Notes from Ukraine, Day Three: The Honor of Speaking to the Rada
Folks, we’re back from Ukraine. This was a good trip.
It was a real honor, on the final day, to be able to speak beak before the Rada — the Ukrainian legislature. The last American official to do so was President George H.W. Bush.
I hope the members of the Rada accepted my candor in the spirit it was given. This is a country that has a second chance at establishing a genuine democracy. Many of the young people in this Rada were the ones filling the Maidan, raising their voices and demanding this of their government.
Now, they are in a position to help make it a reality.
And, they have two great threats right now: Russian aggression and endemic corruption. The United States is prepared to help them tackle both.
And if they do, I have no doubt that this Rada will go down in history as the founding fathers of the first-ever united, democratic, genuinely free Ukraine.
That’s my hope. And I believe in the people of Ukraine. I believe they will get this done.
I want you to hear straight from me what I said to the Rada.
Thank you. What a great honor for me to be able to represent my country before such an august audience.
Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Chairman, members of the Rada, ladies and gentlemen, I am deeply honored to be invited to speak to you today at a moment marked by great opportunity, as well as great uncertainty for the people of Ukraine. The stakes for your country and the expectations of your people have never been higher because Ukraine, as you know better than I, has been here before.
In the West, as here we remember, the Orange Revolution — young men and women who filled the Maidan a decade ago demanding that their voices and their votes both be respected. They refused to back down in the face of rigged elections, and they succeeded.
But as history tells us and shows, and as we know, Ukraine’s leaders proved incapable of delivering on the promise of democratic revolution. We saw reforms put in place only to be rolled back. We saw oligarchs uninterested in change ousted from power only to return. Reformers persecuted, thrown in prison as political retribution. And the bright flame of hope for a new Ukraine snuffed out by the pervasive poison of cronyism, corruption, and kleptocracy.
Nearly a decade later, that flame of hope was reignited by thousands of brave Ukrainians, some of you in this room, storming the Maidan, demanding a Revolution of Dignity. The world was transfixed. This time they were not going to be denied the future that so many of your country have longed for, for so long.
And the world was horrified when peaceful patriots were met by violence.
They stayed at the Maidan day and night, facing down the Berkut in riot gear. For the first time since the Middle Ages, the bells of St. Mary [*sic] raised the alarm, calling the citizens of Ukraine to reinforce their brothers and sisters on the Maidan.
Tens of thousands heeded the call bringing with them food, clothing, blankets, medical supplies, and their support. As the world watched — and I was literally on the phone with your former President urging restraint — as the world watched, the final assault came.
Amidst fire and ice, snipers on rooftops, the Heavenly Hundred paid the ultimate price of patriots the world over. Their blood and courage delivering to the Ukrainian people a second chance for freedom. Their sacrifice — to put it bluntly — is now your obligation.
You have a historic opportunity to be remembered as the Rada that finally and permanently laid in place the pillars of freedom that your people have longed for, yearned for, for so many years.
I need not tell you this is a joint responsibility. The President, the Prime Minister, the members of this august body — all of you must put aside parochial differences and make real the Revolution of Dignity.
My country, too, was born of revolution. But the battle for our independence was underway well before the first shots were fired. It began when men of conscience stood up in legislative bodies representing every region in what was then Colonial America — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, very different interests — and declared in each of their regions the inherent rights of free people in different documents, in different language — but the inherent right to be free.
They took a vast continent and a diverse people — what John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers and future Presidents once said — called “an unwieldy machine.” And they molded that unwieldy machine into a united representative democracy where people saw themselves as Americans first and citizens of their region second.
But our union remained imperfect, our democracy incomplete. Seventy years later we went through a second testing during the American Civil War, which nearly tore our still young country asunder. Winning on the field of battle wasn’t sufficient to unite our country. To end slavery and the regional differences we had, to grant former slaves citizenships and rights, the United States Congress assembled — had to amend our Constitution.
Individual members of that Congress lost their jobs standing up to do the right thing. Everyone took real political risks to overcome entrenched opposition for the good of achieving a truly United States of America.
In the end, it came down to extraordinary patriots — individuals putting their personal needs behind the needs of their nation, their narrow interest behind unity.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe the President, the Prime Minister, every member of this body now faces a similar test of courage. To quote an early American patriot, Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” These are the times that try men’s souls.
This is your moment. This is your responsibility. Each of you — if you’ll forgive me for speaking to you this way in your body — each of you has an obligation to seize the opportunity that the sacrifices made in the Maidan, the sacrifices of the Heavenly Hundred. Each of you has an obligation to answer the call of history and finally build a united, democratic Ukrainian nation that can stand the test of time.
Edmund Burke said it best in 1774, speaking to his constituency in Bristol, England. Here’s what he said: “Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest — that of the whole; where not local purpose, not local prejudice ought to guide, but the general good.”
I respectfully suggest this is a standard for which each of you will be judged. This is the standard by which your grandchildren and great grandchildren, your progeny will judge whether or not you had the moral courage to put the general good above local prejudice. And this is all within your power. It’s within your hands. Nobody else’s — yours.
You can bend the arc of history of this nation toward greater justice and opportunity for the Ukrainian people, and you can do it now.
I’ve had the great privilege and opportunity afforded to me by all of you over the past two years to meet with representatives representing all sectors of this country — east and west, including the illegally occupied Crimea — from all walks of life — civil society, members of this body, your military leaders, your clergy. I’ve met with souls who stood on the Maidan — some of you are now in this chamber — a place which I visited yesterday.
All one has to do is look at the photographs of the Heavenly Hundred at that spontaneously erected monument where I stood yesterday. Just look at the photographs. This is not hyperbole. I’m not trying to be unduly — this is real. As a foreigner, all I have to do is look at the photographs. See the photographs of young men as early as their early 20s to those in their early 80s. Every one of them were joined in common purpose, a Revolution of Dignity.
My father had an expression he repeated a thousand times growing up: Every man and woman is entitled to be treated with dignity. Everyone. That’s what your new revolution was about: Dignity.
And those martyrs still give voice to the timeless ideals and the timeless ideas, the universal values that unite free people all around the world. I visited every part of this world. There’s fewer than a handful of countries I’ve not been in. I’ve traveled over 1.3 million miles just since being Vice President. The whole world is watching you. That’s a fact. They’re watching you because their hopes for your success as you fight both the unrelenting aggression of the Kremlin and the cancer of corruption will impact on them.
In both these struggles you have the unwavering support of the United States of America and the American people — including nearly 1 million proud Ukrainian Americans. You have the united support of Europe — Western, Central, and Eastern Europe — all invested in your democratic success because your success goes to the heart of an enduring commitment to a Europe whole, free, and at peace. If you fail, the experiment fails. It is no exaggeration to say that the hopes of freedom-loving people the world over are with you because so much rides on your fragile experiment with democracy succeeding.
It’s equally important, by the way, for aggressors around the world to understand that they can’t use coercion, bribery, sending tanks and men across a border to extinguish the dreams and hopes of a people. For if you succeed, that message is sent around the world.
The President asked me back in the late winter, 2009, to come to Europe to speak at the Munich Conference to lay out the principles that would guide our administration; the fundamental elements of American foreign policy under the Obama-Biden administration. And what I said then I will repeat now. I said, we will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. Sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances. Period. Period.
In the 21st century, nations cannot — and we cannot allow them to — redraw borders by force. These are the ground rules. And if we fail to uphold them, we will rue the day. Russia has violated these ground rules and continues to violate them. Today Russia is occupying sovereign Ukrainian territory. Let me be crystal clear: The United States does not, will not, never will recognize Russia’s attempt to annex the Crimea. It’s that saying — that simple. There is no justification.
And as Russia continues to send its thugs, its troops, its mercenaries across the border, Russian tanks and missiles still fill the Donbas. Separatist forces are organized, commanded and directed by Moscow — by Moscow.
So the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression. We’re providing support to help and train and assist your security forces, and we’ve relied on and rallied the rest of the world to Ukraine’s cause.
I have spent hours — as the President has — talking to heads of state in Europe and around the world, making it clear that one of the tests for whether or not they are our allies is are they allied with your purpose.
America and Europe now stand together united in our commitment to impose tough economic sanctions on Russia. And while Russian aggression persists, the cost imposed on Moscow will continue to rise. The false propaganda that the Kremlin is disseminating in an attempt to undermine Ukraine and fracture Europe’s resolve will not work. No one should mistake saber rattling and bombast for strength. Let me say that again, no one should mistake saber rattling and bombast for real strength.
We’re taking steps to bolster Europe’s resilience to Russian coercive tactics. We are strengthening NATO as I speak, improving energy security as I speak, and attempting to help spur an economic revival throughout Europe.
The United States and Europe will maintain pressure until Moscow fulfills its commitments under the Minsk Agreement. While there has been some progress in deescalating the violence, there can be no sanctions relief unless and until Russia meets all of its commitments under the Minsk Agreement.
And I might add parenthetically, I don’t think the Russian people fully understand what Putin is doing. That’s why he spends so much time hiding at home the presence of Russian forces here in your country. Heavy weapons must be withdrawn from the frontlines. The OSCE must be granted full, unencumbered access. Russia must press the separatists to hold elections according to Ukrainian law and OSCE standards and disavow the illegal election that’s just taken place. Hostages held by Russia and its proxies must be returned. Russian troops must leave. The Ukrainian side of the border must be returned to Ukrainian control. Unless all — if they do all of that, and only if they do, Ukraine also has a responsibility it still has to fulfill — including amnesty for those who have not committed capital offenses; granting devolved administration to the Donbas.
But we’ve made it clear to Russia and the world that continued delay and foot-dragging is unacceptable. That includes elections in the Donbas. They can only go forward as stipulated under the Minsk Agreement. Full access to the media must be provided. Ukrainian political parties allowed to compete openly. Full and unobstructed OSCE election monitoring. Full voting rights for the people displaced from their homes in the Donbas and living elsewhere in Ukraine. And all weapons contained and kept under OSCE supervision. That only happens if Russia lives up to its commitments, if Russia does its part. If it does, then you must follow through with yours because this is the best chance to keep Donbas in Ukraine, end the conflict, and begin restoring Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
It’s hard. There’s nothing easy about what you have to do. There’s nothing easy. The pressure you will all get will be immense.
I’d like to also speak directly to the people in the Donbas. The alternative to what I just said is to continue to live under separatists thugs, criminals who deny humanitarian aid, keep out organizations like Doctors Without Borders, stealing lifesaving medicine to sell on the black market. That’s not a future. That’s not a future I believe any Ukrainian wants for their children.
That’s why the Minsk Agreement needs to be implemented in full. And truly free and fair elections are exactly what the Kremlin fears the most. It’s not just your territory they covet; it’s your success that they fear. For if free elections occur, and the people determine, as I am confident they will, that they want to remain and integral part of Ukraine, that they are Ukrainians first, that’s what Russia fears. That’s what Putin fears.
Because as all of you know the struggle for Ukraine’s freedom is not confined to the battlefields of the east. Constitutional reform that includes judicial reform and decentralization does not compromise your sovereignty. It enhances it. It’s an important step to building a strong, new nation. And it’s important to the Ukrainian-European future.
This issue of federalism is the thing that almost prevented our nation from coming into being. Autonomous independent states, their determination to have their own police forces, their determination to have their education system, to have their own government under the united Constitution.
But in addition, you also have a battle, a historic battle against corruption. Ukraine cannot afford for the people to lose hope again. The only thing worse than having no hope at all is having hopes rise and see them dashed repeatedly on the shoals of corruption.
And if the people resign themselves to exploitation and corruption for fear of losing whatever little they have left, that would be the death knell for Ukrainian democracy. We’ve taken so many critical steps already. But all of you know there’s more to do to finish this race. Not enough has been done yet.
As the Prime Minister and the President heard me often say, I never tell another man or another nation or another woman what’s in their interest. But I can tell you, you cannot name me a single democracy in the world where the cancer of corruption is prevalent. You cannot name me one. They are thoroughly inconsistent. And it’s not enough to set up a new anti-corruption bureau and establish a special prosecutor fighting corruption. The Office of the General Prosecutor desperately needs reform. The judiciary should be overhauled. The energy sector needs to be competitive, ruled by market principles — not sweetheart deals. It’s not enough to push through laws to increase transparency with regard to official sources of income. Senior elected officials have to remove all conflicts between their business interest and their government responsibilities. Every other democracy in the world — that system pertains.
Oligarchs and non-oligarchs must play by the same rules. They have to pay their taxes, settle their disputes in court — not by bullying judges. That’s basic. That’s how nations succeed in the 21st century.
Corruption siphons away resources from the people. It blunts the economic growth, and it affronts the human dignity. We know that. You know that. The Ukrainian people know that. When Russia seeks to use corruption as a tool of coercion, reform isn’t just good governance, it’s self-preservation. It’s in the national security interest of the nation.
Russia is trying to undermine the stability and sovereignty of Ukraine any way they can’t, including squeezing Ukraine financially, trying to undermine your economy. They view that as a cheaper way than sending tanks across the line of contact.
So Ukraine must be strong enough to choose its own future, strongly. Strong defensively. Strong economically. A strong system of democratic governance.
The United States is with you in this fight. We understand we’re with you afar. It’s much harder for you than it is for us. We’ve stepped up with official assistance to help backstop the Ukrainian economy. We’ve rallied the international community to commit a total of $25 billion in bilateral and multilateral financing to support Ukraine. It includes $2 billion in U.S. loan guarantees and the possibility of more.
Yesterday I announced almost $190 million in new American assistance to help Ukraine fight corruption, strengthen the rule of law, implement critical reform, bolster civil society, advance energy security. That brings our total of direct aid to almost $760 million in direct assistance, in addition to loan guarantees since this crisis broke out. And that is not the end of what we’re prepared to do if you keep moving.
But for Ukraine to continue to make progress and to keep the support of the international community you have to do more, as well. The big part of moving forward with your IMF program — it requires difficult reforms. And they are difficult. Let me say parenthetically here, all the experts from our State Department and all the think tanks, and they come and tell you, that you know what you should do is you should deal with pensions. You should deal with — as if it’s easy to do. Hell, we’re having trouble in America dealing with it. We’re having trouble. To vote to raise the pension age is to write your political obituary in many places.
Don’t misunderstand that those of us who serve in other democratic institutions don’t understand how hard the conditions are, how difficult it is to cast some of the votes to meet the obligations committed to under the IMF. It requires sacrifices that might not be politically expedient or popular. But they’re critical to putting Ukraine on the path to a future that is economically secure. And I urge you to stay the course as hard as it is. Ukraine needs a budget that’s consistent with your IMF commitments.
Anything else will jeopardize Ukraine’s hard-won progress and drive down support for Ukraine from the international community, which is always tenuous. It’s always tenuous. We keep pushing that support.
The Ukrainian people have long struggled to direct their own destinies, to carve out a place besides the mighty Dnipro, to claim their own identity, proud and distinct.
A great poet Taras Shevchenko wrote verse after verse declaiming the spirit of Ukraine, urging his fellow Ukrainians rise up and claim their liberty. His poem “The Testament” ends with this reflection. And I quote:
Then, in the mighty family
Of all men that are free,
May be sometimes, very softly
You will speak of me?
May be sometimes very softly you will speak of me.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I will speak of Ukraine.
I will speak of the writer who took a beating on the Maidan to put him in the hospital. When asked why he sustained those injuries, why he was willing to endure it, he wrote: “People who don’t protest injustice, they have no future.”
I will speak of the young mother who gave up a lucrative career working on government reform. And then when asked why, she replied: “I have two small children and I cannot fight
in the east. So this is what I can do for my country.”
I will speak up for the university student who handed out food on the Maidan and later spoke about how those months changed. She said: “Now people don’t think about what Ukraine can give them, but about what they can give Ukraine.”
I will speak of the men and women of this institution, a freely elected representative body of the people. I will speak of the sacrifices you’ve made. Nadiya Savchenko, the pioneering Ukrainian helicopter pilot who was elected to the Rada, despite being unjustly imprisoned in [sic] to this day. I will speak of her bravery, and many others will, as well. I will speak about how it’s up to all of you to ensure the people of this land, once and for all — that mighty family of all men that are free.
Ukraine’s moment. It may be your last moment. Please for the sake of the rest of us, selfishly on my part, don’t waste it. Seize the opportunity. Build a better future for the people of Ukraine.
There was a famous American politician when I was a young senator. He was in the other party — very different ideology. But he said — once in response to a question, he said, in your heart, in your heart, you know it’s right. In your heart, you know what’s right. You know. Do it. As long as you remain on that path, as long as you honor the obligation to the Ukrainian people, you never have to worry or doubt America and the United States will be by your side.
I hesitated to come to make this speech. The reason I did is not because a lack of affection for your country. But as a man who sat where you’re sitting for 36 years as a United States senator, sometimes when a foreign leader would come to speak, I resented when he or she appeared to lecture us. I hope I don’t come across as hectoring or lecturing you. Because that’s not my intention. I just have — as a fellow human being, I just have such hope in the promise of what you could deliver. It will spread far beyond the borders of Ukraine.
I used to wonder as a young senator when I first stood up on the Senate floor, and I’ve never been frightened of standing and speaking, I stood up and all of a sudden I realized that my desk is exactly where a senator, Daniel Webster, spoke from.
I mean this sincerely. And for the first and only time in my career, I was seized with, my God, one of the great men in our history stood in this spot. And I wondered what it’d have been like to be in that first Congress that gave us our freedom, created what I consider to be a great and decent nation. Well, that’s where you are. It’s not hyperbole. That’s where each of you sit.
If you succeed, you will be the founders of the first truly free, democratic, united Ukraine. An awesome responsibility, but what an incredible, incredible opportunity to serve your country.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to speak to you today. May God bless our two great nations and may God protect our troops.