U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine: Anti-Russian sanctions won't be lifted unless full Minsk implementation
An exclusive interview by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt to the Interfax-Ukraine News Agency
Q1: How do you assess the current political situation in Ukraine after the resignation of the Minister of Economic Development and Trade while other ministers withdrew their letters of resignation? Will, in your opinion, such developments contribute to reforms in the country?
As my Ambassadorial colleagues and I said, we were deeply disappointed by the resignation of Minister for Economic Development and Trade Aivaras Abromavicius, who has delivered real reform results for Ukraine. During the past year, Abromavicius and his professional team made important strides -- implementing tough but necessary economic reforms to help stabilize Ukraine’s economy, root out endemic corruption, bring Ukraine into compliance with its IMF program obligations, and promote more openness and transparency in government. Ukraine’s stable, secure and prosperous future will require the sustained efforts of a broad and inclusive team of dedicated professionals who put the Ukrainian peoples' interests above their own. It is important that Ukraine's leaders set aside their parochial differences, put the vested interests that have hindered the country's progress for decades squarely in the past, and press forward on vital reforms.
Q2: How do you evaluate the pace of reforms in Ukraine? What directions are the most problematic with reforms being implemented very slowly or blocked at all?
Two years after the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine’s leaders -- spurred on by an active, engaged, and committed civil society -- have pressed forward on difficult political and economic reforms to bring Ukraine closer to its chosen European future. They have done so in the face of a Kremlin-manufactured conflict in the East and a struggling economy inherited from the Yanukovych era, making all that has been accomplished in past two years even more inspiring.
Change has not come easily; it has come with great sacrifice. As Vice President Biden said during his visit, each of us has an obligation to answer the call of history and help build a united, democratic Ukraine. In the day-to-day politics and the bureaucratic struggles, it’s easy to get lost in the details. But at times like these, it’s important to keep our eyes on the horizon – to stay focused on the trend lines, not the headlines. To recognize that reform is happening, and progress is being made. More progress, in fact, than at any time in Ukraine’s history.
In the last two years, Ukraine has held successful presidential, parliamentary, and local elections in line with international norms. You’ve stuck to your IMF program. You’ve worked hard to regain Ukraine’s credibility with the international financial community. Across Ukraine, you have a new, clean national police force. You’ve made progress on decentralization -- empowering local communities to improve services for citizens. Economic growth is returning, and a new Free Trade Zone with the European Union took effect this year.
We all acknowledge that more can and must be done, particularly in the area of corruption. The Prosecutor’s Office, for instance, must hold thieves accountable for the criminal plunder of the state, and truly empower an independent Inspector General to put an end to corruption within the PGO. Legislation has been passed, people have been appointed. Now is the time for action. The world is watching, and Ukrainians in every oblast are watching.
Another issue I would flag for 2016 is work by the Cabinet of Ministers to accelerate the pace of deregulation and create an environment that fosters both domestic and external investment. It’s increasingly clear that Ukrainian consumers alone cannot fill the hole created by the nearly 12 percent GDP contraction in 2015. Foreign investment can and should make up much of the difference, but will only do so if it’s crystal clear that the “old Ukraine” of bribes, regulation and appropriation has been put behind us.
But the progress of the last two years shows that Ukraine is moving forward. Two years ago on the Maidan and in the years since, you’ve shown the world that when Ukrainians stand together, there’s nothing you can’t achieve. To succeed, Ukraine’s leaders need to put the people first and rise above the posturing and petty politics that plagued the country’s past. Government officials, business leaders, and everyday citizens need to continue to demonstrate in word and deed their commitment to building a new Ukraine and show the world that there can be no return to the ways of the past.
Q3 / Q4: What position will the United States take in the context of cooperation between Ukraine and the IMF? Is there a risk that the disbursement of the next IMF tranche could be postponed because of the unstable situation in the Ukrainian government and the parliamentary coalition?
I think Vice President Biden put it best when he spoke to this last summer at the U.S. – Ukraine Business Forum in Washington: You keep reforming, we’ll keep supporting. That’s a message that senior U.S. officials continue to convey to the Ukrainian government. It’s a message that Secretary Pritzker conveyed when she was here in October, and Secretary Lew reinforced when he was here in November. Ukraine needs to continue to make progress to improve the business climate, strengthen governance and competition, tackle corruption, repair the financial sector, and eliminate poorly targeted energy subsidies while protecting the most vulnerable members of society. There’s more work to be done to curb corruption, improve tax administration, strengthen intellectual property rights, deepen the gas sector reform, continue privatization in a transparent manner, and support the rule of law. The Ukrainian government and parliament must remain disciplined in implementing the government’s reform strategy, and resist pressure to slide back on these critical efforts. The United States will continue to work closely with the IMF, the EU, the G7, and other donors to provide the necessary support for Ukraine’s efforts to improve the investment climate, integrate Ukraine into the global economy, and put this nation on a path to self-sustaining growth as long as Ukraine continues to press forward on vital reforms.
Q5: It is known that the President of Ukraine is visiting the United States in March. Is the possibility of the U.S. President’s visit to Ukraine being discussed?
President Obama has played a critical leadership role maintaining the international coalition on Ukraine — diplomacy with his European counterparts, lots of time on the phone with Chancellor Merkel, with Hollande, with Renzi, with all of our European partners. You’ve heard him speak out strongly in support of Ukraine at the United Nations and in his State of the Union Address in defense of the fundamental international principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. These principles are very important to us. That’s why the President and his Administration have taken a very strong position in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin-manufactured conflict in the east.
With respect to travel, I don’t have anything to announce. But I would note that the significant number of visits to Ukraine by senior U.S. officials is unprecedented. Vice President Biden and Secretary Kerry. Our Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. Commerce Secretary Pritzker and Treasury Secretary Lew. House Democratic Leader Pelosi and dozens of Members of Congress. Senior U.S. military officials like the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Milley, and U.S. Army Europe Commander General Hodges. NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Breedlove. These visits indicate the level of interest of policymakers in Washington and their desire to see Ukraine succeed.
Q6: Will the United States support Kyiv’s initiative to deploy a peacekeeping mission in Donbas? How realistic is this, in your opinion, under the current circumstances?
The best way to resolve the conflict in the east is to implement the Minsk agreements and ensure full support for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. That is our focus.
Q7: How do you assess the current situation in the Donbas? Is this, in your opinion, a “frozen conflict”? How could it be resolved?
It will come as no surprise to hear me say that the way to resolve the conflict in the east is the full implementation of Minsk. We still don’t have a full ceasefire. There’s still shelling. There are still skirmishes with Ukrainian soldiers and civilians killed or injured almost every day. Last week saw the highest number of ceasefire violations in six months. The first challenge is to establish security so the parties can get on to the other parts of Minsk, including moving forward on elections under Ukrainian law that meet OSCE standards so that the people of Donbas can select their own, legitimate leaders. We need to see hostages released, foreign military equipment and personnel leave and Ukrainian control of its international border restored.
Q8: There are speculations that the EU can decide this year not to extend the sanctions imposed on Russia for the failure to abide by Minsk II. What is the U.S. position on this? Does the U.S. plan to extend its sanctions against Russia?
Our position is clear and has not changed: we will not lift sanctions until and unless Russia fully implements Minsk. And so long as Russia illegally occupies Crimea, our Crimea sanctions will also remain in place.
Q9: Are there negotiations with Ukraine on providing lethal weapons, as Kyiv has long been insisting on this? What military and technical assistance from the United States should Ukraine expect this year?
We’re very proud of our robust security cooperation with Ukraine and the difference it is making in helping improve Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself. Since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014, the United States has committed more than $266 million in security assistance to Ukraine to help Ukrainian forces better monitor and secure their border, operate more safely and effectively, and defend their Ukraine’s sovereignty. In FY 2016, we expect to deliver approximately $335 million in additional security assistance.
U.S. trainers from the Joint Multinational Training Group (JMTG-U) are providing classroom and field training to Ukrainian Army soldiers and the new Ukrainian Special Operations Forces on a wide array of military specialties including medical, marksmanship, construction and demolition, explosive ordnance disposal, and communications. On the equipment side, that assistance has included body armor, military vehicles, night and thermal vision devices, medical equipment, heavy engineering equipment, secure communications equipment, patrol boats, rations, tents, and sophisticated counter-mortar and counter-battery radars. All of these activities are undertaken at the invitation of the Ukrainian government, and will continue in 2016. As I’ve said many times, the decision of whether or not to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine is one that will be made in Washington.
Q10: How do you see Ukraine’s participation in anti-terrorist operations in Syria, as the President of Ukraine earlier announced Ukraine’s readiness to assist the international coalition in the fight against terrorists.
We welcome Ukraine’s positive contributions on issues of global concern. This year, with Ukraine on the UN Security Council, the country has the opportunity to play a leading role – whether on Syria, DPRK, Iran, or on other pressing issues. Ukraine has an impressive record of contributing international peacekeeping operations. And it’s important to see Ukraine continue to step up and contribute to global security as it works to strengthen ties with European institutions and as it moves toward NATO.