Current Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN, Kyivan Volodymyr Yelchenko is one of Ukraine’s most experienced and authoritative diplomats. Over his 30-year-long diplomatic career he has served in Kyiv, New York, Vienna, Moscow. News of the USSR collapsing and Ukraine gaining independence caught him in his first mission to the UN back in 1991. In the year 1993 he participated in a UN peacekeeping mission to Croatia. When occupation of Crimea and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began unfolding in 2014, he served as Ukraine’s ambassador to Russia. He was then swiftly recalled back to Kyiv. In one-and-a-half years he was appointed head of Ukraine’s mission to the UN.
We meet for an interview in the building of Ukraine’s permanent mission to the UN at East 51st Street, New York. Obviously, most of our interview is devoted to the diplomatic front of Ukraine’s fight with Russia. It’s been just week prior to the interview that Ukraine had managed to get the adoption of two important “Crimean” resolutions in the General Assembly. However, except for achievements, there are problems too. We talked about them as well.
OCCUPIED CRIMEA: NEITHER FORGET NOR EXCHANGE
Question: What was Ukraine able to achieve at the UN in 2018 and what not?
Answer: It was a tough year. Although we left the UN Security Council at its beginning, Ukrainian issues were actually brought up even more often than when we had been there. It is not anyhow tied to our membership but simply to the reality of more provocative events that year. I mean events in Crimea, the Azov Sea, illegal “elections” in Donbas on November 11. All of those required actions from the UNSC. Our partners helped us initiate it at our request. I would like to specifically point out delegations of Poland, the United States, Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands and France. As well as actually all Western states which were prompt to take action on our issues. This resulted in Ukraine-Russia conflict and all related issues being discussed overall six times in the UNSC this year.
There were three UNSC meetings. In May under Polish leadership, in October under Bolivian leadership regarding illegal “elections” in Donbas, and at the end of November under Chinese leadership, after the Russian provocative attack on Ukrainian ships and capturing of 24 Ukrainian sailors. We also held a special meeting in the beginning of the year under the so-called “Arria formula” devoted to the anniversary of the Russian occupation of Crimea. Two more times the Ukrainian issue was discussed in closed UNSC sessions. We were not present, but we know that it was discussed because our Polish colleagues initiated it.
This shows there is no “Ukraine fatigue” as some may claim.
Another interesting twist. I clearly remember how in 2015-2016 some of our partners told us that we pay too much attention to the situation in Donbas, leaving the Crimean issue aside. They warned it may lead to turning Crimea into a half-forgotten issue, which is de-facto “closed” by Russia. This year saw a reversal of that. Crimea was on agenda much more often than the situation in the occupied territories of Donbas. I think it is a good trend. Because Russia wanted just the opposite: to make everyone forget about Crimea. There have been many views on that since… That Crimea could be exchanged for Syria, exchanged for Donbas (meaning Russia withdraws from eastern Ukraine in exchange for “solving” the Crimean issue). None of this will ever happen. There were additionally a few “Crimean” resolutions of the General Assembly passed at the year’s end. All the world saw that the Crimean issue is far from being “closed.”
MORE TROOPS IN CRIMEA CURRENTLY THAN BACK IN SOVIET TIMES
Q: Why are the two resolutions that you mentioned important?
A: One of those was passed for the first time in the General Assembly. I talk about the resolution on the problem of militarization of Crimea, Azov and Black Seas. We proposed it back in spring. Obviously, no one could forecast events which happened in the Kerch Strait in the end of November. This, by the way, is how one can measure the effectiveness of diplomats - by their ability to foresee events. We brought the issue up in spring because we knew that sooner or later this creeping militarization which had been going on since day one of Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea (will lead to that - ed.) The entire peninsula has now turned into a giant military base. It seems to me that Russian forces there currently exceed even the levels of military presence back in Soviet times. We talk about modern missile complexes, but not only. The number of military assets in and around Crimea currently exceed all limits, including agreements that should cap Russian military presence on its Southern flank.
That Russian provocation in the Kerch Strait on November 25 has drawn more attention to the problem. It is difficult to say what Russia tried to achieve with these actions. But that it had a reverse effect - meaning significantly raising support of this resolution at UNGA - is a cold fact.
Q: The resolution contains a number of unprecedented paragraphs. What is important about it?
A: Well, I imagine this resolution laying at Lavrov’s or Putin’s table with them reading its text. In the entire 73 years of the UN’s existence there has never been a wording more shameful towards one of five permanent member-states of the UNSC than this one! You know, some do respect, some - simply fear this five. Therefore, such wording is never brought to the General Assembly. It is believed that the five permanent members are so much powerful than any other state that they have leverage to block any initiative they don’t like. Including doing their best to make any such resolution fail. However, Russia was not able to do it, despite enormous efforts. They pressured everyone, understanding well that the number of votes in favor would approximately equal one of the previous resolutions on human rights in Crimea. They tried to decrease this number drastically with an end-goal of making this resolution fail the vote. The result appeared to be the opposite. And this is despite us demanding ourselves it be voted with two thirds of votes as a decision important to international peace and security.
Furthermore, there were 26 states voting against the human rights resolution, but only 19 voting against the one on militarization of Crimea. Meaning only 18 states backed Russia on this instance. These are primarily states that depend on Russia - Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, South Sudan. Russian client-states which survive thanks to either Russian weapons supply or have problems common for all authoritarian regimes. It is disappointing to see our former partners Armenia and Belarus amongst them.
On the other hand, we are pleased to see some states refusing to oppose our resolution this time. These are India, China, Kazakhstan and South Africa. By the way, since January 1, 2019 the latter becomes a temporary UNSC member together with Indonesia, which is neutral to us. I guess at the end of the day we will also have a good atmosphere amongst UNSC members.
Q: As far as I remember, also for the first time the document directly states that Russia violated the Budapest Memorandum? Why is it important?
A: If such a document as the Budapest Memorandum failed with regard to Ukraine, how are you going to convince other countries that the guarantees that you are planning to give them - the guarantees not to use nuclear weapons against them or any other security guarantees - can influence their behaviour? I am pretty sure that the same question is being asked by the North Koreans when they talk to Americans or to their neighbours, South Koreans. And this is an issue to be solved one way or another.
RUSSIA TRIED TO “BURY” THE RESOLUTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN CRIMEA
Q: It has been just few days ago that the third in the series of resolutions on human rights violations in Crimea in the temporarily occupied Crimea was passed. What is new there?
A: What makes it unique amongst similar documents in the UNGA is that it contains names of particular people who were illegally convicted by Russian courts and were given enormous prison terms. This resolution names three political prisoners - Oleg Sentsov, Omar-Usein Kuku and Volodymyr Balukh. We could not name all, because obviously they are at least 70 people. But these paragraphs will be used as means of putting pressure on the Russian government to make it finally free all our political prisoners. Only two names were previously mentioned in resolutions in the history of the UN. Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. I cannot recall other precedents. It shows that the situation is really dire and such mention was necessary.
Another important issue which missed out the headlines was the proper wording in regard to Crimea. Time to time well-known global information services such as Google, for example, draw Crimea as part of Russia or color it as a “disputed” territory. Each time we face a question - how to deal with it? Because it is a part of the creeping occupation. In such a way Russia tries to slowly persuade the global public opinion, geographic and expert thought that Crimea is already part of Russia and the question is no longer there. This resolution contains a separate paragraph, which prescribes that the entire system of the UN organizations call Crimea temporarily occupied by Russia. This creates new ground for applying pressure on media resources, geographic resources or Wikipedia for instance. There are now reasons to insist on abiding by the General Assembly’s decision, which demands to call Crimea as it really is - occupied by the Russian Federation, not in any way a “disputed” territory.
Obviously, the resolution demands to immediately free our political prisoners and prescribes their rights that have to be respected before this happens. It also repeats all demands that Russia failed to fulfill earlier: drop the ban on Mejlis, secure education in Ukrainian, allow all previously closed and oppressed media resources to operate in Crimea, especially Crimean Tatar ones.
Russia’s reaction so far is to try to persuade that the “Crimean issue is closed”. If it was, would the UN devote time to passing all those decisions?
Q: Apart from those two resolutions, which other important steps regarding Ukraine were taken at the UN in 2018?
A: A new item was put on the UN agenda for 2019 called “The situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.” We had somehow limited opportunities previously due to its lack. Each time we tried to initiate any action at the UNGA we were asked: “Which agenda item is it?” Well, there are general items that we could tie to, such as keeping international peace and security, peaceful resolution of conflicts. But these are all very general ones. It was important for us to get a specific agenda item which concerns temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories - Crimea and Donbas. Now we have one.
We managed to get this decision passed in the General Committee of the General Assembly, which adopts agenda for the entire year ahead. Russian resistance did take place. It was difficult for us. Russians see it is an additional irritation. They were very uncomfortable with it being adopted.
Special debates on the issue are tentatively planned for the end of February 2019. These are the dates when the conflict began five years ago. It will be a good opportunity to recall, among other things, why Russian aggression against Ukraine began, its causes and consequences, to analyze the events of the last five years. We have not yet decided whether any decision will come out of this. We will have to see. Maybe we will first listen to what other delegations have to say in the voting room and than, maybe, we will take some kind of a decision in the form of a project.
KREMLIN AWAITS A FRIENDLY NEW PRESIDENT IN UKRAINE
Q: Touching on the issue of a possible peacekeeping operation in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has been proposing it since four years ago, if I am not wrong. Then suddenly, in September 2017, Putin comes out and first agrees that “Yes, there could be one,” then changes his mind and says he means another kind of mission. Do you think Russians were ever serious about considering a real PKM?
A: It is their typical line of behaviour. Distracting and changing the focus. I think at some point Russian diplomacy simply understood that the issue begins to materialize, there is some movement there. That not only Ukraine talks about a need of such operation but other countries too. The United States started discussing it, some EU states. Kremlin decided to try to play ahead of it. They submitted their own project which was really a non-project… Some kind of an unarmed UN force to provide security to OSCE monitors. Needless to say it was not taken seriously. Therefore no one even worked on the Russian proposal. It died itself later.
The main thing is that to launch a peacekeeping operation, a decision of the UNSC is needed. But to even start looking into it, the issue has to be agreed upon - at least preliminarily - in the “Normandy” or “Minsk” formats.
We have heard that the next meeting of the “Normandy” format was planned for December 2018 - and it never materialized. Then the middle of January was mentioned, but I now do not hear that talk anymore too. Everyone understands that having Russia, which will block anything, means that serious decisions cannot be taken there. Look at the Volker-Surkov track, which has not taken any further for a year now. It seems the last time they met was in UAE a year ago - and that was it, contacts were over since. Therefore a logical question is - what the UNSC has to look into? Russia is present there too. If it does not want to agree to anything in the “Normandy” format, it is obvious there would be no result in the UNSC neither.
It is fair to say that we here in New York wait now for a political will, upon which everything relies. Putin has repeatedly said that he sees neither any sense nor opportunity to negotiate with the current Ukrainian authorities. Saying it is not negotiation-ready. Russians will not do anything until presidential elections in Ukraine. I have strong doubts whether they will do anything after it too, but we will see…
A: Because they wait for some hypothetical pro-Russian president to take the helm, who will change everything.
Q: You think it is not possible?
A: Of all candidates (which are currently around 20) I do not see up until now any pro-Russian one. I cannot imagine anyone of them betraying Ukraine. No one will bow to Russian demands, because that person will now have to govern a totally different Ukraine. This Ukraine will simply not let him or her do it. There could be such expectations in the Kremlin - but they have no chance to materialize.
WHEN A NEIGHBOUR WANTS TO PLAY COLD WAR GAMES
Q: I watched just recently - I do sometimes torture myself this way - Russian TV, a full Sunday late-night show by Vladimir Solovyev. Just to get an understanding of the level of their rhetoric towards Ukraine. It seems they truly believe that there are Ukrainian people who want to be friends with Russia on the one hand and some kind of “regime” in Kyiv that is russophobic on the other. Where do you think they get this crooked perspective from?
A: I have spent more than three years in Moscow and I have seen and heard this before. Even when relations with Russia were kind of “normal.” Although they have not been such already since 2012, when trade restrictions, gas prices and pressure on Ukraine due to its European course began. I always had an impression that they remained living in the year 1988 or so. They are simply not able to feel changes around their country. Because these are not the 1970s, not a Cold War period anymore. There is Internet, and the country is not closed, one can get whatever information he or she wants.
There is either lack of will to comprehend that information or some kind of a national character, which I truly cannot understand: to listen only to oneself, to ignore the progress going on in the world, not trying to analyze - how it happens so that Russia is surrounded by enemies today. They do think this way, both the leadership and ordinary Russians. That there are only enemies around. Some China there with unclear intentions, some Ukraine heading to NATO here, Poland, Finland. All enemies. Could it be wise to reflect - aren’t it them who are not normal thinking this way? All of those countries, I am convinced, do not consider Russia an enemy. NATO does not consider Russia an enemy, but Russia does see NATO as an enemy. It is not normal. And history shows it has always been like that, unfortunately. It is even a bigger pity that Ukraine happened to be close. Were we some Solomon Islands far away in the ocean, we could then calmly reflect about Russia. Unfortunately, we are not.
Q: You have seen a lot in the UN and in Russia itself throughout your career. You do still know, I guess, many people who hold high positions in Russia’s diplomatic service. May I ask you, which kind of transformation you think has happened to them?
A: Without calling names, I can tell you that I have a few old fellows, who have left the Russian ministry of foreign affairs some time ago and went to work in the Secretariat of the UN, becoming independent international officials. Well, maybe not fully independent from Russia, there is still some kind of dependence, but they surely feel much more free. When all of them meet me, they keep telling me the same phrase: “Thank God I’m not working there anymore.” These are older people, not young. They are sincerely glad they are not there anymore.
THREE STEPS TOWARDS PEACE THAT YOU WON’T SEE IN BILLBOARDS
Q: 2019 is the election year in Ukraine. We already see issues of foreign policy brought up in the presidential run. Some promise quick and easy peace to be achieved. As an experienced Ukrainian diplomat, do you think such election promises are realistic?
A: I don’t think so. We have to prepare for… well, I don’t want to tell how many years, no one knows that. Me too, I cannot tell whether it is five, ten or more. But we should think not about years, but about steps that have to be taken to speed up the process. There are three.
First of all - strengthening the international coalition in support of Ukraine. There is one already, but it needs to be supported.
Secondly, sanctions have to be prolonged and strengthened. Only sanctions can bring change to Russian policies. They might tell that Russia is feeling only better under sanctions as long as they want - but it only means that not all resources are used yet, of which there are still many. Meaning switching them off SWIFT, personal targeted sanctions, asset freezes. We live now in a very financially transparent world. Each person is under a microscope, and it is not hard to see who holds what in American banks. I think if a few hundred people who constitute the top leadership in Russia would see their accounts frozen in the EU and the U.S., we would see a totally different talk from them.
It is one thing if some RUSAL was hit or Deripaska lost six billion [dollars] - no one really cares about that. When they will pressure specific pockets - this would lead to a totally new kind of discussion. The new package of sanctions which is being now mulled in the United States includes a possible ban on Aeroflot flights into the United States. That would be a concrete step. Visa regime should be severed too. Because it is easy to sit around in Moscow and keep talking about “Ukrainian provocations” and then fly to Paris or London for shopping on weekends. When they will not be able to do that - they will have only Taganrog and Voronezh at their disposal. There are some shops too. Let them try to shop there.
So first - coalition, second - sanctions, and the third task is just ours - strengthening Ukraine’s defense capabilities. I think that despite all criticism, the martial law that was imposed last year, brought result. It was a test. We could see whether our state is able to function under such circumstances.
Q: What are your hopes and plans for 2019?
A: I hope to see at least some progress in the issue of deploying a peacekeeping mission to Ukraine. Of course, it will take time to take the decision, and at least half a year or a year after it is taken to see at least some consequences and actual deployment of any contingents. But had the process started - it would already be a positive development. Because in the presence of UN peacekeepers the shelling and daily provocative fire would not go on, and people would not die anymore.
Secondly, I wish that people would have more faith in the power and significance of decisions taken at the UN. With all the criticism of this organization, with Russia’s veto right, with the fact that we can not pass decisions in the UNSC - the organization is still essential. And the fact that it exists, that everyone comes here and wants to pursue decisions, it tells that the United Nations can achieve results.
Heorhii Tykhyi, New York