Ukraine's ambassador to Britain condemns the Crimean referendum and explains why a stronger stance is needed against Russiaby Serena Kutchinsky / March 10, 2014 / Leave a comment
People hold a Ukrainian flag during a rally against the breakup of the country in Crimea (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Before being posted to Britain as ambassador in July 2010, Mr Volodymyr Khandogiy occupied a succession of high-profile government posts including Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs (2007-2010) and Chairman of the National Commission of Ukraine for UNESCO (2005-2006). Since arriving in the UK he has worked to progress plans for Ukraine’s membership of the European Union, and prior to the current crisis was in favour both of EU integration and maintaining a close relationship with Russia.
Serena Kutchinsky: Do you agree with the British Foreign Secretary William Hague that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is “the biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st century”?
Volodymyr Khandogiy: Yes, I do agree. This is a brutal invasion of one nation by another. Europe has not witnessed military intervention on this scale with such potentially far-reaching consequences for a long time.
SK: Why is this conflict evoking a much stronger response from the west than Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia did? Why is the Ukraine different?
VK: Aggressive behaviour is wrong wherever it occurs, but Russia’s recent actions violate the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum which provides national security assurances to Ukraine. What also makes this situation unique is the historically close relationship between Ukraine and Russia. No other nation is as closely linked to Russia as we are—it is as if our brother has turned against us and started using force.
SK: But, that still doesn’t explain why the western powers have reacted so much more strongly towards Russia than they did in 2008. What do you think is behind their response?
VK: Some of my colleagues have argued that the west was more resolute against Russia in 2008 than it is now. I don’t agree, but I would have preferred a more robust response from the European Union such as the introduction of economic sanctions severe enough to compel Russia to withdraw its troops from Crimea. There must be a strong unified response because yesterday it was Georgia, today it’s Ukraine and who knows what might happen tomorrow if we allow Putin to continue unchecked?
SK: How do you respond to Putin’s claim that he is acting to protect the interests of the Russian nationals in Crimea and that the referendum [now brought forward to March 16] will prove their desire to separate from Ukraine?
VK: Ukraine and Crimea have been unified since 1954. During that time there has been little evidence of any secessionist tendencies. As far as the Ukrainian government is concerned any referendum that takes place while Russia maintains its military presence there has no legal basis. But, the Russian government has prepared a law to integrate Crimea within the Russian Federation, and Putin is using propaganda to scare the Crimean people into believing that the unrest in Kiev was the work of Neo-Nazi fascists who will now try to invade Crimea. This is a complete lie. What happened was an uprising against a corrupt President and his government. But, if you watch the Russian TV news you get a very different story. The Russians have shut down both the Ukrainian and Crimean TV networks in the region and are only broadcasting the state-owned Russian channels.
SK: But, there are members of far-right parties such as Svoboda and Right Sector with key roles in the interim government in Kiev including that of Deputy Prime Minister. There also seems to be a resurgence of strong nationalist sentiment—a law has already been passed making Ukrainian the only national language and moves are being made to overturn the law that bans “excusing the crimes of fascism”. Is the west right to offer support to a government which contains possible extremist elements?
VK: This is a government of national unity and Svoboda is a legitimate political party which won 10 per cent of the vote at the last Ukrainian elections. I disagree with any inference that this government has anything to do with fascism or Neo-Nazism. It is written in our constitution that Ukrainian should be the state language, and the main point is that the government has no plans to violate the rights of Ukraine’s Russian speaking population.
SK: Do you think there is any truth in the argument that the Euromaidan protests which took place in Kiev’s Independence Square have helped the far-right political forces gain ground?
VK: The revolution in Ukraine was not created or run by extremists. It started in November last year with peaceful student protests against the decision of the ousted government not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. That government’s brutal repression of this peaceful unrest escalated the situation. Yes, Right Sector is a far-right group whose members played a militant role in the protests but they were not the dominant political force. And while their leader, Dmitry Yarosh, has put forward his candidacy for the Presidency of Ukraine, his poll ratings are no more than 1.5 per cent. To label the entire protest movement as a fascist force is wrong.
SK: How do you respond to the claim made in a leaked phone call between the EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton and the Estonian Foreign Minister that the snipers who fired on the civilian protesters in the square were acting on the orders of the opposition, who sought to create a legitimate reason to overthrow the government?
VK: I don’t have any comment on that. But, the investigation into the deaths of dozens of protesters remains a top priority. The police are working on uncovering the truth about what happened and will deliver a full report.
SK: Do you still think the former President Yanukovitch is responsible? If so should he be punished for the mass murder of civilians?
VK: On a personal and emotional level, I believe Yanukovitch is responsible but his guilt would still need to be established by a court. He would have to go through the proper judicial procedure. Whatever happens, his political career is finished.
SK: What is the real state of the Ukrainian economy and how close is it to collapse?
VK: The situation is very difficult, but we are not talking about a total collapse. Thankfully, we have the support of the international community—the EU has pledged a substantial aid package of €11bn and the US has also offered $1bn. When the political situation calms down the Ukraine will be able to reform its economy and repay its debts—we are among the top exporters of grain in the world and have many other industries, such as steel, which once modernised will provide ample resources for the future.
SK: Why do you think Putin is so keen to keep a tight grip on Ukraine, and how much is it fuelled by his desire to stop a capitalist democracy operating so close to Russia’s borders?
VK: That is absolutely part of the reason. Mr Putin is also empire building—he wants to turn Russia into a global super power. I believe that Putin still sees Ukraine as a possession of Russia and thinks our existence as a sovereign state is a mistake of history.
SK: How much of a motivating factor is the need for Russia to retain control over the oil and gas pipelines that run through Ukraine?
VK: None of those pipelines go through Crimea. I don’t think the protection of the pipelines is the issue here. Ukraine is equally responsible to both Russia and western Europe to secure the safe and uninterrupted transportation of Russian gas, a task that we have carried out successfully for many years. There is no connection.
SK: Is there a real likelihood of war between Russia and Ukraine, if the former will not remove troops from Crimea?
VK: Let’s wait and see. Ukraine will not accept Crimea becoming part of Russia, but we are committed to using any opportunity to resolve the current crisis by political and diplomatic means. The meetings which our new Prime Minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, will attend in Washington this week are of crucial importance and will hopefully move us closer to a solution.