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Diplomatic efforts with Putin are futile

Interview with Borys Tarasyuk, Ukraine’s Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe. Interviewer: Vazha Tavberidze.

September 8, 2023 - Borys Tarasyuk Vazha Tavberidze - Interviews

Borys Tarasyuk. Photo: Private

VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: In any other circumstances, I would have chosen a different question to open with, but considering everyone is talking about this, let me ask you about Yevgeny Prigozhin’s presumed demise. Can this be seen as an impromptu gift on Ukraine’s independence day? Is it a good thing for Ukraine to happen, or does this mean Putin re-establishing his alpha male status in the Kremlin pack?

BORYS TARASYUK: Well, this is not our business. These are Russian problems, so let them cope with them. Prigozhin is not a hero for us – was not, is not, and he will not be. He brought a lot of destruction and death to the Ukrainian land. And he is not the one who is defining the present, past, and future of Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression.

Onto the main subject of our interview then – 32 years of Ukrainian independence. As you spent decades being an integral part of Ukraine’s foreign policy, and over the years, witnessed the country’s development, let me ask you this: the Ukraine of the 1990s and the Ukraine of today – what was this path like, where was Ukraine then and where it is now?

Well, Ukraine, in the 1990s was a republic, which was preparing for independence; for many decades, it was a country which was fighting for its independence during an entire century. In the 1990s Ukraine was a post-Soviet state, with remnants of Soviet management, a Soviet way of thinking and way of life. Today’s Ukraine is entirely different after 32 years. Ukraine has become the country with the highest degree of national identity in the world. It is a country with values which are common with European values, a country which values not only independence, but democracy. It is, well, a democratic country, with all the problems that entails. It is a country that stopped hesitating between Moscow and the West. This is the country which decided to be a full-fledged member of the European Union and NATO. The level of support from the society to this foreign policy is impressive – more than 80 per cent, sometimes 90 per cent. This has not always been the case. I remember in the 2000s, the level of support was around 30 per cent. Ukraine and Ukrainians are the nation that rediscovered its identity and are consolidated by common objectives and values. And this common objective is the victory against the aggressor state. And, for us, this is a very highly valued objective, to punish the aggressor. I see this as a historic mission of Ukraine, and we are aware that we are not only defending ourselves, we are defending the whole democratic world and the countries of Europe from the Russian threat. So this is a historic mission which Ukraine is now completing.

Speaking of history. Let’s do a bit of a historical retrospective – I don’t know whether you’ve seen it, but the recently declassified archival documents in the United Kingdom suggest that the British intelligence has been expecting Russia to try and seize Crimea for 30 years now. Curiously, they even mention meeting you in Kyiv to assess the risks of such developments. How did Ukraine, back then, manage to avoid the same path that befell Georgia and Moldova?

Since the beginning of the 1990s, we didn’t really expect Russia would tolerate an independent Ukrainian foreign policy. By the way, two Russian presidents had insisted and demanded my resignation – Yeltsin, who was not always stable; and later Putin So it was understandable for us that Russia would not tolerate the existence of an independent, democratic Ukraine, a prosperous Ukraine being an inseparable part of the democratic world. And we were witnessing, from the very beginning of the 1990s, attempts from Russia to try to create problems in Crimea. And let me remind you that this happened immediately after the restoration of independence, on the August 24th 1991, when we heard from a Russian spokesperson of Yeltsin that Ukraine should not dream of things like the inviolability of state borders. So this was a kind of a hint, to send a message to Ukraine that Ukraine is not going to be tolerated within the borders of 1991. We felt the tension in Crimea. Then there were subversive activities of Russian security forces already in the first half of the 1990s.

Taking this into account, our leadership took very effective, in my mind, measures against these subversive activities. We managed to establish a kind of special status for Crimea. We got rid of the so-called self-proclaimed Crimean president Yuri Meshkov. As a result, we established a stable status quo, more or less. At the same time, I felt it from the very beginning that it was a mistake on the Ukrainian part to agree to the basic rights of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territories, especially in Sevastopol. From my point of view, this was a time bomb for Ukraine, the existence and presence of Russian military on the territory of the Crimea. And finally, we witnessed that the subversive activity and the war of aggression started exactly from Crimea, where thousands of the Russian military were stationed. Of course, at that time, there were mistakes on the part of the political leadership of Ukraine. But this is another story. I think that this time bomb finally exploded in 2013, and then time was chosen after the Revolution of Dignity, which was a victory Ukrainian democracy, so the Russians came to the conclusion that it this was high time to attempt to seize Crimea. Now we understand that that their objective was not just Crimea but all of Ukraine. February 24th of last year proved it. I remember, back in the 1990s, one Russian politician saying that Russia will continue to try and impose control over Ukraine. That is what they were doing for these 32 years, until they finally came to this crazy and fatal decision, to start the full-fledged invasion.

I’ll definitely ask you about that fateful decision. But before that, let’s discuss another relict of 1990s; and that’s the Budapest Memorandum. You were directly involved in negotiations. Looking back now, in hindsight, was that a mistake? An oversight? Whatever it was, how fatal did it prove to be?

The beginning of the 1990s demonstrated that the major preoccupation of Washington was the de-nuclearisation of Ukraine. This was, in fact, one of the conditions for Ukraine to be recognised as an independent state by Washington. In the beginning of the 1990s, we happened to be confronting two major powers in conversations about Ukraine. In fact, we had no allies, we had no friends on the issue of nuclear weapons. Washington and Moscow were together pressing Ukraine to get rid of its nuclear stockpile. And this was one of the major conditions for Washington to have a normal relationship with Ukraine. Without Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons, Washington was not ready to come to terms with this reality. It was same for Russia. This meant that their strategic geopolitical objectives coincided and we were alone. Meanwhile the entire West at that time, in the first half of the 1990s, was pressing Ukraine, and we had to make a choice. Our choice was definitely not Moscow but Washington. From my point of view, the question for Ukraine was whether we maintained real independence from Russia or remained dependent on Russia while keeping our nuclear weapons. So, this was the dilemma for Ukraine at that time. We had no capacity to service nuclear weapons, all services were in Russia, all the lines of communication concerning the control over nuclear missiles on our territory were in Moscow. So, speaking about this, the choice was, well…

… not much of a choice?

Either we kept our independence, having the United States as our friend without nuclear weapons, or we kept insisting on having nuclear weapons on our territory, not controlling them and being dependent on Russia.

There is also this wordplay between “guarantees” and “assurances”. And on that there is a fascinating quote from the former deputy NATO’s Secretary General Rose Goettemoeller, who also was involved in negotiations, and she says that “though the Russian and Ukrainian versions of the agreement said ‘garantii,’ the English said ‘assurances’ and that all sides came to the same understanding that there were no guarantees”. That sounds something straight out of political satire.

From the very beginning the United States said that they would not manage to persuade the US Congress to sign a legally binding document [on guarantees]. And in this case, we faced the demand from the Ukrainian parliament to have guarantees. That is why we kept on insisting on the word “guarantee” and there was a strange kind of a compromise reached in the Ukrainian and Russian text, that the word guarantee would be used, and in the English version, the word “assurances” would be used. Of course, we understood the difference between assurances and guarantees, but this was a kind of compromise solution between us and the United States.

Onto the current matters then – the ongoing war. As a diplomat yourself, do you believe in this war ending through diplomatic efforts, through cutting a deal of sorts with Putin? What would that entail and what would it mean for Ukraine?

I do not believe that we will reach any agreements with Putin. As long as Putin is in power, it is impossible to find a solution. For us the only solution is to return to the borders of 1991. Is Putin ready [to agree] to this condition? No, he is not ready. Otherwise, he is going to lose power. So, the only way to reach our objective, to return to the borders of 1991, is through military means. Diplomatic efforts [with Putin] did not work and they happen to be futile.

What would you tell those, and there are quite a few of them, who claim that Ukraine will not win on the battlefield and its best chance is to cede some land in exchange for peace?

They have to understand that for Russia it will only mean a break from the war, until the time they accumulate more forces to continue with their aggression. Russia only understands force and power. The only solution is Russia either withdrawing from our territory or Ukraine continuing to fight. We do not consider that it would be wise to agree on a temporary ceasefire and allow Russians to keep the territories they have seized; this is not acceptable to us, to the Ukrainian people. We have to liberate all of our territory. Without this there will be no peace. A ceasefire may only lead to preparation by Russia for another war. We have to defuse the grenade, so to speak, that means making Russians understand that it there is no way to get control over Ukraine by military means.

Borys Tarasyuk is a Ukrainian politician who twice served as the Ukrainian foreign minister and is currently (since 2019) Ukraine’s permanent representative to the Council of Europe.

Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The TimesThe SpectatorThe Daily BeastIWPR and New Eastern Europe.

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