Exclusive: In-depth Q&A with Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada, H.E. Andriy Shevchenko
H.E. Andriy Shevchenko is one of Ukraine’s most well-known journalists and civil activists, whose career has been defined as being intensely critical of politically repressive regimes. His career began at the Edmonton-based newspaper, The Ukrainian News, as a Kyiv-based correspondent. He was among those who founded the first 24/7 news channel in Ukraine, and during the Orange Revolution he was a prominent TV personality. He was a recipient of the Press Freedom Award from Reporters Without Borders in 2005.
Eventually transitioning to politics, he sponsored over 60 acts of legislation, including the Law on Access to Information, that aimed to promote press freedom and curb censorship in Ukraine. His previous positions include serving as the youngest ever Chairman of the Free Speech Committee in the Ukrainian Parliament from 2006 to 2012, and as the first Deputy Chairman of the Free Speech Committee from 2012 to 2014. He took to the streets during the Euromaidan protests and credits them for heavily influencing his ideals as a freedom fighter. Immediately prior to serving as Ambassador, he was Chief of Party of the USAID-financed RADA Program. He has been serving as Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada since 2015.
In this extensive and exclusive Q&A, Amb. Shevchenko speaks to Michele Di Leo about the most memorable times in his three careers, and how his fight for freedom of the press and human rights has led him to believe that the West is facing an existential threat from an aggressive, determined Russia.
You have had such a varied career, first as a journalist, then as a politician and eventually as Ambassador. What ideals or influences do you think formed the basis for your career development?
AS: With my career first in civil society and then in journalism and eventually as Ambassador, it’s a diverse trajectory, but on the other hand I view all of that as one path. I consider myself a responsible citizen who wants to live a meaningful life and help Ukraine to be a more successful country.
Did you come from a family that was very involved in Ukrainian activism?
AS: Both of my parents were teachers trained in Ukrainian language and literature. My father eventually joined politics, so I guess that gave me some ideas about how I could make use of my life.
Our Ukrainian identity and our culture has always been a very meaningful thing in our family. I remember quite well that my parents were on the front-line of changes in the late days of the Soviet Union; my father was a member of the Rukh, a very powerful movement for Ukrainian independence. In my childhood, I could see how my parents believed in civil activism, politics, and this idea about an independent Ukraine. It of course affected me.
You eventually became one of Ukraine’s most well-known journalists. Can you explain the special relationship that Ukraine has with freedom of the press, and how it specifically tried to shed the Soviet legacy of censorship?
AS: I think we should understand that press freedom should not be taken for granted; moreover, once you have it, that does not mean that you will have it the next day. The situation in Ukraine is quite a roller coaster with ups and downs. I became a journalist under President Kuchma and the situation was terrible at the end of his presidency. We had a very good period up to the Orange Revolution, but then after that, press freedom again began to shrink. I think a lesson is that it takes time to build freedom, but you could lose it very quickly.
Fighting censorship has been an important part of my journalistic career. We eventually launched the first independent media union, of which I was the first chairman. We had a journalist strike and a lot of street action. I think we were quite successful in raising the issue and making sure that the public was aware of our struggle.
What were some specific measures that you undertook to promote freedom of the press during this time?
AS: The first was the creation of the first 24/7 news channel in Ukraine, launched under President Kuchma before the Orange Revolution. During the Orange revolution, we were the only network which provided live broadcast from Maidan.
The second thing is public broadcast. We tried to launch public broadcasting in 2005 after the Orange Revolution. I was the first Deputy chairman of the National TV Company. That attempt was not successful, but now, we have just launched public broadcasting. I know that this first push by us in 2005 really made the country move in that direction.
The third point is the general free press environment. This urge for press freedom is something which makes Ukraine very different from other countries of the former Soviet Union and around our region. Even after the Communists withdrew, the people did not trust the government and could distinguish government propaganda from actual fact. It’s something very important which was one of the key reasons for the Orange revolution and Euromaidan. Our urge for freedom of the press has always been recognized by international institutions even in our darker days.
You participated in the Euromaidan protests. How were they unique in comparison to other forms of political development in Ukraine or elsewhere, in your opinion?
AS: I saw polls of the people who participated. The average person was 37 years old, with a university degree. It tells you something about the kind of people who were the heart of the protests. It’s very different from the Arab Spring, which I think was a rebellion of the young people. Euromaidan was a mature protest of people who had lived through their professional careers and had mature visions for the future of their country. Though it was meant to be a peaceful protest, it ended up being very bloody because of the order of President Yanukovych.
I would like to talk about the ideological aspects of Maidan. I think it’s important to understand that while for many people, the EU is associated with the Brussels bureaucracy and other complicated institutions that come with this association; the fact that people were willing to die under the European flag had to do with respect for human dignity, rule of law, democracy and justice.
Finally it’s very important to understand the role of civil society. We are talking about tens of thousands of people who never had any political or protest experience and who chose civil activism. They knew how to make an effort and to show solidarity for a common cause. It was designed not as a political front or military coup d’état, but as a movement with civil society being the key driver.
You were a member of the Ukrainian parliament at that time. How did it affect your responsibilities as a politician?
AS: I was a member of the opposition during that time, and we believed that we had the responsibility to communicate with the West about this movement. I really believe that Euromaidan changed my understanding of politics. Politics is not just about inspiring features and fostering good, progressive legislation in the parliament. Sometimes, politics is actually about being on the frontline. It means that sometimes you have to know how to build barricades, and be prepared to protest. You have to take care of the wounded and identify the dead. I think in those days, Members of Parliament understood that they had no choice but to be on the front line with those people. This experience really transformed my understanding of public service and policy.
Since that time, we have seen that Russia has stepped up in pursuing its interests. Reports have emerged that Russia meddled in the Dutch referendum, and the American Presidential election as well. How do you think that Canada and other Western nations should respond to this cyber warfare?
AS: These reports came as no surprise to Ukrainians. It is clear that Russia is using information sources to challenge the West. It is sometimes misleading when we try to separate conventional war from hybrid war or vice-versa; there is just one war which Russia has been waging against the West. I think it has become clear to our partners in the Free World that this is an existential threat. Whether it’s military aggression in Ukraine, political funding in France, propaganda in the Netherlands, or cyber-attacks on the U.S. elections, it’s all part of one major aggressive campaign.
My message to our allies would be simple: we are already in a war, and all of you are in it. There is a clear aggressor who has tried many ways to fight you, and it will try to be more creative and more inventive as time goes on. We should become very serious about this and aware of it.
In a speech at Oxford a few years ago, you mentioned the ”rising Russian Empire of Putin.” You believe that Russia seeks an empire at the expense of a destabilized West?
AS: Of course, and let’s think about this ideal that you just mentioned. There were 6 empires on the European continent 100 years ago and 5 of them left the continent in different ways, either peacefully or violently. I strongly believe that we are on the right side of history so this attempt to recreate the Russian empire is suicidal and will not lead to any good for the Russian people.
If we boil down the concept of empire, it’s about military, economic, and political control. I think it’s very clear that Putin strongly believes that there are interests which should be controlled by him and his associates.
President Trump was criticized for allegedly being too close with Putin, but Vice President Mike Pence has assured the Transatlantic Alliance that America remains firmly committed to it. How is Ukraine navigating its relationship with the U.S now?
AS: For us, America is our key partner. We hope it’ll stay that way. It is very clear that Russia will try to use the challenges facing the new administration for its own benefit. If we look at the recent escalation in Donbass, they are trying to sense the reaction of the new administration and our Western partners in general. I really hope that it will be clear for our friends in the West that when you try to interact with the Russians, be prepared that they will use every opportunity to compromise and humiliate you, and benefit themselves. Unless you change the narrative that Putin operates in, this contact will be toxic.
Do you think that the situation in the Donbass will end well for Ukraine?
AS: I think Russia will have to pull back from Ukraine sooner or later. We are not the first nation which has gone through this. Poland pushed Russia out 100 years ago. The Finns stopped the Soviets during World War II. It took ten years for Afghanistan to push them out. This is the direction of history; they will have to pull back.
We should be very pragmatic. There are two things that are painful for Putin: the economy and loss of life. First, they should continue the sanctions and make sure that Putin and his favourites must pay a high price for their terrible actions. Second, it means that Ukraine must be prepared to defend itself militarily. This will give us the hope that Putin is prevented from further action.
There are going to be European elections this year and many speculate that far-right political parties will be successful. Can you comment on the coming European elections?
AS: I am very optimistic about the European Union just as I am about America being the true leader of the Free World. What worries me are the signs of interference. I would not dare suggest how the Germans, French or Italians should vote or run their elections. But we see clear and aggressive political interference through political funding, news sources, and other ventures. It is really disgusting and unacceptable. My hope is that the EU will be strong enough to fight the challenges and make sure that its citizens make a clear choice.
Canada prides itself in being one of Ukraine’s strongest allies and a NATO country. Can you talk to our readers about the most important issues that you are cooperating on with your Canadian colleagues?
AS: We see Canada as a leader of the international coalition that helped Ukraine fight for its independence. I should mention that we enjoy strong support from the Canadian government, regardless of the party in power. This is not only due to the extraordinarily active and vibrant Ukrainian-Canadian community, it’s also because of the values that Canada believes in, including international law, justice, freedom.
We enjoy very fruitful and productive cooperation with our militaries. As we speak, there are 200 Canadians participating in Operation UNIFIER in Ukraine. This cooperation is a two-way street. I had the opportunity to accompany Prime Minister Trudeau on his visit to Ukraine and I heard from the Canadian soldiers about the lessons they had learned from the Ukrainians. It’s very impressive. Think about trench war, it’s something that Canadian soldiers probably read about in World War movies and books; in Eastern Ukraine, it’s an everyday routine. Then think about modern, sophisticated radio electronic warfare and drones that are used in Donbass by Russia in intelligence and combat operations.
We know that Russia has been testing sophisticated technology in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has had this terrible experience of fighting the second biggest army on the planet. We wish we did not have to do it and we have paid a very high price. Now, we want to make sure that we share these experiences with our partners. We are absolutely sure that we are making the Free World stronger. We expect to sign a defence cooperation arrangement with Canada this year. All the paperwork is finished and the preparation was done last year, so we hope that this will take effect soon.
When we interviewed the Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, she explained that closer alignment with the West and the EU is a way for Ukraine to ”become a better nation.” How do you think that we as Canadians should see this?
AS: One way to understand this is to think that there are two European countries outside of the EU: Canada and Ukraine. We share the values of the EU, the solidarity, the respect for rule of law and human dignity. We have been outside of the EU for many reasons. In Canada’s case, it is because of the Atlantic Ocean that separates it from Europe [laughs]. In Ukraine’s case, it’s because of the aggressive neighbour that we have in the East. For us it is a way to move forward and modernize our country. According to polls, 80% of people support EU membership and it shows that we have really deep feeling that we belong in the EU.
The same goes for NATO. I think, when you are under the NATO umbrella, you take this security for granted. We understand how much stronger we could be as part of the alliance. We Ukrainians believe that we cannot just enjoy support from our NATO partners, but we can also contribute; that’s why Ukraine has been the only country outside of NATO which has participated in all of NATO’s peacekeeping operations. That’s why we have been working hard to make sure that our military reaches NATO’s standards.
Just a final question: going forward, what do you hope to achieve as the Ambassador of Ukraine to Canada, both with Canada and other international partners?
AS: Becoming the Ambassador was a very unexpected twist in my life. And to a certain extent, I see that the job of Ambassador has a lot of similarities with politics and journalism, especially if you think about how diplomacy has changed in the last couple of decades. Being a diplomat in the 21st century means you need to know how to tell the story of your country. You also have to know how to build coalitions, which is just as important as being a politician. As a Member of Parliament, I succeeded in adopting 60 pieces of legislation, it’s quite a high number, especially if you think that most of my time was spent in opposition. You have to find a common ground and move forward.
In a way, I see that this will serve my country. I know that diplomacy is crucially important to making sure that we build a strong coalition of nations supporting each other. I hope that I will be able to do this service well.