When I interviewed Kravchuk in 1992, every one was
about the region’s stability, the future of the Soviet Union’s nuclear
stockpile and how Ukraine would protect itself from Moscow. The
lengthy and was forthcoming and optimistic. When the issue of nuclear
came up, and who was in charge, he explained that the weapons were
amongst Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia and Byelorussia and there was a
that prevented an accidental nuclear war.
To illustrate, he escorted me, my photographer and a translator-friend into his private office where two telephones sat -- one red and one white. The red one connected him directly to the Kremlin and the white connected him to the leaders of the three other republics that housed nuclear weapons. A nuclear attack was only possible, he said, if all four agreed upon it.
That seemed tenuous at the time, but what happened following those tumultuous events has contributed to today’s violence by Russia and its operatives who have caused 6,200 deaths, 30,000 wounded, 1.3 million displaced persons and the loss of 9% of Ukraine’s territory.
Last week, I asked Kravchuk for a follow-up interview -- more than 20 years later after my first and a subsequent interview in 1993 -- and he agreed. This is what he said.
I began by asking him about his comment, in the press after the 2014 ousting of Victor Yanukovych, that he would pick up weapons to keep the Russians from taking over Ukraine. “If someone is in my house, I will be shooting back without a second thought,” he said metaphorically. “I have told my guards not to stand near me, if that ever happens, because I will be shooting in every direction and they may be in the way.”
He then explained the depth of his feelings about what’s happening.
“I was given the country when it was part of the Soviet Union and worked toward independence. My life would be in vain if they take this land and that is why there is no alternative but to fight,” he said.
Ukraine has been a “hostage” to Russia ever since independence, and has been “occupied” by the Russians, economically, investment wise and trade wise for a long time, he said. “They took away the best assets. They have occupied Ukraine step by step gradually then eventually at the top. It used to be they controlled only trade and the economy but then it became the political and military leadership.”
The seizure of Crimea and incursion in the east is a “violation of all international documents signed by civilized societies. It is warfare in the Donbas. This is not a hybrid war, or a separatist movement, but this is true warfare,” he said. “They claim this is about Russian volunteers, but it’s a true military aggression by the Russian military. I’m amazed officials in Western countries cannot say that the Russians are waging a war against the Ukrainians. The French president actually said he has not seen any Russian troops in Ukraine.”
Kravchuk said there is little understanding in Europe or North America that Ukraine is unique and not a part of Greater Russia. “In 1991, I was in Davos [the World Economic Forum] at a roundtable and a European prime minister asked me how many people lived in Ukraine? I said 50 million and he told me I was wrong that it could only be 5 million. Imagine that. More recently, it’s obvious that leaders know very little about Ukraine and our history and this is a problem,” he said. “We must change awareness worldwide.”
I asked Kravchuk about Ukraine’s decision to surrender its nuclear weapons and whether that condemned the country to Russian infiltration and takeover. He then told the behind-the-scenes story as to how that came about.
“The U.S. has always cared about the Middle East, energy and terrorism,” he said. “So after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. pressured us to destroy our nuclear weapons and gave us $700 million to do so in 1994.”
Was this a fatal mistake? I asked.
“Let me explain. We had 165 strategic missiles, 40 with solid fuel and the rest with liquid fuel that was extremely dangerous. All the warheads were produced in Russia and put on Ukrainian missiles, but by 1998 these warheads had to be replaced or they would possibly blow up,” he said. “We asked where we could get warheads to replace them and asked the Americans to help us. They refused and said cooperate with and work with the Russians, (Boris) Yeltsin. I objected and said I cannot work with the Russians and let them fool us and cheat on us.”
Kravchuk then engaged in lengthy negotiations with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore but the U.S. and Western Europe imposed systematic pressure on us. “They threatened us with sanctions, isolation and personal threats and Ukraine became a hostage. They promised protection,” he said.
This led to the infamous 1994 Budapest Memorandum -- signed by the U.S., UK, France, Russia and China -- that clearly says signator countries will guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But the U.S. and the others have ignored Ukraine’s needs.
Another option was to join NATO right away to protect the country against future Russian aggressions, he said. “But NATO did not want Ukraine as a member and 23% of Ukrainians were against joining it in 1994. Of Ukraine’s 450 parliamentarians, 380 were Communist Party members and absolutely against NATO and considered the United States, the enemy of the Soviet Union.”
Alone and disarmed, the Russians spent the next 20 years tightening their grip, gutting Ukraine’s military and Ukrainian leaders let them do so.
“The exterior fa�ade of our government is Ukrainian, but internally it was not Ukrainian. Ukraine was never involved. Russians were here running the secret service and organizing meetings against Ukraine,” he said.
I asked him about a suggestion that Ukraine appeal under the Geneva Convention to be designated as an “occupied country” which will lead to a suspension of debts freeing up more money for defense and impose reparations on Russia for damage, displacement and deaths. This requires United Nations approval.
“I am ready to agree and sign such an initiative as the first President of Ukraine. I think other prominent Ukrainians would agree to do this, but I think Russia would veto this on the Security Council and the General Assembly I have doubts about,” he said.
“But the Rada should discuss this, then vote on it and if the President signs it the country should petition the United Nations,” he said. “I will help in such a process and I’m also preparing an all-Ukrainian referendum on entering NATO.”
I asked him about Putin and his motives.
“Putin’s policy is to conquer Ukraine and keep it a slave. He wants to restore the Greater Russian Empire, not the Soviet Union,” he said.
This philosophy, he said, is no different than Hitler’s who wanted to incorporate all Germanic people under an expanded Third Reich empire.
“Western Europe gave Hitler lands bit by bit. He swallowed these bits and decided to take everything. Now Europe doesn’t resist [Putin] in order to avert World War III. But Putin’s popularity in Russia is not because of his democratic reforms or economic prosperity. He’s popular because of his aggressiveness. It’s the only thing that supports his ratings. With 80% support, this is dangerous,” he said. “Russia’s ideological brainwashing is better than techniques used by Goebbels around the world.”
For instance, he blames Russian propaganda for spreading rumors that the thousands fighting in Ukraine’s volunteer battalions are neo-Nazis. “They are nationalists, not fascists. This is no Pravda, not true. It’s rubbish.”
The interview over, we shake hands and pose for a photo. He says Ukrainians must never give up to keep their country and he never will.
[W.Z. Despite their tolerance for corruption and their Soviet mindset, I regard Presidents Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yushchenko as being Ukrainian patriots striving to maintain an independent Ukraine. However, I do fault Kravchuk (as well as Kuchma and Yushchenko) for failing to honour the people associated with the Ukrainian Independence Movement (Petliura, Konovalets, Bandera, Shukhevych, OUN-UPA, Stus, etc.) as heroes of Ukraine on 22Jan1992 and each succeeding year thereafter. Following the euphoria of the 01Dec1991 referendum on independence, there would have been little resistance to this designation even in eastern Ukraine. It is absurd that, even in 2015, there are people in Ukraine that still quibble about this issue.]
My first visit to Ukraine was in February 1992 and the City of Kiev was gray, bleak and joyless as was the rest of the Soviet Union. Last month I re-visited -- 23 years and several other assignments later -- to find a new nation of extremes. There is prosperity and there is poverty; there is peace and war; cynicism and hope; there are reformers in high places and looters in low places as Russian operatives still lurk in the corridors of power.
But something else has begun to transform the place.
The 2014 revolution forced the thieves and Russian puppets fully out of the shadows. Former President Victor Yanukovych betrayed the people, stole from them and then began murdering them. Events spiraled downward until he was toppled exposing his Russian-inspired kleptocracy.
He has left two major stains on the history of the country: Murder on the Maidan and his lavish Mezhyhirya estate. This has enraged and called Ukrainians in greater numbers than ever to make sacrifices.
This trip I saw more flags than ever and met some remarkable patriots who have realized that the public itself must rally to the cause of trying to stop, and eventually reverse, the steady takeover by Russia since independence in 1991.
The world now knows that Yanukovych lived like a 19th Century Czar between 2002 and 2014 and oversaw the destruction of Ukraine's military in preparation for the slow invasion of Ukraine. Its manpower was reduced and its equipment sold for profit by corrupt officials.
But most revealing was his estate outside Kiev and the scale of excess. As I toured it, I became more and more outraged with each extravagance: the golf course, yacht basin, party boat, hunting grounds, mansions, landscaping, car museums, equestrian grounds and lined ponds stocked with trout and fountains.
Finally, Ukraine's Pandora's Box has been opened for all the world -- and all the people -- to see. Before 2014, his lifestyle was top secret, guarded by 1,000 soldiers and a 25-foot high green fence along a 34-mile perimeter. The corruption that has ruined Ukraine is no longer a whispered rumor or a mere suspicion. The nation's elites have been exposed like looters on camera.
The most poignant moment for me on this visit was an interview in a Kiev hospital with a young member of the Right Sector, led by Dmytro Yarosh. Make no mistake: these volunteers and others made the difference last year and helped Ukraine's rag tag army hold the Russians at bay. As Dmitry Gorenberg with Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies wrote Ukraine's army had only 6,000 combat-ready troops when the Donbas trouble began (down from an army of 800,000 in 1992 when I first came to Ukraine). If volunteers had not helped, he argued, the eastern half of the country would have fallen into Moscow's hands by now.
I interviewed "Maley," his battalion code name, and he told me his story.
"After Crimea was taken, I called the army to sign up but no one returned my calls," he said. He lost patience so he took his grandfather's hunting rifle, and taped a brass plate his mother bought for him to his chest, and went to the front to join the cause.
He became a sniper but was wounded this spring after a regular army medic on patrol with him accidentally stepped on a land mine. She lost both her legs and "Maley" ended up with shrapnel wounds. "She was not paying attention," he said adding "but I'm going back."(I was told that his hospital stay was paid for by donations, not the government of Ukraine, even though the battalion's leader is collaborating closely with the regular army. This is outrageous to me.)
Such sacrifice is unique but not uncommon. There was also a new-found purpose and spring in the step of many. The war is not close to Kiev or Lviv, but everywhere there are reminders in the form of memorials and men in fatigues, some asking for donations for the families and health care costs of the volunteer soldiers.
And thousands more have quietly joined Ukraine's "hidden army of volunteers." A 45-year-old professional woman I met in Kiev raises money for medicine and her husband helps volunteer battalions by procuring supplies. At the time we spoke, he was driving a new, outfitted ambulance back from Belgium to the war front, paid for with donations and fundraising efforts there.
The diaspora is also re-awakening to Ukraine's needs, after two decades of being mistreated by Ukraine's corrupt officials. Canada -- with as many as two million people of full or partial Ukrainian heritage -- has been quick to condemn Putin and to provide military training support and funds.
Canada also endorses (along with many in the U.S. Congress and Defense Department) the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine by the west to repel and push back the Russians operatives, and now Russian troops, out of the country. But Canada and others cannot do so unilaterally and are waiting for the White House to agree. Pressure is building to directly help Ukraine.
"The struggle in Ukraine is more serious than ISIS," said John Herbst in an interview with me in Kiev. He's a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and Russia and Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "It's very simple. Any military thinker looks at a threat -- what is the capability of the damage? Putin wants to change the peace established in 1991 and after World War II."
But recent publicity that some Ukrainian militias are comprised of neo Nazis frightens some politicians and donors. And there's concern about the corrupt army leadership and whether it's under control. As for militias, however, Canada's Defense Minister Jason Kenney said in Lviv "We should not allow a small number of bad apples in one battalion to characterize the new Ukraine."
I also interview other impressive non-combat volunteers.
"After the 2014 violence in the Maidan, I had to get involved to save the country from [Ukrainian] dictators and now we have to save it from the biggest dictator in the neighborhood," said David Arakhamiya in an interview. "The Ukrainian army was non-existent and there was a 10-year plan to destroy it from inside."
He and his family were refugees from another Putin war, in Georgia, and settled to begin a new life in Ukraine several years ago. (Georgia was the pilot project for Ukraine.)
He and 350 software engineers and architects decided to work full-time for at least one year to help the military, with some helping as volunteers inside Ukraine's Ministry of Defense.
He and his volunteers have been helping to modernize the army (with some resistance in certain quarters) by digitizing inventory, devising transparency procurement platforms to eliminate corruption, creating weapons and raising funds through a crowd funding site called peoplesproject.com -- where interested donors from around the world can scan a shopping list of projects and causes for donors and use their credit cards to make donations. Millions have been raised so far.
Ukrainian software experts have also joined with aviation experts to make 40 drones a month, using available software and cameras and parts from China. Volunteers have developed encryption devices to protect communications in the field and a radio communications system that allows frontline commanders to direct the movements of soldiers using tablets.
I learned on this trip that Ukraine's military industry has begun to work multiple shifts replacing the equipment that was sold for personal gain. And 50,000 conscripts will be called up this year, the first of several mobilizations that will be trained, in part, by western military advisors.
All of these military reforms and citizen activism must continue if Ukraine is to win the war against Russia and the war against corruption at home. But more western help, in terms of military equipment and debt relief, must arrive soon.
And in the end Ukrainians -- who are easygoing and flexible -- must become even tougher and more demanding that bribery, money laundering and influence peddling end. Reforms are being undertaken but not quickly enough and this fall's mid-term election may reflect dissatisfaction.
If I had my way, for instance, the country's 20,000 prosecutors, like its traffic cops, would summarily dismissed and replaced with new people who are forced to adhere to reforms, the rule of law and transparency.
If reforms are stillborn, the next revolution following those in 2004 and 2014 won't be peaceful and leaders won't have enough time to scurry back to Russia. Patriotic activism is spreading and has become the country's de facto official opposition party.
I'm very heartened and touched by the efforts of Ukrainians thus far, but Ukrainians must learn to heed the advice of America's Thomas Jefferson: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
I am not Ukrainian myself, but we are all Ukrainians.
LVIV, Ukraine -- It’s hard to believe, while touring this charming medieval city, there’s a war raging in this country against Russia.
But the fighting is 25 hours’ drive east, and the psychology is even further away. There are reminders here and there, a memoriam to a lost loved one or volunteer soldiers in fatigues.
Lviv is Ukraine’s “west”, in more ways than geographically. The city has population of 800,000, more than a dozen universities and enterprising people with world-class businesses and skills. Along with Kiev and others, this region illustrates why this week’s Canada-Ukraine free trade agreement is a splendid idea. It’s a national vote of confidence by Canadians in Ukrainians, with a very credible upside.
Ukraine has two principal assets: One-third of the world’s rich “black earth” as well as an over-sized share of brainpower. The level of Literacy is 99.7 per cent, the education rate is the world’s fourth-highest and every year 16,000 software experts and 130,000 engineers graduate.
But it’s a country of contrasts. Just outside Lviv, I took a photo of two farmers in a horse-drawn cart commuting between fields. Despite such primitive conditions, Ukraine remains the world’s biggest producer of grains, sunflower oils, mushrooms for Europeans and is now blanketed with apple orchards and processing plants to produce juice and cider. The biggest upside for its agri-business is that the European Union has given the country full access to its market next year.
But the country’s human capital has found a major niche and been succeeding despite war and corruption. The world’s fourth-biggest cluster of certified IT professionals is here, after the United States, India and Russia. There are 100,000 software engineers and architects, proficient in English, building products and doing research for clients around the world.
One successful entrepreneur is Andrew Pavliv (who I met recently in Silicon Valley). He is CEO and founder of N-iX, with offices in Lviv, Sweden and Bulgaria. “We have long-term relationships, years in many cases, and 95 per cent stay with us to the end of their projects,” he said.
Such commitments require stability and Russia since the seizure of Crimea and eastern violence, is losing out to Ukraine. Likewise, the war has displaced 1.3 million people including thousands of IT experts who have resettled in Lviv or Kiev.
N-iX has grown to 200 employees since 2002 and -- like other software professionals -- many are rallying to the country’s cause. Ukraine now has the world’s first “geek army” of thousands of volunteers who are helping rebuild and repurpose the rag tag national army. A succession of Russian puppets posing as Ukrainian Presidents downsized its forces and sold off its equipment to foreigners for personal gain.
“I would not really say that we are involved in the IT war effort much as a company, but some of our people are volunteering, and we support this,” Pavliv wrote.
His firm occupies three floors in a Soviet-style building with a security guard but no chairs or cheer in its lobby. However, Pavliv’s firm is an oasis right out of Silicon Valley with high ceilings, plenty of natural light, open plan seating, clumps of chairs for meetings, a spacious kitchen and a large room with gym equipment, video games, fussball and cots tucked away for those with client meetings in the middle of the night.
“We are 40 per cent to 50 per cent cheaper than Western countries but these people make the highest wages in Ukraine and clients pay hard currency,” said a spokesman.
“When the mess started a year ago we lost 20 out of 200 [to immigration], just one per cent, but the mood is less negative and we’ve stabilized. And people, and clients, are relocating away from the militarized zone. We’ve gotten a few people from there.”
Lviv is also embarking -- with its mayor and the Ukrainian Catholic University -- on a strategy of growing the sector. The university launches the country’s first computer sciences degree this fall and offers a Masters of Technology Management degree; and the city is providing facilities for startups, incubators and public land to build IT House, a bargain-rate condo residence that will eventually house nearly 300 IT professionals and their families.
“We want to create a community, and encourage young people to embark on IT careers,” said Stepan Veselovskyi, an IT entrepreneur who heads these initiatives on behalf of Lviv’s existing community of 16,000.
Most important, this sector proves that Ukrainians can match the best. It’s not coincidental that where corruption and meddling has been absent, Ukrainians create wealth and excellence.
The backdrop to trade deals is that the new government in Kiev is trying to eradicate corruption, but progress is slower than many want.
It’s tragic that Ukraine -- the largest country in Europe, twice the size of Germany -- has become Europe’s biggest under-achiever. Incomes are $3,082 per year, roughly the same as the West Bank’s. Meanwhile, Poles next door enjoy nearly five times’ more.
So far, the new government has tackled major problems: firing crooked traffic cops en masse (prosecutors and judges should be next); cleaning up its dirty natural gas monopoly that looted the national treasury; rebuilding its army with volunteer help; closing 50 dirty banks that laundered money; chopping regulations that gave officials shakedown opportunities; and appointing foreigners to undertake tough reforms.
Such reforms remain a priority. Ukrainians have staged two revolutions since independence -- 2004 and 2014 -- to rid themselves of the rot within. The next time won’t be peaceful because these 45 million people, gentle and smart, simply will have run out of patience.