May 29, 2020

Valeriy Chaly: Russia takes opponent’s weakness as an invitation to act



Valeriy Chaly, chair of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center’s board, former ambassador of Ukraine to the U.S.

Will the drop in oil prices change the Kremlin’s Ukraine plans? Why should the European Union and the U.S. extend sanctions on Russia? Can the Normandy format be effective? Is Russia’s large-scale aggression against Ukraine a realistic scenario? Why are any direct talks between Ukraine and the occupied territories not an acceptable format? The Ukrainian media outlet Glavkom sat down with Valeriy Chaly, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine, to ask him these questions and speak about a broader range of issues.

Mr. Chaly devoted a large part of his professional life to the Razumkov Center, where he chaired international programs, and he served as deputy head of the Presidential Administration of Petro Poroshenko, advising him on foreign policy. Between 2015 and 2019, Mr. Chaly was Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States.

Two years ago, the government of the Russian Federation issued a decree that included Mr. Chaly on the list of sanctioned Ukrainians. Having finished his work as Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Mr. Chaly is back in the non-governmental sector as the chair of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC) board.

The full text of the interview with Mr. Chaly in Ukrainian is available on the Glavkom website (see The Ukraine Crisis Media Center prepared the abridged version below.


You are the chair of the board at Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC). What are your current interests and research areas?

I am back in the non-governmental sector. We established the UCMC to actually respond to the start of the Russian aggression and the occupation of Crimea. It was back in March 2014, when international community had to be told the truth. Today, same as then, our mission is to counter external aggression and support the advance of efficient reforms.

The UCMC now implements projects that counter information attacks and analyze hybrid threats, bolster implementation of key reforms including health care, education and decentralization reforms.


On Russia’s aggression, the drop in oil prices and a break during the pandemic: No one in the world seems to be prepared for what is happening in the oil markets. The government budget of the Russian Federation and its military capacities respectively were hit hard. Will the current situation make the Kremlin revise its aggressive intentions towards Ukraine?

The reasons behind the Kremlin’s aggressive actions run deep. They are historically conditioned; an authoritarian state is searching for its roots not even in the Soviet Union but as far back as in the Russian Empire. External expansion is nearly natural to the Russian Federation. That’s why the Russian-Ukrainian war was supposed to break out, sooner or later. Our conflict with Russia has existed forever and, unfortunately, will last long.

John McCain used to call Russia “a gas station masquerading as a country.” On one hand, it’s true. On the other hand, energy prices alone will not change the mindset of Russia’s governing elite. Will they change the governing elite in the nearest time? Probably not. Understanding the risks from the drop in oil and gas prices, they foresaw some restraint and “airbags” in the form of the so-called National Welfare Fund and Reserve Fund. This “airbag” will be enough for a while. It is a long-lasting resource secured by the loyalty and patience of the Russian people.

Still, the pandemic is taking away many resources from Russia, so that the economic crisis will be felt by all Russians. We’ll see how Russia’s civil society will react to that. So far they are satisfied with how they are being governed. Ending the war with Russia is impossible, unless Russia stops the warfare itself.

It now may seem that Russia took a break because of the pandemic, but the attacks in the Donbas continue, our heroes keep dying, and the number of wounded does not decrease. The war goes on. Although it’s called a hybrid war, it has hot phases, information and cyberattacks. There is a risk that if we fall out of the focus of the key international players, Russia will get a chance to advance. It keeps bolstering weapons and fully equipped troops at our borders, reinforcing its positions in the Black Sea, impeding the freedom of navigation, violating countless provisions of international law, not to mention bilateral agreements with Ukraine.

That’s why we have to be prepared for a long-standing conflict. But we have the truth on our side, as well as international support built under the previous administration. The key task of the current president is to preserve this solidarity, instead of taking the wrong path of easy decisions that will definitely lead to nothing but capitulation.

Russia likes unilateral action, not compromises. Russia’s leaders take an opponent’s weakness for an invitation to act. I can affirm that as someone who served as secretary of the Strategic Group on the Ukrainian-Russian Relations under two presidents, encountered Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and spoke with him directly many times.


Sanctions on the Russian Federation and signals for compromise initiatives have been voiced to revoke sanctions on the Russian Federation in view of the pandemic. Can it really happen?

When sanctions were being introduced, Ukraine had an active position: the country joined efforts to demonstrate to the world what was going on, starting with the attacks from the territory of Russia and ending with the invasion of Russia’s regular troops into our territory. When the international community got to see it, the majority of the world’s countries supported us. That was achieved thanks to Ukraine’s active position. If you are less persistent than your allies and partners, no one is going to support you more than you support yourself. Over 700 Russian entities and individuals under U.S. sanctions are a result of huge, case-by-case work; these are not just political decisions.

The European Union rolls out sanctions every six months; the U.S. also has a special procedure. It becomes more and more difficult to keep these sanctions, especially when our allies see that we are ready to take unilateral actions more than we need to.

Although the West now better understands the conflict and Russia’s motives, it still protects its national interests. It will never take our place in protecting our own interests.

It will grow even more difficult. These difficulties, on one hand, are caused by a certain fatigue of our Western partners and, on the other hand, by actual changes in the tone and actions of our present administration. We need to be cautious. Russia takes signals for compromises as weakness and uses them to push its foreign partners on the need to lift sanctions.

You saw Russia stating at the United Nations that lifting the sanctions in times of the pandemic would be the right move from the humanitarian standpoint. That’s why now is the time to intensify the efforts to reinforce the sanctions. It should become the focus of major efforts by the president and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea and in the Donbas continue and there are more than enough reasons for sanctions.


You directly witnessed how the Minsk agreements were written, the tone of the Normandy format meetings and the pace of negotiations with the U.S. on Crimea and the Donbas. Under what conditions should one expect the Normandy format to be productive? Will Putin agree to include the U.S. in this format?

It is important to understand that there is nothing static in the world. In 2015, our primary task was to cease fire. That has never happened. So what further steps and formats are we talking about? No format is effective, but the International Court at The Hague will not only rule Russia’s actions illegal but will also hold all of its governing elite liable. There are obvious violations of bilateral agreements and international law. Not formats, but Ukraine’s strength is key here. The stronger the country is, the more realistic a peace settlement becomes. The more you compromise with Russia, the more you demonstrate your weakness and set back peace.

The U.S. is present in the negotiation process on a peace settlement in Ukraine in one way or another; they are following the situation. The United States, same as our European partners, knows all the details of our talks, and the Normandy format is not the only one.

While in office as the [U.S.] ambassador, I used to talk to them a lot about the attack against our ships and navy sailors in the Kerch Strait and the violation of the freedom of navigation. According to the U.N. Charter, it was an act of direct aggression, so the question is not whether it comes within the scope of the Normandy format. These cases are considered by the United Nations Security Council, but Russia, being a member of the council, blocks them. That’s why we’re in a stalemate.

Surely, we need to engage the U.S. more. The framework of our relations with the U.S. is a strategic partnership. There is a powerful document that has been slightly forgotten – the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership. It needs to be utilized to the fullest, so that we can interact with our ally as much as possible.

There is also the Budapest Memorandum. We used to rely on it, taking it for a security guarantee, but the document did not work out. Sometimes I get to hear the opinion that the former administration was not able to use the document. While in office as the ambassador, I used to present arguments to U.S. counterparts highlighting the importance of this instrument, and U.S. experts supported me. Unfortunately, our arguments have not been fully effective. We also tried to get the status of a major non-NATO ally of the U.S., but our European partners warned us that we would not be perceived as a country aiming for NATO membership. Still, this subject needs to stay on the agenda.

Formats may differ, but there are two ways in the current circumstances – entering NATO’s collective defense system, or signing a bilateral agreement with a powerful nuclear state, like the U.S. The aspiration for NATO membership cemented in the Ukrainian Constitution is not just symbolic, it is the country’s primary direction. Right now, amid the economic crisis, Ukraine can demonstrate to many European sceptics that it is a reliable ally, with its aviation that assists NATO and its troops that take part in peacekeeping operations.

After all, we are paying a huge price, not only protecting ourselves, but actually providing cover for the eastern flank of the Euro-Atlantic area.


Last year you said that in 2020 Russia will be fully prepared for an offensive operation against Ukraine. Will the Kremlin dare to use all of its military forces deployed along our border? What does that depend on?

It is possible that the current situation has put the brakes on their plans and they will need several more months. Their spending is huge. They continue preparation, they have not given up the scenario of large-scale aggression against Ukraine. At the same time, the Russian government will not issue an order to attack, knowing that the price will be very high. Remember, how it was at the contact line? As soon as we were able to fire back and it was causing casualties on the attacker’s side, attacks immediately ceased. If in our military sector, in addition to a well-motivated and fully supplied army, we also have strong troops on the sea and capacities to counter air strikes, it will make Russia’s advance impossible. Any attack is not just a breakthrough into a certain area, it is also about gaining a foothold in the territory.

I find it hard to imagine Russian troops, even if they are several hundreds of soldiers, keeping Ukrainian territory under control. The resistance would be countrywide.

The Russians also assess all these risks. If they were sure they could quickly take Ukraine under control by military means, they would do it without hesitation. One should not have illusions, Crimea’s occupation proved it. Secondly, they still hope they will be able to blast Ukraine from the inside. In this dimension, the threats are mounting. Unfortunately, these risks are reinforced by off-balance governance, the weakened pace of actions regarding state security, the decreased advance of reforms and the lack of unity that would transform the citizens into a single political nation.


Ukrainian authorities explain their intentions to sit with representatives of the ORDLO [the Ukrainian acronym for the temporary occupied territories] at the negotiation table, saying that Ukraine needs to implement the 11th paragraph of the Minsk agreements that stipulates the need to reach agreement on certain issues with representatives of the occupied territories. Is there a solution for the 11th paragraph?

It is crucial not to let Russia achieve its goal of repackaging the conflict from Ukrainian-Russian into an allegedly Ukrainian internal one. The Minsk agreements are not dogma. They can be revised to become more precise and complete. Why is the security question shifted to the background? Main goal of the Minsk agreements is written down in paragraph 1, it is a complete ceasefire. The ceasefire has never happened. In all these years, the Minsk agreements were actually disregarded – by Russia in the first place.

At the same time, these agreements have certain weight, they are linked to the sanctions and they clearly demonstrate how Russia is violating its commitments. How can we move forward if something as basic as implementation of the Minsk agreements is neglected?

There is another important aspect to the Minsk agreements. Who was their biggest opponent? Who was trying to avoid cementing the position on immediate ceasefire? The president of the Russian Federation, Putin. He was cagey and didn’t want to sign them. French President François Hollande mentions it all in his memoirs; maybe someday even more details will be made public. Besides, different paragraphs of the agreements can be interpreted differently. These are agreements, not international treaties incorporated into Ukrainian law. The room for maneuver can be quite wide.

What really works is a strong army, allies and constant pressure on Russia. All the moves about consultation councils will lead nowhere. I would advise against any other attempts or manipulations. Our allies say: do not give Russia a chance by showing that you are violating anything. It is a very subtle game, while the idea of a consultation council is not. Russia is using the lack of experience and weakness on the Ukrainian side. So the only right position is to keep a strong defense in diplomatic talks and at the contact line. Now is not the time for easy solutions. As long as hawks reign in Russia, the war with Russia will continue.


What do the occupying forces want to demonstrate to us by putting forward intentions to rename Donetsk and Luhansk as Stalino and Voroshylovgrad?

It is a clear signal that they want no turning back. I don’t know why they are doing it at this particular moment, but they never do anything without Russia’s order. Maybe it is a signal that they are ready to keep getting money from Ukraine but will proceed with their separatist line anyway. In a unitary state, like Ukraine, what does it mean to rename (cities) on their own, without a parliamentary decision and with emphasis on the Stalin epoch? It is a signal coming from their leaders saying that they will never be with us. These leaders live well there, they stole Ukrainian factories, they keep stealing money, they are also stealing from people who stayed on the temporarily occupied territory.

At first, they thought they would unite with Russia. They have no illusions now, as running those territories is becoming more and more difficult. That’s why they need to return to Soviet symbols and tools of the totalitarian epoch. They probably need it more for internal control. It is a signal from the metropole, the way they understand Moscow’s rationale – back to the empire.