Over a busy two-day visit to Israel, Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin stressed the importance of Jerusalem’s support in international forums regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Donbass.
He also gave priority to discussions about economic relations between Israel and Ukraine.
Klimkin, a career diplomat in the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry since the 1990s, served in the United Kingdom and as an ambassador to Germany before becoming foreign minister in 2014. His current term coincides with Ukraine’s crisis after the Euromaidan protests that forced former president Viktor Yanukovych from office.
In March of 2014, Crimea was annexed by Russia and Ukraine was plunged into a difficult war against pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country. Since February 2015, that conflict has been under a cease-fire agreement signed in Minsk called “Minsk II,” but fighting still flares up nearly every day and there continues to be a steady stream of casualties resulting from violations.
Klimkin’s visit comes in the wake of other high-profile visits from Ukraine, including that of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman in May.
Klimkin said the first major aspect of his visit involved meetings with senior officials such as President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Environmental Protection and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin.
Ukraine is seeking to work with Israel in international forums.
In December 2016, Kiev voted for UN Resolution 2334, demanding that Israel cease “settlement activity,” which led to a short crisis between Jerusalem and Kiev, but things are now back on track.
Klimkin thanked Israel for its “support on UN resolutions, including Crimea,” and for standing by Ukraine in supporting its “territorial integrity and sovereignty,” a reference to the separatist areas in Lugansk and Donetsk, which are under their own administrations since the fighting began in 2014.
With regards to Crimea, Ukraine wants Israeli support against any recognition of Russia’s annexation.
“It is not just about Crimea’s status, but also [about] assisting people on the ground who are under clampdown and Crimean Tartars and Russian speakers who don’t agree with [the] Russian occupation,” said Klimkin.
Israel, however, must balance its relations with Ukraine with Jerusalem’s close relations with Moscow.
Over the years, especially since Russia came to the support of Syria’s President Bashar Assad in his conflict with the rebels, Russia and Israel have had frequent meetings on regional security.
Klimkin said he understands this balancing act.
“In this sense, the level of interaction [with Russia] is understandable because it is about Israel’s security,” he said, adding that, in terms of dialogue and discussion, Israel and Ukraine are getting along well.
A free trade agreement was a priority for the foreign minister’s discussions.
“A free trade agreement is not an easy negotiation. I negotiated the free trade area with the EU and it took seven years,” he added Klimkin said Israel and Ukraine are close to wrapping up negotiations after clarifying legal points.
“That would be basic agreement on trade – and we need this. We need a sort of top-up, embracing issues of service exchange and investments. We need to engage potential in many spheres – hi-tech and investment [in] the most comprehensive [way] we could.”
The scope of the countries’ current relationship is just scratching the surface, he said.
“I believe trade should be on a different scale. Because of Russian aggression, we lost 19% of our industrial potential. We need to develop not just agriculture but also hi-tech,” he said, adding that Kiev could learn from Israel’s experience in that area.
Ukraine is also looking to expand the number of flights between the countries, with many Ukrainian citizens of Israel, as well as many Ukrainian pilgrims and tourists making the trip. Currently, according to Klimkin, there are some 60 flights per week.
He also hopes to see Ukrainians being permitted to come to work in Israel.
During his visit, Klimkin went to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem and was particularly affected by what he saw.
“I have visited a number of Holocaust museums in Europe, but now I had almost an hour there [at Yad Vashem]… It was an emotional experience for me to go point by point through the exhibitions.”
For Ukrainians, Klimkin said, the tragedy of the Holocaust is part of a history of suffering in Ukraine.
In November, Ukraine memorializes Holodomor, the famine in the 1930s that led to the deaths of some 7 million to 10 million Ukrainians and is described as a genocide by their Foreign Ministry.
The minister said Jews in Ukraine suffered side-by-side with their neighbors and are part of a longshared culture that includes a rich history, not just tragedy.
“In many cities… it was a common existence, not just coexistence.
We have many dishes from Jewish cuisine. It was not just interaction, it was fundamental.”
Asked about antisemitism in Ukraine, Klimkin said the number of incidents is very low compared to Western Europe and elsewhere, noting that, in the last year, there were just 17 cases and they are in Ukrainian courts. Even though antisemitism is not a Ukrainian tradition, he stressed the need for it to be countered in Ukraine, Europe and elsewhere.
For Ukraine, however, the most pressing matter is the Minsk II agreement and the violations of the cease-fire.
“Any possible formula for the future is Russia out and [an] international component in. We are working on UN peacekeepers in [the] occupied territory,” he said.
Ukraine argues that the areas of Donetsk and Lugansk are not only run by separatists, but that Russian regular troops and “mercenaries” are present. Klimkin said the almost 2,000 tanks and armored vehicles “show [the] Russian presence in occupied Donbass, so the only way forward is the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe] special monitoring mission and peacekeepers working together for effective control of [the] ceasefire and pull[ing] back forces on occupied territory.”
This could lead to free and fair elections in the eastern part of the country for the first time since 2014.