«You cannot trust Russia at all»
Hybrid warfare. Forced false statements of prisoners. A blockade to keep Ukraine out of world trade. Artem Rybchenko, Ambassador of Ukraine in Switzerland, comments on the latest conflict with Russia near the Sea of Azov.
Once again, Ukraine is at the center of world politics. Since Russia's annexation of the Crimea in 2014, there have been armed conflicts in eastern provinces bordering Russia. The latest crisis between Russia and Ukraine took place on November 25th. Russian ships rammed a Ukrainian tugboat and opened fire on two Ukrainian gunboats that were trying to reach the Ukrainian port of Mariupol through the Kerch Strait.
Most Western countries condemned the Russian actions. Nevertheless, some media pointed out that the crisis was not entirely unwelcome for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. On March 31, 2019, Poroshenko is facing new elections. His approval ratings are currently below ten percent. After the recent incident, the Ukrainian president, dressed in camouflage uniform, demanded a 90-day period of martial law for the entire country.
In his office in Bern, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Switzerland, Artem Rybchenko, who personally knows President Poroshenko, discusses the current crisis gripping his country.
Mister Ambassador, has your president exploited the latest crisis with Russia for his own advantage?
We know such criticism full well. We have it coming regularly from the Russian Federation. Even the president of that country [Vladimir Putin] has mentioned such. But this is not possible in a democratic country like Ukraine. Our president is, by law, responsible for the country. There are Russian troops all along our eastern border. Because of the latest crisis in the sea of Azov and our forced focus on this hot spot, Russians could exploit the situation and start entering in our country anywhere.
President Poroshenko initially wanted to declare martial law for the whole country for 90 days. The parliament objected to this.
The election law requires that 90 days before the elections there is no martial law in power. Parliament decided that the martial law will be in place for 30 days so there is no conflict with our election law. The martial law is implemented in most of the regions bordering Russia. It allows our leadership to organize the necessary level of preparation for all of the army. If, by the end of the year, it proves necessary to extend the martial law, it is possible to so.
Did this new conflict take your country by surprise?
Unfortunately, Russia wages a hybrid war against Ukraine. The Kremlin has been increasingly aggressive since summer, since the new bridge between Crimea and Russia was opened. We know this because our ships were stopped for controls, and procedures took up to seven hours. Not only military, but economical obstacles were also implemented.
In this latest conflict, the West again is on your side. US Ambassador Nikki Haley called the incident "yet another reckless Russian escalation". NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia had "no justification" for seizing the Ukrainian ships. Are you satisfied with the Western reactions?
There is a lot of support. Everyone understands this is the first official open Russian aggression since the occupation of the Crimea in 2014. Before, whenever Russia was involved in aggressions towards us, they said, “It is not us. It is someone else, we are not part of the conflict.” This time, their responsibility was clear to the whole world. They seized Ukrainian seamen. They shot live ammunition. They broke international law.
There is video footage from one of the Russian ships capturing the moment it is ramming into an Ukrainian ship. How did that footage get public?
As far as I know one of the Russians taped the scene and sent it per Whatsapp to his girlfriend. This way it got into the Internet. At the next step, Russians were shooting. 24 Ukranian seamen were initially arrested. Six of them were wounded, three of them severely.
Moscow has defied Western calls to release the Ukrainian seamen. Russia has accused them of violating Russia’s borders. Russian state television has broadcast footage from the interrogation of three of the Ukrainian captives, including an officer. The Ukrainian prisoners say their ships had deliberately ignored Russian requests to stop.
Watch the video. You will see that the captives were reading their statement from a screen.
You contend that these testimonials were not confessions, but rather false statements done under force?
150 percent. This is how Russia works. They look into your eyes and lie. You cannot trust at all what they say. It took some time for our lawyers to get in touch with our imprisoned fellow citizens. They are prisoners of war according to international conventions. We are informed that our men share the prison cell with Russians. Experts say they are pretty sure that those are not regular prisoners but Russian agents who spy on our arrested men.
The Sea of Azov is an internal sea. The only life line for Ukrainian ports of Berdjansk und Mariupol is the Strait of Kerch. How has the situation changed since the Russian seizure of the Criema in 2014?
Our ports in the Sea of Azov are threatened to be cut off from the world since Russia controls the Strait of Kerch. Apart from a few countries, the international community condemns the Russian occupation of Crimea and considers it a violation of international law. Nevertheless, Russia has since built a bridge 17 kilometers long to connect Crimea and Russia. The bridge cost the Russians around 10 billion dollars and it was deliberately built low so the big sea ships can’t pass under it. As a consequence, Ukraine loses its business from its ports.
You say that this has been deliberately done to cut Ukraine from the world market?
Small ships can still run under the bridge, but big ships can’t pass anymore.
Russia is protecting the bridge with its military, and warns that Ukraine might blow it up.
This warning is beyond any reasonable basis. This is not the Ukrainian method. Regardless what conflict we talk about, Donbass, Crimea, or the Sea of Azov, now, our priority are political and diplomatic measures. In the Donbass, we have to use weapons to protect ourselves. But our mission is purely defensive.
What solution do you envision in order to guarantee access to world markets and to secure a lifeline for your country?
One step is to have our partners come closer to the zone of conflict.
You mean, NATO ships should enter the Sea of Azov to step up protection measures for Ukraine? But NATO ships could not pass this bridge as it is built so low, right?
Not in the Sea of Azov. Our boats were attacked south of the strait of Kerch in the Black Sea. If we have the NATO ships close to the strait of Kerch to safeguard the passing of the ships that could put Russia under pressure.
For years Russia has been alarmed by NATO’s growing incursion into the region. Three nearby states, Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, are members of the alliance. NATO conducts air policing operations out of Romania helping them to defend their territory by intercepting Russian jets approaching their air space. If you try to see the world from a Russian perspective can you understand their point?
Only a military oriented country can express such concern. Look at Ukraine. We are talking about a country with a normal democratic system. Why should someone be afraid of us? Ukraine is an independent country. We are not entering NATO at the moment.
But that is your declared aim.
Russia with their weapons can reach NATO members such as Bulgaria, Rumania, Turkey. We bring our country to a new European, NATO standard, which is normal. When the new government took power after the “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014, the army was in a poor state. Equipment was stolen or sold. There was a plan by foreign powers to make our army weak. Some Russian agents and people were in the ministries of our government. They have achieved their goal. When they took Crimea there was a lack of everything. Today, we are ranked among the top ten Armies in Europe. The daily conflict makes us stronger and I am proud of our highly professional army.
Last year, the US naval construction battalion began building a marine operations control center for the Ukrainian Navy in the city of Ochakiv at the shore of the Black Sea. This can be seen by Russia as a threat to their country.
Why should Ukraine care what its neighbor thinks of this? We are making our country stronger. Have they [Russians] asked us if it was okay to occupy the Crimea? We are an independent country. If they want to reestablish the Soviet Union, and if they want to control the whole region, it’s not going to work.
What is the difference between Obama’s and Trump’s government? Have you noticed a change in policy and measures?
For us there is no difference, because as our president always says, “a friend in need is a friend indeed!” The US is a close ally. The latest move of President Trump cancelling a direct meeting with President Putin at the G-20 summit after the escalation in the Sea of Azov was a very good signal.
Did you ask the US government to cancel this meeting?
No. As far as I know, it was the decision of the Trump administration.
Apart from the US, who would you call your most reliable ally in the West?
First of all, as the Ambassador of Ukraine to Switzerland, I want to mention that we have very good relation with the Confederation. The Federal Councilor and Foreign Minister Burkhalter was very forthcoming when Switzerland had the leadership of OECD in 2014. In addition, today there is a clear cooperation in humanitarian and technical assistance from the Swiss side which is highly appreciated. Of course, the European Union and all the leaders of the G7 countries are big friends of Ukraine and it is also thanks to personal friendly relations of President Poroshenko with other leaders.
What further steps from the West do wish to see?
The support in the West is strong and clear. Of course, we would expect more steps from NATO. And sanctions. They are working really well. And one of the ideas our president put forward is to implement sanctions for Russian trade ships coming out of the Sea of Azov entering international waters.
While there is strong support for Ukraine, Western sympathies have suffered. Reforms that the West called for are protracted, namely, regarding corruption. According Transparency International, Ukraine ranks as the most corrupt country in Europe after Russia. Why has corruption not been tackled thoroughly?
To fight corruption, you need tools. It takes time to establish new institutions. We have been taking steps since 2015. We have established the national Anti-corruption Bureau. We have a specialized independent anti-corruption prosecutors’ office. We have almost completed the anti-corruption court. This will be the mechanism which will fight the corruption. But it is not so easy to do everything at the same time with warfare going on along the eastern border, with the situation on the Crimea and other economical issues.
You are saying that the military engagements are the reason why the corruption has not been fought properly?
I am saying that the military engagements in Donbass takes a lot of resources. Time, people, finance.
Ukraine is ranked by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the poorest country in Europe even though you get a lot of support from the West. Why have you, so far, not managed to reestablish your economy?
We are the number one agricultural country in Europe. We have grains and brains. We have a flourishing IT industry. We have start-up projects all over the world.
So why are you still ranking last in Europe?
Well, it is easy to quote statistics. But try to become a member of the team which works 24/7 to bring an over 45 Million people population country back to a normal and stable life. For example, if Ukraine earns one million dollars from our agricultural sector, we can’t use it for pensions and the stabilization of some funds. We have to use it to make our Donbass region stronger, not for the development project. We need military equipment. We need to finance the army. This is part of this hybrid war being waged upon Ukraine by Moscow. It is a deliberate strategy to make us weak and to keep us from prospering. Regardless, we have a much stronger economy compared to 2015 which means that the strategy of my country is working.
Artem Rybschenko, 35, has been Ambassador of Ukraine in Switzerland since August. Previously he was Dep. Ambassador to Austria for three years. He is married and father of two daughters.