The Washington Diplomat / November 2015
By Larry Luxner
Valeriy Chaly proudly says he took only one book with him when he arrived here from Kiev as Ukraine’s new ambassador to the United States: “The Complete Book of Presidential Inauguration Speeches from George Washington to Barack Obama.”
Perhaps fitting for a diplomat whose embassy occupies the Georgetown mansion where, in 1791, Gen. Uriah Forrest — a well-connected friend of the first president — invited wealthy Maryland and Virginia property owners to dinner in order to get them to donate land for the nation’s new capital.
Exactly two centuries later, on Dec. 1, 1991, an overwhelming 92.3 percent of Ukrainians voted in a referendum in favor of independence. The next day, Ukraine was globally recognized as an independent nation, and by month’s end, the Soviet Union had officially ceased to exist.
“Ukraine struggled for its independence, just as the United States fought for independence in the 18th century,” said Chaly, speaking from the embassy’s ornate Washington Room in his first interview as ambassador with a U.S. media outlet. “The parallels are significant — and you especially feel them sitting in such a historic place.”
Yet Ukraine’s struggles are hardly over; in fact, for many of the country’s 42.5 million inhabitants, they’re only just beginning.
At least 8,000 people have died and 1.5 million have been made homeless in a war sparked by the early 2014 ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Since then, pro-Russian rebels — claiming eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin — have set up the self-styled “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukrainians haven’t been the war’s only victims. In mid-October, following 15 months of painstaking forensic work, Dutch investigators concluded it was a Russian-developed Buk missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 777 as it was flying over eastern Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels have rejected the Dutch report, while Moscow called on the UN to launch its own investigation of MH17.
Although the guns have largely fallen silent, flareups continue and ceasefire violations remain commonplace.
“We still have hostages, including our officers still in prison in Russia. We cannot even calculate the final casualty figures,” Chaly said. “We also have more than one million IDPs [internally displaced persons]. Most of them are Crimean Tatars, who were simply pushed out of their native territory. It’s a violation of human rights.”
Meanwhile, as winter sets in, many Ukrainians can barely afford to stay warm. This year, the country’s GDP will have shrunk by 11.5 percent — largely because of the war, which has eaten up one-fifth of the economy — and earlier this year, Ukrainian supermarkets began rationing cooking oil, flour and sugar after the country’s currently, the hryvnia, was devalued by 70 percent. According to the UN, about 80 percent of Ukrainians now live below the poverty line.
Chaly, who presented his White House credentials on Aug. 3, was born and raised in Vinnytsia, a historic city southwest of Kiev that serves as headquarters of Ukraine’s Air Force. Vinnytsia is also the political base for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a 50-year-old industrialist who ranks 1,284th on the Forbes billionaires list and also happens to be a close friend of the ambassador.
Chaly, 45, said the two men speak on a daily basis — sometimes twice or three times a day. In fact, Chaly had just gotten off the phone with Ukraine’s self-made “chocolate king” when the Diplomat arrived at the brick Ukrainian mission on M Street.
“Unlike previous ambassadors, I was the chief foreign policy advisor to the president of Ukraine,” he said. “I’ve participated in all the negotiations with Russia and have met Putin many times, in official delegations led by the president of Ukraine, and in my position as deputy minister of foreign affairs.”
Those meetings took place in cities ranging from Minsk to Milan, in talks also involving German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Holland.
So what does Chaly think of the Russian leader?
“My understanding is that Putin changed significantly since 1997, when he was simply the head of a department in a presidential administration at the Kremlin,” Chaly replied. “He sees the breakup of the Soviet Union as a great historical mistake. He wants to try to restore the thinking of the Cold War.”
In 2009, the ambassador recalled, “Crimea hosted a meeting of leaders of CIS countries; Putin was prime minister at the time. I told him ‘Welcome to Ukraine.’ He was surprised, because usually when he came to Crimea, he was welcomed by other words. I was reminding him that Crimea was Ukrainian territory. He only smiled.”
Yet the following year, in April 2010, Chaly quit as deputy foreign minister to protest Yanokovych’s policies. He then returned to the Razumkov Centre — a Kiev-based think tank where he had spent three years as deputy director-general before joining the government. Last July, Poroshenko asked him to represent Ukraine in Washington.
“Maintaining trust is the basis for our strategic partnership with the United States,” he told The Diplomat. “We want to combine our efforts to resolve the crisis created by Russia in Eastern Europe, to restore the international order destroyed by Russia, and to find the best model of security in this part of the world.”
Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members — the United States, Great Britain, France, China and Russia — vowed to guarantee Ukraine’s security in return for giving up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.
“Unfortunately, this guarantee did not allow us to respond to Russia’s occupation of Crimea,” Chaly said. “Russia has completely violated and destroyed this agreement.”
In September 2014, Poroshenko visited Washington, telling a joint session of Congress that Ukraine needed military equipment — both lethal and non-lethal — in order to defeat the separatists pulling his country apart. “Blankets and night-vision goggles are important,” he told lawmakers, “but one cannot win a war with blankets.”
Chaly, who wrote that speech, said there was ample criticism of the White House back then, “but now we are satisfied with the level of cooperation and bipartisan support from Congress, and from the administration. The situation has changed. We see the United States as our main partner, together with the EU, and we want a common understanding for the future. We thank and appreciate U.S. economic support.”
He said Ukraine has dramatically improved its defense capabilities since then.
“We simply did not have military forces last year. We had only 6,000 soldiers and officers ready to fight,” he said. “Now we have one of the most effective and experienced armies in Eastern Europe, with combat experience.”
Even so, Chaly added, “Russia used sophisticated, new weapons on our territory. We are still losing our people because of landmines, though we have kept the ceasefire.”
In September, two prominent think tanks issued a damning report that accuses Moscow of “directly coordinating and leading the fight to destabilize and disunite Ukraine” — despite Putin’s increasingly desperate efforts to hide the truth.
“An Invasion by Any Other Name: The Kremlin’s Dirty War in Ukraine” is a joint production of the New York-based nonprofit Institute of Modern Russia and The Interpreter, a daily online journal that translates articles from Russian media while reporting on events in Russia and countries directly affected by Moscow’s foreign policy.
The report itself is a painstakingly detailed, blow-by-blow chronology of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, starting with Putin’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, the May 25 election that brought Poroshenko to power, and an attack the very next day against Donetsk’s recently renovated international airport.
That May 26 battle killed at least 30 Russian-backed fighters as Ukraine counterattacked with paratroopers, Su-25 ground-attack aircraft, MiG-29 jets, and helicopter gunships. According to the report, evidence soon emerged that many of the dead soldiers were in fact Russian; their bodies were among the first so-called “Cargo 200” shipments secretly sent back to Russia for burial.
“The evidence is so overwhelming, and there is so much of it,” said one of the report’s lead authors, James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter. “Western journalists watched as Russian military hardware poured over the border. That should have showed us a window into how the Kremlin was attempting to influence Ukraine—at first with a hands-off approach through the now-infamous ‘little green men,’ then ultimately through armored divisions, paratroopers, and Russian combat soldiers operating and building bases in Ukraine and across the border.”
By mid-June, amid escalating fighting, reporters learned that three T-72 main battle tanks had crossed the Russian border into Ukraine. According to the report, the vehicles had been stripped of all identifiable symbols and numbers — a tactic commonly used in Crimea by the Russian military.
“In the midst of this escalation, a civilian airliner is shot down,” said Miller, referring to the downing of MH17. “This was a casualty of this constant ramping up of direct, very reckless military intervention on Russia’s part.”
A lesser-known aspect of the Ukraine conflict is the degree to which Moscow seeks to cover up the deaths of Russian soldiers—even to the point of harassing journalists trying to film military funerals or interview widows about their loved ones.
“The bulk of the evidence to suggest a Russian invasion has come from Russian journalists and Russian civil society,” explained Michael Weiss, editor-in-chief of The Interpreter and senior editor at The Daily Beast. “The [Putin] government has made every attempt to castigate these groups, accusing them of being foreign agents or hirelings of the State Department.”
Myroslava Gongadze, a TV anchor and reporter for the Voice of America’s Ukrainian-language service, says the report is “clear evidence” of the West’s unwillingness to call what’s happening in Ukraine an invasion. She added that neither the Minsk I nor Minsk II ceasefire accords will stop the fighting permanently — nor is this a “frozen conflict” as some in the U.S. media have been labeling the war.
“This will always be a burning conflict, because there are no clear barriers in eastern Ukraine as we see in Georgia with Abkhazia, or in Transnistria,” Gongadze said. “Fighting will escalate again. The only way to solve this is to strengthen reform and support the Ukrainian military. Unfortunately, NATO doesn’t have a clear strategic policy toward Russia. We have to stop seeing Putin as just a bad boy. He is a criminal.”
John Herbst, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006, believes Washington could — and should — be doing far more to help Ukraine defend itself. He recently predicted that the Pentagon would begin exporting so-called lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine by late 2016 or early 2017.
“Obama should also decide in the near future to visit Kiev on one of his two planned trips to Europe later this year,” said Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. “He has yet to visit Ukraine as president, and such a stop would demonstrate that the U.S. will not permit the Kremlin’s aggression to succeed.”
Chaly said two factors will eventually return Crimea — which Russia ceded to Ukraine in 1954 — back to Ukrainian sovereignty: changes in the Kremlin leadership, and the economic well-being of the peninsula’s inhabitants.
“If Ukraine proposes the best model for development, they will push out Russian military forces,” he suggested. “It’s a real challenge, and a threat to international order, but I believe that Crimea will someday be back in Ukrainian hands. It may be even less difficult with Crimea than with the Donbas, simply because they didn’t kill people in this occupation. It only takes time.”
Even so, said Ukraine’s envoy here, Putin’s aspirations are completely unrealistic.
“He wants to be an equal player to the president of the United States. He wants two people at the table — but it’s a crazy idea. Russia’s GDP is that of Texas. Last year it was that of the Netherlands. Apple’s stock is worth more than twice as much as all Russian companies combined. Nobody knows when things will change, but it’s a process that Putin can’t stop.”
Asked why Russia’s leader invaded his country in the first place, Chaly thought for a minute.
“It could have been another nation, but he simply wanted to demonstrate that in this part of the world, it’s impossible to maintain a tolerant, pluralistic model of democracy,” the ambassador finally replied. “He wants an authoritarian model for this region, and whoever disagrees with him will be under pressure. If and when Ukraine wins the support of the West, it will make a significant impact on all other countries of the region. By helping Ukraine now, you’re helping the Russian people for the future.”
Meanwhile, said Chaly, Ukrainians are looking more toward Brussels than toward Moscow these days, despite the financial crisis and migrant influx currently plaguing the 28-member EU. After all, that’s what sparked the very crisis that led to the Maidan revolt and Yanukovych’s overthrow in the first place.
“The Ukrainian people have chosen the path of our Western neighbors,” he insisted, “and now we are closer to Poland and the Czech Republic than to Russia.”
Two years ago, he said, 16 percent of Ukrainians supported NATO membership; now it’s 60 percent, according to a recent poll. Likewise, the proportion of respondents backing Ukraine’s entry into the EU has risen from 50 to 55 percent.
“That was one of the preconditions of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity,” he said. “I was an active participant in this revolution, and I was every day at the Maidan, including when they began killing my friends. So for me, it’s not only words.”
But even if Ukraine makes peace with its much larger neighbor, the country’s problems are far from over. Only 3 percent of Ukrainians are satisfied with the pace of reforms, according to a recent poll cited by The Economist, and not a single one of the former officials who ransacked the Ukrainian treasury as Yanukovych fled the country or caused the deaths of Maidan demonstrators in Kiev has ever been brought to justice.
Corruption is so endemic that Ukraine ranked 142nd out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index — one of the worst-performing of all ex-Soviet republics — behind Armenia (94th) Azerbaijan (126th) and Russia and Kyrgyzstan (tied for 136th) and ahead of only Uzbekistan (166th) and Turkmenistan (169th).
“The Ukrainian state, like the Russian one, still resembles a giant mafia,” The Economist opined Sept. 26. “It administers the country (reluctantly), but its main purpose is to generate graft and it governs largely by dishing out the proceeds.”
The magazine added: “Oligarchs and their political cronies still dominate Ukrainian life. Should the government do too much to fight corruption, the oligarchs may use their private armies to stage a coup. Should the government do to little, angry Maidan veterans might stage one themselves. That could leave Europe with a failed state on its borders contested by rival militias — a European Syria.”
Chaly conceded that corruption is a huge problem in his country, offering explanations as to why that came to be.
“In the 24 years since the Soviet Union’s breakup, Ukraine was an oligarch-led system, with very close ties between politicians and businessmen,” he said. “For the first time in our history, civil society rose up to destroy this system, and now even the president of Ukraine has taken the leadership in reforms.”
The ambassador added: “Corruption exists in all countries, but in Ukraine at a very high level — and you can’t simply change this if you don’t reform the judicial and procurement system. These reforms should all be implemented at the same time.”
Olena Tyshchenko, director of the Agency for Asset Recovery at Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs, recently visited Washington at the invitation of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, and spoke about her new agency’s efforts to clean out the rot.
“We have a very strong will to do this, and we're trying to modernize the way the Ministry of Internal Affairs investigates criminal offenses. Ukraine does not have a lot of experience with this,” said Tyshchenko, who was head the new agency in July by Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.
“It’s important to bring the assets back to Ukraine, but the first step is to cut the people in question from those assets — and this can be achieved with other countries’ help. I’m trying to break this vicious circle,” she said.
However, it’s not easy when official bribes paid in Ukraine averages $150,000, according to Tyshchenko, and when wealthy oligarchs control so many companies — from processed food to petrochemicals — crucial to Ukraine's economy.
“Most of our media still belongs to former oligarchs who use those channels for smear campaigns,” said the lawyer, who herself has a dubious past; she previously represented the interests of Mukhtar Ablyazov — the former head of a major Kazakh bank embroiled in scandal. Tyshchenko also spent time in a Russian jail on suspicion of fraud and the laundering of $3.3 billion in illegally obtained funds, though she claimed those charges were politically motivated.
Chaly said one way to fight corruption is to decentralize the country’s system of government, a highly controversial concept whose mere discussion has already led to isolated outbreaks of violence.
That’s why, he said, Ukraine wants to follow the Polish model of decentralization — and is counting on support from Polish and other European experts on the subject.
“Decentralization is mostly about local authorities taking responsibility. Before that, 90 percent of the money was coming back to the capital, with bureaucrats there making decisions. That’s a basis for corruption. Now, with the political will of the president of Ukraine, he’s giving not only responsibility but also the mechanism of control to the local level.”
One proponent of that approach is Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, who is now governor of Odessa, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city and a crucial Black Sea port. Recruited by Poroshenko as part of an anti-corruption drive, Saakashvili is attempting to replicate in Odessa the political and economic reforms he pushed through in Georgia from 2004 to 2013.
Likewise, another foreigner, Lithuanian economist Aivaras Abramavicious — the new Ukrainian minister of economic development and trade — is trying to adapt a more businesslike model of management, said Chaly. That involves shrinking the ministry from a Soviet-style bureaucracy to a small, streamlined one-stop shop.
“One of my priorities as ambassador is to invite investors with strategic thinking to Ukraine,” Chaly said. “Even now in this difficult situation, we have many proposals from U.S. investors for the privatization of state-owned companies,” especially in the areas of information technology and agribusiness.
“People understand that we are, in effect, in a state of war. We’ve spent 90 billion hryvnia (more than $4.5 billion) on defense,” he said. “Two years ago, we bought 32 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia. This year, it’ll be four billion, and within five years, maybe it’ll be zero. So we must diversify our supply from Western Europe.”
Asked whether he’d ever agree to a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Washington, Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Chaly did not appear enthused at all.
“I’m not sure I’d want to shake his hand, but I’m ready to go on a talk show and defend our position — though definitely not in a private meeting. I’m 100 percent sure on that,” he said, adding quickly: “It’s nothing personal. I had many friends in Russia before the war. But after they attacked my country, things changed.”
Sadly, he said, Ukraine is no match for the Kremlin’s well-funded media blitz.
“Russia’s propaganda machine has significant financial resources and yes, the Russian people believe it,” he said. “If I’m not mistaken, Russia spends hundreds of millions of dollars only in the U.S., including the 100 journalists at Russia Today.”
Chaly said he’d like to launch a pan-European, Russian-speaking TV channel for viewers in member countries of the EU, which he calls Ukraine’s main audience for counter-propaganda efforts. Said the ambassador: “We must keep the focus on Ukraine and spread the truth.”