After Ukraine’s protracted political crisis led to the departure of ousted President Viktor Yanukovich two weeks ago, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the country’s most revered but polarizing figures, reemerged on the political scene after being released from prison on disputed corruption charges.
As the country continues to navigate a trying political path forward that requires both forming a new government and now resolving a sovereignty dispute with Russia over President Vladimir Putin’s move to occupy the Crimean peninsula, Tymoshenko is well-placed to reprise her role as a key Ukrainian transitional leader, a decade after the 2004 Orange Revolution propelled her to the top echelons of power.
Al Jazeera’s John Hendren spoke to the former prime minister in Kiev.
John Hendren: There is a very real chance, as you know well, that you could lose the Crimea. If that happened, what would that mean to the Ukraine and to the rest of the world?
Yulia Tymoshenko: I think that today it is not just Ukraine that will lose Crimea. I think it is the whole world that, if it does not react to the situation, will actually lose stability. And I think all top leaders in the world should be aware of this. The Kremlin today has declared war — not on Crimea, not on Ukraine. But the Kremlin declared war on the whole world.
If diplomacy doesn’t work, what would you like to see the world do?
It seems diplomacy isn’t working now. The more time we lose, the bigger the risks that we face. Now there are proposals to create negotiations to resolve the situation at the highest possible level. But I think that any consultation or negotiation will not produce any significant results. Instead, they would lead to a situation where the March referendum on Crimea will be held and Ukraine will lose Crimea under the threat of armed force. Today, world leaders have to apply a completely different method.
The critical date is the referendum to be conducted on Crimean secession. If the international community allows this referendum to be held then our struggle would be much more difficult. I call to all international leaders not to allow this referendum to be conducted and not to allow this brutal destabilization of the world.
If key world leaders and the countries that promised us to protect Ukrainian territorial integrity when we gave up our nuclear arms would be willing to apply economic sanctions, then these sanctions should be of the highest severity. And these sanctions, like weapons, will destroy all the plans of the aggressor to capture the territory of the other country.
If a real war starts in Crimea, if Putin starts a real war in Crimea and if he starts to take our territories for real, Ukrainians will fight to the death. A lot of blood will be shed. People will perish. They will give up their lives and if the world stays inactive then not only Putin, but the world will be to blame.
As you point out this threatens to become an armed conflict. Is there any point at which you would ask the rest of the world to come in militarily?
I cannot give advice to the countries that signed the Budapest memorandum with Ukraine, which led to Ukraine giving up its nuclear arms voluntarily. I cannot offer them advice. I am just asking them to honor their guarantees.
When I say that more powerful instruments should be applied I don’t mean that a first shot should be heard. It must be like the Cuban Missile Crisis, when two superpowers clashed. But they ended the conflict peacefully and they kept the whole world quiet. I would call it peaceful greetings by powerful forces. And my opinion is that the containment strategy should be applied as soon as possible.
If in the 21st century the Russian Federation in a peaceful Europe is allowed to capture a territory belonging to another European country by armed force, then I think the world will be in great danger.
Let me ask you a little about your role. You as prime minister, you were someone who did business with Putin. He never supported your imprisonment if I understand that correctly. Do you feel that in the past you were wrong to have dealt with Putin, perhaps trusted him? What do you think of him now?
I worked with Putin when I was prime minster. He was also the prime minister at that time and so there was cooperation. Currently I am not the prime minister … Today I cannot communicate with Putin, and in general I think that negotiations with Putin should not be conducted by Ukraine. Ukraine has a very weak position in any negotiation. And if the talk is only between Ukraine and Russia, then Russia will pressure Ukraine to capitulate. And Russia will demand the acceptance of all aggressive requests from the Russian Federation. That shouldn’t be allowed. My vision today of the format of negotiations should be absolutely different. And Ukraine should stay outside any negotiations. Today the leaders of the countries which gave us guarantees and signed the Budapest Memorandum are the ones that should conduct negotiations with Putin.
I also think if the leaders of the countries that gave us guarantees hold negotiations with the leadership of the Russian Federation then they have no right to accept a compromise. No compromise or anything in Russia's favor should be tolerated between the world and the leaders of the Russian Federation. We should return to the status quo and full independence and full territorial integrity of Ukraine. Today, Putin doesn’t have any right to dictate his conditions on Ukraine – an independent country – to the world. Crimea should not be an issue up for discussion.
Let me ask you a little about yourself, you met with (U.S. Secretary of State) John Kerry, you have been talking to other world leaders. What’s your role in the future? Would you consider a role as prime minister or president? Would you seek it?
My life is devoted to my country. And now when the times are so hard when every Ukrainian is waiting for news about whether war is going to break out that’s the time when every single family think about only one thing: How the Crimean conflict will be resolved. During these times it is just not appropriate to think about politics to take any political steps. It is not the time to discuss political wrangling. It is time for us all to unite and to really protect Ukraine. I hope the world will resolve this crisis very quickly and then we may have a moral right to talk about our political future.
What would you say to the people who have been protesting, the demonstrators, who are very cynical about government up until now and some of whom have told us they don’t want anything to do with people who have been in the government in the past. How would you respond to that feeling?
Currently, all those who are in Ukrainian politics were previously in the power structure. There are no other politicians. Secondly, after 22 years of independence, there will be fair presidential elections in Ukraine. And I am convinced that this time the people of Ukraine will have an opportunity to elect the leader they consider appropriate. And that’s the big achievement of the revolution that has occurred. The right to a free and totally fair choice. During the revolution the people rose above any politician. All politicians will have to change now. In order to be worthy of the people.
Do they have a point when they say people who were involved in this government, they bear some of the blame?
I must say that I, just like any politician, has to repent in front of our people. Just as any other politician, I have to recognize my mistakes. The most important thing is not just to admit mistakes but to change ourselves — to change to such an extent that we can be worthy of our people. At the same time I would like to say I'm one of the few politicians who have been thoroughly investigated. When the regime of Yanukovich came to power everyone was investigated.
How do you see all this ending? You’ve told us what you want to see. You want to see a unified world supporting Ukraine against Putin’s Russia. And you bring up the analogy of the Cuban Missile crisis. But in that case you had a Russian leader with an American leader who was firm and who threatened force. How do you see this ending?
I think everything will depend on the position of those countries who undertook to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and its peace. If the opposition is strong, the aggressor will retreat. If the opposition is weak and Ukraine is left on its own with the Russian Federation, then it will be very difficult to predict anything. I think that if a stronger power doesn’t stop the Russian Federation, then it will go as far as the world will allow it.
How can you ultimately stop Russia even with all the unified world community against this act if you have Europeans who are not even willing to go with strong sanctions, if you have nobody so far saying that they will back up these threats with force?
I think sanctions of the strongest possible type could really destabilize the financial and economic situation for the Russian Federation, which now cynically violates international law and international treaties. Weak sanctions, unfortunately will not resolve the situation.
During his press conference yesterday, Putin said something very curious. He said that any sanctions applied to Russia will strike back like a boomerang to all other countries. And he was partly right because high level sanctions may have a negative impact on the financial and economic situation for European countries. But the European Union, the United States and Great Britain must sacrifice something in order to preserve peace and quiet in the region and throughout the whole world. They have to sacrifice something in order to preserve stability in the world.
I would tell them that these are just energy resources, and their people will accept if their governments protect Ukraine. I would say that the world must not let Ukraine be the first country where people actually die for the cause of a united Europe, not for their own territory, not for their own country.
Do you want to see Ukraine lean toward the West or stay where it’s been — which is a middle road between the West and Russia?
I know that Russia has partly achieved its objective by means of this aggression, and the majority of politicians and analysts who are monitoring the situation in Ukraine have begun to say Ukraine is better left in this gray zone, and it would be better if Ukraine stayed in the middle of nowhere to ensure peace in the region.
I support peace and quiet in the region, of course. But I would like to remind you that more than 70 percent of Ukrainians want to be part of Europe. And that should be taken into account. If Russia dictates to the whole world how to build geopolitical relationships, then there is no chance for positive development in the world. I think that in whatever way Russia behaves, the European Union and the whole democratic world has to do their best to ensure that the association agreement is signed with Ukraine and not to leave Ukraine in the gray zone.
That sounds like leaning West…
Absolutely. I think that Ukraine’s joining Europe and the association agreement is the first step. It's like coming home, and we have to come home. We must come home.
This article has been translated, edited and condensed. The former prime minister spoke in Ukrainian.
This episode aired Sunday March 9, 7pm ET/4pm PT.