Prepared remarks by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), delivered at the Atlantic Council event “Ukraine’s Opportunity Through Crisis: America’s Role in Europe’s East” on December 18, 2013.
Thank you, Fred [Kempe], for that kind introduction. And thank you for the wise advice and council that you always provide me on transatlantic issues.
I want to thank Fred, and my friend Damon Wilson, for inviting me here today. Under the leadership of Fred, and Damon, and others, the Atlantic Council has transformed itself in recent years into one of the premiere intellectual leaders on foreign policy and national security—not just on transatlantic but global issues.
As you know, I traveled last weekend to Ukraine with my friend and fellow member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy. We met with senior government officials, including President Yanukovich; the major opposition leaders; members of civil society, including the daughter of Yulia Tymoshenko; many of the so-called oligarchs; Ukrainian youth and students; and some of the hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the Maidan.
In all of my many years and travels abroad, I have never seen anything like what we witnessed last weekend in Ukraine. On Saturday night, we stood in the Trade Union building overlooking the Maidan while roughly a quarter of a million Ukrainians cheered and jumped up and down in a sea of sparkling cell phones. On Sunday, when we addressed the crowd, it was estimated to be as many as a million people. There were Ukrainians of all walks of life, men and women, young and old, from all parts of the country. There were Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan helping to protect the demonstrators and securing our passage through the crowd. And as we spoke, thousands interrupted us with cheers of, “Thank you, USA!” It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.
Senator Murphy and I did not go to Ukraine to interfere in its internal affairs … or to favor one leader, or group, or party over another—but rather to support the peaceful aspirations of all Ukrainians and to affirm their sovereign right to determine the future of their independent nation by themselves, in freedom.
Obviously, the major development since we returned was Russia’s decision to purchase about $15 billion in Ukrainian bonds and reduce the price of gas it sells to Ukraine—an estimated annual savings of $2-3 billion. This was a big deal, to be sure, but we need to recognize a few things about Russia’s financial intervention.
First, all of this Russian money will not solve Ukraine’s structural economic and political problems. It will at best postpone them, and likely exacerbate them. By most estimates, President Yanukovich has bought about a year before Ukraine is once again staring down the barrel of an economic crisis. We can all hope he uses this time wisely to address the sources of this looming crisis—namely, Ukraine’s mounting debt burden, unsustainable currency peg, and large distortive energy subsidies—as the IMF has insisted. Somehow I doubt it. More likely, President Yanukovich will just kick the can down the road, and when the Russian money runs out in a year, Ukraine will again be facing all of the same problems it is now.
We also need to recognize the reality of how President Putin’s temporary bail-out of Ukraine fits into his larger ambition toward Russia’s so-called “near abroad.” In recent months, President Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate, and threaten Ukraine away from Europe. Russia has blocked large amounts of Ukrainian trade, especially chocolate. It has threatened to cut off its gas supplies in the dead of winter, which it has done before. And according to Ukrainian officials we met in Kyiv, President Putin threatened President Yanukovich with far worse economic retaliation if he signed the Association Agreement with the EU. President Putin stressed on Tuesday that Russia’s financial assistance to Ukraine is free of conditions. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you in St. Petersburg.
Russia’s bullying extends beyond Ukraine to the other so-called EU Eastern Partnership countries. In the past few months, Russia coerced Armenia into joining its Eurasian Customs Union. It sought to prevent Moldova from signing its own Association Agreement with the EU by blocking imports of Moldovan wine, threatening to cut off its supply of gas, and suggesting it would stoke separatism in Transnistria. Russia has blocked Lithuanian trade and deployed Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad. It is working to establish hardened borders for Abkhazia and South Ossetia by building fences that encroach deeper into Georgian territory. And today we hear news that Russia will soon deploy new rail-based, nuclear-capable ICBMs.
This pattern of behavior amounts to a Russian bid for a kind of quasi-imperial dominance over its neighbors—a newfound assertiveness that has only grown in the void left by the Administration’s absence of leadership in other parts of the world, especially Syria. President Putin has been emboldened by President Obama’s empty threats of red lines and the resulting loss of U.S. credibility. We now have the bizarre situation in which we are working with Russia to dismantle chemical weapons in Syria while Russia is supplying Assad with conventional weapons to continue the slaughter and maintain his hold on power. President Putin has taken a clear lesson from all of this: If the United States is unwilling to stand up to him in the Middle East, he can do as he wishes closer to home. And he has.
The key to President Putin’s geopolitical ambitions is Ukraine. It is more populous than all of the other Eastern Partnership countries combined. It shares the same cultural, religious, and historical heritage as Russia. And President Putin still does not accept that Ukraine is an independent country. He has said as much publicly. For all of these reasons, the Russian-led Customs Union cannot be viable without Ukraine. Indeed, the idea of a modern, democratic Ukraine that is part of Europe is President Putin’s worst nightmare—because eventually, Russian citizens would look at that flourishing Ukraine and ask, “Why not us?” This is why President Putin will stop at nothing to thwart Ukraine’s aspiration to become part of Europe.
That’s the bad news. But we also need to recognize the good news: Regardless of the short-term pain that President Putin can inflict on Russia’s neighbors, history is not on his side. The Eastern Partnership countries want the benefits of European integration—a reality that was demonstrated clearly last month, when Georgia and Moldova bucked Russian pressure and signed their own Association Agreements.
There are also reasons for hope in Ukraine. No matter how much money President Putin commits, he cannot change the fact that a majority of Ukrainians—not just in the west, but in the south and east as well—see their future in Europe. Poll after poll confirms this, as does any time spent with young Ukrainians, who have no memory of the Soviet Union, and who want everything Europe has to offer. For this reason, no Ukrainian president—not this one or any other—will ever be able to take Ukraine off the path to Europe. Doing so would be political suicide. And for Russia to insist on it would only engender the animosity of millions of Ukrainians.
The fact is, Russia is not ten feet tall, and it cannot bail out Ukraine forever. Russia’s economy is growing sluggishly, plagued by corruption and capital flight and dependent on hydrocarbons. Under these circumstances, I imagine many Russians are not too happy to see $15 billion of their national resources heading to a foreign country in furtherance of President Putin’s selfish ideological ambitions.
So the question now is, where do we go from here?
First, we must continue to support the peaceful aspirations of Ukrainians for democracy, rule of law, uncorrupt governance, equal opportunity, and integration with Europe. We must insist that the Ukrainian government uphold the human rights of all Ukrainians, especially the freedom of speech and association. And where Ukrainian citizens remain detained for peacefully exercising these basic rights, we should continue to call and work for their immediate release.
Second, we must continue to demand that all sides in the current political crisis refrain from violence—something the Maidan demonstrators have done to a remarkable degree. Both the Administration and the Congress have put Ukrainian authorities on notice that any further use of violence or other human rights violations against peaceful citizens will be met with targeted sanctions against those responsible. This is not an idle threat, and I hope we never have to make good on it. But we will vigilantly monitor events in Ukraine, and whether the demonstrations continue or not, we will be prepared to respond as necessary.
Third, we must support Ukrainian demands for accountability for those who ordered and carried out past acts of violence against peaceful demonstrators. President Yanukovich has initiated this process, and we should support Ukrainian efforts to see it through and to expand its scope where the evidence warrants.
Fourth, we must support popular Ukrainian demands for transparency on the terms of the agreement that was signed in Moscow this week. Many Ukrainians fear that President Yanukovich has made a decision that puts his own self-interests above the best interests of the country. It would not be the first time. We think Ukraine’s citizens have a right to know the details of what Russia will get out of this deal.
Fifth, if Ukraine’s political crisis persists or deepens, which is a real possibility, we must support creative Ukrainian efforts to resolve it. Senator Murphy and I heard a few such ideas last weekend—from holding early elections, as the opposition is now demanding, to the institution of a technocratic government with a mandate to make the difficult reforms required for Ukraine’s long-term economic health and sustainable development. Decisions such as these are for Ukrainians to make—no one else—and if they request our assistance, we should provide it where possible.
Finally, we must encourage the European Union and the IMF to keep their doors open to Ukraine. Ultimately, the support of both institutions is indispensible for Ukraine’s future. And eventually, a Ukrainian President, either this one or a future one, will be prepared to accept the fundamental choice facing the country, which is this: While there are real short-term costs to the political and economic reforms required for IMF assistance and EU integration, and while President Putin will likely add to these costs by retaliating against Ukraine’s economy, the long-term benefits for Ukraine in taking these tough steps are far greater and almost limitless.
This decision cannot be borne by one person alone in Ukraine. Nor should it be. It must be shared—both the risks and the rewards—by all Ukrainians, especially the opposition and business elite. It must also be shared by the EU, the IMF and the United States. All of us in the West should be prepared to help Ukraine, financially and otherwise, to overcome the short-term pain that reforms will require and Russia may inflict. In short, the West must show Ukraine’s leaders and people that they will not face short-term economic destruction in pursuit of a better future.
This is the challenge we now face with Georgia and Moldova, which have decided to deepen ties to Europe and the West. These countries must know that we will help them weather any loss of economic activity or energy supplies. In a sense, by helping Georgia and Moldova to meet their short-term needs during this transition, we in the West can convince Ukraine and others that they can count on us too.
Ultimately, if we are committed to expanding the promise of the Euro-Atlantic community, we will have to stand up more forcefully to Russia. This is not the way it should be, and certainly not the way we want it to be. Eastern European countries should not have to choose between good relations with the EU or good relations with Russia. That is not a choice we are asking them to make. It is a false choice, premised on an outdated, zero-sum view of the world. Unfortunately, this is exactly the choice that President Putin wants to impose on these countries.
As long as this remains the case, there will be tension with Russia that no amount of happy rhetoric or resets in relations can rectify. For the past two decades, administrations of both parties have sought to cooperate with Russia where possible and compete with Russia where necessary. The unfortunate reality is that despite our best intentions and efforts, there is more competition than cooperation. We must face this reality squarely. And we must be willing to support our partners when they face undue Russian pressure for making their own sovereign decisions.
Now, many Americans will ask: Why should we care? Why should we care what happens to a country like Ukraine? Why does that affect our national interests? Here is why: For the entirety of the last century, the United States and our friends and allies pursued the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace. We sacrificed our resources and shed our blood for it, time and time again. And we did so not simply because this vision of Europe’s future is just and right, though it is both, but also because it is the only path to lasting stability on the continent, because it benefits our people economically, and because ultimately it makes our nation safer.
Despite growing challenges in the Middle East, and Asia, and other parts of the world, we cannot forget that the work of a Europe whole, free, and at peace is not finished. This struggle continues today in Ukraine, and Moldova, and Georgia, and other countries in eastern Europe. We must be no less committed now than before in pursuing our national interest of a Europe whole, free, and at peace—and supporting the right of all countries to share the benefits of it. That includes Russia.
This vision has always drawn Europeans and Americans, Ukrainians and Americans, together. And we see evidence of that all around us. Just a mile west of here, off Dupont Circle, is a statue of the great Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. It was dedicated nearly 50 years ago by President Eisenhower, who expressed his hope that the statue would, quote, “rekindle a new world movement in the hearts, minds, words and actions of men—a never-ending movement dedicated to the independence and freedom of peoples of all captive nations of the entire world.”
After Eisenhower spoke, a Ukrainian chorus led the assembled crowd in singing one of Shevchenko’s most famous poems, which concludes with this plea:
“Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains,
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.”
America will always remember Ukraine. And we will always support the peaceful aspirations of her people, as we do on behalf of all people, in Europe and beyond.