On the deadliest day of anti-government protests in Kiev, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urged his Ukrainian counterparts to refrain from using the armed forces to quell the uprising. But Hagel’s counterpart, Pavlo Lebedyev, has been unresponsive for almost a week, causing alarm in the Pentagon.
“We are continuing our efforts to arrange for the secretary to communicate directly with Minister Lebedyev, but so far, the Ministry of Defense has been unresponsive to our requests,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Thursday. Kirby said Hagel personally has been trying to call Lebedyev for days.
In late November, Ukrainians flooded the streets of Kiev to protest a decision by President Viktor Yanukovych to reject closer integration with the European Union. While only around 40 percent of Ukrainians supported the trade deal with Europe, according to polls, many viewed Yanukovych's decision as a sign that he was turning away from Europe and toward Russia, their former imperial master. Many Ukrainians felt betrayed by the government because it promised for years that it would sign the European pact, but it suddenly without explanation shifted its position. The protests and government crackdown have degenerated into an all-out street war.
Hagel spoke to the minister in December, a month into the protests, to advise that Ukrainian troops stay out of the political arena.
“I am shocked,” said a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan.
“That is extremely, extremely rare,” Matthew Bryza told the International Business Times, in a phone interview. “It is making a statement of who Ukraine considers to be its partners and [to] think that Secretary Hagel is a partner, that is ridiculous.”
Bryza speculates that Lebedyev may have been ordered not to speak with the chief of the world's strongest military, either by Yanukovych or even by Russia.
The only similar situation that Bryza, a career diplomat, can recall was the month before Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. (That was a conflict based on two ethnic groups’ ethnic territorial claims as well Russia’s reassertion of power in its former empire.)
“Before Russia invaded Georgia and during the invasion, we couldn’t get through to our Russian counterparts, but of course we could speak to our Georgian counterpart,” Bryza said.