Russia takes weakness of the opponent as an invitation to act – interview with Valeriy Chaly, Chair of the UCMC Board, Ambassador of Ukraine to the U.S. (2015-2019)

Will the drop in oil prices change the Kremlin’s Ukraine plans? Why should the EU and the U.S. extend sanctions on Russia? Can the Normandy format be effective? Is Russia’s large-scale aggression against Ukraine a realistic scenario? Why any direct talks between Ukraine and the occupied territories are not an acceptable format?  

Ukrainian media “Glavkom” sat down with Valeriy Chaly, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine, to ask him these questions and talk about a broader range of issues. Chaly devoted a large part of his professional life to the Razumkov Center where he chaired international programs, served as Deputy Head of the Administration of the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko advising him on foreign policy. Between 2015 and 2019 Chaly was the Ambassador of Ukraine to the United States. Two years ago the government of the Russian Federation issued a decree to include Valeriy Chaly in the list of sanctioned Ukrainians. Having finished his work as the Ambassador of Ukraine to the United States, Chaly is back in the non-governmental sector. He took up his work as the Chair of the UCMC Board.          

Full interview in Ukrainian is available at the link. UCMC prepared an abridged version for international readers.

You are the Chair of the Board at Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC). What are your current interests and research areas? 

I am back in the non-governmental sector. We established UCMC to actually respond to the start of the Russian aggression and occupation of Crimea. It was back in March 2014, when international community had to be told the truth. Today, same as then, our mission is to counter external aggression and support the advance of efficient reforms.   

UCMC now implements projects that counter information attacks and analyze hybrid threats, bolster implementation of key reforms including healthcare, education and decentralization reforms. 

On Russia’s aggression, drop in oil prices and a break during the pandemic

No one in the world seems to be prepared to what is happening in the oil markets. The government budget of the Russian Federation and its military capacities respectively were hit hard. Will the current situation make the Kremlin revise its aggressive intentions towards Ukraine?

The reasons behind the Kremlin’s aggressive actions run deep. They are historically conditioned; an authoritarian state is searching for its roots not even in the Soviet Union but as far back as in the Russian Empire. External expansion is nearly natural to the Russian Federation. That’s why the Russian-Ukrainian war was supposed to break out, sooner or later. Our conflict with Russia has existed forever and, unfortunately, will last long.  

Valeriy Chaly and John McCain

John McCain used to call Russia “a gas station masquerading as a country.” On one hand, it’s true. On the other hand, energy prices alone will not change the mindset of Russia’s governing elite. Will they change the governing elite in the nearest time? Probably, no. Understanding the risks from the drop in oil and gas prices, they foresaw some restraint and “airbags” in the form of the so-called National Welfare Fund and Reserve Fund. This “airbag” will be enough for a while. It is a long-lasting resource secured by loyalty and patience of the Russian people. Still, the pandemic is taking away many resources from Russia, so that the economic crisis will be felt by all Russians. We’ll see how Russia’s civil society will react to that. So far they are satisfied with how they are being governed. Ending the war with Russia is impossible, unless Russia stops the warfare itself. 

It now may seem that Russia took a break because of the pandemic, but the attacks in Donbas continue, our heroes keep dying and the number of wounded does not decrease. The war goes on. Although it’s called a hybrid war, it has hot phases, information and cyber attacks. There is a risk that if we fall out of focus of the key international players, Russia will get a chance to advance. It keeps bolstering weapons and fully equipped troops at our borders, reinforcing its positions in the Black Sea, impeding the freedom of navigation, violating countless provisions of international law, not to mention bilateral agreements with Ukraine.      

That’s why we have to be prepared for a long-standing conflict. But we have the truth on our side as well as international support built under the previous administration. The key task of the current President is to preserve this solidarity, instead of taking the wrong path of easy decisions that will definitely lead to nothing but capitulation. Russia likes unilateral action, not compromises, Russia’s leaders take opponent’s weakness for an invitation to act. I can affirm that as one who served as Secretary of the Strategic Group on the Ukrainian-Russian relations under two Presidents, encountered President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and spoke with him directly many times.  

Sanctions on the Russian Federation and signals for compromise

Initiatives have been voiced to revoke sanctions on the Russian Federation in view of the pandemic. Can it really happen?

When sanctions were being introduced, Ukraine had an active position: the country joined efforts to demonstrate to the world what was going on, starting from the attacks from the territory of Russia and ending with the invasion of Russia’s regular troops into our territory. When the international community got to see it, the majority of the countries in the world supported us. It was achieved thanks to Ukraine’s active position. If you are less persistent than your allies and partners, no one is going to support you more than you support yourself. Over 700 Russian entities and individuals under the U.S. sanctions are a result of huge, case-by-case work, these are not just political decisions.     

EU rolls out sanctions every six months, the U.S. also has a special procedure. It becomes more and more difficult to keep these sanctions, especially when our allies see that we are ready to take to one-sided actions more than we need to.  

Although the West now understands better the conflict and Russia’s motives, it still protects its national interests. It will never take our place in protecting our own interests. 

It will grow even more difficult. These difficulties, on one hand, are caused by certain fatigue of our Western partners, on the other hand, by actual changes in the tone and actions of our present administration. We need to be cautious. Russia takes signals for compromises as weakness and uses them to motivate the need to lift the sanctions to its foreign partners. You saw Russia stating at the UN that lifting the sanctions in times of the pandemic would be the right move from the humanitarian standpoint. That’s why now is the time to intensify the efforts to reinforce the sanctions. It should become the focus of major efforts by the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea and in Donbas continue and there are more than enough reasons for sanctions.   

On Minsk agreements, Budapest Memorandum and U.S.-Ukraine Charter

You directly witnessed how the Minsk agreements were written, the tone of the Normandy format meetings and the pace of negotiations with the U.S. on Crimea and Donbas. Under what conditions one should expect the Normandy format to be productive? Will Putin agree to include the U.S. in this format?

It is important to understand that there is nothing static in the world. In 2015 our primary task was to cease fire. It has never happened. So what further steps and formats are we talking about? No format is effective but the International Court at The Hague that will not only rule Russia’s actions illegal but will also hold all of its governing elite liable. There are obvious violations of bilateral agreements and international law. Not formats, but Ukraine’s strength is key here. The stronger the country is, the more realistic peace settlement becomes. The more you compromise with Russia, the more you demonstrate your weakness and protract peace. 

The U.S. is present in the negotiation process on peace settlement in Ukraine in one way or another, they are following the situation. The United States, same as our European partners know all the details of our talks, and the Normandy format is not the only one. While in office as the Ambassador, I used to talk to them a lot about the attack against our ships and navy sailors in the Kerch Strait and the violation of the freedom of navigation. According to the UN Charter, it was an act of direct aggression, so the question is not whether it comes within the scope of the Normandy format. These cases are considered by the United Nations Security Council, but Russia, being a member of the Council, blocks them. That’s why we’re in a stalemate. Surely, we need to engage the U.S. more. The framework of our relations with the U.S. is a strategic partnership. There is a powerful document that has been slightly forgotten – the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, it needs to be utilized to the fullest, so that we can interact with our ally as much as possible.        

There is also the Budapest Memorandum. We used to rely on it, taking it for a security guarantee, but the document did not work out. Sometimes I get to hear the opinion that the former administration was not able to use the document. While in office as the Ambassador, I used to present the arguments to U.S. counterparts highlighting the importance of this instrument, and U.S. experts supported me. Unfortunately, our arguments have not been fully effective. We also tried to get the status of the U.S. major non-NATO ally, but our European partners warned us that we would not be perceived as a country aiming for NATO membership. Still, this subject needs to stay on the agenda.      

Formats may differ, but there are two ways in current circumstances – entering NATO’s collective defense system, or signing a bilateral agreement with a powerful nuclear state, like the U.S. Aspiration to NATO membership cemented in the Constitution is not just symbolic, it is country’s primary direction. Right now, amid the economic crisis, Ukraine can demonstrate to many European sceptics that it is a reliable ally, with its aviation that assists NATO and its troops that take part in peacekeeping operations.     

After all, we are paying a huge price not only protecting ourselves, but actually providing cover for the Eastern flank of the Euro-Atlantic area. 

On Russia’s possible offensive, talks with militants and Consultation Council 

Last year you said that in 2020 Russia will be fully prepared for an offensive operation against Ukraine. Will the Kremlin dare to use all of its military forces deployed along our border? What does it depend on?

It is possible that the current situation has put the brakes on their plans and they will need several more months. Their spending is huge. They continue preparation, they have not given up the scenario of largescale aggression against Ukraine. At the same time the Russian government will not issue an order to attack, knowing that the price will be very high. Remember, how it was at the contact line? As soon as we were able to fire back and it was causing casualties on the attacker’s side, attacks immediately ceased. If in our military sector, in addition to well-motivated and fully supplied army, we also have strong troops in the sea and capacities to counter air strikes, it will make Russia’s advance impossible. Any attack is not just a breakthrough into a certain area, it is also about gaining a foothold in the territory. I find it hard to imagine Russian troops, even if they are several hundreds of soldiers, keeping the Ukrainian territory under control. The resistance would be countrywide. 

Russians also assess all these risks. If they were sure that they could quickly take Ukraine under control by military means, they would do it without hesitation. One should not have illusions, Crimea’s occupation proved it. Secondly, they still hope that they will be able to blast Ukraine from inside. In this dimension the threats are mounting. Unfortunately, these risks are reinforced by off-balance governance, weakened pace of actions in state security, decreased advance of reforms and lack of unity that would transform the citizens into a single political nation.         

Ukrainian authorities explain their intentions to sit with representatives of ORDLO (occupied territories – edit.) at the negotiation table saying that Ukraine needs to implement the 11th paragraph of the Minsk agreements that stipulates the need to agree certain issues with representatives of the occupied territories. Is there a solution for the 11th paragraph?   

It is crucial not to let Russia achieve its goal of repackaging the conflict from Ukrainian-Russian into allegedly Ukraine’s internal. The Minsk agreements are not a dogma. They can be revised to become more precise and complete. Why is the security question shifted to the background? Main goal of the Minsk agreements is written down in paragraph 1, it is an complete ceasefire. Ceasefire has never happened. In all these years the Minsk agreements were actually disregarded, by Russia in the first place. At the same time, these agreements have certain weight, they are linked to the sanctions and they clearly demonstrate how Russia is violating its commitments. How can we move forward if something as basic as implementation of the Minsk agreements is neglected?

There is another important aspect to the Minsk agreements. Who was their biggest opponent? Who was trying to avoid cementing the position on immediate ceasefire? President of the Russian Federation Putin. He was cagey and didn’t want to sign them. The French President François Hollande mentions it all in his memoirs, maybe someday even more details will be made public. Besides, different paragraphs of the agreements can be interpreted differently. These are agreements, not international treaties incorporated into the Ukrainian law. The room for maneuvers can be quite wide.  

What really works is the strong army, allies and constant pressure on Russia. All the moves with consultation councils will lead nowhere. I would advise against any other attempts or manipulations. Our allies say: do not give Russia a chance by showing that you are violating anything. It is a very subtle game, while the idea with the consultation council is not. Russia is using the lack of experience and weakness on the Ukrainian side. So the only right position is to keep a strong defense in diplomatic talks and at the contact line. Now is not the time for easy solutions. As long as hawks reign in Russia, the war with Russia will continue.  

What do the occupants want to demonstrate to us by putting forward intentions to rename Donetsk and Luhansk into Stalino and Voroshylovgrad?

It is a clear signal that they want no turning back. I don’t know why they are doing it in this particular moment, but they never do anything without Russia’s order. Maybe it is a signal that they are ready to keep getting money from Ukraine but will proceed with their separatist line anyway. In a unitary state, like Ukraine, what does it mean to rename (cities) on their own, without the parliamentary decision and with emphasis on Stalin’s epoch? It is a signal coming from their leaders saying that they will never be with us. These leaders live there well, they stole Ukrainian factories, they keep stealing money, they are also stealing from people who stayed in the temporarily occupied territory. At first, they thought they would unite with Russia. They have no illusions now, as running those territories is becoming more and more difficult. That’s why they need to return to Soviet symbols and tools of the totalitarian epoch. They probably need it more for the internal control, it is a signal from the metropole, the way they understand Moscow’s rationale – back to the empire.