Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba spouts optimism about his early talks with U. S. President Joe Biden’s administration.
Everything points to a White House that means business when talking about opposing the Kremlin.
Ukraine needs this alliance as much as ever: France and Germany have apparently started to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Donbas war, without Kyiv’s involvement, raising fears that Ukraine will be forced into a terrible peace on Moscow’s terms.
Biden denounces Putin publicly, vows to keep sanctions to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, boosts defense assistance to Kyiv, and calls for the return of Crimea to Ukraine.
This helps, but Ukraine wants the United States to play an even stronger role in supporting Ukraine’s security, as Russia beefs up its military near the Ukrainian border across Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, where the Kremlin’s war is heating up with more armed clashes and casualties.
“We are still waiting for the U.S. administration’s specific and correct steps,” Kuleba told the Kyiv Post in an interview.
“One of Ukraine’s key expectations… is a more active and, what’s important, urgent American involvement in the de-occupation of the (Donbas) and Crimea.”
Why should the U.S. care? Quite simply: Security in Ukraine means security for Europe and the whole Euro-Atlantic realm, Kuleba says.
Phone call will come
Kuleba was not surprised when, in an interview with ABC TV journalist George Stephanopoulos, Biden said he thinks that Putin, who has ruled Russia since 2000, is a killer.
To Kuleba, it was a welcome signal that the U.S. president plans to actively counter Russian aggression around the globe.
“He has voiced his clear stance,” Kuleba said.
“President Biden knows Russia and Putin too well to say things like this inadvertently.”
At the same time, Biden — who knows Ukraine well after six visits as vice president — is keeping his distance. President Volodymyr Zelensky is still waiting for a phone call, not to mention a personal meeting, with the U.S. president. The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador in Kyiv for nearly two years.
Zelensky’s Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was among the first leaders to talk to Biden when he came to power, even though the conversation was mostly dictated by the need to extend New Start, a key nuclear arms deal between the two nations.
Kuleba thinks the lack of direct president-to-president communication by no means indicates Biden’s indifference towards Kyiv.
Yet the anticipation regarding the first Zelensky-Biden contact is natural. The American side confirmed the need for a call and Kuleba is preparing to make it “utterly substantive and fruitful.”
He says: “This is all about quality rather than urgency.”
On March 31, Kuleba had the second call with his American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
The Kyiv-Washington contacts, he says, put the top priority on security affairs, particularly regarding Ukraine’s requests to boost defense assistance — both in terms of its amount and range of military hardware.
Since the outbreak of Russia’s war in 2014, the U.S. has given Ukraine over $1 billion in defense aid, including lethal weapons. Just on March 1, the U.S. Department of Defense reported another $125 million allocated to Kyiv.
Many in Ukraine consider Zelensky’s recent steps, such as the financial sanctions on top pro-Kremlin power broker Viktor Medvedchuk, were designed to curry favor with the U.S. administration.
In his vice presidential memoir, “Promise Me Dad,” and in almost every conversation with Ukrainian leaders, Biden has expressed his frustration with Ukraine’s corruption.
But Kuleba says Zelensky’s headline-making steps “have a domestic driver, rather than an external one.”
“The lack of respect towards themselves and disenchantment among Ukrainians stands behind all the conspiracy theories saying that we do things exclusively for the sake of someone else or under pressure,” Kuleba says.
“This is one of the aspects of our low self-esteem.
Too often, he says, Ukrainians look to Moscow, Washington, Brussels, or Beijing rather than to themselves.
Problems for Iran
On the other side of the globe, in Iran, things look much more complicated for Ukrainian diplomats.
Painful negotiations have taken place since Jan. 8, 2020, when Iranian Revolutionary Guards, downed a Ukraine International Airlines passenger jet in the sky over Tehran, killing all 176 onboard.
Iran eventually admitted guilt and promised a fair settlement with Kyiv. But what followed in reality was angrily described by many Ukrainian diplomats as Tehran’s persistent attempts to derail the crash investigation and stymie the talks.
On March 17, 2021, Iran published a final report laying the blame on a Tor-M1 air defense system operator who mistook the passenger jet for a hostile American target.
Ukraine immediately denounced the report, saying that it had failed to disclose the whole chain of Iranian military command responsible for the fatal error, let alone naming that air defense system operator.
Ukraine wants to see everyone responsible face justice, but they are trying “to esсape responsibility and find a scapegoat,” Kuleba says.
“The investigation must continue. We won’t stop until justice prevails in this tragic story.”
Since Iran has failed to pursue justice, Kyiv is set to take a harder stance. Ukraine and other nations involved in the tragedy are considering measures “to create troubles for Iran and motivate it to take an honest stance,” Kuleba says.
In late 2020, Tehran promised to pay $150,000 in compensation for each of the incident’s victims. But, according to Kuleba, Ukraine is going to challenge that as well, as it considers the Iranian proposal unfair.
A lot of work for Ukrainian diplomats comes from Europe these days, amid travel restrictions caused by the pandemic.
Western nations are considering whether to introduce new forms of entry control, such as vaccination passports. Many Ukrainians — spoiled by the visa-free regime with the European Union — feel increasingly worried.
Kuleba says the diplomacy is working hard to make the new travel environment as accessible for Ukrainians as possible in a constant dialogue with the European Union.
“But now the top priority is vaccination,” he says.
“Full-fledged international travel is not going to be renewed until the vaccination is complete and the pandemic is taken under control.”
And this is where Ukraine feels exceptionally vulnerable — because, as of April 1, it has had only two individuals fully vaccinated against COVID‑19, while massive immunization campaigns in the West have continued for months. The U.S. has fully vaccinated nearly 100 million people, while Ukraine administered only roughly 248,734 first-shot vaccines.
Kuleba says that Ukraine is not an exception and that vaccines are still a scarce resource globally. This makes some nations “vaccine nationalists” as they cancel the export of shots unless their population is fully immunized.
This is a huge challenge, but diplomacy is also working hard to make sure that friendly nations such as Poland help Ukraine get more jabs, Kuleba says.
“Friends share things even in the darkest time. And Ukraine has friends, too,” he says.
“We’d love to see the reign of “vaccine liberal democracy,” but the reality suggests a different picture, and we need to have an honest view of that.”
Editor’s note: The interview was recorded on March 25, 2021.
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