Developments in Ukraine: Engagement with Chargé d'Affaires of Ukraine

We welcome the presence of the Chargé d'Affaires of Ukraine, Ms Olena Shaloput, and her colleague, to brief the committee on the ongoing situation in Ukraine. She is very welcome to our meeting. The format of the meeting is such that we will hear an opening statement before proceeding to questions and answers with members of the committee, some of whom are present and some of whom are joining us by way of Zoom or Webtext.

Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentation they make to the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action taken based on what they say at the meeting. However, it is expected that nobody will abuse this privilege. It is my duty as Chair to ensure it is in no way abused. Therefore, if statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, witnesses will be directed by me to discontinue their remarks. In any event, I do not anticipate that this will occur.

I call on Ms Shaloput to make her opening statement.

Mrs. Olena Shaloput

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.

I thank Ms Shaloput for what was a very comprehensive, if disquieting, address. I will now open up the discussion to members. I am very conscious of the time, and I apologise in advance to Ms Shaloput because we are going to have to finish before our estimated time of 1.30 p.m. to facilitate us being in a different location in the Parliament.

I welcome Ms Shaloput to our meeting and thank her for her very informative opening statement which outlined the current situation in Donbass and Ukraine, which is of continuing concern. As we are so tight for time, I want to home in on a few potential developments between Ukraine and Ireland, and economic ties between the two countries. I know that Ireland is planning on opening an embassy in Ukraine, it is hoped next year, and I think that Ukraine is intending to do the same. I would like Ms Shaloput to provide the committee with an update on that process and where we are at. There are massive opportunities to continue to develop our relationship with Ukraine, and I know that Ukraine is regarded as the sleeping giant with a lot of untapped potential.

It is interesting to look at the trade and economic relations between Ukraine and Ireland. Indeed, the export of goods from Ukraine to Ireland almost doubled in 2019, reaching $153 million, which was an increase of almost 200%, and the import of goods amounted to $169 million, which was an increase of 118%. In the period from January to June 2020, the export of goods was up by $70.3 million which was an increase of 71% on 2019, and the import of goods increased by 130%. Even with the difficulties that Covid has presented this year, it is great to see that beneficial trade and those economic relations continue to grow. Perhaps Ms Shaloput could comment on that and where she thinks there is potential to grow our economic and trade relationship with Ukraine. Some of the major exports include grain, fuel, and metals, but also computers, TVs and transport services. Where does Ms Shaloput see the potential to develop the relationships between Ireland and Ukraine?

I am sorry that we are under such time constraints today. It is lovely to have Ms Shaloput with us today. I have worked with Ukrainians in the COSAC meetings across Europe over the past four or five years and always found them to be very positive in their outlook. I would like to see co-operation between Ireland and Ukraine expanded. We are currently in the process of setting up technological universities here in Ireland, and I would like to see research co-operation, in particular, between the two countries. I think the idea of setting up an interparliamentary friendship group is a fantastic one, and I would love to be involved myself, because such groups are really useful.

Getting to the crux of the problem in Ukraine at the moment, namely, what is happening in Crimea, I talk to the Russians when I can and I like to maintain a friendly relationship with them. They would claim that Crimea was theirs in the first place, that it was President Khrushchev, I believe, who gave the territory to Ukraine, so now they are simply taking it back. They would also point out that the majority of the population in Crimea is Russian and wants to be so. Do not get me wrong; I am not making a statement in favour of what the Russians are saying. They use a similar argument in respect of Georgia, that the parts of Georgia they have taken are really Russian and want to be Russian. It is an excuse, therefore. However, I am quite shocked to hear numbers of 14,000 killed and 25,000 wounded. That is pretty significant in any neck of the woods. We do not have the time today to explore what is going on in Crimea, but I would dearly like to have the opportunity to do that with Ms Shaloput at some stage in the not too distant future. I am also aware of the Russian use of Ukrainian ports, and the submarines and warships that are arriving there. It must be quite frightening for Ukrainians to have that breathing down their necks.

The religious freedom issue is one that I would like to get an expansion on as well. I visited Russia last year as a tourist. I remember, as a child, my grandmother would make us pray every night at 8 o'clock and at the end of the praying period there was one prayer said, and that was for the religious freedom of Russia. I never saw so many churches in all my life as I saw in Moscow and in St. Petersburg and I am rather surprised that they have taken that view. Perhaps at some stage in the not-too-distance future we will get a chance to discuss that further.

I am delighted to have the chargé d'affaires here and I hope that we will have a much closer relationship over the next couple of years.

I thank the chargé d'affaires for coming in today. I have two questions. I await with anticipation Mrs. Shaloput's answer to Senator Craughwell's question on the Crimea. It is slightly polemical. I can only imagine what the chargé d'affaires will say. I would love to hear Mrs. Shaloput's response to that.

I have two questions then for the chargé d'affaires. What is Mrs. Shaloput's view on the state and the independence of the judiciary in her country at present? A delegation from Ireland, which included the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Frank Clarke, visited her country a few years ago. That is my first question. Is Mrs. Shaloput satisfied that it is wholly independent and there is no interference, and would she kindly update the committee?

Second, we had the Minister for Foreign Affairs here yesterday and he was saying how fortunate Ireland is at a time of challenge of Brexit to have the solidarity of the EU. Cometh the hour, cometh the person. There is great solidarity and camaraderie to date among the EU helping Ireland, which will probably be more disproportionately adversely affected than any other member state as the United Kingdom leaves the EU. My question for the chargé d'affaires is, can she give us an update on Ukraine's desires, application and actions to seek membership of the EU? Mrs. Shaloput has given us a sorry story of Russian challenges and intervention, and unlawful territorial expansion. If the Ukraine had been in the EU, it would have been in a stronger position. Is that still a fervent aim? Does Ukraine feel the EU is letting it down in responding and not trying to progress the matter a bit better than it is doing at present?

Mrs. Olena Shaloput

I will start with the first question from Deputy Brady and I thank the Deputy for the question. We expect the opening of the embassy. The decision was agreed in 2018 when our foreign minister, Mr. Pavlo Klimkin, paid an official visit to Ireland and met with the then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney. Of course, it was a little strange for us that Ukraine has embassies of almost all EU countries, except Ireland and Malta. Finally, we will have it. We are expecting the ambassador from Ireland, even this year. With luck, everything will go well.

Of course, as I mentioned in my address, we are happy with our level of preparation but our economic co-operation and co-operation in the sphere of business and trade have more potential. Nowadays it is popular to co-operate in the information technology, IT, sphere in which Ireland, as well as Ukraine, has made huge progress. We have approximately 400 IT entities in Ukraine and 200,000 IT engineers. Some of them, by the way, stay and work in Ireland in many corporations, for instance, Google and Facebook.

Another sphere, of course, very important for our co-operation, is the agricultural sector. Ireland and Ukraine probably were competitive in this sphere but at the same time we may find some points of mutual interest. For example, Ireland has a good genome base in this sphere and we would be interested in co-operating on it.

As the committee can see, we have many areas in which to co-operate. I hope opening the Irish Embassy and strengthening and intensifying our dialogue in these spheres, will open to us new opportunities. We are looking forward to it.

I thank Senator Craughwell for raising his questions. I note the Technological University of Dublin.

There is one in Dublin. There will be one in Munster in the next few weeks. The south east one will be a few weeks after that, and the mid-west. We will have five technological universities by the middle of next July.

Mrs. Olena Shaloput

This year my son became a student of the Technological University Dublin. He is happy to be a student. He is studying IT management and computer science.

Education is another sphere of co-operation where Ireland has also made huge progress. I visited Cork technological university last year and we agreed to set contacts between the Kiev technological university and Cork. It is important to pay attention to the educational part of our co-operation.

Talking about Russia and the statement that there are many Russians in the Crimea now, of course, that is true. Many Russians were moved from the Russian territory to Crimea. As I mentioned in my statement, approximately 45,000 Ukrainians were forced to flee Crimea. In Russia, the Black Sea fleet has its base. Of course, they have a great influence there, but it is not a reason to hold a referendum under guns. It is not a reason, in this century, to occupy the territories of foreign countries. Therefore, Russia should comply with international law. Under this reason, tomorrow they make eyes to other countries, for example, to Latvia or to Estonia, or, again, to Ukraine. We know that their military doctrine envisages to defend Russian citizens, and even Russian-speaking people, not only inside their country but far beyond, and that is dangerous. It threatens the international community.

Senator Martin asked questions, in particular, on the judiciary, in which he expressed interest.

Mrs. Olena Shaloput

Talking about the judiciary reform in Ukraine, last year Ukraine completed the establishment of the system of the anti-corruption institutions. Unfortunately, the recent decision of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine adopted more than a month ago led to a constitutional crisis and challenged the reform implementation to fight against corruption in the country. Recently, President Zelensky chaired a meeting of the National Council on Anti-Corruption Policy.

He called on the Parliament of Ukraine, Verkhovna Rada, to support his legislative initiatives as soon as possible to restore the stable operation of the anti-corruption architecture in the country. He called first for the resumption of criminal liability for intentional failure to submit an e-declaration or intentional provision of false information in declarations. Second, he called for the restoration of powers and corresponding tasks for the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption. Third, he called for strengthening of the guarantees of activities of the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. Recent decisions by the constitutional court have reconfirmed that a robust judicial reform remains vital. In the areas of justice, the rule of law and the fight against corruption, several positive developments took place in Ukraine, notably with the High Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine, which has handed down its first verdict. The co-operation between the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and the specialised anti-corruption prosecutor's office has also improved.

I thank Ireland for its contribution to, and support of, judicial reform in Ukraine. In December last year, the head of the High Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine, Olena Tanasevych, was among the judges from Ukraine who took part in a studying trip to Ireland as a part of a series of initiatives organised by the European Union Advisory Mission in Ukraine, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish Judiciary. I thank Ireland for that.

In her comprehensive statement, Mrs. Shaloput's reference to the trilateral engagement group was quite negative. She described recent sessions as a disaster. How does she see a way forward if her confidence in the trilateral group is not as it should be? In two weeks' time, we will be having a similar session with Mrs. Shaloput's colleague from Russia at which, no doubt, this issue will be raised. I note that as well as the operation of the trilateral group, there is now the international platform for Crimea. I put it to Mrs. Shaloput that perhaps we have a duplication of institutions or fora with the trilateral group, the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, to which Mrs. Shaloput made little reference in her statement, and the European Union. How does Ms Shaloput see the best engagement of the international community with many of the issues that she has raised, with particular reference to Crimea and Donbass?

May I also ask, through the Chair, if time will permit Ms Shaloput to respond to my query about the current state of the EU, if that is possible?

Mrs. Olena Shaloput

I thank the Chair and the Senator for raising those questions. I mentioned the situation around the trilateral contact group and the need to examine how to find a solution to that. I think that this way should not only be one way. All agreements, including within the Normandy format, should be implemented by all sides of the conflict, both Ukraine and Russia. Unfortunately, the most recent development shows that Russia is not interested in a peaceful solution to the situation in Donbass. I understand why. Russia wants to have Ukraine under its influence of interests. Russia is not interested in Ukraine being a part of Europe. We really appreciate the support from the European Union. Membership is our main goal.

What about membership?

Mrs. Olena Shaloput

Membership is our main goal.

That is still Ukraine's main goal.

Mrs. Olena Shaloput

Of course it is. According to the most recent survey, approximately 70% of people are in favour of EU integration. Approximately 50% of people voted in favour of NATO membership. There is no way for Ukraine other than the European way. We expect that the European Union will open more opportunities for us. I know that Ireland stands strongly for the enlargement of the European Union. I also understand that now is not the time due to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Brexit process, but Ukraine would appreciate Ireland's support in this regard.

We have a very good forum for co-operation in the eastern partnership, which has six members - Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Three of those countries have made huge progress and have succession agreements with the EU. We enjoy visa-free travel. We believe that we deserve more opportunities on the way to Europe.

The Crimean Platform does not contradict other formats which work on the way to deoccupy Crimea. This platform only strengthens our efforts and activities in that regard. The framework of the Crimean Platform is expected to focus on such issues as the closing of the loopholes for the circumvention of sanctions, updating the non-recognition policy and elaboration of mechanisms to seek a response to violations of international law by the Russian Federation.

Do any of our Zoom delegates wish to make a brief contribution? Those are Deputies Cowen, Stanton and Berry, who has become the first member to attend a meeting in person and remotely. I bring the good wishes of our members to Mrs. Shaloput, thank her for her contribution and for coming in. If there are any issues that she feels she would like to bring to the attention of the committee, she should feel free to contact us at any time. We wish her every success in her endeavours. We will, no doubt, have a further opportunity to engage in the new year. On behalf of the committee, I thank Mrs. Shaloput for meeting with us and dealing with our questions in such a comprehensive manner.

Mrs. Olena Shaloput

I thank the Chair and the distinguished Members of the Oireachtas. I will take this opportunity to wish them a merry Christmas. Christmas is just around the corner. I believe that next year will be happier than this one.

That is a sentiment to which we all subscribe.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.29 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 10 December 2020.