Europe
4:20 pm
Wed February 26, 2014

British Diplomat Weighs In On Ukraine, Russia And Syria

Originally published on Thu February 27, 2014 12:08 pm

The complicated situation in Ukraine is headed toward an important moment, as a vote on an interim government has been scheduled for Thursday. But tensions are running high in the region, with Russia ordering military exercises along its border.

Russia needs to be "very careful" in its judgments, Secretary of State John Kerry says in an interview with MSNBC. In Washington, Kerry met with British Foreign Secretary William Hague Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine and the importance of maintaining the country's autonomy.

As Hague tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block, the U.K. will continue to support an independent Ukraine, but Russia needs to play along.

"We're not going to turn away from our determination that Ukraine can work with Europe and find a way to work with Russia as well," he says.

You can read highlights from their conversation below. The audio will be posted here later this evening.


Interview Highlights:

On his message to Russian leaders:

"Well our message is a constant one — that our interest in the U.K. and I think for the United States as well, is a free Democratic Ukraine. We want Ukrainians to make their own decisions. I think we have in common with the Russians that we want to see the territorial integrity of Ukraine preserved. And so it's important that we all try to work together on this. That we all reinforce democracy and that we all reinforce stability in the Ukraine. And we will keep talking to Russia about that, of course."

On the prospect of international economic support for Ukraine:

"It will be important for Ukrainian leaders to commit themselves to serious economic reform. This is a country that has had previous IMF programs not very successfully. It's a country that has had pervasive corruption. These things are going to have to be tackled. That they've had major problems with how gas is priced in Ukraine, heavy subsidies and so on. So I think we're all going to want to see ... a real determination by Ukrainian leaders to tackle these economic problems in return for serious financial support from the international community. And that's really going to be the test."

On dealing with Russia on Syria going forward:

"Of course it's possible that it could be harder. But again, it's too early to evaluate that. We have reached agreement with Russia on some aspects of the Syrian crisis, on chemical weapons for instance. And just this weekend on a humanitarian resolution at the UN Security Council — that was an important step forward, or at least if it is implemented it will be an important step forward. Now what we haven't found with Russia is the common ground of how to push all involved in the Syria conflict towards a political solution. We would like to see them exert more pressure on the regime. I think it is too early to say during the Ukrainian crisis how Russia's attitude on that will be affected. It's a legitimate question but it's too early to be able to predict."

On whether Bashar al-Assad can stay in power in Syria:

"No I don't think so. All the more, after three years of conflict and perhaps 140,000 people dead. Many, many thousands tortured and killed and in detention. It is impossible to imagine, in any country, certainly in any country that has any modicum of freedom or democracy, a leader who has presided over those things, being able to lead that country in the future. So I think it's ever more clearer that a peaceful Syria can't have Assad as its leader. And we continue to push for a political solution, a transitional governing body from regime and opposition, that would again, as we've been saying about Ukraine, allow Syrians to determine their own future."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

So, with Russia ordering military exercises along its border with Ukraine, diplomatic tensions are running high. Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview with MSNBC, said Russia needs to be very careful in its judgments.

I'm joined here in our studios by the British Foreign Secretary William Hague. This week, he's here in Washington where he met with Secretary Kerry and this afternoon, with National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Secretary Hague, welcome. Thanks for coming in.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

BLOCK: You've also been talking with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. What's your message to him? And has your message changed given today's announcement of these Russian troop exercises?

HAGUE: Well, our message is a constant one, that our interest in the U.K., and I think for the United States as well, is a free democratic Ukraine. We want Ukrainians to be able to make their own decisions. I think we have in common with the Russians that we want to see the territorial integrity of Ukraine preserved. And so it's important that we all try to work together on this, that we all reinforce democracy and that we all reinforce stability in the Ukraine. And we will keep talking to Russia about that, of course.

BLOCK: You said that Russia shares your view that Ukraine's territorial integrity is essential. You're convinced of that, that Russia believes that as well?

HAGUE: Well, that is what they say and...

BLOCK: Is that what you believe?

HAGUE: Well, it's always a starting point on what any country believes is what it says, of course. And so I certainly hope they believe that. And it's very important we find a way in which Ukraine will be able to work closely with the European Union, that the aspirations of the Ukrainian for better economic growth will be realized, but that they'll be able to work Russia as well. Now, it should be possible to do that. And it's vital for a country in that geographic position and that history to be able to do that. And we're ready for that among Western nations. That's something that Russia should aspire to as well.

BLOCK: Let me follow up on that because Senator John McCain has said, Putin believes that Ukraine is a part of Russia. He is committed to that. Is John McCain wrong about that?

HAGUE: Well, I only - I suppose in the end only President Putin can say what he believes. But certainly, Russia has put Ukraine under great pressure as we know, in recent months and in response to the possible signing of an association agreement with the European Union, great pressure, but that hasn't work, of course. And many people of Ukraine have shown that they will determine their own future, so we should support them in that. And we're not going to turn away from our determination that Ukraine can work with Europe and can find a way to work with Russia, as well.

BLOCK: In your view, is Russia promoting a separatist or secessionist movement in Ukraine?

HAGUE: I think it would be a mistake to do that. I don't have any evidence at this moment that they are doing that. But if any thoughts were to turn to that, I think it will - that would be a great mistake. It'll be bad for stability in that whole region. It'd be very damaging to Ukraine itself. And it must be in the interests of Russia for Ukraine to be a successful country, an important trading partner, a country with a myriad of personal connections and family connections with Russia. It's got to be in Russia's interests for Ukraine to be a success. And, therefore, that should be what they concentrate on. And, therefore, I hope there will be no encouragement of separatist movements or tendencies.

BLOCK: A key element here is that Russia, of course, does have its Black Sea naval fleet...

HAGUE: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: ...in Ukraine, in Crimea. Can you foresee Russian military action in Ukraine? Putin did, of course, order an invasion of Georgia, another former Soviet Republic back in 2008.

HAGUE: We can't know for sure how Russia will react to these events. But I don't think, I, as British foreign secretary, should be talking up the tension in any way. So I hope that all countries will approach it in that way. And I'm not going to feed the sense of an intensifying crisis in what I say.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the Ukrainian economy for a bit, which on the verge of collapse. The finance ministry says it needs as much as $35 billion in aid over the next two years. You met with the International Monetary Fund while you were here. Did you get the sense that the international community is ready to make a commitment on that scale?

HAGUE: I think the international community is ready to help. But it will be important for Ukrainian leaders to commit themselves to serious economic reform. This is a country that has had previous IMF programs and not very successfully. It's a country that has had pervasive corruption. And now, these things are going to have to be tackled.

So I think we're all going to want to see - and I will say this, so when I visit Ukraine in a few days time - we're all going to want to see a real determination by Ukrainian leaders to tackle these economic problems in return for serious financial support from the international community. And that's really going to be the test.

BLOCK: Given what's going on in Ukraine, how much harder do you think it will be to deal with Russia on other issues and, in particular, on Syria where Russia was already at odds with the U.S. and the EU? How much harder will that be?

HAGUE: Of course, it's possible that it could be harder. But again, it's too early to evaluate. And we have reached agreement with Russia on some aspects of the Syrian crisis, on chemical weapons, for instance. And just this weekend on a humanitarian resolution at the U.N. Security Council that was an important step forward, or at least if it is implemented it will be an important step forward.

BLOCK: That's a key if.

HAGUE: Yes, it is, indeed. Now, what we haven't found with Russia is that common ground of how to push all involved in the Syria conflict towards a political solution. We would like to see them exert more pressure on the regime. I think it is too early to say after the - during the Ukrainian crisis how Russia's attitude on that will be affected. It's a legitimate question but it is too early to be able to predict.

BLOCK: The rhetoric has been, for some time now, that Assad must go, the rhetoric from the West. Are we still at that point or, given what you know now about how entrenched this conflict has been, that you need to start thinking about a Syria with Assad still in power and a way to deal with that?

HAGUE: No, I don't think so. I can't see - all the more, after three years of conflict, perhaps 140,000 people dead. Many, many thousands tortured and killed in detention. It is impossible to imagine, in any country, certainly in any country that has any modicum of freedom or democracy, a leader who has presided over those things being able to lead that county in the future. So I think it's ever more clearer that a peaceful Syria can't have Assad as its leader. And we continue to push for a political solution, a transitional governing body from regime and opposition that would again, as we've been saying about Ukraine, allow Syrians to determine their own future.

BLOCK: One last question on a different topic. In September, Scotland will be voting on whether to become an independent country, separate from the United Kingdom. Can you envision yourself making an official visit as British foreign secretary to an independent Scotland?

HAGUE: Well, I very much hope not, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

HAGUE: And I made an official visit there last month to explain some of the consequences of independence in foreign policy terms, you know, that if you leave the United Kingdom, you also leave the European Union. And you also leave all the other treaties to which the United Kingdom is a party. What I believe, as do my colleagues in the British government, the U.K. achieves a great deal together in the world and it's important to keep together. And we will be putting that message very clearly to the people of Scotland before their referendum on the 18th of September.

BLOCK: So not in your plan that that would be a foreign assignment for you?

HAGUE: That's definitely not part of my plan. And Scotland makes a great contribution to what the U.K. does in the world, to our diplomacy, to our support for development all over the world and we want that to continue.

BLOCK: Secretary Hague, thanks for your time. Thanks for coming in.

HAGUE: Thank you very much, indeed.

BLOCK: That's the British foreign secretary, William Hague. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.