“How much everything has changed since January,” is the first thing Geoffrey Pyatt, the US Ambassador to Ukraine, says when we meet to speak to him again. Back then, we discussed sanctions against the “political regime” that was still in place, and the EuroMaidan as a chance which the West and Ukraine cannot afford to waste. Almost ten months later, The Ukrainian Week speaks to Mr. Ambassador about the war with Russia, the US assistance to Ukraine, and the vital priorities for the new Ukrainian government.
U.W.: The basic issue in cooperation between Ukraine and the US is security, both regional and national. Which priority objectives have already been accomplished in this domain, which ones are still being worked on, and what is further on the agenda?
Let me answer this question in two ways. I think that the fundamental challenge that Ukraine confronts is not that different from the one I talked about with your publication in the early 2014: How to build a Ukraine that lives up to the aspiration that the Ukrainian people have expressed. This aspiration is to live in a modern European democracy. The greatest challenges to Ukraine are still internal, not external. Ukraine’s new government has made substantial progress on the IMF agreement, the anti-corruption reform, the beginning of work on constitutional reform and devolution of authority. These are all the topics where we are trying to help and where Ukraine’s long-term prosperity is going to be shaped. That is longer term.
In the short-term prospect, Ukraine is facing the immediate security challenge posed by the aggression that Russia has been engaged in. We are convinced that the best answer to that short-term challenge is the full implementation of the peace plan advanced by President Poroshenko and all twelve points of the agreement reached in Minsk. There is no military solution to the crisis with Russia. That said, we are committed to helping Ukraine deepen the capacity to defend its sovereign territory.
That is why Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland and I met with the State Border Guard Service, presenting a large new package of assistance to enhance their ability to defend the state territory. Since the crisis began, our security sector assistance has grown from less than USD 10mn to USD 116mn. That includes USD 46mn of assistance which was presented to President Poroshenko while he was in Washington (funds for body armor, night vision goggles, armored SUVs and patrol vehicles, and additional communications equipment – Ed.).
This assistance also includes short-term and long-term elements. The short-term one includes items like night vision goggles, body armor and engineering equipment presented to the border guards; and the counter-mortar radars which we will provide to enhance defence of the army against incoming indirect fire. The long-term programs we have are designed to help Ukraine build modern, democratic, NATO-standard compliant, European military institution. We have advisors who are working with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and General Staff to identify an agenda for reform and modernization. We have large programs to train and assist the National Guard and help the Ukrainian military institutions to build capacity. We are going to work on these hard security issues.
But I want to emphasize that I am convinced: the most important long-term security challenge to Ukraine comes from the issues of reform, corruption and modernization of the state that President Poroshenko and Premier Yatseniuk’s Government have committed to address.
U.W.: According to a wide-spread opinion, America could provide Ukraine with more extensive and diverse military assistance if President Poroshenko were less prone to taking compromises with Vladimir Putin…
I don’t share that assessment. I would again draw your attention to the dramatic extension of the overall assistance we are providing. This includes the security-related assistance I just mentioned. There is economic and development assistance which has grown by tens of millions of dollars. There is the USD 1bn loan guarantee that we have worked with the Congress to approve in the record-time in Washington. And there will be more. We are committed to supporting this government, Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in building a modern European state. I would advise against any suggestion that we have somehow backed down on our assistance. We are fully committed to supporting this government. That was the message President Poroshenko heard when he went to the American Congress, which was a remarkable event. He also heard it directly from President Obama in the Oval Office.
U.W.: At one point, the US was involved in the establishment of several security blocks, in addition to NATO, such as ANZUS. Would it be timely to form a new military union on the post-Soviet terrain with the states facing direct threat of Russian aggression?
I think Ukraine is in a special situation as regards all the post-Soviet space. First, it is the largest of former Soviet states, other than Russia. It is also in a different position vis-à-vis Europe. Before coming to Kyiv last August, I spent three years working, among other issues, on our relations with five countries in Central Asia. Ukraine feels very-very different. It has an Association Agreement with the EU. It has a border with four EU member-states. It has access to international maritime trade through the Black Sea. It has very strong human resources. And it has extraordinary natural resources, including some of the best agricultural land in the world, shale gas, minerals and other resources. Ukraine’s challenge over its first two decades of independence has been its governments. Otherwise, it has enormous potential which puts Ukraine in a very strong position over the long term. My advice would be for Ukraine to move as fast as it can to the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU, modernization of the state, and to meeting the aspiration of the Ukrainian people to become part of the institutional Europe. That puts you in a very different position compared to other post-Soviet states.
U.W.: Moldova, too, shares borders with the EU. Yet, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan have territorial problems caused by the Russian aggression. Which countries would the US rely on in this region if the Russian aggression continues to escalate?
I think you are comparing apples and oranges here. Ukraine has its own unique set of circumstances. This is a country that has a critical mass in terms of its own historical memory and experience. Your publication writes about the question of Ukrainian identity probably more than anybody. That is something which I think the events of the past six months have certainly reinforced. You see it in the bridges painted blue and yellow. I see it here at my embassy where the local staff wears vyshyvanky every Friday. There is no doubt in my mind about the strength and resilience of Ukraine’s unity and identity. The question now is where you take that. What I hope and see is that you are taking that to Europe, including European values, standards of justice and democracy, and practices in terms of business environment, corruption and education. That’s why the Association Agreement is so important.
U.W.: You have mentioned business. The US, the EU and international financial institutions are providing significant financial assistance to Ukraine. However, we all realize that this assistance is to just keep Ukraine afloat. Sustainable economic development takes investment. What should Ukraine do in the short-term prospect to attract significant American investment that would also act as an additional element of Ukraine’s security?
You are exactly right: because Ukraine is a large country, FDI and national investment is what has to ultimately drive its economy. American investors that I speak with see all the potential in the key sectors of the Ukrainian economy I mentioned earlier – in agriculture, energy, heavy industry, metallurgy, chemicals and others. The very rapid growth in Ukrainian exports to Europe as a result of the EU’s unilateral trade concessions this spring is a signal that there is buoyancy in this economy. The No1 concern that I hear about from American companies is corruption. Their perception is that anybody who comes into the Ukrainian market is going to be the subject of government officials and others with access to power seeking to lean on them for payments, money under the table. So, the single most important thing that I think the government can do to stimulate additional American investment is to send a clear signal that the days of corruption, corrupt payments and practices are over.
The package of laws passed by the Verkhovna Rada (on October 7, the Verkhovna Rada passed the “anti-corruption package” in the first reading. It includes, among other things, the establishment of the Anti-corruption Bureau and the implementation of the 2014-2017 Anti-Corruption Strategy devised to put in place transparent public procurements, fair justice and a business climate that will squeeze out corruption practices – Ed.). This is an important step*. But there is also an important requirement to the reform of the Prosecutor General’s Office. Most importantly of all, changes must occur in the practical behavior of state officials. The laws are a good step forward, but practice is what really matters.
U.W.: The recent spy scandal seemed to have damaged the US-German relations. Europe now has a powerful Russian lobby. Could the Ukrainian crisis cause extra tension in the relations between the US and the EU?
I don’t think so – exactly the opposite. In fact, Ukraine has been an important and successful example of transatlantic cooperation. We all have the same interests in terms of Ukraine’s long-term destination as part of the European family of nations. We all see the same threat in Moscow’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, invasion of Crimea, intervention in the Donbas, all of which are vital threats to international order. There is not a single day that passes where I’m not coordinating with all of my EU counterparts and our core allies, and the EU institutionally. But it is not just here in Kyiv. It is at the levels of presidents – between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel or State Secretary Kerry with the British Foreign Secretary on October 8. So, cooperation with Europe is the core principle in our policy towards Ukraine and our approach to the work that needs to be done.
U.W.: One of the manifests of this cooperation is the setting up of NATO bases in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic States. However, as the former General Secretary emphasized, these are temporary. Does this signal that the Russian threat is not taken quite seriously? Is it part of the strategy? If not, what is it?
First of all, this is a question for Ambassador Lute (US Permanent Representative to NATO – Ed.) and General Breedlove. But as regards Ukraine, I think it is very clear that all of us as members of NATO and the transatlantic community are upholding Ukraine’s right to choose its European future. For the US, upholding Ukraine’s territorial integrity is a fundamental principle. It is a principle that we have paid a significant price to reinforce, including through sanctions that we have imposed on Russia in response to its egregious violation of Ukrainian territory.
U.W.: How effective are sanctions in response to Russian aggression? When Ms. Nuland visited Kyiv recently, she said that they could be cancelled if Russia fulfills the Minsk conditions. However, what originally gave rise to sanctions was Russia’s annexation of Crimea. How does that affect sanctions? Could they escalate further from the current stage to a phase where they hurt Russia’s energy sector?
First, I think it is far too early to speak of any rolling back on sanctions at this point. All of the behaviors that gave rise to them are still taking place. As Assistant Secretary Nuland noted (during her visit to Ukraine on October 5-7 – Ed.), we are preparing to consider the rollback of some sanctions if Russia chooses to deescalate and to reverse the actions that gave rise to the sanctions. In doing so, we want to coordinate and cooperate intensely with our European and international partners.
As you noted yourself, there were different phases of sanctions in response to different phases of the aggression. So, it is reasonable to expect that the same principle will apply to the relaxation. In terms of the most recent and the most severe sanctions which were announced by the US and Europe at the end of September, an essential prerequisite (to relaxation – Ed.) would be the full implementation of the Minsk agreement. As President Poroshenko has pointed out, there are three key elements where Russia has not complied with the promises it has made in that framework: the release of all prisoners, including political prisoners who are being held inside Russia, like Nadiya Savchenko; the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereign control over its border verified by the OSCE, and the removal of all Russian fighters, soldiers, mercenaries and heavy equipment from Ukraine. Unfortunately, even today I am seeing reports in the media of more Russian equipment coming in, not going out. There is the regular Russian Army there, the GRU, mercenaries, Chechens and others, and fighters who are coming from Russia – they all need to go home. And that was what Russia promised as part of the Minsk agreements.
U.W.: Do you think the Minsk agreements would be fulfilled more quickly and effectively if the US was part to the talks?
We support the Minsk framework and the deal that President Poroshenko made on September 19. For now, it is an agreement between Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE. That trilateral framework has worked well. That said, we are committed to our security partnership with Ukraine. Before President Poroshenko was sworn into office, he met with President Obama in June in Warsaw. The US has been engaged intensively with Russia signaling our view regarding the importance of fulfillment of the Minsk framework. Next week, Secretary of State Kerry will meet with Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov in Paris, and I know that Ukraine will be part of the agenda there. But ultimately, we support the principle of an agreement between Russia and Ukraine to re-normalize their relationship. As Vice President Biden said when he came here for the inauguration of Mr. Poroshenko, “We will stand with you”.
U.W.: The Russian propaganda is trying to revive the myths of the Cold War and thus to interpret the current relations between Russia and the US within that paradigm. They are even trying to interpret the conflict in Ukraine as a clash of Russian and American interests. What do American diplomats think of these myths? What is the explanation for Russia’s lagging behind the rest of the world in the terminology it is using?
There will be no Cold War 2.0 because Russia is not the Soviet Union and we are not engaged in any kind of an existential confrontation. Perhaps the most important reason is that Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, is connected to the global economy. We are all prisoners of global markets. You can see that in how the markets have responded to Russia’s illegal actions. Russia has suffered billions of dollars of capital flight. Growth in the Russian economy is now essentially flat. Look at what’s happening to oil prices. As tempting as it might be rhetorically to fall back on the language of the Cold War, we are convinced that Russia and its internationally-connected economy should benefit from a Ukraine that is politically stable, growing economically, and anchoring with European institutions.
Geoffrey R. Pyatt, a Senior Foreign Service officer, was sworn in on July 30, 2013 as the eighth United States Ambassador to Ukraine. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Irvine and a Master's degree in International Relations from Yale. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he worked with The Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank that brings together leading citizens of the Americas. He was the Economic Officer and Vice-Consul in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 1990-1992 and went on to be the Political Officer in New Delhi, India from 1992-94. In 1994, he was appointed Staff Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America. In 1995-96 he was Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of State and from 1996-97 he was assigned to the position of Director for Latin America on the National Security Council staff. From 1997 to 1999 he was Principal Officer of the American Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan. In 1999-2000, he served at the American Consulate General in Hong Kong, managing the trade and export control dialogue with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China. From 2002 to 2007 Ambassador Pyatt served at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. From August 2007 until May 2010, he was Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna. From May 2010, he was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the South and Central Asia Affairs Bureau. On February 27, 2013, President Obama announced his intent to propose Geoffrey R. Pyatt’s candidacy for the position of the US Ambassador to Ukraine.