The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine on December 12 released a transcript of Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt’s interview with Myroslava Gongadze of Voice of America. The interview took place on November 13 in Kyiv and it aired on the program “Prime Time.” Following are excerpts of their discussion about the beginning of the Euro-Maidan. The interview also discusses Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Obama administration’s response to Russian aggression, the state of affairs in Ukraine today and what lies ahead. (A video of the full interview is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNH0ZRZeGGw.)
…when you came [to Ukraine], you were probably not expecting big turmoil. But you came, and it did [happen]. What was your feeling when you came to the country?
Well, I don’t think anybody could have imagined the changes and the drama that Ukraine has been through over the past two years. The 21st of November will be the second-year anniversary of the beginning of all of this. I think there were periods of enormous sadness, but also inspiring courage. Ultimately it’s about the Ukrainian people. I think back on the Maidan. I will remember the first time I heard, before it was public, that [Viktor] Yanukovych was not going to sign the Association Agreement. And I remember a conversation at that point with Sergei Lyovochkin. And I asked Sergei, I said, how are you going to explain this to the people of Ukraine? What’s the diplomacy plan? He said, “I don’t know.” And I think ultimately, that’s the story of the Maidan. It was about Yanukovych trying to deny the choice that the Ukrainian people had made to move toward European institutions and European values.
Was it exactly Yanukovych, or maybe it was a bigger push from Russia?
I don’t know. You have to ask Viktor Yanukovych that question. He’s the only one who knows. I know there were a lot of people around the Presidential Administration in those days who were just as surprised as we were by the decision that Yanukovych made. I will tell you, in my initial conversations with President Yanukovych after I arrived in August, he was all talking about the intention to take Ukraine towards Europe, toward European values.
So four months, and…
I think that’s what was the spark for the Maidan. Everybody in this country, 46 million people, thought, “we’re going to Europe,” and then all of a sudden, in late November, he announces, “Change of plans – we’re actually going to the Eurasian Customs Union. I’ve changed my mind, I’ve had a conversation with Vladimir Putin.” But ultimately, what was going on in his mind, I think only Viktor Yanukovych will know.
So what did you tell Washington back then, when the first people came on Maidan, when you realized that this is serious?
Well it was very clear it was big. And I remember people around the government telling me, “this is bigger than the Orange Revolution – it’s much deeper.” And I remember walking around Kyiv those first days. I was out walking on St. Michael’s – on Mykhailivska – on the morning of, I guess it would have been November 30, December 1, right after this all started. This was a popular demonstration. I remember – it was so striking to me – the number of strollers that you saw, and people with young children, and people with their grandmothers. And these were people who were demanding a say in their country’s future.
The Maidan itself then went through this extraordinary 11 weeks. There were the events in the first week of December. Remember, that was during the OSCE Ministerial. All of Europe was here, all of these foreign ministers. But it was also the time when Yanukovych and Bankova chose first to send the Berkut against the demonstrators to try to clear Maidan, and all the violence there. And yet people came back. I remember that evening, I was woken up by a phone call. I won’t say who it was from, but let’s just say it is somebody who is now very prominent in the government.
The Ukrainian government?
In the Ukrainian government, who called me up to say, “Ambassador, they’ve sent the Berkut in. They’re trying to clear the Maidan.” And what I remember, from my house in Podil, I could hear the church bells ringing. You could hear the bells of St. Sophia and St. Michael’s were being rung. And as we watched this over the evening – this bizarre experience of watching it on the livestream, watching it on TV…
And being there, basically…
And sort of hearing what was going on. We were observers. But what was striking to me was the crowd was getting bigger. People were coming out. And I think that’s the essence of the courage that was demonstrated throughout the Maidan, and frankly, the courage that Ukrainians have demonstrated over this extraordinary 20 months. Vladimir Putin underestimated the Ukrainian people.
Still, back in Washington, did Washington understand what was really going on? Did Europe understand really what was going on?
We certainly understood how strong the demand was among the Ukrainian people to stay on the path to Europe. You remember, there was a very strong statement that Secretary of State [John] Kerry issued that night in the first week of December when the Berkut were first sent onto the Maidan. He expressed – I think he used the word “disgust” – disgusted by what was happening, which is a strong word for a statement by the secretary of state. But throughout this period, we were also very strong – I was coordinating very closely with Ambassador [Jan] Tombiński, my EU counterpart; Ambassador [Christof] Weil, my German counterpart – all of whom are close friends and are still here – but we were all saying the same thing: non-violence, work through Ukrainian constitutional structures, support democracy, support the values that you say you stand for.
Then, again, war. It started and Russia would not give up, and it’s clearly not giving up even now. What was your expectation, and how was Ukrainian government ready to actually fight the war? Did you have a clear picture about Ukrainian readiness to really fight the war?
Gosh, that’s a hard question. First, I will say what will stick with me was that first Sunday after Yanukovych fled. And one of my Ukrainian friends who’s now in the Rada, she said to me, “you know, that was our one weekend of happiness.”
Before the war?
Before the war, after Yanukovych had left. So it would have been the 22nd, 23rd. The morning of Sunday the 23rd. Remember, the Rada was in session, because they had voted with overwhelming support, including from Party of Regions representatives, to declare Yanukovych failing – that he had failed to discharge his responsibilities as resident.
But what I will remember is, and this was totally unexpected for me, I went that Sunday morning to the Rada to go see [Oleksandr] Turchynov, who at that point was speaker. And we were coming up Hrushevskoho – actually the back way, because the road was still not open from my house – and I was head-down, reading my Blackberry in the back of the car, and all of a sudden we stopped. And I looked out. And we were just by the hotel there, by the entrance to Mariyinsky Park. We weren’t at the Rada yet. And I was thinking, “well, why are we stopping now?” And the whole street was full – and again, it was full of grandmothers, families, people with strollers, coming with flowers, coming with candles. And I realized they were reclaiming their democracy. They were coming to the Rada. And there was this sense of: “now we’re going to hold these people responsible, now we have to build a new country.” That was a profoundly inspiring period.
Prime Minister [Arseniy] Yatsenyuk was named a few days later. He tells the story now, he arrived in office and he discovered that Ukraine had a few thousand dollars left in the treasury, the cupboard was bare. As he used to say – an army that couldn’t fight, an air force the wouldn’t fly, a navy that didn’t float. So Ukraine was at its weakest from a military standpoint. That’s when [Vladimir] Putin moved into Crimea. I will always remember those first few days after the “little green men” showed up. People were trying to figure out, “What’s going on here?” Because it was so inconceivable that Putin would blow up international norms so dramatically, that he would violate the principle of territorial integrity that had been so important to preserving peace since the second world war. It’s the most sacred principle of the Euro-Atlantic security community.