Ukrainian crisis was an inevitability, says the country’s U.N. ambassador

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“A strong state will never start war,” declared diplomat Yuriy Sergeyev at a campus talk on Feb. 26, during which he claimed the current conflict in his native Ukraine was inevitable, in part because Russia has become so economically and politically weak since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ukraine has historically been Russia’s “cradle” and “source of intellectual and economic support,” said Sergeyev, Ukraine’s permanent ambassador to the United Nations. “They [Russia] needed us.”

Sergeyev told his audience in Horchow Hall that the economic deterioration, widespread corruption, and social problems that have plagued Russia since the mid-1990s — as well as the nation’s failure to invest in its infrastructure — contributed to a new Russian “imperialism.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said, created an imperialistic “idea of Eurasia” dependent upon re-incorporating former Soviet states.

In this imperialist Russian ideal, “No Russian world is possible without Ukraine,” stated Sergeyev, adding, “You can’t create a Eurasian Union based only on Kazakhstan and Belarus.”

On the external front, “Russia is the problem and Ukraine became the solution,” he maintained.

However, said Sergeyev, the crisis was also inevitable because of internal problems and political and economic failures in Ukraine — among them, the country’s inability to fully achieve economic independence from Russia. Noting that Ukraine had been reliant on Russia for its energy, technology, and military strength, the ambassador said that Russian investment in Ukraine essentially created an “oligarchical Russian economy” in his country. Politically, he added, Ukraine continued the corrupt and autocratic political system of its Soviet-ruled era even after winning its independence, rather than creating sustainable democratic reform.

“Until last February, we had a criminal democracy, not a democracy,” he commented.

In order to survive the current conflict with Russia and pro-Russian separatists, it is imperative that his country’s government and citizens “build a new Ukraine” by launching reforms to rebuild civil society, modernize the economy, and modernize “our mode of thinking,” Sergeyev said. He added the country’s populace must remain united, rather than allowing for ethnic and political divisions, to successfully defend its borders.

“The crisis gives us this opportunity,” he remarked.

The Ukrainian diplomat said that international support and pressure will be needed to stop Russian aggression in the region, and he warned that Europe and “the whole world” are challenged by Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and of the U.N. Charter itself.

“There is no single part of the U.N. charter that was not violated by Russian aggression,” Sergeyev stated.

He called for continued sanctions against Russia and the political isolation of its leaders, and said that in addition to the moral support of Europe and the United States for his country, Ukraine is also badly in need of sophisticated weaponry “to defend ourselves.”

The U.N. ambassador acknowledged that the failure of Russian-backed separatist forces to abide by the first ceasefire agreement reached in September 2014 makes it difficult for him to have confidence in the more recent ceasefire agreement brokered in Minsk in February by the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia.

“We don’t trust in their words, and don’t trust in their deeds,” he said of Russia and its supporting factions. He noted that even after the agreed date of the ceasefire, the separatists have continued fighting and shelling in the conflict-ridden territories of eastern Ukraine.

Sergeyev spoke for about 30 minutes before taking part in a conversation with Thomas Graham, senior fellow at the Jackson Institute, and then taking questions from the audience. In his address, he noted how demonstrations began in Kiev after then-President Viktor Yanukovych chose not to sign an agreement that would align the country with the European Union. Sergeyev told his audience that his country cannot afford to “betray” the West in the future, claiming solidarity with the West will be essential for his country to survive its current political conflicts. He said he is grateful for all the sympathy and support Ukraine has received from Western nations and people, as well as from the United Nations.

During the question-and-answer session, Sergeyev told his audience that the Crimea will not be regained by Ukraine through the use of military force, and said that the eventuality of winning back the territory will be contingent upon his country’s success at achieving political, economic, and civil reforms.

“Our attractiveness could bring Crimea back,” he said of his personal hope for the future.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,