Introduction by Frederick Kempe, President and CEO, Atlantic Council
Remarks by Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk
Moderator: Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President, Atlantic Council
Transcript by Federal News Service, Washington, D.C.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. And we welcome you to this very important event, I would say, historic visit with – and meeting with Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The prime minister is coming to us directly from the White House and President Obama. Welcome to the Atlantic Council, Mr. Prime Minister, and thank you for including us in your extraordinarily busy and important itinerary.
We’ve assembled a very large and powerful community of influence here. Any of you who would like to spread the word, please use on Twitter #ACUkraine. I also want to extend a word of welcome to your talented delegation: the foreign minister, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, with whom we work enormously closely, as well as several other of your officials, many of your staff we’ve worked with in one form or another for over a decade in different positions they’ve been in. It’s a testament to the importance of your visit, of your message and of your country. But so many ambassadors, council board directors and members of the press are here today.
Ukraine is under siege. Its political crisis, which played out in the Euro Maidan and cities across the country, is now complicated by another crisis: Russia’s seizure of Crimea and effort to destabilize Ukraine. The prime minister has risen to this crisis. Only two weeks in the job, he has already met almost all of his counterparts in Europe and North America and has become his nation’s point person on rallying the international community behind a united democratic Ukraine.
Indeed, President Obama has sent a clear signal to the world of U.S. support for Ukraine by inviting the prime minister to the White House on the eve of the illegal referendum in Crimea this Sunday. Shortly after the prime minister arrived in Washington, G-7 leaders issued a hard-hitting statement calling for a halt of the referendum saying that they would not recognize its results as legal and saying, quote, the annexation of Crimea could have grave implications for the legal order that protects the unity and sovereignty of all states. Should the Russian Federation take such a step, said the G-7, we will take further action individually and collectively. In my watching of the G-7, G-8 over the years, I’ve seldom seen such a strong statement, (that/but ?) we have 15 ambassadors here, including the ambassadors of Germany and the U.K., a very strong sign of solidarity.
To us the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoff Pyatt’s call to action, Ukraine, your moment is now. And I would say Ukraine’s friends, our moment is now too. The crisis demands urgency and focus. But we also must plan for the long game. And the Atlantic Council has been doing both, acting urgently and planning for the long game. We’ve launched our own hundred-day action plan, which will take us through Ukraine’s May elections and into the first months of the new president’s term. This will be part of our larger commitment to continuing the work on Ukraine and Europe’s east at the council. Thanks here go to George Chopivsky (sp) and also to members of the Atlantic Council board in an initiative championed by George Lund to help us ramp up our work on this issue.
Prime Minister Yatsenyuk – and I turn to introducing you briefly – Prime Minister Yatsenyuk was appointed prime minister on February 27th. He was a central galvanizer of the Euro Maidan protests and a key architect of the then-opposition strategy in the parliament to ensure a peaceful constitutional transfer of power in Ukraine. He comes to this job prepared. From 2001 to 2003 he served as minister of economy of Crimea. He later led the Ukraine Central Bank, served as vice governor of the Odessa Oblast, minister of economy and headed Ukraine’s talks to join the World Trade Organization, all before taking on leadership roles as foreign minister and then chairman of Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada. He is uniquely prepared to provide the steady hands during difficult times that Ukraine now needs to balance its many challenges. Mr. Prime Minister, welcome. The floor is yours. (Applause.)
PRIME MINISTER ARSENIY YATSENYUK: It’s a great pleasure and honor to address such a distinguished audience.
Usually people come here to make lectures. Let me change these roles. And probably I’ll give a very short introduction. It’s much more important for me to listen to your advice and to listen to your questions, and I am ready to answer any questions you’ll raise.
This is a very dramatic time for my country. And what’s going on was absolutely and entirely unpredictable for me and unacceptable for the world. With no reason, with no grounds, our partner in the past – but I still believe that this country would be a partner in the future – started an incursion into the Ukrainian territory, started to invade an independent and sovereign country.
My country is facing both military and economic challenges. We still believe that there is an option to tackle this military crisis with political and diplomatic tools. As time is going and clock is ticking, these chances are not as big as were, for example, last week. But these options, these tools are still on the table.
We urge Russian Federation immediately to pull back its forces to barracks and to start real talks and negotiations. We as a new Ukrainian government are ready to hold an open dialogue how to tackle this dramatic crisis of the 21st century.
And this is not the crisis just between Ukraine and Russia. It’s worse. This is the global crisis. And in case if Russia moves further, this would definitely undermine the entire global security.
And I am wondering about the goals of Russia. To draw the new lines? To revise the outcomes of the second world war? To restore the Soviet Union? Or to preserve peace and stability in the region and to stick to its international obligations?
On behalf of the Ukrainian government, I would like to underline that we adhere to all, to all international, multilateral and bilateral obligations, including the Russian Black Sea deployment treaty. But we urge Russia to stick to its conditions and to execute the international obligations.
We are facing an ongoing economic crisis, which is the consequences of a rampage (ph) corruption of the former president and of the former government. And we do believe that the talks that we resumed with the IMF would successfully accomplish. We fully realize that the IMF program is not a sweet candy, but on the other hand, my country desperately needs real reforms to stabilize Ukrainian economy, to overhaul the entire financial sector and to move further in terms of economic success and economic prosperity.
We re-launched and restarted negotiations with our European partners. And we command a strong and solid support of the American people that you demonstrated to the Ukrainian people, of all EU member states, heads of governments and presidents, that they made in their statement last week saying that Ukraine is to be a sovereign, independent country. And I am sure that next week Ukraine is to sign a political part of the association agreement and to make a very solid and strong step in order to make Ukraine and integral part of the European Union.
What’s at stake today? The future of my country and the freedom of my people. It’s all about freedom. And we want to be very clear, we will never surrender. We will do everything in order to save the country, in order to save my people and in order to have my country as an independent one.
We heavily rely on the support of the Western world. And we do get this support. And we do understand that it’s up to Ukrainian people to shape our future. The new Ukrainian government is ready to deliver changes. We are ready to implement reforms. But you can’t do it having Russian tanks and Russian soldiers on your soil.
I still very optimistic – I still very optimistic because you always need to believe. And I believe that we will find a solution, that we will tackle this crisis, and that we will do everything to make Ukraine a prosperous and proud European state. Ready for any kind of Q-and-A, so let’s go down to business. (Applause.)
DAMON WILSON: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you so much for those remarks. I’m Damon Wilson, executive vice president here at the Atlantic Council. I want to reiterate Fred Kempe’s welcome to you, Mr. Prime Minister, and to all of our guests. Thank you for those – those remarks. It’s all about freedom, Ukraine will never surrender – an inordinate sense of optimism in this time of challenge.
I want to get our conversation started with a few questions, then we’ll turn to the audience. You’ve just come here from the White House. Many of us were watching sort of in real-time as you were sitting there with President Obama in the Oval Office, getting a very strong statement of support from the United States. Simply your visit here on the eve of the vote in Crimea is that symbol of support.
These have been private conversations, of course, but what can you tell us? What were you seeking on your visit to Washington? How have your talks gone? Do you feel comfortable that the United States and the European Union are now prepared to act in concrete terms in support of Ukraine?
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: I will try to tell everything I can. (Laughter.) It was very open and frank discussion. And we avoided, you know, all this diplomatic language. We appreciate the support that the Ukraine – the American people and the U.S. president and the U.S. government and this bipartisan support that you demonstrate. And it’s great to have the EU and the U.S. speaking in one voice, speaking in a single voice.
I see that the Western world is determined to preserve Ukraine integrity and to preserve Ukraine independence. What we already got? We already got a package of financial aid. It’s on the table, both from the – we need to accomplish the IMF deal, but the key factor is that the United States already announced $1 billion of guarantees for the stabilization of Ukrainian economy. And we got a very strong statement of the European Union and of the United States saying that they will do whatever they can to support the Ukrainian people and actually to protect Ukraine. I am satisfied with the way the U.S. and the EU helps us to handle this crisis.
MR. WILSON: So, Mr. Prime Minister, if I may, you said – you said in your remarks that you would never surrender – or Ukraine would never surrender. As we’ve heard, in many regards the strategy that you had on the Maidan has become a strategy for Ukraine today in this crisis. How do you see this playing out? What is Ukraine’s strategy? In your remarks you said you follow this peaceful diplomatic process, but that’s not inevitable that that can continue. Help us understand what you are thinking in terms of Ukraine strategy in this crisis.
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: Much will depend on the strategy of Russia. Much will depend on the personal vision and stance of President Putin. I would like to reiterate that we still want to have a free, equal and partnership relations with Russia. And you can’t do it having a military incursion. We do not consider a military option as the best option how to fix this crisis, no. In the new globalized world, we need to find out the better off-ramp strategies. And I still insist on political and diplomatic tools. What is the best strategy? The best strategy is to sit and to negotiate. What is the best approach for Russia? It’s just stop and to calm down.
MR. WILSON: So what do you think President Putin’s strategy is? What are his goals vis-à-vis Ukraine? How far is he willing to take this? And is his calculation affected by what’s happening in Brussels and Washington today?
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: It’s better to ask President Putin, because it seems to me that’s he’s the only person who knows. (Laughter.) But there are different case scenarios. You know, that they made this incursion on the artificial grounds, saying that Russia decided to protect Russian-speaking minority. And I was absolutely astonished with this. And that’s not only because my wife speaks Russian. She doesn’t need any kind of protection – (laughter) – and my kids too.
We as a new Ukrainian government will preserve the rights of all minorities, including Russian-speaking. And you probably know that in the first days of the new house – not new house – of the new government, a law on the languages was repealed when an acting president decided not to sign this law. And it means that Russian-speaking minority is under the full entire and comprehensive protection – so no grounds at all.
Another reason was so-called anti-Semitic. Probably President Putin doesn’t know that this is the first government where a deputy prime minister represents the Jewish community. Then President Putin said some stuff about fascist protestors. No evidence at all. And we are the government who will fight with anyone who proclaims something that resembles fascist of Nazis.
The first scenario for President Putin is to take over Crimea in one or another form. But he can move further. And they definitely have another case scenario – how to grab and to take over entire Ukraine, including the Ukrainian capital. Again, it all depends on his personal goals. You probably do remember his speech a few years ago saying that the biggest disaster of the last century is the collapse of the Soviet Union. I will say that the biggest disaster of this century would be the restoring of the Soviet Union.
MR. WILSON: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. I think that’s actually an important statement. Let me ask one last question then turn to the audience. I’ve just come back from Kiev. And in meetings with government, with civil society, walking through even the streets of the Maidan today, you feel an incredible sense of unity, steady resolve, that folks recognize Ukraine’s in a crisis and need to come together.
But we first had the opportunity to meet the heady days of 2004, 2005. How is this time different? You recall back then that great optimism was undermined as infighting undermined unity, as political jockeying challenged the efforts of actual good governance. How is this time a different opportunity for Ukraine? How do you get your task right?
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: Very different, I would say, because look what has happened. The previous regime killed 101 innocent people. The death toll is more than 100 people. For what? For their fight to have the free country? For their freedoms and liberties?
So the revolution of 2004, it was a peaceful one. The revolution of 2013 and actually ’14, in 10 years, this was the revolution with the bloodstains on the jacket of the former president and the former government. And sentiments are very different.
But on the other hand, people are very united. People have shown their courage and their determination to fight for the country. And this is really the great sign of this country. We have not just the territory after this revolution. We have the country, and we have not just the people but we have the nation. And this is the outcomes.
MR. WILSON: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.
There are a huge number of folks who are quite interested in your country, have been working on it for a long time. So let me turn to the audience. I’m going to ask, as I call on you, take the mic. We’ll start right there, to – right here, this gentleman. Yes, please. Please introduce yourself. Introduce yourself, your affiliation, and ask a quick question, please. The prime minister is on a tight schedule. We want to try to get as many questions in as possible. Please.
Q: Michael Gordon, New York Times. Sir, you’ve said you’re interested in a political solution with Russia. Could you elaborate a little bit your vision of what a political solution might look like?
And also, under what conditions, what circumstances might there be a referendum in Crimea or Ukraine nationally as part of that political solution? Thank you.
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: Thank you, sir.
So first we need to start the dialogue and negotiations. If it’s about Crimea, we as the Ukrainian government are ready to start a nationwide dialogue how to increase the rights of autonomous Republic Crimea, starting with taxes and ending with – and other aspects, like language issues. We are ready to start this dialogue, but the constitutional one in the Ukrainian parliament, having everyone sitting at the table, discussing every single issue and making each step in the constitutional manner.
You mentioned this so-called referendum. This is the preordered referendum with an expected result. It seems to me that they already caused the bellus. There is no legal grounds for this referendum at all. What we need to do – we need to pass a law in the house which allows so-called local referendums and only afterwards this referendum could be a constitutional one.
But my message is very clear. This is illegitimate, unconstitutional referendum. There is no legitimate government in Crimea. There are some folks who get the support of 18,000 Russian soldiers and who seized unconstitutionally and grabbed the power in Crimea.
MR. WILSON: Mr. Prime Minister, let me pick up two questions right here, this woman and then Harlan Ullman next. Please.
Q: Thank you so much. My name Wei Zhejao (sp) from China Central Television. Although you said it’s unconstitutional, but as we know, the Crimea referendum is getting nearer. So how positive do you think by negotiation to solve this kind of problem, especially just waiting four days? And after you met Barack Obama and John Kerry today, what’s the most difficulty (sic) thing here in solving Ukraine crisis? Thank you.
MR. WILSON: All right. Pick up the second question right next to her, so you can take both of these.
Q: OK. Prime Minister, I’m Harlan Ullman at the Atlantic Council. Thank you for your stirring remarks.
I want to fast-forward a book – a bit. If Putin does not withdraw from Crimea and indeed moves westward, this could easily make Crimea into his Afghanistan. Could you just comment on the prospects of an insurgency? There are already reports of jihadis moving to Crimea.
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: That’s what we want to avoid. And just take into consideration that Crimea is a heavily and highly populated area, including Crimean Tartars. And this could raise an ethnic question too.
That’s the reason why Ukrainian government is very cautious and prudent. They tried to provoke us a number of times, and when Russian Duma allowed the Russian president to use military force on the Ukrainian territory, they expected us to do the same, to impose a martial law and to start a military operation.
We do understand the ratio in the military strength between Ukraine and Russia. I can for example give you the numbers of aircraft facilities: 1-to-98, excluding the nuclear aspect.
So I would like to reiterate again we need to do everything we can. I mean, if we – we, everyone – everyone in the world who wants to preserve peace and stability, in order to avoid the bloodshed, because if it starts, there will be no end.
MR. WILSON: All right. If I might turn to Nadia – let me turn to the next question here. Please, over here. Microphone. And then we’ll pick up David Kramer right here in the front. He can ask the second one.
Q: Nadia McConnell, U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. Mr. Prime Minister, how confident can the people of Ukraine and your government be that the Western support that is being promised, including economic sanctions, will actually be realized? History of assurances to Ukraine is not very encouraging, and I will only cite one. No international pledging conference for Chernobyl met its goal.
MR. WILSON: Hm. Thanks.
And perhaps we’ll pick up David’s here as well.
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, a warm welcome to you here in Washington.
MR. WILSON: And introduce yourself for –
Q: Sorry. David Kramer with Freedom House. Dealing with Russian occupation of your territory is an urgent crisis. Trying to fix the economy is an urgent crisis. But in a little more than two months presidential elections are scheduled. There are reports, rumors of postponing those elections. How confident are you that Ukraine will be ready to hold elections on the 25th? And how ready will it be to have credible elections that everyone can recognize? Thank you.
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: Thank you, David.
Starting with the first question, it’s not just about Ukraine, what I already mentioned. It’s about the global security, because let me remind you that in 1994 a Budapest Memorandum emerged, where signatories guaranteed an independence and territorial integrity for the Ukrainian state.
And look what has happened. We abandoned our nuclear weaponry, right? We did it. We executed this memorandum. And today we ask for the protection. If we don’t get this protection, tell me the way how the world is to reinforce or ask another countries to stop their nuclear programs. It’s impossible to convince, in this case, someone to halt nuclear proliferation programs. This is the global program – problem, and it’s up to all of us to fix it.
David, on the elections, on the presidential elections, elections are scheduled at the 25th of March, and – sorry, May. And we are ready – and we are ready to hold free and fair elections. We do understand that a number of folks will do everything in order to undermine these elections, to stop them, to postpone, to delay, to have another kind of mess and uncertainty in my country. But we launch this. The Central Election Commission is working in its schedule. We amended the state budget. So we are ready to hold free and fair presidential elections.
We asked international observers to observe these elections, and I still believe – not just believe, I’m sure that the elections are to be held as scheduled and that on the 25th of May the new president will – not the new president but on the 25th of May we will have a clear picture who is to be the new president, because this is a two-round elections and the horse race in another two weeks
MR. WILSON: That’s right. That’s right.
Let me take two questions up front, and then I’ll move to the back. Please, with the mic, right here in the second row, George and Ambassador Gegeshidze.
Q: George Chopivsky (sp), private individual.
I’d like to first congratulate you on rising to the challenge of this situation which poses a risk to Ukraine, obviously. And you and your government and the people as a whole have obviously risen to this challenge with great fortitude and conviction because you and the nation recognize the risk. My question is, does the rest of the world in your estimation also recognize the risk? This is not just a risk to Ukraine, but it’s a risk really to the stable world order. It’s a risk that forebodes the possibilities of a new wave of aggression – (inaudible) – not just in Eastern Europe but throughout the globe. And in your estimation, in dealing with this problem, do you feel that the international community sufficiently recognizes what’s at stake?
MR. WILSON: Thank you. Just pass the mic down. We’ll take Ambassador Gegeshidze on this one as well, please.
Q: Thank you. Mr. Prime Minister, first of all, I would like to express my sympathy and support on behalf of my government to (just cause ?) for the sake of a united and democratic Ukraine.
MR. WILSON: And just for audience, Ambassador Gegeshidze, ambassador of Georgia.
Q: My question is, obviously, what we are witnessing these days is not the first instance when Russia is violating international law after the end of the Cold War. Five years ago they – on a smaller scale, but still, the similar events happened in Georgia. So my question would be, what are the lessons learned on one hand for your government (in order ?) to navigate in this very difficult circumstances? And on the other hand, what are the lessons to be learned by international community from the – from the events back in Georgia to be more effective in this case, in this crisis? Thank you.
MR. WILSON: Why don’t we take those, and then I’ll move to the back. So please.
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: Thank you for congratulations. Some folks sent me condolences.
MR. WILSON: (Chuckles.)
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: But again, I am still optimistic.
We are ready to sacrifice – I mean, my government is ready to sacrifice its political capital in order to tackle this crisis, and me personally too.
MR. WILSON: You’ve even referred to the task as a political suicide.
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: Oh. Sometimes it happens.
MR. WILSON: (Chuckles.)
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: So let me put it this way. On the conflict that emerged in 2008 in Georgia, these are the implications of Bucharest summit (holding ?) NATO. MAP. If you don’t have MAP, you have something else, like military aggression. And this is the dramatic lesson for all of us. And we need to articulate a real response to this kind of situation. And let’s be frank, there is no clear-cut response. We are trying to find a way out how to handle it. But the collective bodies that are responsible for the global security are not as efficient as they have to be. In this way I used a very diplomatic language.
MR. WILSON: With that, let me move to the back. I want to pick up Jackson Diehl, this woman right here and then Anders, please. Jackson, please, the mic in the back.
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: (Off mic.)
MR. WILSON: OK, yes. This will be our last round. Please.
Q: Jackson Diehl, Washington Post. The EU and the United States are talking about adopting additional sanctions on Monday or early next week if the referendum goes forward. Is the government of Ukraine contemplating any sanctions towards Crimea? And in particular, are you planning to continue the provision of water, energy and other imports to Crimea?
MR. WILSON: Jackson, why don’t you pass the mic down to this woman on the row. We’ll pick that up.
Q: (Inaudible) – public television Slovakia. Mr. Prime Minister, we would like to know what kind of actions do we expect in next week from your neighboring countries like Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland. Thank you.
MR. WILSON: And let me take the final question here from Anders, please.
Q: Yeah. Anders Aslund, Petersen Institute. Thank you very much for a very impressive statement to us today. Mr. Prime Minister, we really, wish you all the very best. And on that line, what are – what is the wish list with regard to national security that you would put to the United States and the European Union today? Thank you.
PRIME MIN. YATSENYUK: On our ability to provide water and electricity to Crimea, I want to be very clear that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine, and we will do everything in order to deliver food, water, electricity to our people because this is our territory, and they are our citizens.
On the European side, we expect that on the 21st, Ukraine is to sign a political part of the association agreement, and this is the best reply and the best answer, what kind of contribution the EU could make. The EU already made a statement that they will unilaterally apply an economic package from the DCFTA, and it – this would substantially support the Ukrainian economy. What is the best way to reform the country is to stick to the political association agreement and to execute everything what’s written in this deal.
And the last question, what we ask for: I already unfolded everything. We need to undertake – we need to act boldly, wisely and strongly and to use all tools, all tools that are acceptable to tackle this crisis. The U.S. is a powerful country. The EU is a very strong unity and can and will I believe do everything to preserve Ukrainian independence. I would be happy in case if Ukraine can handle this crisis (solemnly ?). No. And again, I want to be open and frank. We are not as powerful and we don’t have enough capacity to withstand. But if we speak with one voice, if we act in concert, we can save my country and preserve peace and stability in the region.
MR. WILSON: Thank you very much, Mr. Prime Minister. Please join me in thanking the prime minister for these remarks. (Applause.)