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19 August, 2015

“I don’t see any significant change in the American policy about Ukraine because of the Iran issue”

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine and currently Director at the Brookings’ Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative about possible changes in America’s policy over Ukraine and Russia after the Iran deal, and about expectations for the Minsk process

Interviewed by Anna Korbut

The U.S. deal with Iran, followed by news of Vladimir Putin’s call to Barack Obama and Obama’s praise of Russia’s role in the process, sparked speculations about possible change in America’s course on Russia over Ukraine as well. Do you see any links between these aspects?

That kind of connection between Ukraine and Iran is dramatically overstated. Russia cooperated with the US, the EU and China during the Iran negotiations, because it was in Russia’s interest not to see Iran with nuclear weapons. Russia’s relations with China also were probably a factor that encouraged Russia to make sure the deal would not derail.

I don’t see any significant change in the American policy about Ukraine because of the Iran issue.  Washington policymakers are perfectly capable of compartmentalizing diplomacy. They can have significant differences with Russia over Ukraine, but at the same time there are issues where America’s and Russia’s interests converge and where the two can cooperate. Iran was one of them.

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When I was posted at the American Embassy in Moscow in 1987, we almost had completed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and we were making progress on strategic arms as well as on some human rights issues. At the same time, the US was sending Stinger missiles into Afghanistan to target the Soviet army.  Washington and Moscow know how to compartmentalize issues.

Another disturbing case was Victoria Nuland’s visit to Kyiv to push through amendments to the Constitution which many in Ukraine see as controversial and dangerous for the country’s territorial integrity. Now, that Ukraine has made this step forward in implementing Minsk-II, while the US and the EU have no leverage to push the other side take their steps, and the tentative deadline for fulfillment of Minsk is set for the end of 2015, will the US and European allies be willing to push Ukraine further into concessions?

I would make three points here. First of all, if you look at what the American and European governments are saying, they are much more critical about Russia and the separatists in terms of compliance with Minsk-II. It is Russia that is under Western sanctions.

The second point, there is a view in the West that the Ukrainian government’s position will be stronger politically if Ukraine can make the “we are doing everything we can to stick to Minsk-II” argument.  Then the compliance problem is entirely on the Russian and the separatist side.

The third point.  Quite apart from the issue of the Donbas and separatists, the American government seems to favor decentralization in general. I agree with this. The Ukrainian government, as it is structured today, has too much authority and power in Kyiv. It is more efficient and more effective to push some decision-making down to regional and municipal levels. That is a reform the American government would encourage Ukraine to take even if it didn’t have the current situation in eastern Ukraine.

Decentralization, however, does not mean delegating authority on national-level decisions like defense policy or foreign policy to regional or local authorities. What it means is pushing down authority on issues like education and healthcare.

This does sound right in theory. However, Ukraine has been centralized de jure, as well as financially, while de facto regions have been a sort of fiefdoms of local oligarchs, political clans or top officials who had leverage to influence courts, prosecutors and police. Zakarpattia and Odesa are the most telling examples of how this has been working. This leads to a concern that decentralization without properly functioning institutional base will only reinforce local landlords. Is that factor understood or considered?

I understand that concern. But I would also ask a question – is the current system with so much authority in Kyiv effective? What Ukraine needs to do is move to a system where, for example, the regional governor is directly elected so the voters have an ability to vote that person out if he or she is corrupt. That is more likely to enable people at the regional and local levels to replace officials they believe are corrupt or who are pursuing policies the voters disagree with.

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According to Minsk-II, the next step after decentralization is elections in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, followed by the sealing of the border. However, given the fact that any dissent has met violent persecution in those areas and many people, including pro-Ukrainian ones, have fled, do Ukraine’s foreign partners see a possibility of decent elections there? And if that doesn’t happen by the end of 2015, are any backup plans discussed?

If the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics allow the OSCE to assist in organizing and holding an election that is closely monitored, the possibility of decent elections could be there. Unfortunately, I don’t see the separatists prepared to allow that. But t strengthens Ukraine’s position internationally if Ukraine says that it wants to work with the OSCE in holding the elections in the occupied parts of the Donbas that are free and allow the voters to express their views.

As for backup plans, my impression is that right now Western leaders are holding on to Minsk-II although they realize that it is not being implemented well. However, that is the only deal on the table that has been agreed by the Ukrainians, the Russians and the separatists.

It is important for Ukraine to position itself as a party that has done everything possible to implement Minsk-II. If we come to the end of the year and the agreement is clearly not completed, which is my expectation unfortunately, Ukraine wants to be in a position where all the blame for the failure to implement Minsk-II lands on the separatists and Moscow. Hearing people like Zakharchenko say that “we will never allow Ukraine to reestablish control or sovereignty”, when a principal aim of Minsk-II was to allow Ukraine to reestablish sovereignty over all of that region, doesn’t help the separatist side. It is the separatists who do things contradictory to the agreement. When December 31, 2015, comes and it becomes clear that Minsk-II was not fulfilled, Ukraine should seek to be in a position where all international blame goes to the separatists and Russia.

With the latest constitutional concessions that should contribute to Ukraine’s position internationally, but the slack pace of reforms, do you see any weariness over Ukraine and its prospects developing amongst American policymakers?

I wouldn’t say that. The sense here in Washington is that Ukraine has an opportunity.  Doing reforms is hard, but the more that is done and the more quickly it is done, the shorter the period of economic pain.

Meanwhile, high-level consultations between the US and Ukraine are active. US Vice President Biden has been to Ukraine three times over the past year. Ukrainian President Poroshenko and Premier Yatseniuk have both been to the US. There are regular phone calls between the leaders.  Diplomatic relations look like they are in a pretty good shape.

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Ukraine is a major issue both in Europe and the US, but it competes with other questions. Right now, it is competing with Iran and China in Washington, and with the Greece crisis in the EU. There will be much attention in Washington in the coming days and weeks as the Congress will vote on the Iran deal. Hopefully, Europe will deal with Greece and, as these issues are settled, that will allow the West to think in a more focused way about Ukraine.

What is interesting, however - and my guess is that it was pretty disturbing to Moscow - is that, with all of the EU’s attention on Greece, it decided to extend sanctions on Russia in June from July 2015 till the end of January 2016 at the technical level. There wasn’t even a debate on the senior political level about that. So, the default mode for the EU was to sustain the sanctions. If there is a major separatist attack – on Avdiyivka or Mariupol – my guess is that the West would apply additional sanctions on Russia. And there is still some distance for the West to move with sanctions: the current sanctions are at around a level of 3-4 on a scale of 1 to 10, so a lot more can be done. I hope that there will be more serious consideration of additional sanctions in case Russia has made no real efforts to implement Minsk-II by the end of the year.

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