Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence

Situation in Ukraine: Engagement with Ukrainian Committee on Foreign Affairs and Inter-Parliamentary Co-operation

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Today we meet the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Inter-parliamentary Co-operation of Ukraine via MS Teams, to get an update on the current situation in Ukraine. I welcome the Chair of the Committee, Mr. Oleksandr Merezhko along with the Deputy Chair, Ms Maryna Bardina, and their colleagues. I also welcome the ambassador, H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko, ambassador of Ukraine to Ireland, in the Gallery. She is most welcome. The format of the meeting is in the usual manner. We will hear any opening statements the witnesses wish to make, followed by discussion with questions and answers with the members of the committee. I ask members to be concise in their questions to allow all members the opportunity to participate. There will be a second opportunity for members to come back in should they so desire.

Witnesses and members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make that person in any way identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of that person or entity. Therefore, if statements are in any way potentially defamatory in respect to any entity or person, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that any such direction be complied with.

For witnesses attending remotely outside of our Leinster House campus, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as witnesses who are physically present might. Members are also reminded that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex, that is, in offices or here in the committee chamber.

I now call on Mr. Merezhko to make his opening statement.

Mr. Oleksandr Merezhko:

Dear friends, it is a great pleasure to see and talk to you, especially in these difficult and crucial times in our history and the history of Ukraine. I recall with great warmth the visit here recently, which was friendly and warm. I appreciate that the colleagues of committee members came to support us in our darkest hour. The situation in Ukraine is very difficult. We continue our struggle despite the fact that on the ground we are outgunned and outnumbered by the evil empire, Russia, which is trying to destroy us. Russia's ultimate goal is to erase Ukraine from the political map.

I also wish to express my deepest gratitude to members and their colleagues for Ireland's support for Ukraine's candidacy for the European Union. To us, Ireland plays the role of advocate, strong supporter and ally. We really appreciate Ireland's help and support. We feel it. When the Irish representatives came to Kyiv. they mentioned the phrase by the American President John F. Kennedy who, in 1963 addressed the Irish Parliament and said that countries should not be neutral when there is a struggle between liberty and tyranny. I see that Ireland is not neutral. Ireland is on the side of liberty, freedom, and understands that Ukraine nowadays is defending not only itself but the freedom and democracy of all of Europe. Russia openly states that it is waging war not only against Ukraine but against the West. For instance Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said this openly. Russia perceives this aggressive war as a war against the whole of Western civilisation and democracy. Russia is waging war in the territory of Ukraine but at the same time, it is waging war in a hybrid manner against all democratic states of Europe and global democracies. I would like to thank Ireland again for its support of our EU candidacy because it is extremely important for us. For us it is also a matter of our security. We made a choice to become part of the European Union and we are paying a very heavy price.

We have already paid a heavy price. Russia wants to subjugate Ukraine because we want to be part of the European Union. It is one of the primary reasons for the war raged by Russia against Ukraine. We want to be part of Europe. I ask Ireland to continue to be our advocate and supporter on our road to fully fledged membership of the European Union. I understand it might be a difficult road. We are committed to reforms and we are conducting reforms in Ukraine. We are conducting them in the very difficult conditions of war. You can imagine how difficult it is to conduct economic and political reform when you are fighting for your survival, struggling to survive. Nevertheless this is what we are doing and we hope you can help us make this way to membership as short as possible. It will help us a lot and I am sure it will allow us to defend ourselves more effectively and to stop Russian aggression. Being a part of the European Union, being part of this space of freedom, democracy, economic development and prosperity will help because behind each member state is the collective force of the full Union. There is collective solidarity and this is one of the reasons why we want to join the European Union as soon as possible. I ask you to please continue to support us.

The second thing I would like to mention is that two days ago, Russia hit a civilian residential area in Kyiv, which is not far from where I am. I was awoken by the sound of explosions at 6 a.m. and then I started to count the explosions. There was a very strong second explosion and then a third and a fourth. Later, I realised from the news that there were people injured and one person killed in the residential house hit by Russians. This house is basically on the same street as I live on, downtown and very close to my place. Yesterday we had another horrendous, disgraceful and absolutely inhumane act of state terror when Russian missiles hit a shopping mall in Kremenchuk. We are still counting the dead. We already know several dozen people were killed and many, including children, were injured. I would like to mention that since 24 February, Russian forces have already killed 340 children. This means that each day since then, Russia has killed several Ukrainian children. This horror can not be described in words. I ask your Parliament to adopt a resolution to recognise Russia as a terrorist state. Russia is not waging war against the Ukrainian army, it is waging war against the Ukrainian civilian population. It is deliberately targeting civilian objects and civilians and this is happening every day. According to the office of our general prosecutor, Russia commits several thousand war crimes every day. Russia not only commits crimes like war crimes and crimes against humanity, but general overarching crime which also includes genocide against Ukraine. We are grateful for recognition of Russian crimes as genocide. It is important because it is the truth and it should be known all over the world. In the near future, the State Department in the United States will decide on whether to recognise Russia as a sponsor of terrorism. It is important in terms of sanctions and I ask my Irish colleagues and friends to support and to help to persuade our American friends to do this as soon as possible.

My final point is that we need to continue to make sanctions tougher in order to stop Russian aggression. We also need to introduce so-called secondary sanctions against those countries which are trying to help Russia right now to avoid sanctions. I ask that Ireland continues to support us. I thank the committee members for their attention.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Merezhko. We will now take questions and comments from members of the committee. I ask members to be concise. We have a number of people who have offered. I give the floor to Deputy Berry first.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I thank Mr. Merezhko for his excellent presentation. We are very sorry for what is going on in his country at the moment and we totally recognise the reality of the situation. I take his views on board in relation to recognising Russia as a terrorist state and applying pressure and greater advocacy in relation to classifying it as sponsor of state terrorism as well. I appreciate those comments. It is great to get some specific requests from Ukraine.

I have two questions to ask. The first is in relation to weapons and ammunition. I note that Ireland is not providing any weapons and ammunition yet. Were weapons and ammunition to be provided from Ireland, is this something that Mr. Merezhko would welcome?

Second, in relation to Ukrainian grain in Odesa and in the ports, what are Mr. Merezhko's views on establishing a safe corridor through the Black Sea that could be secured by international community warships to ensure freighters could come in, pick up the grain and distribute it around the world.

The third question is to ask how he sees this situation playing out for the rest of the year, particularly in the next few months? Where does he see the conflict in October, for instance?

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Berry. I call on Mr. Merezhko to come back in to respond to those three questions.

Mr. Oleksandr Merezhko:

I thank you. Our top priority right now to survive is weapons. We need heavy weapons, especially multiple launch rocket systems, MLRS, high mobility artillery rocket systems, HIMARS, and long-range artillery. It is crucial because we are outgunned and outnumbered by Russia, which uses heavy artillery. Russia uses jets first, then heavy shelling, bombardments by artillery, then mortars, then tanks and only after that does it use infantry.

The Russian technique is to completely destroy everything in front of their troops by using artillery and then they move in. They move in gradually, sometimes they might move 1 km or 2 km but it is a tactic of total destruction. This is also about our casualties, of course. We need to help our soldiers to survive and our civilians, who are also being targeted. This is why we desperately need heavy weaponry. I understand there are countries which might not have what we need but we appreciate every effort, including financial support, which allows us to obtain heavy weaponry. As far as I know, we have only 10% of what we need right now. We need to reach parity in terms of heavy weaponry with Russia. Otherwise, we will have many casualties.

Grain is another serious problem because Russia is blackmailing the world.

It is trying to take hostage the whole Continent and the many countries that depend on food, grain and wheat produced in Ukraine. As we know, Ukraine is one of the bread baskets of the world. Russia is doing this deliberately. It is deliberately blockading our ports and is not allowing our grain to be exported. Russia and Putin understand that their approach allows them to blackmail the whole world and to demand the lifting of sanctions. On the other hand, Russia is using that approach to economically destroy Ukraine. What is the way out of this difficult situation? I do not know right now. I know that we are considering several options. One is de-blockading our ports and escorting-----


Mr. Oleksandr Merezhko:

Another option, which may be complementary or additional, is to transport grain using railroads, for instance. However, we should be very careful about that approach because Russia is deliberately targeting our civilian infrastructure. That might create problems. We should do everything we can because it is a matter of the food security of the whole world. This crime does not have a name but it is considered to be a serious war crime.

Russia has done this before in the history of Ukraine. There was the Holodomor of the 1930s - the great famine in Ukraine. Ireland understands well the meaning of a great famine. Russia has already used these tactics to stifle any opposition in Ukraine and to destroy the Ukrainian population. Russia is continuing to do it. It is stealing our grain in the occupied territories. It is trying to sell in the market this stolen Ukrainian grain. It is trying to create another great famine for Ukraine and for the whole world. That is why we see the continuous pattern of Russian criminal behaviour against Ukraine and the whole world. Russia's criminal pattern continues.

What might the situation be in two or three months? The next weeks and months might be crucial. It is difficult for our army to hold out and to continue to defend us because it is hair-raising. It has been truly heroic defence. Of course, it is difficult to keep defending when there are casualties and brutal shelling, and when your enemy has superiority in its heavy weaponry and number of personnel. The committee can imagine how difficult it is. We count on our resistance every day, and every day is an heroic day for Ukrainians. I am sure that Russians will never be able to occupy most of the territory of Ukraine for a very simple reason, that is, we are defending our homes and families. We have no choice. Surrender is not an option for us. We should defend no matter what, and we are doing so. However, it is difficult and without the support of the civilised democratic world, it will be very difficult.

I hope that in two months' time Russia will be exhausted. We can already see certain signs of that. It has defaulted on its debt, for example. If we get what we were promised in heavy weaponry, the situation might change crucially. In some areas, despite the preponderance of the Russian military, our army continues to find success in counterattacks and counteroffensives against Russian troops and is liberating our territory. Of course, the committee will understand that to fight against an enemy that has such a preponderance of military personnel is extremely difficult. That is why it is difficult for me to foresee what the situation will be in two months.

I am certain of one thing, which is, we will never surrender. Russia will not be able to take over big Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv, Odessa and Kyiv. The Russians were defeated in Kyiv and Kharkiv. These cities are like bastions. They will never be taken or occupied by Russia. At the same time, the situation is very dangerous. We keep fighting. I am sure that, strategically, Putin has already lost. It is a matter of time until Ukraine will emerge victorious but to do that and to save lives, we need help.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I thank Mr. Merezhko for taking the time to come and talk to us today. I am sure life in Ukraine is anything but pleasant at the moment. He made the point that Ukraine is fighting the war of the West. I sometimes wonder if Ukrainians feel they are left isolated with lots of promises that do not necessarily manifest themselves in hardware on the ground, for want of a better phrase. My colleague, Deputy Berry, spoke about weapons. It is a matter of some concern to me that we have weapons here that we could send to Ukraine, a fellow neutral country, if we want to claim the neutrality tag. Neutrality did not do much for the Ukrainians when Putin decided to attack.

I am wondering about a few things other than weapons that we might be able to send. Vehicles, for example, might be an option. I understand Ukraine is having difficulty in moving people around the place now so vehicles would be, I assume, important. I and my colleague, Deputy Barry, have often spoken about the fact that we have a number of naval ships that are about to decommissioned. We do not think they are necessarily suitable for the Black Sea but we believe they would be suitable for Ukrainian naval crews to maintain their skills and train on. We wonder if they would be of any value.

With infrastructure being destroyed throughout, in particular, eastern and southern Ukraine, how is Ukraine's stock of Bailey bridges and the like in order to replace bridges that have been taken out? Does Ukraine have Bailey bridges, or similar bridges that can be quickly erected, available?

I watched a piece on television in Ireland last night. The commentator, who was speaking on behalf of Ukraine, was a commander on the ground. He was explaining that many of his experienced soldiers, men and women, had been wounded or fatally wounded, and that he was now using what might be regarded as the second line reserve, who are not as professional as the soldiers he has had under his command for many years. Is Ukraine experiencing difficulty with respect to the loss of life of its best qualified? There were many questions there.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator. I will invite Mr. Merezhko to respond in a moment. I want to point out that as a committee we can recommend certain things to the Government but we cannot promise to make decisions. We can make recommendations. I want to make that clear. Mr. Merezhko can take the floor and respond to the Senator's points.

Mr. Oleksandr Merezhko:

The Senator asked about promises that have been made. One of our colleagues from Ireland who recently visited Kyiv used very wise words. He said that words are empty and that what really matters are deeds. I understand that the Russian war against Ukraine has shown us who are our true friends and who are unreliable or sometimes reluctant partners. There are states, unfortunately, which could be true European leaders and provide us with all necessary help but they are not doing it or they are dragging their feet on the delivery of supplies by making promises.

To tell the truth, I am bitterly disappointed in these big countries, unfortunately. They have damaged their own credibility by promising to do something. Maybe they do not want to understand that each day of our resistance costs us lots of lives of our soldiers and civilians. Each day of delay is translated into terrible grief for the families of the people of our soldiers who were killed or injured. This makes it a very emotional and painful issue to me.

On the other hand, there are countries such as the United States which proved to be a reliable friend and partner. It understands our situation and delivered weapons within one day. They help us. The countries which support us wholeheartedly are not countries who need to be persuaded and where military aid has to be squeezed out of them. They are countries who have come to us and asked us "What can we do for you?" Among these countries is the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Ireland. These are our reliable friends.

Unfortunately, sometimes other countries are hesitant or less than enthusiastic, if I might put it that way. There are countries that can do a lot and which can really help us. They have the capabilities, economic and militarily, but for some reason they do not. I do not know how to explain this. Maybe there are politicians in those countries who are not eager to provide us with military help in the hope Russia will break us and we will have to agree to the ultimatum and demands of Russia and the governments will return to business as usual with Russia. They will continue to buy Russian gas and Russian oil. Maybe Russia has politicians in those countries and maybe they are influential enough, unfortunately.

On neutrality, I quoted Kennedy. I heard a phrase from one of the Irish colleagues that there is no neutrality in the face of struggle between evil and freedom. When you give weapons to a victim of aggression and help to defend the victim of aggression, it is a very noble thing. This is what humanity and conscience is about. There can be no neutrality. When you see a hooligan killing an innocent person, there should not be any neutrality. The committee will excuse me for using this metaphor, but in international relations it also happens.

On vehicles and ships, one of my colleagues was in the United States talking to one of the governors. They asked what they should ask the Government for to help the Ukraine army. I sent the message to my colleague who is more knowledgeable. He gave me a simple, one-word answer to what the army needed: everything. It is true. We are grateful for every kind of help and support. It means a lot to us because we are in a situation where everything can be helpful to withstand this enormous pressure of Russian aggression. Of course, we are grateful for every kind of support.

On bridges, I am not knowledgeable for these kinds of things but I live in Kyiv and I have spent all these days there from the 24th. Especially at the beginning, my concern was that the bridges were blown up around Kyiv and I was afraid of a blockade and that the city might be starved to death. But then the bridges were restored very quickly. I am not a specialist or an engineer but I saw they were restored very quickly, perhaps with makeshift bridges. We need these kinds of temporary bridges which help us bring food, necessary resources and so on.

On how we are coping with the loss of lives, it is a problem. When you are fighting against the second biggest army in the world, the best and most experienced soldiers sometimes have to sacrifice their lives. It is a problem for us. Every person to lose their life is a huge tragedy, not only for the family and loved ones but also for the whole country. Yesterday, the shopping mall was hit. Watching the footage was really heartbreaking. We have to live in this. We are peaceful people and we want this war to end as soon as possible but there are certain red lines. The problem is at what cost. For us, the red lines are our territorial integrity, our freedom and our right to choose to be part of the European family. It is also about our security. What can stop the war and prevent future loss of life? Only heavy weapons. Heavy weaponry is the best kind of humanitarian aid. For us it is also a humanitarian issue. Putin only understands a language of strength. The more we are protected and the more heavy weaponry we have, the more effectively we defend ourselves and the fewer casualties there will be.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I thank Mr. Merezhko. Slava Ukraini. We stand with you.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Merezhko for his time this afternoon and keeping us informed of the horrors being perpetrated on his country, the terrible suffering, the needless loss of life and the needless war. I hear what he says about the tragedy of any life being a loss. As a father of four young sons myself, I can only feel for the sorrow and anguish of many families and parents who have lost young people in the war and then the other citizens who are suffering. It is important we keep this message to the fore because sometimes it is inclined to slip back. We have seen the attacks in recent days in Kyiv, in the shopping centre, which Mr. Merezhko brought to our attention. We will keep in contact with Mr. Merezhko, with the ambassador, and we will continue to do what we can at UN and EU levels to support the sanctions and the other actions for which Ukraine has called. We will continue to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine and non-lethal weaponry and support. I thank Mr. Merezhko and his colleagues for their time this afternoon and the ambassador for being here.

The joint committee went into private session at 3.59 p.m. and adjourned at 4.08 p.m. until 3.15 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 July 2022.