THE BLOG

My Remarks to the Ukrainian People

06/11/2015 03:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

Dobry den. Thank you all so much for being here.

As Tamila said, I represent the United States at the United Nations. The United Nations Security Council, the body whose job it is to address threats to international peace and security, has met 33 times to discuss the crisis in Ukraine since February 2014, when Russia's little green men first started appearing in Crimea - many times more than it has met on any other crisis in the world during that period.

The focus on Ukraine in the Security Council is important, because it gives me the chance - on behalf of the United States - to lay out the mounting evidence of Russia's aggression, its obfuscation, and its outright lies. Or, as I told Russia's representative last week in an emergency Security Council meeting about the Russian-separatist attacks on Marinka, quoting Kyiv's native son, Mikhail Bulgakov, "The tongue can conceal the truth, but the eyes, never!" And America is clear-eyed when it comes to seeing the truth about Russia's destabilizing actions in your country.

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The message of the United States throughout this Moscow-manufactured conflict - and the message you heard from President Obama and other world leaders at last week's meeting of the G7 - has never wavered: If Russia continues to disregard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and if Russia continues to violate the rules upon which international peace and security rest, then the United States will continue to raise the costs on Russia. And we will continue to rally other countries to do the same, reminding them that their silence or inaction in the face of Russian aggression will not placate Moscow; it will only embolden it.

But there is something more important that is often lost in the international discussion about Russia's efforts to impose its will on Ukraine. And that is you - the people of Ukraine - and your right to determine the course of your own country's future.

Far too often, people tell the story of what is happening today in Ukraine without you in it. It is East versus West. The Eurasian Union versus the European Union. Russia versus the EU or Russia versus the United States. In this telling, at best, the Ukrainian people get to choose one of these sides. At worst, a side is chosen for you.

As every Ukrainian knows, this dynamic - leaving the Ukrainian people out of the story of Ukraine - is not unique to recent events. The same can be said for long stretches of your nation's history.

The irony of applying this way of thinking to the current crisis is that it goes against the very ethos of the Maidan, which was - and still is - about putting you, the Ukrainian people, back in the driver's seat of your country's future. It is about restoring your voice - a voice too often ignored by corrupt politicians, oligarchs, and foreign powers. Or, as one of the great rallying cries of the Maidan put it: Ukraina po-nad u-se! Ukraine above all else!

So today I want to speak to your valiant struggle to reclaim that voice - why it brought people out to the Maidan in the first place; how it is being carried forward today, in spite of daunting obstacles; and what must be done to ensure that the effort succeeds in building the sovereign, democratic Ukraine that you want and deserve.

Let me begin with what we know brought people out to the Maidan in the first place.

We've all heard a good number of myths about this. One told by the Yanukovych government and its Russian backers at the time was that the Maidan protesters were pawns of the West, and did not speak for the "real" Ukraine. A more nefarious myth peddled by Moscow after Yanukovych's fall was that Euromaidan had been engineered by Western capitals in order to topple a democratically-elected government.

The facts tell a different story. As you remember well, then-President Yanukovych abandoned Kyiv of his own accord, only hours after signing an agreement with opposition leaders that would have led to early elections and democratic reforms. And it was only after Yanukovych fled the capital that 328 of the 447 members of the democratically-elected Rada voted to strip him of his powers - including 36 of the 38 members of his own party in parliament at the time. Yanukovych then vanished for several days, only to eventually reappear - little surprise - in Russia.

As is often the case, these myths reveal more about the myth makers than they do about the truth. Moscow's fable was designed to airbrush the Ukrainian people - and their genuine aspirations and demands - out of the Maidan, by claiming the movement was fueled by outsiders.

Yet, as you all know by living through it - and as was clear even to those of us watching your courageous stand from afar - the Maidan was made in Ukraine. A Ukraine of university students and veterans of the Afghan war. Of Ukrainian, Russian, and Tatar speakers. Of Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

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This very building where we are gathered today, the October Palace, became a shelter for protesters. More than a thousand people slept here on any given night during the Euromaidan protest - in ornate rooms beneath classical paintings; on the floor of a ballet studio and even under a grand concert piano. And on the steps leading up to this building, people stockpiled hundreds of heads of cabbage and other vegetables donated by farmers, and babushki cooked them up in vats, feeding piping hot soup to the protesters.

What brought together such a diverse mix of Ukrainians - and what made them hold their ground through months of bitter cold and repeated attacks by the Berkut - was the Ukrainian people's frustration that their voices were once again being ignored by those in power; their sense that the basic compact at the core of the democratic model - that leaders are accountable to their citizens - had been broken.

The Ukrainian people had good reason to feel disempowered, which went much deeper than Yanukovych's decision on whether to enter into association with the European Union. The feeling was grounded in the deep, systemic corruption that permeated virtually every facet of Ukrainian life. At the time of the protests, Ukraine ranked 144th out of 175 countries on Transparency International's corruption index - the lowest of any European country. The pillaging by Yanukovych and his cronies had left this country tens of billions of dollars in debt. Ukraine's Prosecutor General's office later estimated that, between 2010 and 2014, Ukrainian officials stole a fifth of their country's output each year.

Graft, the lack of transparency and the concentration of power in the hands of a few oligarchs and power holders, were decades in the making. Under the Soviet Union, the institutions that provide an essential check on abuses of power in democracies, such as a robust free press and an impartial judiciary, simply did not exist.

So the Maidan was not just about reversing a cynical political decision or unseating a single kleptocratic government. Instead, it was about dismantling a generations-old system that kept producing rotten decisions, broken institutions, and corrupt leaders - and it was about replacing it with one that was accountable to the Ukrainian people.

Now, if the Maidan of 2013 and 2014 was about claiming your right to a genuinely democratic government, the task before you in 2015 and beyond is implementing the reforms needed to achieve Ukraine's transformation. It is about moving from demanding change to actually making change. This is my second point: you are still living in the revolution, and delivering on its promise will require all the resilience, smarts, and compassion you can muster.

Given the powerful interests that benefited from the corrupt system, achieving a full transformation was always going to be an uphill battle. And that was before Russian troops occupied Crimea, something the Kremlin denied at the time, but has since admitted; and it was before Russia began training, arming, bankrolling, and fighting alongside its separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine, something the Kremlin continues to deny. Suddenly, the Ukrainian people faced a battle on two fronts: combating corruption and overhauling broken institutions on the inside; while simultaneously defending against aggression and destabilization from the outside.

I don't have to tell you the immense strain that these battles have placed upon you. You feel it in the young men and women, including some of your family members and friends, who have volunteered or been drafted into the military - people who could be helping build up their nation, but instead are risking their lives to defend it against Russian aggression. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last day, and 13 more wounded. You feel it in the conflict's impact on your country's economy - as instability makes it harder for Ukrainian businesses to attract foreign investment, deepens inflation, and depresses families' wages. It is felt in the energy that elected leaders and civil society members are forced to dedicate to responding to the crises generated by the conflict - energy that could have been devoted to improving public services like education and health care. It is felt in the undercurrent of fear in cities like Kharkiv - where citizens have been the victims of multiple bomb attacks, the most lethal of which killed four people, including two teenage boys, at a rally celebrating the first anniversary of Euromaidan.

And the impact is felt most directly by the people living in the conflict zone. According to the UN, at least 6,350 people have been killed in the violence driven by Russia and the separatists - including 625 women and children - and an additional 1,460 people are missing; 15,775 people have been wounded. And an estimated 2 million people have been displaced by this conflict. And the real numbers of killed, missing, wounded, and displaced are likely higher, according to the UN, due to its limited access to areas controlled by the separatists.

Now, it seems the Russian government's cynical calculation in fueling this aggression was that a new Ukrainian government, and newly-empowered Ukrainian civil society, would be so consumed by the military threat to their nation, and so burdened by its destabilizing effects, that they would not be able to focus on carrying out the project of the Maidan. As the reforms stalled - Moscow's thinking went - you, the Ukrainian people, would grow disillusioned with the tremendous sacrifices you were being asked to make for so little progress. And eventually, you would give up and return another pawn of Moscow to power. Blackmail would work. You would trade your rightful sovereignty for greater calm. That was the bet.

But the Kremlin made a very serious miscalculation: it underestimated your resilience and your willingness to unite to help your fellow citizens. And it underestimated your tenacious determination to fix a broken system.

To understand what is meant by Ukrainian resilience, look at the workers at the Avdiivka coking plant - the largest in Europe. Avdiivka produces the fuel used to power steelmaking plants across Ukraine - plants that employ tens of thousands of Ukrainians. If its furnaces are shut off and cool down, they crack and break, wrecking the plant's costly machinery. The plant, as you all know, is near the line of contact, along which Russia and the separatists routinely violate the ceasefire agreed to at Minsk by launching attacks. Because the workers' journey to and from work is so dangerous, some 2,000 workers have taken to sleeping on the grounds of the plant.

Since the conflict began, the Avdiivka plant has been hit by more than 200 rocket and artillery strikes, which have killed at least five of its workers and wounded many more. In a single attack by combined Russian-separatist forces on May 24th, 70 projectiles hit the factory. But the workers managed to keep the plant running, suspending operations only briefly. Some workers manned their posts right through the mortar and rocket attacks. The plant's director told a reporter of the struggle to keep the plant running. He said,"You can't wait until tomorrow. You can't wait until they stop shooting. We wait a few minutes and then we act. To extinguish the fires, plug the gaps, replace power sources. And you keep going until you fix all the holes." That idea - that you cannot wait until they stop shooting to put out the fires and to plug the gaps - has defined the Ukrainian spirit throughout this conflict.

To understand what is meant by Ukrainian solidarity, look at the countless civil society groups that have sprung up to respond to the massive humanitarian crisis produced by Russian aggression.

Yesterday, I visited Vostok SOS - one of the groups assisting the displaced in Kyiv. The group started when a local businessman took in a few families who had been forced to flee the Donbass. Those few families quickly became a few dozen families, and then hundreds of families, whom Vostok SOS has helped obtain access to shelter and vital services like schooling, medical care, and jobs.

One mother told me how her husband and two-year-old child were killed when their home near Debaltseve was shelled during a Russian-separatist offensive in February. She and her five surviving children escaped in a van whose roof and doors had been blasted out by shelling, eventually arriving in Kyiv - in this van. While she and other families I met told heartbreaking accounts of loss, they also spoke of the humbling compassion shown to them by the people of your city. Of people who - seeing their fellow citizens in need - opened their homes, their classrooms, and their hearts - and welcomed them in, plugging the gaps.

The Kremlin also underestimated your resolve to see through the process you started on the Maidan - to build a system that answers to you, the Ukrainian people, rather than to the oligarchs or to Moscow. And it is your unflagging commitment to that process that has been the driving force behind the reforms that you are trying to achieve. A run through some of these efforts shows their genuine promise.

In October 2014, Ukraine held the freest and fairest Rada election in the country's history. This allowed the Ukrainian people to vote into office many new officials - including a number of journalists, human rights defenders, and transparency advocates who had played key roles in the Maidan movement - and who are now helping drive reform efforts from the inside while many of you exert pressure from the outside.

These new members of government - together with civil society - are pushing for greater transparency. This is the first year that every member of the Rada has publicly disclosed his or her income and assets. The anti-corruption committee became the first to live stream its meetings, allowing people to watch its investigations in real-time. The Ministry of Infrastructure and the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources have started publishing the contracts, tenders, and resource concessions that they award online - processes that in the past were completely opaque, making it easier to hatch corrupt deals. And the government has approved a Public Broadcasting Law that creates a single, unified national network - which is both publicly funded and independent - and whose supervisory board reserves a majority of its seats for representatives from civil society.

The government has also started to chip away at some of the oligarch's monopolies. Consider the energy sector. On April 9th, the government passed a law aimed at breaking up the massive state energy behemoth, Naftogaz, into separate firms and strengthening Ukraine's national energy regulator. That same month the prosecutor general's office brought lawsuits against key power companies which were given away at rock-bottom prices during the Yanukovych years.

A major reason these reforms have advanced is because of the continuing pressure placed on government by civil society, which has gone from claiming a place in the Maidan to demanding a seat at the policymaking table. The Reanimation Reform Package is one example; made up of more than a hundred advocates, policy experts, and journalists, the group not only keeps a monthly scorecard on whether the government is fulfilling its reform commitments, but also helps come up with concrete proposals for how those commitments can actually be met. Another example is stopfake.org - a website run by volunteer journalists, academics, and fact-checkers that uncovers false news and propaganda in the press - as it did last year when it revealed that a photograph on multiple Russian political sites claiming to show a morgue filled with bodies in Slovyansk was in fact taken five years earlier...in Mexico.

This pressure from civil society has also resulted in less tolerance for corruption. Look at the case of Oleksandr Yershov, who was appointed in April as temporary head of Ukraine's traffic police - a post he used to hold in Kharkiv. On May 19th, the media reported that Yershov owns an unreported three-story villa in Kyiv, as well as a fleet of cars valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars - all on an official income last year of around $1,500 a month. Yershov handed in his resignation within hours of the story breaking. He was the fourth high-ranking police official to resign in recent months due to dogged press reporting.

Now, of course, the reform process is in its early days. For every area of modest progress, there are many in which much more work is needed; and in which entrenched powers are succeeding in fending off change. Far too many of the reforms made on paper are not being carried out in practice. And no one can credibly claim that the colossal problems these reforms aim to fix - the monopolies of the oligarchs, the lack of transparency, the enduring corruption - have been adequately addressed. Public pressure may be forcing some crooked officials from office, but it hasn't yet resulted in them being effectively prosecuted. Investigations into serious crimes such as the violence in the Maidan and in Odesa have been sluggish, opaque, and marred by serious errors - suggesting not only a lack of competence, but also a lack of will to hold the perpetrators accountable.

This brings me to my third and final point, which is how crucial it is that you - the Ukrainian people - stay engaged in the reform process. Because slow as the pace of change may feel, powerful as your foes may feel, and profound as the hardships may be - building a system of new rules will never depend on what your government does, but rather what you make it do, and what you do yourselves.

I know this is easier said than done - especially when you are struggling to feed a family as wages drop and food prices shoot up, or when you are spending sleepless nights in a basement with no electricity because of relentless shelling. And I know that for most people, the daily struggle to live with dignity may feel very similar to the way it did in the past, or perhaps even worse. I can only imagine how disillusioning it must be to have to continue to confront the bureaucrat who asks for a bribe to do his job, or the agency that fails to deliver a basic service, or the politician who breaks yet another campaign promise.

Yet, hard as it is, remember what is at stake - not only for yourselves, but for generations of Ukrainians to come. Remember that the yearning to have a voice - which brought so many Ukrainians out to the Maidan, and resonated with so many millions more - the cry of Hid-nist! Hid-nist! Dignity! Dignity! - is just as powerful now as it was then. Remember that the alternative to forging ahead is accepting a system in which no one expects you to have a say in your country's future. And remember that big changes in institutions, behaviors, and societies always start with the smallest actions of individuals.

Let me give you an example. As many of you know, Kyiv is overhauling its police department. Few institutions have a more abysmal track record. In fact, I would bet that many of you here have had to pay a bribe at one time or another to a police officer in Kyiv. Nor is the problem limited to your city; a government study last year found that only 3 percent of Ukrainians trusted their police.

So the new authorities in Kyiv decided to start from scratch, and put out an appeal for new recruits. For 2,000 positions, more than 33,000 people applied. The competition was rigorous, including in-depth interviews, psychological and ethical exams, and other tests. In the time since, the chosen recruits have spent months training with international experts, including law enforcement officers from the United States. They will earn four times what police officers in Kyiv used to earn - not a lavish wage by any measure, but enough that they cannot claim that they are collecting bribes in order to provide for their families' basic needs.

In Kyiv's old police, there were almost no female officers. In contrast, a quarter of the new recruits are women, as is the director of the police reform effort. One recruit is a young woman named Anastasiya Marchenko. When asked recently by a reporter how she thought women officers would be treated, she said, "In the beginning it will be difficult... Maybe they'll laugh. Maybe they won't take us seriously. But I think it will depend on how we handle ourselves." Asked why she applied, Anastasiya said, "I wanted to do my own small part for these reforms. I wanted to try to change something. It's ordinary people who change things in society."

That is what one of the great moral visionaries in my country's history, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, meant when he said, "The most important political office is that of the private citizen." It is private citizens like Anastasiya, who is here with us today, on whom the success of the project that began in the Maidan depends. Citizens like you.

And as you assume that most important political office - the office of citizen - you must continue to demand a government that lives up to your country's noblest principles; to ensure that your leaders and fellow citizens listen to what American President Abraham Lincoln once called the better angels of our nature.

That means that Ukraine is stronger when it listens to those calling on its military to respect international law while defending its people from attacks by combined Russian-separatist forces - even as its enemies ignore those same standards. It means that Ukraine should zealously protect freedom of the press, including for its most outspoken and biased critics - indeed, especially for its most outspoken and biased critics - even as the so-called separatists expel journalists from the territory they control, and even as Russia shutters Tatar media outlets in occupied Crimea. It means that politicians and police across the country should recognize how crucial it is that people be able to march to demand respect for LGBT rights and the rights of other vulnerable groups without fear of being attacked. And it means that the Ukrainian government should do everything in its power to get humanitarian aid to the civilians trapped along the line of contact and those struggling to survive in separatist-controlled areas, as well as to ensure the swift freedom of movement across the line for humanitarian actors.

It is this idea - that the people can use their voice to hold their leaders accountable - that is so threatening to leaders like President Putin, and the autocratic governments they lead. And it is the reason Moscow is working so desperately to sabotage your efforts at reform. Just look at the contrast.

In Ukraine, civil society is the driving force behind the reform agenda. Its leaders are being elected to seats in the Rada and leading key ministries, and playing a central role in crafting public policy. In Russia, the government is doing everything it can - from passing repressive legislation to launching violent attacks - to muzzle civil society. Just a few weeks ago, on May 23rd, the Russian government signed a decree targeting what it called undesirable organizations, which lets the government ban the activities of any NGO seen as undermining "state security," "national defense," or the "constitutional order." Vague and sweeping, this draconian legislation builds on a 2012 law that requires Russian NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as what it calls foreign agents, demonizing these groups among the public. According to an independent watchdog group, Russia has pursued lawsuits against at least nine organizations branded as foreign agents, including some of the country's leading human rights organizations. One group identified as a foreign agent, and targeted for repression under the new law, is Dynasty, an organization that promotes scientific research and education, and supports promising young Russian physicists, biologists, and mathematicians.

It is bitterly ironic that the Russian government - which views international support for NGOs that promote human rights as an unacceptable threat to its security - it is ironic that that same government has no qualms bankrolling, training, and arming separatist movements in multiple neighboring countries, and sending its soldiers across Russia's borders to fight alongside those same fighters. You tell me: which of these is the true foreign agent: Russian NGOs in Russia or Russian soldiers in Ukraine?

In Ukraine, the people and the government have pressed relentlessly for the release of Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot who was captured in June 2014 by separatists on Ukrainian soil, and then smuggled against her will to Russia, where she's been held ever since. In that time, Nadiya has endured relentless interrogations, and even been subjected to solitary confinement for staging a hunger strike. Just yesterday, her detention was extended yet again by Russian courts, until September 30th. Meanwhile, Nadiya's 78-year-old mother, Maria, has traveled the world making the case for Russia to release her. I had the opportunity to meet Maria in New York a few months ago - and as a mother myself - I cannot imagine the pain she must feel. But Maria has not given up - and neither has Nadiya. Maria is here with us today. And today, Maria, we repeat to you that the United States will continue to press tirelessly for Nadiya's release, as well as the release of all Ukrainians who are being held illegally by the so-called separatists and by Russia.

Now, while you would be hard-pressed to find a person in Ukraine who has not heard about Nadiya's case, the overwhelming majority of Russians have little idea that their soldiers are fighting in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian government continues to deny its involvement.

Compare Ukraine's efforts to secure Nadiya's release with the Russian government's response to the two special operations Russian soldiers captured by the Ukrainian military in Schastya last month. While the Russian soldiers have admitted that they were on a reconnaissance mission when they were caught, Russian officials deny the men are members of the military.

Not content with denying their military service in life, Russia is also denying the families of soldiers killed in combat in Ukraine the respect, closure, and social services that they deserve for their loved ones' sacrifice. Just last week, Russia passed a decree classifying deaths of Russian soldiers in special operations in peacetime a state secret.

And in those homes where the "Cargo 200," as it is called, has arrived - this is the Russian government's euphemism for the remains of soldiers killed while fighting in its covert conflict - in those homes, silence is the rule as families fear that they will lose jobs, benefits, and find themselves charged with treason by the very government their sons and daughters died serving.

In all of these efforts to hide the truth, the Russian government denies its citizens the knowledge of, and a say in, a conflict in another sovereign country that their government has been fueling. That is knowledge that the Russian people deserve to have. Especially given that in a poll last year, two-thirds of Russians opposed sending troops into Ukraine.

In these contrasts, one begins to see why the aspirations of Ukraine's reform movement pose such an existential threat to the Russian model. The choice could not be clearer.

A system where leaders serve the people, versus a system where leaders think the people serve them. A system that trusts and empowers the people, versus a system that fears and represses them. A system of rights, versus a system of favors. A system that builds up independent institutions and checks on power, versus a system that knocks them down.

Let me conclude.

The Ukrainian people are one-of-a-kind, but the situation you find yourselves in is not. People around the world find themselves facing similarly daunting obstacles: corrupt politicians, rotten institutions, powerful oligarchs, and even aggressive neighboring countries intent on meddling in their sovereign affairs. And these people are watching you. They learned from your stand on the Maidan. And they are learning from the struggle that you are waging right now - to build a democracy from the grassroots up.

And all of the autocrats, kleptocrats, oligarchs, and bullying foreign powers out there - they are watching, too. And they are so rooting for you to fail.

But know this: you are not alone. The United States has been with the Ukrainian people since the first brave protesters went out on the Maidan, and since the first little green men showed up in Crimea and the Donbass. We have never left your side. And we are not going to leave your side now - when your hardship is great, your obstacles many, and your path to change long. Because America believes that your struggle has resonance far beyond your sovereign borders. And because we believe that there is no greater cause than the cause of human dignity - no greater call, in fact, than the call of Hid-nist! Hid-nist! Hid-nist!

And if the pressure starts to feel overwhelming, consider this: everyone who has bet against you up until this point has been proven wrong. People who thought you would abandon the Maidan if you were threatened and arrested, or cede your ground when you were beaten by mobs and shot at by snipers. People who thought your spirit could be broken by the occupation of Crimea, or who believed that you would not be willing to fight to defend your territory against foreign attackers. People who thought that the severe hardship inflicted by sustained aggression would wear you down. But no, you have definitely not been broken.

That tenacity - that willingness to fight for your voice, whether against internal oppressors or outside, would-be occupiers - is one of the proudest parts of Ukraine's national heritage. It is in your DNA.

It is the legacy of the Ukrainian farmers, shopkeepers, and school principals who risked their lives by violating the central government's orders to hand over their stocks of grain during the Holodomor, choosing to share it instead with hungry neighbors. And it is the legacy of the great Ukrainian dissident poet, Vasyl Stus. His poems were banned by the authorities, his books were methodically tracked down and destroyed, and he spent 23 of his 47 short years in prisons and labor camps - before ultimately dying while on hunger strike in a political prisoner camp in the Urals. Yet throughout his life, Stus refused to be silent, continuing to write and continuing to speak out against the injustices he saw around him, no matter the consequences. And his words are immortal. Here is part of a poem he wrote:

You may still be bleeding from pain
you are still torn to pieces
yet you are strong and defiant
you are standing tall for freedom.

Ukraine, you may still be bleeding from pain. An aggressive neighbor may be trying to tear your nation to pieces. Yet you - from committed volunteers like Anastasiya Marchenko to brave fighters like Nadiya Savchenko; from the humanitarian volunteers in Vostok SOS, to factory workers in the Avdiivka plant - you are strong and defiant. You, Ukraine, are standing tall for your freedom. And if you stand tall together - no kleptocrat, no oligarch, and no foreign power can stop you.

Thank you.