The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine says separatists in the eastern part of the country could not be escalating their fight without at least the "connivance" of the Russian government. In a VOA interview in Kyiv, Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, said the separatists are increasingly well trained. He also also spoke about Sunday's presidential election, and the way forward for Ukraine and the West.
Pessin: "Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for joining us on the Voice of America. I have to ask you first about the fighting in the east. Is it directed by Russia? Has it taken on a life of its own and is the Ukrainian military and security forces up to the challenge?"
Pyatt: "Well, the bottom line, Al, is we don’t know. We’re obviously very concerned about this violence. There’s extensive evidence that these groups are coming from across the Russian border. Personally, I’m skeptical that this could be happening without some kind of official at least connivance. [I'm] very worried about the escalation in separatist military tactics over the past week or so. The terrible violence yesterday [Monday] in Donetsk - and I was very sorry to see I think at least two civilian casualties - seems to have begun when the separatist groups tried to seize control of the Donetsk airport. There was extensive evidence on social media of heavy weapons use and clearly as the government has said and as President-elect Poroshenko has said, it seems these groups are interested in sowing chaos and that’s something that we condemn unequivocally."
Pessin: "Sunday’s election got very high marks from international observers and from Ukrainian observers as well, but does it lose any legitimacy because so many voters in the east were not able to vote?"
Pyatt: "Not at all. The first thing I would say is that this election was a huge victory for the Ukrainian people. I was struck in my visits to polling places, as I’m sure you were, by the outpouring of patriotism, by the enthusiasm that Ukrainians demonstrated for their own democracy and the opportunity to express their free will. That was clearly the case throughout the country as documented by many international observes and Ukrainian civil society observation groups and I would highlight in particular the very positive role played by domestic civil society groups in seeing that this was a free and fair election and an election that genuinely reflected the will of the Ukrainian people.
"Unfortunately, as you know in Donetsk and Luhansk because of the actions of these violent separatist groups, there were voters who were denied this franchise, who were denied the opportunity to cast their vote but even in those two oblasts you had 15 percent recorded participation. I was impressed to see the courage demonstrated by the election officers who came to their polling places even in the face of these threats of violence. In several cases where these separatist groups went into polling places seized polling materials, burned ballots, smashed voting urns. But on balance we see this as perhaps the freest election in Ukraine’s history in terms of the breath of candidates, the quality of the administrative arrangements the documented freedom of the press. This was a positive election for Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people."
Pessin: "I know you’re acquainted with President-elect Poroshenko. What kind of president do you think he’ll make? What will his top priorities be and what should they be?"
Pyatt: "Well, I’ll say a couple of things, First, the most important thing about Mr. Poroshenko is he was chosen by the Ukrainian people, I’ve said before this election that for me the most important objective was not the individual chosen but the fact that it was through a process that was viewed by the Ukrainian people as creditable, as reflective of their will and, clearly as president-elect Poroshenko himself said on election night, he received an unambiguous mandate from his citizens.
"He has identified priorities that we would agree with. His first priority on restoring stability and security in the east, on reaching out to the east. It’s a very good thing that he indicated that his first trip will be to the east, to Donetsk and to engage the people of eastern Ukraine in building a sustainable and healthy democracy. He has said he will also place a high priority on issues of anti-corruption, again a theme that Vice President Biden emphasized very strongly in his remarks when he was here. And I am impressed that President-elect Poroshenko has identified this issue, which in all of the polling data the Ukrainian people are deeply concerned about, so this is an opportunity to change the bad habits of the past, to build a democracy, to build a government that serves the interests of the people, not the interests of those at the top of the governmen. And, third we strongly welcome his priority on strengthening Ukraine’s European choice on deepening institutional relationship with Europe. Opening channels for trade and people-to-people ties with Europe, we see this as a way build prosperity for Ukrainian citizens, as a way to build stability for Ukrainian institutions, and as a way to build a more just and democratic society in this country."
Pessin: "Do you see Ukraine eventually joining the European Union and perhaps even NATO?"
Pyatt: "Well, I think those are decisions for Ukrainian people first and foremost, and then also, of course, for the institutions concerned. We understand, including from my conversations with my, my very impressive EU counterpart Ambassador [Jan] Tombinski, that Brussels wants to move quickly with the implementation of the full EU association agreement, the document which President [Viktor] Yanukovych backed away from in November, setting this crisis in motion. We obviously strongly welcome that.
"I’ve also heard from my EU counterparts a very positive reaction to President-elect Poroshenko’s idea of pursuing visa-free access to the Schengen zone [which allows visa-free travel in the EU] and a step to build people-to-people ties, and I think also very useful -- as a way to attack this information war which Russia has waged so actively especially in Ukraine. Suggesting that European values will be a threat to Ukrainian values, and that somehow the model of democracy and economic prosperity that Europe represents is a threat to Ukraine, nothing could be further than the truth. And I think one of the best ways to attack that lie is by allowing more Ukrainians themselves, to…to visit Poland to see what has happened next door."
Pessin: "Ukraine is looking to the West for aid, economic aid and military aid. Do you believe the United States will come through with the aid
that Ukraine needs?"
Pyatt: "Well, a couple things, first we are strongly committed to supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, to helping this Ukrainian government build a modern economically prosperous democracy, Congress has supported a billion dollar loan guarantee which has already gone to the market, those funds are brought to benefit the Ukrainian economy. We have increased our development assistance here and I expect we will continue to do so in the months ahead. On the military side, Vice President Biden announced when he was here that we have brought our overall defense and security assistance package up to about $20 million, this is non-lethal assistance, which is going to both the Ukrainian army but also to the state border guard service, to enhance the ability of Ukrainian authorities to protect their frontiers, to stop this subversion coming from Russia. We’re going to continue with that work. We have a long standing defense and security corporative relationship here. I expect that to continue and deepen in the years ahead."
Pessin: "With all the procedures in Washington for providing aid, can the U.S. provide aid quickly enough, especially military aid, so that Russian back forces cannot for example monitor the radio communications of the Ukrainian forces?"
Pyatt: Well, I’ll say two things; first of all on the economic side, and I am certain the most important assistance the United States will provide here is to make Ukraine (an) economically strong, economically healthy society. That’s the best answer to Russian aggression. And the assistance the Congress has provided through this loan guarantee moved at a record pace, so everyone is working on all cylinders [at full speed] at this point. On the defense and security assistance side, we are working through different channels to move things as fast as we possibly can. One of the categories of goods which we are going to deliver is additional radios to help address some of these issues in term of command and control communications, the ability of the Ukrainian military to adapt to a changing security environment, but this is going to be a long-term task."
Pessin: "The U.S. was very supportive of the democracy movement here in Ukraine, and you yourself were very supportive and went down to the [Maidan] square several times. Do you have any regrets in view of everything that has happened since then about what U.S. policy was and how it could have been conducted? Do you think some things could’ve been done differently that might have avoided all of these unintended consequences?"
Pyatt: "No, well, I will say a couple of things, first and foremost, this extraordinary six-month period, the most dramatic six-month period, in the history of independent Ukraine has been the accomplishment of the Ukraine people. And the suggestion that you somehow, that… that you somehow see in Russian media that somehow the U.S. was behind this process, is ludicrous. It misunderstands the courage of the Ukraine people, which I think is so apparent to all of who live through that period.
Our role had been, as … as supporters of the aspirations of the Ukrainian people for a more democratic future. We have worked throughout this crisis from the very beginning to avert violence, to encourage dialogue, to encourage democratic solutions. As I said at the very beginning, for me, that’s the most important message of this election is to coming at the end of this extraordinary half year, an election that was a victory for the Ukrainian, for the Ukrainian people. I think, if I have one regret it is that I haven’t had enough time to myself to reflect on the extraordinary drama of this period, in order to capture the sort of moral dimension of it, and I think sometimes, in the Washington conversations people are so captivated by the larger geo-political story that they miss the most important aspect of this, that this was a revolution of dignity. That this was about the Ukrainian people themselves standing up to demand, a more moral, a more justice society."
Pessin: Mr. Ambassador thank you very much for joining us on the Voice of America.
Pyatt: Great to talk to you.