Yatsenyuk: Azov Sea tensions reveal lack of cooperation between Ukraine and NATO

Arseniy Yatsenyuk on 27 November 2018, speaking to Georgi Gotev. [Handout photo]

In a long-ranging interview, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine Arseniy Yatsenyuk discussed the Azov Sea tensions and the upcoming elections in Ukraine. He reveals that he will probably run next time, giving a chance to Petro Poroshenko to be re-elected.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk served as Prime Minister of Ukraine immediately after the Maidan revolution (27 February 2014 to 14 April 2016, when he was replaced by Volodymyr Groysman. In September 2014, he started the new party People’s Front, which now has 81 MPs out of 450. His political force seeks EPP affiliation.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Georgi Gotev on 27 November in Brussels.

The tensions in the Azov Sea are very high in the world news, and your country’s parliament has imposed martial law. Seen from Brussels, all this happened out of the blue. Probably this perception is wrong?

Definitely, this perception is entirely wrong. It came out of the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian troops in 2014, it came out of the invasion of the Russian military forces and pro-Russian proxies deployed in Donetsk and Lugansk, when Russia started the invasion in the East of Ukraine. It came out of the MH17 that was shot down by a Russian missile in 2014, it came out after Russia launched full offensive operations against Ukraine.

At the initial stage Russia’s idea was to take the whole of Ukraine, when they illegally annexed Crimea and when they sent troops to Donetsk and Lugansk. President Putin expected that he will cross the Ukrainian territory on a red carpet. He didn’t expect a strong resistance of the Ukrainian people against the Russian army and the Russian proxies. Initially his plan was to take over Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk, Mariupol, and I want to reiterate: Mariupol…

… because it’s Ukraine’s largest port city on the Azov Sea.

Absolutely, and that’s one of the key industrial areas in Ukraine. Then to have a corridor, they call it, to take Mariupol, then Kherson, then Odessa, and to link it to Transnistria. This was the initial plan crafted by Putin’s administration and his FSB. And they decided to go back to this initial idea a few days ago.

Why a few days ago? The Russians built a bridge to link their mainland to Crimea. Probably they decided this when they started building the bridge…

A few days ago, they decided to escalate the tension. Ukraine started to build a naval base in the Azov Sea, to protect Ukrainian ships. You are well aware that Russia started blocking the transportation of cargo, not only via Ukrainian ships, but around 50 ships under different flags, including from EU countries. They decided to show their military strength on the one hand, and on the other hand the decision was to isolate Mariupol, to trigger social and political unrest, and in this way to destabilise the entire Ukraine ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Mariupol is the city with the second largest wages in Ukraine, after Kyiv. By destabilising Mariupol the idea was to send shockwaves across Ukraine. The way they did it was a copycat scenario of what they did in 2014 in Crimea. They sent a cargo boat under the Kerch bridge and in this way they blocked the Kerch strait, and then they sent their military vessels to block the Ukrainian military. I want to be very clear about the way this happened.

We have a notorious treaty between Ukraine and Russia, which makes the Azov Sea a sea for domestic usage. In advance, Ukrainian naval forces informed Russians that Ukrainian naval vessels will cross the Kerch strait. Ukrainian intel intercepted communications between the Russian naval forces and Russian commanders. The Russian ministry of the interior even aired the footage from the Russian naval force that is now on social media, when the Russian commander of the naval vessel gave the order to ram a Ukrainian practically civil boat – this was a tugboat. This was a premeditated, pre-orchestrated escalation, ordered by the highest ranking commanders of the Russian Federation, including President Putin. Because in this intercepted communication Putin has been mentioned “the President knows”.

In these circumstances the President asked Parliament to impose a martial law. We have come to an agreement that this martial law should be limited to just 30 days and the area where it is applied is limited only to the neighbouring areas to the Russian Federation and to Transnistria, where Russian forces are deployed. And the Parliament supported the bill.

Does martial law mean that some rights and freedoms will be limited, press freedom for example?

The President was very vocal yesterday, addressing the parliament. I do not expect any limitation of civil rights and liberties.

But what the impact of martial law on elections could be? Is there a risk that pro-Russian candidates for the presidential elections would benefit from such a climate?

I don’t foresee any chances for the pro-Russian candidate, even to be in the run-off.

Who do you consider the pro-Russian candidate?

Definitely Mr. Boyko.

Mr Yuri Boyko, who was energy minister under Yanukovich?

Indeed. These pro-Russian forces created a new political platform, I could call it a Putin platform. The key anchor of this platform is Mr. Medvedchuk [Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician, lawyer, and business oligarch, who was Chief of Staff of former President Leonid Kuchma], who is a Russian asset in Ukraine. He is a very close friend to President Putin, they even have some kind of family relations. But this candidate will never be in the run-off. Thanks god the opposition in Ukraine is a so-called Eastern opposition. And it has two parts, one is pro-Moscow opposition, consisting ob Boyko, Lovochkin [Sehiy Lovochkin, Deputy Head of the Opposition Bloc in the parliament] and Medvedchuk. And the other one is pro-Ukrainian Eastern opposition, part of the Opposition Bloc, with Akhmetov [Rinat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian businessman, philanthropist, and oligarch. He is the founder and President of System Capital Management, and is ranked among the wealthiest men in Ukraine] and Kolesnikov [Borys Kolesnikov, secretary of the Party of Regions] and Novynskyi [Vadym Novynskyi, a Ukrainian businessman, owner of Smart Holding Group, and politician. According to Forbes Novinsky’s Net Worth in March 2013 was $1.9 billion].

So the opposition is not united. But how about the candidates for President? I know there is still time to make announcements?

The deadline to register is 4 February. Yesterday the parliament, in order to avoid any speculations, set the date for the presidential elections, 31 March. The campaign will start at the end of December.

You have had all top jobs in Ukraine: Foreign minister, Parliament President, National Bank chief, Prime Minister, but you have not been President. Are you going to try this time?

Here is the thing: the experience that I got, occupying all the positions that you named, gave the chance to me as Prime Minister, to save my country, in 2014.

I remember that when you took over, the country’s coffers were empty.

10 thousand euro were left for the entire country.

For how many million people?

For 42 million. When I left the office [April 2016] we had $4 billion [in the state coffers]. When I took office we had $73 billion of external debt. When I left, we had $67 billion of external debt. When I took office, we had 10% of budget deficit. When I left, we had a budget deficit of 2,5%. This is why people don’t like me. I had to pass very tough austerity measures to save the country.

I cannot just participate in the elections. I can either win, or abstain, and wait for the next presidential elections. We will decide whether to win or not at our next party congress, in January.

Has Mr. Poroshenko shared with you his plans?

Yes. As far as I understand, Petro wants to be the President of Ukraine for a second term.

This is going to be difficult. Even though he was elected for his first term at the first round.

This is going to be much more difficult. But he still has chances. So the frontrunner is Yulia [Tymoshenko], Petro still has chances, we have the newcomers, like the comedian Mr Zelensky [an actor famous from TV series], we have some other newcomers with very vague chances to be in the run-off. But the bottom line is that we have real democracy in Ukraine. Nobody knows who will be the next president of Ukraine.

Nobody except you, when you will decide to run.

If I participate, I am to win. If I abstain, someone else is to be the president, this time [laughs].

What do you think the EU should do in terms of Russia and Ukraine relations? Or maybe the EU is so busy with its own problems and couldn’t do much?

The EU is facing tremendous problems. And I can tell you one source of these problems: Russia. Russia that meddled into the EU elections, into Brexit, into the German elections, into the French elections, Russia that has its upper hand in a number of political forces in and around Europe. Russia that subsidises some media outlets in the EU, Russia that supports politicians in the EU, Russia that is eager to split the political unity in the EU. And that’s the real threat. Because a number of European politicians are thinking this is a conflict just between Ukraine and Russia, and that this conflict won’t have real implications for the EU. It already has dramatic implications for the Union.

It’s true that the EU is more focused on its domestic issues. And we, as Ukraine, are interested in having a strong and united Europe. And yesterday [26 November] when we had a meeting in the European Parliament, at the opening ceremony of the Euromaidan exhibition, I was very clear saying that Ukraine is strongly against these anti-European forces, both in Ukraine and in the EU.

Where Europe can do more? I met with President Tusk, we had a very good discussion, he was very straightforward, and issued yesterday a statement with a clear-cut support for Ukraine. But in my humble opinion the EU has to do more, both in terms of economic support, investments in Ukraine, and security. The Franco-German idea to have a European army is a great one…

But it’s a long shot.

Absolutely. So the preliminary goal for the EU is to maintain and preserve and improve NATO. And to have Americans on board, on real board.

How can we be sure with the Americans? President Trump often surprises us with his statements about NATO.

But I still believe in the US system of checks and balances. It’s in the interest of the United States to have NATO too. NATO with very strong links with Ukraine. Because what happened with Azov unfolded a real lack of cooperation between Ukraine and NATO. We have a number of trust funds with NATO, we have good relations, but really strong military communication between Ukraine and NATO is not as strong as we expected.

And this is how we got this problem with the Azov Sea?

Including. True.

So what should be done to avoid any such risks?

We need to facilitate a response mechanism, how to react in case of escalation. This is to be a real support, with both defensive weapons, cyber-security, political reaction, so it has to be a comprehensive package.

Supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine?

I call this defensive weapons.  I do it on purpose. You know that Americans, under this administration, have decided to supply Ukraine with Javelins [Javelin anti-tank missiles], the previous administration granted Ukraine 3 billion dollars of treasury guarantees and a number of non-lethal weapons. But in terms of Azov, the best way out is that we need to need to get from the Alliance, or from the member states of the Alliance, just armoured vessels for the Ukrainian navy. We are out of armoured vessels.

You mention Ukraine is building a military base in the Azov Sea, isn’t that escalation?

This is the vase under the Ukrainian law to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and to protect the free transportation of Ukraine through the Kerch strait. Russia deployed around 100 vessels in Azov.

Probably your country doesn’t agree, but Russia considers the Kerch strait its territorial waters. They consider the Crimea waters as Russian and in that sense, they see the entire Kerch strait as theirs.

Frankly speaking I don’t give a shit what they think. It’s all about what’s in the deal, in the treaty. These are the waters of common usage. It’s under the deal. This is neutral waters.

From what year is the treaty?

2003.

So the Azov Sea is not governed by the International Law of the Seas, but by this bilateral treaty between Ukraine and Russia?

As a basic deal. And in any case it has some kind international implications too. But the basic deal is this are internal waters and Ukraine has the full right to use these waters.

So Russia doesn’t have the right to control the strait?

No.

Didn’t the annexation of Crimea change anything?

This is an illegal annexation. It didn’t change anything in terms of international law, except that Russia violated the international law, and changed the borders for the first time after the Second World War in Eastern Europe.

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