Ukrainian society is historically democratic. We are the ones who prefer the parliamentary debate. — Volodymyr Ohryzko
Ukraine is a semi-presidential republic. The effectiveness of this form of government is still under question. As a part of our project #ukrstateunderconstruction dedicated to the 30th anniversary of independence, the head of the Center of United Actions Oleh Rybachuk conducted a series of interviews with statespersons of independent Ukraine. These are unorthodox conversations about the Ukrainian state and its institutions in the making.
Here we present an interview with the eighths Minister of Foreign Affairs Volodymyr Ogryzko about the genesis and development of Ukrainian diplomacy, the moment when we truly chose a pro-European course, and what steps Russia took after the collapse of the USSR to keep Ukraine under its influence.
How did the community of diplomats — people, who just yesterday were soviet people, — react to the declaration of the independence of Ukraine?
At the time, there was a group of people within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Ukrainian SSR who had been dreaming of Ukrainian independence since the mid-1980s. A small group, but, still, it was already forming. These five or six people already felt that it was unjust that we, the Ukrainian people, with a millennial tradition, with real, not fictional, history, with our own culture, are still a part of a political construct that does not suit our interests. Even then we were already thinking about what will happen when Ukraine becomes independent. As you may recall, the Declaration of State Sovereignty was forged in the interiors of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.
We started to develop a certain position, and, in the end, it came to being. So, of course, it was a great psychological breakthrough for us, it was a great inner joy and victory. However, I do understand your question. What happened did not mean that the population of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic suddenly became Ukrainian citizens. Unfortunately, even now this is not the case. This was only the first step towards what is called “a civil society”.
What was the start of Ukrainian diplomacy after independence?
I will say quite honestly that we had a difficult start: we had no system. That is, there was a central apparatus with 50-60 employees if you count everyone from the minister to a typist. We also had, at the time, several people in soviet missions abroad called missions of the Ukrainian SSR. I mean our missions to the UN in New York, UNESCO in Paris, and international organizations in Geneva and Vienna.
We had access only to multilateral diplomacy, i.e. international organizations. We could not even imagine bilateral diplomacy then since we had no embassies.
Who approved agréments (state’s consent to accept a person as a head of a diplomatic mission of another state — ed.) during the first years of independence? How did it work?
From August 24 till December 1 our general consulates were still operating as usual but they were already beginning to understand that they would soon become embassies. But until December 1 no one even thought of issuing letters of credence (a document accrediting diplomats — ed.). Then the question of diplomatic recognition of Ukraine arose.
Note: On December 1, 1991, a national referendum on the Act of Declaration of Independence was held. 90.32% of Ukrainians voted in favor of the Act.
I remember the Consul General of Poland coming to Zlenko’s office at around 9 pm. He first called the secretariat and said: “Gentlemen, I apologize for coming at nine o’clock in the evening, but I have an urgent message for the minister. I ask you to find him wherever he is.” Zlenko, however, was still at work at that time, because we all sat there (at the ministry — ed.) every night and every day.
This was the beginning of diplomatic recognition of Ukrainian independence. The next day we were recognized by Canada, and then the process unwinded.
So first years were spent on just constructing the system?
I can give an example from my personal experience. In early March 1992, I was sent to Germany as a part of the first group of Ukrainian diplomats, who, in fact, began to build our diplomatic presence in this country. We only had two rooms in a soviet complex there. I remember everything like it was yesterday: a table, a broken chair. This was the beginning of our diplomatic presence in the Federal Republic of Germany.
Everywhere it was like that. That is, we started from scratch, and it was a really hellish job. At first, we had only one car for the whole embassy. In short, it was a difficult part of our diplomatic life.
How did Ukrainian diplomats survive abroad at a time when hyperinflation, barter and coupon rubles prevailed in Ukraine?
We started in quite difficult conditions. But I will honestly tell you, I was motivated by a completely different thing. We were pioneers, we were starting from scratch. We were working on our dream, we wanted to put Ukraine on a par with other countries, to show that it is not just one of the (former soviet — ed.) republics, but a large and powerful European nation that is knocking on the door: “Please open, we are already here.”
After the collapse of the USSR, surprisingly, the first decisions of our Ministry of Finance regarding the salaries of diplomats abroad were fairly good. Our rates initially were higher than those of Russian diplomats. Former Russian diplomats with some Ukrainian roots even came to us with requests like this: “You know, I am Petrenko Petro Petrovych, I am a Ukrainian and have a very good attitude towards the Ukrainian state. It is young, nice, and promising. Can reach an agreement, do you think?” We felt pretty good about that and proudly answered: “You know, you don’t fit with us.” Later Russians got the situation and proposed salaries much higher than ours, and there were no such requests anymore.
How did the institution of the presidency appear in the layout of the young Ukrainian state?
I think it was copied from the government system of the late USSR. Mikhail Gorbachev was the first president of the USSR. Later, it became clear that Boris Yeltsin would become the president of the Russian Federation. I think that in that situation our political elite had no choice but to copy, ape their system and get a president who was on par with others. You may recall that Belarus at the time was represented by the Chairman of the Supreme Council, Stanislav Shushkevich, who felt a little less powerful when the meetings took place after the collapse of the USSR. After all, other states were represented by presidents, and he was only the Chairman of the Supreme Council.
He was short from some baseline. And in that situation, it was necessary to demonstrate that we are the same as, for example, Poles, Germans, or Americans, that we have a power hierarchy of our own and it is similar to those of civilized countries.
What was the role of President Kravchuk in the reorganization of Ukrainian diplomacy?
He had to represent the state in international relations from the first day in office. It was his responsibility to have a clear idea of what was going on, what was for the benefit of Ukraine, and what was not.
And let me take the liberty of saying that the first slip-up (of Kravchuk — ed.) that we have immediately felt at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was Kravchuk’s trip after December 1, when there were talks with Yeltsin and Shushkevich about the dissolution of the USSR — which was an absolutely right step — and its replacement with the Commonwealth of Independent States. Boris Yeltsin’s key goal was just to change the sign and nothing more. He wanted to take Gorbachev’s place, to lead Russia, but simultaneously keep relations between Moscow and the republics the same albeit under a different name. What was agreed on December 7, 1991, in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, paved the way for such a development, unfortunately.
Did we have a chance to get rid of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation in Crimea? Why have we failed to do that?
We could not get rid of it, but we could have taken it for ourselves. I think that the second mistake of Ukraine under Kravchuk was that this decisive step has not been taken. Why do I say that? According to documents on the collapse of the USSR, everything that was on the territory of a particular country had to be automatically transferred under its jurisdiction. Therefore, a political decision had to be made. I think that was equally the mistake of the Ministry of Defense.
It was a stalemate situation because Igor Kasatonov, the commander-in-chief of the Black Sea Fleet at that point, was a strong supporter of Russia and was not going to submit to Kyiv.
There were no clear signals from Kyiv, and Moscow was busy with its own problems and didn’t have time for the Black Sea Fleet. In the end, everything was decided by Kasatonov: “If there are no instructions, I make a commander’s decision that the Black Sea Fleet will be Russian.” He informed Moscow that Ukraine was not taking any real steps to take away the Black Sea Fleet.
In fact, from that moment begins the tragedy which continues to this day. If the Russian Black Sea Fleet had left Sevastopol then, many problems we are dealing with even now would not have been an issue: the Black Sea Fleet remained the nest of the KGB, the FSB, and all the GRU and a source of destabilization.
The next loss was nuclear weapons after the Budapest Memorandum. Why haven’t we managed to get better guarantees or better help ensuring our future security?
Before this loss, there was another one. Can I speak about it?
We gave up Russia the seat in the UN Security Council.
Voluntarily. All the post-Soviet states at the next gathering of the CIS simply voted that we give Russia the right to continue the line of the USSR in the UN Security Council. Instead, we could have made some demands, discuss some other proposals, and so on. In my opinion, this was the second big mistake of our diplomacy under Kravchuk.
The next loss: nuclear weapons, the Budapest Memorandum, and vague security guarantees.
Well, I think there is no doubt that we had to give up our strategic nuclear weapons. I talked about this with the first Minister of Defense, Konstantin Morozov, and with many other people who were involved. They understood from real life, not from newspapers, what it was about. There was no way to keep strategic missiles because we were unable to ensure their safety. That is, they really had to be abandoned.
You correctly mentioned the terrible economic situation we had. If I’m not mistaken, we received $ 800 million then as compensation for these weapons. Experts said their real value ranged from $ 50 billion to $ 60 billion. So, we were stripped, like children, and told: “Well, you should be happy with this.” So, theoretically, we should have pushed our demands, but it seems to me that it was not possible.
Perhaps there was a kind of naive belief that if such prominent people have promised something, they would keep their promises. Well, as you see, none of the parties involved held to their word. Russia has grossly violated the memorandum and simply annexed a part of our territory, and other parties which promised to guarantee our security have refused to do so.
According to the Constitution of Ukraine, the President officially coordinates our foreign policy. At the same time, you and I are well aware that the President is mostly focused on domestic politics. It is expected of him to improve living standards and repair roads as well. What was the role of President Leonid Kuchma in foreign policy after the election of 1994?
You are right, in Ukraine, the President is responsible for everything from space travel to kindergartens. And this is sad because since we have a semi-presidential republic there should be a clear understanding of the distinction between the responsibilities of the Parliament and the President. Unfortunately, we live in the paradigm of the soviet system of government where the President is responsible for everything. As the Secretary General before, he is the first person of the state. In my opinion, though, President Kuchma paid quite serious attention to this area during his first term.
Yes. I joined the Presidential Administration in early 1996. To be honest, in those years our foreign policy was intense. Every month the President made two or even three visits abroad. When I was finishing my work, I came to the President and said: “Leonid Danylovych, can I have two weeks off? Otherwise, I’m going to have a heart attack, I can’t take it anymore.” I went to a sanatorium near Kyiv, and a doctor there told me: “Well, one more month, and you would have been our patient.”
And, as a matter of fact, in that first period, the foundations of our European and Euro-Atlantic course were laid. Even then we clearly formulated these priorities as the core of our foreign policy strategy. Of course, I must also mention Russia. Russian lobby in our country worked to a completely different end and tried to turn Leonid Danylovych to Russia.
Kuchma called it multilateralism. How effective was this policy?
Even then, we felt in our guts that the main threat was Russia. And it still is. From this point of view, it was a victory for us to conclude the so-called “great treaty between Ukraine and Russia” in May of 1997 about friendship, where for the first time it was written in black and white that Russia recognized the independence of Ukraine within its existing borders and that Russia will not question it.
It was some kind of a political “rubber” formula that was supposed to protect us from everything bad. As a result, the Russian Federation has managed to convince the leadership of Ukraine that “well, if we are strategic partners, brothers, friends “forever and ever”, then why are you so against our Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol? Let’s extend its stay for another 20 years.”
Can we say that under Kuchma’s administration we have actually sacrificed international values, relations, and security in exchange for cheap energy from Russia?
This had nothing to do with foreign policy. As the head of the foreign policy department of the Presidential Administration, I and my colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs focused on building normal bilateral relations with the West while maintaining a certain level of mutual understanding with Russia. President Kuchma was in fact balancing, he understood that Russia is a partner, but not a friend.
2003, Tuzla, the first serious crisis in relations between Ukraine and Russia. What was the role of the President in resolving this crisis?
Note. On September 29, 2003, Russia began constructing a dam to the Ukrainian island of Tuzla.
The President played a key role in that situation. He interrupted his visit to Latin America and, can you imagine, actually returned to Ukraine within a day and a half. I think that his direct participation played a very positive role. He stopped the aggravation which could have turned into the first skirmishes, even actual shooting.
The Russian Federation and its diplomacy act in a very simple, very straightforward manner. First, they make a scandal, escalate a conflict, and then they retreat. Before retreating, however, they always say “but”, and this “but” this time turned into an agreement on the Sea of Azov. The Sea of Azov was recognized as a mediterranean sea of two states, so any foreign warship from that moment has to get permission from both sides to enter. That was a de facto closure of the Sea of Azov. Russians refused to delimit the sea border, achieved what they wanted. How? With a provocation. And that is how they operate everywhere. This is what Russia has been doing, is doing, and, while it still exists, will probably continue to do.
Let’s get back to Ukraine. The year 2007. President nominates you for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but the Parliament fails the vote on the first try. What are other examples of difficult relations between the President, the Prime Minister, and the Parliament? How would you describe them?
Regarding the two political forces of that period, the Party of Regions and the Communists, they knew about my pro-Ukrainian position for a long time. They hoped that something bad happens to me. Thank God, I continued working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and doing things they were annoyed with. At closed meetings in high offices, I was openly saying that Russia is hardly our friend. I was looked at with disbelief, even in those days. They thought I was exaggerating. I warned the National Security and Defense Council, the Cabinet of Ministers, and the Presidential Secretariat: dear colleagues, we must now begin to rethink everything happening in the Russian Federation.
How would you describe the system of government under President Viktor Yushchenko? What were its strengths and weaknesses?
If we are talking purely of my area of responsibility, the President and I had no ideological differences. His position was pro-NATO, pro-Ukrainian, and pro-European. He defended the right of Ukrainians to have their own identity and make the world recognize this identity. By the way, that was a presidential initiative to actively highlight the message that the Holodomor was a genocide of the Ukrainian people. Many of our Western partners had trouble grasping the idea at first.
So I believe that in this regard in foreign policy we were working in the right direction. However, this did not apply to relations with Russia, where we gradually but surely were coming to a clinch.
In your opinion, which decisions of the Ukrainian authorities led to the gas wars of 2005 and 2008-2009? Which forces were involved and why did President Yushchenko fail to diversify gas suppliers? What prevented this?
Note: here we talk about a series of economic conflicts between companies Naftogaz Ukraine and Gazprom over the terms of natural gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine.
Mister Oleh, you remember that his first year in office, 2005, was the only year when Yushchenko still had the power to make all decisions unilaterally. On January 1, 2006, we became a semi-presidential republic, so all powers, at least powers concerning economic decisions, fell into the hands of the Cabinet. And who led the Government at that time? We, mister Oleh, know that too well. We also know what the gas business was like.
The Prime Minister at the time was Yulia Tymoshenko.
That is why Yushchenko’s pro-Western line and Tymoshenko’s openly pro-Russian line collided. She wanted all these gas-related business to continue. In my opinion, this business was a tragedy for Ukraine: these ties, gas-related and corrupted, were destroying Ukraine until the moment we gave up Russian gas. It seems to me that the key mistake of all presidents was the unwillingness to develop the domestic gas and oil sectors in Ukraine.
Let’s move on to Yanukovych. You were a member of the National Security and Defense Council when he was elected president. How would you describe the power structure during the era of Yanukovych?
One word will be enough, I think. Criminal. It worked for the benefit of another state and its own pockets. For this government, the main purpose was to accumulate huge sums of money. The Ukrainian state as such was not interesting for it.
How did this enormous concentration of finances and power affect foreign policy and security?
Under Yanukovych, a completely inept move was taken to make Ukraine a non-aligned state.
Note: in 2010, the Parliament passed a law making Ukraine a non-aligned state. It was abolished in 2014.
In 2014, we saw that it was all in vain. Permission for the Russian Black Sea Fleet to stay on the territory of Ukraine was extended until 2042 for some imaginary discounts on gas and so on. Western partners began to turn away from us because they saw that this was a criminal regime and it would cost your reputation to make any deals with it.
But Ukrainians stood up against the regime and went to Maidan. Euromaidan demanded to change the system, not faces. Has it achieved its goal?
In my opinion, partial success was achieved. I believe that the key achievement of Euromaidan was that it was the beginning of a real civil society in Ukraine. Noone made volunteers fundraise for our soldiers, buy helmets, and everything else. Nobody made people without military experience join the army and move to the frontlines next week. My belief is that it was a transition from being a population to becoming citizens.
How would you describe the era of President Poroshenko? He was, among other things, your colleague. How were geopolitical challenges solved then, how did Ukrainian diplomacy work under Poroshenko?
Conditions at the time were extremely unfavorable, and I just want to thank my colleagues for their professionalism and patriotism. I talked to many of those who were there at the time, as they say, on the cutting edge of both the administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In most cases, I suppose, they did their job professionally.
We must understand that diplomacy does not work in a vacuum. If the President makes a political decision, diplomats must implement it. If a diplomat gets an order “here are the Minsk agreements, proceed with them,” he does not have a choice on the matter but to proceed.
But does the country have a strategy on how to return Crimea and the occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions? Is there a document that diplomats can follow?
There is a good initiative, the Crimea Platform. A truly powerful diplomatic event will be held on August 23 (the founding summit of the Crimea Platform — ed.).
Many state leaders confirmed their participation.
And they will once again confirm politically that Crimea is a part of Ukraine. They will announce that sanctions will be prolonged. As far as I know, strategies are being developed, so to speak, in certain areas of public diplomacy, economic sanctions, and so on.
This is all great, but Putin still sits in the Kremlin. And for him the issue of Crimea is sacred. I think this is not about logic, but rather about psychology. This is a mental problem.
Let’s talk about what we have today. How would you describe our system of government, its strengths and weaknesses?
Being very young diplomats, we were taught the formula for success in diplomacy. This very simple formula was described by Hennadiy Yosypovych Udovenko, a patriarch of the Ukrainian diplomatic core. It’s called a “three Ps” formula: professionalism, patriotism, and probity.
If you think about it, this formula is suitable not only for diplomats but also for politicians and civil servants. Because these “three Ps“, in fact, define the personality of a leader, a civil servant.
So, let’s take these criteria and try to apply them to the current government. What do we see? It is quite difficult to find professionals there even if you use a magnifying glass.
If we are talking about patriotism… I do not know. For some reason, I always keep in mind the cases of playing the piano with certain body parts and songs where Ukraine is compared to a prostitute.
If we are talking about probity, for the government that supposedly does not steal and lives by moral principles there were too many screw-ups already. It does not look well.
But at the same time, I must say quite honestly that we cannot fail to notice his progress. In particular, regarding our main enemy, the Russian Federation. Our main and only enemy, because we have no more enemies in the world.
Zelensky’s evolution from “Well, let’s just stop shooting” to “why is Ukraine not in NATO?”, addressed to Biden, is a rather significant and rapid evolution. It demonstrates that being in power gives an understanding of what is happening and who you are dealing with.
And now my last question. Where do you think such a system of government will take us? What is our future, what is the trajectory of our flight?
You know, people call me a dreamer, but yet everything starts with a dream, right? My dream is that we will finally join the EU and NATO. And I predict this will happen in the near future.
When we finally join these alliances of civilized countries, we will finally abandon this centralism, style of government inherited from the times of Genghis Khan. We will move on to normal European democratic practices where there are real political forces, a real parliament, where a president has some limited powers and does not interfere with political life at the present scale.
Ukrainian society is historically democratic. We cannot stand an autocracy. We are the ones who prefer the parliamentary debate. We do not mind shouts, squabbles, etc., because, in the end, we come to a common position that we all support. “Tsar orders — and lackeys fall on their knees and start kissing his shoes” — that is not our tradition. That is why I believe that in the end we will return to our origins.
Meanwhile, the history of our northeastern neighbor will come to an end, and I sincerely believe that we will help it with this. That is the way history works: all empires are artificial constructs, they cannot last forever, so eventually they fall apart. When this Mordor is replaced by normal civilized states deprived of imperial ambitions, imperial practices, then the whole North Atlantic and this post-Russian space will become the prototype of a new construct from Vancouver to Vladivostok. There will be security, respect for human rights, and economic growth. People will feel that they live in a civilized society.
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