In the last few weeks, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended a wreath-laying ceremony at Sant’ Anna di Stazzema, a memorial to 500 civilians massacred by the Waffen-SS in 1944. Tillerson delivered an impassioned speech on how such sites serve as an inspiration to us all. He stated that we, the United States, rededicate ourselves to holding to account those who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world. Also, within the last few weeks, Tillerson attended a G7 foreign ministers summit in Lucca, Italy. Focus was on the chemical attack in Iblid province in which up to a hundred are reported dead, he again condemned attacks on innocents. However, it was revealed that during talks with his European counterparts, Tillerson stated “why should American taxpayers be concerned about Ukraine, why should they care?”; the words of a man who the day before attended a WWII memorial, a site where innocent men, women and children were brutally murdered by an unscrupulous regime, much like Assad.
Amongst Brexit, Trump’s latest gaffes and Syria, I fear Ukraine has gone adrift from the minds of those in the West. Some may question why out of all the conflicts that besieges this earth, should we care about Ukraine? It is of significant geopolitical importance; it is a country bordering the EU and NATO, a country seeking closer ties with Europe, whose people will soon have visa free access to the EU whilst being strangled at the hands of Russia, as an occupying force. After all, it was Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who said we, the UK, may be leaving the EU, but we will not turn our backs on Europe. Ukraine is, as I have dubbed it, the forgotten conflict.
Independence in 1991 promised to be a fresh start for Ukraine and its people; a sovereign nation, with the ability to determine its own future, a future of prosperity for all. It is a sad recollection however, that in 27 years of independence Ukraine has witnessed little if any period of stability, politically or otherwise. The conflict in Ukraine is an accumulation of years of corruption, mismanagement of public funds, dire economic growth and crippling currency devaluation. But hope was not lost when in 2013 the EU and Ukraine was set to sign an association agreement (AA), promising political and financial support, preferential access to the single market and opportunities of foreign investment. However (former) President Viktor Yanukovych instead pursued closer ties with Russia through the Customs Union in which he unexpectedly suspended the AA signing. The suspension triggered unease in Ukrainians; they felt robbed, betrayed and denied a better future.
In a show of defiance Euromaidan was born. From December 2013 to mid-January 2014 rallies of as many as 800,000 marched on Independence Square every Sunday calling for the resignation of Yanukovych and his government. Euromaidan was a people’s movement, led by no individual or political party, even refusing the support of opposition parties in trying to oust the president. They formed their own news channels on the internet to counter the state controlled propaganda news outlets.
The rallies grew so much in numbers that Titushky (government paid provocateurs) were deployed to interfere, sabotage and counteract peaceful protesters with pro-government rallies. Titushky began roaming the streets of Kiev, burning cars, kidnapping individuals, including injured journalists and protesters from their hospital beds. At the mercy of the Titushky many went missing and/or assassinated.
From the 18th – 20th February 2014, protesters are killed in two separate attacks that further intensify the conflict. On the 18th a peaceful protest march towards parliament took place in which riot police were deployed. Their presence triggered unrest, leading to police using military tactics by dispersing stun grenades into the crowd whilst shooting from rooftops, 10 were killed. On the 20th – unprovoked – an order was given to attack protesters using snipers, 100+ were killed, injuring over 1,000.
In avoidance of explaining the entire conflict, the reason why American taxpayers, indeed why everyone, should be concerned with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine are the innocent deaths and injustices suffered by those at Euromaidan, in Crimea and the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. A United Nations report puts the death toll at 9,940; one of the most recent casualties of the conflict was Vasyl Nizhensky, a 29 year old soldier in the 72nd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian army, killed 20th April, 2017. He leaves behind a wife and young son. Since Euromaidan judicial reform has been woefully insufficient, delaying high profile prosecutions from taking place, such as the trial of five riot police officers, accused of killing 48 protesters on the 20th February 2014. Almost three years have passed and Volodymyr Holodnyuk still doesn’t know who killed Ustym, his 19 year old son on the 20th February. Of the 23 remaining police officers suspected of killing those at Euromaidan, 14 now reside in Russia with Russian citizenship granted by the Kremlin.
UN statistics provide for a devastating overview of the conflict, statistics which can only be compared to the suffering of Ukrainians during Nazi occupation; 4.4 million civilians are directly affected by the ongoing conflict, 3.8 million are in need of humanitarian or medical assistance, 620,000 are food insecure and 300,000 Ukrainians are internally displaced; on a daily basis as many as 25,000 eagerly waiting to cross the contact line in eastern Ukraine, often in degrading conditions.
In Crimea, Russian authorities are reportedly imprisoning ethnic minority Crimean Tatars in psychiatric hospitals. Since the annexation many ethnic Tatars who oppose the occupation have been arrested and subjected to abuse and imprisonment in outdated mental institutions. Emil Kurbedinov, a human rights lawyer stated, Crimean Tatars face appalling conditions in psychiatric hospitals. Some are placed in isolation and are denied their basic needs, such as access to a toilet. Others are housed with multiple people suffering from severe mental health conditions. They are interrogated about their alleged involvement in ‘extremism’ and their views of the government. They are also deprived of the right to speak with their family, or meet their lawyer on a one-to-one basis without a guard present. Such deprivation violates international law, then again, when has international law prevented Russia from doing what it wants!
There is also the case of bringing to justice the Murderer-in-chief, Viktor Yanukovych. The coward he is, Yanukovych fled Kiev as soon as it became apparent he had lost control. He has since been in hiding in Russia under the protection of the Kremlin, making it impossible for Ukrainian courts to hand down a prison sentence. We cannot tolerate for such an injustice to go unserved and unpunished. If we do, what kind of message will that send to other Murderer-in-chiefs?
Ukraine is not a faraway exotic island in the Pacific Ocean or hidden away in the Amazon, it is a European nation, craving European ideals and a democratic structure of government. The West relishes the opportunity to invade and impose western style democracy on those that do not wish it, yet Ukrainians protest and even die for such change and we ignore their cry. The Ukraine crisis will ultimately end with a diplomatic solution – it must. The only question is how much devastation will occur, how many lives lost, how many grievances suffered before diplomacy prevails.
Let us not forget the people of Ukraine!