In an exclusive interview with the Voice of America Ukrainian Service US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg speaks about US-Ukraine relations, the Russia factor in these relations, as well as challenges facing Ukraine today. The interview was conducted by Myroslava Gongadze.
On challenges, opportunities in US-Ukraine relations
I think it’s not a question of challenges. It’s opportunities in the relationship. The United States and Ukraine have a very strong partnership; it’s a strategic partnership. We have a strong set of issues in common and really a common perspective on the issues that we need to address. We are very committed to Ukraine’s security, sovereignty, to its economic success and we want to work very closely with Ukraine to achieve success for all its people. We’ve had a long-standing relationship or friendship on working together on a broad range of issues and it’s something that we’re very strongly committed to retaining. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to visit [Ukraine] so early in the Obama administration so as to reaffirm that friendship and that partnership, and to commit to work together on the full range of challenges facing our two countries.
On problems that might impede bilateral cooperation
I think we’re working together on our problems. We are all dealing with an economic crisis that affecting our citizens. We are well aware of the fact that this is something that really hits people at home. And just as we have economic challenges here, so too in Ukraine. This poses some difficult choices and it’s important that all the leaders of Ukraine come together to find a common solution for the good of the people of Ukraine. We’ve been very encouraged by the dialogue with the IMF and very pleased that the latest tranche of the IMF’s support has been disbursed, but we need to have continued work on the reforms that the IMF identified, and particularly having all the leaders of the different parties and element of the Ukrainian political society come together and work in a common effort to address this great challenge we all face.
On the Russia factor in the US-Ukraine relationship
I think first I should say that no country is a bargaining chip. We have a very strong commitment that Ukraine should be free to make its own decisions and we would never make a decision about a country at the expense of another. We think that having a better relationship with Russia I not only good for the United States and Russia, but for Ukraine too. And I found that everyone I meet with in Ukraine, from the President on down, shared that view. It is in Ukraine’s interest, if at all possible, for the United States and Russia to have a better relationship. And I assured the leaders of Ukraine that we would not trade away any of Ukraine’s interest and what we did with Russia in trying to improve our relationship would not be at their expense. We have made clear to Russia that we expect them to respect the independence of all the countries in the region and that all the countries in the region should be free to make their own strategic choices about their future. So, I thing that we have been very clear with the Russians that our improvement in relationship will not be at the expense of any other country.
On Russia’s threats to use force if NATO comes closer to its borders
I think we live in a world now where those kinds of threats of force are not really relevant to the situation that we face. And I certainly think that in the conversations the Secretary [of State Hillary Clinton] has had with her counterpart and others – it’s clear that they don’t like NATO enlargement, but on the other had we have not heard those same kind of threats of force. So, I think that we need to make clear and will continue to make clear that the issues about NATO enlargement are, in the first instance, for the countries themselves to make – to decide what kind of future they want to have. And then we will make our decisions as an alliance, based on the criteria for membership. But I don’t think it’s a question of others having a say over that decision and that that’s an appropriate decision that has to be made first by candidate countries and then by NATO as an alliance without the threat or considerations of threats by others.
On Ukraine’s NATO integration
I think that the goal in some respects is as near as far as the aspirant-members want to take the actions to make themselves ready for their candidacy. I think NATO judges these things based on the readiness of countries to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership. So, what we’re focused on in working with Ukraine is for Ukraine to take the steps in terms of its military development, in terms of its own engagement with NATO to get ready for membership. I think that’s the surest way, if Ukraine wants to proceed down this path, is to take those steps, to develop its national plan, to take the steps on its military reform, to take the steps that will give NATO the assurance that, should Ukraine be admitted as a member, it will contribute to the security of the alliance.
On obstacles Ukraine faces on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration, role of positions expressed by European leaders
I think it’s too soon to address the attitude of European leaders. I think that challenge is for Ukraine to demonstrate that it’s ready for membership, to take the steps that NATO has begun to identify, develop its national plan, to really make the decisions that show that Ukraine, if it want to be a member, is ready to do that. And I think at that point then we’ll have a serious discussion within NATO about that. But I think at this stage, rather than focusing what the Europeans or others think about potential new members, I think the challenge is for Ukraine or any country that aspires to membership – whether it’s in the Balkans or other countries – to really show that its qualified and ready to me a member.
On whether Ukraine will be on the agenda during the planned July Obama-Medvedev meeting
I’m not aware that there is a specific topic of Ukraine, but I’m sure the President is going to make clear our strong commitment to the security of all the countries in the Euro-Atlantic area and make very clear that anything we do with Russia is not at the expense of any country – whether it’s Ukraine or any other country in Europe. I think he will be very clear about the commitments and the perspective that he has identified in all his previous meetings that what we do with Russia is not at the expense of any other country, and that we want to have a more constructive relationship with Russia – we are going to talk about a broad range of issues in the region and outside the region, but we’re not there to decide the fate of anybody else who is not present.
On leverage the US has in its efforts to support countries like Ukraine
I think what I would focus on is the strong partnership that we have with Ukraine, our commitment to work with Ukraine to deal with its economic challenges, to support Ukraine’s efforts as it proceeds with its reforms, to work with the IMF and the World Bank, and to show that we continue to be engaged in Ukraine in all kinds of ways, government-to-government relations, people-to-people [relations], the kind of good work that the Voice of America does in making sure that the people of Ukraine have a chance to hear these important messages, and, really, to show that we have a strong partnership, because I think that’s the strongest signal that we have of our commitment to Ukraine’s independence and its choice of its future.
On the possibility of a visit to Ukraine by President Obama
One of the things I have learned having worked both at the White House and the State Department is that that State Department is very bad at predicting what the President’s travel schedule will be, but I think that there will be continued high-level engagement between the United States and Ukraine. We’re obviously aware that Ukraine is going to elections and coming up on election season now, but I think that there is going to be no doubt that we expect to have high-level contacts in many different forums and different places as we go forward.
On the possibility of re-establishing a Presidential-Vice Presidential Commission
Most administrations like to find new ways to do things that may not necessarily replicate exactly how things were done before. In my discussions with the President and the Prime-Minister we talked about how can really fill out that strategic partnership that we have, including more comprehensive and regular high-level engagement. And we are exchanging ideas on how to do that. So, I’m not sure that we’ll have the same format that previous commissions have had, but I think we will find ways to make sure that there is an institutional dimension that has a regular set of exchanges and that brings together a broader range of people, not just from the State Department, but from the full range of US agencies.