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Ukraine's Valeriy Konovalyuk: Trying to trip up Russia's Vladimir Putin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Royal Dutch Shell's CEO Ben Van Beurden in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov, Pool)

It’s not a common method of resolving international disputes, but, considering that the traditional ones aren’t working, it’s worth a shot: Valeriy Konovalyuk, a candidate for president of Ukraine, is challenging Vladimir Putin to a judo grudge match, winner take all.

Like the president of Russia, Konovalyuk, 47, has a black belt in jiu-jitsu. His pitch goes like this: If he takes two out of three falls, Putin pulls his non-uniformed thugs out of the parts of eastern Ukraine that it currently dominates. If Putin wins, Ukraine lets him have his way.

Of course, Konovalyuk has to win in the May 25 elections for that challenge to have any standing.

“Putin considers himself an athlete and a strong fellow,” Konovalyuk said in an interview with Fox News. “Let him meet me on the mat and we’ll see how it turns out.”

Dark-haired and intense, Konovalyuk believes the Russian president is slowly trying to rebuild the Iron Curtain, which served as a Cold War-era buffer for Russia from Western influence. He says Ukraine is only the starting point for rebuilding Russia’s lost empire.

“The European Union, formalized by the Maastricht treaty in 1992, was only made possible by the removal of the Iron Curtain,” he said. “Putin’s provocations threaten not just a military but an economic crisis for all of Europe. If Europe’s economy starts to collapse again, I do not think Greece, Spain and Portugal can be bailed out again, and therefore will not survive.”

Konovalyuk’s strategy: Put pressure on the one sector of the Russian economy that generates income: energy. The country’s economy is three-quarters dependent on oil and natural gas production and exports, he said. A concerted effort by the United States to increase its own energy output – especially by tapping the shale oil located underground in many states – would drive down energy prices, reduce Russian revenues, undercut Putin’s popularity and put an end to Russian adventurism.

The fact that many American lawmakers oppose exploiting U.S. shale oil, because of environmental concerns, leaves him bewildered. For that reason, Konovalyuk is in the United States to make his case to members of Congress and anyone else who will hear him out.

Konovalyuk is currently mired in the lower ranks of 21 candidates seeking the presidency on May 25. A poll last month gave a commanding lead to former foreign affairs minister and billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who plans to visit Germany soon for consultations with Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key European critic of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko is running a distant second.  

Konovalyuk admits that Poroshenko and Timoshenko have wider name recognition, but he considers both to be products of two decades of Ukrainian government corruption.

Instead, Konovalyuk is basing his campaign on the intriguing notion that Ukraine, rather than being a pawn between East and West, can be a bridge between western Europe and Russia.

“For years,” he said, “Russia was very skillful at maneuvering disagreements between Europe and the United States. But Ukraine has managed to solidify Western opinion against Putin.

“If it does not act now, Ukraine will lose its last hope of becoming part of Europe, and Putin will see no reason not to proceed with his program.”

John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Vatican correspondent and Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books, including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."