The Cable

Exclusive: U.N. Hints Russia and Its Allies Rigged Crimea's Secession Vote

Last month, a staggering 96.77 percent of Crimea's voters reportedly chose to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, sending what Moscow described as an unequivocal signal that the region wanted nothing to do with its erstwhile leaders in Kiev.*

But supporters of secession weren't willing to take any chances, flooding the airwaves with scare-mongering propaganda and violently repressing virtually any show of dissent, according to the findings of a confidential U.N. draft report on the human rights situation throughout Ukraine in the run-up to the vote. A final version of the report is expected to be presented to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, April 15, and then subsequently made public. It comes amid growing concerns in Washington and other Western capitals that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin may be preparing to invade eastern Ukraine as well.

The U.N. report represents the first independent assessment of the human rights situation in Ukraine since a bloody crackdown on pro-Europe protesters plunged the country into turmoil, leading to the ouster in February of the country's former President Viktor Yanukovych, the unrest in Crimea, and Russia's subsequent invasion and annexation of Crimea. The report notes that Ukrainian political life has long been afflicted by endemic corruption and a "culture of effective impunity" that subjected Ukrainians to the whims of  security forces that systematically violated their human rights. But it focused most sharply on the political upheaval that followed Yanukovych's decision in November not to sign an association agreement with the European Union, a decision that brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Kiev and Ukraine's other major cities.

Ten days before the March 16 referendum, Ukrainian television broadcasts were "shut off" in Crimea, replaced by Russian TV channels supporting secession, according to the report. (Ukrainian authorities retaliated by blocking Russian broadcasts in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.) Bloggers, activists and other critics of secession were threatened, detained, and tortured. A delegation of human rights monitors, meanwhile,  "received many reports of vote rigging," according to the report.

"The delegation met with sources who claimed that there had been alleged cases of non-Ukrainian citizens participating in the referendum as well as individuals voting numerous times in different locations," according to the 38-page draft report, written by Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary general for human rights. "Preliminary findings, based on publicly available information as well as reports from civil society representatives in Crimea, suggest that the referendum on March 16 raised a number of concerns in terms of respect for human rights."

Last month, Simonovic made two trips to Ukraine, conducting fact-finding missions to Kiev, Kharkiv, Lviv, and the Crimean cities of Sevastapol and Simferopol. Initially refused entry into Crimea by local authorities, Simonovic was ultimately allowed into the separatist peninsula. The objective of the mission, according to the report, was to provide "impartial reporting" that can "trigger accountability for human rights violations" and prevent the "manipulation of information, which serves to create a climate of and insecurity."

On the eve of Crimea's referendum, Ukraine emerged as a propaganda battlefield, with Russia's state-owned broadcasters beaming news reports with exaggerated portrayals of violent demonstrations in Kiev, ginning up fears that Ukrainian nationalists were preparing a wave of violent anti-Russian attacks. At the same time, extremist nationalists that served on the front lines of the Ukrainian protest movement threatened violence against Ukrainian broadcasters that they accused of failing to promote a sufficiently patriotic view of events. "As a result, people both in Russia and Ukraine, and notably in Crimea, are victims of propaganda and misinformation," according to the report.

The report skates delicately around allegations of Russia's role in stage-managing the Crimean crisis, stopping short of directly assigning Moscow blame for orchestrating the secessionist campaign. But it sprinkles the report with circumstantial evidence of Moscow's influence, citing reports of Russian military presence in Crimea and of "a significant raise of propaganda on the Russian television" in the weeks leading up to the referendum.

There is little evidence in the report to suggest that Crimea's Russian-speaking majority would have voted any differently if conditions were less threatening to dissidents. But Simonovic's findings underscore the heavy-handed efforts used to influence the outcome of the referendum, as well as the personal risks faced by those making the case for remaining part of Ukraine.

Crimea's March 16 referendum was marred by "credible allegations of harassment, arbitrary arrest, and torture targeting activists and journalists who did not support the referendum," according to the draft.  Some activists were hauled into a military compound called the Military Drafting Center in Simferopol. On March 9, the report said, Andrei Schekun and Anatoli Kovalski were allegedly kidnapped and later released with signs of "ill treatment or torture." Reshat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar who was reportedly abducted by uniformed men, was found dead on the day of the referendum "with alleged signs of torture, hand-cuffed and with adhesive tape over his mouth," according to Simonovic.

"The presence of paramilitary and so called self-defense groups as well as soldiers in uniform with insignia, widely believed to be from the Russian Federation, was not conducive to an environment in which voters could freely exercise their right to hold opinions and the right to freedom of expression," according to the draft's executive summary.

The report challenged the Russian Federation's contention that ethnic Russians in Crimea had been threatened or mistreated, saying that "it is widely assessed that Russian speakers have not been subject to threats in Crimea." On the contrary, Russian and Crimean authorities have contributed a climate of "uncertainty" for Crimean Tatars by announcing plans to resettle Tatars who have illegally occupied land while the await restitution for property seized during the mass deportation of the Tatars by the Soviet Union. "The overall climate of uncertainty has led some people, predominantly Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians to leave Crimea," the report stated.

While there was "no evidence of harassment or attacks on ethnic Russians ahead of the referendum," Russian broadcasters ran "greatly exaggerated stories" and misinformation suggesting that nationalist Ukrainian extremists were heading to Crimea to persecute ethnic Russians. Such scare tactics were "systematically used to create a climate of fear and insecurity," according to the draft report.

"In eastern Ukraine, where a large ethnic Russian minority resides, the situation remains particularly tense with ethnic Russians fearing that the central government does not represent their interests," Simonovic said. "Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread."

The report provides sufficient material to bolster claims by the United States and other Western powers that Russia has exaggerated the extent to which Russian speakers have been threatened in Crimea. "The report clearly refutes the entire justification for Russian activities on Crimea and beyond," said one Western diplomat who had seen the report. "We have always been saying that the Russian narrative of a 'preventative responsibility to protect' is a sham. Now we also have certainly from the U.N. that there were no widespread, systematic violations of the rights of Russian speakers on Crimea or in Eastern Ukraine."

But the report also provides evidence to support Russian claims that extremist Ukrainian nationalists pose a threat to the country's stability. Simonovic is sharply critical of the Ukrainian security forces that initially participated in the crackdown on pro-Europe protesters, as well as hardline elements in the protest coalition that have stirred up Ukraine's nationalist ghosts.

The emergence of hardline nationalists and pro-Russian extremists has contributed to a dangerous rift between the country's Ukrainian and Russian speakers and radicalized the political landscape from Kiev to the Crimean capitol of Sevastapol, according to the draft.

Simonovic said that "tensions have decreased, along with allegations of human rights violations," since a transitional government took power. But he faulted Ukraine's ruling parliamentary coalition for promoting a motion on Feb. 23 to repeal a law that makes Russian an official language. (The motion was never signed by Ukraine's transitional president.) He also raised concern about a potential purge of Ukrainian officials that worked closely with the Yanukovych administration, once served in the KGB, or held government position in the former Soviet Union or Communist Party.

Simonovic also expressed concern that the upcoming May 25 presidential election in Ukraine could be marred by a surge of anti-Russian fervor. "The advocacy of national, racial or religious hated that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence and nationalistic rhetoric witnessed during the Maidan protests may have an adverse impact on the situation in Ukraine."

The report provides no answer to one of the most lingering human rights questions from the crisis: the identity of the snipers responsible for opening fire during the February 18-20 clashes with demonstrators attending the so-called Maidan protests.  The violence left 121 people dead, including 101 pro-Europe protesters and 11 policemen. Hundreds more were hospitalized, including some who remain in critical condition, while as many as 150 have disappeared.

Simonovic claimed security forces from Ukraine's Berkut riot police tortured and beat protesters, forcing one demonstrator to strip naked in the freezing snow as one officer filmed him on his cell phone. "The new minister of Health Mr. Oleg Musii, indicated ... that he saw law enforcement officers removing the bodies of individuals who are still unaccounted for," Simonovic wrote. "He noted the snipers were aiming to kill (targeting the head and vital organs of the victims) and also depicted case of police brutality, including beatings of medical staff and preventing medical personnel from attending to the wounded," according to the report.

But Simonovic also cited concerns about hardline members of the protest coalition. Among those is the rising influence of right-wing extremists groups, who served on the "front lines" of the Maidan protest movement. November's bloody crackdown on "largely peaceful" protesters by Yanukovych's security forces, especially the Berkut special police, "led to a significant radicalization" of the protest movement.

Some hardline Ukrainian nationalists forced regional governors to sign resignation letters. Alexander Muzyehko, a member of the radical Right Sector, "filmed himself intimidating and physically assaulting" a government prosecutor. In one widely publicized incident in March, a representative of the right wing Ukrainian Svoboda party assaulted the head of National Television Company of Ukraine and forced him to sign a letter of resignation. "The departure of President Yanukovych put an end to the bloody confrontations, but daunting new challenges emerged," the report concluded.

*Correction (April 10, 2014): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 96.77 percent of Crimean residents reportedly voted in favor of secession. It was 96.77 percent of Crimean voters who reportedly chose secession. (Return to reading.)

Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

On Syria, Obama Is Prodded By Longtime Ally

Republican critics have long accused the Obama administration of having no Syria strategy. But with tens of thousands dead and millions more fleeing the country, even some of the White House's closest allies are calling for the administration to do more to lessen the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

"I don't hesitate to point out that we're not happy with the way things are going," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in an interview. "I don't view it as a criticism, but I do view it as a prod."

In recent weeks, Kaine has joined forces with Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to demand that the administration outline a plan that will address the growing humanitarian disaster in the country. Kaine's resolution requires the president to submit to Congress within 90 days a "more robust U.S. strategy for addressing the Syria humanitarian crisis." He introduced it in March and it passed unanimously in the Senate last week. The resolution coincided with a wave of criticisms by Rubio and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that the administration "has no Syrian strategy."

A longtime ally of the White House, Kaine has walked a narrow line when it comes to Syria. He believes the U.S. should intervene more directly in Syria than the administration has been willing to do, but he also has defended the White House against heated attacks by his colleagues.

In the interview, Kaine stressed that lawmakers needed to be "realistic" when it comes to expectations about progress in Syria in the absence of a U.S. military engagement. He pointed out that he voted to authorize the use of military force in Syria last September while many in Congress -- particularly on the Republican side of the aisle -- vocally opposed such action. "I see no appetite by those talking tough now for military action," he said. "We should all be able to agree that more aggressive humanitarian action is desirable."

At the same time, Kaine - who Obama had seriously considered as his running mate in 2008 -- has been unafraid to criticize his fellow Harvard Law School alumnus's Syria policy. "I'm trying to prod the administration," he said in the interview.

Kaine said he wants the administration to work toward implementing a resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council in February that calls on Damascus to allow aid to flow into Syria from neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The resolution also requires that all parties, in particular the Syrian government, "promptly allow rapid safe and unhindered access" for aid workers to needy civilians in rebel-controlled areas. To the dismay of international observers, Syria has continued to impose a wide range of bureaucratic hurdles to delivering aid, which Kaine described as a brazen violation of the U.N. resolution. In response, Kaine said, the administration needed to be more aggressive about enforcing the resolution. "It's now time to take the next step," he said.  "Let's just start the deliveries. We have the right to do it."

The administration counters that the United States has provided $1.7 billion in aid to Syria, surpassing the contributions of any other countries. The American aid has reached more than 4.2 million people inside Syria and more than 2.5 million outside of it.

"Nobody is content with the situation in Syria," a State Department official said on background. "We're constantly looking at ways to end the conflict and end the suffering of the Syrian people."

When it comes to the U.N. resolution, the official said the department is currently working with members of the Security Council and international partners on how to "ensure the resolution is fully implemented." The official did not go into specifics. 

While pointed in some of his criticisms, Kaine has generally treated the administration far more gently than most of his colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During an April 3 hearing, Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ.) and ranking member Corker came down harshly on Anne Patterson, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, for the department's refusal to outline a Syria strategy to Congress.

"Without a coherent Syria policy from day one, the administration has contributed to the worsening conflict through inaction, limiting our options, diminishing U.S. credibility and putting U.S. interests and our country's security at risk," Corker said. 

Menendez questioned how the situation on the ground would ever improve for the Syrian rebels if U.S. policy remains static. "If you cannot stop a helicopter or a plane that is bombing you, if you cannot stop a tank that is crushing your community, then I don't know how we ever change the calculus here," he said.

According to Senate aides, many in the committee do not want to be seen as merely standing by as the mass slaughter in Syria continues unabated. This week's commemoration of the 20 year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide offered a haunting reminder of the consequences of Western inaction.  Last week, the United Nations counted one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, among the 9 million Syrians displaced from their homes in the conflict.

But beyond scheduling hearings and sending out press releases, there is little Congress can do to force the administration's hand.

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