UPDATED 2-21: Minnesota Women Central in Discussions About Ukraine

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(Updated February 21, from Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters From an American”)

At the Munich Security Conference, the world’s largest gathering on international security policy, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark announced her country will donate all its artillery to Ukraine. Since then, Sweden announced it will donate about $682 million in equipment and cash to Ukraine, its 15th aid package to Ukraine since the 2022 Russian invasion. The European Union today announced it is committing 83 million euros, or about $89 million, in humanitarian aid for those in Ukraine and Moldova affected by the war. Three weeks ago it approved $54 billion in military aid.

In the meantime, as Heather Cox Richardson reports, “MAGA Republicans in the House are refusing to commit more U.S. aid. The Institute for the Study of War, a nonprofit research organization, assessed on Sunday that ‘delays in Western security assistance to Ukraine are likely helping Russia launch … offensive operations along several sectors of the frontline in order to place pressure on Ukrainian forces along multiple axes.’”

On Sunday, former representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) said: “The issue of this election cycle is making sure the Putin wing of the Republican Party does not take over the West Wing of the White House.”

Russian authorities have cracked down on those expressing sorrow for the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and are refusing to hand over his body to his mother and lawyer, who flew to the penal colony north of the Arctic Circle to reclaim it, saying they need to keep the body for “chemical analysis.” Russian authorities have arrested a dual Russia-U.S. citizen who lives in Los Angeles as she traveled in Russia after having participated in pro-Ukraine rallies.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said this week: “I will continue Alexei Navalny’s work. Continue to fight for our country. I call on you to stand alongside me. … I speak to you in the words of Alexei: There is no shame in doing little. There is shame in doing nothing. … By killing Alexei, Putin has killed half of me. Half of my heart and my soul. But I have another half and it tells me that I don’t have the right to give in.”

The anniversary of the attack on Ukraine by Russia is February 24. The future of Ukraine was discussed at a February 13 event co-hosted by Global Minnesota, in partnership with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The event was led by women who have been central in global politics.

Following are a few highlights from the conversation, particularly deep comments by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. She has been involved in peace and rebuilding processes from Northern Ireland to the former Yugoslavia, often focused on gender issues and war crimes, including a United Nations and Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights report on reparations for conflict-related sexual violence.

Oleksandra Matviichuk, 2022 Nobel Prize Laureate and head of the Center for Civic Liberties, pointed out in an online talk for the forum that this war is not just about two states — it is about two systems. She said that in a world where it is harder to rely on systems and institutions, freedom relies on human solidarity, adding:

“Resilience comes from our ability to rely on ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who was in D.C. to help push for national security and foreign aid packages, offered pre-recorded comments. “The national security package is so important. I would have liked it to include emergency authority for the president at our own borders, I would like to have included the technology and incredible work that could have been done to stop the flow of fentanyl. But we are where we are. … I will continue fighting against everything that wants to stop democracy [which still needs support in the GOP-led House].”

She said that European allies have stepped up support for Ukraine. “The British Prime Minister visited Ukraine in January and promised to increase funding to over $3 billion. Finland has given Ukraine over $2 billion in aid since the fighting began. We have 40 countries that have taken in 8 million refugees, millions of them in Poland alone. Everyone is doing their part to have the backs of Ukraine. The question before us, as Vladimir Putin seeks to wipe Ukraine off the map and could easily march into the next country: will America answer the call of the Ukrainian people? The Senate passing this funding is the first step in the process. I will keep fighting until we get this done.”

Eric Schwartz, global policy chair for the University’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and former director of Refugees International, said that more than 17 million Ukrainians have humanitarian need. About 3.7 million are internally displaced — forced from their homes but still within the borders of their own country. European countries are hosting around 6 million refugees. The destruction has been particularly devastating in the east and south of Ukraine, he said. In frontline communities, including those under occupation, the situation is reaching severe and catastrophic levels related to water, food, and shelter.


Natalia Chermoshentseva, human rights activist and founder of Dignity Initiative, arrived for the discussion a few days earlier from her base in Kiev. She indicated that after the Kakhovka dam was destroyed by Russia in June 2023, water access for a wide region, beyond borders, was lost. Another priority, she said, is to eventually rebuild houses and schools. In one community with 421 children, 100 remain in the community, living under occupation. Four of its seven schools were targeted and destroyed. These children are a small example of those who will need tremendous support because of physical and psychological violence, the deaths of loved ones, and living in community centers. Rebuilding cannot begin yet, she said, because drones will bomb new locations. One simpler solution is to make tennis tables available for children, as a way to help with mental recovery and resilience through play. “The war is going on for two years now. This is their childhood, and there will be no other,” she said.

Some of the participants at the forum included (l-r): Eric Schwartz, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Iryna Drobovych, Natalia Chermoshentseva, and Maria Sheremeta

The Insights of Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

law professor at the University of Minnesota

I had the great privilege to travel to Ukraine in December. My visit gave me a close view of the bravery of the Ukrainian people, but also the challenges that are faced daily. It’s really hard to think about the day after [the conflict ends] while you’re in the middle of war and your phone goes off a couple of times a day to tell you to go to shelter because of bombings. But it is absolutely critical that we think about the day after, and a transition from war to peace. That requires extensive, and I should say painful, legwork to be done in advance.

The average length of success for a peace agreement is five years, statistically — most of them don’t last very long. If they’re going to last, they have to be embedded in sustained thinking, structuring, positioning, inclusion, and conversation, which has to happen both within a society but also outside. The success of any peace process is always going to be dependent on the partners who supported it and the willingness of the international community to stick with it. And most importantly, the intent to pay for it.

Frankly, the international community is very good on the signing day, and the pictures on the White House lawn, and absolutely dismal at the long term, because we run in four-year cycles. Many around the world, including the Russian Federation, do not.

I say this from a context of having been closely engaged in the Northern Ireland peace process —[the peace process] requires profound long-term deep commitment and deep, deep pockets.

Second thing, the planning for peace requires inclusion. We learned this in Northern Ireland, when all parties had to be at the table. That includes people who were called terrorists for 30 years.

You cannot make peace only with yourself — you have to make peace with your adversary. That means sitting down with people who’ve harmed you. It means sitting down with people who’ve done the worst thing to you, who have destroyed your cities, who have killed people you love. That is really painful. It also means that you have to compromise.

It is really hard in an ongoing war to think about compromise. Because compromise seems at the very opposite of the thing you’re fighting for. You have to hold these two things at the same time. You have to hold the capacity of engaging — to defend the things that are important to you — with the realities that you’re going to have to plan for compromise.

One of the things I particularly want to stress is that these wars are fought mostly by men. Peace processes are made by mostly men at the table. And they’re mostly very unsuccessful.

[In Northern Ireland], a bunch of very agile and difficult women [demanded that] they had to be at the negotiating table. That was women from all sides of the conflict, who had complex histories, as most difficult women do.

One of the key shifts in a successful peace process, consistent with UN Security Council resolution 1325, is the inclusion of women in all parts of the process from the very earliest point. These deals [do not] hold if you don’t have everyone at the table. And they don’t hold for sure if you don’t have women in the process.


A U.N. Resolution
The United Nations Security Council adopted resolution (S/RES/1325) on women and peace and security on October 31, 2000. The resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction. It urges all actors to increase the participation of women in all United Nations peace and security efforts. It calls on all parties to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict.

Third, if you look at most peace agreements — and it’s part of the academic work I do — they mostly focus on things like ceasefires, ending the violence, political and civil guarantees. What most peace processes don’t do well is address the economic underpinnings of war. This requires the willingness to pay. The West is consistently unreliable in this regard. We are not willing to pay for the things we say we care about.

The least funded part of the United Nations is human rights. The most funded part are things like counterterrorism, that I used to work in. We can use fancy words about peace, and what we’re willing to pay for, but we need a fundamental shift to be prepared to pay for the things we say we care about. Or we will end up, as Eric talked about, in the land of frozen conflicts and unsustainable peace, which we see in multiple places around the world.

Finally, let me focus on accountability. There’s rightly been a focus on criminal accountability, at the International Criminal Court and special tribunals. The discussion on Ukraine is deeply marred by a failure to talk about accountability. The conflict that’s happening in Gaza might not appear to be connected, but the support of the world is dripping away because of the failure to apply our standards equally. [Countries are able to] see and smell a double standard. That is fundamentally hindering our capacity to bring about a just peace in Ukraine, as well as to address a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

I want to remind us all, even in the best-case scenario — whether that is Rwanda, or the former Yugoslavia, where Eric and I both spent considerable periods of time — at best you’re going to [bring to trial] try a few hundred people [for war crimes]. In in the former Yugoslavia, it was just over 100. Criminal law is not going to do the work that needs to be done. I know that that’s not a popular view, but it’s true. It’s not to say it’s not important, but we put far too many eggs in that basket.

It is almost impossible to convict the head of state of anything — think of Kenya. So, we need to be thinking about transitional justice. We have to have a really painful conversation about amnesty, which will have to be part of the discussion in Ukraine [which involves an official pardon for people who have been convicted of political offenses].

The peace process is slow. In Northern Ireland last week, we finally got a government running, sort of. That is 30 years on from that glorious day outside of our Stormont parliament, where it looked like we had a peace agreement — we are still struggling to make the basics work. The hard-won peace process takes a really long time. For Ukraine, all of us will have to be committed to the long haul.



The Future Rebuilding Effort

“We as Ukraine are at the forefront of democracy, fighting for the values of the free world. For us, this is an existential question.”
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, former Prime Minister of Ukraine and current chairman of the Kyiv Security Forum

Kathleen Collins, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, said Russia launched two years ago the largest war since Nazi Germany began World War II. Yet, as the former Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, pointed out earlier in the forum, Russia actually launched this war 10 years ago — “it’s just that most of the West wasn’t paying attention. From the moral implications to the geopolitical ones, we should all care about Ukrainian survival and the building.”

Some of Collins’ comments:

Ukraine survival and rebuilding directly affects the security of Europe, and the endurance of the liberal international order that has fostered economic prosperity, liberty, democracy since 1945. Let’s not forget that Ukraine’s rebuilding also affects food security of the Global South. Many Americans and Europeans, wrapped up in their domestic political battles and worried about rising inflation, have lost sight of this big issue.

Where and how should rebuilding begin? Today, although 82 percent of Ukraine remains unoccupied, the damage across the country is staggering. The World Bank recently estimated that rebuilding would cost at least $411 billion; Ukrainian central and local government and civil society organizations have already identified critical areas that are in need. They’re working on a comprehensive online database to track damage throughout the country. Priority sectors include energy, infrastructure, and health. We’ve all seen photos of Ukrainian maternity clinics that have been intentionally targeted by the Russian government. This work will need to involve extensive de-mining, which is essential not only on a humanitarian level, but for economic recovery and rebuilding.

Education should be an immediate priority as well. Nearly 4,000 schools have been destroyed or severely damaged by Russian aerial attacks, artillery shelling rocket strikes, and even cluster munitions. Nearly half of Ukrainian school-aged children are not receiving a formal education. Millions of children have inadequate or subpar access to education. Even those children away from the front lines are learning in what are called “subway schools” underground, because of regular intentional attacks by the Russian government on civilian targets, like schools. I think we all know from our experience with COVID in the West that online learning is detrimental to a child’s education. I have three of my own in grade school, and know what the effects of that can be. So imagine trying to learn by using the subway station for an ongoing period of time. It’s devastating to the younger generation.

Education is essential for preserving Ukrainian identity. Talk to anyone in the Baltics; I spent much of last year in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. They will tell you that education was absolutely essential to preserving their identity during the Soviet period and after the Soviet period. Education, identity, and the economy are the foundation of Ukraine’s future.

Third, as a realist, I know corruption is always a risk with international aid. I’ve worked extensively in Tajikistan, for example, in the wake of civil war. Skeptics continually argue that Western funds to Ukraine are likely to lie in the pockets of corrupt officials; they use the same argument for not giving military aid and humanitarian aid. Some draw parallels to Afghanistan for aid.

The Ukrainian government draft recovery plan has already made anti-corruption measures a central component of recovery. You’ve already seen this government prosecute officials for corruption throughout the war. The plan takes measures to strengthen oversight, trust, and transparency of the dollars that are spent. It prioritizes creating a strong legal and judicial framework and corporate governance in line with the requirements. It prioritizes reform of law enforcement agencies, which as we know in post-Soviet states is absolutely essential.

In short, Ukraine is actively taking the necessary steps already to rebuild with a cleaner, more democratic government that fosters long-term growth as an EU member.

Fourth, financing Ukraine’s rebuilding is likely to meet as many or more of the difficulties in financing the war. One potential partial solution to the shortfall lies in the sum of $300 billion of frozen Russian assets, much of which are Russian central bank assets. There are multiple layers of legal complexity and potential economic backlash to be carefully considered before acting on these assets. Yet there is certainly a compelling moral and practical case for using frozen Russian assets to cover the cost of Russia’s war. Using the interest of such assets [could even be used for] funding Ukraine’s defense, which is suffering painfully from the lack of ammunition at the current moment. It could give the West leverage for pushing Russia to the negotiating table, for pushing it to abandon its goal of controlling all of Ukraine.

And this brings me to a final point, which is security. Having spent over half of my life studying Russia, the Soviet Union, and its neighbors, I can unequivocally state that rebuilding must include a robust security arrangement for Ukraine. Last week, President Putin restated his fundamental motive for the invasion, and his grossly inaccurate retelling of history to [U.S. conservative political commentator, now on the new X social media platform] Tucker Carlson, that Ukraine is not a state and the Ukrainians are not people. Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and prime minister, once known in the West as a liberal reformer, made the case more succinctly than Putin did. He tweeted last week that Russia’s president explained thoroughly and in detail to the Western world why Ukraine has never, does not, and will never exist.

Consequently, rebuilding must entail the firm commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Without security, private capital is far less likely to commit the resources necessary to Ukraine’s rebuilding. Security cannot be a repeat of the flimsy 1994 Budapest Memoranda.

Any post-war security agreement for Ukraine must be a credible deterrent to Russia. It must therefore include continued long-term military sales, training and concrete enforcement mechanisms.

Local Ukrainian Efforts

Maria Sheremeta, board member of the Ukrainian American Community Center in Minneapolis, said:

“The community here in Twin Cities is very vibrant. We have about 15,000 Ukrainians, according to the last census; the refugees add roughly 3,000. Two days after the war started, the community volunteers, formed an effort that has since collected about $3 million of humanitarian aid for Ukraine. The Ukrainian Center serves as a hub, including for collecting medical aid and protective gear. In the first few weeks and months of war, when soldiers went to the frontlines in tennis shoes and no protective gear, it was communities like ours that supplied them with basic protection. Many humanitarian aid efforts around the country, like ours, are helping to fund orphanages. Local advocates from the organization also are working with political representatives at all levels. Governor Walz signed a bill to divest Russian companies from the pension fund in Minnesota, which might have been the first in the U.S. to do so.”

She noted that clean energy should be part of the rebuilding effort in Ukraine. “Ukraine has been relying on Russian energy for a long time. That structure has been hard to change, because we’re talking about large power plants and gas supplies.” Rebuilding from scratch will be the perfect time to invest in clean energy in local communities.

She also urged people to contact Minnesota’s House representatives — especially in Districts 1, 7, and 8 — to encourage them to support Ukraine to support world peace and order.


The edited event recording, available from Global Minnesota, is here.  

Heather Cox Richardson “Letter from American” about Ukraine funding, February 13, 2024

Edited excerpt: House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Turner (R-OH)—who had just returned from his third trip to Ukraine—told Politico’s Rachel Bade: “The [U.S. House] speaker will need to bring it to the floor. You’re either for or against the authoritarian governments invading democratic countries. … You’re either for or against the killing of innocent civilians. You’re either for or against Russia reconstituting the Soviet Union.”

Heather Cox Richardson, February 17, background history