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Interview: U.S. Senator McCain Discusses Pro-EU Demonstrations In Ukraine

U.S. Senator John McCain (center) waves to pro-European-intergration protesters during a mass rally at Independence Square in Kyiv on December 15.
U.S. Senator John McCain (center) waves to pro-European-intergration protesters during a mass rally at Independence Square in Kyiv on December 15.
U.S. Senator John McCain has accused Russia of trying to block Ukraine's efforts to join the European Union. Fresh upon his return from witnessing the pro-European Union demonstrations taking place in Kyiv, McCain spoke to RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari about what may lie ahead for the country.

RFE/RL: Senator McCain, You just returned from Ukraine where you expressed your support for pro-EU protesters. You met with a number of opposition leaders and others. What are your impressions and what did protesters and opposition activists tell you about the crisis and their demands?

Senator John McCain:
Well, I not only met with a lot of the opposition, I also met with oligarchs and I also met with President [Viktor] Yanukovych. So we had a good chance to get an impression of what's happening there.

I believe what's happening there is the majority of the people in Ukraine want to be aligned with the West, they want to be part of the European part of the world, rather than Russia, and not only do they want that but they're very tired of the heavy corruption that's there and also the lack of economic development, which they see in Europe. So the fact that they want to join the EU is not only because they want membership, they want to move to a European style of living and they're very sick and tired of the corruption and their inability to have good jobs and a good future.

I was not only impressed but uplifted by what I saw in the square there in Kyiv. The people are incredible, they brave harsh conditions as well as an attempted crackdown. I believe that peacefully they're demanding what are their rights, including an end to corruption there in Ukraine and including a better life that all of them deserve. So I must say it was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had to see a couple hundred thousand people braving the cold, a bitter cold, and standing up for what they think is a better life for themselves and their children.

RFE/RL: You've criticized the use of force against peaceful protesters. How concerned are you about their safety?

Well, I remain concerned, they remain concerned. I was invited to come there by [opposition UDAR party leader Vitali] Klitschko and others. I was very honored to be there and it was very moving experience for me to see all of these people in the square.

There was a crackdown by the police, many people were injured, and that stopped. In our meeting with the president, we told him that if there was violence, that the United States would have to consider, and I emphasize consider, sanctions, because we don't believe in that.

So I found the mood of the people to be very upbeat, and very cold weather, and now this latest agreement that we've heard about between [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Yanukovych -- we need to find out what in return Mr. Yanukovych promised Mr. Putin. It will be interesting to find that out.

RFE/RL: What is Russia trying to achieve?

I think the Russians are trying to keep Ukraine from joining the EU. One of the leaders of the [opposition] coalition [Fatherland party leader Arseniy] Yatsenyuk said, "Free cheese is only found in a mousetrap," and I think that he's right there. Mr. Putin is not notorious for giving away things, so we'll have to see. But the fact is, I think, this is an effort on the part of Putin and Yanukovych to keep Ukraine from moving into the European Union."

RFE/RL: Senator McCain, you said the United States should consider sanctions against Ukraine. What kind of sanctions or measures?

If violence was inflicted on peaceful protesters, I couldn't give you the exact kind of sanctions. But, as you know, we passed the Magnitsky Bill as the result of the needless murder of Sergei Magnitsky and that targeted individuals. That would be the kind of a model, but again, only if there was violence against peaceful demonstrators and we don't want to do that. We just think that if there was further violence against them, then the U.S. Congress would feel that we had to react to it. We hope it will never happen.

RFE/RL: Senator McCain, you've praised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's strong criticism of the crackdown. What is your assessment of the response by the United States to the crisis in Ukraine?

I'm very pleased with Secretary Kerry's statement, I'm pleased with [U.S. Assistant Secretary of State] Victoria Nuland's handling of the issue, I think our ambassador has done a good job there so I think we've stood up for these people in the name of human rights and I hope we will continue to do so.

RFE/RL: Are there any other steps the United States should take to support pro-EU forces in Ukraine?

No, I was pleased to go there and support these people who are struggling for a better country and a better government. But the future of Ukraine will be determined by the Ukrainian people and I think right now they have some very fine leadership and I was really deeply impressed by the enthusiasm of these young people.

RFE/RL: Where is this crisis heading in your opinion?

I don't know. I think we have to examine this latest offer agreement that Putin has given to Yanukovych and find out what the details are. Again, usually the Russians don't give away free money and so we have to examine that. There is still a call for a unity government so they can deal with what is clearly an economic crisis in Ukraine.

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