John Herbst on Volodymyr Zelenskyi, Russian Aggression and Western Coalition

John Herbst with the recipient of Friends of Ukraine award, Diane Francis, at Tryzub Awards ceremony on May 9. Photo: Mykola Swarnyk

New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

Among the dignitaries, which were plentiful at the Tryzub Awards ceremony held by the Shevchenko Foundation in Toronto on May 9, was John E. Herbst, former U.S. ambassador in Ukraine and current Director of Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. NP-UN asked Herbst for his opinion about Ukraine’s newly elected president Volodymyr Zelenskyj and the pressing issues surrounding Russian aggression in Ukraine.

NP-UN: The Ukrainian diaspora has mostly been quite wary about Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Do you think these worries have been justified or overblown?

John Herbst: I understand why there is some anxiety. He does come from the East of Ukraine, he is a Russian speaker. But by the same token his campaign was clear that he wants to follow the same foreign policy course as President Poroshenko, he wants NATO, he wants the EU. I could tell you that the Kremlin doesn’t like him. He called Putin an enemy of the Ukrainian people and I can tell you that Moscow is deeply upset about that. And when Putin tried to immediately gain an advantage over Zelenskyi, Zelenskyi clobbered him in the social media.

NP-UN: Does Putin’s last move to give out Russian passports to people in the occupied territories of the Donbas present a danger to Ukraine?

John Herbst: This is a dangerous development because Moscow has used the quote-unquote repression of Russian citizens abroad to justify aggression. But by the same token Ukraine is already a victim of Russian aggression in the Crimea and Donbas, so this is not going to help Putin in this respect. What Zelenskyi did on social media was brilliant. He said, “Yes, take your Russian passport that gives you a right to go to the country where there is no democracy, where, if you express your own opinion, you will be repressed.” Putin lost this PR battle with Zelenskyi.

NP-UN: Do you think there is a danger that Putin will intensify fighting in the Donbas now?

John Herbst: You can’t rule that out. But Moscow is losing in Ukraine right now. Putin thought Donbas would rise against Kyiv but that never happened. Putin has misjudged Ukraine half a dozen times on major issues over the past 15 years going back to the Orange Revolution.

NP-UN: The war in the Donbas is now more than five years old, it’s lasted longer that the Soviet-German war. When do you think it will end?

John Herbst: We don’t know how long it’s going to last. We do know that Putin is losing, we do know that this is a war of the Kremlin, not the Russian people, against the Ukrainian people. And Putin cannot sustain that. So, I am confident Ukraine is going to win in the Donbas. It could be as quickly as the next three years, or it could take a generation. Many in the Russian elite realize that that policy in Ukraine is a failure. Unfortunately, Putin is not one of those people.

NP-UN: What do you think about the strength of the international coalition, which supports Ukraine, in terms of the European plans to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would allow the Russian natural gas to bypass Ukraine?

John Herbst: Nord Stream is truly a Kremlin’s geopolitical instrument against Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. And if Europe had it set out straight, it would say no. I think that, unfortunately, Moscow has made some progress towards implementation of it. But the game is still not over. There are still serious obstacles.

NP-UN: Do you think that the U.S. will succeed in putting the obstacles?

John Herbst: I can’t say for sure but there is a decent chance that this project is going to die and maybe because of the United States.

NP-UN: What do you think about Germany’s position in terms of the Nord Stream pipeline and sanctions against Russia?

John Herbst: Angela Merkel has not always been supportive of this pipeline but has become a supporter lately. This has been one of the reasons for the progress of this project. And that is unfortunate. But there is opposition in Germany and serious opposition elsewhere in Europe to the pipeline. Germany’s position on sanctions against Russia is still great.