Ex-EU ambassador to Russia ‘happy’ to speak his mind
Unburdened by the need to always be diplomatic and take into consideration the views of all 28 European Union nations, former EU ambassador to Russia Vygaudas Usackas is enjoying his new-found freedom to speak his mind since leaving the post he held since September 2013.
“I am extremely happy to be a free man," the Lithuanian told the Kyiv Post during an Oct. 18 interview between his meetings with advisers to President Petro Poroshenko and with Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.
Usackas penned a popular op-ed published on Oct. 1, the day he stopped being EU ambassador, in The Guardian. In the London newspaper, he warned that the West and Russia will be engaged in long-term clashes because of profound differences in values. Headlined "The West must defend its values against Putin's Russia," Usackas called for greater Western unity, strength and focus on ending Russia's war against Ukraine.
"The EU should step up support to Kyiv in its judicial and economic modernization project and attempts to tackle corruption. This is critical to ensure both continued Western support and the Ukrainian people's backing for their chosen European path," Usackas wrote. "We need not only to acknowledge Ukraine's European aspirations but at some point grant them a path towards EU membership … A successful Ukraine will contribute to stability in our region and represent a powerful example for the Russian people."
Nothing has changed in his views, Usackas said.
What's changed, the 52-year-old married father of two children said, is his ability speak his views publicly.
No 'wishful thinking'
"I've been always consistent with my messages. I was probably not that public and detailed as I put it in my op-ed," Usackas said. "In my capacity as EU ambassador, I was always trying to convey the message of a sense of realism and bringing European leadership to grasp the realities, rather than wishful thinking, with which we were led for far too long."
Usackas is widely touted as a presidential candidate for the 2019 presidential election in his native Lithuania, where he was the Baltic nation's foreign minister. Besides his Moscow posting, he's also been the EU special representative to Afghanistan and Lithuania's ambassador to the United States, Mexico and the United Kingdom.
He is now a lecturer at the Institute of Europe's Kaunus Institute of Technology in Lithuania. He has joined the European Council on Foreign Relations. And he is a mem-
ber of the Friends of Ukraine group led by ex-NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is a paid adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Ending Russia's war
Despite differences among the 28 EU member nations, Usackas said he is proud that "we managed to respond in a pretty rough way" to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He thinks sanctions should stay in place until the Kremlin returns Crimea to Ukraine and ends the war in the eastern Donbas.
He also supports "equipping Ukraine's military forces in a way to be able to defend their own country," including with lethal defensive weapons, without provoking Russia needlessly.
But he doubts that economic sanctions will change Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to subjugate Ukraine.
"To be honest, I don't see President Putin removing his leverage for a considerable time," Usackas said. "The Kremlin will try to influence and create obstacles to Ukraine's Europeanization as much as they can. That perception has triggered the approval of a majority of Russians that the Europeanization of Ukraine represents a threat to the Russian political regime itself."
The Kremlin, he said, is counting on Ukraine to stay divided and fail so that hopefully, in the 2019 election or the next one, Ukrainian voters once again elect a pro-Russian president.
Additionally, Usackas said that "it is in our interests to get Russia to play a constructive role" in the world, including in foreign policy hotspots of Iran, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, while staying strong and resilient in the face of Russian attempts to divide and weaken the West and Ukraine.
He said that "European actions have to be first and foremost in support of Ukraine's resilience." He also favors engaging directly with the Russian people on visits and exchanges, in support of human rights and civil society. The more that Russians are exposed to the realities of the outside world, the less opportunities the Kremlin will have manipulate the mindset of the local population." His hope is that Russians "will follow the path" of Ukrainians in Georgians in choosing a democratic society, rather than the current one in which Putin governs as he wishes "with no checks and balances."
On Ukraine's domestic front, Usackas said he's impressed by the "amazing resilience" Ukrainians have shown since Russia's 2014 invasion and two years of economic recession that ended only in 2016.
But, he said, President Petro Poroshenko and Ukraine's other political leaders need to be more responsive to the Ukrainian people in combatting corruption, establishing an independent judiciary and dislodging the oligarchy.
"Ukraine has been far too complacent for far too long," Usackas said. "Ukraine belatedly chose the path of reforms and European destination. That is why the Kremlin acted the way it acted."
Ukraine can still get back on the path to eventual EU and NATO membership only with radical change, he said.
He reminded that few people gave Lithuania, with less than 3 million people, any chance of joining the EU and NATO in the 1990s. But they succeeded in doing both in 2004.
"We made our homework and reforms and lobbied Congress and the White House to prove that we are capable of defending ourselves and that we share the values of the community of free nations," he said.
'Come from within'
Ukraine "has a historical chance and cannot afford to fail" again, Usackas said, in getting "rid of the past practices, of oligarchic schemes. I know Ukrainians dislike it, but Ukraine has the label of being one of the most if not the most corrupt European countries."
Ukrainians want their leader to change that. They can do so by implementing commitments under the political and trade agreement with the EU and with the International Monetary Fund and by putting an anti-corruption court and independent judiciary in place.
"That's what the people want on the streets," he said.
A Lithuanian-led proposal will be aired at the Brussels Nov. 24 EU Eastern Partnership Summit, calling for a massive annual investment of at least 5 billion euros per year into Ukraine. Usackas called it a "noble" proposal, but he said that for it to be adopted by the EU, Ukraine will have to show greater progress.
"We need to get some more results so we can continue to support Ukraine," he said. "Corrupt practices are an imminent threat to that relationship. We can do as much as we can as foreign partners, as the ones who deliever aid and help the country. We will, of course, condition our relationshp to removal of corrupt practices. But it has to come from within."
Ukraine is in a better position to do so than Russia.
"What I hope and what I see is a vibrant and extremely active and courageous civic society and free society of Ukraine," he said. "There is no comparison with Russia. There are no limitations of free expression and associaton of the people and free speech."
Not 'soft' on Poroshenko
He said that in all his meetings with Ukrainian leaders “I am even more straightfoward than I see in the Kyiv Post. We're not going soft on Poroshenko. The EU is not going soft on Poroshenko. The EU is not going soft on corrupt practices in Ukraine. At the end of the day, it's going to be Ukrainans by themsevles. That's the advice to Poroshenko. No one — apart from the Poles, Lithuanians and a few others — no one is waiting for Ukraine in the EU. If you are interested, you have to give up those corrupt practices and you have to be more saintly than the pope."
Instead, he said, Ukrainian officials have taken to pointing fingers at corruption on other countries. They're missing the point in several respects, he said, including the fact that independent judiciaries exist in many Western nations, serving as a deterrent to corruption.
"We're not on the demanding side" of the relationship with Ukraine, Usackas said of nations already in the EU and NATO. "They're on the demanding side."
Vygaudas Usackas, who served as the European Union’s ambassador to Russia from September 2013 until Oct. 1 of this year, speaks with the Kyiv Post in the newspaper’s office on Oct. 18. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
Vygaudas Usackas, then European Union Ambassador to Russia, flowers with other ambassadors on Feb. 28, 2016, at the spot where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead, to mark the one-year anniversary of Nemtsov’s assassination. (AFP)