Exclusive: Yulia Tymoshenko on How to Counter Putin

Yulia Tymoshenko
In the Magazine
(FILE) A file photograph dated 24 May 2011 of former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko after leaving the prosecutor's office in Kiev, Ukraine. Ukrainian lawmakers on 21 February 2014 passed a law that allows the freeing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in a vote at the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev that was shown live on television. credit: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

Newsweek: How has the latest revolution changed you and Ukraine?

Tymoshenko: The revolution has given a responsibility to me and to every one of us, every Ukrainian citizen.  We cannot be weaker than the revolution that just happened, weaker than the people who sacrificed their lives and committed heroic deeds for us to succeed.

Newsweek: Is negotiation with Russia possible at this point?

Tymoshenko: Yes, but the negotiations should not be between Ukraine and Russia. World leaders should understand that Russia's aggression against Ukraine concerns the entire world.

Newsweek: How can world leaders help Ukraine?

Tymoshenko: By negotiating. We have the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances [a 1994 agreement between Russia, the United States and Britain guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for its renunciation of nuclear weapons].... British and American military forces are the guarantors of peace in our country. This is not a reason to start a war; the agreement should prevent a war from happening.

Newsweek: Do you think the West and Russia are ready to start shooting at each other on Ukrainian soil?

Tymoshenko: I have absolute confidence that they are not prepared to start shooting at each other.

Newsweek: Have you talked with the Russian president since you came out of prison?

Tymoshenko: When I was prime minister, Vladimir Putin and I always had purely pragmatic relations. We both knew that we could come to agreement on the basis of our countries' national interests.... We never played games. So far, we have not been in touch. I haven't spoken to him by phone or in any other way.

Newsweek: What's stopping you from picking up the phone and calling Mr. Putin?

Tymoshenko: I can sit at the negotiating table only when ultimatums have been withdrawn. Russia has given us one ultimatum - to return [Viktor] Yanukovych to power. That's never going to happen because the former president's name is stained with blood.

Newsweek: Do you feel bitter about Yanukovych for putting you on trial?

Tymoshenko: This is not about my personal issues with Yanukovych.... This is about what the whole of Ukraine feels about the former president - he is tainted with the blood of his victims. Vladimir Putin should hand over Yanukovych - not to Ukraine, but to the international tribunal in The Hague, for a public and independent investigation of his crimes against humanity.

Newsweek: The Kremlin criticized the West for interfering in sovereign countries like Egypt and Libya. Do you think this is Russia's response to that?

Tymoshenko: I've no doubt the Kremlin is trying to conduct a counter-revolution, it's obvious. But all this has achieved so far is one loss after another. They need to stop before it turns into a complete fiasco for Russia. Russia's leader needs to understand that his position only makes Russia weaker. Up to this point, Russia has been a strong country, a member of the G8, a country whose opinion mattered and was respected. The Ukrainian revolution has undermined dictatorship and the dictator himself. By its counter-revolution, Russia has undermined its own reputation in the world.

Newsweek: It's hard to think about the worst-case scenario, but what if Russia and the West begin to fight here and Ukraine turns into Syria? Would it be worth compromising on Crimea to avoid more bloodshed?

Tymoshenko: The world has learned in the last few months about the depth of Ukrainians' strength and devotion. Ukrainians will die for their country.... I also believe the world is going to find a way to make everybody return home and live in peace. Russians and Ukrainians shooting each other sounds just too absurd.

Newsweek: Do you think the Ukrainian nationalists have gone too far in their anti-Russian rhetoric, which is painful for Russians who live in southern and eastern parts of Ukraine?

Tymoshenko: The central and western parts of Ukraine do need to show wisdom in their attitude to the eastern and southern parts of the country. When I got out of prison, the first thing I wanted to do was go to Maidan. I told people there that it was their responsibility to reach out to the other Ukraine, to understand it and accept it, the way it is. They should not destroy it or humiliate it, they need to embrace the other Ukraine. That is the secret for national unity in Ukraine.

Newsweek: Do you have a plan for Crimea?

Tymoshenko: They are suffering the most, as the war is on their territory. They will lose the most economically. Every family in Crimea depends on tourism in the summer. Russia is trying to realize its huge ambitions at the cost of normal life and the economy of Crimea. This is not fair, as Crimea has always believed in Russia and thought of Russia as a friend. Because of their so-called friendly aggression, nobody will go to Crimea this summer and people will have nothing to feed their families.

Newsweek: Do you think Ukraine might be provoked into military action?

Tymoshenko: This is not a war of weapons but a war of nerves and intellect. Our main weapon is to stay calm and understand the strategy of the aggressor.

Our main weapon is confidence. We are on our own land. No military has any right to cross our borders. Russia is pushing us to respond and meet aggression with aggression. We would lose immediately, just like Georgia did in 2008.

Newsweek: What is your personal political agenda?

Tymoshenko: When the revolution leaves Maidan, what we need is proper legislation and the constitution to support good governance. I want to devote my life to this. Ukraine is going through unique social changes right now. If we do everything right this time, then Ukraine can become a better country - not economically, that will take time, but it can become better in humanitarian terms than many stable and developed countries.

Newsweek: Has the revolution inspired you?

Tymoshenko: It does inspire me. I have always believed strongly in Ukraine. But today is something new. The doors of my jail cell burst open on the day that they flew open for the whole of Ukraine, do you understand? The end of my time behind bars coincided with the end of a time of dictatorship in my country. That is deeply symbolic for me. That's why I feel such a responsibility to devote every day to my country.

Newsweek: You speak as a leader. Are you going to run for the presidency?

Tymoshenko: How could I give up? I have experience and I understand what the country needs right now.

Newsweek: What about the surgery you have been planning?

Tymoshenko: If blood is spilled, I will not go anywhere, even to have surgery. I will do everything to defend my country, and even if I run out political methods, I'll be on the front line with our forces. 

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