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US Expert Comments on Putin’s Selection as TIME Magazine ‘Person of the Year,’ Kremlin’s View of Ukraine

Interview with Steven Pifer, Senior Adviser, Russia & Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Former Ambassador to Ukraine. The Interview was conducted by Ruslan Petrychka, Voice of America, Ukrainian Service, Washington, DC.

Ruslan Petrychka: What do you think about TIME Magazine having selected President Putin as “Person of the Year?”

Amb. Steven Pifer: TIME Magazine, when they make this choice, they make this choice based on who has had major impact. And whether you agree or disagree with the policies of Vladimir Putin, I think it is hard to argue that he has not had major impact. That is how I see the decision by TIME to have made this designation.

Ruslan Petrychka: So, was it a fair decision, in your opinion?

Amb. Steven Pifer: You can always look at five or six people and say that they have had real impact. Certainly, if you look at five people who have had major impact on world events in the last year, Vladimir Putin would be on that list. So, from that perspective I can see why TIME Magazine made the choice.

Ruslan Petrychka: In his TIME Magazine interview Putin also talked about Ukraine. Among other things he said that the relations between Russia and other former Soviet republics should be based on the principle of absolute equality. From your perspective, are these relations based on absolute equality?

Amb. Steven Pifer: Looking at what has happened in the former Soviet space in the last four-five years, it does seem to me and I think to many other observers here in Washington that you have seen on the part of the Kremlin a more assertive foreign policy. And part of that policy, I believe, has been a sentiment that Russia should have a special degree of influence with other former Soviet states, including Ukraine. And I think that this might be a factor that perhaps complicates a Ukrainian foreign policy.

Ruslan Petrychka: President Putin in his interview has in essence accused the United States of having divided Ukraine into a pro-American and a pro-Russian part and said that the US is actively supporting the pro-American segment.

Amb. Steven Pifer: I do not think that Mr. Putin’s comments really stand up to scrutiny. A couple of points – if you go back even to the Clinton administration, the focus of American policy toward Ukraine has been seeing Ukraine develop as a stable, a strong democratic state that would be increasingly linked to Europe. Because that is the kind of Ukraine that is best for American policy interests in Europe. Now, I would also say that it is kind of ironic that Mr. Putin is making these comments, because if you go back to 2004 and you look at what was happening during the Ukrainian presidential election, it was Vladimir Putin who went to Kyiv five days before the first round of the presidential ballot in what was a pretty much open campaign effort in support of Viktor Yanukovych. And then, 10 or 12 days later, he went back to Ukraine in again another campaign effort for Mr. Yanukovych, just before the first run-off election. And then after the run-off election, the day after the election, even before the Central Electoral Commission had announced a winner, Mr. Putin is sending Mr. Yanukovych a congratulatory message. So that, to me, paints a slightly different picture from the one Mr. Putin was describing in his interview.

Ruslan Petrychka: But he is the one accusing the United States.

Amb. Steven Pifer: Yes, there have been these charges, and these charges have been coming out of the Kremlin for the last three years. I do not believe they have any basis. I worked in the US Government up until 2004. And one of the things that I have worked on, along with John Herbst who has been one of our ambassadors in Kyiv, and Carlos Pascual, who has been our ambassador in Kyiv, but he was also at the time, in 2003 and 2004, our assistance coordinator – was we looked at American government assistance that would be targeted specifically at the 2004 election in Ukraine, and that assistance went to things like training commissioners for the electoral commissions; it went to training journalists how they should cover the election; it went to monitoring groups so that they would be able to function and it went to fund international observers to go in and watch the elections. And one thing, when we were looking at that budget, even back in 2003 – it was a question I had, it was a question that Ambassador Pascual and Ambassador Herbst had – is this in fact a funding effort that we can say is non-partisan. And that was really developed by two reasons – first of all, it was not our business to be picking winners, that was for the Ukrainian people to choose. But, second, we thought about it and said that even if we abandon that principle, does an American endorsement of anybody help? We came to the conclusion that any kind of open American involvement on behalf of one political candidate would probably not help the candidate. It might even hurt him. And I think that this actually was true – and I do not have hard evidence for this, but anecdotally when you talk to Ukainians and look at some of the polling numbers, it looks like the effort that Mr. Putin made to generate support for Mr. Yanukovych backfired, because people – and this is natural – they don’t like people coming in from another country telling them how to vote.

Ruslan Petrychka: In his interview Putin seems to be using faulty statistical data to support his views. He said that almost 100% or at least 80% of Ukrainians consider Russian to be their native language. That number has been shown to be much smaller. Do you think that this was a deliberate or accidental slip on Putin’s part?

Amb. Steven Pifer: I am not sure, because I think that he also said something like there were 17 million ethnic Russians in Ukraine. And my understanding, based on the Ukrainian census of 2001, the number of ethnic Russians is about 17 percent, not 17 millions. So, his figure is about twice the reality. And also, on language, it is maybe 50-50. I am not sure why he used these numbers, but they seem to be overstating the facts. This is a question, I think, for Vladimir Putin to answer. May be he was given bad information by his staff or maybe he is choosing to use numbers to try to make Russia’s influence in Ukraine appear to be more important than it is.

Ruslan Petrychka: It would not be the first time that Russia was wrong on Ukraine. Which begs the question where these misconceptions come from.

Amb. Steven Pifer: It was a surprise to me, but going back three years I am actually asking myself – how well does the Kremlin really understand Ukraine. And go back and take the case of the Orange Revolution -- from everybody up to President Putin, they were all saying that this was a Western plot to turn Ukraine into an anti-Russian state. And I think that grossly overestimates what the West could do, and it also grossly underestimates the Ukrainian people. To me, the Orange Revolution was a manifestation of the Ukrainian people saying – “we’re not going to let our votes be stolen; we’re going to go out there and demonstrate in the streets until this flawed election is rectified.” And that was really a democratic moment and it was fantastic. And it was not anything that I believe any institution in the West could have organized. But the fact that the Russians are saying this makes me wonder. They seem to be saying at every level, publicly and privately, and maybe they do believe it – which worries me – because if Russia does not understand what is going on in Ukraine, I always fear that if you have a bad analytical base, it can lead to a bad policy.

Ruslan Petrychka: In a part of the interview Putin was asked whether Ukraine could ever become part of Russia again, and he replied that no – that Russia wants to work closely with Ukraine, but that it is not interested in reabsorbing it. Can these words be taken at face value?

Amb. Steven Pifer: On this point I believe Mr. Putin. I don’t think Russia wants to recreate the Soviet Union. But I do think that the Kremlin wants to have a situation in which Russia has special influence, including in a country like Ukraine. And I also think that part of this explanation may be for some of the comments in the interview, but also part of the explanation for Russian policy towards Ukraine is that what is happening in Ukraine makes them a little bit nervous. It makes them nervous on two counts – first of all, they have seen what has happened in Ukraine, and while the politics in Ukraine have been messy – it took almost, what, three months to form a government after the September 30 elections – but it has basically been a democratic process. There were free and fair elections in September, there were free and fair elections in March of 2006, the last round of the presidential election was free and fair. So you see democratic traditions taking hold in Ukraine. For reasons I am not quite sure I understand, that seems to make the Kremlin nervous, because the political system that they have constructed in Russia is very different. I think the second concern and the second factor about Ukraine that makes a number of people in the Kremlin nervous is that what I see in Ukraine is an increasing view – it is not just in the West, but also in the East of Ukraine, it is not just on the part of “Our Ukraine” or the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, but it is also among a large segment of the Regions Party – that Ukraine should be a modern, democratic European state. Now NATO, that is a special question, but when you look at the numbers now across the board, Ukrainians seem to favor joining the European Union. They want to be a country like Poland. They want to be a country that has full European political and economic standards. And I think that makes the Kremlin nervous. I believe that Ukraine can be fully integrated into Europe and can still have good relations with the Russians. But I am not sure everybody in Russia would agree with that, and I think their theory is that to the extent that Ukraine draws closer to the West, somehow they see it as a bad thing for Russia. And so they are nervous about what is happening in Ukraine, and that may explain some of the comments.