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 Inaugural 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 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 nearly 45 million inhabitants, they’re only just beginning.
According to the United Nations, 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 subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Since then, pro-Russian rebels — claiming eastern Ukraine’s Donbass 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 over a year of painstaking forensic work, Dutch investigators concluded it was a Russian-developed Buk missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 777 as it was flying over eastern Ukraine. The report did not assign blame for the crash, though separatists were known to be launching that type of surface-to-air missile; the report was also critical of Ukraine for failing to close airspace above the conflict zone. Pro-Russian rebels have rejected the Dutch report, while Moscow called on the U.N. to launch its own investigation.
The downing of the airliner brought Ukraine’s war into sharp relief, but since then tensions have markedly decreased and international attention has shifted elsewhere. A shaky ceasefire reached in Minsk earlier this year is largely holding, although no headway has been made on core issues such as political autonomy, sparking fears that the de facto partition of Ukraine could solidify into a frozen conflict. In the meantime, both sides have endured economic hardship — leading to widespread disillusionment with a revolution that has resulted in problems, not progress.
An array of businesses has been forced to close in the east, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, starving Kiev of much-needed revenues. People in rebel-held territory, meanwhile, have been largely cut off from government assistance and are now reliant on Russia.
As winter sets in, many Ukrainians can barely afford to stay warm. This year, the country’s GDP is expected to shrink 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 currency, the hryvnia, was devalued by 70 percent. The Ukrainian government, however, expects growth to resume at 2 percent in 2016.
And although the guns have fallen silent, flare-ups 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 1 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.”
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 billionaire who 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.”
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 [Commonwealth of Independent States] 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.”
The following year, in April 2010, Chaly quit as deputy foreign minister to protest Yanukovych’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.
Now, Chaly’s job is to convince Washington to support his embattled nation. A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers has urged Obama to offer lethal aid to Ukraine, but the president remains lukewarm to the idea, fearing it could ignite more bloodshed and an arms race with Russia, which has more vested interests in the country than does the United States.
Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members 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 — 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 helped write 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.”
While Chaly has ostensibly changed his tune, 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.”
Meanwhile, according to Chaly, Ukrainians are looking not only to Washington for help but also to Brussels, despite the eurozone crisis and migrant influx currently plaguing the 28-member European Union. After all, Yanukovych’s moves to back away from further EU integration, believed to be the result of Russian pressure, are what sparked the protests 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,” the ambassador said, “and now we are closer to Poland and the Czech Republic than to Russia.”
Two years ago, he added, 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,” Chaly 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.”
Yet some experts say that the prospect of Ukraine aligning with Europe — and eventually joining NATO — is precisely what triggered the Russian backlash and precipitated the current crisis.
Ukraine — a former Soviet satellite located on Russia’s doorstep — has deep economic, cultural and historical ties to its eastern neighbor. For years, Putin has warned against creeping NATO expansionism in Moscow’s backyard and pulling countries such as Georgia into the West’s orbit.
International realists such as Harvard University’s Stephen Walt argue that NATO’s needless encroachment along Russia’s borders, even though the Western security bloc’s raison d’être ceased to exist after the Soviet Union crumbled, exacerbated Moscow’s paranoia. “As the critics warned it would, open-ended NATO expansion has done more to poison relations with Russia than any other single Western policy,” he wrote in a Foreign Policy article titled “Why Arming Kiev Is a Really, Really Bad Idea.”
Contrary to conventional wisdom that Putin “is a relentless aggressor who is trying to recreate something akin to the old Soviet empire,” Walt described Russia as “an aging, depopulating, and declining great power trying to cling to whatever international influence it still possesses and preserve a modest sphere of influence near its borders, so that stronger states — and especially the United States — cannot take advantage of its growing vulnerabilities.”
Chaly agrees that Russia is a declining power and says that Putin’s aspirations to be a global counterweight to the United States 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.”
Chaly even hinted that regime change in Moscow could eventually return Crimea back to Ukrainian sovereignty. Two factors make that inevitable, he claims: 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 some day be back in Ukrainian hands. It may be even less difficult with Crimea than with the Donbass, simply because they didn’t kill people in this occupation. It only takes time.”
Some might call that fanciful thinking, given the importance of the peninsula to Russia. Crimea, which belonged to the Russian Empire for centuries, was ceded to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in what many Russians perceive as a historical mistake. The strategic buffer is home to a major Russian naval base and the country’s Black Sea Fleet.
Although a March 2014 referendum approving Russia’s annexation was widely denounced as a sham, the majority of Crimea’s population consists of ethnic Russians, whose loyalties lean more toward Moscow than Kiev.
As such, Putin has unabashedly defended the land grab as necessary to protect Crimea’s sizeable Russian population.
The Russian president has also railed against the removal of his ally, Yanukovych, and the hypocrisy of the West for not labeling his ouster a coup d’état orchestrated by the far-right neo-Nazi extremists he says hijacked the so-called Maidan Revolution.
The one thing Putin has not openly admitted, however, is directly propping up the rebels fighting Kiev, despite widespread evidence to the contrary. 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.”
“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, which seeks to promote democracy in Russia, and the Interpreter, a daily online magazine run by the institute.
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 it said killed at least 30 Russian-backed fighters.
“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.”
Myroslava Gongadze, chief of 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.”
NATO has ramped up military exercises in Ukraine and across the Baltic states in response to stepped-up Russian aggression. But the security bloc is a long way away from admitting Ukraine as a member, given that such a move would represent a direct provocation to NATO’s former Cold War adversary.
With or without NATO membership, the ambassador said that Ukraine has dramatically improved its own 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.”
Yet even if Ukraine manages to make 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.
Meanwhile, financial assistance from Washington has been anemic, and a $40 billion bailout orchestrated by the International Monetary Fund requires the government to overhaul its outdated economy — reforms that are needed for the long term but will exacerbate Ukraine’s short-term woes.
Perhaps the country’s biggest economic challenge will be tackling corruption, which is so endemic that Ukraine ranked 142nd out of 175 countries on the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index — one of the worst-performing of all ex-Soviet republics. Wealthy oligarchs are both a roadblock to reform and an indispensable lifeline, controlling many companies that are crucial to Ukraine’s economy, from processed food to petrochemicals.
“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 too 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 how it became so entrenched.
“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.”
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. (Ukrainians are scheduled to go to the polls in local elections Oct. 25 in a vote that will be critical to shepherding Poroshenko’s decentralization plan through parliament.)
“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 Abromavicius — the new Ukrainian minister of economic development and trade — is trying to adopt 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. (Saakashvili and Abromavicius’s appointments have their share of detractors, however. Saakashvili has been criticized for provoking Russia, stifling dissent and making grandiose promises, while Abromavicius’s nonexistent connections to Ukraine and abysmal track record as an asset money manager have also raised eyebrows.)
“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,” the ambassador said.
In fact, experts warn that while the world’s attention has shifted to issues such as Iran, Syria and Europe’s migrant crisis, Ukraine remains volatile. Violence could reignite for any number of reasons. Fed up with the glacial pace of change, Ukrainians could rise up again, this time against Poroshenko’s unpopular government. As the Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir pointed out, Poroshenko himself could have an incentive to renew the fighting if he fails to turn the economy around. Likewise, Putin could try to drum up domestic support by stirring the pot in Ukraine, following his recent script of launching airstrikes in Syria to divert attention from problems at home.
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.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.