Politico: What I Saw in Kyiv
The following article was published by Politico on February 23, 2017. A link to the article can be found here.
By Rep. Quigley
I last visited Kyiv in April 2014, when the energy in the city was still electric. For months, Independence Square—dubbed the Euromaidan by Ukrainians seeking to tug their country out from under Russia’s grasp—had been occupied by protesters and police as unrest gripped the city in the dead of the Ukrainian winter. As I stood on Khreshchatyk Street, the Euromaidan was still filled with Ukrainians from every walk of life, demanding a more transparent government, a more democratic society and closer integration with Europe and the West.
The major protests had dissipated by February, when 100 demonstrators were tragically killed by sniper fire. Nevertheless, the protests resulted in a victory for the people of Ukraine. By the time our congressional delegation arrived to assess the situation, former president Victor Yanukovych had fled to Russia and Ukraine was in the early days of organizing a new government. As an American, it felt inspiring. As a member of Congress, it felt essential. As I arrive in Kyiv today, this time as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I am keenly aware that U.S. support for Ukraine is more important than ever.
In the days following what became known as the Revolution of Dignity, it became clear that the Yanukovych regime was not acting alone, violently targeting its own citizens as they demonstrated. The Russian government provided support—material and otherwise—to spread disinformation, sow confusion and quell the protests. In the months and years to follow, Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine proved even more sinister. Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s eastern regions and today continue to occupy Crimea and wage war in the Donbas, the area of Ukraine closest to Russia. President Barack Obama’s policy toward Ukraine and Russia helped to maintain an imperfect and fragile ceasefire, yet in the days since his successor Donald Trump took office, the fighting in Avidiivka, an industrial city near the Russian border, has intensified to levels not seen in years, testing the mettle of the new administration. So far, Trump is failing the test.
To date, the Trump administration has failed to put forward a cohesive foreign policy on either Ukraine or Russia. News out of Washington comes at a frenzied pace—from the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, to reports of contact between Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence, all while evidence of Russian interference in the presidential election continues to mount. It seems striking that President Trump, for reasons still unknown, remains unwilling to stand up to Russian aggression, at home or abroad.
Of course, this comes as no surprise to our friends in Ukraine, in the Baltics and across Eastern Europe. Russia has been employing Soviet-style tactics here for decades in an attempt to maintain its sphere of influence and regional power. Disseminating “fake news,” spreading propaganda, infiltrating foreign governments with spies and sympathizers, blackmail, extortion and interfering in elections are all part of the same playbook.
Instead of asserting American leadership in the face of these challenges, President Trump seems inclined to echo Putin’s position on NATO’s role in the world—arguing it is “obsolete” and outdated. My own feelings couldn’t be more different. Just last year, during a visit to Georgia, I watched as Russian troops literally moved the border fences, encroaching onto sovereign land. Despite Trump’s insistence, NATO has been the most effective deterrent preventing further Russian advances and has maintained the post-war world order for over 70 years. Once, Georgia and Ukraine were hopeful that they might someday join the transatlantic alliance. Today, that notion sounds fanciful, but it doesn’t mean the U.S. should abandon these countries to Moscow’s baleful influence.
The new administration won’t rule out lifting Russian sanctions that were imposed in reaction to the invasion of Crimea and U.S. election interference. Whatever its knowledge of the election hacks, it makes absolutely no sense for the Trump administration to remove the only leverage we have, when Russia has only become more emboldened since Nov. 8. Maintaining multilateral sanctions in lockstep with the EU is crucial for Ukraine’s survival as a Western-friendly democracy, and for America’s credibility in the world. And if President Trump remains unwilling to maintain a tough line on Russia, Congress must accept the responsibility to stand up to Putin. During my conversation with President Petro Poroshenko, he reiterated his commitment to the position—which has bipartisan support in the House and Senate—that sanctions must be preserved until Russia restores Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Crimea.
Today, as I walk down Khreshchatyk Street, the scene is calmer as Ukrainians hustle to shop and work. The government buildings that for months were crumbling and covered in ash have been cleaned and rebuilt. But the mood is different now, and while the patriotism reignited as a result of the Revolution of Dignity remains, a sense of fatigue has set in. Political divisions are laid bare and confidence in the Verkhova Rada, the embattled Ukrainian parliament, wanes. President Poroshenko continues the hard work of democracy building—stabilizing the economy, rooting out corruption, building a free press and reforming the judiciary, all while fighting the prolonged war in the East. In meeting with him this week, it became abundantly clear that U.S. assistance in facilitating the implementation of these reforms remains vital.
The obstacles at moments seem insurmountable. But, despite these challenges, Ukrainians must stay the course on the long road to democracy. And the U.S. and Europe must continue to walk with them.