This article was corrected on March 14.
KIEV — It could be seen as saber rattling, fear-mongering or an astute prediction by a man with intimate knowledge of Ukrainian-Russian history, but Leonid Kravchuk is adamant that Russian President Vladimir Putin has strayed into potentially cataclysmic territory, and that the current showdown in Crimea could escalate into a world war.
In an interview with International Business Times, Kravchuk, who led Ukraine to independence in 1991 and became its first president, claimed there are already 18,000 Russian soldiers in his country and that a full-scale Russian invasion would cause Western powers – including NATO – to engage them militarily.
Sitting in his spacious office in Kiev, surrounded by decades’ worth of Ukrainian mementoes and exquisite amber handicrafts as a motley crew of self-styled defenders awaits in nearby Maidan Square, Kravchuk said he sees disturbing parallels between the current crisis and the outbreak of World War II, when he was a 5-year-old boy whose family lived in the village of Velykyi Zhytyn.
Velykyi Zhytyn, now part of Ukraine, was part of Poland until the Nazi invasion in 1939, which sparked the deadliest conflict in human history, and in which Kravchuk’s father died while fighting for the Polish cavalry. He sees the Ukrainian crisis as comparable to the second partition of Poland, and warns of a similar spreading conflict given Russia’s aggressive stance and this week’s announcement that the U.S. would send military aircraft and troops to neighboring Poland.
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“In case of a full Russian invasion, there is the risk of a third world war,” Kravchuk told IBTimes. “Ukraine is in the center of Europe; it has a population of 45 million; it has borders with several Western countries; and, of course, if Russia invaded Ukraine and war started, the conflict could spread to neighboring European countries.” He is more convinced than ever of the imminent threat, though his warning is more detailed and less alarmist in tone than his stance in a recent op-ed for the Russian magazine snob.ru, in which he asked, “Does Russia not understand that this is the beginning of World War III?”
It's not unusual, of course, for someone to raise the specter of another world war during a geopolitical crisis. Such warnings were first issued soon after the end of World War II, during the Korean War in 1951, and have occasionally cropped up in the decades since, including in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and during the Bosnia War, from 1992 to 1995, when observers noted that World War I had begun there, in Sarajevo, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
But Kravchuk is not generally given to hyperbolic analogies and sensationalism. He is known as a master practitioner of realpolitik, which allowed him to survive the cutthroat rivalries within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and climb to its highest echelons, and has described himself as someone who tries to “slip through the raindrops” rather than open an umbrella.
“Sometimes in politics you can’t move forward in a straight line,” he said with a hearty laugh in his office a few blocks from the Maidan, where the Ukrainian uprising began, and which is now a patchwork encampment of self-defense brigades that range from simple patriots to Cossacks and black-shirted, skinhead ultra-nationalists.
Yet even a wily politician can see the potential for major upheaval in the showdown with Russia over Crimea, and Kravchuk’s voice and expression convey stunned incredulity at Putin’s actions, which he sees as a reckless gamble that risks global confrontation.
The current threat, he said, is well understood by European leaders, particularly Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who warned that the world “stands on the brink of conflict, the consequences of which are not foreseen.”
The Pentagon, meanwhile, has said it would send 12 F-16 aircraft and 300 U.S. troops to Poland by the end of the week to demonstrate its commitment to defend its allies in the region.
With tensions building, Kravchuk said that perhaps Putin “has forgotten in which century he is living -- the century of globalization, and he has forgotten that in Europe there is an organization called NATO, and that this military alliance is led by the United States.”
To avert catastrophe, Kravchuk said, “all levers – economic, political, military – must be employed to put pressure on Russia.” The U.S. and Europe also must make clear what kind of assistance will be given to Ukraine, he said.
Asked if he believes Western powers will assist Ukraine militarily, at risk of war, he said, “You need to ask that to those Western powers and those organizations – I cannot answer for them. But if you analyze all the developments regarding Ukraine, I see it’s possible to get their support for our security.” He noted that in addition to the U.S. deployments to Poland, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned that Russia must recognize the potential consequences of its actions.
“Currently there are 18,000 Russian troops in Ukraine,” Kravchuk said. “There are irregulars, and sleeping cells too, and we don’t know their number… they are mostly operating in Crimea.”
Ukraine is strategically positioned between Russia and Europe, which is one reason the current conflict threatens to spill over beyond its borders. The Crimean War in the 1850s was fought between Russia (then ruling Ukraine) and France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Throughout its history, Ukraine’s borders have changed many times, with a significant portion of what is now Western Ukraine having been annexed by Soviet forces from Poland in 1939, and formerly Russian Crimea added in 1954.
Ukraine existed as a Soviet state until 1991, when it gained its independence as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kravchuk, who resigned from the Communist Party that year, was Ukraine’s first elected president, serving from 1991 to 1994. He was defeated in his bid for a second term in 1994 but has remained active in Ukrainian politics, having alternatively supported Viktor Yanukovych and rival Yulia Tymoshenko.
Many Ukrainians faulted Kravchuk for relinquishing Soviet nuclear weapons that were based in their country, which they now say could have prevented Russian aggression. But Kravchuk dismisses the idea, saying, “I don’t think nuclear weapons would have made a difference. We wouldn’t have been able to use them, as they were controlled from outside Ukraine, and even if we could or wanted to use them, those nuclear heads’ capability expired in 1998 anyway.”
If he were the Ukrainian president right now, Kravchuk said, “at all costs I would meet with Putin and would try to persuade him that a Russian war with Ukraine would be a tragedy, not only for our nations.”
Because of its geographic location, Ukraine should act as a buffer between Russia and Europe, he said. “Since we are such a coveted piece of land, we need to observe strict neutrality… something like Finland.” That, he said, would not preclude forging close economic and trade links with both the European Union and Russia.
“Ukraine should have a special status; that’s something that can be arranged,” he said.
Kravchuk favors a level of autonomy among Ukrainian regions to preserve the nation’s unity, including for Crimea and Western Ukraine. “There shouldn’t be any one region dominating over others,” he said. But he is unwavering in his belief that Ukraine should remain one nation.
He has a unique vantage point on the crisis, as a former Ukrainian leader and Communist with long, close ties to Russia. He said he became disillusioned with party politics early on, while a student and Communist Party member in Moscow in 1969, when he claims he was given access to restricted documents in which Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin called for the extermination of Ukrainian peasants and workers. “Later, in Kiev, I was in charge of the files that documented the Holodomor,” he said, referring by the Ukrainian name to the manmade famine in the early 1930s reputedly orchestrated by Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, which caused the deaths of millions of Ukrainians.
During his long, eventful life – Kravchuk is now 80 – he survived the Second World War; Stalin’s lingering cult of personality and its eventual repudiation by Khrushchev; Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reforms; the Cuban Missile Crisis; and that most incredible event, the collapse of the Soviet Union. “I never expected to see that,” he said of the latter, “and that I would sign its death certificate.” He said that he would have imagined the Soviet Union would collapse only as a result of a catastrophic conflict, with massive bloodshed.
Kravchuk, then the president of Ukraine, and his peers – Boris Yeltsin, with the Russian Federation, and Stanislav Shushkevich, with Belarus, signed the Belavezha Accords on Dec. 8, 1991, which effectively dissolved the Soviet Union. “The Soviet Union came to an end without a single bullet being shot and without a single drop of blood being shed, and I don’t think the world gives that its due credit yet,” Kravchuk said.
Given that the Soviet Union collapsed without bloodshed, in contrast to Kravchuk’s own expectations, perhaps he could be expected to be optimistic that diplomacy will prevent a military showdown in Ukraine. And he does hold out hope that the two sides can find common diplomatic ground. But when asked if he is fearful that such efforts will ultimately fail, he first said, “Yes, I fear,” then immediately rephrased his answer. “I don’t fear, but I suffer for what is going on… Ukraine was my child and now Ukraine is giving birth to his own children, which is why I fear what the future may have in store for us… but I don’t fear, I have said I would pick up my own arms and fight for my land…”
Asked if he truly expects a world war, he first hedged, then issued a challenge. “I don’t think Putin has completely lost his mind – he is an intelligent person who needs to understand the consequences of his actions,” he said.
But, he added, “If Third World War begins, we will have Nuremberg Trials again, but this time in Moscow.”