You are a team leader of the Ukrainian election task force. Can you tell more about this initiative? How will you help to fight with a possible interference in the Ukrainian elections?
This is a project of the Atlantic Council, the Pinchuk foundation, the Transatlantic Commission on the electoral integrity. And 3 organizations together believe that this is important to try to expose any outside interference in Ukraine’s upcoming elections. The election is an important one as every election is. And given the history, recent history, both this country has had, other countries had, including my country - the United States have had with outside interference, we feel it’s important to do what we can to expose this interference - to possible try to disrupt the elections, create an unstable environment, support some candidates, oppose other candidates. The goal should be for Ukrainians to be able to choose their president freely, without outside interference. And what we want to do is to bring attention to this problem. Because what happens here also is important for the United States, and for the rest of Europe.
Why is it important for the rest of the world?
We have, ourselves, experienced in 2016 and a little less so last month with our congressional elections. Unprecedented for us, interference by Russia, in our 2016 presidential election. Americans should be able to choose their own leader without any influence and interference from outside. Ukrainians should be able to choose their leaders, Germans. There has been a number of examples where we have seen in particularly the Kremlin, though its agencies, trying to interfere and influence the electoral process, as well as the outcome of the elections. And a key element, a central element of democratic development is the ability to choose leaders freely, without outside influence. The goal of our project is to expose any influence from outside. And while we are looking at any interference as it might come, we anticipate the extended core that will come unfortunately from Russia…
If we are talking about the outside interference, do we talk about Russia or some other countries?
If other countries try to interfere with election, we will certainly look at that and expose it. There is, unfortunately, a proven track record that Russia has of interfering another countries elections. As I have mentioned, including in my country – the United States, we have seen it in Germany we even see it outside of the electoral processes – where the Kremlin is weighing on the yellow vests protests in France. They weigh in on issues that are divisive in countries. For example, there were the protests in August 2017 in Charlottesville Virginia, that drew ultra-nationalists and neo-nacists and the Kremlin weighed in the social media trying to influence the debate to steer up controversy and this is something that shouldn’t be allowed. So what we want to do is to expose it when it happens, and we will have a dashboard that will provide the information about this efforts, there will be a website devoted to it, (ukraineelections.org) This is not only the American effort – this is an American and European and Ukrainian effort. We have European partners, we have Ukrainian partners in this. This is really a multinational effort to keep an eye on the elections.
If we are talking about the practical side, what will it be – will you tell about possible cases of interference in the elections, about propaganda, about fake news?
The idea will be to bring attention to expose cases of the outside interference. We are not going to get involved in domestic squabbles, disagreements between candidates, that’s for the Ukrainians to figure out. What we want to do is to source any efforts that go from outside of the country. The dashboard will be updated on the regular basis, we will issue very regular newsletters that will be sent by email. People of course can go on website and get the information as well, the idea is not to wait until after the elections is over and then produce a report. That’s too late. What we want to do is to try to expose any efforts to interfere from outside more or less when it happens. It won’t be immediate. But we want to be as quick as possible. We want to verify the information that we find out. We want to make sure we are accurate in what we report, so that the proper authorities and individuals can take the necessary measures to try to distill the information.
What can be the system of punishments if these cases are revealed? Maybe new sanctions against Russia?
Well, it goes a little beyond of what the project is designed. Obviously, we are not in the position to punish anyone. We don’t have an ability to sanction anyone, we are not the part of the government effort, we are a private independent entity, the Atlantic Council is a very respected think tank in Washington. We want to educate not only Ukrainians about cases of interference; we also want to educate people in the rest of Europe. We want to educate people in the United States. – if it happens – interference in Ukraine, and then the governments and parliaments can take whatever measures if they feel it warns some sort of actions.
Why do you think these elections are important for Ukraine? What is the overall perception of the election campaign and candidates in the United States? Do the US have any favorites?
I don’t think we pick favorites. In the United States, we support the democratic process – the free and fair electoral environment, where candidates have equal opportunities to reach out to voters. We want to make sure there no abusive administrative resources, we want to make sure candidates are able to get on air, equal basis, and we want to make sure this is done domestically, not based from influence from outside. So the united states is not interested in picking favorites one or another, but we are interested in focusing on the process to make sure that Ukraine – once again Ukraine does have a good history of elections where they are conducted fairly. One of the nice things about Ukraine is that we don’t know who is going to win.
We don’t know either.
And there are some countries including Russia, where the outcome of elections is known before people go and vote. In this country, the beauty is we actually don’t know who is going to win and vote. So voting matters and that why Ukrainians have to vote on March 31. And then next fall for the parliamentary elections, because their votes do actually matters and could decide the outcome of the elections.
The U.S. Senate condemned Russia’s actions in Kerch Strait – there was the following resolution. The European parliament adopted the same resolution. Will there be any sanctions against Russia for what it’s done in the Azov Sea?
I think, if the situation would have escalated, then we would likely see some sanction activity from Europe, the EU, and United States. The United States has a warship – it’s going to the black sea, I don’t know whether it had been a plan before or is it a reaction to what happened in late November. But it’s an important signal, that NATO in the US will insist on free navigation that is on agreement dating back to 2003 between Russia and Ukraine, dealing with the Sea of Azov, and what happened was the violation of that and international law, and freedom of navigation in this open seas, And Russia needs to understand that if it would do something like that again, it would trigger serious reaction in the West. I would say, that a West could have acted a little more forcefully in this occasion, but I think the West has put Russia on the notice that if another incident like this happen – things may get worse. If the Ukrainian sailors, who had been detained, 24, and would be not returned soon, it’s possible that it could trigger more sanctions. The US has been insisting on release of these prisoners, and they were detained for no reason, and we want to make sure that they will be returned to their families, and aloud to return to their positions.
What is the deadline for these actions? If the sailors are not returned to Ukraine, the ships. Should there be more harsh actions from West?
I don’t know whether there is a specific deadline that western governments have put for it., but I will say that the new congress of U.S. with the democratic house, the senate will stay republican will start in early January, and I could imagine that this new congress will push the trump administration to take more forceful actions, and imposing additional sanctions because of this situation.
What do you think about the possibility to close access to the EU ports for Russian ships coming from the Azov Sea until Russia resumes free navigation through the Kerch Strait and in the Azov Sea? Will it be affective?
I think, it’s a proper step to take. There should be consequences for what happened. I mean this is very fortunate that no one was killed in this incident, there were several sailors who were injured. And there are 24 who had been deprived of their freedom, who are facing an unfortunate situation in Russia so I do think that there should be some consequences what happened we shouldn't just put this aside and pretend it never happened the same let's get back to businesses this is an example of an ongoing aggression by Russia against Ukraine starting in Crimea with illegal annexation by Russia of Crimea, continuing into the Donbass. And it is not a frozen conflict, this is a hot conflict, with Ukrainians being injured, tragically on a number of occasions, being killed as a result of Russian aggression. This is not a civil war, this is not a separatist conflict, this is Russian aggression against Ukraine and that needs to be clear to people around the world.
If the western world doesn’t reply to these actions of the Russian Federation, what can be the consequences and what countries are at the risk?
We have seen the reports of a military built up of Russian forces along the border of Ukraine, while I'm not gotten the sense during the week that I’ve been here, that Russian forces are about to cross the line and invade further. If we on the west don’t show the strong position, show result, and push back against Russian violation of international norms, we can expect that there will be more violence. And no one should wanna see it. Unfortunately, Mr. Putin is not interested in seeing successful Ukraine and seeing the democratic Ukraine, Ukraine that moves closer towards integration with Euro-Atlantic community. He is interested in destabilizing the situation here, and that is something that is not on our interest, but of course, not in Ukraine’s interest. And we should do everything we can to try to support and help Ukraine on its democratic trajectory.
There was an interview of Kurt Volker to Voice of America, and when asked about cutting Russian banks from SWIFT – he replied
"People refer to it as a nuclear option. It would have costs for everybody involved. Big costs for Russia, but big costs for allies as well. Ultimately, we have to keep it on the table as a possibility because we just can't continue to see Russia launch further steps of aggression in its neighborhood like this." Will it be ever done?
Expelling Russia from swift Is not something the US alone can do. We would also take EU to support that step. I strongly believe we should not rule out anything that is telegraphing to Putin what our limits are in terms of our response to Russian aggression. So, I think, we should keep every option on the table. No one wants wider conflict with Russia in the military sense of course. But if Russian aggression continuing and escalated, then we should consider the possibility of Swift. There is no question whether the Russian government has referred to that as a nuclear option, but my view is that it wouldn’t been on consideration if Russia got out of Ukraine. This is not a complicated conflict in my view. I realize the solution is not easy. But it Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russian forces have to get out of Ukraine and if they do – there is a possibility that sanctions could be lifted. And things could more or less return to normal. 16.02 There is also the possibility that Nord Stream 2 could be canceled. There is growing opposition to Nord Stream 2 in Europe as well as in the United States. And there is more and more pressure coming from both the Congress and the trump administration. To urge Germany to cancel this project. And this will be the consequence of what this country is doing to Ukraine. Nord stream 2 is not commercially viable. There is no real reason for this. And of course, it would hurt Ukraine because it will reduce the transit fee Ukraine depends on. There are number of things that we can do to impose costs on the Kremlin.
There were 2 resolutions – of the European Parliament and the Senate, about the cancellation of this construction. And according to this resolution of the European Parliament, it is seen as "a political project that poses a threat to European energy security". But other than very important statements, will we see any actions?
There has been talks about the sanctioning of the entities that would be involved in the construction of the pipeline, or those who are involved in the actual flow of the energy. I hope, it doesn’t come to that. I think it underscores that there is a growing opposition to that pipeline and now with a German political situation, perhaps a little bit stabilizing, it had been, I hope, we will see the German leadership deciding that this pipeline is not in the interest of anyone. Except of Kremlin frankly. It seems to me that we need to remind everyone, that the construction of the pipeline will damage Ukraine, it would increase Europe’s dependence on Russia for energy, and would only feed on the corruption that Putin depends on for exporting to the outside world.
But sanctions for this?
I don’t rule it out. I hope there is no need for that, but it if pipeline continues and there is no sign that it would be suspended and then terminated, I think sanctions are a possibility in this case.
Speaking about NATO, we heard important statements this week. President Poroshenko met with Stoltenberg, NATO will be keeping an eye on the situation in the Azov Sea, and Ukraine supports the idea of opening a mission of the alliance in the Azov Sea. How could it be possible?
It would be tricky because of the 2003 agreement that would require neutral consent to this case, but Russia already violated that 2003 agreement, I think its important for it to reinform its support for Ukraine. In 2008 as you know Ukraine in the declaration on the Bucharest summit declared that Ukraine and Georgia will become the NATO members. It didn’t say when, but what is particularly ironic is that popular support for Ukraine in joining NATO back in 2008 and up until early 2014, was very law, after Putin invasion of Ukraine, support for NATO membership has gone considerably, and some polls I’ve seen as 70%. Putin in a way has united Ukraine on this issue more than any Ukrainian leader, and Ukrainians I think understand, that NATO membership would provide security guarantees under the article 5 of the NATO charter, and they feel that they would be safer, that’s why Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania wanted to join and the new members wanted to join, article 5 securities guarantees – give them the sense of reassurances against the resumption of the possible threat coming from Moscow. And my view is Ukraine should be treated no differently, simply because it borders Russia should now mean that Russia has a de facto veto of Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. There was no immediacy to Ukraine joining NATO in 2008, or 2014-2015. The issue is as you know in 2013, was about Ukraine signing the agreement with the European Union, it wasn’t about NATO, I think we have to keep in mind that a result of what happened in 2013-2014, was actually increase, in Ukrainian support for joining NATO, as well as libertize with European Union.
Speaking of Ukraine and chances to become a NATO member, you know that we have all these aspirations marked in the constitution, what will help – this or continuing Russian aggression?
It’s a combination of things. Its continuation of reforms, that Ukraine needs to undertake. It’s the fight against corruption which remains the critical things. It is reduction of dependency on energy which Ukraine makes progress on, it includes control of the military by civilians. Ukraine already well exceeds the 2 percent of threshold spending of GDP on defense. Which is because of the situation with Russia. Ukraine has made a significant progress. You think about the situation the current government, the current leadership inherited from the previous administration which made a mess situation in this country. It reversed its intention to sign the agreement with EU, massive corruption on the Yanukovych regime. Corruption remains a problem – I don’t want to suggest that it is gone away, not at all, but this is an issue that needs to be addressed. The prospect of the membership in both the European Union and NATO has been a very important incentive, for other countries to undertake difficult reforms. Ukraine in this case is no different. So, for Poland, Chezh Republic, Hungary, the prospect of returning to Europe, belonging in Europe, its not a different thing for Ukraine.
In December, Ukraine called on the signatory states of the Budapest Memorandum to hold urgent consultations, according to a statement released by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. Why is Budapest memorandum just a paper and when Ukraine had Russian aggression, the countries that signed didn’t help?
My own personal view is that Budapest memorandum is a very important document, it is not a treaty, it hasn’t been ratified, by Europe, parliament, my Congress, but in exchange of the guarantees that were provided other than Budapest memorandum, by the UK, Russia, US, Ukraine agreed to relinquish its nuclear weapons, that it had inherited from the Soviet period. And that was an enormously important development. Because it meant the reduction of the nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan and Belarus turned out the nuclear weapons but they didn’t have the similar kind of memorandum. Russia of course violated the Budapest memorandum, but because we were signatories, I feel that the United States, along with the United Kingdom, have an extra responsibility to try to press for restoration of the Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Again, its not a treaty, it didn’t go with an article 5 of security like you would find in NATO membership, but it had enormous consequences, because you no longer have the nuclear weapon, as a result of it, and it made for a safer world, in 1994 until 2014 when your world has become much more complicated and less safe, because of the Russia invasion. So, I think for us, we have an extra obligation to apply pressure on Moscow to get out of Ukraine. And as I say, it is not a complicated story – Russia needs to leave Ukraine alone. And let Ukraine to choose its own orientation. As provided under the charter in Paris. Which provides for countries to choose their own orientation.
If we are talking about the practical side, if there will be any type of urgent consultation of the signatory states of the Budapest memorandum, what will it give to Ukraine?
Well, we’ve already seen support for Ukraine, coming through specific actions of the current administration and the previous administration. The current administration I think has done a right thing, what the president Obama refused to do when I noted him for this. He refused to provide leaf of military assistance to Ukraine, the Trump administration has agreed to do so. Our providing missiles, antitank weapons, are important militarily as well as symbolically. Because they show that the United States is not stepping in, to fight Ukraine’s battle for it, but it is providing support and the recognition that Ukraine has a right to defend itself and it needs means by which to do so. There is a talk about the possibility to provide antiship missiles as a result of the incident in the Azov Sea, anti-aircraft missiles if needed, None of this would be talked about. None of this would be on consideration if Russia left Ukraine alone. It is only being discussed and considered because of Russia’s invasion. I do think we have an obligation to help Ukraine defend itself. Ukraine is on the frontline, it is in the heart of Europe, it is facing the major threat from its East and helping Ukraine means we are also helping ourselves.
You were the President of Freedom House from October 2010 to November 2014. Speaking about freedom of speech and media in Ukraine, maybe you’ve heard of it – in October - Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada recommended the National Security and Defense Council to impose sanctions against companies included in the holdings of the 112 Ukraine and NewsOne TV channels, to cut a long story short – it leads to closing of the channels. After it, the channel turned for help to international organizations and European parliamentarians, and there was an official statement from Federika Mogherini that EU will be monitoring the situation of freedom of expression and media in Ukraine. What is a balance of media pluralism? We provide a place where different politicians gather and their thought may not be agreed by other people
Diversity is important when it comes to the role of the media. The media in any democratic societies play a critical role and act as a checking balance against the government. The media has a responsibility to report the truth, to report information that citizens need to know. They also can provide analysis and opinion. if you look at other countries including my own country you would see the wide spectrum of media outlets - some that lean to the right, some that lean to the left, someone that support the current administration, that are critical of current administration, the key is I think to let viewers/readers decided what they want to watch, I would distinguish between local domestic media outlets and things like RT, Sputnik.
It’s a different thing…
Those are not media organizations…they are not journalists who work there.
These are propaganda machines.
Precisely. They are propaganda machines. And people who work for them are propaganda, they are not journalists. I actually don’t have a problem banning people who work for RT, Sputnik or things like this. Or channel 1 in Moscow. They are with Russia, not by your choice, by theirs. And number 2 – they are not coming here to try to report the news on the objective basis. They are here to try to make additional problems for you. I think, its important to distinguish between the role the outside players play and the role of domestic entities and there are maybe a wide spectrum of they use it wrong as a result.
You are an expert on Ukraine/Russia, you’ve been here many times – do you see the changes – what are the top 3 victories of Ukraine during the last 3-5 years?
It was very critical of the Yanukovych regime when I was in the freedom house as you indicated. We produced 2 special reports on the situation in Ukraine. Beyond the annual reports that we do about assessing freedom around the world. And the titles of them were called signing the alarm – we were alarmed by the direction Ukraine was taking under Yanukovych, and I think that changing government has provided Ukraine with more orientation with the West, you have signed the agreements with the EU as the result of his departure, deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, association agreement, there is much more interaction between Ukraine and the European Union, there is much stronger agreement in place with the IMF, you have deeper tights with NATO, as a result, you’ve reduced energy subsidies as a result, there have been a number of reforms in banking, health care situation, well, still needs more reform. But it is much better now than it’s been before.
But one of the challenges that you face is you have the territory that occupied from Crimea into the Donbas. So, that’s the challenge that remains. Ukraine has put a brave fight to push back against Russian aggression in the east and that I think have to continue until Putin decides to respect your country sovereignty and territorial integrity. Here is indicated that nothing will happen until the elections are over. Plural. I think he means not just the presidential elections in March, but Rada elections next fall. I hope, we don’t have to wait that long. Because every day people are suffering as a result of this conflict. As I said before, there were good elections in 2004, the second round was not a good election. Local elections in 2010 were not very good either. But you have had peaceful transfers of power and transitions, no one knows who is going to win the elections next March. That’s a good thing.
You have come to Ukraine when it has martial law in action in some of the regions. How was it perceived in the US – as a necessity or as a political step?
There are two important issues, one is what triggered the preceded of martial law – and that was Russian aggression in the Azov Sea. And this is very important to understand what Russia did and not get distracted by what happened with a martial law here. But the martial law was also important because it had not been declared previously, from 2014 until the present. Initially, you know that it has started as a 60-day martial law that got reduced to 30 days. It was going for the whole country then it was in 10 regions along with the border with Russia. And it took from what I’ve heard this week – 2 days to sign it. I only have been in Kyiv this time, I haven’t traveled outside. I don’t see a major change as a result of martial law, that was announced. It’s due to expire in about another 15-16 days, I think it has been a good test for the country, the fact that the Rada made clear that it will not lead to a postponing of the election campaign, that was I think a very important thing. To me, the best way for Ukraine to show the Russian interference whether it’s from hybrid attacks, from disinformation, from military activity, or other kinds of efforts, will not distract Ukraine from conducting election. Ukraine will stay on the democratic path, there will be the election that will take place that will term in the next president. And I think it’s the best answer of Ukraine to Putin’s efforts to interfere with this country. Because you will then be able to show no matter what you do – we are determined to stay on the democratic path to integrate with Europe. And hopefully soon get Russian troops out of your country.
Thank you for the interview.