A year after the start of a full-scale Russian invasion, Ukraine managed to enlist the support of Western countries, which provided it with large amounts of military and financial assistance. However, some other countries are still in no hurry to support Kyiv – both at the political level and with weapons. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba spoke to the BBC about how Ukrainian diplomacy is trying to counter the growing influence of Russia and win over countries in various regions of the world – from Eastern Europe to Africa, the Middle East and China.
Georgy Erman, correspondent of the BBC Ukrainian Service, spoke with Dmitry Kuleba.
“And what about Scholz?” On the supply of Western tanks and F-16 fighters
BBC BBC: The saga with the supply of tanks for Ukraine has just ended. What types of weapons can Ukraine now count on? Fighters, long-range missiles?
Dmitry Kuleba: Indeed, the tank coalition has been formed, political decisions have been made, it remains to organize the training, logistics, transfer of this equipment correctly – and we already put the bird “done”. The next weapons you have correctly identified are aircraft and long-range missiles. We really need them to protect our air and destroy the military infrastructure of the Russian occupation forces deep in the occupied territory of Ukraine. I emphasize that we are talking about the use of such missiles in the depths of exclusively the territory of Ukraine. This conversation didn’t start yesterday either. We raised this issue for a long time, in fact, from the very beginning of the war, but now we are entering the home stretch. And there is a clear understanding of where these weapons are, with whom to work. I think this issue will be resolved.
BBC BBC: From which countries can we expect the supply of fighters?
DK: Why is the F-16 most often heard in the press and in the conversations of diplomats? Because it is practically the most massive fourth-generation fighter, it is one of the most successful in the arms market. A lot of them were made, there are thousands of them, that is, this is not some kind of limited resource. They are in service in many countries and there is another positive argument in our favor. Countries that have F-16s have begun re-equipping with F-35s. F-16s are released so we can claim them.
Of course, we do not write off other aircraft, such as the Swedish Gripens, French Mirages and Rafalis. We are open to communication with all partners. But we always approach the issue of weapons very rationally and we focus on what we can get. The main thing is to achieve political decision-making. But after we have resolved the issue regarding Patriots and other air defense systems, I have no doubts that this decision will also be made.
BBC: That is, the decision will mainly depend on the US, France, Sweden …
DK: Yes, and other countries that have F-16s in service. But, of course, in order for any country to transfer the F-16 to us, the consent of the United States will be required.
BBC BBC: What is the role of Olaf Scholz and his desire to transfer or not to transfer aircraft?
DK: Firstly, in Germany they are also in service. And secondly, I think this is some kind of inertia in the perception of the transfer of weapons: so, what about Scholz? Why the position of Germany and Chancellor Scholz was important in relation to the Leopard tanks – this is a massive tank, but this is German technology, so Germany’s word was key. In the issue of aircraft, the word Germany is not the key, because it is American technology.
“There will come a time when you have to make up your mind.” About PMC “Wagner” and Russia’s influence on Serbia
BBC BBC: In Serbia, Russian diplomacy has a strong position. What policy should Ukraine pursue in order to change the position of this country? We now see that the Serbian government does not want to join the sanctions, there are a lot of graffiti in honor of Putin and Wagner PMC on the streets of Belgrade, Russian propaganda prevails, a division of the Russian channel RT Balkan has opened in the building of the Serbian state media company Radio-Television Srbiye. Why is there no reaction to these events? How can Russian influence be overcome?
D.K.: Why not? There is a reaction – and a lot of it. And in public space. Because in reality they are working with Serbia from all sides. And not only the EU, but also the US. We have done nothing wrong to Serbia in our life as a country. Moreover, we respect the territorial integrity of Serbia. We believe that Serbia’s position towards Ukraine should be much more favorable. In Serbia itself, the situation is not simple, and dependence on Russia is also a factor, including with regard to the Kosovo issue, so they are in constant balancing act. But the moment will inevitably come when you will need to decide who you are with: with the EU, where your future is, or with Russia, with which only the past connects.
BBC BBC: Regarding sanctions, it is clear – on this issue there is cooperation with the EU. But does the Foreign Ministry have a plan on how to deal with Russian propaganda in Serbia? All these symbols of the so-called Russian “greatness”, graffiti on the streets – is there any communication with the Belgrade City Hall to resolve this issue? And the most important question is how to stop the flow of Serbian citizens into the ranks of the Wagner PMC?
DK: Well, I have not yet reached graffiti on the walls of houses in Belgrade in my work, so I have nothing to answer you. As for Wagner, this is not just a Serbian problem – it is already a global problem. And, in fact, I think you saw the reaction of the President of Serbia, the Minister of Defense of Serbia to attempts to recruit Serbian citizens for the war in Ukraine by Russian forces. She was determined enough and unexpectedly tough. This underscores once again how difficult this balancing act remains for Serbia. But this position also does not appear out of nowhere. This is also the result of work. However, they once again emphasize that Wagner is a phenomenon that has gone beyond the borders of Europe and it is not for nothing that the United States recognized them as a transnational criminal organization.
BBC BBC: In the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan, some militants who fought in the Donbass received real terms. What is the Foreign Ministry doing to convince Serbia of the need for tougher punishments?
DK: The same as in the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan. We cannot impose our decision on the legal system of another country with mere words. But gradually, step by step, these things are being pressed down and there is a result. When we have some kind of systemic issue, we work equally hard and consistently in every country. Somewhere it gives the result faster, somewhere slower. Serbia – for the reasons that I have described, will give a slower result, but it will definitely give it.
“Two unfortunate surprises of Lavrov”. How Ukraine works in Africa
BBC BBC: You have already said that “Wagner” has become a global problem, the US has recognized them as a global criminal organization. One of the areas of activity is Africa. They extract minerals, gold, cut down forests, all this is exported through the ports of Cameroon or through Sudan. The media believe that this is how Wagner’s activities are financed. What is the plan of action to limit the influence of Wagner and its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin in Africa?
DK: The recognition of Wagner as a transnational criminal organization is the result of the activities of the Foreign Ministry and the entire diplomatic team of the President. The decision is American, but it was we who initiated and advocated for it. And you understand that the US decision has a global impact. Countries are adjusting their policies.
With regard to Africa directly, the Wagner issue was one of the key ones during my negotiations with the countries of the west coast of Africa, which I visited last autumn as part of an African tour [Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana – ed.]. They take this problem very seriously. When they learned from me the scale and nature of Wagner’s criminal activities on the territory of Ukraine, then, frankly, it brought us closer, because we and they are facing the same problem.
BBC BBC: Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Africa and visited l four countries, in particular, South Africa and Angola. The latter finally voted in support of Ukraine’s integrity at the UN in October. How do you evaluate the results of his visit?
DK: As far as I know, Lavrov had two unfortunate surprises on this tour and he did not get into two countries. This is the first time in my memory.
BBC BBC: And what are these countries?
DK: Well, let them name it themselves. [According to media reports, it is known that during the tour Lavrov’s visit to Botswana was planned, but for some reason it did not take place. It is also known that Ghana and Mauritania publicly express dissatisfaction with the presence of Wagner PMCs in the region. Lavrov visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola and Eritrea – ed.]. I know why he didn’t hit. But it’s basically a sign. Only yesterday it seemed that Russia undeniably dominates Africa, doors open everywhere and everyone welcomes them with hugs. And then suddenly the problems begin. Well, such a life. There are problems not only at the front, but also on the diplomatic front.
Xi Jinping congratulated Zelensky on his birthday, but does not call. On relations with China
BBC BBC: How do you assess China’s policy regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war? What can be said based on the results of the past year – has the “strategic partnership” that Ukrainians have been talking about for many years and that supposedly exists with China justify itself?
DK: China occupies a special position in this war and sees this war from the point of view of its strategic interests, on the other hand, from the point of view of itself as one of the key states of the world, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. If we make such a table, where there will be pluses from the point of view of our interests and minuses, then as a result the number of these pluses and minuses will be approximately the same. There are cons, but there are also pluses. Of course, we are working to ensure that China’s position drifts towards a more pro-Ukrainian one.
BBC: How many times in a year of full-scale war did President Zelensky speak to Xi Jinping?
DK: Dialogue with China since the beginning of the war took place at the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Regarding the head of the PRC, Xi Jinping, there was a correspondence between the leaders. By the way, Xi Jinping became the first leader in the world to send an official letter, this is such a special diplomatic practice, to congratulate the president on his birthday. Such diplomatic gestures are taking place at the level of leaders, but from the very beginning of the war a meaningful dialogue was conducted at the level of ministers. We also had telephone conversations and personal meetings.
BBC: Recently, a company that provided satellite images of PMC Wagner came under US sanctions. Do you expect that China will take a greater part in this war on the side of Russia?
DK: I don’t expect it yet. We see dynamics in China-US relations. And we are grateful to the United States for the decision you mentioned. There was a very important meeting between [U.S. President Joe] Biden and Xi Jinping, a very important visit of [U.S. Secretary of State] Anthony Blinken to China is now being prepared, I still don’t see any prerequisites for China’s position to start leaning more towards the Russian side.
“Difficult discussions”. How Ukraine convinces Japan and India
BBC: Ukraine wanted to receive weapons from Japan, whose sovereignty over the southern Kuriles it recognized in October 2022. Can you explain why such a friendly country does not provide weapons?
DK: Japan does not give weapons because of its history, because of the defeat in World War II, and the legislation that prohibits the transfer of weapons. We would very much like Japan to transfer weapons to us, they have a lot that we need, in particular, air defense.
But there are examples of other countries, in Europe, for example, that have adjusted their legislation in order to be able to supply us with weapons after February 24, 2022. In Switzerland, which is the most famous neutral country in the world, the process of revising this legislation has been launched. It is too early to say that this process has ended, but it has begun.
BBC: Another example is India, which also respects borders, state sovereignty and international law. They have not reduced their cooperation with Russia and even started to buy a lot of Russian oil for the first time, despite the war, they took part in military exercises with Russia (“Vostok-2022” last September). What’s happening? Can India be persuaded to change its position?
DK: Difficult discussions with India at different levels. There are two main channels of communication. The President spoke to [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi, but the working channels of communication are mine through the Foreign Ministry, and [Head of the President’s Office] Andrey Yermak speaks to the National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of India. Difficult conversations are generally friendly and positive, but the topic of oil is the biggest irritant in our relations.
As for weapons, India has a lot that Ukraine needs, but at the same time it takes a low profile. As for cooperation with Russia, they buy oil, conduct exercises, but some very serious strategic projects in the sphere of buying Russian weapons and joint production of Russian weapons are being curtailed.
Therefore, in India, they continue to balance, but we will gradually work to pull them to the right side of history. We count on India’s involvement in the implementation of President Zelensky’s peace formula.
“The Iranians have crossed the border.” About Iranian drones and Israeli air defense systems
BBC BBC: What happened on Sunday in Iran? Who is behind the explosions at Iranian military factories?
DK: I don’t know who hit the military infrastructure in Iran. We historically have not done anything bad to Iran. They began to supply kamikaze combat drones to Russia. They crossed the border. No matter how beneficial cooperation with Russia against Ukraine may seem to you, we assure you that the negative consequences of this cooperation will many times exceed any benefit. The next step is Iran’s decision on how to act.
BBC BBC: So now there will be no break in diplomatic relations with Iran?
DK: You know that I submitted such a proposal to the President, this question is absolutely open. The decision can be taken at any moment depending on the further behavior of Iran.
BBC BBC: In Israel came to power a new government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Do you expect changes in the supply of any technology or weapons to Ukraine?
D.K.: Let’s see. Israeli Foreign Minister will visit Ukraine soon. We agreed on this, we will sit down and talk. From an objective point of view, I see no reason that would deter Israel from supporting Ukraine. And the restraint that we saw in the previous government, and there were certain signals in this government, do not seem to us to be some kind of objective reasons, we will find out these subjective reasons. But of course, Israel can do much more, it will be extremely beneficial for them – to provide assistance to Ukraine.
BBC BBC: Israeli Ambassador to Germany Ron Prosor said that Israel is more supportive of Ukraine than is known to the public, but “behind the scenes.”
DK: I will not comment on his statement. I have already clearly formulated everything regarding Israel: more, less, behind the scenes… There are specific things and Israel knows that they are needed to help Ukraine. And these things don’t happen. Everything else – thanks, well done, but there are critical things that are needed.
When we talk about protection by air defense systems, we are going to shoot down Russian missiles with these systems. This is not even a weapon that will be used to kill Russian occupiers. Well, what could be the rationale for not providing an air defense system? It is needed to protect children, to protect civilians, women. And Israel knows perfectly well what a misfortune it is – rocket strikes.
And therefore, you can give out a long monologue that we are doing something there, and indeed interaction with Israel is not dead relations, these are normal relations. But on the issue of air defense, Israel’s position is incomprehensible to us. To put it mildly, unconvincing.
“Difficult multi-level game.” On relations between Ukraine and Turkey
BBC BBC: Ukrainians have a very mixed impression about the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to an Infosapiens survey for the New Europe Center, the positions were divided almost equally: 47% of Ukrainians do not trust the Turkish president, 42% do. Someone believes that Turkey is an ally of Ukraine, someone does not trust Ankara. In your opinion, is Turkey an ally, partner, mediator in this war for Ukraine?
DK: I think my Turkish colleagues are completely satisfied with the public perception that you have described. If we talk about Turkey, the situation is very complicated, but if we talk about it, it is very simple: Turkey is a friend of Ukraine. In the military and political sphere, Turkey is unambiguously on the side of Ukraine. In matters of trade and everything where you can make money at the international level, Turkey is balancing in the direction of Russia.
BBC BBC: This balancing poses any threat to Ukraine, for example, for the supply of Turkish weapons to Ukraine?
DK: I am sure that a strong, independent Ukraine within the 1991 borders is strategically beneficial for Turkey. I don’t see a critical threat. The game is played by Ankara, it is a complex multi-level game in which the election of the President of Turkey is an important factor. But I do not see a critical threat to the interests of Ukraine from Turkey.
“I know Putin.” About Latin America
BBC BBC: There have been publications in the media that the United States is turning to Latin American countries with a request to provide Ukraine with weapons, especially Soviet and Russian-made weapons. The presidents of Colombia and Argentina have publicly stated that they will not supply weapons, and the Brazilian publication Folha de Sao Paolo reported, citing its sources, that the new Brazilian president, Lula da Silva, refused to supply shells for Leopard tanks to Ukraine so as not to “tease” the Russians .
DK: I understand that bright news is needed. When the first weapons, in the supply of which in one way or another the countries of Latin America will take part, will work on the battlefield in favor of Ukraine, then you will write great news and remember our conversation.
BBC: The most important country with a huge PC in this region is Brazil. What are the prospects for obtaining weapons from Brazil under President Lula, given Ukraine’s close cooperation with him during his first tenure (2003-2010)?
D.K.: Complicated. He is a wise man, experienced, but he lives in those times, in the attitude that formed then – [for example], I know Putin, you can talk to him. Time needs to pass.