Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko finished his speech at the Lowy Institute about 90 minutes ago. His visit was the first ever by a Ukrainian leader to Australia, after he accepted an invitation from Tony Abbott to discuss security and trade issues in the wake of the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukrainian territory on on July 17 this year.
A transcript of the speech will be available soon, but meantime here are the highlights, with my initial reactions:
- Poroshenko's address had two main themes: that Ukraine was fundamentally European, and that his country's struggle for independence was not a local issue but a global challenge for security, freedom and democracy. Neither of those were really surprising. One sure-fire way to cripple Ukraine's economy would be for Europe not to come to the party with a long-term plan for recovery. And a sure-fire way for Ukraine to be relegated to a strategic backwater would be for the Western democracies to lose interest.
- On the political turmoil in Ukraine during 2013, Poroshenko referred to the 'revolution of dignity' in which 1 million peaceful and 'very European' Ukrainian people came out on the streets to defend freedom and democratic values. Well, yes and no. Quite a few other events over the last century come to mind that were 'very European' but had little to do with freedom and democracy; and the demonstrators in the Maidan were a pretty mixed bunch. But Poroshenko is entitled to write history as he sees it. His country in in danger of splitting apart, after all.
- Poroshenko said Ukraine was under attack; it was being punished for choosing freedom and democracy. He referred to Russia as the aggressor, and separatists as 'terrorists' who were responsible for killing and torturing his countrymen simply for being different and patriotic.
- Poroshenko also raised something intriguing: the nuclear card, which was a focal point of Ukrainian nationalism after the breakup of the USSR. He was right to note that 20 years ago Ukraine was indeed the world's third-biggest nuclear power, and it voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees of security from the UNSC permanent five, including Russia. But only partially so: it also took a massive injection of US cash and loans to get that deal done.
- Continuing on the theme of global support for his nation, Poroshenko referred to the 100-nation vote in favour of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly after the downing of MH17 as a great moment. So too was the support of G7 nations as well as support at the G20 in Brisbane. He noted that when he attended the Munich Security conference earlier in 2014, nobody could have imagined that there would be European unity on support for Ukraine and for sanctions on Russia. Europe and the rest of the world was 'learning to speak with a single voice'. Maybe, but he will need to hope that voice achieves a bit more harmony in the wake of the EU's internal wrangling over sanctions.
- Russian claims about the far-right in Ukraine are 'a delusion', according to Poroshenko. For him, the truth is that Russians are killing Ukrainians for no reason at all. If so, that makes the whole thing seem a little pointless. But then again, it wouldn't have been a good idea to offer alternative motives by using a phrase like 'Russian neo-imperialism', since Poroshenko would prefer not to see Russia's gas taps to the Ukraine turned off again.
- Continuing on Russia, it was making a 'mistake of historic proportions'. If the Russians left Ukraine and borders were restored, there would be law, order and stability within 2-3 weeks. Mind you, the 'humanitarian catastrophe' of residents in Donetsk and Luhansk having no access to pensions and limited access to medicines was at least partially the result of the decision by his administration to close banks there and blockade the rebel forces.
- The President concluded his speech by noting that, in Australia, everything seemed normal and stable. But in reality, international relations was in turmoil; Ukraine is burning and Europe is dangerously close to slipping back to the Cold War.
- Some of his responses to questions were interesting. On the suggestion that Australia could sell Ukraine uranium and coal, Poroshenko noted that his country had its own uranium, but that gas and coal shortages were making reliance on nuclear energy (up to 60%) for power generation a necessity. In the absence of a way to transform gas from the 'political stick' to the market, it was vital for Ukraine to diversify its energy supplies. The cost of that diversification will be a big issue, though. And given the state of the Ukrainian economy, it is necessary to ask not just 'how much' will something cost, but also 'who will pay'?
- Poroshenko expressed his thanks for the US Senate's vote in favour of providing limited military support to Ukraine. It's doubtful that NATO membership will be next, though.
- And finally, on the question on Vladimir Putin (from Institute Director Michael Fullilove), Poroshenko was guarded but revealing. He claimed that the Russian President had changed from the man he was 10 years ago, and that Ukraine had become an 'emotional matter' for him. But Poroshenko was optimistic that Ukraine would win the peace (rather than win a war) by restoring its territorial integrity.
So that was Petro Poroshenko, and the last major Lowy Institute event for the year. He was softer on Putin than the Australian audience might have expected, but he hit all the right notes. He needed to keep linking the conflict to a global struggle, and at the same time keep reminding the EU that he wants to join. Time will tell whether Australia-Ukraine relations will flourish in a material and not just emotional sense after the events of MH17. Abbott has been invited to Kiev in 2015, so expect more developments.