Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma believes that Western mediation is the only way out of Ukraine's current crisis.
In an exclusive interview with Dmitry Volchek of RFE/RL's Russian Service on April 12, Kuchma, who held office from 1994 to 2004, discusses Crimea's annexation, the chaos in eastern Ukraine, and discord between Kyiv and Moscow.
RFE/RL: There is much speculation about Russia's next step regarding Ukraine -- whether Russia would opt for intervention, whether it would move to annex more Ukrainian regions. As a person who knows Russian President Vladimir Putin quite well, what is your prediction?
Leonid Kuchma: I don't think we should expect [military] intervention from Russia. We gave up Crimea very easily without firing a bullet. Ukraine could have done a lot to prevent the situation we have today.
As for the next step, we can see that Russia is trying to create mayhem in southeastern Ukraine. To some extent Russia is succeeding in its goal, because there is not only an ideology and the protection of Russian-speakers behind it, but also very big money is involved here -- there is no doubt about it.
Many political experts believe Russia will do everything it can to destabilize the situation in Ukraine's southeastern regions. Keeping a large contingent of military forces near the Ukrainian border is part of that effort, and it is having an impact.
RFE/RL: What's the way out of this situation?
Kuchma: It can only be resolved with the help of the West and the United States. Russia does not recognize the legitimacy of the current government in Kyiv and will not negotiate with it. Ukraine has no chance there.
Ukraine could have taken concrete steps in this direction in the beginning but we didn't do that. For instance, a delegation of lawmakers could have gone to Moscow and told the Russian side: "We are here to talk with you. If you don't want to talk to us, it means you don't want to have anything to do with us." Now we see that [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry has agreed with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov, and a third side -- the European Union -- to sit at the negotiation table to try to find consensus.
RFE/RL: Can Ukraine get Crimea back from Russia?
Kuchma: I don't think it would happen given the current circumstances. Putin wouldn't go for it because such a move would mean acknowledging total defeat. As for the international community, there are dozens of examples in the world in which, at the beginning, everyone makes noise about but then Americans don't want to get involved and most importantly they don't want to waste their money. They all have promised to defend Ukraine's interests. But when it comes to introducing tougher economic sanctions, no one is going to do that. Because they all have their own financial interests in mind.
RFE/RL: Has it surprised you that Russia went so far as to violate Ukraine's territorial integrity?
Kuchma: To analyze Russia's actions, you have to try to understand Putin's point of view. Russia has always feared having NATO right under Moscow's nose. If Russia had such fears, it could have [proposed a] resolution at the [UN] Security Council saying Ukraine was a nonaligned country that could never join NATO. But instead, Russia chose another way -- it chose to put economic pressure on Ukraine, as we saw it in recent years.
It means Putin never trusted Ukraine, especially its government. He always assumed that one day someone would come to power in Ukraine that would ignore the Russian-Ukrainian friendship, and Ukraine would join the European Union and NATO. I think Russia has had this scenario in mind all along, and planned accordingly. One of the plans to defend Russian interests to a great extent was the annexation of Crimea -- and it has been executed spectacularly.
RFE/RL: Among Ukrainian presidential candidates, who is best positioned to rescue Ukraine?
Kuchma: Unfortunately, I don't see any candidate who enjoys enough popularity to unite Ukraine. Because -- plainly speaking -- they belong to the so-called "Orange" government. The future leadership should include representatives of all regions in order to unite the country. If it consists of only half of Ukraine, there will consequences in the other half of the country.
I don't have any rosy expectations that a new government could come to power and do something drastic to resolve all the problems. However, I do like Prime Minister [Arseniy] Yatsenyuk's actions. He is trying to convey to the regions what policies the government is considering. Today everyone needs to go to the east [of Ukraine] to tell people there what your thoughts are, what you are planning to do. Because there is mistrust of the central government and of western Ukraine there, and it won't be easy to win back their trust.