‘We are entering the period of maximum danger,’ Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned me in his wood-paneled office in Kiev yesterday. Between today (the May Day labor holiday) and May 9, the anniversary of the end of World War II, he expects “provocations of all kinds to destabilize our May 25 presidential elections.” Indeed, as we spoke, more government buildings in eastern Ukraine were occupied by illegal armed gangs. Six official European observers are still being held hostage. Many polling stations may not be in operation for the election. “We can expect more hostages, kidnappings, and even terrorism before Ukraine votes on May 25,” Yatsenyuk predicts.
Yatsenyuk is under no illusions about who is behind the destabilization — he confirmed a statement Secretary of State John Kerry made this week offering proof that it’s Russia. Kerry told a meeting of the Trilateral Commission: “Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow. . . . We know exactly where they are coming from.” Yatsenyuk says the information came from Ukrainian intelligence services and is highly reliable.
“The next major conflict will not be fought along traditional lines like World War II,” he told me. “There will be cyber warfare, manipulation of populations, efforts to discourage foreign investment and undermine economies so that countries come under the control of others.” Already, Russia’s attempts to squeeze Ukraine are having a devastating effect on the country’s ability to repair its ailing economy despite yesterday’s International Monetary Fund approval of a $17 billion financial-aid package for Ukraine.
“We have a long list of priorities for economic reform — strengthening the rule of law, incentives for foreign investment, privatization, and fighting corruption,” he said, ticking off the points on his fingers. “But the stress of coping with troops on your border and provocateurs inside your country makes that so difficult.”
Yatsenyuk, a mild-mannered 39-year-old economist, served as both economics minister and foreign minister during the Orange Revolution government that was in power from 2004 to 2008. In those capacities he met several times with Vladimir Putin. He is not surprised by Putin’s recent moves. “Back in 2005, when Putin was not nearly so secure in power, I met with him and afterwards prepared a memo saying Ukraine should have contingency plan to deal with a cutoff of all trade with Russia,” he recalls. When I ask how he came to that conclusion, Yatsenyuk sniffs the air. “It was just the sense of the room,” he says. “I could feel it.”
When I ask what mistakes the international community has made in dealing with Putin, the prime minister is emphatic. “It surprises me that people did not take his speeches seriously, much as was not done with previous leaders of his type,” he emphasizes. “Recall his 2005 Munich speech saying that the biggest geopolitical disaster of the former century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. We should have listened then, because the biggest disaster of this century would be the restoring of the Soviet Union under the auspices of President Putin.”
Yatsenyuk says another mistake the West made was not reacting vigorously to Putin’s occupation of part of Georgia in 2008. “I think he learned from that, and has acted accordingly,” he tells me. “God knows where is the final destination.”
I ask the prime minister if one way to respond is for any Russian provocateurs captured by Ukrainian forces to be handed over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague for trial. Yatsenyuk says that they would “first have to answer to Ukrainian law.” But he then enumerates all of the violations of international law — including the forcible annexation of Crimea — that Russia has committed and says, “If this is not enough for a referral to the International Criminal Court, I don’t know what is.”
It would appear the last thing Russia fears is a stiff response from Western governments to its aggression. This week, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov seemed to relish mocking the West over its mild sanctions targeting Putin camp followers in government and business. “This is a revival of a system created in 1949 when Western countries essentially lowered an ‘Iron Curtain,’ cutting off supplies of hi-tech goods to the USSR and other countries,” he told the online newspaper Gazeta.ru. First, of course, no trade has been curtailed with Russia. Second, Ryabkov’s Orwellian appropriation of Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech denouncing Soviet imperialism will no doubt make him a finalist for a Propagandist of the Year award.
Despite the gloomy atmosphere overhanging the interview, Yatsenyuk ends it on a positive note. “We are very heartened by the support we get from many people,” he says. “Americans of all kinds, for example, have been great.” Here’s hoping that with that support and some luck, Ukraine will be able to buy some time and be able to implement some of the impressive economic reforms it is planning.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist at National Review Online.