Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba: ‘Putin does not want a frozen conflict, or peace’

At a time when Western support seems to be wavering and Russia’s war against Ukraine has become a battle of attrition, the politician insists that support for Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government is also support for democracy

Dmytro Kuleba
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba during a press conference at a bomb shelter in Kyiv on January 7.ANATOLII STEPANOV (AFP)
María R. Sahuquillo (Special Correspondent)

Dmytro Kuleba is deeply convinced that Ukraine “will prevail.” But at a time when Western support seems to be wavering and Russia’s war against Ukraine has become a battle of attrition, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister insists that support for Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government is also support for democracy, as he tries to rekindle in his allies that sense of urgency that was apparent in the first year of the Russian invasion. “Ukraine should be an issue that unites, not divides,” he remarks during an interview last Thursday at the Foreign Ministry, surrounded by sandbags in the face of a war that is approaching the 700-day mark. “Ukraine must win. Russia must lose. And all the political thinking should be centered around achieving this goal,” says Kuleba, who insists that Vladimir Putin is not interested in a frozen conflict, or in peace, that everything else is just noise and that none of Ukraine’s allies have put those options on the table. On February 1, the EU will again discuss a €50 billion financial lifeline for Ukraine — currently blocked by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — while another similar aid package remains frozen in Washington. Kuleba believes the funds will come. “We do not have a plan B,” he insists.

Question. This is a very challenging year, with elections in half the world: in the U.S., the European Parliament, in several EU countries. Ukraine is and will remain a very important issue in campaigns. Do you fear that Ukraine will become a hostage to political infighting, as we are already witnessing in Washington?

Answer. Well, it would be very short-sighted for political forces of any country to turn Russian aggression against Ukraine into an issue of domestic debate. Because this is not about the issue of Ukraine, it’s about Russian aggression against Ukraine and the issue of the entire democratic world. And all democratic forces participating in campaigns and elections should realize that. Russia knows no democracy. Russia does not respect democracy. And if Russia prevails, if the Russian style of politics becomes dominant and gains popularity, there will be no real elections. There will be no real democracy. And this is definitely not something these political forces are looking for. Defeating Russia in Ukraine is in the best strategic interests of European and North American nations, and other nations of the world as well. So the issue of Ukraine should be one of uniting, not dividing.

Q. But do you think these politicians are aware of this?

A. If we assume that all politicians are intelligent and strategically minded people, then they must be aware of it, yes.

Q. The United States has some $61 billion in funds for Ukraine pending approval, chiefly due to the Republican blockage. What will happen if that money is not approved?

A. We will continue fighting with the resources available to us because for the world, democracy, security, and prosperity is at stake. For Ukraine, the existence of the nation is at stake. If one decides to suspend or withhold support now, because of the lack of resources, Russia will be able to succeed on the battlefield and break through the lines. Providing Ukraine with support will have to be resumed because there will be a very strong public reaction in favor of supporting Ukraine. And the same politicians who decided to withhold that support will be making the decision to provide it, but in much more difficult circumstances. So even from a rational perspective, from a purely realistic policy, it makes more sense to provide assistance now in order to avoid a crisis in the future.

Q. In December, the EU failed to approve €50 billion in support for Ukraine due to Hungary’s veto. The EU leadership has said that these funds will arrive one way or another. Are you confident of this?

A. I am pretty confident and I have a slightly different interpretation of what happened in December. I don’t think this decision was not adopted because of Hungary’s veto. I think the decision was postponed for a month in order to try to avoid Hungary’s veto and provide an extra month to negotiate with the European Union to reach an agreement for a consensus-based position. But there is a clear understanding and unanimity and consensus among 26 members, minus Hungary, that this aid will be provided one way or another. So let’s see how it ends.

Dmytro Kuleba (left), with the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell (center), in Kyiv last October.
Dmytro Kuleba (left), with the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell (center), in Kyiv last October.AP

Q. And if the funds are delayed?

A. Well, then our Finance Minister will once again have to work the magic of his management.

Q. Do you have a backup plan in case those funds do not arrive?

A. We do not have a plan B. From the outside perhaps people see and think differently, they can talk about plans A, B, and C, they can publish articles and analytical documents. But from here, inside, all of your energy and all of your intellectual power has to be focused on one thing: making plan A work.

Meeting between Zelenskiy and Orbán

Q. You are trying to set up a meeting between President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is perceived as close to Russia.

A. We are working on it. We discussed a meeting between Orbán and Zelenskiy to go through the agenda to sort out all the issues, because if we are talking purely about Hungarian national interests, I think it’s more than evident strategically that having a peaceful, democratic, European Ukraine is in the best interests of Hungary. You can talk with Putin, you can do business with him. But I don’t believe that Hungary wants to have Russia as its neighbor.

Q. Indeed, Hungary does business with Russia and Orbán has met with Putin.

A. They do business because that is Prime Minister Orbán’s policy. Given that Hungary is the only country in the European Union that maintains a dialogue with Russia, at leader and foreign minister level, I believe that it is an issue for the EU to sit down and analyze how this aligns with the union’s policies, and not ours.

Q. In December, the EU agreed to open accession negotiations with Ukraine. In community institutions there is increasing talk of a gradual integration model for new members. What do you think?

A. Every EU enlargement required an effort. In the course of every wave of EU enlargement, there were critical voices saying that this is not the way to evolve and that instead of expansion, the EU should seek in-depth integration. But every EU enlargement resulted in an increase in the prosperity and safety of Europe. And now we are back on the same ground. Ukraine is an important player, a big country, and there is a difference between integrating a smaller country and a larger country. But if you think about this enlargement in business terms, Ukraine is a big market, a big contributor to boosting European industries and, furthermore, Ukraine guards the whole eastern flank of Europe. Accession is a matter of compromises because you have to strike a balance between existing rules and practices and the incoming member. But I’m sure that we will get it done because the strategic benefit of Ukraine’s accession to the EU will outweigh any negative voices.

Q. Would Ukraine be open to one of those forms of gradual integration, for example, first the single market and other programs, and then moving up to full membership?

A. We will not accept any quasi-membership or suspended membership or Plan B membership. But to be fair, the real criteria for membership is participation in decision-making — the Commission, the European Parliament and all other structures — and access to the common market, which is already included in our association agreement with the union. You can be within the EU and not be a member of the Schengen area or the monetary union. The very nature of the EU envisages some gradual integration but access to the common market and political participation is at the core of the concept of membership. And we will not accept any alternative scenarios or compromises with regard to these two elements.

Q. Do you have a schedule?

A. Well, of course people love to make plans, but you know the saying: when people make plans, God laughs.

A fire in an apartment building in Kyiv as a result of a Russian attack on January 2.
A fire in an apartment building in Kyiv as a result of a Russian attack on January 2. Libkos (Getty Images)

Q. Lately we have read about Russia’s alleged intentions to freeze the conflict and that Putin wants to negotiate. Is this a way of sending a message to Ukraine to surrender?

A. Putin doesn’t want a frozen conflict, or peace. Those who are suggesting a frozen conflict, arguing that they are acting in the best interests of Ukraine and the world, are in reality helping Putin and ignoring what today’s Russia is. Between 2014 and 2022 [during the Donbas war in the east] we held almost 200 rounds of talks with Russia, it was already a de facto frozen conflict. We tried. We announced and established 20 ceasefires, all of which were broken by Russia, and endless negotiations ended up with Putin’s large-scale invasion. There are wars which are black and white, where one side must win and another side must lose. And the Russian aggression against Ukraine is that kind of war. Ukraine must win. Russia must lose. And all the political thinking should be centered around achieving this goal.

Q. Have any of your allies suggested freezing the conflict?

A. It is not on the table. Our allies have not asked us to negotiate with Russia to freeze the war, either when we have sat down with the delegations, or in behind closed doors meetings in a reduced format. This is not something that anyone can dare to put on the table as an option. Everything else is just noise.

Q. The EU and the G-7 are moving forward to draw up a scheme that would allow Ukraine to receive the benefits of frozen Russian assets, but some countries still have many legal doubts about it. Is it just a debate or will Ukraine end up receiving these funds to finance reconstruction?

A. It will happen 100%. The question is to what extent it will happen because there are three elements to it: the frozen assets themselves, the revenues on the assets, and taxation on those revenues. But it will happen because it makes sense that Russia should pay. And there are enough frozen assets to tackle the reconstruction of Ukraine. We estimate that the total amount of frozen assets is equivalent to more than 80% of our reconstruction demand. We can rebuild schools, we can rebuild hospitals, we can rebuild infrastructure at the expense of the country that destroyed it.

Q. Do you think it will happen before the war is over?

A. It doesn’t work in a way that you get all the money in one day, it’s a process. I think that the first money proceeding from these frozen assets will arrive in Ukraine before the end [of the war], but we have to build a comprehensive system to resolve legal issues and build financial and transparency mechanisms. It’s a complicated legal, regulatory and financial instrument. But again, even though some have doubts, one way or another, this decision will have to be made because it’s the most natural decision of all.

Q. The EU has approved 12 packages of sanctions, and the US has imposed its own, but you have explained that parts and components manufactured in the West have been found in weapons that Russia has used to attack Ukraine. Why does this keep happening?

A. Grace schemes and circumvention of sanctions. Unfortunately, Russia has devised ways to receive spare parts and some materials it needs for its defense industry, including the production of missiles and drones, from various parts of the world, including from Western countries. And this is why we are working very thoroughly with our partners on closing this route. It’s shameful to see that Russia is still successful in bypassing sanctions when it comes to the delivery of spare parts. It needs to build missiles and rockets which it fires on Ukraine, destroying our infrastructure, and the countries of origin of these spare parts then help Ukraine to recover, to rebuild this infrastructure. We have to break this vicious circle. I’m not saying that these countries are turning a blind eye to Russia, to Russian purchases, or to the delivery of these spare parts as a result of purely commercial activity, but governments must step up efforts to close these circumvention routes.

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