Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Pragmatic stand, coalition in lieu of Ukrainian centrism

16 May, 2017 - 12:20
Photo by Artem SLIPACHUK, The Day

Verkhovna Rada delegation, led by Hanna Hopko, chairperson, VR Foreign Affairs Committee, recently visited Washington, DC, with their Lithuanian counterparts, in order to submit their Ukraine Support Action Plan. Below is her interview with The Day; including details relating to the action plan, the way it was received in Washington, the possibility of President Donald Trump visiting Ukraine, and what chance this country stands of attracting the new US administration’s interest. Ms. Hopko was first asked to comment on State Secretary Rex Tillerson’s headlines-making statement, when he said that President Donald Trump’s “America first” approach to the world means decoupling US foreign policy from values such as human rights and freedom.

“We’ve heard a number of statements made by US officials. I guess US interests are uppermost on their mind, just as that these interests are rooted in certain values, however different their statements may read... I watched Mr. Trump and Vice President Pence last night [this interview was recorded on May 3, 2017. – Author] as they met with people representing various religious organizations on the National Day of Prayer. They spoke about religious freedom: that it is granted by the Lord, not by government. They mentioned President Lincoln and said they were believers. The big question is just how determined they are in keeping this principle while protecting national interests.

“President Donald Trump said he would visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, and that it was important to visit people representing the Jewish and the Christian worlds, in order to overcome extremism and terrorism. There is one important conclusion to be made from this. The current US administration is playing a good old game. Its rules were laid down by Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount of Palmerston. He said: ‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow...’

“Ukraine is trying to be pragmatic in its relationship with the United States; we’re trying to figure out our and their interests, and how much they interrelate… in order to build a mutually advantageous relationship as partners; not just as a country constantly asking for favors, like a street beggar, or as a victim of Russia’s aggression. This is of the utmost importance to us.

“I think the United States is counting on this, too. That was probably why the 2017 consolidated budget was approved, providing for some 560 million dollars’ worth of aid to Ukraine. There are no reductions in terms of USAID or other military aid to Ukraine, despite the risks.


“I’d also like to thank the esteemed members of the Lithuanian delegation, among them ex-prime ministers Andrius Kubilis and Gediminas Kirkilas (now Vice-Speaker of the Seimas [Parliament] of Lithuania, Chairman of the Committee on European Affairs of the Seimas of Lithuania); Deputy Chairman Mindaugas Puidokas; Chairman of the Subcommittee on Transatlantic Relations Zygimantas Pavilionis, and Lithuanian Ambassador to the US, Rolandas Krisciunas. While our budget issue was heard in the Senate, they arranged our meetings with congressmen and senators, at SD and NSC. And our Lithuanian colleagues made their message absolutely clear to the White House – that helping Ukraine would help America in a number of ways; that it would help keep Europe safe, considering that the continent remains an important US market asset; that one has to work out new ways of getting Vladimir Putin’s [megalomaniac] emotions under control.

“We can see that the Normandy process is protracted and ineffective, that it can’t provide for the maintaining of the ceasefire and for having Russian troops withdrawn [from Ukraine]. We must realize that Vladimir Putin will never implement the Minsk agreements, that we have to work out other means of keeping Russia pressured and contained. Our Lithuanian colleagues took an important step when they defended Ukraine’s interests, rather effectively, while bearing in mind their own interests. Putin must be stopped in [and made to retreat from] Ukraine. Otherwise, his next targets will be the Baltic and Balkan states.

“Another reason for this timely visit was that the State Department was then filling vacancies, even if a bit slowly, so all we could see were acting, rather than actual, department heads. This made our meeting with NSC President Fiona Hill, senior director for Europe and Russia, especially important. There were meetings with SD department heads, experts on Europe, Russia, Baltic states, and Ukraine. We used those meetings to discuss the main issue. While in the States, we met with people who represented top-notch analysis centers, boasting Mr. Donald Trump’s Heritage Foundation (some of their people are now part of the President’s team). We also had a meeting with people representing the US intelligence community – experts on proxy and other kinds of warfare – that lasted for an hour and a half. Afterward, we visited the McCain Institute, the Atlantic Council, NDI, IRI, and met with other experts and analysts to discuss our joint strategy. We met with Executive Director Laura Cooper at the Pentagon. We invited them all to visit Ukraine, particularly its eastern regions.”

 Do you have any people who specialize in Ukraine among the Trump administration?

“There are a number of experts, people who know everything there is to know about Ukraine and its current status. It takes a real expert to make progress during the Minsk talks, one with experience, one who is versed in the Minsk process, one who will be able to deal with Surkov, the Kremlin-appointed negotiator. What with Surkov’s KGB past and his refined techniques of playing around with Minsk II, we need a real heavyweight in there. There are five candidates being discussed and we were told that the best one would be there to represent the American side.

“We and our Lithuanian colleagues discussed the possibility of inviting Mr. Trump to visit our countries. The last time an US President visited Lithuania was in 1992, and President Obama never had the guts to fly to Ukraine during his two terms. Major data analysis centers keep making policy papers for President Donald Trump in Washington, and practically every such paper recommends that he pay a visit to Ukraine. Our Lithuanian partners proposed a visit to coincide with the Bolshevik Victims Centennial, followed by next year’s Baltic Independence Centennial.

“Needless to say, we would be happy to see President Donald Trump in Ukraine. President Petro Poroshenko invited him to visit Ukraine during a telephone conversation when meeting with Vice President Michael Pence. I must admit that the current US administration wants to be different from the previous one. President Obama never visited Ukraine during his two terms, but now they say that they understand what’s happening in Ukraine, that they’re interested, that they’re discussing possibilities, but that they’re still working on a strategy with regard to Ukraine, that they wouldn’t want this visit to be a symbolic one. President Obama received the Peace Prize while making no effort to secure peace. President Trump appears determined to prove that his policy is aimed at securing peace by negotiating it, saving human lives, conducting a dialog and ordering air raids, whenever and wherever necessary.

“Until they fill their vacancies, they won’t have a clear picture of the situation. Mr. Tillerson’s visit to Moscow was to offer the Russians an opportunity to make a proposal. It demonstrated the US stand in the matter, specifically that the relationships between the US and Russia wouldn’t improve until Russia stopped fighting in the east of Ukraine, until an international monitoring mission was firmly established there, and until Ukraine could resume full control over its frontiers.

“Americans conveyed their message to Russia, stressing their stand in the matter of settling the situation in the east of Ukraine, urging Moscow to comply with its [Minsk] commitments. I realize that Vladimir Putin will bide his time, that he will try to capitalize on the [self-styled] Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, probably by using ‘independence referendums’ there.

“Last but not least, Vladimir Putin will have to show something for the electorate to see, before the next campaign, after scoring in Georgia and Ukraine.”

 What about the new Ukraine Support Action Plan you and the Lithuanian delegation submitted in Washington? Ms. Catherine Ashton visited Kyiv several years ago and said that Ukraine needed an action plan of its own, not the Marshall Plan.

“This action plan was worked out by the Lithuanian side and adopted by their parliament. After that Malta’s European People’s Party congress passed an emergency resolution entitled ‘On the Long-Term Support Plan for Ukraine.’ Andrius Kubilis said the key points are aid to Ukraine in its struggle against Russia’s aggression and investments in small and medium-sized businesses, in order to help build the middle class. Various estimates point to about five billion dollars a year, so the man in the street can have a better living standard. We are accustomed to seeing higher tariffs and painful reforms as the price we have to pay for our energy independence, but we haven’t seen a better living standard over the past three years. Instead, we have seen mounting populism and there is the possibility of revenge for the pro-Russian [political] forces that will capitalize on all this. As people get increasingly poor, populist moods get increasingly popular among the electorate. Without an early parliamentary election, the year 2019 will become especially important, in that the people will realize that the situation is actually improving, that there is economic growth, that their daily life is getting better. Basic changes are also required to refute the Russia-engineered myth about Ukraine as a failed state that has been affecting our potential foreign investors, business partners, and donors. What we need at this transition stage is more than we’re receiving from the IMF to keep our macrofinancial stability and gold reserve. Come 2019, Ukraine will have to pay some 12 billion dollars’ worth of public debt. [Russia’s] Gazprom is threatening to terminate the gas pipe transit contract in 2019. If and when Russia accomplishes its Project Nord Stream-2 (bypassing Ukraine’s gas pipe), our budget will lose at least two billion dollars. We have to brace ourselves for today’s and future challenges.

“The Lithuanian plan provides support for Ukraine in terms of economic progress, job placements, and a fresh impetus for small and medium-sized businesses. The middle class is made up of people who won’t cast their ballots for populist politicians. They’ll vote for a political class that will actually support strong institutions in Ukraine, rather than wait for pensions, subsidies, and so on. This plan reads that Ukraine needs help, considering the disillusionment [with the current regime] and mounting social tensions. The big question is whether Ukraine will survive as a state, regardless of who is at the helm. What is at stake is Ukraine’s political strategy. One is reminded of what has happened since 1917 and until 2017. A hundred years of what is often referred to as the Ukrainian Revolution. But then will come 2018, 2019, and many challenges to meet. I’ve mentioned some of them.

“When visiting the States, we discussed the blocking of Nord Stream -2. President Donald Trump said his America would focus on its own hydrocarbon resources, increase their output, and export its gas to the EU market. Gazprom with its European ambition of dominance and Nord Stream-2 proved the Lithuanian experience especially useful. They reminded Washington of the Nord Stream-1 fiasco, when no one had listened to them. This time they said that the prime minister and the president of Ukraine should build a strong coalition and arrange for a top level energy safety conferences in Kyiv; that Hroisman should call a Visegrad Four meeting, with Poles and Lithuanians, to discuss the five European companies, including Engie (France), Shell (UK) two German and one from Austria, and the signing of a contract worth some 10 billion euros re the construction of a 1,000+ km long pipeline on the sea bottom (even if we understand that it serves Germany’s interest). Indeed, this project serves that interest, but only on a short time basis. In the long run, Russia’s Gazprom monopoly (read: Kremlin’s monopoly) will be used as a heavy geopolitical leverage. This runs counter to the Third Energy Package, the rule of law clause, the sanctions imposed on Russia, and all norms and values. The European Commissioner for Competition should investigate the case. Ukraine should deal with the European Commission on harsher terms, using Poland’s claim vs. Opal. The European Union should diversify its energy supplies rather than help the Kremlin. Under the circumstances, Ukraine is not only trying to make up for its loss of two billion dollars, considering that there are liquefied gas terminals in Lithuania and Poland. There are also Central European Gas Hub AG and interconnector projects. Americans have an interest there and they can use such projects to supply their gas to the EU market. Great. Let them compete with the Russian and other gas suppliers there. For Ukraine, it’s a matter of [national] security.”

 How did Americans feel about the Lithuanian plan for support for Ukraine?

“We visited the States with the current administration saying that there would be fund cuts for the State Department, that 2,300 of the staff would be fired. We realized that we had to get international support for Ukraine, specifically military support, considering the situation between Egypt, Afghanistan, Israel, and other countries.

“We had to make it perfectly clear why foreign investments in, or other aid to, Ukraine would serve the national interests of the United States. We succeeded in discussing the possibility of receiving such aid this year. The US Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs will hear our proposal. We were also told by people at the State Department that tabling our proposal with Lithuania was a good idea; that it was important to expand the format, including Estonia, Poland, and Latvia. During a meeting of Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian MPs in Warsaw, including the speakers and head of parliamentary committees, we stressed that we needed a big coalition for talks with the new [US] administration, that the matter at issue was Russia and its threat to Ukraine and the rest of Europe.

“Afterward, my Lithuanian colleagues told me that they, being members of NATO and the EU, realized that Ukraine would need time to become a member of both; that Ukraine should use Lithuania’s membership to help Ukraine survive, upgrade its economy, and prevent its pro-Russian forces or populist forces from taking advantage of the situation, of our corrupt institutions, particularly in terms of government purchases – where one cut a big slice of the pie; that the problem could be solved by transparency, decentralization, with Naftohaz abiding by the gas market law. They wondered why Firtash is still using all those gas distribution companies while the central budget is losing 10 billion... why none of our prime ministers has mustered up the courage to apply this gas market law and get back the money. Combating domestic oligarchs in the energy domain is very important.”

 Previously, a number of experts stressed the importance of our president meeting his US counterpart before he meets Vladimir Putin. Now it looks like the Kremlin leader will meet the White House resident first. What do you think Ukraine should do to convince the new US administration that it can be useful and interesting?

“This administration would appreciate a stable and safe Europe in the first place, for this would help business. We can see that Russia has been meddling in the US [presidential] election and in those in Germany and France. Germany’s intelligence agencies have detected Russia’s cyber attacks aimed at its email addresses, politicians’ private lives. There could be another such attack aimed at France [in fact, it took place May 5, 2017, after a trove of documents had been released online. – Author]. We made our stand perfectly clear in Washington; Ukraine wants harsher sanctions imposed on Russia, especially after the death of a US paramedic in Donbas. He was a member of the OSCE’s monitoring team. Russia has been waging a proxy war against Ukraine and aiming cyber attacks against Europe and Western Balkans, aimed at destabilizing these regions.

“What with North Korea’s nuclear tests, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by Ukraine, and its surrender of the world’s third nuclear arsenal, Ukraine’s failing to restore its territorial integrity would encourage other countries to abandon their nuclear armaments plans. We know about every effort that has been done to contain Iran. Other countries will realize that the stronger ones can conquer the weaker ones, so Ukraine’s success may well serve to work out an international treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear and other mass destruction arms, and that it will keep all these countries from developing such weapons systems.

“Our American friends have helped us upgraded our Armed Forces – and we had to start putting them together from scratch, precisely after Russia had invaded Crimea. Therefore, upgrading Ukraine’s defenses remains a major task on Washington’s agenda, considering that Ukraine remains a vehicle capable of deterring Russia. Besides, the experience of combat operations vs. Russia, in various formats, may well come in handy for Ukraine-US cooperation.

“We must pay more attention to publicity, our IT capacities, joint space exploration projects, rocket and aircraft engineering, the energy sector – here we should create an attractive foreign inland environment, especially for our US business partners.

“After invading and annexing Crimea, Russia has been struggling to exploit Ukraine’s hydrocarbon resources. Ukraine should sue Russia for aggression damages in international courts.

“Global food safety is another important issue. Ukraine could play a key role here by upgrading its agriculture.”

In most respects you have mentioned that Ukrainian diplomats must play the key role. Over the past few years, however, we have seen no Ukrainian ambassadors posted to the countries at issue, even in those closest to Ukraine, like Belarus. Why?

“I hope that this situation will improve after [our parliament] finally passes the diplomatic service bill, a long awaited one. It’s also good to know that Andrii Zaiats, State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, is working hard to upgrade the ministry and computerize its paperwork. The foreign ministry will launch a contest to fill its 140 foreign missions’ vacancies. However, despite the billion hryvnias this ministry’s budget received in 2017, I know that a number of our ambassadors represent situational rather than national interests in the countries of their posting; that our foreign ministry has been taking a number of belated steps. But there are ambassadors whose performance can only be described as top-notch during this turbulent period.

“Our foreign ministry should take a proactive stand and come up with constructive proposals. Our US counterparts say they will hear the Verkhovna Rada’s proposal concerning a Ukraine-US security agreement. I’d want our diplomats abroad to develop closer contacts with their local counterparts and come up with more joint projects that would demonstrate that Ukraine is surrounded by good friends who are ready to lend a helping hand. The [armed] conflict in the east of Ukraine, the struggle with Russia may last for another five to ten years. We need allies we can trust, we need real friends who are fully aware of Russia’s clear and present danger. We must build a strong partnership. Our first visit to Washington, along with our Lithuanian friends, who turned out to have very good contacts in Congress, and who helped us meet with a number of ranking US officials, was graphic proof that we have to get our ethnic communities overseas closer together.

“We must rid ourselves of Ukrainian centrism; we must realize that no one owes us anything, that we must take a pragmatic, proactive stand. We must have partners and a coalition involving our traditional allies. We must think in a broader format beyond North Europe, Poland, Baltic states, and Georgia. We must build alliances with Great Britain, Canada, Japan, and the United States. We must make friends with influential countries across the world, and with our strong ethnic communities. We must realize that these communities in the United States, Poland, Lithuania, and Romania constitute a potentially strong electorate; that these people can influence senators and congressmen.

“Then we could visit again, with an action plan that would win enough support for Ukraine and attract enough public interest. And this would serve the interests of a number of countries. They would see Ukraine as a global issue, rather than a local national security one. This is what our ambassadors should regard as the highest priority, including joint projects involving data processing and analysis centers, and visits to the east of Ukraine. Each such visit would make the visitor change his/her previous view on what has been happening in Ukraine. Evidence of this is the recent visit of Federica Mogherini’s deputy to Donbas. Her latest trip to Kyiv took place in 2015. She has never visited the east of Ukraine.

The Day and social networks have been debating the reorganization of the Diplomatic Academy under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine as the Diplomatic Training Course. Any comment?

“Our committee has been discussing reforms for the Diplomatic Academy for the past two years. Our committee knows that the academy will be reorganized in keeping with the Cabinet’s resolution. I think that there are no organized contacts between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Kyiv Institute of Foreign Relations, but that such contacts should exist, considering that both institutions are meant to train international lawyers, diplomats, and that both institutions should’ve long ago put together a professional teaching staff. Then we’d know their graduates and where to post them in a couple of years, especially in the Middle East, but this takes an adequate command of Arabic – and this would help gather intelligence and build Ukraine’s international image.

“As for the Diplomatic Academy, I think that avoiding a conflict comes first. Our committee should not have to act as an intermediary between the lecturers and M.A.s, on the one hand, and between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the other hand. Also, there are rumors that the beautiful premises of the Diplomatic Academy may become someone else’s property. I wouldn’t like this to be the case. We all remember [ex-President] Leonid Kuchma taking possession the unique building of the [former] Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Pylyp Orlyk St.

“Most importantly, the Diplomatic Academy must be reorganized with an eye to the long-term foreign challenges facing Ukraine. Our committee is actively working to have the diplomatic bill passed by parliament this year, and we already have the civil service law. Our diplomats should feel safe being under government protection; like the military, and adequately paid, with career opportunities. The Diplomatic Academy should be complete with modern equipment and teaching methods. No such proposals have been submitted over the past two years. Apart from the refresher course, the academy should be a data processing and analysis center, including policy papers. We must operate in a proactive mode. We’ll have a visa free regime next year, for example. We need a strong publicity campaign, otherwise people won’t get past the border checkpoints, there will be disillusionment, and so on. This campaign should demonstrate that this visa free regime doesn’t mean just tourist trips, but also a fresh impetus to the rail, air and trucking business. The main airlines’ monopoly must be countered by the livening up of low cost airlines. Ukraine doesn’t have direct lines to Seoul, Cairo or Ashkhabad – and this considering that there are 20,000 Turkmen enrolled in our colleges and universities, and that Egypt ranks with Ukraine’s top five business partners. Ambassadors call me, asking to allow our airlines to use these routes. Spending nine hours on board a jet flying to Cairo over Greece is too much for many a businessman. They say: ‘Why should I do business with this country?’”

Who has the final say in the matter?

“Our politicians. Our government and the minister in charge of our infrastructures. They keep telling me that all this is ‘economically inexpedient,’ that they need feasibility studies. No one will board Kolomoisky’s outdated jet to fly from NYC. An ambassador from Azerbaijan told me that they had Boeings now and that they were scared to board our aircraft. We must change the situation if Ukraine wants to become a Gas-Hub-AG-class country. Besides, one keeps wondering about our government’s effort to upgrade our economy.”

OK, my last question. The Minsk process. You said that the conflict with Russia could last another five to ten years. What kind of strategy Ukraine should adopt in the meantime?

“I wouldn’t want to refer to any dates, months or years. To begin with, Ukraine should upgrade its economy, look for ways to restrain Russia and upgrade the Ukrainian army in the first place. There are the Defense Strategic Bulletin and the Annual Ukraine-NATO Cooperation Plan, signed by President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and Rose Gottemoeller, Deputy Secretary General of NATO, during her visit to Ukraine. We have to secure civic and parliamentary control over national security and defenses; we have to compartmentalize our General Staff and Ministry of Defense. We must have parliamentary access to our budgets and figure out how the defense ministry is using its budget. Second, we must expand our partnership and upgrade contacts with our friends and strategic partners who realize that Russia is a threat to their national security, that it should be forced to stay within its frontiers. We should look for ways to enhance our cooperation with the players of this geopolitical game who are capable of making decisions and imposing sanctions. I mean Canada, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, France, the US, Norway, and Australia.

“Ukraine must remain on top of these global players’ agenda. Any compromise or surrender plans are out of the question. In order to do so, we must have a clear cut strategy. Not in words, but on paper! We must have such papers, proper funding, reliable support from the majority in parliament, and we must carry out all such plans with jealous care.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day