Yuriy Sergeyev has quite the resume.
Since 2008, Sergeyev has served as Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations, a role that has grown increasingly important since the Crimean crisis last year. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 to the ongoing conflict with separatist forces in eastern Ukraine this year, Sergeyev has worked to build solidarity and political support for his country.
Fluent in Russian, French, and English on top of his native Ukrainian, Sergeyev avoids coming off as a stuffy diplomat. Rather, he is thoughtful, quick on his feet and eager to connect with anyone who wants to speak about Ukraine’s future. He sat down with WKND to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, the country’s cultural and religious ties to Russia, his expectations for the most recent peace agreement with Russia, and his hopes for the international community’s involvement in the conflict.
Q: Is there anything you wish Europe and America understood better about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine? Are there any fundamental misunderstandings about the situation, in your mind?
A: I guess now, Americans are more informed on the situation in Ukraine. Not only experts, but the ordinary people whom I’ve met. Even the doormen in our house, they know what’s going on in Ukraine. They’re sharing our concerns while demonstrating their solidarity. It is very obvious what is going on. It’s not just Ukraine that is explaining what is going on. The presence of the international media in Ukraine. Openness is important, and the truth is important.
Q: In addition to being physically near one another, many families have ties on both sides of the Ukrainian/Russian border. How do these close personal ties complicate the current state of affairs for both Ukrainian and Russian citizens?
A: Well, it’s really a challenge to both of them. Some of them … keep these ties, and they do understand each other. Many of them are in so-called cognitive dissonance. They have different cultural and political perceptions. So those who are on the Russian side, they do believe that what Putin is doing, he’s doing for the sake of a nation, whatever means he uses. Well, in Ukraine, they are commenting on what Russia is doing against Ukraine as war — a war against their brothers and sisters, people of the same faith, the same culture, the same history.
Q: How do these close ties complicate plans for future relationships between the two countries?
A: It will be difficult to reestablish the confidence that was lost. It will take generations. … We do believe that society within the Russian Federation will change, and it will be a democratic society.
Q: How do you expect that to happen in Russia?
A: Well, I don’t know how long that will take. But they are also in a crisis. They are in a crisis of cultural perception. They are isolated now. They understand now that, all-around, with the exception of their closest allies like Zimbabwe, like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Belarus, North Korea, nobody supports them. Their leadership is also isolated. Putin is no longer a member of a club with G8 [now known as the G7 since Russia’s suspension]. So they do understand.
They do, inside, have this same kind of cognitive dissonance in their society, between the imperialist ideal, to control the world, and the nationalist ideal, to have a Russia for Russians. So they have to overcome the cognitive dissonance, reach cognitive consonance, and return to their European perspectives. But it will be a long story.
Q: Ukrainian army pilot Nadia Savchenko, who was seized by separatists last year and is currently being held in Moscow, has been called “Ukraine’s Joan of Arc.” You’ve spoken out in support of her release over Twitter. Why do you think she has become such a symbol, and why is it so important that she be released?
A: First of all, her imprisonment is illegal. She was taken from our territory; she was brought to Russia; she was accused of two crimes she never did. First, for killing two Russian journalists, and her [lawyers] brought evidence to Moscow that she could not have done this, because she was in another place at the time. The second, for illegal appearance in a Russian territory, which is also not true. Why is she perceived as a hero? It’s because she’s struggling. She won’t take any food, and her physical condition is very hard. But she has the courage to make very serious statements, to blame Russia, to reject any accusations, to appeal to international society [for help]. She’s imprisoned, tortured, and still she has a strong character, and that’s why she’s a symbol of resistance.
Q: When Russia’s Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, visited campus earlier this month, WKND sat down to speak with him. When asked about international allegations that the Russian government is funding Ukrainian rebels, he said: “[O]ur Ukrainian colleagues tend to explain their own failures on the military field by referring to an alleged military campaign by Russia in the region. It’s nonsense.” But just yesterday, the critical Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published what they say is a Russian government document, suggesting the Kremlin had pre-existing plans to annex Crimea. How certain are you that Russia is backing the separatists, and why is this an important issue to settle?
A: We discovered Russian involvement in supporting the separatism and disorder in Crimea from the very beginning, when the so-called “green polite man” without insignia [masked, unmarked Russian soldiers] appeared in Crimea. We raised the borders because we treated it from the very beginning as evidence of aggression.
In the Security Council exactly one year ago — it was on the 28 of February — we brought all of the evidence that Russia performed aggression in Ukraine. Then they sent heavy artillery, then they sent helicopters, then they sent the army. We brought all of this evidence to the Security Council. They rejected it. Then, Putin, when he gave the medals to military men … said openly that the army was there. What they denied in the beginning, they confirmed in the end. It is the same with eastern Ukraine. The only state in the United Nations who keeps denying they’re there is Russia.
Q: Russia and Ukraine signed a peace deal about two weeks ago. What are Ukraine’s hopes and concerns about the recent peace agreement?
A: The new agreements … were encouraging, because what the Russians said in Minsk was encouraging, but they were also discouraging, because when the leaders were sitting in Minsk, the separatists were still shelling our territories after the agreed date of ceasefire, from Valentine’s Day to Saturday the 15. So they kept fighting, they kept shelling, and they’ve kept shelling until now.
This is a demonstration that whatever Russia agrees upon has the same value of the paper they put their signature on, nothing more. We’ve lost confidence, and we’ve lost trust.
Q: What is your position regarding foreign aid? What sort of involvement from international players would you like to see?
A: Ammunition for defense. We need anti-tank systems, we need the things we do not produce in Ukraine. Ukraine was in the top ten armaments producers in the world, but we don’t have what we need now to stop the aggressor. So this is what we keep waiting [for].
The most important help, which we got from the very beginning, is political and moral support. Last February, everybody in the security council — there are 15 members — 14 supported us. Even China’s abstention we counted as support.
Q: Thinking ahead, are there any concerns about the long-term, internal effects of international involvement in Ukraine?
A: That’s a serious question. What we’re afraid of now is letting the conflict in the east of Ukraine to become a frozen one. Because if it is a frozen conflict, it will take a lot of time to settle it, and naturally, we’ll for sure be affected, because one part of our territory will not be contributing to our budget, our economy and so on. We don’t want to have a frozen conflict, but Russia is pushing us in that direction. It’s favorable for them, both internally and externally. Internally, Putin will demonstrate to his nation that he’s still controlling something. And externally, it’s the argument of how to deter the West [from Ukraine] with all of these factors of instability and so on. And we don’t want that. To avoid the dramatic consequences of the aftermath of conflict, we have launched reforms — economic, financial, general reforms within society — and we need to move quickly. The quicker we move, the better the situation in the aftermath.
In any crisis, you have the choice either to survive or be killed. This crisis gives us a chance to modernize our society. This is a good chance. We ought to move with that, and if we do, the consequences of this crisis will be softened. If not, then we will face difficulties. Our success will be attractive for the territories now under occupation to come back [to Ukraine]. That’s why the success of this story is so important to us. Not just to bring the territories back, but to improve our society.
Q: How would you describe the future Ukraine after the conflict? How does the Ukrainian identity form itself to encompass all of the non-ethnic Ukrainians inside of the country’s borders?
A: In the constitution of Ukraine, it was written clearly: free development and free circulation of Russian language, as well as other languages of minorities. No problem existed. What Russia is spreading around is artificially made. The governmental approach in that situation is to give more liberties to the local governments in their linguistic policies. If they want to have additional signs in the streets — now, it is in Ukrainian and English — if they want to have it in Hungarian, it will demand more money from their local budgets. But they will have this opportunity to proceed. So, Ukraine will be a unitary state, the Ukrainian language will be the only official one, as it is provisioned by the constitution and other languages will be free circulation around Ukraine. They will not be official languages because we have 126 nationalities — it would be a Tower of Babel.
Naturally, we cannot separate ourselves from our historic roots, from our faith, Christianity, but again as I keep saying in all of these Security Council meetings, addressing [myself] to the Russians: You are calling us brothers and sisters in Christ. Don’t kill us. We’ll be united within Ukraine as well based on our historical past, the values of that historical past, and definitely, this crisis will put a full stop on our Communist past. It’s done.
Q: What does Ukraine want from the United States going forward? Are there any concerns that heavier US involvement could cause the situation with Russia to escalate?
A: As I said earlier, we are very grateful to the United States and to the United Nations, because from the very beginning we got strong political and moral support. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, is a strong fighter — not for Ukraine, but for the global values, which were absolutely neglected and destroyed. What we got from the United States was a lot of sympathy, a lot of governmental assistance. We addressed the United States with a request for special status as an ally outside NATO. But it is something that we can’t demand.
The second request was for defense weaponry. We know there are a lot of discussions going around. But again, we don’t have any commands. We are grateful for what we are getting. But to be clear, we are not demanding something within the offensive weaponry. We are not going to attack anybody. We are producers, but what we have is covering only 20% of our need. But what we need generally is the moral support of American politicians and the average people.
And I’m using this opportunity to thank all of the Americans, the students who are doing their studies in Yale University, the cradle of the American political elite.