Canadian politician and journalist Chrystia Freeland was one of the moderators at the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference, which took place in Kyiv on September 11-13.
RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service's Maryana Drach spoke to Freeland about Western policies toward Ukraine and the role of Russian propaganda. Freeland is a Liberal member of the Canadian parliament. Prior to that she served in various editorial positions with the "Financial Times," "The Globe and Mail," and Thomson Reuters.
RFE/RL: You recently wrote an article in "The New York Times" calling on the West for more moral clarity on Ukraine. Now we are witnessing new European and American sanctions against Russia and we know about measures from the Canadian government. Do you think that the Western stand regarding the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is now fully clear?
Chrystia Freeland: Something that I saw in the conversation at this conference and more generally is a clarification, at least in the view of Western leaders, around what's happening. I have heard, particularly from people like [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair and [European Commission President] Jose Manuel Barroso, a clarification that Ukraine has been invaded, Ukrainian borders have been violated, and that cannot be permitted. I thought Tony Blair put it really well when he said that “we think that it is good idea for Ukraine to join Europe…but if the Ukrainians were to say to us 'actually we changed our minds, we do not want to be part of your group,' it would have never occurred to us to force them to do it.”
He expressed real astonishment that in 2014 Russia would feel that it is actually a good idea to impose a foreign policy on another country. And that sounds like a primitive way of describing the situation, but actually at the very basic level that's what has happened. And I think it was good and important to hear from the senior Western people present that that's how they are seeing the conflict. I think that is important.
RFE/RL: Some statements have been very bold. Ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said that Westerners are not ready to die for Ukraine, but he asked: what about the solidarity, what about the financial means. You have worked for many Western publications and understand how the Western financial world functions. Do think that the aid the West is offering to Ukraine is sufficient in light of the challenges that the country faces?
Freeland: Not at all. I think that the parameters of Western support are becoming pretty clear. I think, at least within the current parameters of the situation, it is hard to see actual Western personnel, Western troops being committed to this fight. But I think it is very possible to see continued and additional financial and other kinds of support for Ukraine and continued sanctions against Russia.
What I was really struck by on the question of support for Ukraine, and this is something I am hearing not just in Ukraine but in the conversation more generally, is real Western skepticism about Ukraine's ability to seriously reform and to absorb aid without corruption.
So I think there is a growing understanding that Ukraine's position is the morally right one in this conflict, that Maidan was a genuine democracy revolution led by all sorts of great young idealists, but a skepticism around whether the government reforms have been sufficient to ensure that the Ukrainian leadership today will actually pursue meaningful economic reforms -- and an even more limited request, that they have the ability to take aid and absorb it without it simply vanishing in the traditional corrupt swamp.
RFE/RL: Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that they have not done enough. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has said that; Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has promised a new anticorruption law. Poroshenko has been in charge since June. Do you think that the government has had enough time to move onto the path of reforms?
Freeland: I am tremendously sympathetic to the challenges the Ukrainian government is facing. They have not been in office for very long. They have already had one presidential election and they have parliamentary elections coming up -- and they've had to fight a war. I think it would be wrong for any outsider to think it would be easy.
Having said that, the challenges aren't easy either and I do think that if Ukraine is to get through this tremendously difficult conflict, one of the things which is going to have to happen is increased speed of reforms.
RFE/RL: Let me ask you about Western perceptions of Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayem, Russian propaganda has penetrated Western media. Speaking at the YES forum, he wondered why Western media writes about "insurgents," while in Ukraine they are called "terrorists." He is also tired of questions from Western journalists about why Ukrainians are killing their co-patriots in the east. Do you think that Russian propaganda, the Russian perception of events in Ukraine, is really so influential in the West?
Freeland: I do not think that [such ideas] are dominant. But I have been surprised at how effective Russian propaganda has been. I think that we have not seen a full on Soviet-style propaganda campaign since the Soviet Union.
And some of the institutions we have, like Radio Free Europe, for fighting that kind of propaganda have atrophied, and some of our intellectual muscles that we used to use in how we respond to that propaganda have atrophied, too.
So I agree with Mustafa that propaganda has been more successful than I have thought it would be. By no means is it winning the day, but it has had more of an impact.
RFE/RL: What should be the Western answer to this?
Freeland: Well, I think it is very good that Radio Free Europe exists. I think that Western governments are going to have to make more of an effort to counter the propaganda and think more in those terms in a way that is new. That has not been something that Western governments have been that engaged in. And I think for Western political leaders, Western journalists, they have to work a little bit harder at trying to get to that moral clarity, at trying to see through some of the Russian propaganda.