NEW YORK, NY — NATO says many Russian troops have left Eastern Ukraine, but Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk — leading his country’s delegation to the UN General Assembly in New York — voiced deep doubt that Russian president Vladimir Putin has abandoned expansionist designs on the former Soviet republic.
Asked about his President Petro Poroshenko’s comment that he saw a “transformation” in Russia’s attitude toward Ukraine, Yatsenyuk grimaced in my interview with him late yesterday. ”I’m very skeptical about Russia and the Russian president. I just don’t trust them,” said the 40-year-old premier. “Their ultimate goal is to recreate the Soviet Union, something that resembles the Soviet style empire,” which he described as “a brand of evil.”
Yatsenyuk doesn’t believe Putin will carry out the September 5 cease fire plan agreed in Minsk in good faith. “Knowing them, they will just try to pick the cherry, what they want, but not what’s needed.” What’s required, he said, is to pull all Russian troops out of Ukraine, restore Ukraine’s control over its side of the border crossings, and stop pouring weapons and operatives into Ukrainian territory.
Heartened by President Obama’s denunciation of Russian aggression in his UN General Assembly speech, the premier urged the U.S. and European Union to maintain sanctions on Russia until it abandons all of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. President Obama has not made that a public litmus test, but Yatsenyuk said, “As far as I understand, that’s what he’s thinking about.”
Yatsenyuk did agree with Poroshenko’s observation yesterday in Kiev that “the most dangerous phase” of the war against Russia and its protégé separatists may have passed. But he says any change in Putin’s tactics is being driven by growing public unhappiness over Russian casualties there. “In pulling back forces, Russia got coffins from Ukrainian territory of Russian soldiers. These severely affected the Russian population, and the approval rating of the Russian president,” he said.
There are unconfirmed reports on social media and elsewhere of scores or hundreds of soldiers being returned in zinc-lined coffins or dumped in coal mines. Moscow has refused to release casualty figures. All this has aroused anger among families, especially the activist Committee of Soldiers Mothers.
Yatesenyuk also thinks US and European sanctions are squeezing Russia, though Putin has dismissed them. “I don’t trust that he doesn’t care,” the wiry economist said. “Sanctions definitely have a tough and huge negative impact on the Russian economy.”
But he said economic imperatives also drove his own government to sue for peace, so Kiev can get on with the urgent job of revamping its inefficient and corrupt economy, and aspire to apply for EU membership in 2020 as Poroshenko said yesterday he wants to do. “It’s difficult to find any economy in the world that can flourish having a war,” he noted. “I can hardly imagine how to attract international investors, having Russian tanks and soldiers on your soil.”
The hyper-kinetic Yatsenyuk, who has been nicknamed “The Rabbit” for his uncanny resemblance to the Soviet version in Winnie the Pooh, saved his best line for last — when I asked him what he thought it would take for Ukraine to prevail against the Russian bear. He leaned back and took a breath. “In my childhood, my mom told me a number of fairy tales. And the bear is a very good animal in Ukrainian fairy tales,” he mused. “But in reality, it’s better to have a bear somewhere in the zoo.”
“In a zoo?” I asked, not sure I’d heard him right. “The zoo,” he said. He needed say no more.
Margaret Warner’s full interview with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will air on tonight’s PBS NewsHour.