In an exclusive interview with VOA in Kyiv, Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine, warns that war will spread far beyond his country if Russian troops move across the border.
While the former leader says he hopes international pressure can prevent further aggression in the wake of Mocow's Crimea annexation, he insists Russian President Vladimir Putin “will not be satisfied with only Ukraine — that will not be the stopping point …and this can be the beginning of the Third World War.”
While Russia denies plans for further military action in Ukraine, it has recently moved troops to the border between the two countries for what Moscow says are military exercises. Some Ukrainians and security analysts have expressed concern that Russia might try to take control of parts of Ukraine or nearby Moldova where there are sizable ethnic Russian populations.
In both Ukraine and abroad, people have questioned whether the country would be facing possible war with its former ally to the east, had then-president Kravchuk not agreed to send 1,800 nuclear warheads — inherited after the breakup of the Soviet Union — back to Russia.
Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, speaks to VOA's Steve Herman in Kyiv, March 25, 2013.
Kravchuk said he has “stood for and still stands for nuclear weapons not existing at all,” and that is why he signed the 1994 agreement to remove all nuclear weapons from Ukraine with then-Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Bill Clinton of the United states.
In exchange for relinquishing what at the time was the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, Ukraine, in the subsequent Budapest Memorandum, received guarantees of sovereignty from both Russia and Western powers.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea, following a flash referendum amid political turmoil in Kyiv, violates that agreement, according to the U.S. and the European Union.
Kravchuk, president from 1991 to 1994, is now calling for the West to impose tougher sanctions because of Russia’s actions and the military threat it poses.
Otherwise , he said, Russia could “cross the line,” consequences of which would be “dangerous not only for Ukraine, but also for the world.”
Kravchuk, a top Communist Party official in Ukraine until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, had especially bitter words to describe Putin, whom he remembers as a KGB officer who carried the briefcase of others.
Kravchuk said Putin “absorbed the worst methods” of the KGB, which, he contends, was responsible for repression and everything else atrocious that happened in the Soviet Union.
The world should remember that Putin “was raised in the organization,” he said.
Now honorary chairman of Ukraine’s friendship association with China, Kravchuk said he understands Beijing’s abstention on the U.N. Security Council vote declaring the pro-Russian referendum in Crimea as invalid, adding that China’s decision not to cast a veto alongside Russia, its traditional ally, was actually a small victory for Ukraine.
Kravchuk noted China shares a long border with Russia and desires to get along with a neighbor who is becoming increasingly aggressive — a situation with which he said Ukrainians can certainly empathize.