Remarks on Ukraine
Secretary of State
State Department Press Briefing Room
April 24, 2014
It has now been a week since the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine met in Geneva. We did so after a phone call between President Putin and President Obama, in which both leaders expressed a desire to avoid further escalation in Ukraine. We met in Geneva with a clear mission: to improve security conditions and find political solutions to the conflict threatening the sovereignty and unity of Ukraine. And right there in Geneva, EU High Representative Ashton and I made clear that both Russia and Ukraine had to demonstrate more than good faith. They needed to take concrete actions in order to meet their commitments.
The simple reality is you can’t resolve a crisis when only one side is willing to do what is necessary to avoid a confrontation. Every day since we left Geneva – every day, even up to today, when Russia sent armored battalions right up the Luhansk Oblast border – the world has witnessed a tale of two countries, two countries with vastly different understandings of what it means to uphold an international agreement.
One week later, it is clear that only one side, one country, is keeping its word. And for anyone who wants to create gray areas out of black, or find in the fine print crude ways to justify crude actions, let’s get real – the Geneva agreement is not open to interpretation. It is not vague. It is not subjective. It is not optional. What we agreed to in Geneva is as simple as it is specific.
We agreed that all sides would refrain from violence, intimidation, and taking provocative actions. We agreed that illegal groups would lay down their arms and that, in exchange for amnesty, they would hand over the public buildings and spaces that they occupied. We agreed that to implement these objectives – and this is important, to implement this – monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would have unfettered access to parts of Ukraine where they were needed most. And we agreed that all parties would work to create that access and to provide help to the OSCE in order to do this. We agreed that the OSCE would report from the ground whether the rights, security, and dignity of Ukrainian citizens was being protected.
From day one, the Government of Ukraine started making good on its commitments – from day one. From day one, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has kept his word. He immediately agreed to help vacate buildings. He suspended Ukraine’s counterterrorism initiative over Easter, choosing de-escalation, despite Ukraine’s legitimate, fundamental right to defend its own territory and its own people. From day one, the Ukrainian Government sent senior officials to work with the OSCE, in keeping with the agreement, to send them to work in regions where Russia had voiced its most urgent concerns about the security of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians. And on day one, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk went on live television and committed his government publicly to all of the people of Ukraine that – and these are his words – committed them to undertake comprehensive constitutional reform that will strengthen the powers of the regions. He directly addressed the concerns expressed by the Russians, and he did so on day one.
He also made a personal appeal to Russian-speaking Ukrainians, pledging to support – and again, these are his words – a special status to the Russian language and the protection of the language. And in keeping with his Geneva commitments, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has publicly announced amnesty legislation – once more, in his words – for all those who surrender arms, come out of the premises and will begin with the Ukrainian people to build a sovereign and independent Ukraine. That is a promise made by the interim government to the people of Ukraine.
And by complying with actions requested by Russia, like removing the barricades in the Maidan and cleaning up the square and ensuring that all ongoing demonstrations in Kyiv are actually government-approved and peaceful, Ukraine is thereby taking tangible, concrete steps to move beyond the division of the last months. That is how a government defines keeping your word. That is leadership that upholds both the spirit and the letter of a Geneva agreement.
The world has rightly judged that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and the Government of Ukraine are working in good faith. And the world, sadly, has rightly judged that Russia has put its faith in distraction, deception, and destabilization. For seven days, Russia has refused to take a single concrete step in the right direction. Not a single Russian official, not one, has publicly gone on television in Ukraine and called on the separatists to support the Geneva agreement, to support the stand-down, to give up their weapons, and get out of the Ukrainian buildings. They have not called on them to engage in that activity.
In fact, the propaganda bullhorn that is the state-sponsored Russia Today program, has been deployed to promote – actually, Russia Today network – has deployed to promote President Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground. They almost spend full time devoted to this effort to propagandize and to distort what is happening or not happening in Ukraine. Instead, in plain sight, Russia continues to fund, coordinate, and fuel a heavily armed separatist movement in Donetsk.
Meanwhile, Russian leaders are making increasingly outrageous claims to justify their action – that the CIA invented the internet in order to control the world or that the forces occupying buildings, armed to the teeth, wearing brand new matching uniforms and moving in disciplined military formation, are merely local activists seeking to exercise their legitimate rights. That is absurd, and there is no other word to describe it.
But in the 21st century, where every citizen can broadcast messages, images, and video from the palm of their hand, no amount of propaganda is capable of hiding such actions. No amount of propaganda will hide the truth, and the truth is there in the social media and across the pages of newspapers and in the video of televisions for all of the world to see. No amount of propaganda can withstand that kind of scrutiny today.
The world knows that peaceful protesters don’t come armed with grenade launchers and automatic weapons, the latest issue from the Russian arsenal, hiding the insignias on their brand new matching military uniforms, and speaking in dialects that every local knows comes from thousands of miles away. The world knows that the Russian intelligence operatives arrested in Ukraine didn’t just take a wrong turn on the highway. In fact, we have seen soldiers wearing uniforms identical to the ones Russian soldiers wore in Crimea last month.
As international observers on the ground have borne witness, prior to Russia’s escalation, there was no violence. There was no broad-scale assault on the rights of people in the east. Ukraine was largely stable and peaceful, including in the south and the east. Even as we were preparing to meet in Geneva, we know that the Russian intelligence services were involved in organizing local pro-Russian militias. And during the week leading up to the Geneva meetings, separatists seized at least 29 buildings. This is one more example of how Russia is stoking the very instability that they say they want to quell.
And in the week since this agreement, we have seen even more violence visited upon Ukrainians. Right after we left Geneva, separatists seized TV and radio stations that broadcast in the Ukrainian language. The mayor of Slovyansk was kidnapped the very day after the parties committed to end the violence and intimidations. Two days ago, one journalist was kidnapped and another went missing, bringing the total number of kidnapped journalists into the double digits. That same day, two dead bodies were found near Slovyansk. One of them was a city councilmember who had been knocked unconscious and thrown in a river with a weighted backpack strapped to him.
The Government of Ukraine has reported the arrest of Russian intelligence agents, including one yesterday who it says was responsible for establishing secure communications allowing Russia to coordinate destabilizing activities in Ukraine. And then, just this morning, separatist forces tried to overrun another arms depot.
Having failed to postpone Ukraine’s elections, having failed to halt a legitimate political process, Russia has instead chosen an illegitimate course of armed violence to try and achieve with the barrel of a gun and the force of a mob what couldn’t be achieved any other way. They’ve tried to create enough chaos in the east to delay or delegitimize the elections, or to force Ukraine to accept a federalism that gives Russia control over its domestic and foreign policies, or even force Ukraine to overreact and create an excuse for military intervention. This is a full-throated effort to actively sabotage the democratic process through gross external intimidation that has brought inside Ukraine, and it is worse even.
We have seen this movie before. We saw it most recently in Crimea, where similar subterfuge and sabotage by Russia was followed by a full invasion – an invasion, by the way, for which President Putin recently decorated Russian special forces at the Kremlin.
Now Russia claims that all of this is exaggerated, or even orchestrated, that Ukrainians can’t possibly be calling for a government free of corruption and coercion. Russia is actually mystified to see Ukraine’s neighbors and likeminded free people all over the world united with Ukrainians who want to build a better life and choose their leaders for themselves, by themselves.
Nobody should doubt Russia’s hand in this. As NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe wrote this week, “What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well planned and organized and we assess that it is being carried out at the direction of Russia.” Our intelligence community tells me that Russia’s intelligence and military intelligence services and special operators are playing an active role in destabilizing eastern Ukraine with personnel, weapons, money, operational planning, and coordination. The Ukrainians have intercepted and publicized command-and-control conversations from known Russian agents with their separatist clients in Ukraine. Some of the individual special operations personnel, who were active on Russia’s behalf in Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea have been photographed in Slovyansk, Donetsk, and Luhansk. Some are even bragging about it by themselves on their Russian social media sites. And we’ve seen weapons and gear on the separatists that matches those worn and used by Russian special forces.
So following today’s threatening movement of Russian troops right up to Ukraine’s border, let me be clear: If Russia continues in this direction, it will not just be a grave mistake, it will be an expensive mistake. Already the international response to the choices made by Russia’s leaders is taking its toll on Russia’s economy. Prime Minister Medvedev has alluded to the cost Russia is already paying. Even President Putin has acknowledged it.
As investors’ confidence dwindles, some $70 billion in capital has fled the Russian financial system in the first quarter of 2014, more than all of last year. Growth estimates for 2014 have been revised downward by two to three percentage points. And this follows a year in which GDP growth was already the lowest since 2009. Meanwhile, the Russian Central Bank has had to spend more than $20 billion to defend the ruble, eroding Russia’s buffers against external shocks. Make no mistake that what I’ve just described is really just a snapshot and is also, regrettably, a preview of how the free world will respond if Russia continues to escalate what they had promised to de-escalate.
Seven days, two opposite responses, and one truth that cannot be ignored: The world will remain united for Ukraine. So I will say it again. The window to change course is closing. President Putin and Russia face a choice. If Russia chooses the path of de-escalation, the international community – all of us – will welcome it. If Russia does not, the world will make sure that the cost for Russia will only grow. And as President Obama reiterated earlier today, we are ready to act.