This week I will be making my fourth visit to Ukraine as Britain’s Minister for Europe. My visit is a very visible demonstration of the UK’s continuing commitment to the people of this country who are determined to bring about reform and a better future for all Ukrainians.
Since my last visit in September, the world has watched as an autocratic president and corrupt government have been swept from power in a wave of popular protest centred on the now world famous ‘Maidan’ in Kyiv. In an act of remarkable courage and determination the people of this country have voted for a new President, Petro Poroshenko, offering fresh hope to millions of Ukrainians.
Only two weeks ago, President Poroshenko signed an Association Agreement with the European Union, alongside Georgia and Moldova. This promises closer commercial cooperation with Europe and the chance to bring Ukraine’s legislation into line with EU norms. If successful, this will help transform and modernise Ukraine. Ukraine’s income could increase by €1.2 billion per year. That is good for Ukraine and the wider region, as well as for the EU, including Britain.
This country now has an historic opportunity to address systemic issues, including rampant corruption, which have plagued it for too long. The step towards closer association with the EU reflects a clear commitment as you undertake difficult reforms that will strengthen your economy, bolster your democracy and improve the stability of the region.
As President Poroshenko recognises, signature of the Agreement is only the first step. The Agreement will be fruitless unless Ukraine is able to go beyond this political commitment and embed the domestic legislative changes required to take full advantage of a closer relationship with the EU.
But this will not be straightforward. The Agreement was signed at a time of great uncertainty. Russia’s actions and those of illegal armed separatists seek to destabilise Ukraine and threaten this hard-won prize.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March was a flagrant breach of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. The UK condemns these actions and we are joined by the majority of the world in not recognising Russia’s false claims.
In Donetsk and Luhansk illegal armed separatist groups allied to Moscow continue to terrorise local people, whilst waging an armed campaign against Ukrainian security forces, backed by a ready supply of heavy weaponry from across Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia.
Russia’s actions have not brought the benefits that Moscow promised the people of Crimea. Crimea’s beaches now lie virtually deserted, when they should be brimming with holiday-makers. The Crimean economy is suffering and corruption, violence, human rights abuses, inter-ethnic tension and the abuse of free speech are on the rise.
Ukraine matters deeply to the stability and prosperity in Europe. We have not forgotten that Ukraine used to be the bread basket of Europe before the ravages of Soviet rule took their toll. It is critical that the people of Ukraine are allowed to decide their own destiny, free from instability and conflict provoked from beyond your borders.
It is worrying that many of the Russian speaking population of Ukraine rely on Russian state-controlled television as their only source of news because Ukrainian channels have been removed from the airwaves in the East.
A torrent of misinformation and propaganda reports that a full-scale civil war is being waged against Russian speaking people by an alliance of Ukrainian security forces sent from Kyiv, NATO, the EU and the US simply because they speak Russian. This is of course utterly false, but without a free and independent media there are few other sources of information.
The message I am bringing from London is to all the people of Ukraine, from East to West, from Crimea to Kyiv, to say that you have a choice. With your courage and commitment to change and the support of the UK and the wider EU, there will be a better future ahead for all Ukrainians. That does not come at the expense of your many economic, historical and family ties with Russia.
Our message to the Russian leadership is clear; Moscow must now take practical steps to stop the violence in eastern Ukraine, to use its influence to get separatists to disarm and to prevent the shipment of weapons across the border.
But if the Kremlin leadership chooses not act, it will pay a high price, not only to its credibility and international standing, but as a result of stronger EU and international sanctions.
It is in everyone’s long term interests for this crisis to be resolved. A stable and prosperous Ukraine is in Russia’s interests too.