Dmytro Kuleba learned that full-scale war in Ukraine had started while he was in mid-air. On 24 February 2022 the Ukrainian foreign minister was flying from New York to Istanbul, having met Joe Biden in Washington days before. With Ukrainian airspace closed, Kuleba was forced to return to Kyiv by land. Since then he has been tasked with leading the diplomatic efforts of a country at war, for which global outreach is an existential need. The demands of his job have thrown him into global prominence, responsible for leading Ukraine’s urgent foreign policy campaigns in Washington and in European capitals, as well as in Africa, China, Turkey and beyond. Only 41, he is Ukraine’s youngest foreign minister and a career diplomat, as well as the son of a career diplomat. But when I spoke to him by video link on 9 March he was blunt and direct with his answers, though he never strayed too far from his role. When I asked him if the war would end with a military victory or diplomacy, his first instinct was to reply, “Russian defeat”, but he quickly reverted back to diplomat in chief.
Bruno Maçães: It’s now the second year of the war. Let’s think a little bit about the future. Can there be an end to this war without a Russian defeat? Some wars end in negotiation, some wars end with military defeat. Which kind of war is this one, in your opinion?
Dmytro Kuleba: The simple answer is no, this war cannot end without Russia’s defeat. But the more nuanced answer is it will depend on what do we mean by “Russian defeat”? For us, the defeat of Russia is the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine. And this goal is 100 per cent achievable if we all remain united and committed to achieving this goal. And when I say we, I mean both Ukraine and its partners. But every war ends with diplomacy one way or another. At the end of every war, there is a paper signed. My job is to make sure that when we have this paper in front of us, it will fix the reality on the ground, which is the absence of Russian troops in Ukraine.
BM: What would be necessary for Russia to withdraw its troops? There’s a lot of people in the European and American debate asking for more clarity about what is necessary for Russia to withdraw its troops.
DK: I would not be surprised to learn if these people are the same people who had full clarity on the [prospects for] Ukraine in the beginning, on the eve of the aggression. We should always remember that the most rational experts, people with utmost clarity of mind, gave Ukraine a maximum of 72 hours to hold against the Russian invasion. I recommend to every analyst not to think of what it means for Russia to suffer a defeat, but to think of what else can we do to help Ukraine win. These are two different optics, and depending on the starting point of your analysis, you will come to certain conclusions and certain policies at the end of your analysis. I recommend to all of these people to think less of Russia and think more of Ukraine and themselves because if Ukraine does not achieve its legitimate objectives in this war, it will be a huge loss for the whole of Europe – and in a much broader sense, for the entire democratic community. Because Russia will prove to the entire world that, yes, you will suffer from sanctions, from the war, from isolation, but if you are strong enough to go through this period of sustained pressure, you can invade neighbours, you can impose your will by military force and you can defend your gains by staying in the territory, by holding occupied territories under your control. This will be the message. And this will ruin everything that the West, including the United Kingdom, stands for.
BM: I think one of the most surprising developments over the first year of the war was the limited impact of sanctions on Russia. The IMF and World Bank are predicting that the UK’s economy won’t grow but the Russian economy will this year. So, what went wrong with the sanctions policy? And how can that be corrected?
DK: This is exactly how the discussion should be structured: what else can we do? My answer to your question is simple: first, sanctions work; second, Russia plays with its statistics, with data, to present the picture better than it is; and third, sanctions definitely could have been tougher. My last point on sanctions is this: the efficiency of sanctions is always about the dynamics. The moment you stop stepping up sanctions pressure, the target country adapts itself to the sanctions regime. So to make sanctions efficient, you must keep stepping up the pressure on one track and fighting circumvention of sanctions on the other track. If you have these two processes in place, then in the end you prevail. But yes, it takes time and there definitely could have been stronger sanctions.
BM: Is there an area or industry that should have been sanctioned that wasn’t?
DK: Russia’s nuclear industry is definitely the most prominent case of our hard attempts to put it under sanctions. It’s important to do for various reasons: first, it’s a big source of revenue for Russia; second, it should be punishment. These sanctions should be seen as a punishment for the takeover of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Russia basically illegally took it under its control and violated all principles of nuclear safety by doing it. Of course, I could also mention again sanctions against defence; Russia’s missile industry is producing missiles. Sanctions work when you close all the gaps. If you don’t want water to drain, you need to close all the holes, and this is basically the principle of the sanctions policy.
BM: Let me turn to China. You were at the Munich Security Conference, met Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat. I want to ask you if you discussed with him China’s possible supply of weapons to Russia. Was this discussed? And what did Wang Yi tell you about this?
DK: We definitely discussed it. I made myself very clear that I would leave it to the Chinese authorities to comment on what the Chinese side said about it. But I was crystal clear – I made the point that it’s two different things to provide weapons to the country that attacks and the country that defends itself. While it is absolutely legitimate to support the country that exercises the right to self-defence, protected by the UN Charter, providing weapons to the country that committed an act of aggression means becoming an accomplice, and [therefore joining] this country in violating the UN Charter. The second point that I made was that the principle of territorial integrity is fundamental for both Ukrainian and Chinese foreign policies, and therefore any support to Russia in violating our territorial integrity will undermine the coherence of the Chinese position on the issue. And he gave me a very clear and detailed response. Speaking more broadly, a lot remains to be seen on how China’s behaviour in this war may evolve. I don’t think any final decisions have been made in Beijing and this is what makes diplomacy so important here.
BM: What was your reaction to the 12-point proposal that China presented for the resolution of the Ukraine crisis?
DK: We don’t see it actually as a plan on how to resolve the conflict. I think the more accurate description of this document would be a comprehensive position of China on the aggression of Russia against Ukraine. Because, basically, it doesn’t give you a step-by-step understanding of what needs to be done, it just gives you an understanding of Chinese attitudes towards various issues raised by this war. So, it’s remarkable that this position was put together and presented one year after the war began, which I think says even more than the content of the position itself.
[See also: No, Russia isn’t about to break apart]
BM: What do you mean by that, if I may ask?
DK: I mean that it took 12 months. It took a superpower 12 months to come up with a comprehensive review of the conflict that decides the future of the world order.
BM: Many people are curious about why President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Xi Jinping have not talked.
DK: We are curious too. We are talking with our Chinese partners about it and today they are not giving any arguments against the conversation, they are just saying the work on organising this call is in progress.
BM: I wanted to ask if your government is worried about a Republican victory in the 2024 US presidential election? This week Donald Trump said in a radio interview with Sean Hannity that he would have been able to put an end to the war if he was president, in the worst-case scenario by letting Russia take over certain areas of Ukraine. To quote him, he would have “worked up a deal” at some point. So are you worried about a Republican victory in light of what we know?
DK: Well, first, neither Donald Trump nor any other foreigner will decide how many square kilometres should our land consist of. It will be always the decision of the people of Ukraine. Politicians can play with words, it’s their responsibility, but no one will impose any decisions of that kind on us. I think there are different factions in the Republican Party and the biggest advantage that Ukraine has enjoyed in the relationship with the United States is bi-partisan support in Congress by both Republicans and Democrats. There are few issues on which mainstream Republicans and Democrats agree, but Ukraine is definitely one of them. And then, yes, we are concerned with some voices coming from certain factions of the Republican Party, but I think this is up to the Republicans to sort it out and to defend the position of the party on the Ukrainian issue as it stands now.
BM: There is the question about when Ukraine’s accession negotiations with the EU will begin. What is your view on this? Can we expect negotiations to begin this year after the summer?
DK: The target is to proceed to accession talks by the end of 2023. The process of accession talks will be complicated and will take time because of the way this whole process is structured in the European Union, but our goal is to do our homework by the end of 2023 and the EU has to do its homework to make it happen.
BM: Do you think that the conflict with Russia must end before Ukraine becomes a member of the EU? Or is it possible for Ukraine to become a member before the conflict ends? Cyprus became a member before the conflict in Northern Cyprus was resolved, but some people think this was a mistake. Do you have a view on this?
DK: If we allow the concept of the end of the war to dominate our thinking, it will give a clue to Russia that this war should be endless. But sceptics in the EU will always say that the war has not ended. Take Cyprus: formally the war has not ended, right? There is still unresolved conflict in Cyprus. So, no, this should not be the starting point of the conversation. We have to advance with the integration to change our legislation [to bring it inline with EU requirements]; the European Union has to prepare itself for the membership, and we shouldn’t take the idea of when the war ends as the main criteria.
BM: Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, said two or three days ago, “Bakhmut may fall in the coming days”. Can you confirm that this is the case? And what is the latest assessment?
DK: There is heavy fighting in Bakhmut but we will defend every square metre of the city and the reason for this is very simple: first, because it’s our land and we always defend every square metre of our land; and second, we understand that Bakhmut is emotionally very difficult to handle – reading all the news and seeing all this heavy fighting and the number of troops involved in the battle for one basically small town. But if you retreat from Bakhmut, yes, someone will feel relief for a moment, but the next city behind Bakhmut is, I think, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, two larger cities, and the same intensity of fighting will just move deeper into Ukraine. This is why militarily it makes sense to defend the city, defend the alliance as long as you can.
We should also remember that the Russians wanted to take Bakhmut last year. They spent months trying to conquer one town in eastern Ukraine. They lost there more soldiers than the entire Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan in ten years of fighting. They lost an enormous amount of military equipment. So as a battle of attrition of Russian resources, it makes sense. Yes, we pay a huge price too, especially this week was particularly devastating with the video of a Ukrainian soldier who was basically executed by the Russians for just saying, “Glory to Ukraine”. I’m sure you saw the video. So we will defend Bakhmut as long as we can do because it’s very difficult, but it makes sense from the strategic point of view.
BM: The attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines in September has been in the news, with some media reports suggesting that Ukrainian groups were involved in the attack. Can you assure us that the Ukrainian government had no prior knowledge or involvement in this attack?
DK: The Ukrainian government has nothing to do with this attack. The attribution of the reports by the media, attributing this attack to pro-Ukrainian private groups, causes a lot of damage as it casts a shadow on Ukraine. The sources who presented this whole case to the media, they are inflicting damage on the perception of Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression, and on the partners of Ukraine who stand by us. As far as I’m aware, three or four countries are doing the investigation into this case, and I would prefer to wait until they come to official conclusions on this specific matter.
BM: I know you cannot have a final assessment on this before the investigation concludes, but do you think it is possible that this was a false flag operation to incriminate Ukraine?
DK: It’s definitely one of the possibilities, yes.
BM: Is it possible that it was a Ukrainian group working independently of the government?
DK: I don’t have any indicators to believe so. I responded with more confidence on the false flag operations because in the last nine years of the war [which began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014], Ukraine has seen many of those. It is the first time that I’m hearing a story of a secret pro-Ukrainian or Ukrainian group that is able to conduct operations of that scale and sophistication. So, I’m more restrained in recognising that it could have been what you call a “pro-Ukrainian group” because I’ve never seen anything like that happening before.
BM: Final question on current events: the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allows Ukrainian grain exports to pass through the blockaded Black Sea, is coming up for renewal within a week. Will it be renewed?
DK: We sincerely hope that it will be renewed. We want grain to continue to flow to Africa, to Asia, to other parts of the world. It’s in the hands of the Russian Federation. The UN secretary-general was in Kyiv on Wednesday 8 March and President Zelensky had a long conversation with him about it. The SG will be doing his diplomacy now to ensure extension. We also asked that Russia implement the deal in good faith. For example, Russia allows only three vessels per day to pass towards the ports of Odesa. Technically, it can do much more, but it’s their strategy to not allow an initiative to function in full. They should not be creating technical obstacles for the Grain Initiative to perform its main function.
BM: The Global South was discussed a lot at the Munich Security Conference. Why has Ukraine struggled to make its case to some countries – I’ll stress some countries, not all – in the Global South? When you talk to those countries still supporting Russia, what are the difficulties in making Ukraine’s case?
DK: Because some of those countries in the Global South like Russia more than Ukraine. Because, like in the relationships of humans, you need to build the relationship, you need to work on the relationship, and unfortunately for some years, Ukraine was not paying attention to these relationships with these Global South countries, while Russia did. It’s very simple. I think it would be an exaggeration to say that Russia won the Global South. And the most recent vote on the UN General Assembly resolution on lasting and just peace for Ukraine gathered 141 countries in favour of it, which means that the vast majority of African, Asian and Latin American countries expressed their political support with Ukraine. But yes, there are some countries which prefer to support Russia and we have to work with them. Relations between countries work the same way as relations between people; if you do not invest in relations, if you do not send messages, make calls, show that you care, invite for lunches, dinners, make presents, have nice conversations over a bottle of wine, then it just doesn’t work.
BM: Very final question. When some of these countries in the Global South tell you that this war is Europe’s problem, what is your response?
DK: I say, “Guys, you don’t have to sell all this crap to me, you perfectly understand the implications of this war for you.” You can say 100 times this is not your war and therefore you don’t want to take a position, but the next point you will be making will be about the food prices, the pressure [the Russian paramilitary group] Wagner puts on you by simply being present in Central Africa, the issue of fertilisers and many, many other things. Usually this phrase, “This is Europe’s war”, is used as an excuse in order not to take a position, and I’m very honest in my reactions to that. I think it’s good to be sincere when you do diplomacy in the 21st century.
This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink