David Kramer: “We have an obligation to help Ukraine defend itself”

16 March 2015, 17:57

On March 6, the Atlantic Council and Freedom House held the discussion of human rights abuses in the Russian-occupied Crimea. Following the event, The Ukrainian Week spoke to David Kramer, one of its initiators, about how visible Crimea is a year after annexation internationally, how seriously the threat of its militarization is seen in the West, and why Barack Obama is so reluctant to provide effective support to Ukraine.

U.W.: How much is Crimea on the international radar right now? We sometimes hear it mentioned in official statements, but is there any practical, strategic attention to it, rather than declarative?

I would say that Crimea has fallen off the radar. It is not even mentioned in the latest Minsk Agreement, nor was it mentioned in the September one. There seem to be very few people who are raising the issue of Crimea. Having said that, State Secretary Kerry raised it before the UN Human Rights Council on March 2. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin raised it during his visit to Japan. President Poroshenko has talked about it.

But we all need to do a much better job of reminding people that the Russian invasion started with Crimea. The crisis had started much earlier, however.

RELATED ARTICLE: Andrii Klymenko: "One of Ukraine's most important tasks is to ensure that sanctions for Crimea and Donbas are not separated"

U.W.: The Atlantic Council report brings up a number of serious cases of human rights abuses that have been taking place in Crimea since the Russian invasion. How often does this kind of information come up in the international political and media space, and how noticeable is it?

Crimea has become a much more restricted area where collecting information is getting far more difficult. When I was still with the Freedom House (Mr. Kramer left it in November 2014 to join the McCain Institute as Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedom – Ed.), Damon Wilson from the Atlantic Council said that he had an idea of putting together a special report on the human rights situation in Crimea.

The plan is to present this report in Europe. We think it’s critically important. The presentation in Washington was part of the strategy to raise awareness of this issue and to ensure that Western leaders don’t let this issue slip off of the radars. Since, as I’ve said before, Crimea is not mentioned in the Minsk Agreements, it is critically important that we remind Russia that the sanctions will stay in place as long as Russia occupies any part of the Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

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We did not recognize the absorption of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union for decades. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, they joined NATO and the EU. The same policy should be maintained towards the annexation of Crimea by Russia.

U.W.: Andriy Klymenko, the expert of the Maidan of Foreign Affairs, who compiled the report represents the expert and civil society community. How about the Ukrainian government? Do you know of any attempts by Ukrainian officials to seek advice or assistance from the international community in terms of finding ways to support the oppressed population in Crimea? Have you seen any strategic plans to that end from the official Kyiv?

President Poroshenko raised the issue of Crimea recently, saying that normalization of relations with Russia would be possible after Ukraine regains control over Crimea. In that sense, the Ukrainian government has done its part.

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But the problem about Crimea is that Russia’s aggression in the Donbas has been stealing a lot of attention both of the Ukrainian government and the international community. It means that not enough attention is focusing on the situation in Crimea, which is a very serious one for Crimean Tatars in particular, as well as for ethnic Ukrainians or anyone who does not want to take Russian citizenship.

U.W.: In addition to human rights violations, Crimea is turning into a militarized zone with massive population replacement with Russians underway. Is that being discussed as a strategic threat among international policymakers?

Philip Breedlove (US European Commander of NATO Allied Command Operations – Ed.) raised this issue recently when he talked about the military threat that is being prepared by Russia in Crimea. There is a growing concern in the West over the deployment of nuclear weapons in Crimea. There is a significant increase in the number of Russian troops there, and that is a great strategic military concern that is drawing attention.

The US State Department is focusing more on the human rights situation. And again, the fighting in Eastern Ukraine is diverting attention, which is obviously part of the Russian design to steal the West’s attention from the developments on the peninsula.  

U.W.: Is the weak interest for the issue of Crimea a result of ineffective or no efforts to keep it on the radar by the Ukrainian authorities or more of an international consensus in de facto treating the annexation as a fait accompli while struggling to freeze the conflict in Eastern Ukraine?

I think it’s a matter of the ability of the leaders who are responsible for the region to focus on so many things at once. It’s a matter of resources and personnel, but also part of the Russian strategy. Russia wants the issue of Crimea to be seen as a fait accompli, and part of the purpose behind the movements in Eastern Ukraine is to make people forget about Crimea. We shouldn’t let the Russians have us fall into that trap.

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I hope it will. I fear it will not, however. The problem with taking these actions is very much on the President’s shoulders. The State Department supports the provision of military assistance to Ukraine. The Pentagon and people in the National Security Council do, too. The problem is the President of the United States. He has been very stubborn in his refusal to do the right thing.

U.W.: Looking broader at the Ukrainian issue: we now see increasing support for helping Ukraine more decisively in the American political establishment. Do you think it could push President Obama to act more effectively?

I think we have an obligation – a moral and strategic one, as well as one based on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum – to help Ukraine defend itself and its territorial integrity as we pledged we would do when we signed it.

It is also a matter of stopping Putin. If we don’t stop him in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the risk is that countries under Article 5 protection will be next, and that will cause a major crisis.

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U.W.: What is holding President Obama back? Is he trying to avoid confrontation with the EU or afraid of pushing Putin to escalate the conflict?

The Europeans for most part, with some exceptions of Poland, Baltic States and some others, are not in favor of arming Ukraine. Germany is opposed to it.

But unity with the EU should not be the goal here. It should be the means to accomplish the goal, and that should be to get Russia out of Ukraine. That includes providing military assistance to Ukraine.

Obviously, I haven’t asked him about it directly, but Mr. Obama seems to fear that it could result in the escalation of tension with Russia, and of getting lured into another military conflict by providing weapons and getting deeper into it.

But if you look at the US Congress, a huge bipartisan majority, including Democrats and Republicans, favor the provision of military assistance to Ukraine. And yet the President refuses to do so. I find it hard to understand. I also find it to be a huge mistake on Mr. Obama’s part.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Chronicles of Alienation: The annexation of Crimea from December 2, 2013, through April 4, 2014


David Kramer has been the Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at the McCain Institute since November 2014. He previously served as President of Freedom House (October 2010 – November 2014) and US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Right and Labor (2008-2009) 

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