Ambassador Pyatt’s Interview with Novoe Vremya

Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt

Novoe Vremya interview translation

The Voice of America

July 8, 2016

U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt on What It Is That He Has Difficulty Explaining About Ukrainians in Washington and About Americans in Kyiv

During three years in the position of the U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt became a heavyweight of Ukrainian politics.  His announcements were listened to, his advice was accepted very thoughtfully.

This is not surprising: Pyatt is the official representative in Ukraine of the United States of America, a nation that over the past few years has become a major political and military ally of Ukraine.  Important decisions for Ukraine on finance aid, without which Kyiv wouldn’t survive, largely depend on his reports on the progress of reforms and on recommendations in Washington.

In other words, Pyatt is the main mediator between Ukraine and the decisions that have existential importance for Ukraine.  Without the U.S. financial and political support Ukraine would remain practically eye to eye with militaristic Russia.

We met Pyatt in a guest room of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, exactly two years since his previous interview with Novoe Vremya.

Bookshelves behind the Ambassador’s arm-chair held photo albums about Yalta and Timothy Snyder’s books on Holodomor in Ukraine. Seated against the backdrop of this aggregate portrait of Ukraine as seen by the American diplomats, the Ambassador is very friendly, jokes very appropriately and to the point.  But he turns serious instantly when conversation turns to the two key challenges Ukraine faces – reforms and war.

[Q&A follows]

QUESTION: We met here a couple of years ago for an interview with you.  Then you said that Ukraine will change dramatically and will be a different country in two years.  Two years are now gone, do you think Ukraine is a different country?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  Yes.  It‘s unrecognizable from the country that I came to three years ago.  Civil society is more empowered.  The Rada is different.  New institutions have been created.  There are obviously challenges that still have to be overcome, including all of the rule of law/corruption issues.  But I think there is enormous progress that’s been made.  And, I think, in a lot of ways that the real question for 2016 is at what point does the progress become irreversible.  That is, have so many changes happened in terms of institutions and attitude, psychology, that it’s impossible to go back to Yanukovychyism, oligarchic, authoritarian, corrupted government.

QUESTION:  But many Ukrainians are still unhappy with the pace of reforms, I think.

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  That’s an encouraging sign.  I never hear anybody telling me: “Reform is going too fast.”

QUESTION:  What do you think are Ukraine’s major failures of the last two years?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  I am, by definition, a glass-half-full kind of guy.  And in that regard, I think, it’s more useful to look at what are the successes.  You have achieved energy independence from Russia.  You cleaned up your financial sector.  You’ve had three good elections to reset the democratic system.  You’ve begun the process of judicial reform with Constitutional changes.  You’ve begun the process of decentralization with fiscal decentralization.

What saddens me is the fact that nobody has been jailed for the Maidan killings.  The fact that nobody has been jailed for the wholesale thievery that took place under the Yanukovych administration.  I think the biggest shortcoming is rule of law/anti-corruption.  There are some hopeful first steps.  There is a new anti-corruption Prosecutor.  The fact that people are afraid of him is a very good sign, just as the fact that people now talk about corruption – two years ago nobody talked about corruption, right?

QUESTION:    You’ve been quite outspoken on corruption, on the Prosecutor General’s dragging feet on anti-corruption, and at some point Mr. Kononenko, who was head of the presidential faction in the parliament, even said that you’ve been interfering in domestic affairs and you’ll be recalled by the Department of State.  Has there actually been an attempt by him or anybody to contact the Department of State with such a request?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  (Laughing). I have no idea.

QUESTION:  But you remember the episode?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  I remember that episode.  I would just suggest that anybody who has doubts [about whose position I represent] takes look at what Vice President Biden says.  He has been just as direct on these issues as I’ve been.  In my confirmation hearing this week, at one point, you could hear as one of the senior members of our Foreign Relations Committee says that I have been undiplomatic sometimes in my language.  And I take that as a compliment.

QUESTION:  What do you think of the new Ukrainian government?  Do they have ability and motivation to reform?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  I think the motivation is very high.  Clearly, Prime Minister Groysman delivered a very clear message on his commitment to sustain the process of reforms – that was his most important message when he was in Washington last week.  And he made a very good impression and promised to surprise everyone with accelerating the process of reform.  As we made clear with the announcement of $220 million of new U.S. assistance around PM Groysman’s visit, the United States is encouraged by the steps we have seen so far, including progress on things like energy pricing, the replacement of the Prosecutor General, continued expansion of ProZorro, etc.

QUESTION:  Will his government push harder than the previous one, Yatsenyuk’s?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  That’s for you to decide whether you want to see reform go faster.  This is a democracy.  But the message from Groysman and his team has been very clear.

QUESTION:  Continuing on the Yatsenyuk government.  Americans often complimented the Yatsenyuk government at different levels, whereas it had been linked to a number of corruption scandals.  Why was that the case?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  I think Prime Minister Yatsenyuk deserves a great deal of credit for helping to save Ukraine in the course of those two years.  Remember, when he took office you country was being invaded by Russia.  Yanukovych had left a disastrous financial situation.  The banking system was insolvent.  Most institutions had been corrupted and hollowed out.  And I think in many ways, the Yatsenyuk government saved Ukraine – stabilized the financial situation, stopped Putin, and began the process of reform.  It’s simply not correct to say that the Yatsenyuk government did not achieve anything.  Those people worked against the background of a relentless campaign of aggression by Russia.  Yatsenyuk came to office calling himself the kamikaze prime minister, but his government lasted for two years.

QUESTION:  Kamikaze got the second life then…

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  Yes, exactly. (Smiling)

QUESTION:  Your colleague, former Ambassador Steven Pifer said, in an interview to NV a month ago, that there is Ukraine fatigue among U.S. politicians.  Is it true?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  Absolutely not.  Please, do watch the hearing that I participated in this week with Masha Yovanovitch, as the candidate to be my successor.  You can hear, from the Senators who questioned both of us, very strong commitment to continue engagement with Ukraine.  Before the hearing, I had private meetings with the Senators, and can conclude that interest in Ukraine is very high.  Congress continues to provide extensive resources; in fact, more that the Administration put into its budget requests, with conditions attached.  The clear message from our Congress has been that we are committed to continuing to stand by Ukraine, to stand by the Ukrainian people, as long as the government demonstrates that it’s reforming itself.

And, I think, Steve’s comments about “Ukraine fatigue” were offered at a time when it appeared that the reform process had gotten off the rails, in January and February.  Many people were worried then, but it’s no longer the case.

QUESTION:  You met a lot of Ukrainian politicians, obviously, in your three years here.  Who impressed you most?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  The young people who have committed themselves to building a new country.  An example.  There is an NGO called Kharkiv Stationwhich was set up to support IDPs driven out of the war zone to Kharkiv.  These people are professionals.  One of these women was an interior designer, she had her own business.  And she just put it on hold to look out for these people who were victims of Putin’s war in Donbas.  The guys who are behind the Lviv Education Foundation have done tremendous work building bridges between west and east of Ukraine.

You ask me who is the Ukrainian political figure who has most impressed me.  I will name someone who is not a politician.  It’s Svyatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.  He is genuinely brilliant.  He is one of those capable of enunciating a vision for Ukraine’s future, for reform, and changing the system.

Also, young members of parliament, the Eurooptimist crowd.  I don’t want to single out any one of them.  You know who I am talking about.  These are all people who are committed to building a different kind of a country.  I hope they don’t get so caught up in the process of creating a new political movement that they abandon the process of changing the existing ones.  Because I think it’s good for party politics to have talented new people inside the established political movements, to upgrade their software.

QUESTION:  Two years ago, when we met, the sanctions had just been imposed, and you said that the brutal force policy pursued by Russia would probably prove ineffective, as opposed to the soft policy pursued by the United States.  However, the sanctions have failed to derail Russia from its expansionist policy or change its stance on Crimea or Donbas.  Moreover, we are hearing voices in Europe now suggesting that the stance on Russia should actually be softened.  What do you think the international community’s policy should be towards Russia today?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  Let me talk about the United States first.  That’s who I can speak for.  The United States’ policy is not going to soften.  Our sanctions related to Crimea are going to remain as long as it’s the case that Russia is illegally occupying that peninsula.  Then, on Donbas, we have been very clear that the only way Russia gets relaxation of U.S. sanctions as implemented in response to the territorial aggression in Donbas is full implementation of the Minsk agreement.

I would disagree that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia.  In fact, Russia has paid an enormous price in terms of the Russian economy.  Crimea hasn’t become better off.  And Donbas, of course, is a disaster area.  The only resources are the subsidies, the so called humanitarian payments that are made by the Russian government.  We don’t know how much it’s costing the Kremlin, but it’s clearly billions of dollars.  Russia suffers a lot because of sanctions, and time is not on the Kremlin’s side.

QUESTION:  Are there convincing arguments for the Europeans to motivate them to extend their sanctions against the Russian Federation?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  I think the most important thing for all of us to remember is why the sanctions were imposed.  The sanctions were not imposed for anything Ukraine did.  The sanctions were a response to the Kremlin’s aggression.  So, what’s important is not what Ukraine has done, but what Russia hasn’t reversed that caused the sanctions to be imposed.  We’ve made clear that additional sanctions remain on the table if Putin continues to turn up the heat militarily in the Donbas.

QUESTION:  A few months ago you said that Russia has not changed its strategy on Donbas, they’ve changed their tactics on Donbas.  The gun is still on the table, you added.  Do you see anything that may force Russia to change its strategy?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  We are trying very hard to support France and Germany, to get implementation of the Minsk agreements.  It’s very much an open question whether the Kremlin is prepared to accept the basic terms of the Minsk agreement, especially on the security side.  So far, there has been no action to suggest that that’s the case.

The best way for Ukraine to help that process is to continue to do your part of Minsk implementation to show it’s not you who obstructs.  Nobody in Washington is going to expect you to conduct an election in the occupied territories while Ukrainian soldiers are being killed and injured every single day on the contact line.  The first point of the Mink agreement is full and complete ceasefire, and only then can elections take place.

QUESTION:  What is your personal opinion about the elections in the occupied territories?  For many Ukrainians, it’s a very controversial issue, even if all the Minsk conditions are met.  Many in Ukraine are not ready for those elections.

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  The most important thing that the Minsk agreement gives you is it establishes the principle that Donbas is Ukrainian territory, that the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine need to be restored.  And it establishes that Russia is a party to the conflict, and that Russian troops and equipment need to be withdrawn.  Diplomatic efforts concentrate on achieving those clear conditions.

The end state is favorable to Ukraine.  Minsk is not something where the Kremlin can pick and choose the provisions it likes; all the points of the Minsk agreement have to be implemented.  And if they are, the Russians are gone, your border is restored, and you get to focus on building a new Ukraine.  This is the only way.

QUESTION:  What was the most difficult thing for you as Ambassador to explain about Ukraine to American politicians and the middle class?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  One of the things that I have to spend some time explaining is how come the system doesn’t change faster.  Why the oligarchs are still so strong.  Why, despite the clear desires of the Ukrainian people, corruption is still there.

QUESTION:  And how do you explain the situation with corruption?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  I am trying not to make excuses for Ukraine, but what I do remind people that we in the United States went through a period in the early 1900s where there was strong popular resistance to the power of concentrated business, and it took time to work through the legal and institutional framework for tackling those problems.  Everyone goes through this.  There was a piece in The Economist about Romania not long ago talking about their anti-corruption effort.  It was just making the point that in Romania the fact that you see so much reporting about corruption and anti-corruption cases is a good sign, because it means that the system has started to wake up, and you are in an earlier stage of the same process.

One very powerful person in Ukrainian system said, you know, it’s like when you go to a doctor: if you go to a doctor and ask to have a physical after 23 years of not very healthy lifestyle, you’re not going to be surprised if he says you have a bunch of problems and prescribes an extensive treatment.  Ukraine is this kind of patient.

QUESTION:  And what is it that is difficult to explain about the United States and Americans here in Ukraine?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  Many people here often ask why haven’t  done more to fix the situation.  Ukrainians sometimes want us to be more powerful than we are.  It is a function of the world we live in here and now that there are limits to how much the United States can do.  I am enormously proud of what we have done.  $600 million of security assistance, over a billion dollars in economic assistance now, $3 billion loan guarantees.  We have put in an enormous amount of U.S. diplomatic and political energy into supporting Ukraine.  President Obama, in one of the meetings that I was part of with his Ukrainian counterpart, made the point that he had spent more time, especially in 2014, on Ukraine than any other foreign policy issue besides Syria where there is violence of much greater scale.

I know, from talking to all Ukrainian political leaders, that they understand that if the United States had not taken as strong a position as we did, events might have unfolded quite differently.  But, again, Ukrainians sometimes imagine that the United States has some kind of magic power and we can just make Putin stop.  I wish we did, but we don’t.  I know, there are ten thousand people today who are dead.  There are 1.7 million Ukrainians who have been driven out of their homes, thousands and thousands of Ukrainians who have been injured.  My biggest regret is that none of us have been able to stop all this terrible human suffering with one action.

QUESTION:  Ukraine, starting from 1990, has always been referred to as a country with great potential that has not been yet realized.  Charles De Gaulle once said about Brazil that Brazil is the country of the future and will always be.  Aren’t you concerned that this term could be applied to Ukraine?  What prevents Ukraine from implementing real change?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  I think that might have been true before 2014.  I don’t think it is anymore.  I see the Revolution of Dignity as a fundamental turning point for Ukraine. And your independence that just happened 25 years ago, truly started only two years ago as you started to fight for it.  There are so many sacrifices that have been made.  And people expect that those sacrifices will not have been in vain and they are doing everything so that the old system does not return.

QUESTION:  What is the main advice about Ukraine that you would give to your successor, Marie Yovanovitch?

AMBASSADOR PYATT:  I don’t need to give Masha a lot of advice, because she knows Ukraine very well, she is extremely well prepared as she’s worked a lot in the former Soviet space.  There could not be a better choice from all of our Foreign Service, our diplomatic corps, than Masha

If I was to say one principle not to forget, it’s never bet against the Ukrainian people.  That’s the huge mistake that Yanukovych made,  and Putin as well.  Governments, politicians come and go.  That’s the nature of the system.  But the Ukrainian people, over the past three years, have demonstrated remarkable resilience, remarkable courage, and extraordinary ability to rise above difficult circumstances and build their country – that deserves respect.