‘What Is Happening in Ukraine Is Dangerous for Russia’

Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko on what his country really needs from the West and why Putin's politics just don't make sense.

By , a journalist and the author of War in 140 Characters and Nuclear Iran.
Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images
Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images
Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images

The headquarters of the Ukrainian opposition party, the United Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), are located in an inconspicuous brick building on a pleasant street in central Kiev. A single Ukrainian flag hangs over the entryway -- the only clue as to the building's political significance. The party won 40 seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections and it is a growing national force, popular with Ukraine's youth and its pro-European intelligentsia.

The headquarters of the Ukrainian opposition party, the United Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), are located in an inconspicuous brick building on a pleasant street in central Kiev. A single Ukrainian flag hangs over the entryway — the only clue as to the building’s political significance. The party won 40 seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections and it is a growing national force, popular with Ukraine’s youth and its pro-European intelligentsia.

Inside, leader of the UDAR, Vitali Klitschko stands six foot and seven inches tall, dominating the conference room. Foreign Policy met with the former world heavyweight boxing champion turned politician on April 24 to discuss Ukraine’s growing crisis. The acronym UDAR means "punch" in Ukrainian and it is indicative of the way Klitschko has spent almost the past ten years using his global celebrity status to transform himself from an internationally known athlete into one of Ukraine’s leading politicians. Klitschko had been considered to be a contender for the upcoming presidential elections on May 25, but he decided to focus his attention on running for mayor of Kiev instead.

During the Euromaidan revolution that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych in February, Klitschko was an almost continuous presence in Independence Square — known in Ukraine as Maidan Nezalezhnosti. What began as a peaceful protest against Yanukovych’s ultimate refusal to strengthen ties with Europe by signing an European Union Association Agreement (opting instead to take a $15 billion loan and reduced gas-price agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin) turned into outright rebellion after government forces used violence against protestors.

In this small conference room, Klitschko positively looms over the table, leaning forward frequently to emphasize his points. Next to him sits a member of his entourage who scribbles notes throughout. Also in the room are the interviewer’s assistant and translator, whose services Klitschko declines, opting instead to speak in English to "save time." (Still, at various points in the interview, when he struggles for the right phrasing or cannot remember a word, he turns to the translator for clarification.)

Throughout the interview his giant hands rest almost delicately on the table. As he talks, Klitschko makes intense and consistent eye contact. At times his voice rises passionately, but his words are always measured; he is careful about what he says. 

Foreign Policy: First let’s talk about Maidan. What was its single biggest achievement? 

Vitali Klitschko: It’s vital to democracy for civil society to show that it has power. Everyone, even a president has to listen. That was actually [Viktor] Yanukovych’s motto: "I listen to everyone." Maidan stayed peaceful for two months but it was clear that the president wasn’t listening; that he wasn’t seeing; that he wasn’t paying attention to the people. Then it got worse; he sent in the riot police to "cleanse" Maidan. 

It’s critical for politicians to talk to the people, to find a solution and a compromise. Yanukovych didn’t want to do that and the results [of Maidan] stemmed from that. 

Maidan showed the strength of the Ukrainian society. The people said that they had had enough of living without rules; enough of living with corruption; enough of living without a future. They rose up and they overthrew the president, who we later discovered lived in a virtual world. When the people visited his home they discovered that he had an entire loaf of bread made from solid gold — and many of these people don’t have enough real bread to eat.

FP: So the entire system was wrong?

VK: The system was totally corrupt. It didn’t serve society; it was a pyramid with the president at the top.

I often tell a story about why I wanted to smash the system. My father was an Air Force officer and he died because he spent a lot of time working in Chernobyl. My mother was able to receive compensation: ten months salary. She was told she would get the money but only if she would have to give 50 percent as a "kickback." I found the letter detailing this and asked her about it. She told me that if she hadn’t paid, she would have got nothing.

There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of similar examples. What did my father die for? We need justice here. The people came to Maidan to find justice — to create a society with rules. And it set a precedent. If someone comes to power now and they don’t listen to the people the same thing can happen again. 

FP: Moving to current events. Do you think Russia is behind what is happening in East Ukraine? 

VK: Yes. There are numerous examples of this. I was recently in East Ukraine and spoke to many Russians who had come there — I call them "political tourists." They told me, "We want to support the Russian-speaking community in the East of Ukraine because Maidan radicals want to [threaten] them."

I was at Maidan. I am Russian-speaking. My mother is Russian. I am not a radical. Where does this come from? Why is there instability in the East of Ukraine? Because of the huge influence of Russian media — their propaganda works is [relentless]. Just a couple of days ago I watched Russian TV and I was shocked. They do things very professionally. And in East Ukraine they watch [a lot of] Russian TV and it has [a] huge influence. They claim radical and nationalists are trying to threaten the [speaking of the] Russian language here.

Language? We have to support Russian language? Sorry, in East Ukraine, only 54 percent of schools are Ukrainian speaking. Every parent has the right to choose which school they send their children to. In Crimea there are 650 schools, just seven of them are Ukrainian-speaking. And people say we are threatening the speaking of Russian? It’s just propaganda. It’s not true.

Right now the people who lost power — the [Ukrainian] politicians — are trying to use propaganda to try to divide the country. No one in Ukraine who speaks Russian is under threat or is unable to speak Russian in any part of the country. Equally, no one Ukrainian-speaking has a problem speaking Ukrainian in any part of the county.

[These] politicians talk about language, nationality, and history. These questions aren’t important now. What is important are jobs, social standards, the future. Our people don’t believe in the future. Seven million Ukrainians are living outside Ukraine; 70 percent of our youth dream of leaving the country. We have to change our standards of living. And we can do it.

We want to sign the EU Association agreement. We want to start European reforms, justice reforms, police reforms. We have to implement numerous reforms and open up the economy for small businesses because right now we have a system of monopolies. We can create more jobs; we can increase the budget — it can work.

We have huge problems with the Ukrainian economy. Let me give you a number. I speak emotionally but numbers don’t have emotions. Just a couple of weeks ago, I Googled some interesting facts: Ukraine is just 0.5 percent of the world’s territory but we have 36 percent of world’s reserves of black soil. Can you imagine? And this in a country where many people don’t have enough to eat, and are just trying to survive. Something is wrong. This is why we need reform.

We need to change a lot of things in Ukraine — we have the chance right now and it is critical that we take that chance. In 2004, after the Orange Revolution, people dreamed of making changes but were ultimately disappointed because the politicians who promised that [went back on their promises] and no
thing was done. We can’t make the same mistakes we did ten years ago.

FP: Why do you think Russia is doing what it is doing in the East? 

VK: Because what is happening in Ukraine is dangerous for Russia. It sets an example: Ukraine has shown the positive results of its revolution in a very short space of time. This can be an example to others. 

FP: What action should be taken to deal with the separatists? What should be done to resolve the situation?

VK: First of all, we have to try to talk to people, to try to change their opinions and to find a compromise. We will discuss issues like the decentralization of budgets, more rights for local communities, and decentralization of power. We have to talk — if they want to talk in Russian, let’s do it. We have around 70 nationalities in Ukraine; here we speak Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and some regions don’t even speak Russian or Ukrainian but local dialects. But the main language should be Ukrainian — that’s our clear vision. We support every language.

FP: But you have military people in the East now? How are you going to resolve the situation there now?

VK: If people aren’t ready to find a compromise, if they aren’t ready to talk and want to create separate republics and leave Ukraine — not whole regions just small sections of the population who have occupied the government buildings — we have to defend the country. Are they using legal or illegal weapons? Illegal. We have to return the weapons to the police — if they refuse to do that we have no choice but to act.

FP: So the army will have to do it? 

VK: [Let me give you] a few figures: There are 300,000 Ukrainian police officers. We have just 100,000 soldiers. We have a strong enough police force that we don’t need to use the army.

FP: Do you think Putin will stop?

VK: I don’t understand Putin’s politics. Ukrainians and Russians are very close: We have so much in common. White Russia: Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia have huge ties, and he is trying to divide us all with this idea of a "great empire." Why is he doing this? I speak to many Russians and they are angry at Ukraine; Putin has 80 percent approval ratings. Why? Propaganda.

FP: So you think Putin wants to establish a new Russian Empire?

VK: I don’t think I know. He said it, openly. He said Crimea was always Russian territory. Now is he going to say East Ukraine was always Russian territory? Kiev is the "mother of Russian cities" — is that next? The next step will be Poland — it, too, used to be a part of the Russian Empire. 

FP: So you think that if he is not stopped he will continue?

VK: I don’t know but what he is doing is not logical. It’s [all based on] a sick idea of rebuilding an empire.

FP: What action would you like to see the international community now take against Russia?

VK: They have to support our independence. In the 1994 Budapest Agreement the U.S., Great Britain, Russia, France, and China all guaranteed Ukraine’s independence when we gave up our nuclear weapons. We need a guarantee. If this doesn’t happen the only way to stop Putin will be nuclear war.

FP: Should more sanctions be placed on Russia? What would you like to see happen? 

VK: Sanctions are a good way to deal with Russia. I watch Russian propaganda: It says the U.S. has a bad economy, that it’s a bad country, that is has no human rights. It says that the EU is on the point of collapse. If this is the case, why do Russians send their children to be educated in Europe? Why do Russians with health problems immediately fly to Germany or France or Great Britain? Why do they buy real estate there and take their holidays there? They enjoy the European lifestyle and yet they criticize it. 

[The benefits of EU membership can be seen with] Poland. Ten years ago Poland’s GDP was three times less than Ukraine’s. Now the situation has been reversed. If you drive through Poland you can see the improved infrastructure everywhere — in ten years they have made huge strides. Ukraine has a lot in common with Poland — territory, population, mentality, etc. It is a good example for us. But geopolitical interests are preventing us from achieving this.

FP: So what increased support would you like to see from the United States?

VK: We need support across the board. We need political support; we need financial support; we need technological support. We would greatly appreciate weapons support from the United States.

FP: So do you foresee that there might be an armed conflict in the future?

VK: I hope not. I can’t imagine fighting my relatives — to kill my brothers. But history shows that so many wars are wars between brothers. I don’t even want to think about that and I hope we find a political solution.

FP: But how do you find it with Putin when he doesn’t seem to want one?

VK: The whole world has to keep its attention on the situation here. What is happening here is a precedent and the world needs to take note. What is happening to us can happen to anyone. 

FP: Agreed. So what is the best way to stop Russia now?

VK: We have to talk about political and economic sanctions.

FP: Have the sanctions so far been sufficient or do they need to be increased?

VK: If Russia continues we have to go a new level of financial and political sanctions.

FP: How can NATO help in this crisis?

VK: It is now abundantly clear that our decision to become a non-aligned state was a mistake…

FP: … So you think Ukraine should join NATO?

VK: Russia has taken the decision for us. It has driven us into NATO.

FP: Will it be possible for Ukraine to join NATO?

VK: I don’t want to talk about that because it’s like waving a red flag under Russia’s nose.

FP: Is joining the EU still possible? 

VK: I am very pro-European and as I said before Russians enjoy Europe very much. Whenever I speak to Russians about the Ukraine-EU issue, I always say: "We are doing everything we can to bring Europe closer to you! It will make it easier for you to enjoy your European luxuries!"

FP: You’ve talked about the importance of the upcoming presidential elections on May 25. Do you think Russia is trying to destabilize the elections? 

VK: I am more than sure. Russia constantly says our current government is not legitimate. These elections are one way to legitimize the government and stabilize the country. Russia is trying to destabilize them in two ways. First, by conducting a media war on t
he elections. They lie about the situation here in Ukraine, and they do it very professionally. And second, by its actions in East Ukraine. We have discovered so many Russian military experts working with the separatists and we see how he lies. He claimed he had no idea who the armed "green men" were [in Crimea] and then one day he said, "Oh, sorry, they were Russian soldiers after all, there to support the Russian-speaking population."

FP: What do you think of the accusations of fascism again the Ukraine government? Both sides call the other "fascists."

VK: It’s all artificial. The same politicians are trying to play on sore topics.

FP: Why is this an especially sore topic in Ukraine?

VK: [Long pause.] We never ever had right-wing radicals here but against Yanukovych the whole of society was radicalised. There might be small number of right-wing radicals who support neo-fascism and fascism but it has never been a problem in Ukraine. It is blown out of all proportion. It’s never touched me, my friends, or my family. We have a history of fighting fascism and we in Ukraine more than anywhere in the world understand how bad fascism is. How many people were killed by it — hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed for no reason other than their religion. We know that better than anyone; we know what fascism means.

FP: What message do you have for the world while Ukraine is in crisis?

VK: Ukraine is one of the largest countries in Europe. We have a population of 46 million and huge resources. We have huge potential. Instability in such a large country can bring instability to the whole region and that’s why the whole world must help us. We have serious problems in our economy after Yanukovych’s rule: We need economic help, we need political support, we need moral support, and technological know-how. Ukraine can be a success story and it can be useful to Europe and to the world but right now we need to stabilize the situation.

We are a hardworking people who want to live as a modern, European country. It’s really that simple.

David Patrikarakos is a journalist and the author of War in 140 Characters and Nuclear Iran.

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.