My first trip to Ukraine was in early 1992, six months after independence was declared. During that visit, I interviewed many people but the highlight was my interview with Leonid Kravchuk, the country's first president. Ever since, and despite the country's struggles, I have kept my affection for Ukraine and its people. Along with my Ukrainian friends, I have tried to help the country economically over the years by aiding business investment and reporting on its political situation. In 2004, I spent four weeks covering the Orange Revolution, and returned in June 2015 concerned that the country's decades-long struggle with Russia and its operatives had entered the most dangerous phase ever, of destruction and open warfare.
When I interviewed Kravchuk in 1992, every one was concerned about the region's stability, the future of the Soviet Union's nuclear stockpile and how Ukraine would protect itself from Moscow. The interview was lengthy and was forthcoming and optimistic. When the issue of nuclear weapons came up, and who was in charge, he explained that the weapons were divided amongst Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia and Byelorussia and there was a protocol that prevented an accidental nuclear war.
To illustrate, he escorted me, my photographer and a translator-friend into his private office where two telephones sat - one red and one white. The red one connected him directly to the Kremlin and the white connected him to the leaders of the three other republics that housed nuclear weapons. A nuclear attack was only possible, he said, if all four agreed upon it.
That seemed tenuous at the time, but what happened following those tumultuous events has contributed to today's violence by Russia and its operatives who have caused 6,200 deaths, 30,000 wounded, 1.3 million displaced persons and the loss of 9% of Ukraine's territory.
Last week, I asked Kravchuk for a follow-up interview - more than 20 years later after my first and a subsequent interview in 1993 -- and he agreed. This is what he said.
I began by asking him about his comment, in the press after the 2014 ousting of Victor Yanukovych, that he would pick up weapons to keep the Russians from taking over Ukraine. "I someone is in my house, I will be shooting back without a second thought," he said metaphorically. "I have told my guards not to stand near me, if that ever happens, because I will be shooting in every direction and they may be in the way."
He then explained the depth of his feelings about what's happening.
"I was given the country when it was part of the Soviet Union and worked toward independence. My life would be in vain if they take this land and that is why there is no alternative but to fight," he said.
Ukraine has been a "hostage" to Russia ever since independence, and has been "occupied" by the Russians, economically, investment wise and trade wise for a long time, he said. "They took away the best assets. They have occupied Ukraine step by step gradually then eventually at the top. It used to be they controlled only trade and the economy but then it became the political and military leadership."
The seizure of Crimea and incursion in the east is a "violation of all international documents signed by civilized societies. It is warfare in the Donbas. This is not a hybrid war, or a separatist movement, but this is true warfare," he said. "They claim this is about Russian volunteers, but it's a true military aggression by the Russian military. I'm amazed officials in Western countries cannot say that the Russians are waging a war against the Ukrainians. The French president actually said he has not seen any Russian troops in Ukraine."
Kravchuk said there is little understanding in Europe or North America that Ukraine is unique and not a part of Greater Russia. "In 1991, I was in Davos [the World Economic Forum] at a roundtable and a European prime minister asked me how many people lived in Ukraine? I said 50 million and he told me I was wrong that it could only be 5 million. Imagine that. More recently, it's obvious that leaders know very little about Ukraine and our history and this is a problem," he said. "We must change awareness worldwide."
Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president, and author Diane Francis.
I asked Kravchuk about Ukraine's decision to surrender its nuclear weapons and whether that condemned the country to Russian infiltration and takeover. He then told the behind-the-scenes story as to how that came about.
"The U.S. has always cared about the Middle East, energy and terrorism," he said. "So after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. pressured us to destroy our nuclear weapons and gave us $700 million to do so in 1994."
Was this a fatal mistake? I asked.
"Let me explain. We had 165 strategic missiles, 40 with solid fuel and the rest with liquid fuel that was extremely dangerous. All the warheads were produced in Russia and put on Ukrainian missiles, but by 1998 these warheads had to be replaced or they would possibly blow up," he said. "We asked where we could get warheads to replace them and asked the Americans to help us. They refused and said cooperate with and work with the Russians, (Boris) Yeltsin. I objected and said I cannot work with the Russians and let them fool us and cheat on us."
Kravchuk then engaged in lengthy negotiations with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore but the U.S. and Western Europe imposed systematic pressure on us. "They threatened us with sanctions, isolation and personal threats and Ukraine became a hostage. They promised protection," he said.
This led to the infamous 1994 Budapest Memorandum - signed by the U.S., UK, France, Russia and China - that clearly says signator countries will guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity. But the U.S. and the others have ignored Ukraine's needs.
Another option was to join NATO right away to protect the country against future Russian aggressions, he said. "But NATO did not want Ukraine as a member and 23% of Ukrainians were against joining it in 1994. Of Ukraine's 450 parliamentarians, 380 were Communist Party members and absolutely against NATO and considered the United States, the enemy of the Soviet Union."
Alone and disarmed, the Russians spent the next 20 years tightening their grip, gutting Ukraine's military and Ukrainian leaders let them do so.
"The exterior façade of our government is Ukrainian, but internally it was not Ukrainian. Ukraine was never involved. Russians were here running the secret service and organizing meetings against Ukraine," he said.
I asked him about a suggestion that Ukraine appeal under the Geneva Convention to be designated as an "occupied country" which will lead to a suspension of debts freeing up more money for defense and impose reparations on Russia for damage, displacement and deaths. This requires United Nations approval.
"I am ready to agree and sign such an initiative as the first President of Ukraine. I think other prominent Ukrainians would agree to do this, but I think Russia would veto this on the Security Council and the General Assembly I have doubts about," he said.
"But the Rada should discuss this, then vote on it and if the President signs it the country should petition the United Nations," he said. "I will help in such a process and I'm also preparing an all-Ukrainian referendum on entering NATO."
I asked him about Putin and his motives.
"Putin's policy is to conquer Ukraine and keep it a slave. He wants to restore the Greater Russian Empire, not the Soviet Union," he said.
This philosophy, he said, is no different than Hitler's who wanted to incorporate all Germanic people under an expanded Third Reich empire.
"Western Europe gave Hitler lands bit by bit. He swallowed these bits and decided to take everything. Now Europe doesn't resist [Putin] in order to avert World War III. But Putin's popularity in Russia is not because of his democratic reforms or economic prosperity. He's popular because of his aggressiveness. It's the only thing that supports his ratings. With 80% support, this is dangerous," he said. "Russia's ideological brainwashing is better than techniques used by Goebbels around the world."
For instance, he blames Russian propaganda for spreading rumors that the thousands fighting in Ukraine's volunteer battalions are neo-Nazis. "They are nationalists, not fascists. This is no Pravda, not true. It's rubbish."
The interview over, we shake hands and pose for a photo. He says Ukrainians must never give up to keep their country and he never will.
First published July 4 KyivPost