Russia does not have the needed amount of Sputnik V vaccine doses for its own population but is ready to sell the vaccine to any country, but it is unwilling to vaccinate its own citizens. Russia uses Sputnik V as an instrument of political and hybrid war, says Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba.
Promote Ukraine publishes the interview of Dmytro Kuleba with the Tyžden Slovak online media outlet. The minister talks about the promises of Slovakia’s Prime Minister Igor Matovič to give Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region to Russia in exchange for a COVID-19 vaccine, as well as the escalation of hostilities in Donbas.
In his recent interview, Prime Minister Igor Matovič made an “extremely hurtful” statement. He promised Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region to Russia in exchange for Russian Sputnik V vaccine supplies to Slovakia. What was your reaction to that?
I was baffled because it was like a stab in the back of Ukraine. The statement outraged me. I asked myself if I could make such a “joke” with a good friend and my answer was no. I immediately responded to the Prime Minister’s statement on Twitter. I am grateful that Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok and later Prime Minister Igor Matovič sincerely apologised for this statement. The whole incident teaches one thing: such jokes are inappropriate by default.
Could you describe the atmosphere in which the conversation between you and Minister Ivan Korčok took place?
We exchanged text messages. I met Ivan Korčok personally two or three weeks ago. We had a great conversation then, so I understand that Ivan Korčok probably felt bad because of the statements made by Prime Minister Igor Matovič, being a citizen of Slovakia who respects neighbouring countries, not only the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic.
Did you talk to our Prime Minister or only to Mr. Ivan Korčok?
I did not communicate with Igor Matovič. We received a public apology from the Prime Minister on Twitter.
Will this conflict affect Ukraine–Slovakia relations, or can we say that this scandal will be forgotten?
It’s hard to forget because such jokes don’t just emerge out of nowhere. At the same time, I believe that this scandal is over, and I am grateful that the Prime Minister apologised publicly. This allows us to leave this incident behind. So, let’s not forget these words, but we know that they are put to rest. I would like to assure you that Slovakia is a very valuable friend and neighbour to us, the more painful to hear something like this from a close friend.
Could you tell us about the current situation in Donbas, where the war with Russia is going on?
Initially, the situation somewhat improved after a ceasefire was established in Donbas. Unfortunately, since the second half of December we have seen an aggravation. At the same time, the efficiency of negotiations in the Trilateral Contact Group, where Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE meet, declines. The fact is that Russia has not reciprocated any constructive gesture, step or proposal put forward by Ukraine. Moreover, the Russian media now abounds with reports accusing Ukraine of alleged preparations for a military escalation in Donbas.
It is a mere propaganda. It is not we who prepare the offensive, but Russia who prepares the escalation of tensions. It is unfortunate that, despite the efforts made by Ukraine, Germany and France, Russia does not take a constructive approach within the Normandy format and does not agree to convene a regular summit of leaders to assess the situation and make proposals for new steps.
Is this conflict frozen at the moment?
No, it is not. Ceasefire violations, shelling, injuries and killings continue. We have the situation, which is direct opposite to frozen.
We hear less often about the war in Ukraine. Don’t you think that the EU, the USA or NATO have forgotten about the conflict in Ukraine?
I wouldn’t say they have forgotten. They may not fully understand what they can do to stop this conflict, how they can help Ukraine restore its territorial integrity.
So what can Western countries do to resolve this conflict and help Ukraine?
As you know, France and Germany play a leading role because they are members of the Normandy format. We are convinced that the United Kingdom can also make some efforts. And, of course, the United States. The current U.S. administration is well aware of the origins of this conflict and the course of its development. We all need concrete action. There are solutions, it’s time to act. The question remains open as to who of our partners is capable of acting and indicating clearly that Vladimir Putin must sit down at the negotiating table and come to agreements.
In our 2019 interview, you and many of your colleagues mentioned that Vladimir Putin understands only one thing: force. Has this changed in any way?
No, this has not changed. He really understands only force. But the question is how to create such forceful conditions that will make Vladimir Putin settle for a compromise. We live in the world of diplomacy and arguments. So, force is the main thing and the question is who will be able to use it and how.
Do Ukrainian citizens believe that this conflict will be resolved in the coming years?
Certainly, they do. All solutions are clear, they have been discussed many times and are on the table. But Moscow does not greenlight progress in this issue. If Moscow makes a political decision to accomplish its promises — and they have repeatedly stated that Donbas should remain a part of Ukraine — and decides to withdraw its troops, the conflict can be resolved easily and quickly enough. Ways of withdrawing troops, ways of holding elections without Moscow’s participation — everything has been thought out in detail long since. Therefore, we should ask ourselves not how long it will take to end the conflict, but how long it will take to force Russia to agree to end it. If Russia agrees to do so tomorrow, the conflict will end in a week.
In 2019, your opinion polls spoke in favour of Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the European Union. Have these views remained in place?
Yes, they have. According to the statistics, support for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union and NATO keeps growing. Last year, Ukraine was granted NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner status which means deeper cooperation. Ukraine is currently raising a question of obtaining a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which was promised to Ukraine and Georgia at the 2008 Bucharest Summit but has not been given yet. More and more Ukrainian citizens support joining NATO and the Government steps up efforts to achieve this goal.
A key NATO member is the United States, where Joe Biden was recently elected as the new president. What is the relationship between Ukraine and the new U.S. administration? Do you keep in touch?
We have no reason to complain about the quality of communication with the new United States administration. I spoke with the Secretary of State, our Defence Minister spoke with the Chief of the Pentagon, our Embassy in Washington, D.C. has very good contact with the U.S. administration, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv maintains contact with us here. I am satisfied with the quality of this communication. We understand that the new administration must first complete all staff appointments, adapt in order to start a full-fledged work. This may take some time, but the most important thing will be the quality of action, not the quality of communication. We will consider actions.
What actions do you expect from the new U.S. administration?
We are waiting for one specific action, which President Biden has already announced: America is back. We want to see in practice the United States coming back, in particular, to the European affairs.
I would also like to discuss the issue of vaccination. What is the situation in Ukraine? Does the European Union assist you in supplying vaccines?
According to EU regulations, the European Union itself does not supply vaccines but allows its member states to share them. In this context, some member states have assured that they will be able to share vaccines with us. But, as we can see, the vaccination process in the EU itself is slowing down, so the timeline of when these countries could share vaccines somewhat delays. We are still waiting for the vaccines within the framework of COVAX [the COVAX Facility is a mechanism of the World Health Organization which aims to provide enough COVID-19 vaccines this year, even for the most vulnerable 20% of people in each country]. We managed to buy AstraZeneca’s vaccine. We look forward to more active further cooperation with the European Union on vaccines.
Did you purchase vaccines from other manufacturers?
We purchased AstraZeneca’s vaccine and have already signed a contract with Pfizer and a number of other manufacturers.
What about Sputnik V vaccine? Do you plan to buy it?
No, we do not. Our Government ruled out the possibility of purchasing this vaccine. We will not pay for mines and bullets which Russia fires in eastern Ukraine. Russia has turned Sputnik V vaccine into a political tool and a hybrid weapon. Sputnik V has nothing to do with any humanitarian goals of the Russian Federation. Russia does not have needed amount of vaccine doses for its own population but actively sells its vaccine to any country in the world. The question arises: does Russia find foreign citizens more important than its own? Or is Sputnik V simply seen as a tool of foreign policy rather than of healthcare? The answer to these questions is obvious.
Every country should ask itself a question: if Russia does not have enough amount of vaccine for its own population but is ready to sell the vaccine to us, what is the price of this “generosity?” This is not a financial, but a political price.
What do you think about countries that buy Sputnik V?
I don’t think anything bad about them. It’s their decision, their choice. But I want to warn that each country must carefully consider whether it is willing to pay a political price for Sputnik V. Each country pays twice when buying this medicine. First, the financial, and then the political price.
I assume that Russia is still trying to destabilise Ukraine and its Government, including with this vaccine. Have you noticed any direct steps taken by the Russian Government to try to influence Ukraine’s public opinion regarding the approval of this vaccine?
Of course, I have. Many arguments are adduced. For example, Russia says that the Ukrainian Government does not care about its citizens because if it did, it would accept Sputnik V.
Has Russia tried to sell you this vaccine?
I think when it comes to Ukraine, they would even provide it for free. This is my guess. Because the political victory they would gain in that case would be invaluable to them. Just imagine Russia, which illegally occupied our territory and started the war in which about 14,000 people have already died, coming and “saving” Ukrainians with Sputnik V vaccine. If that happened, it would be an invaluable political victory for Russia.