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IRI's Stephen Nix Testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova

March 11, 2020

Antagonizing the Neighborhood: Putin's Frozen Conflicts and the Conflict in Ukraine

Stephen Nix

Chairman Keating, Ranking Member Kinzinger, Members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. The conflicts imposed upon Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova by Vladimir Putin have created military, political and policy challenges in all these countries. In addition to providing factual and political analysis in all the countries, we hope to provide the subcommittee with policy recommendations as to how the U.S. might engage in all these situations.

Ukraine – Crimea and Donbas
Since assuming office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has dramatically enhanced his government’s efforts to resolve the crisis posed by the Russian-occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea. In a few short months, the Ukrainian government has increased its level of engagement with Ukrainian citizens still residing in these territories, improved the quality of critical public services to address needs created by the conflict, and re-invigorated diplomatic efforts to increase international pressure on the Kremlin to allow for the reintegration of these territories. It is crucial that the United States does all it can to support the Ukrainian government in achieving these aims.
 
Challenges
The conflict has created a humanitarian crisis in Donbas as vital public infrastructure, such as airports, bridges, highways, apartment buildings, and power and water lines have been destroyed or severely damaged. Life has become extremely difficult for the nearly six million people who continue to reside in the conflict zone, many of whom are elderly and lack the ability to flee. For some 200,000 who continue to live along the frontline, it is especially dangerous. The area is being emptied of young people as they leave the region for economic opportunities and security in central and western Ukraine, the European Union (EU) or even Russia.
 
These dire needs are unmet by the local authorities in the occupied territories. Just last month, on February 4, the head of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR)” admitted to his own information ministry that his government lacked the funds to pay wages and pensions. In these circumstances, Ukrainian citizens in these territories look to the government in Kyiv to meet their needs. Every day, Ukrainian citizens in Donbas and Crimea wait up to six hours to cross at one of the only eight checkpoints allowing entry into government-controlled areas. They collect passports that allow visa-free travel to the European Union, pension checks for their parents and grandparents, register the births of their children and obtain life-saving medical care. This constitutes a significant segment of the population of these territories. Our sources estimate that up to a quarter of the population of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and DPR are registered as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine in order to receive these critical services.
 
Despite the need to travel to Ukraine to access public services, mobility between the occupied territories and the rest of Ukraine is made difficult by a paucity of checkpoints and lack of modern infrastructure to receive checkpoint crossers. Though the Ukrainian government plans to open new checkpoints, there are currently only three checkpoints with Crimea, four with Donetsk and just one with Luhansk to service the estimated one million people who cross checkpoints each month. Most of these checkpoints consist of tents and lack heating, water and sanitation facilities. Moreover, these checkpoints are located hours away from administrative service centers, where citizens can collect these pensions, passports and other legal documents. In contrast, Russian facilities along the line of control in Crimea are modern and feature transport links, restaurants and gas stations.

Increasingly, a separate information space is being created in the occupied territories. The Kremlin uses disinformation to sew distrust in the Government of Ukraine and discourage the use of Ukrainian public services. Moreover, the Kremlin routinely blocks transmission of Ukrainian radio and television signals into the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea. In response, Zelenskyy’s administration has improved efforts to break into this information vacuum through the creation of a new Russian-language channel targeting residents of these territories and expanding the amount of information on available government services.
 
Read the full testimony here.