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Dmytro Kuleba: On China, we know much more than we’ve said

Ukraine’s foreign minister on the peace summit in Switzerland, what Donald Trump would mean for his country, and the similarities between the Conservative Party and Labour.

By Bruno Maçães

On 15 and 16 June, Switzerland will host the Ukraine peace summit. It will build on four rounds of discussions in recent months and be structured around the Ukrainian peace formula for a just and lasting end to the war. Ukraine is under pressure to deliver an impressive roster of guests, but President Joe Biden has already announced he will be represented by Kamala Harris, his vice-president. Other powerful countries will not be represented at all; China is among them. Saudi Arabia and Brazil may also be absent, though many things could still change before the motorcades start to arrive at the Bürgenstock Resort near Lucerne. 

I met with the Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba in Kyiv on 5 June. For a year now, military developments on the front line have evolved slowly and few in the capital spend the same amount of time feverishly monitoring news from the battlefield as they used to, even if worries about loved ones serving in the armed forces are still high. Diplomacy, however, is going through an intense phase. There is the peace conference, through which Ukraine hopes to prevent others from shaping the path to peace negotiations in its name. Simultaneously, discussions with Ukraine’s Western partners have reached a delicate moment. Kuleba admitted that much in our interview, pointing out that certain issues now threaten to make a number of Western partners unhappy. That is simply the dynamic of a war, which keeps expanding, raising the stakes for every side. 

Ukraine is also aware that China’s position may shift in the coming months and it intends to try and influence that, or at least prevent Beijing from moving towards Moscow. Finally, the possible election of Donald Trump in November is focusing minds in Kyiv – that possibility calls for the most delicate of diplomatic entreaties. In a candid interview, Minister Kuleba opened up about this delicate moment in the conflict.

Bruno Maçães: Let’s start with the Switzerland peace conference. Why is it important for Ukraine? People might argue that what really matters is to shore up support in the West, to eliminate the divisions and hesitations that exist there – that Ukraine should focus on that.

Dmytro Kuleba: It serves numerous purposes. One is to continue solidifying Western support, keep our friends focused and mobilised. Second is reaching out beyond our traditional set of partners and engaging a broader range of countries because when we look at the UN General Assembly [and the] resolutions adopted in response to Russia‘s large-scale invasion, we see that the number of countries who voted in favour of those resolutions [was] up to 143 countries. So the coalition is much broader [than just the West]. But you have to, again, keep it focused and mobilised. And third, it’s a matter of substance. What we are trying to do is to create a very rare instance in the history of diplomacy, where the country that was attacked sets the framework for the end of the war, and the restoration of peace. The country that suffers has the right to decide how the war should end.

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BM: How, specifically, is Russia attempting to sabotage the conference? 

DK: Russia’s efforts to sabotage the conference are systemic and hysterical because they are fighting as fiercely against any diplomatic efforts to end the war as they are fighting on the ground trying to occupy more Ukrainian territories. When it comes to the countries who have not confirmed their participation yet, they [the Russians] deploy various tools to convince them not to participate. For the countries who confirmed participation, [Russia] works on talking them out of participation or on downgrading the level of their representation. And third, the propaganda machine is working in full swing to spread this narrative across the globe, that the conference is useless and futile.

BM: There are some reports that Russia and China may be trying to organise an alternative conference. Is there any grounding to those reports? And would Ukraine participate?

DK: Something is always brewing. We’ve been through many initiatives and proposals coming from third countries on how this war should be ended. [But] Russia is using various peace ideas as a smokescreen for the continuation of the war. And this is the major problem with Russia. The problem is not to get Russia to the table. The problem is to make Russia negotiate at that table in good faith. Since they’re focused entirely on war, they will not make their contribution to peace, they will just use this to discredit any peace initiative. China is a big player and has a role to play in ending this specific war. China is invited to our summit. We have not heard any specific invitation or proposal for China with regard to their ideas. When we receive them, we will look into them.

BM: President Volodymyr Zelensky’s comments in Singapore, when he said that “elements of Russia’s weaponry” come from China and that China too is sabotaging the peace conference, sounded very different from the last two years. It was much more critical of Beijing. I heard it said that the gloves came off. What happened to explain that change?  

DK: The moment. Stakes are high, nerves are stretched in so many capitals of the world on this. And we know much more than we talked [publicly] about, let me put it this way. Just today [5 June] political consultations between Ukrainian and Chinese foreign ministers are taking place in Beijing, where I sent my first deputy and China received our delegation. It’s the first time since the large-scale invasion began that the two [ministries] engaged. And the message we’re sending is that “we will respect you, we attribute an important role to you. But any initiative coming from you should not undermine vital national interests of Ukraine.”

BM: The issue was China’s efforts to join Russia in sabotaging the conference. And you have information that that was happening?

DK: We have a lot of information, perhaps more than I wanted to be familiar with. But there is the “surface level” of diplomacy, and there is the “under the surface” level of diplomacy. What is clear to us is that this summit that we are organising in Switzerland is going to be a success. But if someone doesn’t like our initiative, it doesn’t mean that someone has the right to undermine this summit. And we are sending this message very clearly. We are respectful, we want to have a dialogue. But we are not the country that will be making compromises on issues of vital importance for our existence.

BM: Last question on China. There were reports that President Zelensky wanted to meet the Chinese delegation at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, and that perhaps the Chinese delegation did not accept those suggestions of a meeting. Can you confirm anything on this?

DK: I wasn’t there. And I would really not come into this because I’m not aware of what was happening on the ground. Usually in these conferences there are various conflicts of schedules, and things happen in a rather unplanned way.

BM: Let’s turn to another very important question: the change of policy regarding the use of Western weapons inside Russia. My understanding is that the change of policy is limited to a very specific geographic location around a battlefield area in Kharkiv where the US understands that the border itself is an artificial line. So the previous policy barring the use of Western weapons there had to be corrected. But it does not extend beyond that. Will Ukraine be asking its partners to extend that exception or to eliminate the existing restraints?

DK: We will and even if we don’t, I think that our partners will come to the conclusion that these limits have to be extended. When you knock on a closed door for a while, and then the door is opened but you are told that you can enter and only take two steps forward – that’s already a big sign.

BM: It’s a precedent.

DK: It’s a precedent. And it also helps our partners to adjust. These are big decisions, they always require adjustment. So they will see that it works. [Our allies] will see that we are reliable partners in terms of picking the targets, because we need this permission only to hit military targets, to destroy Russian forces and Russian military equipment that is shooting at us and destroying the city of Kharkiv, for example, missile launchers. When they see that we are reliable partners in the implementation, I’m pretty confident that we will take the next step [and restraints will be eased].

BM: How will Russia respond to the use of Western weapons outside Ukraine itself? 

DK: I don’t care. And I think that partners who are making these decisions shouldn’t care either. Not because they are irresponsible decision-makers. But because Russia did the worst that could be done: it waged a full-scale war unseen in Europe since the Second World War. In my experience, fears of Russian retaliation are largely exaggerated. And to be frank, no other concept has inflicted more damage on Ukraine than the concept of the fear of escalation. Among concepts popular among our partners, of course. 

BM: The Nato summit in Washington in July – I wanted to ask what is your expectation? When asked what is the endgame for the war, President Joe Biden, speaking to Time magazine recently, said peace looks like making sure that Russia never occupies Ukraine, but then he said that doesn’t mean Ukraine becomes part of Nato. So it seems that there is a change here.

DK: We will see whether these words constitute a change of policy [on Ukraine joining Nato] in a month’s time, when we read the final documents of the summit. I can hardly imagine that these documents will reverse the policy that was established in 2008, which is Ukraine will be a member of Nato. I do not expect that the Washington summit will reconsider the position fixed last year at the Vilnius summit, which read that an invitation to become a member of Nato will be extended to Ukraine once all allies agree to it. Moreover, every message we are hearing from the United States is that they are working together with allies on decisions in Washington which will build a bridge to membership for Ukraine. But you’re right, something is happening.

BM The question never seems to go away…

DK: I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Ukraine’s aspirations to become a member of Nato is that people interpret it as a wish of Ukraine to become a member now, and therefore, they get scared of the risk of Nato being at war with Russia. We’re not talking about immediate membership, because being invited to join Nato and being a member of Nato covered by Article V and collective defence are two different things. And Nato leaders can spend an enormous amount of time saying that Nato is not at war with Russia. But in Putin’s mind, he is [already] fighting the United States of America, he is fighting the collective West.

BM: There seems to have been a change over the past year among Ukraine’s Western partners: you hear more that they are also directly under threat from Russia. Did you see that change? Is it an achievement of Ukrainian diplomacy?

DK: Of course. The large-scale invasion was a wake-up call. That was the turning point when people stopped thinking that it’s just Ukraine and the crazy Baltics and the Poles. Why did Finland rush to join Nato? It made everyone in Europe think very hard.

I was tempted to say thank you for your compliment to Ukrainian diplomacy. But then I recall that we’re paying too high a price for these victories.

BM: You hear a lot more about the idea that if Ukraine loses, Europe is next.

DK: Yes, we’re taking the conversation one, two levels higher. And here we are talking about things that do not resonate well with some partners. But, guys, if we were right back then, perhaps we are right again. Put your intellectual arrogance aside and listen to simple people from Ukraine, who know something about Russia. Our position today is supported by an enormous volume of evidence, political [and] military intelligence. Putin despises the West. He wants to destroy the West. Because this is his only chance to survive politically. And he’s old. So he only cares about himself and his role in Russian history and in world history. And he believes that this role is the destruction of the West.

BM: Would Donald Trump as president signify a change of policy? We know that the US House speaker Mike Johnson went to meet Trump just before he decided to move ahead and approve the recent aid package, or supplemental. Did that help you change your perception of what a Trump presidency could mean?

DK: Some people hate Trump, while others admire him. None of these groups is helpful to our purposes. Because the true answer is that no one can be certain today about Trump’s foreign policy actions if he gets elected. We have our experience with Trump. We know more or less how he functions. We understand that he will be avoiding mistakes he made before.

BM: What kind of efforts has Ukraine been doing, and the ministry in particular, to reach out to the Trump side?

DK: We are not doing any specific preparations because we have this experience. We know the fundamentals of Trump. And the most important thing that we know about him is that he can change. So he didn’t particularly like Ukraine in the beginning of his presidency – but then he was the one who signed off on the sale of the first lethal weapons to Ukraine.

It’s interesting because we were just discussing the decision to allow us to use American weapons beyond the territory of Ukraine, but I would like to remind you where we started this conversation with the first decision to sell the first lethal weapons to Ukraine. It was not with Barack Obama. With Obama, we had a discussion whether he would send us radars to counter Russian artillery fire. And the whole fight about sending lethal weapons to Ukraine was consuming an enormous amount of energy. And Obama never did it, exposing the Ukrainian army to fighting with virtually their hands. It was Trump who started the process [of sending us lethal weapons]. The same with the supplemental. So the question is not what the presidency of Trump may look like. The question we’re facing is how to use his presidency in the interest of Ukraine.

BM: Ukraine famously had a rapport with the Conservative government in Britain. What do you expect from a Labour government, which most of us regard as inevitable at this point?

DK: The beauty and the lesson of British democracy is that while Labour and Conservatives are fighting each other so fiercely in the elections, it was actually the former foreign secretary James Cleverly who introduced me to the shadow foreign secretary David Lammy. And I think that’s beautiful. I received David and his colleague, the shadow secretary of defence, John Healey, some weeks ago here in Kyiv. The message we’re hearing from both parties is the same: that nothing will change in Ukraine. In fact, the conversation that we had with them here in Kyiv was focused on future actions and what else can be done in addition to what is already being done. So I understand that Labour and Conservatives have many reasons to be upset with each other’s policies. But I’m glad that probably the only Conservative policy that is not being challenged by Labour is the policy on Ukraine. And let it be so.

[See also: “Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory”: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants]

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