Group of Friends on Children in Armed Conflict was also announced. A side event moderated by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba outlined various means to hold Russia accountable for atrocities committed in Ukraine, including providing support to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office and to the International Criminal Court through the collection evidence of crimes and aiding in investigations. Minister Kuleba strongly advocated for the establishment of a Special Tribunal to prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression and received broad support. An event featuring Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other activists drew renewed attention to the plight of thousands of political prisoners in Belarus and called for the invocation of another Moscow Mechanism report to document ongoing human rights violations by the government of Belarus. Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), a regional association of human rights civil society organizations, hosted its annual Parallel Civil Society Conference on November 30 which likewise called on participating States to ensure accountability for perpetrators of war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.  In response to CSP’s long-standing call for closer collaboration between the OSCE and civil society, North Macedonia, which assumes the Chairmanship of OSCE in 2023, committed to appoint a Special Representative on Civil Society Organizations. Looking Ahead to 2023: North Macedonia Despite Russia’s isolation, its war against Ukraine continues even as Poland plans to pass the leadership of the Organization to North Macedonia as of January 1, 2023. As the incoming Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani pledged that North Macedonia’s tenure “will be guided by strict observance of OSCE principles and commitments.” He further stressed the cooperative nature of regional security, noting, “Safeguarding OSCE values and respect for international law must be a shared priority. This is of utmost importance. Rebuilding trust and engaging in meaningful dialogue presupposes full compliance with the agreed OSCE commitments and principles. We all have to be accountable for our actions. This is the formula for the way forward.”     

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing on Crowdsourcing Victory for Ukraine

      WATCH LIVE                                                                                                                                  CROWDSOURCING VICTORY Inside the Civil Society Campaign to Improve the Lethality and Survivability of the Ukrainian Military   Wednesday, December 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 A unique aspect of Ukraine’s decentralized defense has been the rise of civil society organizations marshalling grassroots support for the Ukrainian war effort and humanitarian response. Unlike the USO or care packages Americans send our overseas troops, NGOs are effectively serving as the quartermaster for Ukraine’s troops, supplying tactical gear such as commercial drones, night and thermal vision optics, encrypted radios, and body armor. In many cases, these organizations have supplied this war-winning gear in greater volumes than Ukraine’s government itself, freeing agencies like the Ministry of Defense to focus on securing advanced weapons systems from Western suppliers. These civil society organizations exemplify the total mobilization of Ukrainian society at levels that have only been seen in the West during the Second World War. The hearing will examine logistical and regulatory challenges that often stymie efforts to surge needed gear to the front and will identify policy options for Washington and Brussels to declutter and harmonize an export framework that was never intended for a massive land war in Europe. It will also seek to answer the question of why frontline units with advanced Western weaponry still lack battlefield essentials such as combat optics, secure communications, and vehicles needed to transport casualties from the red zone to hospitals in the rear. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dora Chomiak, President of U.S.-based NGO Razom for Ukraine Taras Chmut, Director of the Ukraine-based foundation Come Back Alive Serhiy Prytula, Founder and Chairman of the Ukraine-based Prytula Charity Foundation   Jonas Öhman, Founder and Head of the Lithuania-based NGO Blue/Yellow for Ukraine    

  • Crowdsourcing Victory

            A unique aspect of Ukraine’s decentralized defense has been the rise of civil society organizations marshalling grassroots support for the Ukrainian war effort and humanitarian response. Unlike the USO or care packages Americans send our overseas troops, NGOs are effectively serving as the quartermaster for Ukraine’s troops, supplying tactical gear such as commercial drones, night and thermal vision optics, encrypted radios, and body armor. In many cases, these organizations have supplied this war-winning gear in greater volumes than Ukraine’s government itself, freeing agencies like the Ministry of Defense to focus on securing advanced weapons systems from Western suppliers. These civil society organizations exemplify the total mobilization of Ukrainian society at levels that have only been seen in the West during the Second World War. In this hearing, a number of witnesses testified to the logistical and regulatory challenges that often stymie efforts to surge needed gear to the front. Testimony also answered the questions of why frontline units with advanced Western weaponry still lack battlefield essentials such as combat optics, secure communications, and vehicles needed to transport casualties from the red zone to hospitals in the rear. Dora Chomiak, President of U.S.-based NGO Razom for Ukraine, spoke about the dangerous conditions her organization’s truck drivers face when delivering much needed equipment and humanitarian assistance to the front lines. She also highlighted Razom’s successful projects, which include the Bohdan Radchenko Stipend for Veterans, a medical mission in Ukraine from September 16-24th, a toy drive for displaced orphans and families, and the “Razom with You” program that supports those in need of psychological help. Taras Chmut, Director of the Ukraine-based foundation Come Back Alive, discussed the need for the United States to remove Ukraine from the “Crime Control” column of the Commerce Control List. His organization is the first charity organization in Ukraine that received a license for the purchase and import of military and dual-purpose goods. In order to function efficiently, Chmut requests the United States to revise their export framework, which was never intended for a massive land war in Europe. Serhiy Prytula, Founder and Chairman of the Ukraine-based Prytula Charity Foundation, also spoke up to thank the United States for its continued support. The Prytula Foundation has raised more than $85 million for the Ukrainian army, and is a true representation of how military and civil society have cooperated against the brutal and unjustified actions of Russia. Prytula advocated next steps; specifically, investigating Russian war crimes, designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, and removing Russia from the UN Security Council. Jonas Öhman, Founder and Head of the Lithuania-based NGO Blue/Yellow for Ukraine, discussed the critical role of civil society within the defenses of Ukraine. He encouraged Congress to pass relevant legislation regarding the import of dual-use items in order to create necessary opportunities for trusted civil society actors to become more efficient in joint defense efforts.

  • The Case for Getting Tough on Hungary

    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.

  • Russia's Genocide in Ukraine

        Russia’s violently imperial war in Ukraine is not only a flagrant violation of international law and interstate norms, but it also carries all the hallmarks of an ongoing campaign of genocide in Ukraine. From Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s 7,000-word screed that systematically and historically denies Ukrainian nationhood; to mass graves uncovered in almost every Ukrainian territory liberated from Russian occupation; to the Kremlin’s public campaign of mass deportation and of Ukrainian civilians and children through “filtration” concentration camps; to the deliberate targeting of maternity hospitals, medical facilities, schools, and basic civil infrastructure; to the widespread employment of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of terror—rarely has genocidal intent and pattern of action been so clearly telegraphed and demonstrated for the world to see. According to the five-point definition under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Russia has demonstrated clear, notorious, and mounting evidence in all five criteria, even though only one must be fulfilled to qualify as genocide. This briefing featured leading experts to review that evidence and highlight the urgent case for a congressional declaration of Russia’s genocidal intent and actions in Ukraine. In June, Helsinki Commission Cochairman Rep. Steve Cohen introduced House Resolution 1205 that would declare Russia’s genocidal campaign in Ukraine as it is. In July, a Senate companion (S.Res.713) was also introduced by Senator James Risch. In the spirit of prevention, as demanded by the 1948 Convention, and given the months- or often years-long time-frame for legal adjudications, these bills represent a bipartisan and bicameral political declaration based on the overwhelming and mounting evidence already in front of us.        

  • 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.”

  • 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.

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