Examining The Ukrainian Path ForwardIn 2013, tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets to protest the government’s decision to abandon an agreement with the European Union. Ukrainians saw this move as a political realignment with Russia after years of economic and political grudges had nearly pushed the country in the opposite direction towards the E.U. and the West. There did not seem to be a Ukrainian path forward; for many, this was a step backward. The protests sent a clear message of the Ukrainian people’s deep-seated frustration with their government. This frustration compounded with Ukraine’s choice to remain more closely tied to Russia than with its western neighbors. By February 2014, then-President Yanukovych had fled to Russia and the opposition government stepped in. Then, in March 2014, the fate of Ukrainians turned irrevocably grim as Russia began a thinly-veiled invasion.

Invasion, Annexation and Occupation

Many still regard Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a breach of international law according to its membership of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its signing of the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. It met with harsh sanctions from the U.S., E.U. and several other nations, many of which targeted Russia’s lucrative oil and gas exports. Despite international condemnation, Russia was at it again the next month.

Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine. They soon received military assistance in their fight against the Ukrainian military. Support came in the form of what has become widely known as “little green men.” Russian troops had already occupied Crimea, but they were also assisting the separatist movements in the newly-declared autonomous zones in the Donbass region. They supplied light and heavy arms, troops and tactical assistance. All this has led to a conflict that remains unresolved to this day. The conflict remains frozen in constantly-violated ceasefires without a clear end in sight. Russia still receives much of the blame from the international community.

The Kremlin Strategy

The war claimed 14,000 lives since 2014, displaced millions of Ukrainians and sent Ukraine’s economy in turmoil, begging the question of why Russia has been willing to commit to this volatile conflict. The answer lies in defense. Ukraine is one of the key former Soviet states that form a buffer zone around Russia’s eastern border. The border has seen numerous invasions throughout history and, according to “The Red Line” podcast, “after World War II, Russia decided that it never again wanted to be only 1,200 kilometers from [its] enemy’s position.”

The Ukrainian path forward is currently at a crossroads. If the country aligns itself with the West, Russia would face a major geopolitical loss. Russia maintains the conflict largely because it provides for the existence of three territorial disputes within Ukraine. This bars it from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a country cannot join the Western alliance if it has any outstanding territorial disputes or conflicts. A similar strategy has worked for Russia in Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan. This does not, however, mean that there is no hope for an end to the violence.

Peace by Any Means

In the seven years following the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, a long brigade of ceasefires, peace agreements and mounting international pressure to end the violence have occurred. Perhaps the most notable successes were the Minsk Protocol of 2014 and the subsequent Minsk II Agreement in 2015. The Minsk II Agreement included steps towards a ceasefire, monitoring from the OSCE and the assertion that economic recovery was necessary in the regions the conflict affected the most. The latter attempted to build upon limited successes from the past year, but the ceasefires have followed a consistent pattern of violations along the so-called “security zone.” Aside from two prisoner swaps, increased humanitarian assistance and successive ceasefires in the past two years, a clear Ukrainian path forward to lasting peace still appears blocked.

A Shift in Foreign Engagement

The leaders of Germany and France have spearheaded the majority of peace talks and negotiations. However, the Biden Administration brings hope to the international community that the U.S. will become more involved in negotiations. Increased involvement would help the Ukrainian path forward, rather than Ukraine continuing to rely on defensive aid to its government. Antony Blinken’s nomination to Secretary of State has garnered even more speculation about the possible benefits for the Ukrainian people. The Atlantic Council maintained that “Blinken played an influential role in the imposition of sanctions against Russia over the 2014 invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.” It is true that the ratcheting up of economic sanctions could force Russia back to the negotiating table. Hopefully this time with genuine aspirations of cooling the conflict down.

Scott Mistler-Ferguson
Photo: Flickr

Human Rights in Crimea

On Feb. 27, 2014, less than a month after the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russian troops stormed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and took control of the regional Parliament. Two weeks later, on March 16, Russian forces administered a referendum not recognized under the Ukrainian Constitution. Despite a 32.4 percent turnout rate, the Kremlin claimed that an abnormally high percentage of yes votes—96.6 percent—warranted annexation.

Control of Crimea

On March 21, 2014, Putin declared Crimea an administrative entity of Russia. The United Nations challenged his declaration in a resolution passed on March 27, affirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the importance of preserving human rights in Crimea.

Ethnic divisions and political disagreements have fueled tensions in Crimea. The Kremlin claims that the peninsula has historically belonged to Russia, yet history shows that different empires—from the Roman to the Ottoman Empires— have controlled Crimea over the years.

The Kremlin also argues that Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 illegitimately, even though the decision was made collectively by the Soviet political bodies, and the constitutions of Ukraine and Russia were amended to reflect the transfer of territory.  

Human Rights In Crimea

Russian authorities have committed a wide range of human rights abuses in their effort to assert control over the peninsula. A 2018 Freedom House report gave Crimea a 7/7 (the lowest) ranking on political rights and civil liberties, a 6.5/7 for its freedom rating as well as a press freedom status of “not free.”

The situation regarding human rights in Crimea is riddled with harassment of political opponents, violence against ethnic minorities and severe restrictions on the freedom of speech, assembly and religion.

  • Imposition of Citizenship: Even though imposing citizenship on an occupied territory’s inhabitants is forbidden under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Russian authorities have instituted a ruthless “Russianization” campaign in Crimea; that is, they have coerced Crimeans into renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship and obtaining Russian passports.

    The punishments for rejecting Russian citizenship are severe. A State Department report discovered that authorities poured sunflower oil over the personal belongings of a female detainee who refused a Russian passport. Biologist Guriy Kornilov was fired from his position at the Nikitinsky Botanical Gardens after he did the same. At best, individuals who reject citizenship receive no access to education and healthcare. At worst, they get deported from Crimea.
  • A Ban on Assembly: Prosecutors wield Russia’s anti-extremism statutes, supposedly intended for terrorist groups, against independent political organizations. In a crackdown on the freedom of assembly, a Crimean prosecutor ordered a ban the Mejlis, the representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, in February 2016, calling to have the group labeled as an extremist organization.Ilmi Umerov, a Mejlis official, was sentenced to two years in prison on separatism charges, and his lawyer was detained separately. In April 2017, The International Court of Justice criticized Russia’s dissolution of the Mejlis, ordering Russia to “conserve its representative institutions.” Even so, the Mejlis has remained banned.
  • Harassment of Opponents: A climate of intimidation and fear has effectively suppressed speech and degraded human rights in Crimea with opposition leaders being subject to arbitrary arrests, torture, detentions and extrajudicial executions. In July 2017, a Crimean Tatar man received a year and three months in prison for a series of Facebook posts critical of the occupation.Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov, who criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was imprisoned in 2015. The Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, encourages Crimeans to report individuals who oppose the occupation, breeding an atmosphere of paranoia. Overall, activists estimated that 57 Crimean opposition figures have been jailed as of 2017.
  • Media Freedom: Since a 2015 re-registration process, the number of media outlets in Crimea has been reduced by more than 90 percent. Crimeans no longer have access to Ukrainian television, and outlets with a pro-Ukrainian stance, as well as those serving the Tatar community must now operate underground. Radio Liberty journalist Mykola Semena received a two-year ban on journalistic activity after lamenting the annexation of Crimea. 
  • Religious Freedom: Russian authorities have forced religious groups to re-register, which has in turn allowed officials to eliminate organizations that do not support The Russian Orthodox Church. In 2014, there were 1,400 registered religious groups; as of September 2017, that number has dropped down to 818. All 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations have been deregistered, as have mosques associated with Crimean Tatars. Authorities have also confiscated the property of The Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
  • Property Rights: In addition to confiscating the land of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, authorities have used courts to legitimize the seizure of 3,800 plots of land. These plots are redistributed to pro-Russian entities.
  • Discrimination: Russian authorities frequently harass Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, both of whom are minorities on the peninsula. Between the occupation in 2014 and September 2017, more than 150 raids have been conducted, the majority targeting these minorities, with the pretext of searching for weapons, drugs or “extremist literature.”Authorities have gone as far as to censor songs by Ukrainian singers on radio stations and reduce the number of Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian language classes in schools. Crimean Tatars can no longer speak their language in public or in the workplace, nor are they allowed to celebrate their national holidays.

What is Being Done To Alleviate the Crisis?

The United Nations has been vocal about its concern over the deterioration of human rights in Crimea. In November 2017, 71 member states in The U.N. General Assembly Third Committee approved a resolution that condemned Russia’s human rights violations, including its discrimination against Crimean Tatars.

Non-governmental organizations have also come to the aid of Crimea. In 2017 alone, The Red Cross donated medical items to 145 healthcare facilities, sent over 375,000 food parcels to 86,000 people, delivered 11,000 metric tons of humanitarian aid and helped release 306 conflict-related detainees.

Even though these figures encompass all of Ukraine, aid was concentrated in the conflict-torn areas of eastern Ukraine and Crimea. While The Red Cross’ contributions serve to improve human rights in Crimea in the short term, Russia will need to restore the rule of law as well as begin protecting political and civil liberties to help the peninsula recover from the crisis of 2014.

– Mark Blekherman

Photo: Flickr

Hunger in Ukraine

Once seen as the “breadbasket of Europe” because of its rich resources, Ukraine has since had tumultuous issues regarding hunger.

Hunger in Ukraine is a prevalent issue due to years of war and conflict. The 2014 Ukraine crisis — in which Russia controversially annexed Crimea — soon led the eastern part of the country to erupt in war, creating widespread political and economic upheaval. Since 2014, there have been multiple ceasefires, but none have been able to successfully quell the conflict.

Facing the Effects of Conflict

The war exacerbated hunger in Ukraine, particularly in the easternmost regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. A 2019 U.S. Agency and International Development report found that approximately 558,000 people in Ukraine were food insecure and 103,000 people were severely food insecure. In 2016, Ukraine was the only European country to receive assistance from the World Food Programme, an organization that began its efforts in the region in 2014.

In 2016, the WFP reported that as eastern Ukraine reeled from this geopolitical conflict, 1.5 million people were left hungry and nearly 300,000 people needed near-immediate assistance. The WFP gave 370,000 people monthly food packages and 180,000 people assistance through cash transfers, according to a 2016 press release.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization stated in a December 2017 report that Ukrainians living in rural areas most heavily affected by the war were the most at risk for hunger. The report concluded that the most at-risk populations in the region needed $5.9 million in immediate assistance.

Before the FAO released the report, the organization delivered $2.3 million worth of seed potatoes to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The initiative was part of the organization’s attempt to bolster agriculture in the conflict-ridden regions and stymie issues of hunger and food insecurity.

“This is a hard time in the conflict area, and it is important that we use the short window of planting season,” said Farrukh Toirov, FAO’s emergency response program coordinator in Ukraine circa May 2017.

Toirov continued, “I see an essential need to continue distributing high-quality inputs like vegetable seeds that can improve the self-production of food for household consumption and also enrich local markets.”

To combat hunger in Ukraine, USAID’s Office of Food for Peace donated more than $4 million during its 2019 fiscal year to non-governmental organizations to offer food assistance to people in the most affected regions.

Changes in Aid for Hunger in Ukraine

Despite the ongoing crisis, Ukraine has seen some improvement in food security over the last 20 years. According to the Global Hunger Index, Ukraine had a score of less than five in 2019, indicating that it had an overall low level of hunger. In 2000, the Global Hunger Index gave Ukraine a score of 13.7, showing that the country had moderately higher levels of hunger.

But even though most of Ukraine does not deal with pervasive hunger, millions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions continue to deal with food insecurity, and international efforts have slowed in recent years.

The WFP halted its efforts in tackling hunger in Ukraine in 2018, citing a lack of funding and access. Even in four years, the WFP delivered food assistance to millions of Ukrainians and pumped $60 million into the Donetsk and Luhansk economies.

“In those four years, WFP touched many lives across the country and those lives touched us too,” the organization wrote in a Medium post. “WFP will continue to monitor the food security situation in the country while other humanitarian actors will take over assisting the most vulnerable.”

Currently, organizations like the FAO and USAID are continuing to pump millions of dollars in food assistance and agriculture, hoping to eventually relieve hunger in eastern Ukraine amid immense conflict.

Meghna Maharishi
Photo: Flickr