WASHINGTON – The Steering Committee of Ukrainian Americans for Biden and representatives of Ukrainian American organizations received a briefing on April 26 from Chris Smith, director for Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Caucasus at the National Security Council. The briefing, held via Zoom, was a comprehensive 75-minute overview of topics that included plans to battle Russian disinformation, sanctions against Russia, Nord Stream 2, Russia’s increasingly threatening activity in the Black Sea, human rights violations in occupied Ukrainian territory, visa and travel restrictions and a recent $50 million allocation to Ukraine for COVID relief.
The briefing, on national security and U.S.-Ukraine relations, was organized by the Office of Public Engagement at the White House at the request of Ulana Mazurkevich,
Ukrainian Americans for Biden (UAB) Steering Committee member who serves on the Democratic National Committee Ethnic Advisory Council.
William McIntee, the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, opened the meeting by acknowledging the 35th anniversary of the April 26, 1986, Chornobyl tragedy. Ms. Mazurkevich briefly explained the activities of the UAB and introduced Ukrainian American representatives.
Mr. Smith began the briefing by affirming the Biden administration’s commitment to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. President Joe Biden, he noted, is well versed in Ukrainian affairs, and fully understands the importance that Ukraine holds for Europe and Eurasia.
He explained that the strategy to counter Russia’s aggression against Ukraine includes diplomacy and a high-level international response. He added that another component to counter Russia’s aggression is security assistance for Ukraine, in keeping with the benchmarks outlined in the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, including joint military exercise and training.
The United States has three major lines of effort in Ukraine, Mr. Smith said. The U.S. supports Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, such as integration into NATO; it will help Ukraine fight corruption since, through corrupt actors, Russia gains internal leverage; and the U.S. is committed to work with Ukraine on economic and energy reforms. Improving Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is paramount to Ukraine’s security and essential for Ukraine to achieve long-term goals, he said.
The issue of Russian disinformation in the United States and in Ukraine was raised several times during the briefing. Archbishop Daniel (Zelinsky) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A., who recently returned from Ukraine, explained that Ukraine is losing the information war against Russian disinformation in occupied Donbas and Crimea. Religious freedom there is severely restricted, he noted. Ukrainian Orthodox Church faithful and Muslim Crimean Tatars are unable to practice their faith, and the Russian Orthodox Church plays a key role in the disinformation campaign, the archbishop said.
Mr. Smith replied that the U.S. is developing a plan with Ukraine to establish a rapid response group that seeks to combat disinformation. Mr. Smith said that the circumstances are challenging since Russia continues to undermine Ukraine and the assistance provided by the West. The plan is to help Ukraine establish a disinformation response center, Mr. Smith said. Polina Chyzh, who helped establish the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine, has been tapped to lead the effort.
Following the meeting, Yuriy Symczyk, the Ukrainian National Association’s chief operating officer (COO), said the proposal to establish a disinformation response center blends well with the UNA’s goals.
“The issue of countering disinformation and Russian propaganda, and being a voice for a suppressed Ukrainian people – and this includes Ukrainian Americans as well – has been a mission for the UNA since its inception in 1894,” Mr. Symczyk said. “The UNA publications have fought these issues for close to 90 years in the case of The Ukrainian Weekly and 128 years with Svoboda. These newspapers have taken a lead in providing facts and truth to counter both Soviet and now Russian propaganda.”
Regarding Crimea, Mr. Smith noted that the United States recently implemented new sanctions on individuals and groups for human rights violations in Crimea, including repression of the religious rights of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars.
In terms of priorities, Andrew Futey, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, said the Biden administration should introduce additional sanctions against Russia, Russian corporations and individuals, including additional sanctions on Nord Stream 2. Banning Russia from the SWIFT International Banking Systems should be a serious option, he added. Mr. Futey suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should be invited to the G-7 summit, and that a permanent U.S. ambassador to Ukraine should be appointed.
Mr. Biden has been clear for years, Mr. Smith said, that Nord Stream 2 is “a bad deal for Europe,” and is not an energy deal, but a geopolitical project of control for Russia. The Biden administration is working to combat the completion of this pipeline. Construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline began in 2017 and was 90 percent complete before being halted by congressionally mandated sanctions in early 2020. Flouting sanctions, Russia plans to complete the remaining 10 percent this year.
Mr. Smith also said that the United States supports an open-door policy on NATO membership so that Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova may eventually join the alliance. Ukraine’s recent recognition as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner demonstrates that the West holds Ukraine in high regard and signals that the U.S. is committed to Ukraine. With this in mind, a strong candidate needs to be selected as the next U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the Biden administration seeks to get “one of the best” to fill this important role, Mr. Smith said.
Michael Sawkiw, Jr., executive director of the Ukrainian National Information Service (UNIS), reminded attendees that the Ukrainian American community has strong allies in Congress, strong bipartisan support, and members of Congress are willing to help the Biden administration implement pro-Ukraine policies. He noted that both the Magnitsky Act and Global Magnitsky Act are powerful tools to enhance protection of human rights that can be used in addition to sanctions mandated by the Executive Branch.
Mr. Smith concurred that Ukraine enjoys strong support in Congress and Ukrainian American engagement is critical in ensuring that the Biden administration continues to develop a bilateral agenda with Ukraine.
Mr. Symczyk thanked both the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and UNIS for their work in raising awareness in Washington of issues important to the Ukrainian community, both in the United States and Ukraine.
“As one of our Ukrainian American community’s most important organizations, UCCA’s work over the years, in particular the Washington office of UNIS, underscores the importance of having ‘on-the-ground’ representation in our nation’s capital,” Mr. Symczyk said.
Meeting attendees also said that they appreciated the efforts made by the new Administration to engage in a dialogue with representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States.
“Overall, I’m grateful for the level of cooperation and enthusiasm from the White House, and appreciate the initiative undertaken by the organizers who set up this first meeting with the Biden administration,” said Mr. Symczyk. “Not only is it vital for the Ukrainian American community to have a direct channel to the White House, Mr. Smith made it clear that this format for communication would continue between the White House and community representatives moving forward.”
Mr. Smith, who served as a foreign service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine during the years immediately following the Revolution of Dignity and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is the recipient of the Warren Christopher Award for Outstanding Achievement in Civilian Security for his work in Ukraine.
Attending the briefing were UAB Steering Committee members Christine Balko Slywotzky, Orest Deychakiwsky, Marta Farion, Andrew Fedynsky, Irene Jarosewich, Khristina Lew, Ulana Mazurkevich, Halyna Traversa, Tania Vitvitsky, and UAB Advisors Marta Fedoriw, Mark Murowany and Mark Temnycky.
Organizational representatives included Dora Chomiak (RazomForUkraine); Andrew Futey (Ukrainian Congress Committee of America); Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak (Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Archeparchy of Philadelphia); Lydia Jachnycky (Ukrainian National Women’s League of America); Alex Kuzma (Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation); Andrew Nynka (editor-in-chief, The Ukrainian Weekly and Svoboda); Michael Sawkiw, Jr. (director, Ukrainian National Information Service/U.S. Holodomor Committee); Yuriy Symczyk (chief operating officer, Ukrainian National Association); Marianna Zajac (president, Ukrainian National Women’s League of America); Walter Zaryckyj (Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations); Archbishop Daniel (Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A.).