Interview Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia with The Globe and Mail, Mark MacKinnon KIEV — The Globe and Mail Published Monday, May. 26 2014, 5:38 AM EDT //
Ukraine’s foreign minister accused Russia of undermining the election of tycoon Petro Poroshenko by refusing to properly recognize the new president-elect on Monday and instigating new fighting in the violence-torn Donetsk region.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would “show a respectful attitude toward the will of the Ukrainian people” following Mr. Poroshenko’s landslide election on Sunday and he said Russia was ready for direct dialogue.
But in an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia said Mr. Lavrov’s offer of bilateral talks was less than genuine, noting that Mr. Lavrov had referred to Mr. Poroshenko as a “Kiev representative” rather than as the president-elect of all of Ukraine. Russia has been accused of fomenting the separatist uprising in southeastern Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin last week described Ukraine as being in “full-scale civil war.”
While Mr. Poroshenko said Monday that he hoped to meet Russian leaders shortly after his inauguration next month, Mr. Deshchytsia said a precondition would be Russia formally recognizing Mr. Poroshenko as Ukraine’s legitimate president.
With the official vote count nearly completed, the 48-year-old Mr. Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolates-and-media magnate, had captured 54 per cent of the vote, almost 40 points clear of his closest rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“What we expect is that Russia will recognize the results of the elections and that Russia will recognize the new Ukrainian president and the government,” Mr. Deshchytsia said in an interview inside Ukraine’s Soviet-era foreign ministry headquarters in central Kiev.
Mr. Deshchytsia suggested that a fresh attack by separatists in the southeast of the country was also part of Moscow’s less-than-welcoming response to the election of Mr. Poroshenko. Fighters from the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic seized the city’s airport early Monday – just hours after Mr. Poroshenko had claimed victory in Kiev – provoking some of the fiercest fighting in seven weeks since the Russian-backed uprising began.
Ukrainian fighter jets later strafed the airport, and paratroopers backed by attack helicopters tried to recapture the facility. Reporters in the city reported heavy explosions around the airport, though it was not clear who was in control of it, or how many casualties had been suffered by either side.
Mr. Lavrov warned Monday that it would be a “colossal mistake” if the Ukrainian government continued its offensive against the pro-Russian rebels. However, Mr. Poroshenko – who has promised to travel to Donetsk on his first trip as president to reassure residents that the Russian language and culture are under no threat in Ukraine – said he would not “talk with terrorists.”
“Their goal is to turn [the Donetsk and Lugansk regions] into Somalia. I will not let anyone do this to our state and I hope that Russia will support my approach,” the president-elect said at a press conference in Kiev.
The pro-Russian rebels have also rejected the idea of meeting Mr. Poroshenko, saying such talks could only happen under Russian mediation, and even then only to discuss an exchange of prisoners and the withdrawal of Ukrainian army troops from the Donetsk region.
Mr. Deshchytsia said Ukraine wanted to “urgently” talk directly to Russia about a range of issues – including the deteriorating situation in Donetsk, Moscow’s March annexation of Crimea and trade ties – but he said the fighting in Donetsk had undermined Mr. Lavrov’s call for dialogue with Mr. Poroshenko.
“Every time Russian politicians call for stabilization, or they call for some kind of contacts on a political level, or … send some positive signals, in the meantime, in reality, more tension and more deterioration is happening on the ground.”
Mr. Deshchytsia said the Kremlin was waging a “shadow war” inside Ukraine. He said Russia – after weeks of promising – was finally beginning to withdraw “some” of the ground forces it had massed near the Ukrainian border, but had spoiled that gesture by starting fresh “air military” exercises in the region.
Ukraine also accused Russia of allowing a convoy of heavily armed gunmen – some reports suggest they could be veterans of the conflict in Chechnya – to cross their shared border over the weekend.
“At the same time Russia says they are withdrawing troops, they are deploying other types of troops … [and] Russian border guards are sending, or allowing, paramilitary groups to illegally cross the Ukrainian border.”
Mr. Deshchytsia said Moscow, having failed in an effort to encourage a mass uprising across the Russian-speaking areas of eastern and southern Ukraine, was now intent on creating a “zone of instability” around the oblasts, or provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.
He said Mr. Putin seemed intent on creating a pro-Russian mini-state in eastern Ukraine, along the lines of Trans-Dniester, a breakaway region of neighbouring Moldova that has hosted Russian peacekeeping troops since the early 1990s.
“The only scenario Putin can implement is to create a zone of instability, which will have an effect on the Ukrainian internal and foreign policy,” he said. “Having something like Trans-Dniester in eastern Ukraine will demand from Ukrainian government a lot of effort, time, money to cope with this problem. And it will also be an extra argument for the European Union not to have closer ties with Ukraine until this is settled.”
Mr. Deshchytsia, who said he had not yet heard from Mr. Poroshenko about whether he would be retained in his post, said Sunday’s election showed Ukrainians were now united in their desire to seek greater integration with the European Union. However, he said that applying for NATO membership – something Mr. Putin recently identified as a “red line” for Moscow – was not on the agenda of the government.