Against the backdrop of mounting pressure at home and abroad about her trip to Russian-occupied Crimea last year, Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib has written to her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, to reaffirm Belgium’s commitment to Ukraine, as well as to congratulate Ukraine on its Statehood Day.
In the message, shared on Twitter and posted on the minister's official government website, Lahbib notably reaffirmed that Crimea was a territory under “illegal occupation” by Russia. Just a year prior, Lahbib had visited the peninsula as part of an abortive documentary about the arts.
"The territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders must be fully respected. These borders include all the territories of Ukraine, among which Crimea and the Donbas, which are presently under the illegal occupation of the Russian Federation, directly or via puppet regimes," she wrote.
Lahbib stressed that Belgium stands by Ukraine's side "while Russia is waging an unjustified, unprovoked and illegal war, in violation of international law and of the UN Charter," and added that Belgium "systematically condemns in the strongest terms" Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
Russian forces invaded Crimea in 2014, hosting an internationally unrecognised election on Ukrainian territory. Belgium, like much of the world, does not recognise Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, or any other occupied territory.
The visit to Crimea is particularly serious for an elected official as It is believed that the minister, who was working as a journalist for RTBF at the time, most likely entered Crimea through Russia, and not Ukraine. If proven to be true, Lahbib would have broken Ukrainian law, and could even be banned from visiting Ukraine.
Under intense scrutiny
New details about the minister’s visit to Crimea have also raised further suspicions about the motive of her visit.
The Global Values festival visited by the then-journalist, a showcase of Russian dance and ballet, was sponsored and primarily funded by Russian energy monopoly Gazprom. Furthermore, the festival was presided over by one of the daughters of Russian President Vladimir Putin – Katerina Tikhonova. Funds from the Putin-linked Innopraktika Foundation, RTBF has admitted, paid for the Lahbib's visit to Crimea.
Despite travelling all the way to the remote Ukrainian territory, the minister only recorded a short radio section and returned home, as she stated she had concerns over the impartiality of a potential documentary following a Russian offer to finance the trip and provide a cameraman.
Ukrainian authorities stand firm
While the Ukrainian government has not yet confirmed whether Lahbib entered the territory of Crimea legally, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian foreign ministry has responded to the controversy.
“Visiting the temporarily occupied Crimean Peninsula is possible only if done from mainland Ukraine. Entry from the territory of the Russian Federation is illegal,” Oleg Nikolenko reminded in a post on social media.
According to the statement, discussions between Ukrainian and Belgian diplomats about the controversy are already underway, with the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry pledging to “establish all the conditions for the trip and make decisions on further bilateral contacts.”
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The minister did, however, recognise the Belgian foreign minister’s pledges to further support Ukraine with military and financial assistance, as well as implementing sanctions against Russia.
Belgian newspaper De Standaard, citing unnamed sources, states that Ukrainian authorities are taking the minister’s trip to Crimea “seriously.”
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is expected to deliver a new update to the crisis by the end of the week, possibly confirming whether Lahbib illegally travelled to the peninsula, and what diplomatic actions Ukraine intends to take.
So far, the minister has refused to comment to the media on the trip. In response to remarks online made by New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) leader Peter De Roover, the minister dismissed the visit as "part of my job as a journalist."