You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Ambassador to Ukraine: The Russian Strategy Was Intended to Create Chaos

On 'fascism' in the capital, rabbis in the Maidan, and the best hope for the future.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The conversation below with Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, took place as part of the Ukraine: Thinking Together conference in Kiev. We will be publishing other contributions from the conference in the coming days. The event started off by talking about claims of anti-Semitism in the new Ukrainian government. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Julia Ioffe: My assumption was that with the Holocaust and with the mass emigration at the end of the Soviet period, that there wouldn’t be many Jews left here.

Geoffrey R. Pyatt: All this stuff about fascists and pogroms is laughable. There has not been a wave of anti-Semitic activities in Ukraine since the change in government. Don’t just believe me, listen to the Ukrainian-Jewish community. … There were rabbis on the Maidan, just like there were imams and orthodox priests of every flavor. It’s laughable that Russia has sought to play this card, and that they’ve actually made some headway with it in some places.

JI: But to what extent is the anti-Semitic stuff that’s happening in the East and the South and the Southeast meant to tarnish the government in Kiev as fascists and anti-Semites, and to what extent is it just a natural byproduct of this Russian nationalism, which also historically has violent anti-Semitism?

GP: I would guess it is more of the former. When the question came up: Were they actually asking people to register à la the Third Reich? I said, it doesn’t matter. … Even if it was fraud, it was a fraud intending to sow fear and create uncertainty. And that has been the dominant element of Russian strategy since February 22—to sow fear. Nobody knows where Putin is going to stop, nobody thought he was going to go so far as to invade and annex Crimea, and ever since then Russia has rejected diplomatic off ramps.

You had a big effort in Geneva, and there was real work to implement Geneva here in Kiev. You had the introduction of an amnesty law in the Rada. You had the release of the Kiev city hall, which had been used as a barracks by some of the self-defense forces. If you go by there today you’ll see a big sign that’s hung on the front door, “Closed for Repair”—it’s actually kind of clever. The government has been grappling with how to manage these groups. … They took these steps on decentralization and national dialogue. Russia has done zero.

JI: What were those steps?

GP: [Parliament-appointed interim Prime Minister] Arseniy Yatsenyuk has just finished up a national dialogue, focusing on issues of constitutional reform and decentralization. I always encourage people to understand that this is really finishing the process of Ukrainian independence. The irony is that Russia appropriated this whole theme of federalism and decentralization, I would argue because they wanted to carve Ukraine up into bite-sized pieces and sort of create a next Crimea. Ironically though, it was this sort of push to deepen democracy, to create accountable local governments, that came from the Maidan.

JI: That was all the talk in February. And then all of a sudden [Sergey] Lavrov is in Geneva talking about federalization, and that’s the end of federalization, I thought.

GP: Exactly. And the real tip for me was when some of these—you know, VICE news and these other guys who sort of go deep into the Donetsk Republic—started doing reports. You’d have these guys in black track suits, quasi-incoherent, swinging their guns around, asking “what do you want?” “We want federalization.” So clearly they’d been told: What does the Donetsk Republic stand for? It stands for federalization. And at least for a while, I think it’s still the case on Russia Today, if you watch the sort of Russian official line on these demonstrations, they are “pro-federalization demonstrators,” they are not terrorists or whack jobs.

JI: Sorry so just one more question about these guys, because it’s been really hard to tell since it’s been such a vicious information war on both sides, to what extent are these Russian plants and Russian special agents? I was surprised to see huge lines at the referendum on May 11. Is that because there were very few polling stations open, or what?

GP: In Mariupol, there were three polling stations for a city that normally has 80 for a regular election. There are also a lot of people who are upset; because of the information war there is incredible fear. People in the East have been told that Kiev has been taken over by fascists, that they’re coming to steal your property and rape your daughters, and you have to mobilize to protect yourself. The thing that’s important to remember—and my EU counterpart is the one who reminds me of this all the time—is that until February 22, there was no discussion in Ukraine about the Russian language or federalization. These were not topics of national debate. This was part of this Russian strategy, which was intended to create chaos.

JI: But there was. There was discussion of the language law, which was hugely controversial. And federalization was all the talk in February. So there were, it’s just all been co-opted.

GP: It was all stirred up. Arseniy Yatsenyuk said at one point: “When Crimea was taken from us, it was taken from all of you also. Now is a moment when the country needs to pull together. We’re going to do this stuff on decentralization because it’s part of delivering the promise of better democracy, better government.” The deputy prime minister, [Volodymyr] Hroisman, uses wacky phrases like “subsidiarity,” which the Euros love but nobody in America knows what it means. Essentially it’s a Brussels-Eurospeak phrase—

Frank Foer: It’s a Catholic phrase actually.

GP: Really? Ok well. It means “driving decisions down to the lowest level at which it can be administered.” It’s again, sort of a sacrosanct concept in the Euro context, and what Hroisman says is, “I want to build a European-model democracy. I want to build a government and an administration that looks like Poland.” So that’s where they start from. … Since the invasion of Crimea, the constituency for Europe has expanded in Ukraine. Every poll you look at says that. People who were previously ambivalent, or undecided about where Ukraine should go over the long-term, now say “we’ve got to go to Europe, because if we don’t go to Europe we’re going to get swallowed.” I’ve used metaphor of a comet, which is hurtling to the west. The challenge for Yatsenyuk is these little towns—Slovyansk and these places, which don’t have a lot of industry, where people are anxious about their economic futures. He’s got to find a way to bring them along, to convince them that being part of a European economic and political space will not take away their Russian identity… and that their historic, cultural, linguistic, and familial ties with Russia will also not be compromised. This is another one of these places where [there is] a huge information war. I was in Dniepropetrovsk in October, and I was amazed by the number of billboards that “Ukraine’s Choice,” which is a pro-Russia group, had put up. They said things like “Euro=homo”; “Move to Europe, and everything which is priced in hryvnia will be priced in euros”; “What’s 10 hyrvnia today will be 10 euros tomorrow.” But it worked!

FF: Has the tide turned in the East?

GP: Well, everyone’s excited about this stuff in Mariupol with [billionaire Rinat] Akhmetov’s people. But, the thing to remember is Mariupol was totally calm ten days ago. If you look at Simon Denyer’s Washington Post blog page, a post from Mariupol from ten days said, “Here in Mariupol, everything is so calm, everyone is going to the beach, isn’t this a weird situation?” So Mariupol came from nowhere, and went away just as quick as it came. … Even in Donetsk, you go a couple blocks from these administrative buildings and life goes on. … The rumor for a while was that in Russia they were giving out “get out of jail free” cards to anyone who would go to the East. … It was clearly the case in the early phases—mid-to-late March—that the Russian play was to provoke an uprising. There were busloads of what they called “political tourists” who were showing up. … But it didn’t work, which is when you started to get these more kinetic operations.

JI: It seems like Putin is walking it back a little bit. He didn’t recognize the referendum the way he did in Crimea. Does that mean anything?

GP: Our line, which I think has been the right one, is to say we’re all about deeds not words at this point. … I think the Russian objective is to spend as little as possible to get what they seek, which is first and foremost the failure of this democratic revolution. Our argument has been that the Russians’ goal should be a Ukraine that is stable, and prosperous, and creates economic opportunities for Russia. So far, we haven’t seen evidence that Russia is prepared to accept that option, but it’s clearly the only sustainable one for Russia at this point. I think the goal of turning Ukraine into a subordinate entity—that’s what the Maidan was a rebellion against.

JI: Twice.

GP: This is the sort of Tim Snyder hypothesis, that Putin changed his objective. His objective was to lock in a subordinate Ukraine. He did that through economic pressure, then through this $15 billion loan package. Eventually, Yanukovych says, “Sounds like a good deal to me.” Yanukovych announces on November 21, “Sorry folks, change of plan. We’re not going to Europe.” That night, you’ve got a dozen kids out on the Maidan waving a European flag, and the rest of history.

JI: And now, in the Donetsk region, polls show that there isn’t that much support for what Putin’s trying to do. But to what extent are they accurate?

GP: I think it’s certainly accurate that there’s not latent separatism in Donetsk. There’s deep suspicion of Kiev, as there has always been. There is deep anxiety and unhappiness about economic issues and concern about what comes next. And the government knows it has to deal with that. And there’s a desire to have representation within the government. That’s got to get addressed through politics. All of the leading presidential candidates say that the next president has to engage the East.

FF: Does Putin’s strategy become less plausible over time? If he hasn’t been able to provoke a popular uprising by now, and he’s stuck relying on these paid thugs.

GP: I think it becomes less sustainable after the May 25 elections. … I’m quite certain that whoever emerges from this process … will be very focused on bringing along the East.

JI: How would they do that?

GP: Well, first of all in terms of where you travel, how you speak. … The language law thing February 22 was not smart. It was the legislative equivalent of pulling down Lenin’s statue.

JI: I want to hear a little more about integration.

GP: It’s clearly one of the big challenges for the next government. With all the talk of linguistic fault lines and geographic fault lines, I believe the deepest fault line in the country is the generational one: the difference between people who came into political maturity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Maidan was in part about establishing a sense of nationhood, of the nation state. ... I had a really interesting conversation with Slava Vakarchuk—the biggest rock ‘n’ roll star in Ukraine, who just turned 39 years old. He is the front man of a band called Okean Elzy, which has been around about 20 years—they’re almost as old as Ukraine. Vakarchuk is a really thoughtful guy, who actually came into politics briefly during the Orange Revolution and got himself elected to the Rada, then realized he wasn’t going to change the world that way and he quit. He’s now still making records and stuff. The emotional high point of the Maidan was clearly the point when Okean Elzy was up on the stage, with 300,000 people out on the plaza. This was when John McCain was here. But Slava was saying to me the other day, he said you know, one of Ukraine’s challenges was we never really earned our independence, it just fell into our lap. The Soviet Union fell apart, and there we were, independent. He said, what made the Maidan different was that you had more than 100 people who died. He said, it’s just like your civil war was this sort of cataclysmic experience which helped set the boundaries for national discourse, establish the norms of political behavior, and give people something higher to appeal to. …There’s a sense that you can’t do what happened after the Orange Revolution, where you just changed the political dramatis personae, but have the same corrupt behaviors.

JI: Is that why Yulia [Tymoshenko] isn’t doing so well?

GP: I think that she suffered from the fact that she was in jail for two years. She came out and it was a new country. It’s clear that for the majority of Ukrainians, this revolution is about Ukrainians reclaiming their own democracy. Probably the most remarkable moment of my foreign service career was on Sunday morning, February 23, when I went to see acting president [Oleksandr] Turchynov at the Rada, at the parliament. Driving along, I’m in the back of the Cadillac, head down looking at the Blackberry, the usual thing. All of a sudden we stop. The whole street in front of the Rada is just full of people: a crazy mix of families with kids, and old couples, and Maidan self-defense in their fatigues. … One of these self-defense guys comes up and sort of appoints himself traffic cop. So he’s walking along and parting people, and everyone gets out of the way of the car. When we finally get to the front of the parliament and get out of the car people started saying “Thank you America.” It was totally spontaneous—the real deal. That day, you saw people coming there as sort of an act of catharsis.

FF: Have you spent much time down on the Maidan?

GP: During the demonstrations, I was down a couple times a week.

JI: Are you trying to be careful, given the propaganda on the Russian side claiming that it was all staged by the West?

GP: My view on all this is that it doesn’t matter what we do, they’re going to blame us for everything. About a month ago, [Vitaly] Churkin said that there was an embassy office on the seventh floor of the union building.

JI: Are there even seven floors?

GP: There’s a restaurant on the seventh floor, which is the only time that I ever went there. By February 20, when the shootings took place on the Maidan, the union building was a charred hall. … Frankly, if you go back to the media from that time, the government was welcoming us because we were putting a lot of energy into building communication channels between Yatsenyuk, Poroshenko, Klitschko, and all these guys. I had the interior ministry calling me at all hours of the night. The Yanukovych government was looking to us to help them sort of climb down from this situation which was created by Yanukovych’s decisions.

FF: Do you get the sense that maybe the city or the country is going to hang onto the Maidan, the spirit of the self-defense forces, for too long? There’s something both inspiring, but also a little bit strange.

GP: The Maidan went through different phases. For like the first month or so, it was just like this huge block party. Every Sunday, girls with flowers in their hair and musicians—the guy who’s now the education minister organized the “Maidan University.” They had people giving classes, including on rudimentary stuff: Ukrainian history, how democracy works. And again, you had every flavor of political opinion; you had right-wing, left-wing, socialists for the maidan. Every point on the religious spectrum. It started to turn much darker at the end of December. … Yanukovych’s guys had an enemies list. A real, honest-to-god list of “here are the journalists that we need to go after, and here are the ones that are a threat to us.” There was the attack on Tatyana Chornovol; there was the attack on a guy named Dmitry Bulatov, who was the leader of the auto-Maidan and who was abducted by Russian-speaking professional interrogators, who cut part of his ear off. They tortured him. The main line of questioning: What has the American embassy told you to do? How much money have you received from the American ambassador? They put nails through his hands. Ugly, ugly stuff. You had a number of disappearances. Everyone was sure that there was some Russian wet-job team, because everybody’s point of reference was the Orange revolution, which was concluded nonviolently. Nobody got hurt. And then all of a sudden in this case people started to get hurt, and then it started getting darker, and darker, and darker. Then, January 16, Yanukovych rams through this sort of straight-out-of-the-Russian-playbook set of anti-democratic laws. That was one of the real inflection points. I had conversations with Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko and Klitschko and Tyahnybok, in which they said, we have to figure out how to end this, but we can’t just tell everybody to go home. … Then you have these anti-democratic laws, and then people really realized they were fighting for their lives. There were a lot of middle class and professional Ukrainians who said, “I thought we were going to Europe, and now we’re going to North Korea.”

JI: What has the Russian diplomatic presence been like?

GP: They disappeared, they left. The ambassador left when Yanukovych left. In the last days of Yanukovych, there were GRU and other Russian advisory teams in town, we knew that for a fact. And clearly there was pressure from Putin. The narrative was: Putin was telling Yanukovych he needed to make it go away, whatever it takes. And that’s what brings you to February 20 and the shootings. The remarkable thing about what happened on February 20 was that nobody ran. … There was an extraordinary commitment to seeing this process through.

FF: What about the security services themselves? Obviously they were doing somebody’s bidding.

GP: They were completely compromised, completely penetrated. You had FSB officers, GRU inside the Ukrainian SBU.

FF: Is that still the case?

GP: No. At the headquarters level, the leadership has spent a lot of time trying to root out all of this legacy Russian/Soviet KGB presence.

JI: What happened with the Ukrainian security forces, just completely folding in Slavyansk, and the police melting away in Odessa?

GP: A couple things—first of all, rampant corruption. Yanukovych-era corruption. Need for lots of work on professionalization and everything. And then, the question of how to manage things like the defense budget in a way that’s sustainable. Because you had at the beginning when the military mobilization started, Kolomoisky paid for a bunch of gas, because there was no gas in the tanks in the armed forces. They didn’t have batteries, tires, basic stuff like that.

JI: Last question: what do you think about [presidential candidate Petro] Poroshenko?

GP: We have no favorites in this election. The important thing is, it’s a credible election, viewed so by the Ukrainian people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.