“Ukraine’s East and Crimea: Solving the Unsolvable” at the 12th Yalta European Strategy Annual Meeting
MODERATOR: Victoria Nuland, if I may just turn to you. Obviously, you work for the State Department. You represent the U.S. Government. I think Ukrainians look at Barack Obama’s policy toward Ukraine and toward Putin and Putin’s strategy in Ukraine and they do not feel, perhaps, that the President has been as strong as he might have been, particularly in terms of support and military support that many in Ukraine would like to see from the United States. Is there any prospect of that, or is the Obama Administration’s message that this absolutely has to be a diplomatic negotiated settlement and that frankly the best Ukraine can hope for is a lull, a long-term ceasefire, and some sort of messy frozen conflict.
NULAND: Well, Steven, before I get to your specific question, I hope you’ll let me make a couple of general points. First, just to say how pleased I am to be here — to thank you for the invitation, Victor and friends — but also to say how happy I am that you didn’t change the name of this conference, because the name is a very important reminder to all of us. First of all, that it’s the Yalta European Strategy Conference, and it reminds us that someday this conference needs to return to that great Ukrainian city.
Second, the word “yes” itself is badly needed — as in “yes, we can.” Coming into Ukraine again for my, maybe, 11th visit in two and a half years, you can feel the concern, you can feel the tension. And I just wanted to take a moment to remind everybody how far you’ve come in just 19 months, that less than two years ago, people from across all walks of life were standing in the snow on the Maidan demanding a better future. Less than a year ago, Ukrainian soldiers were dying by the hundreds on the front line.
But because Ukraine said, “yes, yes we can,” to a better future, you’ve had two rounds of free and fair elections. You preserved unity in this country. You have stopped the Novorossiya project dead in its tracks. Kharkiv, Mariupol, Slovyansk are proud Ukrainian cities still. You have an IMF agreement, including now a landmark debt rescheduling better than anybody expected Ukraine would be able to negotiate with its creditors. You’ve laid the foundation for economic growth, for cleaning up this country — the banking system, the energy and agricultural system. You’re well on your way.
You have clean police now in Kyiv, in Odesa, in Lviv, and you’re cutting the bloated bureaucracy. There is no question that lots of hard sacrifice lies ahead, especially in fighting corruption, in cleaning up the justice sector and the Prosecutor General’s office, and in bringing true rule of law to this society, which the people of the Maidan, people across Ukraine, fought for and still say is their highest priority.
As you perform, we will continue to support you. And with regard to the President’s policies, Steven, the United States has contributed — I think you know — since this conflict began, more than a half a billion dollars for reform efforts, and two $1 billion dollar loan guarantees. That’s more than $244 million dollars for the security of Ukraine, including training Ukrainian National Guard troops, and now moving on to training the Ukrainian army and providing essential equipment.
And now $38 million dollars for rule of law, including funding these clean police that we’re so proud to be a part of.
We know how hard this is. We also know that when a crisis is acute, when the struggle is new, the fight is fueled by passion, it’s fueled by adrenaline. But later, in this period that you’re in now, when you are slogging for every meter of clean progress, people get tired, they get cynical, they doubt each other, they doubt their leaders. But that’s exactly when Ukraine has to say again, “yes we can.” Yes, we can get the dignity we deserve. Yes, we can have the European future that we deserve and prove the skeptics wrong.
Outside aggression — outside pressure — is still a great threat to this country. But an equally great threat is complacency, defeatism, infighting among Ukrainians. That will only result in mutual assured destruction. So today, when every Ukrainian household is making sacrifices, is economizing, when your young men are still fighting on the front, those who hold the public trust — whether they are in government, whether they’re in business, whether they’re in the judicial sector — they have to prove their worth to the people of this country. There must be zero tolerance for oligarchs who don’t pay their taxes. Zero tolerance for bribery, for graft, for corruption. Zero tolerance for anyone who would use violence to achieve political means in this country.
MODERATOR: Sorry, Victoria — I just wonder if I might ask one specific question, please. You’ve made very important points about the domestic challenges — but if we just to stick to security — stick to the specific question — Prime Minister Yatsenyuk in his encounter with me this morning made it quite clear that for him, the issue of being strengthened militarily is not about offensive ambitions, it is simply a way of strengthening Ukraine’s defensive position so that it can, in the negotiations that are coming with the Russians under international auspices, really credibly make a stand for what is right in Ukraine’s view — and which you, I think share. So the specific question is, are you prepared to accede to the Prime Minister and the President’s continued request for significant, defensive military assistance.
NULAND: We are providing continued, defensive, military assistance. As I said, $244 million. We’re doing more than any other country to train and equip Ukraine. I think it has had a significant impact on the battlefield. As I said, Ukraine has been able to stop the offensive. Even in the last four or five months, as the separatists, with Russian support, have tried to take new towns like Maryinka, etc., the increasingly capable Ukrainian forces have pushed them back. They have raised the cost for Russia. And I think that’s why we have a ceasefire now.
MODERATOR: But with respect, it’s not training and Humvees that he wants. It’s firepower.
NULAND: Again, we will continue to look at Ukraine’s needs. What’s most important is that Ukraine has stopped it in its tracks and that we give diplomacy now and the Minsk Agreements — that we insist that Russia and its proxies live up to the agreements that they signed.
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MODERATOR: As Chairman I’m going to take unilaterally the decision to ask one more question myself of Victoria, because it’s great to have a member of the Administration here, and Victoria, as we’ve got you here, I want you to sort of reflect on what we’ve heard from the panel – not least from Refat – about the message that stuff is happening all the time on the ground – bad stuff – and that, you know, there isn’t time just to constantly kind of talk without making meaningful actions as well.
So just look across the short to medium term for me. What do you believe we can we expect to see from the Obama Administration in terms of Ukraine policy and strategy in the short to medium term. Is the focus now all on diplomacy or is there still consideration of new sanctions, of new military assistance options? Try to sum up for me what the message from Washington to Ukraine is right now.
NULAND: Well first, on overall support to Ukraine, as long as Ukraine stays on the path of reform, on the path of democracy, on the path of Europe, we will strongly support with technical assistance, with economic assistance, but it requires the unity of all reformist forces, as I said. With regard to peace and security and the Minsk process and the future of Crimea, we’ve been very clear that sanctions will stay in place until Minsk is fully implemented. If and when Minsk is fully implemented, including return of Ukraine’s sovereignty of its border, we can begin to roll back some sanctions, but if Minsk is further violated, there will be more costs and we will push with our European partners for that. And with regard to Crimea, sanctions stay in place on Crimea unless and until its sovereignty is returned to Ukraine.
We will continue with our security support to ensure that the Ukrainian military continues to grow in its capability to defend its territory, but we will also stay involved in the diplomatic process. We are not parties to the Normandy format, or to the Minsk format, but we are very much involved as partners and allies of the European Union, of France and Germany, and obviously working with both Ukraine and Russia.
The most important thing now is to take this moment of relative quiet and turn it into a full withdrawal of weapons. We are six months behind. What’s happened now was supposed to happen in the first couple of days of Minsk. We now need to see those weapons pulled back verifiably, and we need to move on to a real election in the Donbas under Ukrainian law and with full OSCE verification.
The people of Donbas should not be left behind. They also deserve the right to live in a more democratic, prosperous way, not under the barrel of a gun from the outside and oppressed as they are. We need to keep faith with those people, we need to push for full implementation of Minsk, we need to use the carrot of sanctions rollback, the stick of further sanctions. We need to stay unified as a Transatlantic community in defense of our values, in defense of a European Ukraine, because that is about our own future, our own values, our own way of life.
MODERATOR: And what Ukrainians would probably add to that would be you need to keep making it your absolutely top foreign policy priority. But you know, we look at the mess in the Middle East, we look at the challenge that comes economically with the sense of the Chinese economy turning down in a big way, and we wonder whether the Obama Administration really is – I know you personally are, you know, because that’s sort of your job – but whether the Administration as a whole is really that invested in Ukraine right now.
NULAND: Well, as I said, if you look around the world at who’s made the largest financial and political contribution to this challenge, the United States, I think, is second to none. But I would also say that if you look at all of the other challenges we’re facing, whether it’s from ISIL or whether it’s from more autocratic, oligarchic economic models beginning to be under stress, the challenges are all of a piece. Are we, as stewards of this planet, going to support the right of individuals to have a say in how they are governed, to live democratically, to live openly, to live in tolerance. The way Ukraine goes will be emblematic of the way that struggle on the larger planet goes. And that is why Ukraine will always stay at the top of our priority list, but why it’s also connected – and I think when our President speaks at the UNGA, you’ll see him connect these dots – about standing up for global rules of the road, standing up for free people and their right to self-govern.
MODERATOR: Alright – well, Victoria, thank you very much for that.