KYEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba sat down with the Washington Examiner recently to discuss the challenges facing his country, including a desire to join NATO and ward off Russia and his hopes for the Biden administration.
The timing could not be more tense in the former Soviet republic that shares a border with Russia. It is waged in a seven-year war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region known as Donbas, it has lost the Crimean Peninsula to Russia, and there are concerns Russian President Vladimir Putin will insist on maintaining his sphere of influence over the Black Sea partner and press President Joe Biden to retract security assistance elevated by former President Donald Trump.
Washington Examiner: Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited Ukraine. What did you ask of him?
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba: All of these conversations were very focused and very friendly and assuring from his side. When we met in person in Brussels, just in the middle of the Russian escalation, along our border and in the occupied territories, I immediately handed over to him a list of, like, five items where Ukraine needed an urgent help. I know that our ministries of defense and are working on that list.
Strategical thinking, we need to focus on achieving three tangible results. The first one is we need to underpin a very vast program of military and defense cooperation with the United States with an agreement. … When you have such an agreement, I mean, this puts your relationship on a higher level, and everything else follows — Defense Department programs, State Department programs, USAID programs, all kinds of things.
The second result that we should focus on is we need to strengthen, Ukraine needs to strengthen our defense, specifically when it comes to air defense and navy. These are the two weakest points of Ukrainian defense system. To the contrary, Russia is particularly strong in those fields.
The third element is of a broader strategic perspective. Ukraine exists in a security void. We are not members of NATO. If the United States [is] interested in advancing [its] interests in this part of the world, in supporting a big democracy in this part of the world, we believe if the United States is interested in containing Russia from further aggressive actions, then the issue of Ukraine security becomes imminent.
WEX: President Biden meets with Russian President Putin on June 16 in Geneva. Are you concerned he will give concessions to Putin that would be unfavorable to Ukraine?
DK: President Biden knows Ukraine, but he also knows Russia very well. And I do not think that president Biden will make concessions in the first or in the second meeting with President Putin. I mean, I certainly understand that president Biden wants to de-escalate this relationship, but the whole case is far more complicated, and to de-escalate, you need the will of two sides. And I don’t think that President Putin — I mean, I have no grounds, no reasonable grounds, to believe that President Putin isn’t genuinely interested in de-escalation.
Ukraine has been fighting against President Putin for seven years with huge support coming from the United States. So we received a very clear assurance from this, from the new administration, that nothing will be agreed about Ukraine without Ukraine.
WEX: Do you believe ethnic Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainian citizens in the Donbas region, eastern Ukraine, and Crimea should have the right of self-determination or to be part of Russia, if they so choose?
DK: The issue is not about ethnic Russians. You know, we have many soldiers who had been killed in the war in Donbas by Russian officers and soldiers, many Ukrainian soldiers, many fallen Ukrainian soldiers. They spoke Russian. We did not have … that animosity toward Russia. It was not us who tried to destroy Russia. It’s Russia that came in, and they falsified the referendum in Crimea.
We did not have any conflicts based on ethnic or racial grounds in this country until 2014, never since 1991 until 2014. This was not part of our culture. So the whole narrative that you are now referring to is actually the Russian disinformation that is imposed on us.
It just doesn’t work this way in democracy. The idea of democracy is to bring everyone together and make people live happily. We never had a civil war, and we never were fighting each other. No one was killing anyone because he or she was speaking Russian or Ukrainian. This was not the case until Russia came in and brought its soldiers to Crimea and to the east. Now they’re trying to portray it as a civil war, supporting this lie that they are seeking self-determination.
WEX: Can you clarify if you are receiving more or less military assistance from the Biden administration than from the Trump administration?
DK: Well, the Biden administration still has plenty of time to prove that they are the best supporters of Ukraine since 1991. It’s been, what, five months since they came to office. The administration acted swiftly and in a very resolved way when Russia started its escalation. We appreciate that. On the one hand, Trump times were difficult for Ukraine. On the other hand, we did receive javelins.
WEX: When Putin built up 100,000 troops on your eastern border, were you disappointed that Biden, NATO, and others only made statements and did not deliver military assistance?
DK: Well, talking is important. However, talking becomes irrelevant when it’s not followed by actions. And since the Russians did make a choice to de-escalate its rhetoric, to announce that exercises are put on hold, it means that words did work.
I’m sure that we will have another opportunity to test that. At this point, we can be absolutely certain that action is needed. Russia is not the entity that takes words seriously. If they see that the only reaction the West can offer is words, they will understand that their hands are untied to that. They can do fairly aggressive actions against Ukraine and against other countries as well.