WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate Valery Konovalyuk was just launching into his vision for a prosperous, independent Ukraine when a giggling aide passed him a smart phone to show him a spoof on his offer to settle the nation’s political crisis with a judo match against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The image showed Konovalyuk dropping an opponent, with a caption warning that Putin, a fellow black belt martial artist, was next.
The candidate laughed and admitted that facing Putin would be a formidable _ but “noble” _ challenge. These days, however, the fight he’s focused on is not just wresting his country from Russia’s longtime hold, but also from the increasing U.S. influence that he believes is inflaming the political crisis and turning Ukraine into a battleground for two Cold War foes.
“The United States and Russia both love Ukraine so much that in their embrace they just might suffocate it,” he said, dryly, via a Russian translator at a news conference Wednesday in Washington.
Konovalyuk was in Washington to warn U.S. lawmakers away from sanctions _ the Obama administration’s main tool to counter Putin’s activities in eastern Ukraine _ and to press instead for what he describes as a Marshall Plan-style economic recovery initiative.
A native of volatile eastern Ukraine, Konovalyuk wants both Russia and the United States to take “equal steps” away from bombast, sanctions and military posturing, a perspective that gets lost in the White House’s rush to prop up the more Western-friendly interim leadership in Kiev.
Konavalyuk is among 23 presidential candidates who will be on the ballot May 25, when Ukraine holds its first election since the former, Russia-aligned president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in February amid bloody street protests. Konavalyuk doesn’t have a real chance at winning, according to the latest polling in Ukraine, which shows billionaire chocolatier Petro Poroshenko to be the front-runner, but he says it’s important that Americans hear his and other voices representing Ukraine’s more Moscow-aligned corridors, lest the United States lend credence to Putin’s claims that Russia is merely protecting endangered populations.
“The risk is high that Ukraine could lose its sovereignty,” Konavalyuk warned over lunch this week on a day crammed with meetings with members of Congress.
Konovalyuk, 47, an economist and politician, has a record of challenging Kiev administrations. In 2008, he led an ad hoc commission that accused the leadership at the time of violating Ukrainian and international law by exporting arms to Georgia just before war broke out there between the government and Russia-backed secessionist territories.
Four years later, he resigned from his role as a Yanukovych adviser, citing rampant corruption that he says was ignored by an Obama administration that was searching for a “reset” in Russian relations.
He took a break from politics in 2012, returning only since the latest political crisis erupted to add what he considers a realistic voice to the debate over Ukraine’s future.
In his thinking, Putin won’t reverse the Russian takeover of Crimea, so now it’s time to protect Ukraine from further fragmentation and bloodshed by addressing the concerns of separatists in the south and east, and by adopting a firmly nonaligned stance that reassures Putin that Ukraine isn’t pivoting west.
That might sound like appeasement to the anti-Putin crowd, but Konovalyuk thinks of it as pragmatic.
“We find ourselves at a dead end as far as crisis resolution is concerned,” Konovalyuk said. “The West will never acknowledge the annexation of Crimea, even though they realize that further sanctions on Russia will only exacerbate the conflict. And Russia will never release Crimea, but will continue to try to destabilize the situation in the southeast of the country to maintain its sphere of influence.”
Already, he said, the incoming president will inherit a Ukraine that’s virtually “ungovernable” because of political polarization and unrest that’s fomented in large part by Moscow’s thinly veiled support for the separatists. But high-profile visits to Ukraine by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, along with U.S. pledges of millions of dollars to bolster the caretakers in Kiev, only stoke the tensions, Konovalyuk said.
U.S. sanctions against Russia, he added, are sure to backfire and hurt Ukraine, because the two economies are closely interwoven and still vulnerable after the global financial crisis. All it would take to send Ukraine’s economy crashing, he said, is a decision by Putin to demand advance payment for Russian natural gas supplies. He prefers to see the United States play the long game, developing alternative energy sources and helping to rebuild the economy and civil society instead of asserting its influence at such a sensitive moment.
Konovalyuk said he was encouraged by the news Wednesday that Putin had called for pro-Russian separatists in the east to postpone a controversial referendum set for Sunday and had expressed support for the May 25 presidential elections as a “step in the right direction.”
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki allowed that Putin’s announcement was “a helpful step,” but he stressed that there was far more Putin could do to defuse the crisis and ensure safe elections.
“Now,” Konovalyuk said, “the keys to peace are held in the hands of Washington and Moscow.”