BNE INTERVIEW: Kruk fears “frozen conflict” in Ukraine as Russia spreads disorder in Europe

Kateryna Kruk was born in Rivne, Western Ukraine in 1991. After studying for a Master’s Degree in Poland, she returned to Kiev last autumn, as the Euromaidan protests began. Determined to shift Ukraine towards Western Europe, Kruk became heavily involved in the protest movement. Tweeting extensively in English, she emerged as the “unofficial voice” of Euromaidan, providing a running commentary both on the protesters’ strategic positioning and dramatic events on the streets, as she tells LIAM HALLIGAN

LH: Is Ukraine part of Europe?

Ukraine isn’t only part of Europe but is also its Eastern border. This border isn’t really defined in geographical or physical terms. Cultural differences define the true border of Europe. As such, this border is rather wide and vague but obviously lies somewhere in Eastern Ukraine. Being part of Europe, belonging to it, is also a process. By observing cultural changes in Ukraine, you can see how the country is becoming more and more European.

LH: Was it right to violently oust President Yanukovich before his term was due to end in 2015? Unpopular in both West and East Ukraine, he would surely have lost the election anyway.

Yes, he would definitely have lost. But once people were shot on the Maidan (on February 20th), that was way too much for many Ukrainians to stand, even those who were previously indifferent. Ukraine hasn’t experienced war or military conflict for some time. Protesters getting shot in central Kyiv was more than many of us could accept or understand. Remember, also, that it was Yanukovych’s decision to leave Ukraine. No one physically forced him to go. Euromaidan didn’t have that ability, whatever the threats made by Praviy Sektor. A deal was negotiated the day after the Maidan shootings, signed by Yanukovych and the opposition leaders, under which Yanukovych would remain President but the elections would be held several months earlier than previously planned. Then, just a few hours later, Yanukovych left the country. Euromaidan only found out about that the day after he was gone.

LH: The protests began last November but, in January and February, escalated into serious violence. How did that make you feel?

To be honest, I became terribly confused. I’d joined the revolution and observed Euromaidan from day one. I saw its huge potential as a peaceful, progressive movement and was actually very upset when the violence began. At the beginning, the main goal of Euromaidan was to break corruption in our country. I very much wanted us to win and Ukraine to change. Yet, we had no real leader, nor a clear vision of our next steps. All we had were opposition politicians who wanted the power that Euromaidan was helping them to gain.

The three opposition party leaders supposedly running Euromaidan weren’t saying the same things. So protesters felt lost, that there was no other way but violence. One could feel, in early January, that nothing was changing and something had to happen. People became impatient and some inside Euromaidan pushed opposition leaders to be more assertive with Yanukovych. The aggression was partly aimed at Yanukovych but at opposition leaders too.

You can’t do good using ugly measures but there we were on the Maidan, leaderless and surrounded by riot police. The authorities were getting ever more aggressive, introducing laws used under dictatorship. We reached the point where either we won, and Yanukovych and his people resigned, or we lost. Sooner or later, it had to happen.

The violence was also driven by fear. Protesters knew they would anyway be punished, go to jail and be beaten, so had nothing to lose. Escalation was inevitable. I felt it, predicted it, saw it start and knew I could do nothing to stop it. It was horrible. But I still knew in my heart I was on the right side and fighting for something important – and that feeling gave me power.

LH: There is speculation opposition leaders instigated the sniper shootings, firing on their own protesters to generate outrage to oust Yanukovych. Could this be true? Even Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet has suggested it might be.

Consideration the brutality and violence Yanukovych directed at Euromaidan, I’m certain he was responsible for these murderous actions. I think these shooting were organised with the help of Russian Special Forces. Yanukovych and his men made Ukraine a paradise for corruption. They are used to killing their own citizens. Yanukovych is quite capable of arranging the shooting of people protesting for freedom and democracy.

I heard the rumour the killing was done by the opposition. I’ve thought about this theory, of course. But it’s clear one of the snipers was firing from the office of the Deputy Prime Minister – which strongly suggests the operation was connected to the Yanukovych government. It was simply too brutal to be done only as a provocation, in my view. Knowing for sure won’t bring the people who died back to life. We’ll know in the end, though. You can’t hide this kind of information forever.

LH: To what extent has Euromaidan been assisted by foreign governments? How did you feel to hear secret recordings of [Assistant US Secretary of State] Victoria Nuland saying who should and shouldn’t be in the Ukrainian government?

I think we’ve received help from abroad – yes. First and foremost, the protest movement has benefited from the political legitimization that comes from the support of Western countries. We’ve also been backed by people overseas who recognise our fight for freedom and willingness to become a real European state. There may also have been financial aid. I know for sure we’ve received much more help from ordinary citizens and NGOs than governments. What foreign government help there has been will probably have been felt much more at the level of politicians and opposition parties.

As an ordinary protester, I know Euromaidan has received warm clothes and medicines for our hospitals. We’ve had food and technical assistance from overseas. Hospitals in the Baltic States, Poland and the Czech Republic have invited injured activists to be treated there for free. I’ve felt a lot more support from the civic sector than from any government. And I’m certain no other state has influenced or orchestrated the direction of Euromaidan.

As for Victoria Nuland, I’d say most Ukrainians agree with her regarding the future direction of our country. Perhaps she got a little bit emotional and carried away on that phone call. Ukraine is a sovereign nation and it’s up to us – the Ukrainian people – to decide who is in government.

LH: Some people have expressed alarm that members of Svoboda and Praviy Sektor were heavily represented in the interim Ukrainian government and remain in office now. Are you alarmed?

There’s a lot of Russian propaganda about the role of Praviy Sektor and Svoboda. Praviy Sektor isn’t a parliamentary party, so can’t take part in the creation of any coalition. Svoboda, meanwhile, has only two members in government. We have nationalistic parties and organizations in Ukraine. That’s not a secret or something unique. But their influence is much exaggerated. In previous presidential elections [Dmyto] Yarosh and [Oleh] Tyahnybok, who represent these nationalistic parties, gained less than 3pc support. Compare this to the results of recent European Parliamentary elections and then let’s have a conversation about who has a problem with nationalism.

Svoboda now has two ministers but I doubt the party will cross the threshold to gain entry to the Rada in the next Parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for 2017. These elections will probably be earlier, as indicated by [President] Poroshenko. That will help us get rid of the remaining allies of Yanukovich in the Communists and the Party of the Regions.

LH: Many claim that the fire at the Odessa trade union headquarters in May, in which 41 ethnic Russians died, was a massacre. What do you think?

The investigations show a clash between separatists and pro-Ukrainian protesters. When I saw the news footage, I had a sense of déjà vu – as I saw something similar in Kiev in February. I think Pro-Ukrainian protesters were trying to help people get out of the building. I’m not saying the Ukrainian government are all saints but I’ll never accept this fire was a deliberate act by pro-Ukrainian supporters. It’s hard for me to talk about Odessa as I wasn’t in Odessa. But I was in Kyiv during the Euromaidan disturbances, so I do what happened there.

LH: Should Ukraine join Nato? Is there a new cold war?

Nato is a political-military alliance. It’s a huge challenge for the Ukrainian public even to discuss such matters. I personally think Ukraine should be in Nato. But I don’t think that will ever happen, given how Nato is perceived in the Kremlin.

Russia has an aggressive style of diplomacy and politics. The reaction to such a bold move as Ukraine joining Nato would either be very restrained or rather aggressive, as Moscow would feel the enemy was right at its border. Knowing Russia, that second scenario is more likely.

We don’t have a new cold war yet but I think Russia wants one. Life is easier in a bipolar world. The concept of “the enemy beyond” means you can act as a savior. In today’s global order, it’s harder to find for Russia to find its place and continue playing a significant role. The country’s social and economic problems mean it can’t be a global superpower. But it can create a situation where everyone has to consult Moscow and consider its actions if Russia is perceived as a dangerous and unpredictable partner.

LH: Will Russia invade East Ukraine? What should the West now do to help de-escalate unrest in your country?

I don’t think Putin wants Eastern Ukraine to be part of Russia. He’s simply using the region to destabilize Ukraine as a whole. This conflict is also a wonderful opportunity to divide Europe, which is exactly what Putin wants. Europe needs to take a strong, unanimous position. The more Europe’s weak points are revealed, the more they will be used by Putin.

This violence in East Ukraine is organized and financed by Russia. To stop it, the West should introduce further sanctions and have a clear position on the international isolation of Russia. There are lots of economic issues involved, of course, not least energy supplies. But there has to be clarity from the West – either help, or don’t interfere at all. If the Eastern border was closed, and controlled by the Ukrainian army, we can solve violence in the East – but only if Russia stops supporting terrorists. That’s something the West can make Russia do.

LH: What is your vision for Ukrainian-Russia relations?

Whether I want it or not, Ukraine and Russia remain close. But Russia wants to make this relationship as hard as possible. Over the next few years we face frozen conflict, with Russia using Ukraine to pursue a bigger goal of spreading disorder across the European Union.

Although older Ukrainians have been raised to think Ukraine and Russia are close, my generation doesn’t feel any special relationship. We want to be good neighbours but not brothers. The idea that Ukrainians, Russians and Georgians are all the same family is a Soviet myth.

LH: When will the EU agree to full Ukrainian membership?

Ukraine has proved it shares European values, its spirit of freedom and democracy. That’s far more important than the level of GDP. I believe it is Ukraine’s destiny to join the EU, but we’re quite aware there are serious problems we have to deal with first – fighting corruption, nepotism and restoring the rule of law. This is a long path and could take 10 or 15 years. But the most important step has already happened. Ukraine will never again be a Soviet-style country. We are and will remain a European nation. And we will join the EU. This is something me and other Maidan people will take care of. We owe it to those who fought and died for our European future.

LH: What are your plans now, Kateryna? And do you truly believe the EU will let Ukraine join? You’re a major threat, for instance, to Europe’s formidable farming lobby.

I was recently offered a job in the new Ukrainian government as a press secretary, and I took it. Kyiv is an expensive city and I have to live. Later this year, I’m going back to university in Poland.

Culturally and on the level of values, Ukraine deserves to be an EU member. But it may be that an “Eastern Partnership” is the closest we get as, I accept, there are different points of view inside the EU. Above all, Ukraine deserves a clear answer on EU membership and we haven’t had that. We’ve already moved a long way and there’s no going back. Yet there has been no clear answer from the EU – and so we feel lost.

We have a new President who has stated our clear aim to join to EU – and yet, from the other side, there is silence. That is part of the explanation for the behaviour of Euromaidan. We’ve had very misleading signals from the EU. But we’re building a European Ukraine anyway and we’re going to keep doing that. Even if we can’t ever join the EU, that won’t kill our dream of making Ukraine a better country.

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