In December of 2013, I delivered a presentation at a U.S.-Ukraine Foundation conference on Capitol Hill about 100 years of Congress and Ukraine. In that presentation, I tried to provide a sense of the scope of activity the Congress has undertaken on Ukraine spanning the last century, especially before independence, when Ukraine was a relative terra incognita among the U.S. foreign policy establishment. And even though I had just returned from Ukraine, where I witnessed the beginning stages of the Maidan, I could little imagine the dramatic events that would transpire in the coming months, much less Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and flagrant aggression in the Donbas.
Congressional efforts over the last year have centered on three main pillars: military assistance, both lethal and non-lethal; sanctions against Russia and its Ukrainian colluders; and economic and technical assistance for Ukraine.
How has Congressional activity manifested itself? Never have we seen more statements, press releases, letters to administration officials, hearings, briefings and meetings with visiting Ukrainian officials, along with countless media appearances than since the beginning of 2014. Never have so many Members of Congress, especially senators, visited Ukraine as in the last 16 months – some on more than one occasion. Never have there been so many public hearings on Ukraine as in the past year, especially in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Never have there been as many media appearances by senators and representatives.
Never has there been as much interaction between members of Congress and the executive branch on Ukraine and congressional pressure on the administration for a more assertive U.S. policy to counter Russia’s aggression. A highlight of the year was President Petro Poroshenko’s powerful September 18th address to a joint session of Congress, a rare honor accorded to a foreign leader and one that was extremely favorably received by the Congress.
Clearly, the level of congressional involvement has mushroomed. The Helsinki Commission – a nonpartisan independent government agency affiliated with Congress – and the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus have historically displayed the greatest level of activity, albeit in different ways reflecting their different structures and mandates. That changed with the Russian occupation of Crimea, when standing committees, especially the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, also stepped up their level of attention to Ukraine in an unprecedented manner, both reflecting and encouraging Ukraine’s ascent as one of the top foreign policy priorities.
Because of Russia’s military aggression, other committees such as the Senate and House Armed Services committees also increased their engagement on Ukraine. At the same time, the Helsinki Commission and the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus remained very active. In February, a Senate Ukraine Caucus was inaugurated.
Congressional involvement has also manifested itself in the international arena, most notably at the 57-country OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held in Baku in June. There, a resolution introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin condemning Russia’s violation of international commitments by annexing Crimea and directly supporting conflict in Ukraine was adopted by a 3-1 margin, despite fierce Russian opposition.
The most concrete manifestation of Congressional activity on Ukraine has been legislation, most notably, two public laws signed by the president – both of which received strong bipartisan support, something that has not been the norm in recent years given the highly charged partisan environment.
On April 3, President Barack Obama signed into law the Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014, which authorized aid to help Ukraine carry out reforms; authorized security assistance to Ukraine and other Central and Eastern European countries; and required the president to impose visa bans and asset seizures against persons in Ukraine and Russia responsible for violence or undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He also signed into law a bill requiring Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty and Voice of America to increase broadcasting in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
And on December 18, 2014, the president signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, permitting the president to impose sanctions on Russian defense, energy and other firms and foreign persons; and authorizing increased military, economic, energy and democracy assistance for Ukraine, as well as increased funding for U.S. Russian-language broadcasting to the region.
To have two major pieces of legislation on one country within a year was no small feat. One point of context for those not familiar with Capitol Hill: the vast majority of legislation that is introduced never becomes law and that which does often takes months and years to wind its way through the legislative process. By normal congressional standards, the April law was adopted at lightning speed.
The Ukraine Freedom Support Act, while still making its way through the process more quickly than most bills, took somewhat longer. There were a number of reasons for this, including administration opposition, which led to its being weakened somewhat, and several Senate holds being put on it, stalling its Senate passage, as well as a busy end-of-the Congress schedule. The holds were removed and the Senate passed the bill unanimously right before the end of the 113th Congress. The fact that the House passed it unanimously in the last minute was a minor miracle in part due to the intense advocacy work by the Ukrainian American community and other friends of Ukraine concerned not only about Ukraine, but the serious implications of Russia’s aggression for the region.
Nevertheless, the passage of these bills – both of which were initiated in the Senate – was an impressive and relatively rare display of bipartisanship in both the House and Senate and a strong manifestation of the support of the American people, through their elected representatives, for Ukraine.
Although not carrying the weight of bills signed by the president, Congress has passed a number of important resolutions since the onset of the Maidan. These included House and Senate resolutions in early 2014 promoting a peaceful resolution to the Maidan and calls for consideration of sanctions against those responsible for the use of force. Another House resolution passed within weeks of the appearance of the “little green men” in Crimea called on NATO and the European Union to immediately suspend military cooperation with Russia and adopt various sanctions on Russian officials and others complicit in Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Legislation recently passed in the new 114th Congress has included a Senate resolution on Ukrainian fighter-pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who has been illegally detained by the Russians since July 2014, and separate House and Senate resolutions passed in March calling for the provision of lethal and non-lethal assistance to Ukraine. These last two – which passed with significant bipartisan support – are especially poignant given the administration’s continued reluctance to provide defensive military (lethal) assistance. In addition, a substantial number of resolutions have been introduced – including on non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation by Russia and on the provision of assistance in helping Ukraine with its reforms – but have not yet seen Congressional action.
In addition to the authorizing legislation, notably the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, the Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 omnibus appropriations bill includes increased assistance for Ukraine (as does the president’s budget request for FY 2016). Many observers argue that Ukraine needs higher levels of economic, military and other forms of assistance, including additional loan guarantees.
One indication that enhanced assistance is being looked at seriously is that in recent weeks there have been several CODELS (Congressional delegations) to Ukraine that have included the House majority leader and senior members of the House Appropriations Committee, including several appropriations subcommittee chairs, as well as the chairs of several other important committees, including Armed Services.
An important, though far from sole, factor encouraging Congressional interest in Ukraine, has been advocacy by the Ukrainian American community and other numerous friends of Ukraine. Congress, of course, is the branch of government closest to the people. Advocacy work on behalf of Ukraine in Congress has also greatly expanded over the last 16 months.
Over the more than three decades I’ve worked at the Helsinki Commission, I’ve seen advocacy on Ukraine ebb and flow – previously peaking in the decade leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union – with its focus on human rights, political prisoners and calls for independence, and continuing for a few years following independence, with a focus on assistance to the new Ukrainian state. Never, though, have I seen such intense activity as over the last year, especially in the passage of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act.
Heretofore, the heavy lifting of advocacy by Ukrainian Americans had been done by the post-World War II emigration and their children. In the last 16 months, however, the new and largely politically inactive post-independence emigration has come out of the woodwork and become considerably more engaged in advocacy efforts through organizations such as Razom for Ukraine. There have been many more advocacy events, notably four “Ukrainian Days” organized by the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and its Ukrainian National Information Service over the last year, and the proliferation in the use of social media in addition to the use of more traditional communication such as e-mails, phone calls and direct person-to-person contacts – both at the national and local levels.
Advocacy efforts were not by any means limited to the Ukrainian American community. The Ad Hoc Committee for Ukraine, composed of Ukrainian Americans and other supporters of Ukraine, was instrumental in the creation of the Senate Ukraine Caucus and other advocacy efforts. Another feature of outside activity has been the engagement of organizations and individuals also concerned with the implications of Russia’s flagrant violations on Ukraine’s territorial integrity, such as Central and Eastern European groups, including those representing the Baltic community.
In spite of the overall criticism that Congress has been unable to get much done over the last few years, when it comes to Ukraine, much has been accomplished. Congress can take great pride in its strong, bipartisan support of Ukraine. But there is still much work ahead to assist Ukraine in continuing to fend off Russian aggression and to support the prosperous, democratic European future that Ukrainians have freely chosen.
Orest Deychakiwsky is senior policy advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The views expressed here are his own.