Interview: 2019. A Year In Review

Ariana Gic interviewed by Dmytro Malyshko.

How do you feel about the past year? What was the most important politically, and for you personally?

I’d describe 2019 as the year of “hijacked reality” in Ukraine’s public life. It was a year of subversion of Ukraine’s democracy. Two basic pillars of democracy are transparency and accountability. Both were violated. Ukrainian voters elected a populist government without having the faintest idea about its political agenda or the key actors on its team. Reality was replaced by fake narratives promoted by paid lobbyists, and amplified by the propaganda of oligarch-owned media outlets.

For me personally, 2019 was a year of a massive disappointment with Ukraine’s civil society and journalists. Unfortunately, too many of them played an instrumental role in whitewashing the image of compromised actors in Zelensky’s government. Too many of them have been validating the false narratives and talking points of Zelensky’s power group. And too many continue to shy away from criticism of Zelensky’s policies which are detrimental to Ukraine’s national interests. These are the people who should have known better. They are the people who are supposed to understand that responsibility for helping safeguard Ukraine’s democracy lies with them.

Democracy cannot function in darkness. This is the information environment preferred by autocracies. It is therefore not surprising to see that Zelensky’s government is pursuing many of the “Lukashenko-style” policies without facing adequate opposition.

Now, as more and more red lines are being crossed by the current government, it seems more Ukrainians are finally awakening to the reality of the new government. I am afraid it might be too late, but I still hope that 2020 will mark a turning point where Ukrainians will reclaim their reality. My greatest hope rests with Ukraine’s patriotic minority – they are smaller in number, but loud in voice. I hope they can help steer change in the country.

To me, the most important political events of 2019 in the West were Brexit and the US president’s impeachment procedure. What other big challenges did Western democracies face in 2019?

Regarding political life in the West, I think what deserves more focus and attention is that whatever major political controversy you pick, you find some connection to Russia. For two decades, the West has been ignoring the rise of Ruscism – an openly aggressive, revanchist, anti-western, anti-democratic, political trend in Russia led by Putin. The West has been welcoming the dirty money of Russian oligarchs, ignoring that in exchange for receiving the Kremlin’s license for business in Russia, their business empires operate as an extension of Russia’s government abroad.

This allowed Putin’s regime to compromise Western media, political actors, and institutions, and successfully build a massive international network of influence capable of pursuing very ambitious objectives benefiting Kremlin

Soon, once the international investigation into shooting of the MH17 passenger plane is concluded, the West will face a major moment of truth. If the investigative team finds the courage to openly say that the Russian army – hence the Russian government – was behind the shooting, western states will have to address the matter of recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terror. I suspect that many governments are truly dreading this moment because selling “normalizing” of relations with a terrorist state to the public wouldn’t sound so digestible.

How did you see Russia in 2019? Has Moscow’s influence in the world grown bigger? What are the main threats from the Kremlin we should be cautious about?

I’d say that the three biggest threats of Russia’s growing influence are: further erosion of the international security order; further weakening of the EU; and further subversion of international organizations.

Unfortunately, except for U.S. sanctions which halted progress of Nord Stream 2 at the very end of 2019, 2019 was a good year for Putin.

Ukraine elected a government which seems to be willing to make compromises that Russia has been pressing for since the first Minsk Accords were signed in 2014. The US is in total political turmoil, and the traces leading to Moscow were found in many political controversies. Russia has substantially contributed to the change of the European political landscape, helping undermine the unity of the EU. Russia has dramatically expanded its influence in the Middle East, and, perhaps less successfully, meddled in the Baltic and Balkan states. It has grown a more assertive presence in Africa, South America, and Arctic. More importantly, it is developing a dangerous military cooperation with China and Iran.

Importantly, Moscow achieved a major win in the Parliament Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) where the Russian delegation was restored. Russia was brought back into the PACE despite not complying with a single resolution calling on Moscow to repair its violations of international law. It should be noted that Zelensky didn’t put up a fight to oppose that move. And if you recall our interview before the vote in the PACE on Russia’s return, I warned that it would mark a turning point in international policy regarding Moscow’s aggression, and pave the way for growing pressure on Ukraine to make concessions to Russia. Time has proved me right, unfortunately – soon after, Zelensky agreed to the so-called “Steinmeier Formula” regarding the Minsk Accords, and he has made a number of other concessions to Russia – from unfavourable prisoner exchanges, to gas contracts which rescued Gazprom from many troubles.

Ukraine remains Putin’s main target. That’s why there’s a high risk that in 2020 the road of concessions benefiting the Kremlin which Zelensky is making will bring Ukraine to a full blown revanche, with Russia regaining some form of meaningful influence over the country.

Do you see much change after new European leadership was elected?

I know that many people were hoping that the change of the EU’s leadership – especially the appointment of Josep Borrell to replace Federica Mogherini as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – would result in a stronger stand against Russia’s aggressive efforts targeting the European Union and its member states, as well as result in more decisive action to drive Russia out of Ukraine.

I am afraid this optimism is overstated.

First, it is very clear that the EU has no intention of getting involved in bringing an end to Russia’s unlawful war on Ukraine. After almost exactly six years of Russia waging war on Ukraine, the EU continues to use euphemisms like “increasingly assertive Russian foreign policy” and “conflict in Ukraine” to designate Russia’s war on Ukraine in its official documents.

The political statements made so far by the new Commission indicate that the EU will rely primarily on the OSCE and German-French mediation to address Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Regretfully, the EU does not seem to have any intentions to treat Russia’s aggression as a major regional security threat and has no plans of engaging mechanisms in Ukraine similar to those it currently employs in conflict zones in Africa or the Middle East.

Ukraine can, however, expect financial support of reforms which are promoted within the Eastern Partnership and the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement frameworks. We should be rather skeptical about how much these reforms can achieve to repel Russian aggression.

Secondly, Ukraine, as well as the whole Eastern Neighbourhood, is not high on the list of the EU’s foreign policy priorities. Under the new Commission, the focus will be on Africa, where the EU faces an increasingly assertive China, and the Western Balkans within the policy of the EU’s enlargement. So we can expect that this will create another window of opportunity in Eastern Europe for Russia to exploit.

Thirdly, even though the new Commission announced that it will act to protect the EU from “external interference” and pledged to “uphold and update the rules-based global order”, I am skeptical it will result in a stronger stand against Russia. Unfortunately, we see a very clear trend to “normalize” relations with Russia, driven by several EU countries, France, in particular.

What perspectives do you see in Normandy format negotiations on Russia’s war? Did Ukraine come close to the end of Russia’s war?

As I just mentioned, the EU under its new leadership continues to view the German-French mediation as one of the main venues for addressing Russia’s aggression. However, if we look without bias at the simple fact that Russia has been waging war on Ukraine for almost a full six years now, this should tell us all one needs to know about the effectiveness of this negotiating format.

Let’s face it, the West didn’t do nearly enough to leave Putin no other option but to get out of Ukraine. There are no persuasive incentives for Russia to make any concessions whatsoever. The sanctions regime is very weak, and completely incommensurate with the gravity of Russia’s violations of the international law. No government or international organization has even officially recognized that Russia is the aggressor state waging an interstate war on Ukraine. As a result of this, Russia keeps its veto rights in the United Nations Security Council and the OSCE, making it impossible for the international community to take adequate action to force Putin out of Ukraine. Ukrainians should be screaming at every corner about the massive political, legal, and moral failure of the West to acknowledge the truth of Russia’s war, but Ukrainians are too afraid to damage the fragile pro-Ukrainian alliance in the West to speak out, so the truth is sacrificed in exchange for Western half-measures of support.

Also, we should question the role of Germany and France as mediators. Germany and France were the main driving forces behind bringing Russia back into the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Germany is building the NordStream 2 gas pipeline which directly undermines Ukraine’s role as a gas transit country, and exposes it to all kinds of security risks from Russia. France is openly pursuing the policy of normalizing relations with Russia. Macron pledged billions in investment to mafia-ruled Russia, not to reformed Ukraine – quite a signal to Ukrainian pro-EU reformers. Berlin and Paris are prioritizing realpolitik over principles. As a result, we see a renewed push for confining the problem of Russia’s aggression to a domestic Ukrainian matter.

So it is rather clear that the Normandy talks can deliver some results on Russia’s war only if Ukraine agrees to make more concessions. In fact, it was Zelensky’s willingness to make concessions to Russia which has revived the Normandy format. It remains to be seen how far Ukrainian society will let Zelensky go down this road. Step by step, Russia is squeezing small concessions out of Ukraine that are changing the big picture. Ukrainians should be very worried that by the end of October 2020, the Minsk accords may be implemented largely on Russia’s terms. We can expect that after elections in Russia-occupied Donbas, Ukraine will be left to deal with the Russian threat mostly alone, because all the meaningful EU sanctions are tied to the implementation of Minsk Accords.

We should remember that Ukraine will never be able to unilaterally end the war that Russia is waging. Some people seem to have a real problem grasping this simple concept. So, after Minsk is implemented, expect Russia to continue its efforts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty.

What do you think about Ukraine’s most recent prisoners exchange with Russia?

Since day one, Zelensky has been pushing the emotional, humanitarian aspect of prisoner swaps to shield himself from valid, rational criticism. Basically, he is using Ukrainian prisoners of war in Russia as pawns to justify making concessions to Russia.

Ukrainians fighting against Russia are prepared to sacrifice their lives for freedom and independence of their country. Zelensky’s government now makes a mockery of their struggle. By making unpalatable concessions to Russia, Zelensky’s government is compromising the values those brave Ukrainians have been fighting for, and is rewarding Russia’s terrorist tactics of kidnapping Ukrainian citizens to extort concessions.

I will point out just four examples of how Zelensky’s concessions on prisoner swaps benefitted Russia’s political and legal position while undermining Ukrainian standing in a major way.

In his first prisoner swap in summer 2019, Zelensky released Volodymyr Tsemakh – one of the main suspects in Russia’s shoot down of passenger flight MH17. A short while ago, Tsemakh filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights against Ukraine and the Netherlands for maltreatment. Freeing Tsemakh directly benefited Russia’s political and legal position in the MH17 case of denying any involvement. Now, international prosecutors are barred from questioning one of the key suspects in the case who could’ve shed a light on Russia’s role in the shooting.

In the last prisoner swap, Zelensky released a Russian national fighting against Ukraine in Donbas, Ruslan Gadzhyev. His case was filed by Ukraine with the International Court of Justice as evidence of Russia’s aggression. Clearly, Gadzhyev will now never testify in front of the judges in the Hague. This situation just raises more suspicion that the Zelensky government may be quietly working on undermining Ukraine’s legal cases against Russia in international courts.

Also, by agreeing to include the 24 Ukrainian seamen who were kidnapped and illegally detained by Russia as part of the prisoner swap, Zelensky effectively helped Russia get off the hook for new international sanctions. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea found Russia in violation of international law, and ordered Russia to unconditionally free the Ukrainian sailors. Many governments and international organizations condemned Russia’s blatant attack on Ukrainian vessels. Still, Russia refused to free the sailors even after talks with French President Macron and American President Trump. So, Zelensky agreeing to make the Ukrainian seaman as part of the prisoner swap allowed Russia to fake compliance with the order of the International Tribunal. It also provided Putin with a face saving exit which not only allowed Russia to maintain its legal position on the issue, but also to use the Ukrainian seaman as bargaining chips. Please note that Russia hasn’t ceased its legal prosecution of Ukrainian sailors. They are being tried in absentia because it is very important for Russia to legally validate its actions in Kerch Straight.

In the most recent swap, Zelensky brutally violated the Rule of Law in Ukraine by pressuring the Kyiv Appellate Court judges to free five Berkut riot police officers tried for shooting protesters on Maidan. Again, Russia directly benefits from this release. Russia has always maintained that Maidan was a “violent coop de e’tat which ousted a legitimate government” and used “the restoration of constitutional order” as one of the justifications for its aggression against Ukraine. From Moscow’s point of view, the Berkut officers are “heroes” defending a “legitimate government” against “ultra-radical nazi”. Many of the Berkut officers fled to Russia after Maidan to avoid criminal prosecution in Ukraine, and were warmly welcomed there. By releasing Berkut officers, the Ukrainian government is undermining the highly complex legal cases the prosecution has been building for six years.

Notably, the way Zelensky handled the most recent prisoners swap resulted in the quasi validation of the Russian occupation administrations in Donbas. Many experts noted that Zelensky’s approach to the swap provided a degree of validation to the puppet regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk. I am afraid that this was not some sort of omission by Zelensky, but a sign of things to come. This situation reflects Zelensky’s party rhetoric about the need to reach out to the “other side” – the other side being collaborators in Donbas. It has been the Kremlin’s policy since the first Minsk Accords to force Ukraine into direct talks with Russian occupation administrations in Donbas. We should understand this would mean a total validation of Russia’s propaganda about civil war in Ukraine which will deal a fatal blow to Ukraine’s legal position on the war.

How can you describe UA-US relation this year? What US did to support Ukraine over Russia? What may be done better?

In the six years since the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine, American-Ukrainian relations have progressed from Obama’s constantly shifting red lines and his refusal to arm Ukraine in 2014, to Trump sabotaging acts of Congress supporting Ukraine, to Ukraine finally being allowed to buy American lethal weapons. Although American javelins would make more difference for the outcome of military battles in Donbas in 2014 than today. A lot of time was lost where Ukraine’s defensive capabilities could have been strengthened.

This slow-moving change in American policy regarding Ukraine’s defensive capabilities has exposed many ugly realities of American politics: the immoral and totally misguided “reset” of relations with Moscow under Obama; the unreadiness of American leadership to defend the liberal principles and values abroad and at home, the vulnerability of the American political system to being hijacked by highly compromised actors; the corruption of American lobbyists, think tanks, and media compromised by money from Russian (and Ukrainian) oligarchs… The list goes on.

The freak show of the Trump-Zelensky scandal just perfectly epitomizes most of what has been so very wrong with US politics. Most notoriously, taking advantage of the victim of Russia’s aggression goes against every principle the US publicly stands for. It was wrong when the US put undue pressure on Poroshenko, and it was wrong when this approach continued with Zelensky.

What I sincerely hope the Americans will finally do to help Ukraine is to recognize Russia as the aggressor state waging interstate war on Ukraine and the state sponsor of terror. The US should also finally deliver on its commitments under the Budapest Memorandum and bring a motion to the UN seeking international measures to force Russia to unconditionally cease its war on Ukraine and withdraw from all occupied territories.

How would you describe the relationship between Ukraine and Canada? Volodymyr Zelensky visited Canada this year. Did much change in relations between our countries since then?

Canada has remained Ukraine’s most trusted international partner throughout the six years of Russian war. It is contributing substantially to international efforts to push back against Russian aggression. I suspect most Ukrainians don’t actually know the extent to which Canada is helping your country.

Our government is devoted to upholding international sanctions regime against Russia. Canada played a leading role in the wave of international sanctions against Russia for its unprovoked attack on the Ukrainian navy vessels in the Kerch straight. By comparison, EU sanctions were extremely weak and did not at all reflect the gravity of Russia’s open military attack.

Canada has provided Ukraine with reliable support in international forums, particularly in the G7. It also participates in the special monitoring mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Donbas.

Canada was the fifth biggest donor to Ukraine, contributing 152.3 million US dollars to 18 assistance projects.

Canada is one of the few Western counties that has been helping Ukraine improve its military defence against Russia. Perhaps you remember, in February last year, Canada’s Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajaan in a very clear statement said: “Canada is unwavering in its support to Ukraine, and we are committed to protecting our close friend and ally from Russian aggression”. Our Ministry of National Defence is helping the Ukrainian Armed Forces with the UNIFIER tactical training program, and strategic advice on institutional reforms to achieve NATO interoperability. Canada has also been sending non-lethal military equipment, and since 2017, has allowed Ukraine to purchase some lethal weapons such as sniper rifles. The bilateral 2017 Defence Cooperation Arrangement has also opened new venues for mutual cooperation in defence research, development and production.

Canada has been providing financial and development assistance to support the reform of Ukrainian National Police, judicial reform, improve anti-corruption mechanisms, and whistleblowers protection.

Canada is also providing substantial humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people. It is important to underscore the help of Ukrainian diaspora which has been actively and generously helping various Ukrainian causes since the beginning of Russia’s war. I am sure you have heard about the medical missions of Canadian medical volunteers who come to Ukraine to operate on soldiers injured in the war and to provide training to Ukrainian doctors.

Moreover, the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement which entered into force in 2017 has opened new business opportunities for Ukrainian businesses.

As you might know, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s former minister of Foreign Affairs, was a driving force behind many of those initiatives. There was some concern about the continuation of Canada’s strong support for Ukraine after the post federal elections appointment of François-Philippe Champagne as Canada’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs. So far there has been no indication of any big changes with regard to Canada’s Ukraine policies. In fact, the Ministerial Mandate Letter for Foreign Minister Champagne from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directs the Foreign Ministry to continue Canada’s existing commitment to military cooperation programs with Ukraine. Importantly, the liberal government also pledged to reinforce international institutions, like the International Criminal Court, and to promote and uphold international law. Such policy will clearly indirectly benefit Ukraine’s legal and diplomatic battle against Russia.

However, I would caution Ukrainian government not to take Canadian support for granted. Canada has been supportive of Ukraine because we are committed to supporting democracy, human rights and freedoms, and international law worldwide. Ukraine’s post-Maidan governments received a lot of support because of their genuine efforts to defend Ukraine against Russia’s aggression while conducting reforms advancing democracy, justice, and good governance.

I think it is a little too early to say what kind of relationship Canada will have with Zelensky. I am afraid that the initial interest in Zelensky due to his celebrity comedian background has worn off. Now he needs to demonstrate with real action that the reformist image his lobbyists painted meets reality. But as we can see, he hasn’t divorced himself from the influence of oligarchs, actors of the Yanukovych regime era are regaining their influence, many of his legislation proposals are extending presidential powers, his government is openly prosecuting Ukrainian patriots and the reformers of the post-Maidan governments, his statements echo Russian propaganda, and he is making dangerous concessions to Moscow. I don’t think our government or Canadian Ukrainian organizations will keep ignoring this situation for too long. In fact, through our former Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, Canada spoke out very strongly against Zelensky’s reform of Ukraine’s Supreme Court which is undermining the Rule of Law in Ukraine. So, really, the Canada-Ukraine relationship will be impacted by the Ukrainian government’s commitment to values, and not empty rhetoric.


Ariana Gic, Canadian political and legal analyst, Director, Direct Initiative International Centre for Ukraine. Ariana has co-led a years long international public advocacy campaign “Truth for Peace,” calling for recognizing Russia as the aggressor state waging unlawful interstate war against Ukraine since 2014, and designating Russia as a rogue state and a state sponsor of terrorism. More information about Ariana Gic can be found here.

Dmytro Malyshko, Ukrainian journalist focusing on international relations. Dmytro’s specialty are interviews on hard subjects. More information about Dmytro Malyshko can be found here.