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Ex-Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk: Only NATO Can Defend Ukraine

Interview With Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk
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Leonid Kravchuk, 85, served as Ukraine’s first elected president after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. A former senior Communist Party official and chairman of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet, Kravchuk governed Ukraine for three years as it scrambled to build a new state, halt economic collapse, and establish productive ties with both Russia and the West.

Drawing on his experience as head of state, President Kravchuk discussed with Current Time Evening anchor Iryna Romaliiska his views on Russia’s policies toward Ukraine, how the Ukrainian-Russian conflict could be resolved, and his preferences in the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections.

- The biggest Ukrainian problem right now is probably everything that happens in Donbas. Do you have a solution for this?

- Exactly two years ago – the third is almost over -- I officially proposed starting direct negotiations with Russia. It is what the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] has now suggested. I even proposed a plan -- in order not to start right away with high-level negotiations -- to set up preparation groups for such discussions or summits. The groups would have five people from the Russian side, five from the Ukrainian. And let them propose a plan for how to solve the problem, propose it to the presidents of Russia and Ukraine. If these offers are accepted, the negotiations can start. I had only one condition. I consider it very important; people talk about it now: Never negotiate if there are preliminary conditions. Those are not negotiations.

- What are [the preliminary conditions], for example?

- Russia proposes that let’s immediately start writing about creating autonomous [regions] or a federation. And I am, for instance, against a federation. I support autonomy. I’ll explain why. Autonomy for Ukraine is not something new. We had the autonomous republic of Crimea as part of Ukraine. So we have some experience, some understanding of what was good, what was bad, and we can transfer that Ukrainian experience, keeping international experience in mind, to these territories.

-Are you not afraid that other regions will also want to become autonomous?

-For example?

-The Carpathians, for example.

-If there are objective conditions [for this] and it’s proven that it’s better, that it’s in the interests of the people living there in that region, and it will help make the situation in Ukraine better in general, it should be discussed … I was against and I am against federalization. I can say that, based on the specifics of certain regions, there are possible ways to discuss autonomy. Even more so that there’s not one classic [form of] autonomy. [Types of] autonomy can be various, and we should take the specifics and features of Ukraine as our point of departure.

- What are the conditions and demands from Moscow to which Ukraine can agree, in your opinion?

- If Russia proposes to rule Ukraine, to decide for it, with whom it …

- Through that autonomy?

- Once more: to decide for Ukraine if we should join NATO, if we should join the EU, if we should choose our friends and enemies by ourselves. Such a thing will not work out. Ukraine is an independent state and it takes up questions about its political course independently, considering the international state of affairs and international law. We can discuss the questions of autonomy within this framework.

- Is it possible to get Crimea back?

- I already see the symptoms that Russia won’t cope with Crimea.

- What are they?

- Today everything is very bad there, everything is ruined. Tourists and vacationers aren’t rushing in. All the time, Russia is talking about creating a military base in Crimea. There are symptoms that Crimea turned out to be not that easy for Russia. And to boost Crimea there is a need to invest colossal amounts of money. Ukraine invested $100 billion over time in this, but these are not the billions that there are now. Now it’s more than 200 billion. So the time when Russia will not have enough time for Crimea can come.

- Are you saying that Ukraine has to wait?

- Probably not wait, but Ukraine’s steps have to be wise and well-informed. The information has to be exact, accurate, objective, and fair. But life in Ukraine has to be better than today for that to happen.

- Let’s assume that the level of economic production is at the highest level. How is [the return of Crimea possible] legally? A reversal of [Russia’s] annexation decision, some new referendums, a military confrontation?

- If the situation in Russia does not favor current Russian policies, not in favor of the policies of today’s Kremlin, I do not exclude that [the annexation decision] can be reviewed -- by Russia, not by Ukraine. We cannot get Crimea back by force. That’s clear. This notion is even impossible to consider – getting back Crimea through use of the military. It has to be within the framework of political, diplomatic, and economic relationships between Ukraine, Crimea, Russia. By doing that, this will bring Ukraine into circumstances when life with Ukraine would be beneficial for Crimea.

- What do you think the government policy should be in relation to Crimea and Donbas, to the parts not controlled by the government?

- The policy should be fair and objective. We should not rush from side to side. There are our people. Some say … others start to say that these [people] are not ours, they are our enemies. They wanted Russia, here is Russia …

What happened, happened. Did it happen in the right way? No. Objectively? No. Are there violations of international law? Yes, 100%. Is there Russian aggression? There is. But it happened. Is there Ukrainian guilt [for what happened]? To some extent, there is.

- How so?

- If we had conducted our economic policy, social, linguistic, and other[policies] more wisely for Crimea, for the Russian-speaking regions, Donbas; if we had given them more freedoms, economic primarily ... to the people living in these regions, they would not have such aggression toward the central Ukrainian government.

- So you are talking about that decentralization reform; that if it had been done earlier and the regions had received more financial freedom … ?

- But the United Nations highlighted that there should be negotiations. The UN is for negotiations. They do not talk about the negotiations’ content, about the status of negotiations, and so on, but the negotiations should be started. And without direct negotiations between the warring sides -- the aggressor and the aggressor’s victim, Russia and Ukraine ... -- it is impossible to agree about peace.

- Is a military resolution of the conflict possible in Donbas?

- No. It’s impossible. It should be forgotten because, first of all, war is always bad. It’s always bloody … And what if large-scale hostilities started? Hundreds of thousands, millions of people would be involved. And we do not know the extent of how many victims there could be. This is the first thing. Second of all, Ukraine’s might is ten times weaker than Russia’s.

- You don’t feel responsibility for that?

- For what?

- For Ukraine’s military strength?

- It can’t be more than Russia’s. Ukraine never was, never pretended to international …

- Nuclear disarmament, for instance.

- We didn’t really know. We didn’t need [it] because we couldn’t manage it.

- Would you do the same if … you knew that there would be a war, would be military activities? That there would be fighting, the annexation of a part of Ukrainian territory?

- The missiles that stood on Ukrainian territory were created in Russia. The warheads were made in Russia. “The black briefcase” was in Russia, control of the nuclear forces was in Russia … It was possible to destroy the whole world. So the [warheads’] lifespan ended in 1997. Nothing is eternal in life. It was necessary to change all the nuclear warheads. Ukraine did not produce these. [We] had to ask Russia to supply the warheads on strategic missiles based in Ukraine. Was that realistic? No.

- Would you do the same thing again?

- Absolutely.

- You would do this?

- First of all, it was not me. [President Leonid] Kuchma did this …

- So he should be responsible.

- I would have also signed [the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by which Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees from the U.K., U.S., and Russia] because I knew this. And the second [motive]: The United States and Europe set a condition for Ukraine. They told us, “If you do not get rid of the nuclear weapons, there will be economic, political, and other sanctions.”

- How would you describe Putin’s policy?

- It’s a policy related to the violations of international norms and international rules. Russia has been fighting for an entire 150 years out of the history of their country. There is a political war elite created in Russia. Russia does not know the ways for reconciliation and discussion; only force. Russia does not see a human; only a country. If only the homeland existed and there are no other worries … Do you understand? The human is nothing. The homeland and power [are everything].

I think that [this policy’s] main purpose is the reconstruction of tsarist Russia’s borders. I would say that to update, to the extent possible, tsarist Russia’s territorial approaches, and then to build modern political, economic, social relations within that system of territorial relations, based on Russian policy. I repeat: Russia ignores international norms.

- How do you evaluate everything that happens between Russia and Belarus? Is the Ukrainian scenario possible there?

- No, it’s not. You know, I have been to Belarus multiple times, and I was there recently; maybe two years ago. Belarusians have another system for understanding their place in Russian-Belarusian relationships. They all say openly: “We cannot [do anything] without Russia].” That openly. But maybe some small amount of people, intellectuals [don’t say this], but the people are only with Russia. That is why if Lukashenko sharply turns his head away from Russia, the Belarusian people will not understand him. I think it will be the end of his political career. The Russians know that, Putin knows that. That is why there cannot be a conflict like the Ukrainian-Russian one. Because we are different people, different nations.

- What do you think: Can Putin violate international norms in the future? For example, annex some other territories?

- For instance?

- [The territories] of other countries, other neighbors.

- Sure. When I am talking about the territory of tsarist Russia, Poland, too, was part of it.

- So you think that he can take a chance?

- He can. You see, I watch Putin’s policy. He understands that to subject [a country] to force amidst today’s circumstances is not simple. There’s always a protest by the international community. That is why he uses various forms [to accomplish his aim]: the referendum in Crimea, but the referendum was at bayonet point. The same referendums were in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas. Maybe the same referendum can be held in Belarus. But to conduct the same referendum in Poland is impossible. That is why there can be attempts, but they will be unsuccessful.

- How do you assess the role of [pro-Russia opposition leader Viktor] Medvedchuk, the father of Putin’s godchild, for Ukraine?

- It’s a difficult role for him. Not even for him; for the government that used his help, for some reason. Help in getting back prisoners [from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine]. He completes the task as he can. As they say, somewhere around 400 people have been returned because of him. But that’s what people who support him say. Is it real? I don’t know. But the government uses his help [as an intermediary in discussions about the conflict in eastern Ukraine]. I do not think that he takes decisions in Ukraine without some management, some direction from Mr. Putin. …

- How do you size up his opportunities and chances in the parliamentary elections?

- I think that the party [For Life Opposition Platform] will gather enough percent [of the vote] to enter parliament. I see their rhetoric, I see the power of their influence, people who can do that, so I am convinced that they can.

- You decided to support Yulia Tymoshenko [in the presidential elections], am I right?

- Yes, yes.

- Why?

- I have read her platform. By the way, this is the only candidate who published all the details of her platform two months -- no, even three months -- before the presidential elections. The economic, social, political, and constitutional [details]; that is, all the components of a real, active platform. As a person who has a solid-enough experience governing the state, I like it.

- What do you like about her platform? Can you give three key points?

- All monitoring bodies should be outside [of government], separately created, and report to the people. Next: The constitution should be put to a referendum and not be adopted in the cabinet.

- And the third? Relying on the people?

- Relying on the people, a referendum, and the state-monitoring system. We all should know which system we have. Now, it’s parliamentary-presidential, but it is presidential in fact. Ukraine should be a parliamentary country, as [Tymoshenko] clearly and accurately says. The president, in fact, will execute the [same] powers as the president of Germany.

- And should the president be elected by parliament?

- Yes.

- How do you size up other top candidates? Poroshenko, for instance?

- Poroshenko, moreover, will not be the last who will use administrative resources. I do not have any doubts about that.

- Why?

- Because I already see that some agreements are starting to be made in the regions between voters and committees about the fact that they need to vote for the president. His slogan is already very widely advertised: “There is one candidate for the presidency – Poroshenko, and all the rest are a collective Putin.” You got it, right? That means that all the rest are not what we need.

- How do you view Zelenskiy?

- You know, he is a very competent, interesting person. I know him personally. And if our president had the same powers as in Germany, I would vote for him. But I don’t know how things will be where personnel are concerned. He does not have a party, any experience.

- [Zelenskiy’s party,] Servant of the People, is even registered or do you mean that the party structure has not been built?

- It’s a party when, from the village to the center … when all people … when there are experienced managers, when there are campaign staff. That’s already managing a state; that’s already putting a person in place so that he completes his functions. Otherwise, there won’t be a state.

- Who do you assume will be in the second round?

- For some reason, I think that Tymoshenko will definitely be there. What about Poroshenko and Zelenskiy? I think that Poroshenko will move forward [into the second round].

- So in the second round there will be Poroshenko and Tymoshenko?

- I think so, but everything can change. This thought is not yet for sure because I haven’t heard, in fact – and you probably haven’t heard -- discussions between the candidates for president.

- What should Ukrainian policies on EU and NATO look like under the next president?

- The path toward the EU and NATO is inevitable for us. Historically and factually, we are a European country. Second, the defense of Ukraine from such a neighbor [as Russia], from such Russian actions … I am absolutely convinced that all those questions that were not resolved with Russia could be easily resolved in a peaceful way. Russia didn’t want it. If they behave this way in relation to Ukraine … I listen to the TV programs of [state-run Russia Today boss and presenter Dmitry] Kiselyov, [Channel One host Vladimir] Solovyov and others. It’s hard to believe that there are people with such a hatred, such an animal hatred, toward Ukraine. That is why we have to defend ourselves …

- So you changed your point of view about Russia after 2014?

- When I saw what is being done: Crimea was annexed; Ukraine is under threat; 10,000-11,000 people died in Donbas; 2 million displaced people are moving around Ukraine. What other arguments do I need to take another decision? There is no other way of defending the work of the Ukrainian people apart from the NATO political-military organization. There is not.

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