UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Russia faced sharp criticism in the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea, and its rejection of an investigation linking the Russian military to the downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine.
The three issues were raised at the council’s first meeting on Ukraine since February 2017 which saw Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia clash with the foreign ministers of Ukraine, the Netherlands and Poland as well as the U.S. ambassador, and other council members.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said the four-year conflict between his country’s forces and separatist rebels in the east “was invented by the Kremlin to punish Ukrainians for their aspiration towards freedom, democracy and European future.”
“The conflict itself is not, as Russia pictures it, an ethnic conflict, a conflict between Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking population, or a civil war inside Ukraine,” Klimkin said. “It is an external aggression designed to destroy Ukraine’s statehood only because we did not want to be a part of the so-called Russian world.”
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Nebenzia retorted that some Ukrainians don’t want to settle the conflict — “what you do want is a hotbed of instability on the borders of Russia, and drawing satisfaction that there is tension in the relations between two brotherly peoples and countries.”
He said Ukraine also doesn’t want a settlement because it would mean millions of separatists in the east would be able to vote in presidential elections in 2019.
The conflict in the east erupted in April 2014 after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and has killed more than 10,000 people. A 2015 peace agreement signed in the Belarus capital Minsk has helped reduce hostilities, but U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the council “the killing, destruction and immense suffering continues” and “eastern Ukraine is facing a serious humanitarian crisis.”
“The security situation on the ground remains volatile, with the continued use of weapons proscribed by the Minsk agreements,” she said. “The relative calm that held in the early weeks of 2018 was followed in April and May by a sharp increase in the number of victims.”
Over half a million civilians live within 5 kilometers of the Line of Contact between separatist and government forces, “subjected night and day to shelling, gunfire, land mines and unexploded ordnance,” DiCarlo said.
She stressed that the Minsk agreements remain the foundation to restore peace but are “largely unimplemented.” She cited a loss of momentum in negotiations but said “we cannot allow ourselves to give in to fatigue or complacency — we must continue to pursue peace with renewed vigor.”
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley was among many council members who spoke out against Russia’s involvement in the east and takeover of Crimea.
“Until Russia returns the Crimean Peninsula to Ukrainian control, U.S. sanctions related to the invasion of Crimea will continue,” Haley said. “And until Russia pulls its forces out of eastern Ukraine and honors its Minsk commitments, our sanctions in response to its flagrant misconduct in the eastern part of the country will stay in place.”
Nebenzia countered that the people of Crimea didn’t want to be part of Ukraine.
“I’m very touched about the concern for Crimea and the suffering of the people there,” the Russian ambassador said. “Let me give you a piece of advice: Don’t worry about them. They’re quite happy.”
“What we’re discussing today is Ukraine, and Crimea is part of Russia and it’s about time this was accepted,” Nebenzia said.
On another issue, Netherlands Foreign Minister Stef Blok reiterated a call on Russia to accept its responsibility for the missile strike that blew Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 out of the sky over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
International investigators said last week they had strong evidence that the Buk missile system that brought down the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight came from a Russia-based military unit, the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade based in the Russian city of Kursk.
Russia’s Nebenzia called the conclusions “unfounded” and accused the Dutch-led investigation team of “manipulating the data from social networks whose reliability cannot be verified.”
Russia is ready to assist “a truly independent and transparent investigation,” he said, but “we can only accept those investigations in which Russia is a fully-fledged participant.”
Blok retorted that Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for an independent investigation.
It is “very disappointing” that Russia won’t acknowledge the “irrefutable evidence,” he said. “So far, Russian authorities don’t show the slightest interest in achieving truth, justice and accountability.”