Administrator Samantha Power at the German Marshall Fund’s Conversation On “Strengthening Crisis Support in Ukraine”

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Thursday, March 3, 2022

March 3, 2022

MS. HEATHER CONLEY, GMF PRESIDENT: Please note that today's program has translation services available in the Ukrainian language.  We have an extraordinary conversation planned today with distinguished colleagues who are laser focused and on the front lines of this growing humanitarian crisis in and around Ukraine from Russia's unprovoked war.  And we are particularly pleased to start this conversation with a very important voice who just recently returned from Poland, USAID Administrator, Ambassador Samantha Power.

As of last evening, UNHCR reports an exodus of over one million refugees in just seven days, 600,000 in Poland, 250,000 in Romania, over 100,000 in Moldova.  Slovakia and Hungary are also receiving refugees.  The United States has announced a $54 million assistance package and there appears to be an additional, over $10 billion request, some of that for Ukraine's humanitarian needs.  But these are numbers.  And I think it's important to make sure we understand the human voice.  A GMF staff member has a family member in Kharkiv and this is what this individual writes.  "There is a famine in Kharkiv.  Thousands of ads are going up asking for something to eat, children without parents, disabled people in a very difficult situation.  In the city, we have very little food.  If this all lasts longer than a month, civilians will begin to die of hunger and disease.  But we are holding on.  We do not have panic and despondency.  This is the main thing.  Live and thank God."

Ambassador Power, in your very distinguished professional career, you've seen humanitarian crises from every angle, as a war correspondent, as a scholar, as a UN ambassador, and I know you have watched this crisis unfold on the front lines in Poland.  You've described it as harrowing.  I would love an update from you, of what you're seeing in this situation and how the U.S. is planning to respond.  We thank you and we welcome you for being with us today.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much.  And thanks to all the people who joined the turnout for this event, like the turnout for the people of Ukraine around the world has just been overwhelming.  And maybe we'll have a chance a little bit later also to talk about what happened at the UN yesterday, which is really quite striking.  I did want to say just before we start, and of course I'll respond to your question as best I can, that we actually have two Ukrainians joining us as well in this discussion.  So I want to make sure while I can offer my reflections, there's nothing like hearing, as you just indicated as well, quoting your colleague and their family member. I think it's really important to hear from folks on the ground directly.  Because my perspective is a patch on the elephant, truly at best. 

So I did travel as quickly as I could to the Ukrainian-Polish border.  And we've been planning for -- around a number of scenarios for many months, prepositioning stockpiles, getting the organization the World Food Programme, which had been active in Ukraine back when the conflict broke out in Crimea in Eastern Ukraine, but then had gotten out about three years ago.  Getting them to reestablish a presence there, knowing that a conflict unfortunately was likely, that a Russian invasion was likely.  And so part of what I was up to was checking in with our DART team, with our team of forty people who are these kind of crack emergency responders that help coordinate among the various agencies.  The flow of goods and people across border crossings along the front-line states.

So each of the countries that border Ukraine, of course, has a critical role to play.  And so on the Polish side, I can tell you what I saw, which is really unusual.  Just all women and children.  And that is really still the case today.  Now, that's partly again because of what everybody is familiar with, which is a policy on the part of the Ukrainian government to keep men of fighting age in Ukraine.  But it is also reflective by and large of the will of the people to stay and to fight for their country and their independence.  So you can imagine what it is like for mothers to be parted with their husbands, or children with their fathers.  It was just the emotion.  And you've seen this, there's been a fair amount, I think, of television coverage of people coming across, and interviewing them, and hearing just what it was like to say goodbye and to not know what the future held.

The other dimension of it is not really knowing what Putin's plans are beyond what he is doing right now.  So some people came over but left family in Western Ukraine, in towns like Lviv, and yet there's a lot of anxiety about what Putin's intentions are beyond what he is doing now, unless his calculation can be changed, or unless the people around him activate much more than they have to this point.  What I will say is, you mentioned a figure of a million.  When I was there, which was just three days ago, it was, I think 360,000 was the figure.  So it just gives you a sense of the scale of flow, and that is accelerating every day.  And if some of the towns that the Russians are now besieging, like Kharkiv, if it becomes possible for civilians to be evacuated, which is something all the humanitarians are working on right now and Ukrainians really want to make happen, then you can imagine that those numbers are going to go up even more.

And what I will say is just commend the neighboring states for, other than Belarus, for opening their borders and welcoming people with these grave needs.  I mean, it's just, there are very few questions being asked, people's names are being taken, they are being registered to come into European Union countries.  But even Moldova, which isn't in the European Union and had not expected to be a major source of refugees or a major recipient of refugees, they've already taken must be by today more than 100,000.  And they had expected anybody who came through Moldova to move on to Germany or elsewhere in Europe.  And yet about half the people going to Moldova are choosing today, again, hoping that this thing will resolve itself, that the war will end, and that they will, that by staying close, they will be able to go back to their homes because no one wants to leave their homes.  So that generosity is noteworthy.

There have been incidents, of course, where third-country nationals have faced harassment or been pushed to the back of the line.  And I think it's really important that the Polish government, the Ukrainian government, everybody has come out condemning that.  And I think for all the chaos of the first few days, there's a much more orderly process now, and hopefully we will see no more of those incidents.  And I will note, of course, that any incident is a terrible incident and something to be deplored.  But you also see the Russian Federation disinformation machine making it seem like this is a very, very widespread phenomenon, and that this indicates the Nazism of the government and so forth.  And I just, I can tell you that from the minute we first heard those reports, the response from the Ukrainian authorities was instant in terms of getting those instructions out to border guards, getting it into the chain of command, of course, is very important as well.

So maybe I can leave it there because I know you have a lot of other questions.  But I'll say one other thing, which is, our emphasis as a U.S. government working through our UN partners and the ICRC and others is to continue to smooth the process by which people can leave the country, to make sure that the front-line states, the State Department's Population, Refugee, and Migration bureau does great work in this, make working with UNHCR, but mainly the governments in the region to make sure that there is a welcome there, not only hot meals when they first arrive, but onward, a place to spend the night, drawing on diaspora networks, drawing on the outpouring that we've seen all around the world.  And again, it was very inspiring to see citizens from -- and I've read about some of them, I saw some of it, but just becoming kind of amateur Uber drivers, free Uber drivers, just deciding suddenly to become de facto taxi drivers, going to the border, asking people where they wanted to go, whether they could help.  And you can just only hope as the flow increases, as it might, that that generosity persists.

But as the Kharkiv testimonial that you offered indicates, the burning humanitarian needs are inside Ukraine.  And getting food into dangerous areas, into violent areas, is very challenging.  We have the World Food Programme rolling its trucks now across the border, stockpiles being amassed, and using train networks, road networks, everything we can.  And then again, ensuring that access is granted.  The big issue of modern conflict, as you know, in places like Syria, Yemen, elsewhere, and Ethiopia most dramatically, is access.  It's just, authorities -- those who have the monopoly on violence in a particular area or have a military advantage denying humanitarian access, and so that cannot happen in this instance, and the UN is very, very focused on making sure that it can negotiate access to be able to evacuate civilians from those towns that are under siege and to be able to flow in humanitarian assistance and medical supplies along the lines of, again, what is needed.  Not only in Kharkiv, but in Mariupol, and Kyiv, and in cities that are under siege in this grotesque and unjustified invasion of Ukraine.

CONELY: Ambassador Power, thank you so much, and I want to drill down right where you left, and that there is an extraordinary urgency to create these so-called green humanitarian corridors.  We know the assistance is arriving on the Polish border.  Can you, again, provide us as much detail as possible what the U.S. government is going to be doing and proposing to make sure these humanitarian corridors are up and that those vital supplies are going in.  The fact that the cities are now being encircled and under siege, how do we get the aid into the most affected populations?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I will come back to this question, but let me just take a moment, which I previewed that I would, for reasons you'll understand, take a moment to come back to what happened yesterday at the UN, which may seem like a side issue, but I actually think is relevant.  So, the vote was 141 to 5.  When I was UN ambassador, I helped shepherd, worked with Ukrainians to shepherd the vote on the invasion of Crimea.  It was one of the most sort of effective operations that I've been associated with because even though if you're not tracking the UN every day, you didn't pay that much attention to this maybe, but countries are usually not that enthusiastic about standing up to one of the major powers, or a very powerful country like Russia -- who is a veto holder.  And so back then, to get 100 votes, in a sense condemning what the Russians were doing and rejecting the results of this fake referendum that they did in Crimea, that was major.  I mean, it was well beyond what anybody would've considered possible at the time. 

141 yesterday, the fact that you saw not only China abstain, as they had done in the Security Council, but Cuba and Venezuela abstaining.  Not joining with Russia.  The fact that you saw the entire Gulf Cooperation Council, the entire GCC countries, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and others who usually, again, tend to abstain on country-specific measures within the UN, really is a sea change and you see it now just reading about Russian airlines being pulled out of whatever the global airline network is and unable to fly.  I mean, just every hour, it feels like there's some new show of how this is being reacted to, unlike any humanitarian crisis that I have witnessed, and maybe the closest analog is Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, which I think is an analogy others have drawn. 

But why do I mention this sort of show of unity and solidarity with Ukraine in response to the question you just posed?  Because basically, we need the entire world to stand for access in a way that on Ethiopia, Tigray, maybe some countries have rhetorically, but just really haven't put much behind it in many cases, and that has been a real impediment to getting food to Tigray for example.  In the way that in Syria, some countries did, and we certainly did, European countries did.  But you had Russia and China not -- of course not lending their voices.  China could have a critical role to play in pressing on the humanitarian front, but so could many of the African countries.  Either those that, again, voted to denounce the invasion yesterday or those that didn't.  And so, this may sound very unsatisfying in that we need urgent operational progress, but because it is Russian troops that are encircling these towns and forcing civilians to be subjected to shelling and bombardment and food shortages and the absence of insulin and other critical medicines, it is the Russian Federation that will have to be pressed to open up access.  And those negotiations will happen tactically, town by town, but there are also now already broad calls for humanitarian pauses that I think are being heard around the world. 

CONELY: Ambassador Power, I can't underscore how important that is.  It's not only we stand for access, we're going to have to demand access, and we certainly hope that there is a pause.  We know you are exceptionally busy, and you’ve very generous with your reflections and your insights, but as you said, it is time to really turn this conversation to the voices from the region and their courage, and I'm therefore delighted to turn this now over to my colleague Jonathan Katz, Senior Fellow and Director of GMF Democracy Initiatives and Co-chair of our Transatlantic Task Force on Ukraine.

Last updated: July 15, 2022

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