Steven Pifer: “You have some people in Europe and the US asking if it is time to apply possible restrictions on certain Ukrainian officials”.
In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, Steven Pifer, former US Ambassador to Ukraine and now expert at the Brookings Institution, talks about official Kyiv running out of room to maneuver in the international arena.
U.W.: You previously said that Ukraine will get weaker in negotiations with Russia and lose its ability to defend its interests if democracy in the country is scrapped. Could you elaborate on this?
It seems to me that over the past year and a half, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine has improved. However, there are still issues on which Moscow and Kyiv have different interests. For example, the question of the price that Ukraine pays for gas imported from Russia. The Ukrainian prime minister is again talking about lowering this price. There is an obvious conflict in doing so. The lower price for Ukraine means lower revenues for Russia. The countries also have different views on the South Stream pipeline because if Russia builds this pipeline (and at this point there is no new gas supply to fill South Stream) the gas that would fill it would be gas that would otherwise be pumped through Ukraine. So, there are issues on which they differ. And my point is that if the democratic backsliding leads to weaker relations between Ukraine and Europe and between Ukraine and the US, it will weaken Ukraine's bargaining position in talks with Russia. If Ukraine has a strong relationship with Europe, it will be in a stronger position to bargain with Russia. Because of the backsliding on democracy, it will have a harder time having a good relationship with Europe. I think President Yanukovych's position will be weaker. That is the concern I have for Ukrainian foreign policy.
U.W.: Do you think the US and Europe could forgive or overlook the current president’s authoritarian inclinations and deeds in order to keep Ukraine within the European framework?
I think the risk is the opposite. You already have Europeans talking about whether the EU should slow down negotiations on an Association Agreement because of declining democracy. I do not think that is in Ukraine's interest. Here in Washington, I hear there is significant concern about democracy declining in Ukraine. As I said before, it makes it very hard for President Yanukovych to get a meeting with President Obama. The government has to think about what it wants to do. It can't have declining democracy and still have the kind of relationships it says it wants to have with the EU and the US.
U.W.: Beyond any logistical and organizational matters, what is necessary to make a meeting with President Obama possible?
If you go back a year ago, remember, the administration organized a bilateral meeting between President Obama and President Yanukovych when Yanukovych was in Washington in April 2010 for the Nuclear Security Summit. I think this White House reached out to the Yanukovych administration very quickly, recognized the presidential election and accepted Yanukovych as president because he won in what everybody saw as a free and fair election. That gave him a significant degree of democratic legitimacy. What happened over the last year are the problematic local elections in October 2010, actions by the Security Service of Ukraine, the trial of Tymoshenko and what appear to be politically motivated prosecutions of other leaders of the opposition. Basically these events have called into question how committed the Yanukovych presidency is to democracy. And many people are very concerned about the backsliding on democracy. I think two things would have to happen to make a meeting between the two presidents possible. First, this White House would like to have some positive results. There have to be specific achievements. But I think it is more important to stop the backsliding on democracy, because if President Obama were to meet President Yanukovych, I think he would raise significant questions and significant criticism. If he was not very tough in criticizing President Yanukovych backsliding on democracy, there would still be pressure from Congress. Why have you met him without expressing concerns? A lot of people in Congress are following the Tymoshenko trial. A lot of people are really concerned that this is in fact a politically motivated trial and that there is no substance in the charges. For example, we have seen expressions of concern from the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and from Senator John McCain who comments on Republican foreign policy. The further the Ukrainian political system goes back in terms of democracy, the harder it will be to achieve that meeting. I am not saying this is what the US government thinks, my comments are based on my own assessments.
U.W.: Is it possible to draw a line between support for Tymoshenko that comes from abroad and that came previously when she was in politics and support for the democracy in Ukraine as such? Many will argue that Ms. Tymoshenko is no angel herself.
I don’t think that people had unrealistic illusions about Tymoshenko, they recognize that she has flaws. But I think it came as an unpleasant surprise to many when the government prosecuted her. It seems the essence of the charge is that she negotiated a bad contract. I have heard people here criticize the terms of the contract. But it’s not a criminal matter that she negotiated that contract. It contributed to the fact that she lost the election in 2010, but you don’t have to criminalize that and that’s causing concern. This has been something that has not been seen in Ukraine previously. Despite the political differences prior to President Yanukovych, that has not been your history. And last year it seems to have become common – politically motivated prosecutions of opposition leaders. And that is not healthy for democracy.
U.W.: Do you see any difference between the American and European approaches to Ukraine?
I think there is a lot in common between the American approach and the European approach. Your president made very clear that he was not interested in the NATO membership action plan, he was interested in practical cooperation. People here in Washington, DC say that’s fine, that’s Ukraine’s choice. That it is a logical course for Ukraine to develop a relationship with the EU. So, my impression is that the US government is very supportive of the idea of an Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine and a deep and comprehensive free trade zone because that might ensure very positive links with Europe. And that’s why they became concerned about the backsliding on democracy, because that backsliding will make it more difficult for Ukraine to follow its path to Europe. You have some people in Europe and the US asking if it is time to apply possible restrictions on certain Ukrainian officials. This is not good and it's not healthy. President Yanukovych has the power to stop it.
U.W.: How would you comment on the statement that Ukraine cannot afford to be authoritarian because unlike Russia with its greatness, Kyiv can only rely on its own democratic achievements when it comes to dialogue with Europe and the US?
I don’t think it’s black and white. But a democratic Ukraine will be seen as a more compatible and acceptable partner for Europe and the US. I think President Yanukovych's foreign policy is pretty sensible for Ukraine – a good relationship with Russia and a good relationship with Europe. He has made clear that he wants to bring Ukraine into a comprehensive free trade arrangement with the EU as opposed to the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. I think that is a very sensible policy. But again his ability to move that policy is going to be much stronger if people see Ukraine as a democratic state that shares the political and democratic values of Europe. If Ukraine continues to be seen as moving in the wrong direction, as backsliding on democracy, it will be harder for Yanukovych to promote this kind of foreign policy.
U.W.: What solution do you see from the American perspective?
I worry that the longer the Ukrainian government continues on this course of digging themselves into a deeper and deeper hole, the harder it will be to change course. But I do think that if they want to stop a trial that has lost credibility, they could find the technical reasons to do so. That would certainly be a positive signal.
Born December 8, 1953 in California
1976 – graduated from Stanford University
1985-1988 – worked at the US Embassy to the USSR
1988-1990 – Deputy Director for Multilateral and Security Affairs, Office of Soviet Union Affairs
1990-1993 – Deputy Political Counsellor, US Embassy in London
1993-1994 – Deputy to Senior Coordinator for the Newly Independent States
1994-1997 - National Security Council Director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia; special assistant to the National Security Council president and senior director
1998-2000 – US Ambassador to Kyiv
2001-2004 - Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration