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Ukraine's Kuchma Says West Too Soft On Russia Over Debaltseve

Ukrainian ex-President Leonid Kuchma presents a document to the press in Minsk in September, where he was negotiating a truce with the pro-Russian separatists.
Ukrainian ex-President Leonid Kuchma presents a document to the press in Minsk in September, where he was negotiating a truce with the pro-Russian separatists.

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has criticized the Western response to "crude violations" of a cease-fire by Russian-backed rebels who ignored the truce deal to seize the strategic town of Debaltseve in a major offensive.

Kuchma, Kyiv's representative at sporadic talks involving Ukraine, Russia, the rebels, and the OSCE, spoke to RFE/RL in an interview on March 4.

He said that after the leaders of France and Germany brokered a February 12 deal for a cease-fire and other steps to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, "the Russians...continued the war" with a bloody offensive in which rebel forces took Debaltseve.

"I don't understand the reaction of the international community -- if it is clear and obvious to the naked eye that a peace treaty has been crudely violated, and the reaction is: 'Come on, guys, let's get along.' I don't understand such an approach."

The "get along" remark was a reference to a Soviet-era television cartoon in which a cat -- the international community, in Kuchma's analogy -- is terrorized by a pair of aggressive mice and tries in vain to make peace with them.

"If we continue to look at what is happening in the Donbas through the prism of such views, I don't think we will achieve the end goal -- and the end goal is peace," he said.

The conflict has killed more than 6,000 people since April, inflicted massive damage on relations between Russia and Ukraine, and driven East-West ties to post-Cold War lows.

Hostilities have eased since the rebels seized Debaltseve in an advance that Kuchma said left "hundreds of soldiers" dead on the battlefield, but Kyiv has accused Russia and the separatists of using the truce to regroup for potential new attacks.

Moscow denies it has sent troops and weapons to Ukraine to aid the rebels, but Kuchma said that "nobody in the world doubts that professional Russian military men are fighting in the Donbas" -- an informal name for the region in which rebels hold parts of two provinces -- and that Russian weapons are being used.

"If the Ukrainians are fighting with 20th-century weapons, then today in the Donbas there are 21st-century weapons and it is absolutely clear that they are Russian," he said.

He said that if the conflict were in fact a civil war, as Russia describes it, "it would have ended long ago, in August of last year."

Rebel forces appeared close to defeat at that time, but then the tide turned and the separatists made major gains in an offensive Kyiv and the West said could not have occurred without direct Russian military support.

Kuchma said negotiating with the separatists has been very difficult "for one simple reason: they want to have what nobody will give them. They declare the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic. This is ruled out, you understand."

Kuchma said Kyiv was prepared to transfer substantial powers to Ukraine's regions, including those in the east, but would not agree to let the rebel-held territories be "independent units within Ukraine."

For Ukraine, Kuchma said, the most important thing is control over the state border between the rebel-held areas and Russia -- something that, under the February 12 deal, does not have to be provided until the end of this year and is subject to conditions.

He suggested the separatist leaders are guided by Russia in negotiations, saying they were "not so much independent politicians" and "do not dictate the rules of conduct."

Kuchma, who carefully balanced Ukraine between Russia and the West as president from July 1994 to January 2005, said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin's chief aim is to keep Ukraine out of the European Union and keep its development in check.

"This is the main thing for Russia -- not to let Ukraine into the EU, to deny it the opportunity to build a truly thriving economy, to deny it the opportunity to serve as an example for Russia."

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