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Helsinki Commission Chairman Delivers Remarks on Ukraine

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Washington - United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) released the following statement on freedom of the media, free and fair elections and human trafficking presented today before the Ukraine's Quest for Mature Statehood conference.

Held in Washington on September 13 and 14, 2004, the conference was devoted to assessing Ukraine ’s progress in developing the rule of law, civil society and the protection of human rights in advance of Ukraine ’s October 31 presidential elections.

Ukraine 's Quest for Mature Statehood:
Ukraine 's Transition to a Stable Democracy
Panel on Freedom of Speech and Press
Library of Congress, Madison Building, Montpelier Room
September 14, 2004

Statement of
Rep. Christopher H. Smith
Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this conference on Ukraine 's Transition to a Stable Democracy. Media freedom is an especially important topic with the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine , in what will be a defining year with respect to Ukraine 's democratic transition. Given the stakes, we should not be surprised by the fact that the powers-that-be have launched an all-out campaign to pressure the media.

Freedom of expression - and its corollary, freedom of the media - is one of the most basic human rights. It is vital to the development of civil society. Numerous OSCE agreements include various commitments on freedom of the media. These are agreements that Ukraine has voluntarily and freely committed to abide by as one of the 55 participating States of the OSCE.

The Helsinki Commission, whose mandate is to monitor and encourage compliance by the OSCE States with their OSCE agreements, has also maintained a strong interest in freedom of media in general and recognizes its importance in democratic development. As many of you know, the Commission has also maintained a strong interest in Ukraine and has, over the last several decades, been steadfast in encouraging Ukraine's independence. We are eager to have as an ally a democratic country where human rights are respected and the rule of law prevails.

We continue to maintain our strong interest and concern, especially with the critically important October 31 presidential elections. I am the original cosponsor of a House resolution, H.Con.Res. 415, introduced by Rep. Henry Hyde, the Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, calling on the Government of Ukraine to ensure a democratic, transparent, and fair election process for the presidential election. (This resolution, which was introduced by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Campbell, has recently passed the Senate and will soon be taken up by the House.) The resolution outlines measures Ukrainian authorities need to take - consistent with their own laws and international agreements - to ensure an election process that enables all of the candidates to compete on a level playing field. The resolution specifically identifies violations to free media and urges unimpeded access by all parties and candidates to print, radio, television, and Internet media on a non-discriminatory basis.

Unfortunately, the situation with respect to the media in Ukraine in the run-up to the elections is discouraging. The election - apparently because of the clear-cut choice between current Prime Minister Yanukovich, and leader of the Our Ukraine democratic bloc Victor Yuschenko - seems to have frightened those who are now in power. It seems the ruling regime has decided to interfere in media election coverage at an unprecedented scale, presumably with the expectation that the interference will ensure their victory at the polls.

The OSCE recently assessed the media situation in the election campaign. They noted that overall, media pluralism is present in Ukraine - different views are represented and politicians of all ranks are regularly criticized - and in general the legal framework is satisfactory. On the other hand, according to OSCE and many other observers, "the one view dominating the airwaves is that of the government", due to an ownership structure closely connected to, or influenced by the current government. It is also due to the infamous so-called "temniki" or "secret instructions" to media from the presidential administration about what or what not to cover and how to cover it. The institutional framework of frequency allocation and licensing also allows for favoritism in the electronic media.

In short, the electronic media is heavily dominated by government and oligarchs, and the media tilts heavily towards Yanukovich, while casting Yuschenko in a negative light. The media is under attack:

* Since the beginning of this year, Ukrainian authorities have harassed, closed and filed lawsuits against numerous electronic and print media.

* Radio Liberty , an important source of objective information, and other radio stations such as Radio Kontynent have been either partially or totally taken off the air. Months of promises to various U.S. officials that Radio Liberty would be put back on the air have come to naught.

* Print runs have been permanently or temporarily stopped for several newspapers. Just a few days ago, authorities in the Kharkiv region temporarily confiscated 42,000 copies of the newspaper Without Censorship. Other media face politically motivated law suits.

* Volia cable, the leading cable television operator in Ukraine , (which carries the only channel which reports objectively on the democratic opposition - Channel 5) is experiencing severe pressure from the Prosecutor-General's office. Almost all cable companies that carry Channel 5 received a variety of threats and tax inspections, and some reportedly had cables "accidentally" cut.

* Reporters face harassment and censorship daily for their objective reporting.

Ladies and Gentlemen, equal access to media must be provided during the remainder of the presidential campaign and will be key in determining whether or not the presidential elections will be judged as free and fair by the OSCE and the international community. The elections will be a watershed for the future direction of that country. Ukraine has tremendous potential. Ukrainian authorities need to radically improve the election environment, including the media environment, if there is to be hope for these elections to meet OSCE standards.

In just two days, on September 16, we will mark the fourth anniversary of the killing of independent journalist Georgi Gongadze, who was exposing high-level corruption in Ukraine. His murder has been subject to numerous international protests, including statements, intercessions, and queries, by me and other Helsinki Commission members. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a case of a massive cover-up by high-level officials.

This is the fifth time that your conference is being held. The first took place four years ago just two days after Gongadze's disappearance. It was at that first conference that representatives of the Helsinki Commission and State Department first called for the Ukrainian government to investigate his disappearance. Four years later, the case remains unresolved. Ukrainian President Kuchma and a number of high-ranking officials have been implicated in his disappearance and the circumstances leading to his murder. The Ukrainian authorities' handling, or more accurately mishandling of this case, has been characterized by obfuscation and stonewalling, destruction of evidence, and the persecution and even death, in one instance, of those who tried to tell the truth about the case.

Tragically for Ukraine, the handling of this case has made a mockery of the rule of law. Not surprisingly, lack of transparency illustrated by the Gongadze case has fueled the debilitating problem of widespread corruption reaching the highest levels in Ukraine. A credible and transparent investigation of this case by Ukrainian authorities is long overdue and the perpetrators - no matter who they may be - need to be brought to justice. I hope that well before the sixth of your conferences, this case is resolved, as well as the cases of at least 18 other journalists in Ukraine who, according to Western media watchdog organizations, have died because of their work.

These journalists, including Mr. Gongadze, were exposing the massive problem of corruption and crime in Ukraine. One important issue intimately linked with corruption and crime worldwide - a global scourge to which Ukraine is by no means immune - is the trafficking of women and children. Each year, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 girls, boys, women and men, including tens of thousands of Ukrainians, are bought and sold like chattel across international borders, many of them for brutal exploitation in the commercial sex industry. The plight of these individuals has touched many hearts and has led to a global movement to eradicate this form of modern-day slavery known as trafficking in human beings.

In November 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which I authored, was enacted with broad, bi-partisan support. The Act provides a framework for combating trafficking through law enforcement, prevention programs, and assistance to those victimized. The Act mandated major changes in U.S. law, including severe penalties of up to life in prison for those who traffic in humans and treatment of the victims - mostly women and children - as victims of crime rather than criminals themselves. This past December, President Bush signed a reauthorization of the Act, which I also wrote, to expand and strengthen the U.S. response to this scourge.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women and children have been trafficked mostly to Europe and the Middle East over the course of the last decade, making it one of the largest source countries in Europe . It is also a major transit country. Ukraine has been designated in the most recent State Department report as a Tier II country (there are three tiers), meaning that the Ukrainian Government does not yet fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so. I am pleased that our government, the OSCE and other international organizations and NGOs are devoting resources to combat this modern day slavery, but much more remains to be done. I encourage the Ukrainian Government to make further progress, and implement its Comprehensive Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons, better coordinate with law enforcement officials of destination countries, and fight government corruption.

By conducting free and fair elections, respecting media freedoms, including resolving the Gongadze case, and effectively tackling the scourge of trafficking, the Ukrainian authorities will go a long way in restoring the trust of the citizens of Ukraine and strengthening Ukraine's independence, democracy, sending a powerful signal of its readiness to join the Euro-Atlantic community of nations. I stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people as they strive to achieve these important goals.

END REMARKS

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

Media contact: 
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csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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OSCE PA Winter Meeting The 2022 Winter Meeting coincided with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, a horrific escalation of a conflict that began with Russia’s illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and ongoing aggression in the eastern portion of Ukraine. Ahead of the Winter Meeting, the OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella and members of OSCE PA leadership (including Sen. Wicker as a Vice President and Rep. Hudson as Chair of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security) met in an emergency session and issued a statement condemning the Kremlin invasion as a “clear and gross violation of the most basic norms of international law as well as OSCE principles and commitments.” The group also issued a subsequent statement standing “in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and its elected government” and noting the “extraordinary courage” exhibited by “civilians, the armed forces and national leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky.” Statements condemning Vladimir Putin for the deliberate assault of Russian forces on Ukraine dominated the formal sessions of the meeting, despite an agenda originally designed to consider ongoing OSCE PA work on a wide range of issues. Co-Chairman Cohen spoke for the United States, decrying Putin’s claim that the Ukrainian government is led and run by Nazis. In a poignant end to the Standing Committee’s second session, the Ukrainian Head of Delegation, Mykyta Poturaiev, reported on violence in his neighborhood of Kyiv and bid farewell as he sought to return to his family in Ukraine. The 2022 Polish Chair-in-Office of the OSCE for 2022 outlined Poland’s priorities in an utterly transformed era in European security. During the general debate, nominally on the topic of “security guarantees and the indivisibility of security in Europe,” delegations resumed their near-universal condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Rep. Hudson opened the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security by denouncing the invasion of one participating State by another, in total opposition of Helsinki principles. He also underlined the committee’s particular relevance in the context of the security crisis precipitated by Russia, a view reinforced by a panel of senior OSCE officials present as guest speakers.  Finally, Rep. Hudson moderated a debate on “heightened tensions in the OSCE area and the need for inter-parliamentary dialogue.” The debate focused heavily on the attack on Ukraine, with Sen.Wicker remotely joining those in Vienna condemning Russia’s outrageous behavior, and Rep. Jackson Lee forcefully urging members to recall the role of the Belarusian government in the events leading to the invasion. In the economic and environmental affairs committee, Rep. Smith spoke alongside OSCE official Valiant Richey about their efforts as special representatives on human trafficking issues of the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE, respectively. They specifically discussed supply chains as they relate to human trafficking matters. Representative Wilson spoke for the United States in the subsequent debate. In the committee dealing with democracy and human rights, Rep. Wilson condemned Russian human-rights violations in occupied Ukraine and in Russia itself, as well as ongoing repression in Belarus. Rep. Aderholt defended free media in his statement to the committee following presentations by recent Nobel laureate and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitriy Muratov and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro. On the margins of the Winter Meeting, the U.S. delegation gathered key parliamentarians from a range of participating States over dinner, fostering an opportunity for frank and candid exchanges of views on important topics confronting the OSCE. The event emphasized the depth of the U.S. commitment to European security, going beyond diplomatic representatives to include elected Members of Congress. The delegation also was briefed by diplomats representing the United States in the OSCE, including Ambassador Michael Carpenter, and held bilateral meetings with the heads of the Azerbaijani and Mongolian OSCE PA Delegations. Visiting Lithuania The delegation’s presence in Europe also afforded an opportunity to visit Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, the delegation met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. Officials emphasized to the delegation the game-changing nature of recent developments, especially the total capitulation of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus to Moscow. These actions resulted in a dramatically more challenging situation on Lithuania’s border, leaving the country essentially no warning should Putin choose to act against the Baltic states.  The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area, a Lithuanian initiative which provides facilities for U.S. and Allied military activities in the region. Members also met with Belarusians and Russians who had fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Ukrainian OSCE Mission Member During Russian Attack on Kharkiv

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine during a Russian attack, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are saddened and angered by the tragic death of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, during shelling in Kharkiv on March 1. We offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends. “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ruthless attack against the people of Ukraine is targeting men, women, and children; destroying homes, businesses, and cultural treasures; and forcing millions to flee for their lives. Putin’s unprovoked war is shredding the European security architecture that brought peace after the Second World War. Individuals like Maryna Fenina remind us of the terrible human toll of war. “Russia must cease its brutal and criminal invasion and withdraw its forces from the sovereign territory of Ukraine.” Maryna Fenina was the second OSCE SMM member to die as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the SMM, was killed In April 2017 when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that has served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. On February 25, the SMM decided to withdraw its international mission members from Ukraine. Ukrainian national mission members remain in the country. 

  • ‘Long Live President Volodymyr Zelensky’

    Mr. Speaker, on Friday, I was grateful, as the ranking member of the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to address the Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. Our delegation was ably led by Co-Chair Steve Cohen. The bipartisan United States delegation of Democrats and Republicans being transatlantic, with our valued European and Indo-Pacific allies, have been united about the Putin war of mass murder in Ukraine, violating the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. Here, we want to emphasize the devastating human cost of the Putin war against the families of Ukraine, isolating Russia and Belarus from the modern world. I was grateful over the years to have visited Russia a number of times where I was so impressed by the talented citizens. Today, they are being betrayed by Putin in his obsession for oil, money, and power. Two months ago, I visited Kyiv and it is horrifying to know of the attacks. Sadly, in Belarus, dictator Lukashenko has become a puppet facilitating the Putin war. It is inspiring that the legal President of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, would have her first loyalty to the people of Belarus, not the war criminal, Putin. In conclusion, God bless Ukraine. God save Ukraine. Long live President Volodymyr Zelensky.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Discusses European Unity Against Russia

    Mr. Speaker, last week, I led a bipartisan group to visit Lithuania and the OSCE meeting in Vienna, Austria. In Lithuania, we met with the leaders and assured them of America’s Article 5 responsibilities and commitments in case Russia comes into Lithuania. They are very concerned. We met with our troops, who are 6 kilometers away from Russian troops stationed in Belarus. We then went to the OSCE in Vienna, and we led a strong response to support Ukraine and oppose an unbelievable invasion by the cruel Vladimir Putin. The European community is united, except for Russia and Belarus, in opposing the intrusion. Vladimir Putin is not operating in a rational manner. His KGB history and his extreme response to COVID have driven him to a delusional, paranoid, and dangerous state. It concerns all. I appreciate the actions of our President in supporting our country. I support President Zelensky, who is the Maccabee of his era, but the candle has only lasted so long. We need to get him more oil.

  • Lawmakers strike bipartisan note to condemn Putin, call for more sanctions

    In a show of unity, Republican and Democratic lawmakers swiftly condemned Russia’s military attack against Ukraine and vowed to inflict economic pain on President Vladimir Putin by imposing a torrent of punishing new sanctions. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said she wants Russia cut off from the SWIFT international banking system. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called on international law enforcement to target Putin and his allies by seizing their “lavish apartments, fine art, yachts” and other items.  And Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said the U.S. must continue to send financial support and arms to Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia.  “Today’s invasion of Ukraine by Russia is a premeditated and flagrant act of war,” said Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. “These are not the actions of a proud nation and people, but the actions of a desperate man whose only desire is to sow chaos in order to make himself look strong.” His Democratic counterpart, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey, said Putin’s “unprovoked attack” has underscored the need to blacklist the Russian president and “expel the current Kremlin leadership from the international community.” “Today must mark a historical shift in how the world views and deals with the despot in Moscow,” Menendez said. The flurry of statements and tweets from Capitol Hill came moments after Putin declared Thursday local time in a national televised address that Russia was launching a military operation to support the “demilitarization and denazification” of eastern Ukraine. Explosions could be heard in cities across the country, including in the capital of Kyiv, where emergency sirens sounded. For the most part, Democrats and Republicans struck a bipartisan note, pressing Biden to go further in sanctioning Russia but reserving their fury for Putin. “Following news of Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine with enormous concern and anger,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, typically a vocal critic of Biden. “The US will stand with our Ukrainian allies, continue to provide them with arms to defend themselves, and work to counter Putin and hold accountable those responsible for this aggression.” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who tweeted that he was attending a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, said he was "listening to Russian lies about their support of Ukrainian people." He questioned how Putin could claim that he wants to "de-Nazify" Ukraine when the country's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. "Putin is a wild dog and won’t stop at Ukraine. Hitler didn’t stop at the Sudetenland. Learn from history!" Cohen tweeted. "The United States and all NATO must immediately provide as much military support as possible to the Baltic countries, to Poland, and other allies at risk." And the top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence committees also took direct aim at Putin. “The last few hours have laid bare for the world to witness the true evil that is Vladimir Putin. …” Reps. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said in a joint statement. “Every drop of Ukrainian and Russian blood spilled in this conflict is on Putin’s hands, and his alone.” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., tweeted, "Russia has just become a pariah nation. Everything short of involving US forces should be done to punish this action. This should be unrelenting." Yet there were a handful of Republicans who placed the blame for the Russian attack at Biden’s feet. “Joe Biden has shown nothing but weakness and indecision,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who’s considered a possible 2024 presidential candidate. “Now is the time to show strong purpose. Sanction Russia’s energy sector — the engine of its economy — to its knees and reopen American energy production full throttle.” Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., a former ambassador to Japan, tweeted that Biden's strategy to prevent a war had failed. "Despite Ukrainian President Zelensky’s persistent call for pre-invasion sanctions, the Biden Administration chose to do nothing until it was too late and must now change course," he wrote. In a statement, Biden said Putin had “chosen a premeditated war” and vowed to unilaterally impose another round of crippling sanctions on Russia on Thursday, just two days after he had targeted Putin with an initial tranche of sanctions. But any congressional action on sanctions will have to wait until at least next week when both House and Senate lawmakers return from their Presidents Day recess.  In the meantime, top Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, are planning to hold an unclassified phone briefing for senators Thursday on the developments in Ukraine.  That will be followed by a separate briefing for House lawmakers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats have been comparing Putin’s military incursion to Adolf Hitler’s military advance during World War II, the last time there was a major war in Europe.  “This is a momentous and tragic day when once again we see a dictator in Europe try to remake the map of Europe by using its military power,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said on MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.”

  • Russian attack was consistent with US intelligence forecast, US senators say

    US senators have said the unfolding attack in Ukraine is in line with intelligence briefings they received about what to expect from a Russian invasion. In a series of tweets, Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Russia was launching a “full scale and comprehensive military assault throughout Ukraine.” The attack involved “airborne and amphibious landings, missile strikes from air, ground and naval forces, electronic and cyber attacks and a large ground force to occupy a large swarth of territory," Rubio said. He added that Russian airborne forces are also working to “take control of the airport in Kyiv (so) they can fly in forces to occupy the (capital) city." A source familiar with the matter said the tweets were based on US intelligence being shared with Intelligence Committee members. Congress briefed on attack: As the Russian attack escalated late Wednesday, Sen. Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence chairman, and Rep. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke with CIA Director William Burns, according to two sources familiar with the matter. Sen. Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN that senators would be briefed on the invasion by the White House Thursday. “A lot of what we’re seeing happening in regards to the apparent air attacks on the defense infrastructure of Ukraine is all part of what was expected we would see,” Cardin said. “There is no justification for it. I can tell you there’ll be strong bipartisan support in the United States Senate and Congress for the strongest possible reaction by the United States and our allies.”   

  • Biden lays out harsh sanctions on Russia after Putin invades Ukraine

    As Moscow initiated a full-scale military assault on Ukraine early Thursday morning, launching airstrikes and artillery at military installations across the country and sending troops into major cities, officials in Washington rushed to determine how best to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin. ​​”Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. Now he and his country will bear the consequences,” President Biden said Thursday, noting that the sanctions had been designed to maximize the long-term impact on Russia’s economy. Biden announced new limitations on what can be exported to Russia, “blocks” on four additional Russian banks, including state-owned banks VTB and Sberbank, and further sanctions on Russian elites. The sanctions also target the children of Nikolai Patrushev, an intelligence official with close ties to Putin, and Igor Sechin, head of the Russian oil company Rosneft. Despite weeks of negotiations, members of Congress failed to come up with a bipartisan sanctions package in the month leading up to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said Thursday that they would support robust sanctions proposed by the White House and are calling for more comprehensive sanctions legislation when Congress returns next week. “The United States and our allies must now totally isolate Russia from the global economy. This includes sanctions on all Russian oligarchs—those who actually hold Putin’s cash—and Russia’s financial and energy sectors, as well as the removal of Russian institutions from the SWIFT system,” Sen. Ben Cardin told National Journal. The U.S., the European Union, and the United Kingdom issued sanctions against Russia earlier this week following Moscow’s recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions in Eastern Ukraine that Russian proxy forces have controlled for the past eight years. Experts noted that the European Union’s sanctions were much tougher than many expected, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was slammed for failing to issue robust sanctions measures. Washington’s preliminary sanctions package was deemed limited but effective, as Biden left ample room to issue more-crippling sanctions as the situation escalates. “What we’re seeing is the EU is tougher than the U.S.,” said Anders Aslund, an economist specializing in the Russian economy. “The British sanctions were a joke. The EU and the U.S. were working in concert, and Boris Johnson was clowning around.” The U.S. on Tuesday sanctioned two Russian state-owned financial institutions, VEB, a bank described as Putin’s slush fund, and Promsvyazbank, an institution primarily used by Russia’s military. VEB has an office in New York that will be forced to close. Washington also slapped sanctions on three individuals tied to Putin’s inner circle—Denis Bortnikov, Peter Fradkov, and Vladimir Kiriyenko—and placed restrictions on Russia’s sovereign debt. Meanwhile, Biden announced he would lift the White House’s waivers on sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. That controversial energy project would have brought Russian natural gas directly into Germany, bypassing Ukraine. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle applauded the president’s decision. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had previously resisted making public statements about the pipeline, said German regulators would not certify the project. That move will cost Russia billions of dollars. The European Union sanctioned hundreds of individuals, including Russia’s defense minister and the 351 Russian parliamentarians who voted to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. Brussels also targeted several people associated with Russian state-owned media, including RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, a move Washington is not expected to replicate due to the U.S. deference to First Amendment rights. These individuals are now subject to asset freezes and visa bans in Europe. Neither the U.S. nor the EU issued export controls in the first round of sanctions, however. The international community has several options when it comes to sanctioning Russia. One of these is to sanction specific financial institutions operated by people close to Putin, like Gazprombank, Sberbank, and Alfa Bank—which were all targeted Thursday. Another is to issue export controls on items such as semiconductors, which would cut Russia off from Western technology used for military development, and luxury goods. “We’re going to stunt the ability to finance and grow the Russian military. ... We’re going to impair their ability to compete in the high-tech 21st-century economy,” Biden said Thursday. Targeting more individuals close to Putin, or even Putin himself, is also on the table. Sanctions targeting specific sectors of the economy, like energy or metals, and the oligarchs who run those industries could also be painful for Russia. Still, they risk producing a blowback effect on Western economies. Experts expect the U.S. and its allies will continue to ramp up sanctions as events on the ground unfold. But decoupling Russia from the global economy will be difficult. “I think given how severe this invasion is, they’ll start with a pretty high-level implementation to begin with and leave themselves some room to maneuver,” said Fritz Lodge, a principal with the Scowcroft Group specializing in international economic policy. “But Russia is not Iran. This is the 11th-largest economy in the world," Lodge added. "It’s deeply connected to the rest of the global economy. It’s a major commodities exporter—not just energy, but it is also the largest wheat exporter in the world and a significant exporter of fertilizers, chemicals, and industrial additives. There will be painful side effects for European economies and the U.S. with these sanctions.” Russia, furthermore, has amassed significant foreign-exchange reserves estimated to be worth a little over $600 billion and has already reduced its reliance on foreign investment. Both moves will insulate Russia from international sanctions for at least a few months. “You can think of Putin as a geopolitical doomsday prepper,” Lodge said. “If he’s taking these actions, then he’s priced in the fact that it would incur these sanctions.” Many experts have called into question whether sanctions have the power to change Putin’s calculus. International sanctions issued in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula failed to stop the country from intimidating and ultimately attacking its neighbor, and made only a small dent in Putin’s popularity. Often, the impact of sanctions takes a long time to materialize, experts note. “Sanctions are not a magic bullet,” said Daniel Fried, who was the State Department’s sanctions coordinator when Russia seized Crimea in 2014. “Sanctions can work, but the timeline for them working might mean that the Ukrainian people suffer horribly. We often overestimate what we can achieve in the short run and underestimate what we can achieve in the longer run. But the Ukrainians are living in the window of short-term war. ” Still, Aslund noted that Putin has frequently expressed displeasure when people close to him are sanctioned, arguing that prohibitions on Russians spending money in Europe amount to human-rights violations. “He’s very sensitive, really a bleeding heart when it comes to his friends,” Aslund said.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Large-Scale Kremlin Invasion of Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Following what appears to be a large-scale Kremlin invasion of 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: “We are outraged that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has chosen to dramatically escalate his war against Ukraine.  These are not the actions of a powerful leader, but a despot seeking to deny Ukrainians the peace and freedom he has denied his own people. “We demand Russia immediately cease its brutal and criminal invasion and adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  We urge the entire world—including the people of Russia—to stand with the people of Ukraine in this moment of darkness.” On February 24, the military of the Russian Federation launched large-scale, unprovoked, and illegal armed attacks against the sovereign nation of Ukraine. According to the most recent credible reports, Russian airstrikes are being launched across Ukraine, and military forces as well as Belarusian and rebel proxies are attacking Ukrainians across multiple fronts.

  • Helsinki Commission Denounces Move by Putin to Declare Donetsk and Luhansk Regions of Eastern Ukraine “Independent”

    WASHINGTON—Following Russia’s recognition of parts of Ukraine as “independent,” and the announcement that Russian armed forces would be deployed to protect them, 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) denounced the move and issued the following joint statement: “Putin’s latest unilateral move against Ukraine further violates Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, the most basic principles of international law, and Russia’s commitments under the Helsinki Final Act.  We are deeply concerned about the escalation these steps represent in Russia’s war on Ukraine and call on Moscow to immediately cease hostilities against its peaceful neighbor.  “The United States and our allies will not tolerate this unprovoked aggression against an independent and democratic state. Our support for Ukraine remains unwavering and our response to Putin’s violent revisionism must be resolute. Imposing sanctions and reinforcing our military deterrent in frontline NATO states are essential. “We applaud the decision of the German government to halt further steps on the certification of Nord Stream 2 pipeline. We urge the entire world to support the people of Ukraine and to oppose this attack on peace and security in Europe.” On February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a unilateral recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine as “independent,” as well as the deployment of Russian forces to those regions. Meanwhile, Russian ground troops arrayed in multiple locations on Ukraine’s borders appear poised for further action.

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