Ukraine’s foreign minister: ‘Putin is a war criminal. Russia will feel the consequences for decades’

In this interview with EL PAÍS, Dmytro Kuleba says negotiations are still right where they started and urges Western nations to take further action against the Kremlin

Ministro de Ucrania Dmytro Kuleba
Ukranian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in a file photo from March 10 in Turkey.Getty Images
María R. Sahuquillo

Since Russia invaded Ukraine a month ago, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has become one of the most visible faces of the conflict, sharing with the world the terrible suffering his country has been subjected to as a result of the offensive. The 40-year-old, who was born in the city of Sumy, shares more about the situation in this interview with EL PAÍS. Speaking via Skype, from an undisclosed location due to security concerns, Kubela reveals he is happier with the European Union’s response to the war than NATO’s, explains how negotiations with the Kremlin are progressing and the likelihood that Russia will resort to chemical weapons. “Putin is a war criminal. Russia will feel the consequences for decades,” he says.

Question. After a month of war, what is the situation now?

Answer. It’s difficult to get used to it, but we have learned to live in war. We are adapting ourselves to this reality, to its sounds and heart-breaking stories. It’s not easy, but we have to do everything possible and more to put an end to this war and win it in order to put an end to the suffering of our people and the destruction of our cities.

Q. What are your relationships like now with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?

A. At the start of the Russian offensive, the European Union reacted quickly and energetically, imposing various waves of sanctions that were truly painful. However, as the war advances, we have to continue to increase pressure on Russia, new sanctions have to be imposed on Russia, and Ukraine must be given additional military and financial assistance. And in the last 10 days, I have noticed that the decision-making process has slowed down. In Europe, it seems that it is increasingly difficult to reach agreements on new sanctions. It’s very upsetting, because those who believe they have done enough are wrong. We are grateful for everything that has been done, but there is more to do. The sky’s the limit. Russia is counterattacking on the economic and financial fronts, it is trying to put the EU in a difficult situation, especially with its recent decision that payments for gas and oil must be made in rubles. If European countries accept this, they will be subsidizing the war and the criminals. The situation with NATO is more complicated, because there is more caution.

We have information that suggests that Russia is carrying out movements to prepare chemical weapons

Q. Are you disappointed in NATO?

A. I’m not, because I have always been fairly realistic. I am a diplomat, which allows me to understand how these things work. But the people of Ukraine are disappointed. Before the war, it was common to think that NATO is strong and the EU is weak. The first weeks of the war are showing the opposite is true. I am speaking of the public’s perception, not my own assessment. Now, if the EU retreats back to its endless search for consensus instead of taking serious measures to address the problems, the people will also be disappointed. But for now, it has every opportunity to show that it has learned from the mistakes of the past and is ready not only to talk, but also to act. It adopted a very strong position and it is important that it doesn’t lose this credibility. If it does, we will continue fighting, but the credibility of Europe will be lost.

Q. Ukraine is calling for new sanctions.

A. The EU must adopt some key sanctions. The first is ending the dependency on Russian gas and oil. If this can’t be done from one day to the next, they must have a clear plan for a gradual withdrawal. I don’t understand why the EU has not yet closed all its ports to Russian ships and goods. All Russian banks must be disconnected from the [international banking platform] SWIFT. What is happening now is a halfway measure: you disconnect some banks from SWIFT, and the people go to another bank, open an account and are connected again. That’s not how sanctions work.

Q. How are the negotiations with Russia progressing?

A. Russia wants to discuss the demands President Vladimir Putin mentioned at the beginning of the offensive: the neutrality of Ukraine; the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, and of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent entities; demilitarization; denazification and the status of the Russian language in Ukraine. It’s crazy! Sometimes not even they can explain what they are referring to. When you ask what they mean by denazification, it’s hard for them to explain it. Ukraine is interested in three things: security guarantees, the recognition of its territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders – which includes Crimea and the Donbas region [where Donetsk and Lugansk are located]; and a ceasefire and withdrawal of the Russian army. After four weeks of talks, we are more or less where we started.

Q. What is Ukraine referring to when it speaks of security guarantees?

A. Spain’s security guarantee as a member of NATO is in Article 5, which says that if someone attacks it, all the other members will defend it. We want something similar that says if someone attacks Ukraine, those countries that support the security guarantees will provide Ukraine with all the necessary arms in 24 hours, adopt a resolution in the UN Security Council demanding an end to the offensive and impose sanctions.

Q. Do you know which countries would offer these security guarantees?

A. We are in talks with the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Turkey about their possible participation in this model. They have reacted positively to the idea. Although it’s still under discussion, I am pleased with the initial responses.

Q. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has opened the door to the idea of neutrality. He even said a few days ago that NATO was not ready for Ukraine. Is Ukraine willing to accept neutrality?

A. Diplomats like to say that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. It would be premature to say that we agree to any element of a potential agreement. For us, the most important issue is not neutrality, but rather security guarantees. If we achieve these guarantees, we will have to make a move. President Zelenskiy simply indicated that the last four weeks have shown that we are further from NATO than we are to the EU, because in the first two weeks the EU opened its doors to Ukraine. And NATO, unfortunately, did not take any step towards Ukraine’s membership. We have to be realistic about NATO.

Q. The United States has warned of the possibility that Russia will use chemical weapons. Ukrainian authorities have denounced Russia’s use of white phosphorus. Do you have proof of this?

A. Although it sounds terrifying, Russia has used all types of weapons in the past four weeks, with the exception of chemical weapons with gas and nuclear weapons. It has used the most advanced missiles and landmines, artillery, everything… As well as weapons prohibited by international law, such as phosphorus and cluster bombs. We have information that suggests that Russia is carrying out movements to prepare chemical weapons. Our Western partners have said that if they do this, Moscow will face serious consequences. It would be very useful to know what type of consequences. And they must be sufficiently tough. I hope and I pray to God that Russia does not use either chemical or nuclear weapons, but nothing will bring us down because we are fighting for our existence, for our right to be Ukrainians. And President Putin can do what he likes, we will not break. We will survive and we will persevere.

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