I thank the Chair and members of the committee. I wish to start with words of appreciation to the distinguished Members of the Oireachtas for inviting me today to deliver an update on the current situation in Ukraine. I hope all members are keeping well. I want to use this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Charles Flanagan on his appointment as Chairman of the committee. His experience as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Minister for Justice and Equality will undoubtedly contribute to the success of the committee. I recollect with pleasure his visit to Ukraine, which means he is well grounded on the challenges Ukraine is currently facing. We have good reason to count on his support.
In Ukraine, we highly appreciate the level of co-operation between our countries. Ireland has always been a reliable partner of Ukraine on a bilateral level, as well as within international organisations. We successfully co-operate on a number of UN resolutions, including on human rights in Crimea and the security situation in the Black Sea and Azov Sea. We count on the same support within the UN Security Council, to which Ireland has been elected for the next two-year period.
Bilateral trade turnover has been continuously growing during recent years, and reached almost €700 million in 2019.
We believe, however, that we have greater potential in this field, and it is diverse.
The expected opening of the Irish Embassy in Kiev will open new opportunities and promote bilateral trade as well as co-operation in economic, scientific and many other sectors. The launching of a direct flight between Dublin and Kiev in May of last year contributed to strengthening people-to-people contacts and best serves to strengthen friendship between our countries.
Since 2017, Ukrainian citizens have enjoyed visa-free travel almost to all countries of the European Union and we reckon that Ireland will join this list of countries by abolishing visa requirements for Ukrainian nationals. We are also looking forward to the appointment of a convenor for the parliamentary friendship group to intensify our interparliamentary communication.
I will update the committee on Ukraine today, with a focus on the situation in Donbass and Crimea, which hurts the most since 2014 when Russia illegally occupied Crimea and unleashed its aggression in Donbass.
The Kremlin has always considered an independent, democratic, pro-Europe Ukraine as a threat to its dominance in the region. Military aggression is just one element of the Russian hybrid warfare against Ukraine. Russia also conducts a propaganda campaign based on disinformation, engages in trade and economic warfare, has launched an energy blockade and carries out cyberattacks. It blames the other side for its crimes, while at the same time strongly denying the very fact of war against Ukraine despite the large scope of irrefutable evidence. Its aggression against Ukraine has left approximately 14,000 people killed and up to 25,000 wounded. During the entire conflict period, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has recorded a total of 3,070 conflict-related civilian deaths. The number of injured civilians is estimated to exceed 7,000.
We also remember with deep sorrow the 298 passengers of the MH17 flight, including one Irish national, who were killed as a result of a terrorist attack on 17 July 2014 when the plane was shot down by Russian servicemen using their Buk missile system. More than 1.5 million residents of Donbass have been internally displaced and more than 45,000 were forced to flee Crimea.
The economy of Donbass has been completely destroyed. The equipment of many important industrial facilities was dismantled and transported to Russia. The situation with flooded mines threatens environmental disaster. A 410 km section of the Ukrainian-Russian border remains out of Ukraine's control. Russia keeps issuing hundreds of thousands of its passports to Ukrainian citizens living in the occupied areas, flagrantly breaching Ukraine’s sovereignty and undermining the prospects of the future reintegration of those citizens.
At present, the situation in Donbass remains volatile. As members will be aware, on 22 July additional measures to consolidate ceasefire were agreed within the trilateral contact group, TCG, after which the overall security situation on the ground was defused to a large extent. However, the Russian armed formations continue to violate the ceasefire regime on a regular basis, firing upon the positions of the Ukrainian armed forces using sniper weapons, grenade launchers, etc. Most recently, another Ukrainian serviceman was killed by sniper fire near Avdiivka, a small city in Donbass.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, special monitoring mission, SMM, reports on a regular basis about the presence of the Russian tanks, unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, and electronic warfare systems. Cases of distant mining and sniper fire at Ukrainian army positions continue to be registered. On 8 November this year, the SMM spotted, for the first time, the newest advanced Russian electronic warfare system, Navodchik-2, near the city of Luhansk, with three boxes for storing and transporting the UAVs. Despite numerous calls, the Russian side failed to provide any information on how these weapons were transported to Ukraine.
The SMM also reports on a regular basis on incidents when movement of its monitors was restricted, including access to the non-government-controlled section of the Ukrainian-Russian border. At the same time, illegal crossings of this section of the border by so-called Russian humanitarian convoys transporting weapons and military equipment and ammunition to Donbass became usual and systematic a long time ago. I have mentioned several facts testifying to Russia's presence in Donbass.
The situation around the TCG is alarming because its work has remained blocked for several months. After the ceasefire agreement was reached by the TCG it failed to ensure further tangible results on security, political and humanitarian tracks. Since the summer, we have seen deliberate efforts by the Russian side to obstruct the TCG’s activities and to delay the application of already-agreed arrangements, particularly the updated plan on demining activities in 19 agreed areas, the disengagement of forces and hardware in four additional areas and the mutual exchange of lists of identified detainees as a necessary stage before a next mutual release.
The several latest TCG sessions were simply a disaster. No new decisions were finalised, while old arrangements seem to have been questioned by the Russian side. In view of the approaching winter season, this problem has become critical. Recently, Ukraine opened two new entry-exit crossing points, Zolote and Shchastia, in the Luhansk region. Afterwards, however, the passage of people and vehicles was practically blocked by the occupation administration.
It has already been four months since the TCG could not renew deliberations on proposals submitted by Ukraine to ensure implementation of the relevant provisions of the Minsk agreements relating to legal aspects of the special order of local self-governance in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the incorporation of the so-called Steinmeier formula into Ukrainian legislation. Paradoxically, however, these are exactly the documents Russia was insisting on before.
We are also deeply alarmed by the almost complete lack of access of the international humanitarian organisations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to the Ukrainian prisoners of war who remain in detention in occupied Donbass. As the committee can see, Russia continues to stand firm on protracting the peace process under various pretexts. To make Russia listen to and hear a message about the unacceptability of its course, we believe sanctions should be preserved and expanded.
I will now say a few words about of the situation around Crimea, where the occupying authorities act by repressive measures, resorting to systematic and large-scale violations of human rights. The alarming human rights situation in occupied Crimea was condemned by a number of UN resolutions. I would like to thank Ireland for its strong support and co-sponsorship of these documents.
According to the most recent report of the UN Secretary General, published on 8 October 2020, the Russian occupation regime in Crimea violates human rights, ignoring all of its international obligations. Numerous cases of torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and enforced disappearances in Crimea were also reported. About 100 Ukrainian citizens are constantly behind bars for political reasons.
The UN Secretary General urged the occupation authorities to ensure freedoms of opinion and expression without discrimination on any grounds, to ensure education in the Ukrainian language, and to lift restrictions imposed on the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions, including the ban on the Mejlis. A recent example of an attempt by Russia to suppress religious freedoms was a so-called court ruling by the occupation administration, which ordered the demolition of Ukrainian Orthodox Church temple in Yevpatoria city. The Russian Federation also continues illegal conscription activities in Crimea, and denies property rights to former owners, depriving them of their titles under the pretext of nationalisation. In breach of international humanitarian law, more than 25,000 people from among the population protected by Geneva IV Convention were drafted to serve in the Russian military.
The militarisation of Crimea is another deeply alarming trend which seriously threatens overall global security and could endanger the whole non-proliferation treaty regime. Russia has started carrying out specific works at the so-called Feodosia-13 facility in Crimea which was used to store nuclear weapons until 1996 and afterwards dismantled. Russian submarines are also currently illegally stationed in Balaklava, and additional tunnels for submarines have been constructed. In the past three years Russia has enhanced its army in Crimea with long-range C-400 missile systems, war ships and submarines equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles. To reverse the trend, we need to act in a co-ordinated way. With this aim, Ukraine recently proposed to establish the Crimean Platform, a new international format of co-operation which seeks to achieve the de-occupation of Crimea, which envisages an interparliamentary dimension. We hope that Ireland will join this format as well.
Dear Members of the Oireachtas, despite all the challenges that Ukraine is currently facing, we must ensure irreversible progress of national reform on the way to Euro-Atlantic integration of our country. On 1 December 2020, the European Union published its annual report outlining Ukraine's implementation over the past year of reforms under the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The High Representative and Vice-President, Mr. Josep Borrell, noted that despite Russia's destabilising actions, conflict in the east, and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Ukraine had continued to make progress on its reform path.
I will stop here because I am limited in time. I would be delighted to discuss Ukraine with the committee members and to answer their questions. I thank them for their attention.