This week marks the three-year anniversary of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, which erupted beginning February 19, 2013 in response to then-President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign a long-negotiated E.U. association agreement—allegedly due to pressure from Moscow.
After a week of escalating protests by tens of thousands of angry pro-E.U. Ukrainians concerned about what they saw as a corrupt relationship between their president and Russia, President Yanukovych seemed to validate their concerns when he fled to southern Russia for protection. Shortly thereafter, Russia sent unidentified troops into Crimea to shut down local media and take over the regional government.
The Kremlin marked the anniversary by announcing that it will temporarily recognize “passports,” birth and marriage certificates, diplomas, and other identification documents issued by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine. This is only a step short of President Putin formally recognizing the rebel-held regions as independent states, yet another example of Russia’s increased aggression and involvement in eastern Ukraine.
It’s also a further threat to the 2015 Minsk agreements, and a movement away from the concessions that Western-imposed sanctions might hope to inspire. The Trump Administration’s response will be particularly significant in this environment.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine threaten to institutionalize a culture of flagrant human rights and international law violations. In Crimea, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and torture and cruel and inhuman treatment of residents frequently occur, and freedom of speech and association have notably diminished.
Those who publicly and peacefully oppose Russia’s occupation have been targeted under the pretext of countering terrorism or extremism. Russian forces have also arrested members of Crimea’s indigenous Tatar population and detained human rights lawyers, like Emil Kurbedinov and Nikolai Polozov, in an effort to prevent them from representing Crimean Tatar leaders and other human rights defenders.
The ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine has escalated in recent weeks, with the death toll rising to more than 9,700 people, including around 2,000 civilians. Russia’s support of rebel-held areas is clear, and it continues to provide a regular inflow of weaponry, ammunition, and even fighters.
In Donetsk and Lugansk, pro-Russian separatists operate in a space void of the rule of law, allowing for rampant human rights abuses and other violations of international law. As of October 2016, over 495 women and 68 children had been killed in Donbas alone since the fighting began.
The Trump Administration must maintain the United States’ support for broad sanctions against the Russian Federation until Moscow meets the requirements for their repeal or reduction. Sanctions should be enforced until Russia restores full control of Crimea to the Ukrainian government, respects Ukrainian sovereignty in the region, pulls out of Crimea, consents to full monitoring of Crimea and eastern Ukraine by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and provides clear access for humanitarian aid to civilians. Moscow’s decision to accept civil registration documents from eastern Ukraine is a clear indication that Russia has not satisfied any of the requirements necessary to remove or reduce sanctions.
Vice President Pence’s promise to “continue to hold Russia accountable” in Munich on February 18 is a promising sign, but since taking office the new White House administration has not been consistent or clear in voicing support for sanctions. Instead it has highlighted the need for greater cooperation with Russia to combat the Islamic State.
If the White House is truly mindful of U.S. national security, it will maintain current U.S. policy on sanctions and hold Russia accountable. If the United States fails to act, it will effectively condone boundary violations and gross human rights violations across a foreign border, signaling its approval to all international observers, including leaders in countries that wish the U.S. harm.
If it does not want to invite further aggression and rights devolution on the world stage, including threats against its allies or even itself, the United States must steadfastly maintain its support for accountability. In this case that means a clear and unequivocal statement that Russian sanctions will be removed if, and only if, Russia plays by the international rules.