Paul D. Shinkman
Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com
Prominent Russians harp on claims of bandits and U.S. ‘militarization.’
Supporters of the Pravyi Sector party protest Thursday in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev.
The Ukrainian parliament reportedly is considering a bill that would allow security forces to arrest and detain local citizens for up to 30 days without formal charges or court approval, a Russian politician claimed Monday, citing the measure as just one indication that the political upheaval in Ukraine is descending into Nazi-era "Gestapo times.”
"The entire country is populated by armed militants in balaclavas,” said Sergei Zheleznyak, the vice speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house, in a teleconference Monday from Moscow. "Their names are unknown … they’re outlaws and they don’t comply with the laws.”
"A majority of Ukrainians today are hostages of that situation because they are afraid of those bandits who are next to their doors,” said Zheleznyak, speaking through a translator. Any solution must come democratically, he said, but "any diplomatic procedure is not possible when only one person is having his word and convictions and on the other hand, the other guy has an assault rifle.”
Zheleznyak’s claims align with Russian rhetoric criticizing the political upheaval in Ukraine in recent months. Populist protesters rallied in central Kiev in late 2013 demanding the resignation of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. He had backed down from signing economic accords with the European Union at the 11th hour, opting instead to accept a Russian bailout to save the floundering local economy.
In a move rejected by the U.S. and Western partners, the Russian government subsequently annexed Crimea, home to a base it formally leased that houses its key Russian Black Sea Fleet. President Vladimir Putin has consistently claimed his government seeks to protect the rights of ethnic Russians throughout Ukraine, which it says are subject to human rights abuses.
Tensions came to a head in recent weeks as tens of thousands of Russian troops massed at the country’s border with Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed the government assembled the troops strictly for exercises, though the Pentagon announced last week there was no indication the troops were acting in such a capacity.
The U.S. has consistently denied Russian claims of ethnic violence in Ukraine or threats against Russian speakers there. A highly publicized U.S. State Department memo entitled "President Putin’s Fiction: 10 False Claims About Ukraine” includes Russia’s assertions of widespread terrorism and violence at the hands of the Ukrainian opposition.
"Outside of Russian press and Russian state television, there are no credible reports of any ethnic Russians being under threat,” the memo states. "The new Ukrainian government placed a priority on peace and reconciliation from the outset. President Oleksandr Turchynov refused to sign legislation limiting the use of the Russian language at regional level. Ethnic Russians and Russian speakers have filed petitions attesting that their communities have not experienced threats. Furthermore, since the new government was established, calm has returned to Kyiv. There has been no surge in crime, no looting, and no retribution against political opponents.”
The memo also denied claims of far-right, ultranationalist influence in the Ukrainian parliament.
Zheleznyak, a member of the Russian State Duma, was speaking Monday morning on a panel of experts in a joint video conference with Russian media outlets, co-organized by Russian state-sponsored news service RIA Novosti. Another participant, former parliamentarian and prominent Russian political scientist Sergei Markov, blasted the U.S.’ response of sending ships to the Black Sea, as well as congressional calls to arm the Ukrainian opposition.
"We should not go toward this militarization,” he said, comparing President Barack Obama to the totalitarian leaders of America’s Cold War foes.
"We hope Obama will leave his Soviet platform,” said Markov, now director of the Moscow-based Institute of Political Studies.
There are currently no U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea. The U.S. has claimed the ships – including the USS Truxtun, which left last week – remained in international waters or friendly ports, and were deployed to the region for routine patrols before the recent political tensions.
A shipment of 300,000 U.S. military rations – known as meals ready-t0-eat, or MREs – arrived in Ukraine by ground over the weekend. The U.S. continues to consider requests from the Ukrainian government for lethal and nonlethal aid.
Zheleznyak said he supports the U.S. assistance.
"I don’t mind the rations. I think that a full soldier is better than a hungry soldier. Ukrainian soldiers have nothing to eat, they need to be fed,” he said.
He pointed to the irony of this support to Ukraine, formerly known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union for its comprehensive agricultural sector.
"The fact that this abundance is no more there, and America has to supply MREs to Ukraine, testifies to the fact that this is a very serious crisis,” Zheleznyak said.