The escalating situation in Ukraine appears to be on the verge of armed conflict as Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov asked the United Nations Monday to send peacekeeping troops to the east of the country, where pro-Russia militias have seized government buildings and blocked major highways with impunity.
Geoffrey Pyatt has served as United States Ambassador to Ukraine since August 2013, part of a 24-year State Department career that has ranged from Asia to Europe and Latin America.
Pyatt discussed the crisis in Ukraine, including the potential for large-scale violence and the roles of Russia and the United States, with VOA’s Natasha Mozgovaya.
Mozgovaya: Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, while commenting on the operation against militants who have seized government buildings in the country’s east, called it an “anti-terrorist” effort. Would you agree with this characterization?
Amb. Pyatt: It certainly looks like terrorism to me, when you see reports, for instance, that the SBU building in Luhansk [has] been wired with explosives. We don't have a lot of details in terms of the specifics, but there should be no doubt in anybody's mind based on what's been available on social media, what we're seeing from the OSCE observers, their public and private reporting. In multiple cities across eastern Ukraine, these are heavily armed individuals using military tactics to take control of government facilities.
Mozgovaya: What, in your view, is the goal of this campaign?
Amb. Pyatt: Certainly there seems to be, from some of them, an intention to cause mass disorder, to keep the government in Kyiv off balance. This has been a period of significant progress for the government here in Kyiv. They reached an agreement on an important IMF package, those reforms were moved through the Rada [parliament] last week. There's also been progress on the political front, with presidential elections coming up on May 25. And successful conventions of all the major political parties, nominating candidates, and serious and meaningful debate in Kyiv over questions of constitutional reform, how to advance the goals of greater local autonomy that Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has embraced, that the [pro-democracy] Maidan [movement] has embraced, and which many of the regions of Ukraine have embraced as a means to deepen democracy here. So, what it looks like to me, on balance, is that these military actions are intended to keep the government off balance and prevent the success of Ukraine's new democratic authorities.
Mozgovaya: It seems that some officials in Ukraine’s eastern cities support these attacks. The country seems totally polarized, so why has the U.S. decided not to maintain neutrality when the country is divided in this way?
Amb. Pyatt: The characterization of division, I think, is overdrawn. The United States supports the people of Ukraine. We support the right of the Ukrainian people to make their own choices about their political future. I would note, for instance, that the legitimately elected assembly in Donetsk was very quick to reject these militants who took charge of the Donetsk assembly building and declared the People's Republic of [Donetsk]. It's important to remember that the Rada which sits today is the same one which sat under [ousted] President Viktor Yanukoyvch. This is the legitimately elected democratic structure of Ukraine. And so those who are acting outside the legal framework, including the armed militants and separatists who seized now, I think, eight or 10 buildings across eastern Ukraine, they are the ones taking sides, they are the ones who are opposing the will of the Ukrainian people.
Mozgovaya: What is your worst fear regarding this tense situation, given that the ultimatum set by Ukraine’s government for pro-Russian militants to vacate occupied buildings on Monday has now passed without signs of any effort to enforce it?
Amb. Pyatt: The greatest fear, of course, is large-scale violence. The government – from Prime Minister Yatsenyuk on down – have all been clear that they seek a political solution, that they are trying to deescalate this crisis, to work through democratic political mechanisms, but my fear is that there is greater violence. Again, you have people in cities across eastern Ukraine, some of them heavily armed with Russian weapons, including state-of-the art sniper rifles, Russian inventory automatic machine guns with grenade launchers. These are not peaceful protesters, this is an armed force. And I think there is a real risk that their actions could precipitate greater violence and any bloodshed of course is something that the United States will oppose.
Mozgovaya: Do you think the April 17 meeting in Geneva between the European Union, the United States, Ukraine and Russia will actually be helpful considering the huge gaps among the parties?
Amb. Pyatt: The U.S. is pursuing these talks with great seriousness. We have said from the very first days of this crisis, from the first days of the Russian invasion, that we do not believe there is a military solution to the crisis, that it has to be solved through diplomacy. We have worked very hard to establish diplomatic off-ramps to give Russia the opportunity to address its legitimate interests in Ukraine, to build a solid foundation for a sustainable relationship between Moscow and Kyiv through a diplomatic process, but the onus for now is on Moscow. Russia created this crisis through its invasion of Crimea, and now through the escalation of tensions in eastern Ukraine, and it’s Russia that will have to make the decision to deescalate the crisis.
Mozgovaya: What is the official U.S. position toward the idea of federalization, which is being pushed hard by the Russian authorities?
Amb. Pyatt: These are issues only for the Ukrainian people to decide. There is nobody in Moscow and nobody in Washington who should get to choose what the future structure of the Ukrainian government should be. We want to be very clear on that. These are issues that only the Ukrainian people can resolve. There's a process of constitutional reform that is underway today in the Rada, a commission has been formed, there are extensive public meetings that are taking place, including a public meeting today [Monday] chaired by the deputy prime minister, which will be looking at a series of proposals. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk was in Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk Friday talking about his ambition to deepen democracy, to increase local autonomy, to give local authorities a greater say over budgetary and other local governance issues. But these are issues that are going to be decided only by the Ukrainian people. They are certainly not going to be a topic for negotiation over the heads of the Ukrainian people, as some have suggested.
Mozgovaya: Given the current circumstances in eastern Ukraine, what are the chances for orderly presidential elections on May 25?
Amb. Pyatt: I think everybody in Ukraine is expecting this to be an important election, in many ways perhaps the most important election in the history of independent Ukraine. I was in Odessa on Friday and had an opportunity to speak to political leaders there. I know they are all - in that heavily Russian-speaking region - looking forward to the presidential elections and expect them to be hotly contested. You have nearly two dozen candidates representing the full spectrum of political opinion. So there's certainly no reason why the election should not go ahead. We think it's important that it take place on May 25 as planned, and as the political parties are planning for. And we expect that what is going to emerge from that, hopefully, will be a contest that is genuinely free and fair. You will have one of the largest OSCE election observer missions ever in the history of that institution. In addition, we expect large political delegations from Europe, the European Parliament, from the United States, from both the Democratic and Republican parties. This is all intended to build confidence in the elections.
Mozgovaya: Russia's argument is that Ukraine’s current ruling elite basically contains a number of extremists. So, are there any figures that are of particular concern to you - that you won't meet with, for example?
Amb. Pyatt: Well, first of all, I think a lot of what's been in the Russian media is a complete caricature, a cartoon, in terms of describing who is part of this government. It's a government that represents a broad spectrum of political opinion. I know that many of my own friends in the party of regions, members of the Rada, and others, are going on with their political lives. So to somehow suggest there are pogroms or that this is a fascist government - I think anybody who calls this a fascist government has not spent much time with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk or members of his cabinet. This is a broad-based government seeking to make changes and technical improvements in governance in Ukraine that are long overdue. You asked about radicalism: the United States has a longstanding position, been very clear about our concerns about any kind of anti-Semitism or religious intolerance, I think especially in Ukraine, given the uniquely tragic history this country has had with the Nazis, with the Holocaust. Honoring that history is an important part of Ukraine's own national identity. And it's something that all political leaders are sensitive to, including, I should note, [Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist] Svoboda (Freedom) party, which has played a relatively moderating role through the Maidan process and says it wishes to establish itself as a democratic, European political party. We will encourage that development. We will also be very clear about our concerns regarding any kind of radical or anti-Semitic rhetoric, whatever its origin.
Mozgovaya: What about the U.S. response to this crisis? Polls consistently show a majority of Americans are against U.S. intervention, yet some lawmakers on the Hill are calling for military aid to Ukraine, providing weapons, advice, training, intelligence sharing, etc. Is this on the table? Is the Ukrainian government asking for it?
Amb. Pyatt: I have been impressed by the breadth of American official engagement here, especially from Congress, Republicans and Democrats. We've had a large number of congressional delegations here and they all bring the same message, which is that the American people are interested in Ukraine's success as a sovereign, independent, democratic and European state. There's no debate on that in the United States at all. On the specific support that you alluded to, we are convinced, as I said, that this is a crisis that has to be solved through diplomacy, not through military tools. So, our assistance to the government can best be channeled through our economic support, which is substantial, and through our political and diplomatic support, or support for elections, our support for Ukraine [at] the United Nations. That's where we can have the greatest positive impact. We have a longstanding and successful defense and security relationship with Ukraine, Ukraine has been an active participant in NATO operations and U.N. peacekeeping.