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Unorthodox?
The Russian Orthodox Church as a Tool of Kremlin Soft Power
Monday, February 04, 2019

By Thea Dunlevie,
Max Kampelman Fellow

“The Russian Federation is a secular state,” according to Chapter 1, Article 14 of the Russian constitution. Adopted two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which systematically repressed religious activity, Article 14 created a framework for a religious resurgence in Russia, namely the Russian Orthodox Church’s optimistic emergence from the Soviet era.

However, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a battlefield of choice for the Russian government as it seeks status as the religious and regional hegemon. President Vladimir Putin’s vision for a “Russian world” has in many ways negated the country’s constitutional commitment to a religiously neutral government, particularly in relation to former Soviet Bloc countries.

Vladimir Putin has coupled violent encroachments such as the 2014 invasion and illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas and its 2008 invasion and illegal occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia with subtler maneuvers to establish strongholds in foreign countries, including through religious interventions.

The latter activities rest under the umbrella term “soft power,” which Putin identified as a foreign policy strategy in his 2017 Foreign Policy Concept. According to political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term, “Soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.”

Rooted in Russian History and Culture

The Russian Orthodox Church, which has deep roots in Russian identity, history, and culture, was revived under President Boris Yeltsin and has since been increasingly employed as a tool of soft power. The RAND Institute reports that the Russian Orthodox Church has been rated “the most-trusted institution in [Russia]”—surpassing the president and parliament. Consequentially, the Kremlin’s interconnectivity with the Russian Orthodox Church lends the state legitimacy by proxy.

Capitalizing on this perceived legitimacy, the 2015 Russian National Security Strategy lists “preserving and developing culture and traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” as one of six “National Interests and National Strategic Priorities.”

Religion has been instrumentalized by Russian diplomatic missions with goals beyond proselytizing or constructing churches. Putin sent Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia as a Kremlin emissary to solidify international ties under the auspices of religious, humanitarian outreach. For example, Putin has characterized Russia as the defender of persecuted Christians in the Middle East by supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government. Patriarch Kirill and Putin also vowed to rebuild churches in the region, positioning Russia as the great defender, reconstructor, and regional power.

However, not all these efforts have been successful. Patriarch Kirill’s 2013 visit to the politically volatile region of Transnistria, Moldova—where 1,400 Russian troops are stationed—was met by local protests suggesting an unwelcome link between the Russian Orthodox Church’s presence and the Kremlin’s.

The Russian Orthodox Church has also helped the Government of Russia maintain regional influence in former Soviet Bloc countries and the Balkans and expand its influence in Asia. The Russian government commemorated 50 years of cooperation with Singapore by building an Orthodox church there, and Patriarch Kirill’s delegation visited North Korea to establish an Orthodox church in Pyongyang alongside North Korean government officials.

However, current debates primarily focus on Ukraine because it contains an estimated one-third of the Moscow Patriarchate’s churches. Russia has approached the OSCE with concerns about “Ukrainization,” alleging that 50 Russian Orthodox churches had been illegally seized by the government since 2014.

Ukraine Fights Back

The Russian Orthodox Church’s Kremlin-driven influence has been of particular concern to Ukraine, which struggles to maintain its political sovereignty as Russia encroaches militarily. To counter this influence, in 2018 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church sought autocephaly (independence) under the auspices of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the governing body of the Orthodox Church.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko justified the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s pursuit of autocephaly before the United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council as “a matter of national security and [Ukraine’s] defense in a hybrid war, because the Kremlin views the Russian Orthodox Church as key instruments of influence on Ukraine.”  However, the Russian Orthodox Church condemned Ukraine’s autocephaly efforts for blasphemously entangling religion and politics. Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, characterized the Ukrainian church’s move as a “pre-election political project.” The Russian Orthodox Church severed tied with the Ecumenical Patriarch in mid-October.

In December, Metropolitan Epifaniy was elected head of the nascent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Prior to his election, the U.S. State Department said the United States “respects the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs.” Immediately after his election, the State Department issued a congratulatory statement and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with him by phone.
 
After the January 6th announcement of autocephaly for an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Secretary described the outcome as an “historic achievement.” All of these U.S. statements explicitly referenced U.S. support for religious freedom as the context.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine now sidesteps Russian religious authority and submits to the Ecumenical Patriarch and Holy Synod alone.  The Russian government, however, maintains that Ukraine is “territory of the Russian church” and vows to “defend the interests of the Orthodox.”

Ongoing Power Struggles

Russia’s religious intervention has also instigated ecclesiastical divisions within the other Orthodox churches and between churches and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian meddling has created opposing teams: Ukraine and its allies, like the Ecumenical Patriarch and U.S. Government, versus the Russian Government and regional churches which pledged loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church.

In the wake of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod decision on the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Putin awarded the Metropolitan of Moldova “Russia’s Order of Friendship,” perhaps  to encourage Moldovan sympathy to the Russian Orthodox Church’s cause amid the “schismatic” behavior of Ukraine.

In November of 2018, St. Andrew’s Church in Ukraine was attacked with Molotov cocktails, following  the transfer of its ownership to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This attack has been interpreted by some Ukrainians as a symbolic attack on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Ukraine’s religious makeup is exceptionally diverse. However, the Kremlin’s political meddling into the inter-orthodox religious conflict raises larger concerns about how government can support or suppress certain beliefs for primarily political purposes. This phenomenon threatens the religious liberty of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and potentially the freedom of the country’s minority religious groups like Greek Catholics.

All 57 participating States of the OSCE have committed to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which includes the statement that  “the participating States will respect (...) the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion… participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”  The participating States have repeatedly recommitted themselves in subsequent agreements.

The Ukrainian government and leadership of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine must be vigilant for infringements on the religious rights of Moscow Patriarchate adherents in Ukraine after the Holy Synod’s decision. As priests, imams, and pastors did during Euromaidan in 2013, so should the Ukrainian Government, the Russian Government, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox Church condemn violence, protect freedom of religion and belief, and promote inter-faith peace.

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    WASHINGTON—Following recent threats to the life of Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the forced removal of her Novaya Gazeta article on the coronavirus response in Chechnya by Russia’s media regulatory agency, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “I am appalled—though not surprised—that the Government of Russia is using a global pandemic to restrict media freedom at a time when access to accurate information is vital,” Chairman Hastings said. “Yelena Milashina does not deserve death threats for simply doing her job. I condemn these attacks; Novaya Gazeta must be able to operate freely to provide truthful and timely information to the Russian people.” “Independent journalists need to be protected so they can continue to do the important work of keeping the public informed, especially in times of crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Chechen strongman Kadyrov has a history of support for lawlessness and extrajudicial killings, and his threats should be taken seriously. A government that fails to protect journalists like Yelena Milashina will also contribute to a culture where other citizens are afraid to speak out.” After the passage of an April 1 law criminalizing “misinformation” regarding the coronavirus, the Government of Russia has begun to target news agencies and individuals who have criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. RFE/RL’s reporting on Russia’s handling of the coronavirus has been targeted for review in the State Duma, and the apartment of an activist in St. Petersburg was searched and her electronics seized for calling attention to insufficient local quarantine conditions on social media. Journalist Yelena Milashina has received previous death threats from Ramzan Kadyrov for her reporting on Chechnya. In February 2020 she was attacked by unknown assailants in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. She received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in 2013 and appeared at Helsinki Commission events on Russia’s North Caucasus in 2009 and 2010.  

  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate Fifth Anniversary of Nemtsov Murder

    WASHINGTON—On the five-year anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “We must never forget the ultimate price Boris Nemtsov paid for seeking true democracy and political justice for the Russian people,” said Chairman Hastings. “Five years ago today, Russia lost one of its most fervent advocates, targeted for his activism and speaking truth to power.  Justice still has not been served in his case. I regret that Russian authorities clearly have chosen politics over finding and prosecuting those responsible for orchestrating Nemtsov’s death. International voices must keep Boris Nemtsov’s memory alive until—and after—we receive answers.” “The anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination is a reminder of the repression in Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Nemtsov knew well the dangers he faced as a critic of Putin and as an advocate for real democracy and freedom for the people of Russia. He was gunned down in the middle of Moscow five years ago today, and still the Russian government has refused to conduct a thorough investigation into who ordered his murder. There is no doubt that Nemtsov’s death was a meticulously plotted political hit, and I hope that one day Nemtsov’s family, friends, and fellow Russian citizens will see justice delivered in his case. Until then, we honor his memory and salute those brave individuals who carry on his legacy.” On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Although various people have been arrested in connection with Nemtsov’s death, Russian authorities have failed to truly investigate who ordered and organized the murder. A recent report authored by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Rapporteur Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden is the most conclusive study of the case to this date; however, the Government of Russia did not cooperate with her requests for information. In 2018, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing to help to shed light on the circumstances of Nemtsov’s murder, the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia.

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

  • An Assessment of the Open Skies Treaty

    By Juliet Michaelsen, Max Kampelman Fellow Recently, a somewhat obscure security and confidence-building measure returned to the headlines. In October 2019, reports surfaced that the Trump Administration was considering withdrawing from the Treaty on Open Skies, an overflight arrangement designed to boost military transparency and stability across 34 signatories in North American and Eurasia. What is the Open Skies Treaty? In 1955, President Eisenhower first proposed that the United States and Soviet Union allow aerial observation flights over each other’s territories to reduce the risk of miscommunication and subsequent war. Although initially rejected by the Soviets, the idea of Open Skies was revived by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. Bush built on Eisenhower’s vision, suggesting the agreement not just be between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In 1992, the Open Skies Treaty was signed by the United States, Canada, Russia, and 21 European states. Since the treaty entered into force in 2002, membership has increased to 34 states. The treaty requires that all participants allow observation aircraft to fly over their territory to observe and take pictures of military forces and activities. These images are shared with the observing and observed states, and available for purchase by other treaty signatories. The Open Skies Treaty’s fundamental purpose—enhancing military transparency and cooperation—flows from the same set of commitments that underpin both the Helsinki Commission and the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As Alexandra Bell noted during a Helsinki on the Hill podcast on Open Skies, this “increased openness between militaries will reduce tensions between states and limit the probability of conflict [because] if you know what another country has, if it’s clearly observable to you, you don’t have to plan for things that you’re just guessing about.” Assessing the Treaty During the treaty’s almost 18 years of implementation, the parties have conducted over 1,500 observation flights. The cooperation required to solve logistical problems (such as air traffic control) and inspect planes is one important confidence-building measure. Another is the fact that host countries also have personnel on any observation flight, thus ensuring the flight stays within its agreed plan. This collaboration increases mutual trust and encourages cooperation. Additionally, the Open Skies Consultative Commission, the implementing body of the Open Skies Treaty based at the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s (OSCE) headquarters in Vienna, provides one of the few remaining forums where the United States and Russia can discuss problems and collaborate on solutions. The treaty also allows the United States to provide an important benefit to its allies and partners, who typically ride on flights conducted by the United States. Specifically, as Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II noted during a joint hearing of the Helsinki Commission and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment, the treaty “allows even small countries a way to get information on military activities around them [which] has been even more important given the Kremlin’s propensity to violate established borders.” One notable example came in December 2018 after Russia attached Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait. The United States undertook an Open Skies flight, which was “intended to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations,” according to the Department of Defense, a message underscored by the flight’s inclusion of personnel from Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Romania, and—crucially—Ukraine. The Open Skies Treaty also has heightened transparency, specifically between the United States and Russia. Both countries have conducted numerous observation flights over the other’s territory. The United States and its allies have flown about 500 flights over Russia since the treaty’s implementation, including 16 in 2019 alone. According to the State Department, the United States participated in nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States. The images captured by these flights serve as a crucial, credible, unclassified source of information about Russian forces at a time when Europe and the United States are often uneasy about Russia’s intentions. The Open Skies Treaty does face criticism by some politicians and analysts. For example, a Senate resolution introduced by Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton calls for the United States’ withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, citing Russia’s partial non-compliance as a major problem the treaty. Specifically, Russia has restricted Open Skies flights over its military hub in Kaliningrad and restricted the conduct of flights near its border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, the State Department does not consider these problems insurmountable and has taken many steps to address these issues, including bringing the problem to the Open Skies Consultative Committee, restricting Russian flights over Hawaii, and denying access to two United States airbases. The Future of the Open Skies Treaty In the wake of President Trump’s reported plan to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, many members of Congress have expressed support for the agreement and warned of the dangers of withdrawal. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel first sounded the alarm in a publicly released letter to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on October 7, 2019. In the letter, Engel expressed concern about such reports and argued that “American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful for our allies’ and partners’ national security interests.” Soon after, numerous members of Congress came together to urge foreign policy officials to keep the treaty. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith and Sens. Robert Menendez and Jack Reed (the ranking members of the foreign relations and armed services committees, respectively), joined Rep. Engel in writing a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Esper, highlighting the importance of Open Skies. A similar letter was sent to Secretary Pompeo by 11 Democratic senators two weeks later. In November 2019, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings co-sponsored the bipartisan “Open Skies Treaty Stability Act,” which would prevent the president from unilaterally withdrawing the United States from the treaty by setting conditions on any potential steps towards withdrawal. The bill specifically notes that “due to the significant benefits that observation missions under the Open Skies Treaty provide to the United States and United States allies, the United States should commit to continued participation in the Treaty; and the President should not withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty.” Support for the Open Skies Treaty extends beyond Capitol Hill. For example, in an October 20, 2019, Wall Street Journal contribution, former-national security officials George Shultz, William J. Perry and Sam Nunn suggested that “Open Skies has become what Eisenhower envisioned—a critical confidence-building treaty that improves Euro-Atlantic security with every flight. The U.S. should preserve this agreement, particularly in a time of renewed tensions with Russia.”  Similar calls have come from abroad. The Political and Security Affairs Committee Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) strongly urged the United States to stay in the treaty, citing the increased transparency and cooperation fostered by the agreement. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry expressed their interest in “maintaining and implementing this treaty” in a statement to the Wall Street Journal. The vocal advocacy both within and outside of the United States for the continuation of the Open Skies Treaty sheds light on its important role in Euro-Atlantic security and cooperation.

  • Chairman Hastings Urges Ukraine to Grant Akhmetova Political Asylum

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Tuesday’s trial to determine whether journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmetova will be granted political asylum in Ukraine or face extradition to her home country of Kazakhstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “By granting asylum to Zhanara Akhmetova, the Government of Ukraine can demonstrate its commitment to protecting the fundamental freedoms of those who peacefully express political dissent. Her request for asylum clearly is motivated by real and dangerous political persecution in her home country. Ukraine must stand firmly on the side of human rights and allow Ms. Akhmetova to remain safely in the country.” Akhmetova fled to Ukraine in 2017 after she was targeted by authorities in Kazakhstan for her reporting and for peacefully expressing her political opinions through the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) movement, an opposition party associated with the main political opponent of former President Nazarbayev. Later that year, Ukrainian authorities detained her following a request by the Government of Kazakhstan, which previously has misused Interpol mechanisms to target opposition figures. In the past, Ukrainian authorities sometimes have cooperated with requests by the authorities of Central Asian states to return persecuted individuals. Persons affiliated with the DCK have previously faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of Kazakh authorities, suggesting that Akhmetova’s extradition would seriously endanger her safety. Ukrainian migration authorities have twice denied Akhmetova’s request for asylum, although Ukraine’s Supreme Court has ordered that the case be reconsidered as political.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Introduces Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in Senate

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) yesterday introduced the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S. 3064) in the Senate. The legislation would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) introduced a bipartisan companion bill in the House of Representatives last week. “The Kremlin’s illegal land grab is accompanied by a brutal crackdown on religious freedom in Crimea and the Donbas,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “This legislation would combat persecution of faith communities in Ukraine and ensure that Russian authorities are held responsible for their actions.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill would clarify that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it controls or occupies illegally, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or other commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to occupy it illegally. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities under its command. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Introduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) in the House of Representatives. The legislation combats Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate next week. “For more than five years, Russia has illegally occupied Crimea and controlled part of the Donbas with the armed groups it commands. Kremlin personnel and proxies abduct, imprison, and torture people in those regions for their faith,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russian officials are culpable, and this bill helps ensure they are held accountable.” “The Kremlin persecutes peaceful religious communities in occupied Crimea and crony-controlled eastern Donbas even more brutally and broadly than it does in Russia,” said Rep. Cleaver. “The Russian Government is violating international humanitarian law and its international commitments to respect and protect religious freedom. Creating consequences for the Kremlin for this lawlessness will mean justice for the people of Ukraine.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the President of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill clarifies that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it occupies illegally or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Marc A. Veasey (TX-33), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Mark Meadows (NC-11), Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05), Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Daniel W. Lipinski (IL-03), Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01), and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) are also original co-sponsors.

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