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Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal: ‘We are not asking for troops from our European partners, but for military instructors’

In an interview with EL PAÍS, the leader discusses Russia’s attempts to undermine the EU’s unity on supporting Kyiv

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, during the interview with EL PAÍS, in a photograph provided by the office of the Prime Minister of Ukraine.
María R. Sahuquillo

In the European Union, more and more warnings are being sounded about the threat of Russia. But two years after Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the country’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, 48, argues that the Kremlin is already carrying out a hybrid war in EU countries, with cyber attacks and other actions. On a visit to Brussels, where he met with the leaders of EU institutions, he also warned that this year is crucial for the EU — the European Parliament is holding elections in June — and also for Ukraine, which hopes to maintain the support of the United States.

With French President Emmanuel Macron’s statements that sending soldiers to Ukraine cannot be ruled out still being discussed, Shmyhal clarifies that Ukraine has not asked Europe for troops, but for instructors. “It would be more practical than training somewhere in Europe,” he says in an interview given this Wednesday at the headquarters of the Ukrainian Representation to the EU.

Question. Intelligence reports warn that Russia is preparing a new offensive at the end of spring. In the EU there is currently a lot of talk about defense, about the Russian threat, there is a sense of alarm. What has changed in recent months to reach this point?

Answer. The mindset of many European politicians has changed dramatically. And French President [Emmanuel] Macron, rhetorically, has demonstrated this tendency to be very clear and more radical in the sense of European security and the defense capacities of the European Union. Actually Ukraine is just an example of how Russia will move ahead. Since 2008, Russia has been waging this large-scale hybrid war against European countries. And Ukraine was the first in which this hybrid war went into the physical and military scale. For European politicians now comes this moment of realizing that Russia is a cruel, barbaric, aggressor and terrorist country, which will not stop in Ukraine; Europe is part of their strategy. The sooner we understand this and take it as reality, the sooner we will be ready to protect Europe from Russian aggression.

Q. The war has been going on for two years, why are alarms sounding now? Is it due to the situation in Ukraine?

A. This delay with the supply of financial aid and ammunition from the United States has acted as a catalyst for European countries and leaders to realize that this is a crucial moment when Europe should protect itself together with Ukraine. This is a turning point when we all understand that we should increase military and weaponry production, create this joint venture and invest more in high technologies.

Q. The French president and the Polish president have said that they do not rule out sending soldiers to Ukraine. Have you asked for troops? Is seeing soldiers from European countries in Ukraine a real possibility?

A. We didn’t ask for troops. We have our own military and defense forces. And we have enough troops. We are very grateful to the European Union and partners for training tens of thousands of our soldiers in Europe. We propose to our European partners to send instructors to Ukrainian territory, to make this process faster, since it would facilitate logistics and communication. I am sure that President Macron is referring to this type of cooperation. No European country agrees to send soldiers to the battlefield, because that would mean entering the war and we are all absolutely clear that that’s impossible right now. But the support of our Western partners is crucial.

Q. Meanwhile, Ukraine is continuing to demand precision Taurus missiles from Germany. The EU has also not fulfilled its commitment to send one million artillery rounds...

A. We are waiting and asking our partners to send us long- and medium-range missiles. They are crucial, no less important than the supply of artillery shells. We gave guarantees that we will not use these missiles to strike Russian territory, but rather to cut logistics in the occupied Ukrainian territories, to cut off logistical routes, railways, bridges, and stop Russia from continuing to supply more and more material and troops to the front. We hope these decisions are made this year because it will be crucial. And a turning point in our fight against Russian aggression. We are very careful with communication, strategy, and negotiations, because we have learned the lessons of last year’s counteroffensive, when we were very public; and that worked against us.

Q. Now that the U.S. elections are approaching and its supplemental $50 billion aid package is still blocked, are you afraid of losing Washington’s support?

A. We have bipartisan support in Congress, we understand that this is not about Ukraine, but about internal challenges related to, for example, the presidential election. We are patient. We have communication and cooperation with senators, with congressmen from both parties — Democrats and Republicans — and they gave us very cautious optimism that the decision on the funds will be made in April of this year and that Ukraine will have that support. Mostly we count on military support of $50 billion and budget support of $7.5 billion for this year. It is less than we expected at the beginning of the year, but it is essential for Ukraine, for all partners and for the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Q. It would be a bad sign for Ukraine’s allies if the United States did not come through with this support or if it withdrew backing if Republican Donald Trump were to win the White House.

A. I don’t believe that the United States will stop supporting Ukraine financially and militarily, because that will mean they have stopped playing their global role. For me, that’s impossible.

Q. We are already hearing voices that now say Ukraine should negotiate with Russia to end the war.

A. There are many voices that mention fatigue, or say that European leaders or citizens are exhausted because of this war. But we in Ukraine are not exhausted. We will continue fighting for our lives, homes and families, and liberate our land. There are several factors in all this noise about the negotiation: Russian propaganda, influences. What’s more, the wish of many people and many politicians to stop this war is playing a crucial role in those voices that say we must negotiate. No one else wants to stop this war as much as Ukraine. Our children, women, young people, Ukrainians are dying every day. But we have a very bad experience when Russia asks for a ceasefire. As in 2014, in the war in Donbas, they ask for a ceasefire and then use our allies to pressure us to negotiate. But this supposed ceasefire will be only used by Russia to empower its army and get back into action. We did not start this war, we cannot stop it. That is the decision of only one person: Putin. If he decides to stop the war, he will stop attacking Ukraine.

Q. Has any ally asked you to negotiate?

A. No, right now, there are no direct requests to negotiate with the Russians. Ukraine received the special representative sent by China and they proposed their view and the Russian proposal to negotiate. But they don’t pressure us, they just put it on the table. There is no pressure because all our partners and allies understand that we are fighting for our lives. We support President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s peace formula, and we will hold a peace forum in Switzerland. More than 100 countries are participating and it will create a global coalition to pressure Russia to stop the war, to get out of our sovereign, internationally recognized territories, and thus end this war at the diplomatic table, with guarantees, with documents. Ending it militarily is impossible, because Russia is a nuclear country. Ukraine should be a member of the European Union, NATO. This is our strategy, our existential view, and we will follow that path.

Q. The president of the European Commission warned that the elections to the European Parliament could delay the negotiating framework for Ukraine’s accession to the EU. Do you think everything will go as planned?

A. The sooner we start, the sooner we will do our homework. We have finished our self-sceening, implemented the recommendations of the EU institutions and are ready to begin negotiations. We hope that this decision will be made no later than the first half of the year. And we are ready to do our homework, it will not take us more than two years. At that point, although we understand there are many challenges, Ukrainian membership will be a political decision.

Q. Ukraine’s future membership has already caused some friction. We have seen this with the farmers’ protests, for example, in Poland. Do these demonstrations undermine the EU’s unity on Ukraine?

A. Looking around us we see how Russia is manipulating social networks and the global situation, it has direct influence on Poland and the European Union and wants to undermine the unity of Ukraine and the EU. We understand the nature of these protests in Poland, that they occuring for the same reasons all around Europe. Russia is using this protest to increase political pressure on the Polish government, on Ukraine, and on European institutions. We should be very careful and very clear and open with our statistics and our communication. It is one of the points why in the process of negotiating our accession to the EU we have agreed to open the agricultural chapters first. It is not usual, but for us it is important to demonstrate to our neighboring countries, such as Poland, clear statistics, clear understanding of Ukraine’s role in the EU agricultural sector and that there is no harmful influence.

Q. You mention Russian actions to undermine unity. In view of the European elections, the EU has also warned about this. Do you think Russia will use Ukraine to cause divisions?

A. We should be aware that everyone, the European Union and any member state, is under the influence of Russian hybrid aggression and propaganda. Russia has used cyber attacks and is trying to attack through disinformation and special psychological and information operations by creating points of tension. This is actually a hybrid war against concrete European countries and the EU. We see examples of Russian hybrid attacks in the migration crisis on the border with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. And there is more: cyber attacks, crises, and interference. All these methods and activities are actually a form of war.

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