ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Geoffrey Pyatt is the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He's in the capital Kiev. Thank you for joining us today.
AMBASSADOR GEOFFREY PYATT: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: As soon as sanctions were announced at the White House today, there were criticisms from some Americans - Senator John McCain, for example - who called this a very weak response. I wonder, is the Ukrainian government asking for a more robust response to what happened in Crimea?
PYATT: No, well, Robert, we haven't heard from the government so far. But let me say, Senator McCain was out here this weekend with a strong bipartisan delegation, and I think the Ukrainians greatly appreciated the clear message they heard from both Republicans and Democrats, complimenting what President Obama said to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk last week, which was that the United States stands with the Ukrainian people at this moment of crisis.
SIEGEL: If they want military aid from the U.S., does that qualify as standing with the Ukrainian people?
PYATT: Well, we've said at this point that we believe this is a crisis that has to be solved through diplomacy, not through military means. So that's where our energies are focused. Secretary Kerry has been deeply involved with his counterpart, Minister Lavrov, as has the whole administration. You saw that last week we announced the provision of some MREs to help the Ukrainian military with their immediate humanitarian situation.
SIEGEL: Those are meals, we should just say, though. That's food.
PYATT: Exactly. That's food. And we've got a longstanding defense and security assistance relationship with the Ukrainian military that we're certainly going to continue. But in terms of the situation right now, today, on the 17th of March, we're focused on diplomacy.
SIEGEL: As you understand it, what is the status or the situation today of Ukrainian troops who are in Crimea?
PYATT: Well, they're besieged at this point. And we're all keeping a very close eye on that. The Ukrainian military has been exceptionally restrained and prudent in the way that it has behaved in Crimea. And we're going to be keeping a close eye on how things unfold because we don't accept the contention of this new puppet government that's been established there. We don't accept the contention that these troops have anything other than the sovereign right to occupy the military facilities that they're in at this point.
SIEGEL: Well, by not accepting what you call the puppet government of Crimea, does that mean that there'll be some demonstration of not acknowledging it? For example, will diplomats travel - or attempt to travel to Crimea with Ukrainian papers to show that you're still regarded as part of Ukraine?
PYATT: We haven't gone down that road yet, but certainly, as a matter of policy, there is no ambiguity. We do not accept the legality of this referendum. It will have no change in terms of how we will look at Crimea. Crimea is part of Ukraine. It will stay there on our maps. It will stay there for purposes of American policy.
SIEGEL: Are the Ukrainians bolstering their military in the east of the country, where there are many ethnic Russians?
PYATT: Well, they are doing a couple of things. The most important thing that the Ukrainian government is doing in eastern Ukraine is reaching out. And it's been striking to me over the past week or two that you've seen strong demonstrations, including in Russian-dominated cities like Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk, of strong support for Ukrainian unity. In many ways, the aggression that Russia has demonstrated has brought Ukrainian people together. And the Ukrainian military has engaged in some maneuvers in order to strengthen its position if there is further aggression in the east. But again, you know, as in Crimea, the Ukrainian military has been exceptionally prudent and has said, made clear that they are not going to be the ones to provoke confrontation.
SIEGEL: Is it fair of some critics to say that the Ukrainians, since independence, have not demonstrated a mature politics in which people compromise but rather has been a succession of leaders who have been, let's say, of dubious honesty and integrity?
PYATT: It's striking to me how broad the consensus has been in Ukrainian politics since the change in government on the 21st of February that they have to get things differently this time. There is a recognition that Ukraine has underperformed. You look at the economy, for instance. Ukraine and Poland were roughly the same level at the time of independence. Today, Poland is a country that's three times more wealthy.
And certainly, a large part of what happened on the Maidan over the past three months has been about rebooting Ukrainian democracy, about making Ukrainian democracy more honest, more transparent, leaving behind the egregious corruption of the past. History makes one cautious about the challenges that lie ahead, but I think there's also - with more than 100 people killed in the course of January and February, there's a recognition among politicians in government and out that they now have a moral burden and that they need to do better.
SIEGEL: U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, thank you very much for talking with us.
PYATT: Thanks, Robert. Nice talking to you.
SIEGEL: Ambassador Pyatt is the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He spoke to us from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.