112 Ukraine TV channel’s Elina Beketova talked to Steven Pifer, United States Ambassador to Ukraine in 1998 – 2000.
The series of interviews 112 International Insight introduces the viewpoint of influential Western experts, who are the source of a new, fresh point of view, different from the one of the Ukrainian experts, who usually comment on the current situation.
Mr. Pifer, today we recall the most significant decisions of Ukraine. You were involved in drafting the Budapest Memorandum. If Ukraine left the nuclear weapons, what would have happened?
“It is always difficult what would be in alternative history. But I think had Ukraine decided to keep neclear weapons in early 1990-s, there would be both the political and economic costs. It would be very hard to see the development of the strategic partnership with United States, the creation of Gore-Kuchma bilateral commission, I don't think that would have happened. I also suspect that Ukraine would not have been able to develop strong relationship either with NATO or with the European Union. It might not be seen much as North Korea, but it would be seen sort of in the same group. It would be the economic consequences. I think, if Ukraine had tried to keep nuclear weapons, there would be a lot of reluctance on the part of the West to support International Monetary fund and world bank programs for Ukraine. I can understand in Ukraine, believe me, I can understand people me are sometimes questioning on this decision back in 1994, to give up nuclear weapons. But I think, had Ukraine tried to keep those weapons, there would evolve some significant cost for Ukraine.”
Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from Russia and the West. Does Kyiv have reasons to feel after annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Eastern part of Ukraine?
“We talked about it, we were very explicit on that in our conversations with Ukraine, back in 1994. We were talking about security assurances, not security guarantees. And that word has importnant meaning in English. Because to an American, "guarantee" implies like a NATO article 5 commitment. And we were very clear with Ukrainian government that we were not prepared to provide that. Now having said that I was critical of the Obama administration, and I think that should have done two things with the Budapest memorandum after Russia illegally seized Crimea and then sponsored the conflict on Donbass. One was the administration should have talked more about the Budapest memorandum. Because that answers the question - that one hears from American sometimes, "Why should we care about Ukraine?" And I say, "The Budapest memorandum explains that we care about Ukraine because in 1994 Ukraine did something that was very importnant for the United States, at agreed to give up almost 2000 nuclear weapons. The second concern would be why I think the Obama was supportive of Ukraine, it could and should have done more. One issue that I was pushing on - Obama administration should have agreed to provide with some military assistance to Ukraine.”
But right now what can Ukraine do with this Budapest memorandum? Can it appeal to it? Because as you said security assurances are not guarantees.
“The agreement itself doesn't have the specific mechanisms other than consultation mechanism. And unfortuntately in 2014 when Ukraine invoked that and the Russian refused to particiapte, just one more violation by the Russians of their commitments under the Budapest memorandum. And.... so how to change the Russian approach and attitude, I'm not sure how we bring the Budapest memorandum back into the force unfortunately.”
So, basically right now it is just a document but we can't appeal to it?
“I think Ukraine can and certainly Ukraine has certain moral authority to cite a Budapest memorandum. But there is nothing in the memorandum that I can see will automatically solves the problem of the Russia's conflict with Ukraine at this point. I will continue to argue - that I think because of the budapest memorandum countries as US and Great Britain gave a significant ammount of political and another support to Ukraine.”
How then restore the territoral integrity of Ukraine? If it is not the Budapest memorandum? What are other documents that can help Ukraine to restore it?
“Well, there are lots of documents that supported Ukraine's sovereignty, territoral integrity, and independence. The United Nations Charter, 1975 Helsinki Final Act, agreements that Russia reached bilateral with Ukraine including in the treaty that on friendship cooperation that Ukraine signed back in 1997. The problem is that the Russians have violated all of those commitments. We need to find some way to persuade Moscow to come back into compliance with all that arrangements and that have been very difficult.”
In one of your interviews you said that when Ukraine gave it its nuclear weapons, the Ukrainian-American relationship became better. And you call it like "the golden age" of the relationship. Is it really true?
“If you go back and look at the period from 1995 to 1998, you saw significant development in the US-Ukrainian relationship. You saw in 1996 the declaration of the strategic partnership between Washington and Kyiv, the creation of commission shared by Vice president Gore and president Kuchma, that was designed to bring problem issues to a senior level for resolution. You saw American support at NATO for establishing a NATO-Ukraine relationship and if you go back, you saw a very supportive American attitude at the International monetary fund, and the world bank in terms of supporting Ukraine. So there was a lot going on that relationship and the relationship expanded to new areas - things like for example space cooperation. We had the commercial space launch agreement with Ukraine, so there was a very positive period and had Ukraine chosen to keep nuclear weapons, my guess is that most of that would not have happened. Likewise the Ukrainian decision to keep nuclear weapons would also been a huge obstacle to Ukraine's desire to develop closer relationship with the countries of western Europe, including Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Poland and other. That was a dilema for Ukraine. On the one hand Ukrainian government understood that nuclear weapons confirmed a certain degree of security, but I think holding of that weapons would have been a major road block to Ukraine's development of relationships with the West. There is one of the questions that is very importnant to remember is that a lot of the infrastructure for maintaining nuclear weapons was not located in Ukraine. And in order to build that infractructure, to maintain independent nuclear weapons capability, the cost to Ukraine would run to billions of dollars at a time when Ukraine was at a very difficult financial situation.”
Lets get back to the current events. What to expect from James Mattis visit to Ukraine? May be you know him personally?
“I've had one conversation with Secretary Mattis, I'm very impressed by the person, he has two nicknames – one that President Trump said as "Mad dog" but to me the other nickname "The Warrior Monk" - this is somebody who studies, he is a scolar of not just military theory, dimpomacy and how military force can be used to achieve political goals. And I think he was the excellent choice of the President Trump to be Secretary of Defense. I think it is important that secretary Mattis is there, because it is a very strong signal of the American political support for Ukraine – both for Ukraine per say but also for Ukraine which now faces military agression from the point of Russia. I'm glad to see that he is there, just as I'm glad to see that there are a lot of NATO countries who have representatives taking part in the parade to mark independecy in Kyiv.”
We know that Kurt Volker is also here in Ukraine. How do you think what their visits show to the rest of the world?
“It's an american political support for Ukraine and its struggle against Russia. The president's ambassador volker – that’s a good opportunity for him to show with the Ukrainian officials. There is also these conversations with Mr. Surkov, that took place on Monday. And that is one thing that the US government wants to do which is the right thing, is to be very transparent with Ukraine, about conversations that take place between American and Russian officials that concerned Ukraine.”
Is there a chance that Ukraine will get the lethal defensive military aid from the States and what will it give to Ukraine?
“I have supported going back from almost three years now, the United States providing some of the miltary asistance to Ukraine. It is interesting to me that you've seen open talk by senior American officials, about these questions. For example, Ambassador Volker has mentioned his support for it. About a month and a half ago. The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress that both US-European command that’s the command of all American miltary forces in Europe and the Joint chief of staff supported providing the lethal assistance to Ukraine. My sense is that within the US government there is widespread support for taking that step. But this is gonna be a presidential decision. At least my understanding a week ago the president had not acted on this question.”
How do you think should Ukraine be upset if the US wont give the lethal weapons to Ukraine?
“If you look over the last few years, the Ukrainian military has made significant progress in terms of becoming much more coherent and capable fighting force. The need for lethal American asistant may not be as great as it was 3 years ago, I still think that it is gonna be the important political gesture to Ukraine. And again we are talking about things and gaps in Ukrainian capabilities... When I was in Ukraine over 2 years ago, what we heard from the Ukrainian military, was one such gap was anti-armour weapons which are importnant giving the ammount of tanks and armoured personnel carriers that the Russians are putting into the Donbass. So that would make some sense. Again I think the US will take that step. And we will see i hope soon that the US isa going to take this step but as far as i know no decisions yet have been made.”
Speaking about parade by the Independence Day... 10 military units from different countries will participate, 9 of which are NATO members. How do you think, when will it be real for Ukraine to join NATO?
“I think that is a hard question answer. I have supported NATO and Ukraine trying to get closer together back in 2008. I testified the congress that Ukraine made the membership action plan with NATO. But I don't think it's a right course to pursue for Ukraine now. The problem Ukraine has right now with NATO - there is no enthusiasm for putting Ukraine on a fast track to a membership. And the reason why it is obvious - if Ukraine joins NATO tomorrow, NATO immediately has an Article 5 contingency against Russia, and NATO countries are not prepared to go on war with Russia over Ukraine. What I would argue for Ukraine - put a ide talk about Membership action plan, but basically do practical cooperation with NATO. It is interesting to me the Russians dont like the membership action plan. But Ukraine has had with NATO for years now action plans. Basically, do a lot of things but just call it not an action plan. This is one thing over the last 20 years. Ukraine hasn't done well as it could do, which is the implementation of the plan. I remember when I was in Ukraine in the end of 1990-s, I actually asked our ambassador of NATO to come to Kyiv for a couple of days, and talk to Ukrainian diplomatic and military officials, about the problem which was the weak implementation. My imporession was that Ukraine has much more to implement. There are a lot of things Ukraine can do on regular actions plan that would make the country better prepared for trying closer to NATO if the opportunity becomes politically possible. In some future point.”
I have just read your Twitter and you are writing about Normandy format leaders that they agree new ceasefire. Are you skeptical about this new ceasefire and what do you think about Minsk agreement? Does it still work?
“I would like to see nothing more than a ceasefire take hold. But I've lost track of how many ceasefires have been agreed, since Feb 2015 and they have not taken off. On the one hand, it seems to me that the Minsk agreement is the only Solomon plan on the table, though we cannot abandon it. But having said that unfortunately, Minsk has not been implemented, and I believe the responsibility lies mainly with Moscow. As far as I can tell - the Russians actually prefer the current situation when there is a conflict in Donbass, and it allows the Russian government to put this pressure on Kyiv to make it harder for the government to do the necessary reforms. I don't think Minsk has a chance to succeeding until there is a fundamental change of course in Moscow, and the Russians want to see Minsk succeeding. And that makes it difficult for Ukraine. But if you look what happened in 2,5 years, since the second Minsk agreement, you haven't seen the Russians move to implement those agreements in the straightforward way.”
If it is not the Minsk agreement, should there be any other document? Or what are the methods to make Russia implement it?
“Well, there is a couple of things - I don't think, people should abandon Minsk cause it is the only proposal on the table. On the other hand, if there is another route, another agreement that gets you to the settlement for conflict on Donbass, that is acceptable to Ukraine, again I wouldn't be tying myself so derectly to Minsk. So the question is how you underfining and how you come with a solution that allows Ukraine to restore sovereignty and territorial intergrity. That's the question. Now at this point and time it seems to me that it's not going to happen, untill the Russians decide to change their course. Things that can be done is the West can continue to maintain the political pressure on Ukraine, I think, its important and this is positive thing one may not have expected ten months ago, or nine months ago when Donald Trump was elected the President. But continuing the sanctions on Russia, to put economic pressure on Russia, to make clear that there is going to be the price Russia have to pay for this violation of the rules of the European security order. And hopefully the combination of pressure, and at some point the Russians beginning to see that their current policy is not leading to the successful course, will Russians change course. Having said that, I'm disappointed, I was hopeful that the sanctions might have had a ruining impact on Russia. Unfortunately I can't point to say the sanctions have caused Russians to change their course in a dramatic way, although I do think that there is a good chance that the sacntions kept the Russians from perhaps doing even more agressive actions against Ukraine.
You said that Ukraine needs much more to implement, may be you can tell top three reforms that Ukraine has already done during these 26 years and what are they
“Let's separate this issues, what I mean. With NATO a lot of the reforms have to do with military changes, but also NATO is not only the defense alliance, it’s also the alliance of shared values, So often for NATO country it is the political and economic reforms, which are also very important. And I think, Ukraine has made significant progress, since the Maidan revolution, in 2014. But there is a sense in the West that Ukraine has not moved as far as it could. For example, in tackling corruption issues, in terms of reforming the judicial system, in terms of privatizing state enterprises. And here I worry a little bit that if Ukraine does not keep pushing and I understand that for the government of Ukraine - political and economic reform when there is a war going on on Donbass is hard. But the government has to do both. Otherwise I fear you may see the support for Ukraine in the west begin to erode. If people become concerned that reform is not being pushed as quickle and agressively as it should be pushed.”
If we are talking about the achievemnts, the main achievements of Ukraine during these 26 years, what can you name?
“I think, Ukraine basically has build a prolistic democratic system, where with a few exceptions, you had elections now are largely free and fair, they are probably the best elections in any of the post-soviet states, possible exception are the Baltic states. Thats an achievement, an important achievement, when you look at elections in Ukraine – you can not predict sometimes who is going to win. And that is important. I think, Ukraine has made some progress, on the economic side, in getting its financing in order. The steps which I know were difficult politically and are inpopular in terms of raising the tariffs for electricity and heat for households. But that was necessary to reduce a huge expense that the government was paying to subtitize. A lot has been done. But Ukraine hasn't yet done the final steps to get a critical mass of reforms in place that would allow the process to become really soft generating. That would trigger growth rates of 5-6 % a year that would see Ukraine really begin to close the gap with some of the ecnomies in the Central Europe.”