Thank you, Mr. President for convening today’s urgent meeting. Under Secretary-General Feltman, we are grateful for your thorough briefing on such short notice.
Just five days ago, we met in this Council and denounced the devastating consequences of attacks by Russian-backed separatists on civilians in eastern Ukraine, and we appealed to Russia to stop supporting, training, and fighting alongside separatist forces. Members of this Council pressed Russia and the separatists not only to recommit themselves to the agreements they had made at Minsk, but actually to honor those commitments in their actions. Unfortunately, we are back here today because Russia and the separatists have once again flouted these commitments.
The targets are fresh ones, but Russia’s end goal remains the same: to seize more territory and move the line of Russian-controlled territory deeper and deeper into Ukraine.
This time, though, statements by the separatists are complicating Russia’s strategy. On Friday, January 23, the de factor leader of the Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk, Alexander Zakharchenko said, and I quote: “Today the offensive on Mariupol begins.” He also said, “There will be no more ceasefires.” He said the separatists would not stop their attacks until they had, “reached the borders of the former Donetsk region,” bragging that separatist forces were now “able to attack in three directions simultaneously.” The Representative of the Russian Federation today said that these are statements we have taken out of context. What context possibly justifies a massive offensive against a civilian populated town? I would note, also, that attacking in three directions, as the separatist leader said he now had the capability – his forces had the capability to do – takes a lot of weapons and forces. This capability reflects the difference made by the substantial, months-long influx of Russian personnel and heavy weapons.
We know that Zakharchenko said these things because he was filmed when he said them, and quoted by the official Russian news agency, TASS. On Saturday, Zakharchenko told people at a rally in Donetsk, “Today the attack on Mariupol began.” He added that, “In a few days we will encircle Debaltseve,” a city that is twelve kilometers outside the ceasefire line established at Minsk.
If only the separatist’s words had been empty bravado. Unfortunately, on Saturday, the world witnessed the horrors that resulted from the separatists’ attack on Mariupol, a city 25 kilometers outside of the Minsk line. On Saturday alone, more than 100 people were injured in rocket attacks on the city. Approximately 30 people were killed, including women, elderly, and children, one of whom was a four-year-old boy. Some 40 rounds of rockets struck the city, hitting a market, homes, and a school, among other civilian structures. The impartial OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine examined blast craters and concluded that they had been caused by Grad rockets fired from multi-rocket launcher systems in separatist-controlled areas.
Why do these locations matter to the Russians and the separatists? Mariupol is a port city, which would provide Russia with another means of supplying separatists. And controlling the city would be another step toward creating a land bridge to illegally-occupied Crimea. Debaltseve is a strategic rail and road hub, and serves as a key link between Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It is no accident that these strategic cities are in Russia’s sights.
When, on Saturday, members of the Council tried to issue a joint statement denouncing the civilian casualties and expressing concern about the separatist’s statements, as we’ve heard, Russia blocked it. No wonder, given that less than a day earlier Russia had been perfectly content disseminating Zakharchenko’s statements in its state-run media. It would be strange to be concerned about statements one had encouraged and publicized.
But when your state news agency circulates announcements relishing a new offensive and your diplomats refuse to express concern about them, you own not only the statements, but also the offenses.
Now sometimes, perhaps given the fog of this bloody war, the separatists are too explicit about their objectives. Indeed, after initially blasting around the separatists’ Mariupol ambitions in the news service, Russia began to see the same ghastly images and reports of the carnage that the rest of us saw. At that point, perhaps knowing the source of the weaponry used, Russia tried to deny any tie between the separatists and the attacks. The Russian news service, TASS, even tried to erase from official news stories all quotes from Zakharchenko speaking about the separatists’ attacks.
It is not hard to understand why Russia does not want the world to hear separatists’ statements. Last Wednesday, the Representative of the Russian Federation told this Council that, “the Russian Federation is ensuring full compliance with the Minsk accords.” On Saturday, though, Zakharchenko openly admitted his forces were violating those same accords. He appeared not to have gotten the Russian memo, which clearly calls for violating the accords while pretending you are not.
Despite Zakharchenko’s statements, Russia continues to try to play the international community for the fool, and blame the violence on the Ukrainians. As recently as yesterday, Foreign Minister Lavrov said, “The worsening situation in Ukraine was the result of constant attacks conducted by the Ukrainian government troops, which breached the Minsk agreements.” We heard the same here today from the Representative of the Russian Federation.
Zakharchenko’s statements are a problem for Russia because they are too straightforward. As members of this Council know – and as, increasingly, all the world can see – the separatists he claims to lead are trained and equipped by Russia, and fight with Russian forces by their side. So when Zakharchenko brags about seizing territory beyond the Minsk ceasefire line; when he announces at rallies that separatists will strike Ukrainian forces without provocation; when he says he is not interested in negotiating; he is not only speaking about the separatists’ intentions, but also about Russia’s intentions. This offensive is made in Moscow. It is waged by Russian-trained and Russian-funded separatists, who use Russian missiles and Russian tanks, who are backed up by Russian troops, and whose operations receive direct Russian assistance.
Since December, Russia has transferred hundreds of pieces of military equipment to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, including tanks, armored vehicles, rocket systems, heavy artillery, and other military equipment. And in recent weeks, Russia has resupplied the separatists with hundreds of pieces of advanced weaponry, including additional rocket systems, heavy artillery, tanks, and armored vehicles.
In mid-to-late January, notwithstanding the shoot down of MH-17, Russia even deployed into eastern Ukraine advanced surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft systems, marking the highest level of Russian air defense presence in eastern Ukraine since September 2014. There is a direct correlation between the movement of heavy weapons, the surge in that movement across the border, and attempts by separatists to take more ground.
The horror wrought by this arsenal has been deadly. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, January 13th to the 21st was the deadliest period on record since the September 5th agreement was signed in Minsk. During this time, an average of 29 people were killed each day. More than 5,000 people have been killed and almost 11,000 maimed since the conflict began in April 2014. And today, this very day, the attacks continue on the civilian-populated areas over the Minsk Ceasefire lines – not only in Mariupol and Debaltseve, but also in Pisky and Stanychno-Lunhanske.
To the Russians, Mariupol and Debaltseve may just be strategic chess pieces in their effort to move the line of territory that they control. But these cities are also home to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian civilians. Nearly 500,000 people live in Mariupol, the second biggest city in the Donetsk region, and more than 25,000 live in Debaltseve. Mariupol is home to 92 pre-schools, attended by 13,000 children.
We continue to believe that the only solution to this situation is a political solution, not a military solution. To that end, we continue to support the efforts of the Trilateral Contact Group, as well as the Normandy group of foreign ministers. We welcome the Normandy group’s agreement in Berlin, which recognizes the need for full, immediate implementation of the Minsk agreement.
If Russia is serious about peace, why doesn’t Russia condemn the statements by separatists that they will attack Ukrainians first and accept no more ceasefires, instead of trying to erase those statements from its state-run news services? If Russia is serious about peace, why doesn’t it pull its tanks and Grad missiles out of eastern Ukraine, instead of sending in more? If Russia is serious about peace, why doesn’t it withdraw its forces at least to the lines agreed upon at Minsk, rather than sending in a huge infusion of Russian heavy weapons so as to carve out new lines.
Only if Russia takes these steps will there be a chance for the political solution that is so desperately needed.