Vocal Europe: The Ukrainian parliament adopted a bill which sets NATO membership as a pillar of country’s foreign policy. NATO membership is seen by this legislation as the most effective instrument for guaranteeing Ukraine’s security, territorial integrity and sovereignty in the context “of Russian aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of Ukrainian territory”. Which concrete steps will take Ukraine in order to achieve the NATO membership goal? How realistic this goal does seem, given that NATO lacks consensus over Ukraine’s membership on one hand and Russia sees further NATO expansion to the East as a red line on the other?
Andrii Olefirov: Indeed, a few days ago President signed the legislative act adopted by the Verkhovna Rada, which translates into law changing of the strategic foreign policy course of the state by approximation and advancing to NATO membership. It is worth recollecting to what consequences brought Ukraine its previous strategic foreign policy course based on non-alignment. It weakened our cooperation with NATO, especially in the sphere of security sector reform and modernization of the Armed forces. Moreover, it gave Russia strategic initiative and prevailing dominance of Russian intelligence in the defense establishment, which helped to dismantle remnants of the Defence Forces inherited by Ukraine after collapse of the USSR. We see the Alliance as the most effective security provider on the European continent. Nobody dares to question application of the provision of Art. 5, which translates attack on one member as an attack on the whole Alliance. Ukraine, on the western flank, is surrounded by NATO members and we did not have any security or political problems with them whatsoever. On the contrary, most challenges come from belligerent Russia, which violated international law and principles of the Helsinki Final Act, practically dismantling post-Cold war European security architecture.
Among the practical steps, I see return to the discussion on providing Ukraine with the Membership Action Plan – a decision not taken at the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008. Already, NATO acknowledges huge steps Ukraine made in transforming its Armed Forces into formidable resilient structure, able to repel possible further aggression against Ukraine. We continue to implement Annual Action Plan aimed at further approximation of standards and speeding up reform process in the Armed Forces. In fact, implementation of ambitious Program of Reforms pursued by the Government will contribute to achieving membership criteria, including the sphere of democratization and public control over the security sector. I believe that continuation of aggressive military and defense policies by Russia, confrontation with NATO everywhere starting from Balkans, Baltic region and up north to the Arctic, contribute to changing of the attitude among the member states with regard to the further enlargement. NATO “open door policy” remains one of the main pillars of success of the Alliance. I am confident that within NATO there is understanding that Russia has already crossed its red lines by ruining post-Cold war world order, being unpredictable and unsustainable partner for mutually beneficial cooperation.
Vocal Europe: The conflict in Eastern Ukraine entered its fourth year and the hostilities have been escalating, with “no end in sight”, as the report released by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) last June shows it. Since the start of the conflict in mid-April 2014 up to mid-May 2017, at least 10,090 people, including 2,777 civilians, have been killed, and at least 23,966 injured. In your view, which concrete actions can be taken (i.e.: new and more security assurances for Ukraine, supply of high-tech defensive and/or lethal weapons, and so forth) by international organizations (i.e.: UN, NATO, OSCE) and/or Western countries to-if not solving-at least de-escalate the conflict?
Andrii Olefirov: Russia pursues the goal of freezing the conflict. In fact, we already could state that despite its relatively low intensity of direct confrontation Russia could escalate the war via its proxies in Donbass. Sanctions policy and Minsk process has stopped direct aggression, but I agree that we are still far from achieving stability and permanent de-escalation of hostilities. We will continue with our efforts aimed at upgrading capabilities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, including the possibilities to acquire modern defensive and lethal weapons. Nowadays, we primarily count on the resources of our defense industry, which is quite capable to satisfy the needs of the Armed Forces. Nevertheless, we put much emphasis on certain sophisticated types of defensive weapons which would be a deterrence against any further plans to occupy Ukrainian territory (be it a land corridor to Crimea of full scale invasion).
International organizations proved to be ineffective in stopping escalation of the conflict back in 2014. Despite that, we continue to gather international support in order to condemn Russian actions, forcing it to stop military aggression, withdraw its forces and de-occupy Ukrainian territory. OSCE should play its role as primary security organization. Full implementation of the OSCE SMM mandate (24/7 monitoring on disengagement, full access to the border and returning it under Ukrainian control), transforming it into armed police mission is the key to long term resolution of situation. Readiness to strengthen sanctions policy is also a powerful instrument to avert any further violence. Russia should clearly understand the possibility of heightening the price for its inability to stop aggression and efforts to legitimize land grab of Ukraine`s territory.
Vocal Europe: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared recently, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee: “It is very possible that the government of Ukraine and the government of Russia could come to a satisfactory resolution through some structure other than Minsk but would achieve the objectives of Minsk, which we’re committed to (…) So our caution is I wouldn’t want to have ourselves handcuffed to Minsk if it turns out the parties decide to settle this through a different agreement”. Though the absence of the progress on implementing specific points of the Minsk Agreements is evident, many still see the agreements as the best framework of negotiating to end the conflict. Firstly, what are, in your opinion, the main causes of the lack of progress of Minsk Agreements implementation? Secondly, do you see possible for Ukraine and Russia to negotiate-as Secretary of State Tillerson suggested-in a structure other than Minsk Agreements? Thirdly, may Mr Tillerson’s declarations signal that the US might be inclined to ease off requirements that Russia comply with the Minsk agreements?
Andrii Olefirov: I’ve already mentioned that Russia`s unwillingness to reverse its war on Ukraine`s sovereignty is the main obstacle to fulfill provisions of the Minsk agreements. Ukraine is ready to deliver on its part, including on political process as soon as Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine and Government regains control over the border. By efforts to incorporate illegal entities in Donbass into Russia`s economic system, Moscow deliberately ignites separatism under the pretext of federalization. Ukraine believes the Normandy format is optimal framework for dealing with Russia as it includes major European powers. New leadership in France demonstrated eagerness to push up the process of resolving the stalemate, facilitate Minsk implementation, but not at the expense of Ukraine, which already suffers economically from continuing occupation of its territories. I understand the comment of the Secretary of State in a way that nobody is interested in freezing the conflict and it would be beneficial to find lasting solution no matter what framework it takes to achieve it.
Also, I do not believe in direct negotiations with Russia. We have negative experience on that many times, be it gas dispute or restrictive trade measures against Ukrainian products. It is in Ukraine`s interest to solidify support among our international partners and coerce Russia to full implementation of Minsk agreements.
Vocal Europe: Referring to the 2014 crisis of power in Ukraine, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, declared in Oliver Stone’s film, “The Putin’s Interviews”: “Our European and American partners managed to mount this horse of public discontent and instead of trying to find out what was really happening they decided to support the coup d’état” . How would you address this narrative to an audience which is less-or even not- familiar with the events?
Andrii Olefirov: If I remember correctly, there were ample international coverage of the revolution of Dignity – popular uprising against incompetent corrupt authorities, which tried to make fools out of Ukrainian people. Excessive brutality of loyal riot police used against peaceful students and youth triggered the protest. It was grass root movement, which grew in geometrical progression with every day the regime ignored the legitimate demands to punish the culprits and continue country`s course towards European integration. There were no external influence whatsoever. People on Maidan mobilized themselves and withstand the pressure of oppression against democracy and human rights.
I understand Putin who defends Yanukovich as convenient puppet who would do whatever the Big Brother says on the issue of political orientation of Ukraine. In a way, Maidan was inevitable chain of events, triggered by the maturity of civil society and public activists at that time of development of a state. It would happen sooner rather than later taking into account response of pro-Russian leadership of the state to people`s legitimate demands.
Vocal Europe: There is a lot of growing controversy in the EU surrounding Gazprom’s-led pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, which is designed to bypass Ukraine. Aside the argument that Ukraine would lose nearly $ 2 billion in gas transit fees, in which other ways can the pipeline project be detrimental to Ukraine? Does Ukraine feel, in a way, “betrayed” by the stance taken by some EU Member States, which consider the project a purely commercial one? How does Ukraine see the European Commission’s proposal to seek a mandate from the Member States to negotiate with the Russia- within an intergovernmental agreement- a specific legal regime for the pipeline?
Andrii Olefirov: Ukraine position with regard to the Nord Stream 2 is clear-cut. This is not a commercial, but purely geopolitical project designed to divert gas flow through Ukraine. It contradicts philosophy of Ukraine-EU relations in the energy sphere. I just want to remind the situation we had in winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas supply to Europe via Ukraine altogether. We managed to substitute the amount of gas from our gas storage reserves. Does Europe want to be placed in the same situation by voluntarily providing Russia additional advantage over energy supply to the EU? In that sense, Nord Stream 2 is just another Russian political project aimed at diminishing transit importance of Ukraine and its strategic importance to the EU.
It is disappointing that several European companies do not see political implications being guided purely by commercial interests. It is particularly embarrassing to comprehend how Europe could allow this project to proceed with a partner, which is being sanctioned for flagrant violations of international law and armed aggression against another European state. Providing a mandate for negotiating intergovernmental agreement just delays the principal decision. On the other hand, direct opposition to the project from the side of Baltic and Central European states demonstrates clear differences within the EU. Additional pressure from more powerful members of the EU might be counterproductive in the long run and undermine the unity and coherence among the member states. I do not think it useful to promote the project when the EU itself is in rather difficult situation burdened by acute challenges like migration, terrorism or preserving social stability.
Vocal Europe: What is your opinion about the recent meetings between the Presidents Trump and Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg?
Andrii Olefirov: I perceive it as an ordinary high level meeting between the leaders. Undoubtedly, future developments of many world issues depend on how the relations between US and Russia will proceed with the new US Administration. Our major concern is how to stop Russian aggression against Ukraine, force Moscow to withdraw its forces form Ukraine and de-occupy Ukrainian territories taken by military force. Judging from the recent messages from Washington, we are hopeful that new Administration will continue to support Ukraine in its strive to regain territorial integrity and sovereignty within internationally recognized borders.