The Cable

New Ukraine Government Asks U.N. to Help Ease Crisis

Facing the threat of a potentially bloody breakup of its country, Ukraine's fledgling government this morning appealed to the U.N. Security Council to convene an emergency session to pursue a diplomatic settlement to the crisis in Ukraine.

The request, which was contained in a letter from Ukraine's U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, comes one day after pro-Russia secessionists in Crimea seized government buildings and raised the Russian flag over the regional parliament. The Security Council is set to consider the Ukrainian request at noon, and will likely hold the meeting later in the afternoon.

But U.N.-based diplomats said that Ukraine's government faces an uphill battle in securing Security Council support for its cause because Russia, which supports ousted leader President Viktor Yanukovych, has the power to veto any action in the Security Council.

Ukraine's latest diplomatic push comes as senior American, U.N. and European envoys, including Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and U.N. envoy Robert Serry, have flooded into Kiev over the past several days to show support for the new government and to counsel its new leadership on how to navigate the diplomatic crisis with Russia and pro-Russian forces within Ukraine.

Vice President Joseph Biden phoned Ukraine's new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Thursday and welcomed the formation of a new government in Ukraine and pledged American support through the transition. But Biden, Serry, and other foreign delegates also pressed the new leader to work constructively with its powerful neighbor Russia.

"The vice president reassured the prime minister that the United States will offer its full support as Ukraine undertakes the reforms necessary to return to economic health, pursue reconciliation, uphold its international obligations and seek open and constructive relations with all its neighbors," the White House said in a statement.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in an effort to calm the situation. But the two former Cold War superpowers remained fundamentally divided over the direction Ukraine should take.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the U.S. government is "watching closely" as events unfold in Ukraine, and warned Russia it "would be a grave mistake" to intervene militarily in Ukraine.

Psaki said that Yanukovych "has lost legitimacy as he abdicated his responsibilities" by fleeing Kiev, and leaving behind a "vacuum of leadership."

Asked if U.S. officials had any evidence indicating Russian troops had intervened in Ukraine, Psaki said: “I don’t have any independent information to share with you.”

President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone with senior European leaders, including Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. "They stressed the extreme importance of preventing further escalation in violence and the need to quickly normalize the situation," according to a Kremlin statement. "The politicians agreed to maintain personal contact regarding this topic and to intensify cooperation between foreign policy departments."

Russia confirmed that it had authorized maneuvers by armored vehicles in Crimea, but said that the exercise was aimed at guaranteeing the protection of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Ukraine. It said that its military activities were permitted under Russian and Ukrainian agreements.

The Russian foreign ministry declined to engage in direct talks with Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, saying that it "considers the events in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as a result of internal political processes in Ukraine," according to a ministry statement, reported by Itar-Tass.

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, congratulated Yatsenyuk, the new Ukrainian prime minister, on the formation of a coalition government and promised to work in the Senate to pass legislation granting financial support for the transitional government.

"This assistance package will be part of a broader coordinated program with the European Union, IMF and other international partners," he said. "I encourage the new government to implement the necessary economic reforms to stabilize the economy and set Ukraine on a path to prosperity, including rooting out corruption and increasing transparency in government finances. Ukraine’s leading industrialists might also consider how they can play a helpful role in stabilizing the economy. Finally, I remain deeply concerned about events in Crimea and urge all parties to exercise caution and refrain from further escalating tensions."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dispatched Serry, a former Dutch ambassador to Ukraine, to Kiev to urge the country's new leaders to reach out to pro-Russian political leaders in the east, and to try to integrate the Party of Regions, a pro-Russian body, into the new government. "The main message is the government needs to be inclusive," said one diplomat familiar with the discussion. "The crisis can't be solved without Russian involvement, so don't do anything to needlessly antagonize the Russians," Serry told Ukraine's leader.

Russian officials, meanwhile, have been unwilling to accept the new government. On Monday, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, raised concern in remarks before the U.N. Security Council that the United Nations leadership was showing support for the new Ukrainian government. Churkin, meanwhile, issued a private protest, or demarche, for sending Serry to Kiev, saying his visit lent legitimacy to an illegitimate government, according to a diplomatic source.

"We are particularly concerned about the legitimacy of the actions being taken by Ukraine's Supreme Rada," Ukraine's parliament, Churkin told the Security Council Friday, claiming Kiev's leaders were engineering "forced regime change by creating facts on the ground."

Churkin accused Ukrainian leaders and anti-Russian extremists of attacking religious shrines, banning the Russian language, and "muzzling dissent" through "dictatorial and sometimes terrorist methods." Churkin also expressed alarm that international institutions, including the United Nations secretariat, were supporting Ukraine's new leaders.

But U.N.-based diplomats challenged Churkin's characterization, saying that Ukraine's new prime minister has sought to assure Ukraine's Russian minorities that their rights will be respected under the new government.

AFP

The Cable

Mr. Affleck Goes to Washington -- and Shines

Actor and activist Ben Affleck dazzled a Senate panel Wednesday in his testimony on the struggles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Republicans and Democrats lined up to assure the Argo director that he was not like other celebrity activists who often lack the expertise and commitment to various pet causes. Throughout the hearing, cameras clicked wildly and attendees positioned themselves for smartphone selfies and autographs.

"Your credibility is really remarkable because of the depth of your commitment," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.

"So often we get celebrities and it's as much about them as it is about the issue," added Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho).

"I assure you it's partially about him," joked McCain.

Affleck testified about his economic development work in the central African country, which has been plagued by disease, violence, and malnourishment for decades due to ethnic rivalries and a competition for gold, copper, and diamond resources.

Testifying alongside Russell Feingold, the U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes region and Congo, and Roger Meece, former U.S. ambassador to Congo, Affleck urged the Obama administration and Congress to play a greater role in the DRC's future.

"Our work in DRC is not finished," said Affleck. "We cannot risk diminished U.S. leadership at a time when lasting peace and stability are within reach."

The actor urged President Barack Obama to encourage DRC President Joseph Kabila to make needed security reforms and ensure that the country held free and fair elections. He also called on USAID to scale up its development initiatives in eastern Congo and bolster its agricultural sector.

Many of the goals were in line with Affleck's work as founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, a philanthropic organization that connects donors with Congolese nonprofits rather than channeling money into large international NGOs.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she looked forward to working with Affleck's organization and added to the choir of lawmakers commending Affleck's work.

"We're getting some wicked smart answers," added Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in the patois of Affleck's hometown of Boston.

Even Africa experts, skeptical of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's ability to hold substantive hearings, complimented Affleck's seriousness of purpose. "His testimony reflected solid knowledge and contained specific recommendations that show familiarity with the crisis and ideas about how to resolve the conflict," Laura Seay, a Congo expert at Colby College, told The Cable. "I particularly appreciated Affleck's emphasis on the need to provide more support to civil society organizations, which, to her credit, Senator Boxer did engage."

Seay did say, however, that the hearing failed to cover much new ground. "This hearing contained little information that was new or particularly revolutionary," she said. "There is not enough attention on areas like justice sector reform, economic development, and support for civil society that are necessary for DRC to reach a sustainable peace."

In any event, Affleck's celebrity presence guaranteed a packed committee hearing with triple the press attendance than most hearings on Africa garner. Keenly aware that the public knows him better for The Town and Good Will Hunting, Affleck humbled himself before the committee.

"I am, to state the obvious, not a Congo expert," said the actor. "I am an American working to do my part for a country and a people I believe in and care deeply about."

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