In Ukraine, the build-up of Russian troops near its borders raises fears of further military escalation. This is similar to 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula and unleashed the ongoing war in another Ukrainian region – the industrial Donbas – after the Maidan protests. However, today Ukrainian troops are better prepared for a possible invasion, says Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba. In a video interview with ZEIT ONLINE, he also calls for international support.

ZEIT ONLINE: The United States recently released intelligence data showing that Russia is amassing troops along Ukraine’s border and warns that it could be a harbinger of an invasion. How serious is the situation?

Dmytro Kuleba: Indeed, this is a real threat. If I didn’t have the experience of 2014, I might think it’s just a show of strength. However, 2014 showed how thin the line is between Russia’s show of force and its use. It is not only about withdrawing troops, but also about Russia’s de facto blocking of the Normandy format and the Trilateral Contact Group, as well as escalating tensions in Belarus. Whether the threat will turn into real military action depends on two factors: Ukraine’s resilience and the support provided to Ukraine by our partners. Our goal now is to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

ZEIT ONLINE: What is Russia’s goal?

Dmytro Kuleba: Russia has been pursuing the same goal since 2014: to destabilise Ukraine and other European countries in order to force them to agree with Russia’s vision for the structure of international relations. This is military aggression mixed with disinformation and attempts to provoke internal instability. There is no need to ask ourselves “Why now?” As soon as they see an opportunity, they immediately try to seize it.

ZEIT ONLINE: To date, all Western statements in support of Ukraine during this crisis have not led to anything. Russia simply continued its actions.

Dmytro Kuleba: It is much more than verbal support. We call this a comprehensive deterrence package, and it consists of three elements. The first is very clear political messages, and this is already happening. The second is a set of economic sanctions, restrictive measures. Knowing that the West prepares sanctions, Moscow will think twice about whether it is willing to pay that price. The third element is military support. I categorically reject the erroneous logic that the provision of weapons to Ukraine will provoke the escalation of the conflict. Russia wants Ukraine to be weak so those, who deny military and defence cooperation with our country, strengthen Russia’s position. We are in a very active dialogue with various partners who sell us military equipment and weapons to enhance Ukraine’s self-defence capacities.

ZEIT ONLINE: Are you talking about European countries now? Can you disclose more detail?

Dmytro Kuleba: Some European countries already cooperate with us in the military-technical sphere at the bilateral level. Some do not. However, weapons are like money, they love silence. Therefore, I will not go into further details.

ZEIT ONLINE: Does such cooperation open new prospects for potential EU and NATO membership?

Dmytro Kuleba: Ukraine’s membership in the EU and NATO is only a matter of time. Ukraine is a natural part of the European and Euro-Atlantic community. We understand that the EU has some skepticism about further enlargement and that the country must meet all the Copenhagen criteria that we will achieve. However, this is not the main obstacle to our EU membership. The main obstacle is that some NATO and EU countries still look at Ukraine through the prism of their relations with Russia. And that is why my message to them is simple: perceive Ukraine through its own qualities and virtues. We deserve to be seen as Ukraine. Relations with Russia are one thing, relations with Ukraine are another.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why are you sure that perception of Ukraine will change? When it comes to EU membership, for example, Turkey has been kept dangling for many years.

Dmytro Kuleba: I wouldn’t do what I don’t believe in. However, you are right that different scenarios are possible. If the EU’s ambivalent policies continue for a long time, then in the future we may reach a point where the EU views Ukraine as a self-sufficient entity by analogy with Turkey, while still not considering full membership as a likely possibility. In that case, we will look for other models of cooperation with the EU.

ZEIT ONLINE: Which ones?

Dmytro Kuleba: There are other models, such as Norway’s full-fledged integration without formal membership. But I want to emphasise once again: today we have not reached such a moment, such decisions are not on the agenda yet. In the coming years, both the European Union and Ukraine will work according to the logic of further constructive ambivalence. As the EU continues to reflect on its readiness to give Ukraine a European prospect, the legal and economic systems of Ukraine and the EU will become closer in practice, and our country will become closer to EU standards. And then, in the future, we will reach the moment when the EU will have to make a decision: what’s next for Ukraine?

ZEIT ONLINE: What do you expect from the new German government? The coalition agreement promises to support an energy partnership with Ukraine but does not mention the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea. (“We will continue to support Ukraine to restore its full territorial integrity and sovereignty. We seek to deepen our energy partnership with Ukraine with strong ambitions in the areas of renewable energy, green hydrogen production, energy efficiency, and CO2 reduction).”

Dmytro Kuleba: Ukraine welcomed the approval of a new coalition agreement in Germany. We appreciate the strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as our European integration. The clear message of the coalition agreement to Russia is also very important to us: Russia must stop destabilising activities in Ukraine and contribute to a political solution. However, we would like to see a stronger position on geopolitical energy projects in Germany. That is why we will continue to work with the new German government to eliminate the threats that Nord Stream 2 poses not only to Ukraine’s security but also to the stability of the whole of Europe.

ZEIT ONLINE: You have military cooperation with Turkey, which supplies drones to Ukraine. Do you consider President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a reliable partner in this conflict, given that he also has good relations with Moscow?

Dmytro Kuleba: We do not have any bilateral agreements that would provide us with security guarantees or force another country to fight for us in case of further aggression. This is the reality. Being in a security vacuum, we naturally take every opportunity to strengthen our defence. Turkey has proven to be a reliable partner for us in the defence sector, and we have many joint projects aimed at mutually strengthening our defence capabilities.

ZEIT ONLINE: Germany, one of the largest EU countries, was hesitant about arms supplies.

Dmytro Kuleba: It was not hesitant. It refused. Unfortunately, some countries tend to the Russian narrative, saying that Ukraine must not be armed allegedly because this may encourage us to take some military action. This is complete nonsense. We have not attacked anyone, and we do not intend to solve the problem of Donbas by military means.

ZEIT ONLINE: However, Ukraine recently used drones against Russian artillery on the contact line. Why did you use drones if it is forbidden by the Minsk peace process?

Dmytro Kuleba: The Russian side pulled heavy artillery, a 120mm howitzer, to the contact line and fired on Ukrainian positions, killing one Ukrainian soldier, wounding another one, and damaging civilian infrastructure. This is a clear violation of the Minsk agreements, not the use of a drone to stop these illegal actions.

ZEIT ONLINE: However, as a spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry recently noted, only OSCE patrols can use drones on the contact line.

Dmytro Kuleba: We already expressed our disagreement with the logic of this statement. First of all, because it completely ignores the real reason why we had to defend ourselves. A howitzer is a heavy artillery system banned by the Minsk agreements. Our drone did not cross the contact line but it hit the howitzer. And, second, I do not hear any expressions of deep concern when Russia uses drones.

ZEIT ONLINE: But the use of drones is a form of escalation.

Dmytro Kuleba: There will be no bloody safari when the Russians can violate the Minsk agreements as they want, kill and destroy everything they want, and when we forcibly stop that, everyone around starts yelling. By the way, before the drone was deployed, we clearly followed all OSCE procedures, used all agreed de-escalation mechanisms, and met all requirements. That is, we did not violate any agreements. But when we are attacked and killed, we will retaliate, because this is our country, and we will defend it.

ZEIT ONLINE: Does this mean that the Minsk agreements are dead? Is there any chance that the peace talks will continue?

Dmytro Kuleba: We have nothing better than Minsk agreements. That’s the problem. And I think that Russia would be happy to see the final defeat of the Minsk agreements because it would free their hands and give them more freedom of action. We do not want to give them such a gift. My German and French colleagues are doing their best to get through to Russia. They have made numerous attempts to bring Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to the negotiating table with us. However, there is always something more important in his schedule. Both the Normandy format and the Minsk agreements are currently critically ill, but they are still alive, and we should try to bring them back to consciousness.


Dmytro Kuleba: This is the most difficult question of all. The only way is to keep trying, no matter how long it takes. Leave frustrations behind and don’t leave the track. There is only one alternative to diplomacy: war. And Ukraine does not want a war. So we will continue to try because we want peace, stability, and security for Ukraine and the whole of Europe.

ZEIT ONLINE: Recently, there were proposals to conclude an agreement with Ukraine to end the migrant crisis on the Poland–Belarus border. What do you think about this idea?

Dmytro Kuleba: From the humanitarian point of view, we really sincerely sympathise with the people who got stuck, manipulated by the Belarusian government, and dragged to the border with the promise to be sent to the EU. However, this is an unacceptable way of submitting proposals, when a German politician says in an interview: let’s push our problem even further away from us and let Ukraine sort it out! We have excellent relations with Germany and the EU, which allow us to discuss issues of mutual concern through diplomatic dialogue. However, we do not deserve the dominance of the proposals expressed in this form. We have never shown anything like this against any German politician. Therefore, of course, we do not consider a proposal made in such a disrespectful tone.


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