Ukraine’s Foreign Minister: Kremlin Should ‘Take Back … Mercenaries’ Driving the Ukraine War

Pavlo Klimkin, in Washington Visit, Speaks at Atlantic Council Forum

Ukraine’s government is ready to negotiate new political powers for local governments in southeastern Ukraine, but such a settlement will require first that Russia remove both the leaders and the mercenary fighters of the separatist militias that it has created there, said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin. Russia “should take back” the leadership of the separatist movement in the Donbas region, a leadership dominated by “Russian citizens who have clear links to the Russian security [intelligence] services, and who don’t represent Donetsk and Lugansk [provinces] in any way,” Klimkin told policy specialists, journalists and diplomats in a forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council.

The militias have at their core “a couple of thousand … mercenaries” whose removal also is essential to ending the conflict, Klimkin said at the forum, his main public appearance during a visit to Washington in which he met Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and members of Congress. Klimkin’s visit follows a Russian escalation in the war, marked by its artillery attacks on Ukraine, and its deployment of more heavy weapons across the border to reinforce its proxy forces in Ukraine.

Klimkin noted Russia’s instigation of prolonged insurgencies, or “frozen conflicts,” on the territories of its neighboring states — including Georgia, Moldova and now Ukraine — as a tactic to pressure those governments into accepting Russian domination. “There is no way … we [will] let Donetsk and Lugansk become another frozen conflict,” he said.

“We have this turmoil [in the southeast] not because we have any sort of internal conflict,” Klimkin said. “We are ready to talk to real people, to our people,” in Donbas, he said. Russia has fomented the nearly four-month-old war in part by reinforcing public desires in the region for greater autonomy. It has used its dominance of mass media to broadcast an intensive propaganda campaign painting the government in Kyiv as violent and dominated by extremists, fascists and neo-Nazis.

Under President Petro Poroshenko, who vowed to improve governance after his election in May, Ukraine’s government is planning on a broad political de-centralization in the country, Klimkin said, and will be “ready to embrace any kind of good idea … to give more political and economic power to regions, districts and communities.”

The Russians Leading Ukraine’s War

The leadership of the independent “people’s republics” declared by the separatists are not local residents, noted Klimkin, but mainly Russian citizens.  These include the “prime minister” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Moscow political consultant Alexander Borodai; his deputy, Russian career intelligence officer Vladimir Antyufeyev; the republic’s “defense minister,” Russian army Colonel Igor Girkin; and his deputy, Russian army Lieutenant Colonel Igor Bezler. The governments of Ukraine, Latvia, Moldova and the European Union have published reports, sanctions directives and/or arrest orders that say Antyufeyev, Girkin and/or Bezler have worked for Moscow’s intelligence agencies – either the former Soviet KGB, its Russian successor the FSB, or Russia’s military intelligence headquarters, the GRU.

Klimkin’s remarks at the forum included these:

  • On the status of Crimea. Five months after Russia’s invasion and declared annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, “Crimea seems to be forgotten for many. And my message here: Crimean was Ukrainian, is Ukrainian, and will be Ukrainian in the future. … We will never stop fighting for Crimea as a part of Ukrainian territory.”
  • On eroding local support for Russian-backed separatism. “The mood has been changing in Crimea, the mood has been changing in Donetsk and Lugansk [provinces]. A couple of months ago, under Russian propaganda” that depicted pro-democracy demonstrations at Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti as violent riots by neo-Nazis, “the people were extremely cautious about embracing the ideas of [the] Maidan, the ideas of freedom and democracy.” But with the Russian-backed power structures showing little interest in meeting local populations’ desires, “now they started to hate the terrorists. The mood in Crimea has been changing considerably. A lot of people got to understand it’s going nowhere, it’s a dead end.”
  • On Ukraine’s choice of a European future. “Our way is the way to European values, is the way to the European Union, is the way to European standards, and we will go this way. It doesn’t matter how difficult it could be and what price we should pay for that. Because it’s the choice of all Ukrainians. It’s the national consensus in Ukraine. It’s a consensus in Ukrainian society … to become a democratic, European and united country.”
  • On international support for Ukraine’s independence. “Of course, it’s about our commitment but it’s also about the commitment of the whole international community to Ukraine, to its independence, to the inviolability of [its] borders. We feel this commitment, exactly right now. Unfortunately, it took … such tragic cases as the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines airplane.”

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Image: Atlantic Council VP Damon Wilson moderates a discussion with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on July 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. PHOTO: ImageLink Photography / Dennis Kan