Ukraine’s position in the U.S. sphere of influence is getting stronger, and the country is interested in strengthening it even more. U.S. Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch offered assessment of the current situation in Ukraine in an interview with Censor.NET.
— U.S. Department of State representative Victoria Nuland visited Maidan back in 2014, distributed cookies among protesters, and her visit was on everyone’s lips. Do you plan to visit the ongoing protests near the Verkhovna Rada?
— Since the Maidan, and before that, obviously there have been demonstrations and protests in Ukraine, and I think it’s an important example of how the Ukrainian people are able to express their rights: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, that’s really important. That’s also really important that this be done in a peaceful manner, that the police and law enforcement authorities handle things in a professional and restraint manner, which at least so far that’s what we are seeing and that’s what we would expect to see, and we commend them for that. And that protesters handle themselves in a dignified and peaceful manner.
— Do you believe in power of the Ukrainian civil society? Do you think we are able to hold democratic elections and preserve competitiveness in politics?
— I do have faith in Ukrainian civil society, and most of all I have faith in the Ukrainian people. I think that the Ukrainian people really demonstrated in 2014 and since then that they have clear vision of what Ukraine is — that this is a country that is a democracy, this is a country that treats its people fairly and with dignity, that follows Western values. And while as in any democracy some of those areas still need work, and some of the things are aspirational, I think we’ve seen clear progress over the last three years. And I would expect that the Ukrainian people, expect that their leaders will ensure that there are free and fair elections, that these elections are even better than the ones in 2014.
— What have been Ukraine’s major achievements in the last three years, major successes of the state?
— I think that over the last several years Ukraine has really done a lot of noteworthy things. First, in the area of security and defense, I think we all remember in 2014 that the Ukrainian military was not in condition to do the most basic function, which is to defend Ukrainian territory. But what we’ve seen over the last three and a half years is the Ukrainian military, in part with U.S. and other assistance, become much more capable, including being able to push off a very robust attack in Avdiivka in January and February this year, when Russian proxy forces attacked Ukraine. So I think we see clear progression in the capabilities of the Ukrainian military, that’s really important.
Second, in the energy sector, back in 2013, I think it was 92 percent of gas in Ukraine was imported from Russia. Now it’s zero. That’s a huge accomplishment. I think Ukraine has made a big stride in that direction, and that I think is something to be celebrated. There are other things that need to happen in the gas sector, first and foremost right now establishing an independent and professional board that would guide and provide strategic direction and implementation for Naftohaz. I think that in the nuclear sector, there are steps that need to be taken to ensure independence and security from Russia in that sector as well.
Third, when you look into anti-corruption, NABU [National Anti-Corruption Bureau – ed.] was established, SAP [National Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office – ed.] was established; we’re hoping that soon there will be anti-corruption court as well. The E-procurement was established for government purchases. The patrol police was set up, which is a more effective, cleaner organization than its predecessor. So I think there have been a number of important steps, and I could go on.
Does that mean that the Ukrainian military is where the Ukrainian people or Ukrainian leaders want it to be? No. There are still many more things that need to happen. But there’s been clear progress. In the energy sector, whether you look at gas, nuclear or other spheres, and certainly in anti-corruption we would all agree that more needs to be done.
— So you think Ukraine’s independence from Russia in the energy sector is an achievement?
— I think that clearly in the gas sector going from 92 percent imports from Russia to zero percent is a huge achievement that makes Ukraine in the gas sector more secure. So there’s more work that needs to be done, but there has been a number of accomplishments as well.
— If you were a Ukrainian politician, what would you change or accelerate in Ukraine in the first place?
— I think that there are a couple of areas that are really critical. First of all, staying on the IMF program. These are agreements that the Ukrainian government negotiates with the IMF. And that is, in many ways the reform program for Ukraine. It’s important in and of itself — for the Ukrainian people, for progress here in Ukraine — that these various steps be taken, whether it is pension reform or something else, talking about the latest tranche [pension reform was passed in Ukraine as required by IMF cooperation program – ed.]. But it also sends an important signal to the Ukrainian people and outside supporters, like the United States, other countries, the international financial institutions that Ukraine remains steadfast in its desire to continue to reform. So we’re hearing a lot now about the very successful bond sales in September, and that I think is a very important step for Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government needs to be congratulated on that. But in part, I think, the international markets were attracted to Ukrainian bonds, in part because of the IMF program and what that says about Ukraine’s continued commitment to reform and moving the economy forward.
Secondly, I would say, moving forward as rapidly as possible on the justice sector reforms, especially the courts and anti-corruption efforts. So there’s been a lot of discussion about the anti-corruption court. We think that’s critically important because the Ukrainian people want justice. They want their leaders to be honest and represent them in a dignified way.
— When you say ‘anti-corruption court,’ do you mean a new court, independent from the authorities?
— That’s a good question because the details still need to be worked out, but what we mean by an anti-corruption court, what the IMF means, what the Venice commission means is a body or entity that is independent of existing structures, that is made up of justices that have been selected through a process that people have confidence in that it will select honest individuals of the highest integrity, courageous individuals, and individuals who are professionals in their own right. So that’s what we mean by an anti-corruption court. And I think it’s important to set that up. So that some of the cases that NABU and SAP have put forward are actually tried in a reformed court system. So I think that’s important: the justice sector reforms, continuing on anti-corruption reforms whether it’s with this special court, but also in other areas as well. I think that’s critically important and it’s what the Ukrainian people want. It’s also what Ukraine’s partners want. So we have many American companies that do business here and we have many more that are very interested in doing business here. But what they are looking for is a level playing field: so that if they come in and do business in Ukraine, they are going to be treated the same as a Ukrainian company or another company; that if there is a business dispute, there is a judicial system that they have confidence in that if they are in the right, they will be listened to and they will be found and justice will be served. So I would say that many of these issues are intertwined: the justice system, the court system, the moving forward on anti-corruption so that foreign companies but also Ukrainian companies don’t feel that they need to somehow go around the system, and maybe pay somebody off in order to move their issues forward, to get that license or whatever it might be. Setting that good business climate, it’s all interrelated. Last thing I would also note, although clearly it’s a big agenda for Ukraine, but lastly I would also note that energy sector reform is absolutely critical. Moving forward with reforms so that the pockets for where things are not transparent, where money goes missing are closed up. So that not only do the Ukrainian people benefit from a reliable energy sector but that it is managed properly so that the Ukrainian people are not paying more for it than they need to.
— What is your opinion on the election law? Do we have to change it, or can we hold elections under this old election system? What do you think of elections and a chance to change power in Ukraine?
— I think the first issue when it comes to elections, number one, is naming new and representative members to the Central Election Commission. Because as you know, the members are still holdovers from the Yanukovych era, and we’re now in 2017. So clearly, I think, that is the first step, and I think everybody agrees on that.
— Some of them, including CEC head Okhendovskyi, are under investigation…
—My understanding is that that’s going to move forward soon. It’s important that those individuals are, again, professional, perceived to be of the highest integrity, and thirdly that they are representative of the Ukrainian political scene. That they don’t just represent one party, for example. So I think that’s the first priority. The second priority — we would certainly be supportive if it’s possible to move forward on new electoral law. So that would certainly be the next priority. I would also note, however, that there are big national elections that I think everybody is focused on — presidential elections, and parliamentary elections in 2019 — but there are also local elections. Those are very, very important in terms of how power is distributed at the regional and local level. And so it’s important that there be a level playing field, that undue pressure is not put on different representatives from different parties, and so that there can be free and fair elections at the local and regional level as well.
—The U.S. has been providing significant military aid for Ukraine. It’s hugely important for us. But will you review the parameters of this aid, especially the military equipment? Because radars and military communication means are delivered, unfortunately, with certain technical limitations that you are aware of and that prevent them from being used in combat in full. Will algorithms for the radars and communication systems be opened so that we could use them in full capacity?
— Thank you for noting the extensive military and security assistance that the U.S. provides to Ukraine. Over the last three years we’ve provided that $750 million worth of training and equipment. I think actually what your generals and my generals are telling me is that the most effective part of that is the training part. It’s not perhaps the most exciting when people think about all the things that we are doing together but I think in many ways it is the most effective. Because Ukrainian soldiers over the last three years have demonstrated not only incredible courage but an ability to learn and adapt to new and different techniques on the battlefield. That’s really something, especially when you consider where they started in 2014. So the training program out in Yavoriv and in other places in Ukraine is hugely, hugely important. We also, as you’ve noted, provided various equipment. It’s night vision goggles, which really enlarge the capabilities for night action. We’ve also provided radars. Again, whether it was in Avdiivka or in other places, you can see that the Ukrainian military is able to use this very sophisticated military equipment to great advantage, I think, in the battlefield. When the Ukrainian military presents us with questions about the equipment, we always review it and take a look at that.
— Ukraine and the U.S. cooperate in various fields, dozens of them — from lethal weapons to expertise. Do you think we might need a more detail strategic plan for future that will cover cooperation in many sectors? Maybe we should draft such strategic documents for long-term planning, so that both our countries, especially Ukraine, understand where we’re going in terms of cooperation in the next five or six or 10 years?
— Honestly, I’m not a big fan of adding bureaucracy to actual and close partnership and cooperation that we enjoy today with Ukraine, with the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people. So, looking at the military, there actually are a number of documents that kind of enshrine the principles of our cooperation. But I think — and maybe that addresses your interest in general parameters — almost more important is the close and continuing contact and partnership and activity we have at every level between our military and yours. To help to strengthen the Ukrainian military — and not just the military, border guards, National Guard, the services etcetera — to address the threat that Ukraine faces in the east. And so I think there is real action and real partnership that is pretty robust, I would say. And I’m not sure that another document actually is necessary in order to enshrine that.
But it’s not only in the military area. We have partnership throughout the Ukrainian government and also with the Ukrainian people in various different ways. So for example, Peace Corps, which, I got to say, is one of my favorite programs here and in other countries. Because you have young smart American citizens who come here because they want to participate, they want to be here. And they go out all over Ukraine, and some of them are teaching English, some of them have English language clubs, others are helping small and medium enterprises with their business plans and so forth. They are doing all sorts of really important things here, the most important of which I think is, you know, that personal communication between people, kind of the personal people-to-people ambassadors as I like to call that. There is a document saying how Peace Corps and the government of Ukraine as well as local hosts will work together. But actually I think the more important thing is how this has all developed organically. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Peace Corps swearing in, and if you haven’t, we’re going to invite you. Because it’s just great, because all of our partners from all over Ukraine come in to welcome the new Peace Corps volunteers, and you can really see the added value that these young people bring.
In the energy sector — whether it is the whole set of issues regarding Chornobyl, whether it is in the gas sector, whether the other nuclear issues, whether it’s in alternatives — we are doing not only government-to-government programs with Ukraine, we are also helping to facilitate some of our businesses doing business here in some of those areas as well. Because from our perspective, Ukraine has so much potential in the energy field. And you know if the conditions are right, we would certainly like to be a part of that as well because you have a lot of potential, we feel we have something to offer. As so often happens, I think, here between Ukraine and the United States, whether it’s on the governmental level, whether it’s on the business level, whether it’s on the people-to-people level, there’s a lot we have in common and a lot we can mutually benefit from.
— I saw you crying in the Main Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine when President Poroshenko was giving an award for Colonel Maksym Shapoval, killed by Russian secret services, to his widow. I know you have visited war museums and military units in Kyiv and Dnipro many times. I am impressed how sensitive and attentive you are to the history of our war and its victims. Why do you take our war so personally?
— Well, and you can see I’m again feeling personally involved… ( tears appear in the eyes of Ms. Yovanovitch – Yu.B.). I would say that the issues that Ukraine faces here — but not only Ukraine, the United States and Europe face here in Ukraine — are really critically important. And so I think the United States, democrats and republicans, I mean there is bipartisan support for Ukraine in this very important fight. Because what we see in the east is not only a war, but steps by one country, Russia, that violates the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. And I think in the 21st century that simply cannot stand. And so it is important that Ukraine prevail here. That as Secretary Tillerson has said, Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty be reestablished. But I think it’s also important for the international order, not just for Ukraine.
We also believe that the many challenges that Ukraine has —not just in the east, but all over Ukraine, and that is being in many ways fought here in Kyiv — about what is the future direction of this country? Is it a country that is going to continue to reform, to have a market economy that is based on the level playing field, that benefits the Ukrainian people, that benefits entrepreneurs and innovators rather than just a few select top individuals? Is it going to be a democracy where people are treated with dignity, with fairness? Where the courts… doesn’t mean you will always win, but where you know you’re going to have a fair hearing. I think all of these things are tremendously important for Ukraine in terms of its future development. Because if that’s not the direction that Ukraine goes in, it will not be different from other countries in the post-Soviet region. And so the developments here, I think, are critically important for the people of Ukraine. It’s also important for us, because we hope … You know it’s a great thing for me that I’m an ambassador in a country where I see the interests of the Ukrainian people and the interests of the American people so closely aligned.
It’s in your interests that you be a strong democratic country, a secure country, a country where the economy is growing and providing opportunities for its people. And we also believe that that’s in the interests of the U.S. people because then we’ll have a strong partner in Ukraine. We’ll have a partner not only when there is a need for partnership on a security side, like we saw in Afghanistan or Iraq, but can even be a more robust partner in other sectors as well. So that’s in our interests. Secondly, on the economic side, as we were just talking, I see huge potential here for Ukraine, and I also see it for American companies. And we’re hoping that we can grow both our economies through that partnership. If Ukraine has that rule of law and all of the things we’ve been talking about, that’s good for Americans who are doing business here, it’s also good for our partnership.
So going back to the first part of your question, as a professional, I see challenges here but I also see opportunities. We are lucky to have a great embassy team that is working with many people here to try to support the efforts of the Ukrainian people. As you may know I served in Ukraine before, from 2001 to 2004, and when I was offered the chance to come back I jumped at that chance, like many other U.S. diplomats, because it’s an opportunity to try to make a difference, to try to help your people and ours in a really important area. So having a relationship with Ukraine is professional for me, but it is personal as well.
— Doesn’t it look a bit imbalanced for you that the Americans continuously support and lobby the programs for modernization of the army, the law enforcement agencies, the anti-corruption bodies, but do not offer the same tough and systemic lobby for creation of modern agencies of executive power, modern management, the one that would learn how to manage efficiently, not just how to expose? These things are intertwined, aren’t they?
— As we’ve discussed, the U.S. supports Ukraine in its fight in the east, and also right here with the reform program. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the Ukrainian people to make that happen. And so you’re right. We’re not in every area. First of all, there are other donors who do many other things as well. But the other thing is at the end of the day, it’s up to the Ukrainian people to make those things happen. So if you see gaps or others see gaps in progress in certain areas, I would encourage you or others to go there and start making it happen because it is up to the Ukrainian people really to build the Ukraine of the future. It’s your vision, not ours in terms of what you want for that future. So we want to help, we want to be supportive. I think the American people have been very generous over last 25 years, especially the last three. But at the end of the day it’s about what the Ukraine people want and how they move forward.
Yurii Butusov, Censor.NET
Photos by Nataliia Sharomova, Censor.NET