- Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was in conversation with the World Economic Forum at Davos 2022.
- From sanctions, to NATO and energy, he spoke with CNBC’s Hadley Gamble about the impact of the war in Ukraine.
- The following text is a transcription of the interview.
Q: Hello everybody, my name is Hadley Gamble. I’m a CNBC senior anchor and international correspondent. It’s fantastic to welcome you all here to the World Economic Forum, and to welcome this gentleman, His Excellency, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Sir, thank you so much for joining us at such a crucial time for your country and thank you all for coming. I want to kick off by asking you to respond directly to the comments made, just a couple of days ago by Henry Kissinger. He’s essentially said that Ukraine must give up territory in order for Vladimir Putin to save face.
A: I respect Henry Kissinger, but I appreciate that he’s not holding any official position in the US administration. He has his own opinion, but we strongly disagree with it. This is not something that we’re going to do. In fact, I believe that this whole line about Ukraine has to make a concession to stop the war failed from between 2014 and 2022. Because the policy was always, ‘we have to convince Ukraine to be constructive, to engage Russia to make a concession to engage Russia’ and it never worked. And in the end, it brought us all to the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War. If it failed once, it will fail twice. So even thinking rationally about this approach. I believe it’s failed and it’s not going to work.
Q: But a crushing defeat on a proud people does not necessarily ever end well. And I take you back to the First World War and the response to that, of course, was an economic and social unrest for 10 years in Germany, the rise of fascism and Adolf Hitler and the Second World War. So there seems to be some merit to what he’s saying no?
A: Well, if I remember history correctly, the German army never admitted that they lost the war. They said they were betrayed at home by the unwillingness of the people in the government to keep to keep fighting. So of course there will always be a difference in the assessment of the situation between civilians and military.
The truth is, I don’t know this war is not a copy-paste of any of the previous wars and will never be. Every war is special. But what I know for sure is that it’s black and white. There is no in-between. It’s either them or us and everyone in the world has to make a choice. Where do they stand?
Q: In terms of a negotiation, in terms of a peace, the last time that you and I saw each other was in Antalya in Turkey. That was a conversation that you had with your counterpart, Sergej Lavrov, that went nowhere. Where are we today with the possibility of a negotiated peace?
A: Nowhere. Russia is conducting a large-scale offensive in Donbas. You can recall any movie about World War Two and you can easily imagine what kind of battle is taking place now in Donbas. Tanks, artillery, combat helicopters, air attacks, multiple launch rocket systems, everything is involved. When you’re conducting an operation like this, you basically say no to negotiations. If Russia had preferred talks to war, they would have behaved differently.
Q: Walk us through what you believe you need to win this war. Where’s it coming From? And are you getting enough support? I’m talking about from the United States from Europe, in terms of weapons and money.
A: When you are at war, you literally need everything. The situation in terms of weapons supplies is much better compared to where we were even a month ago. And it’s worth commending the United States for taking the lead on mobilizing international support and helping us with the supply of artillery, for example, and other weapons. And this function and format set by set up by Secretary of Defense. It’s working. So big thanks to the Biden Administration, to Secretary Austin, Secretary Blinken for making it all happen. But there is never a moment in the war when you can say, ‘Okay, we did our best this is it’. As long as the war continues, it means that more needs to be done.
So now we’re facing a big issue with the critical lack of multiple launch rocket systems. Russia has plenty of them and they cover squares of our territory with fire, killing and destroying everything. So we need these weapons as soon as possible. We are desperately waiting for them to arrive. On the financial front, our economy is suffering more from the Russian destruction and Russian attacks than the Russian economy suffers from sanctions. I’m not trying to say the sanctions are useless, but as long as Russia makes money on selling oil and gas, their pockets are pretty full. So we also need macro-financial assistance to help the country running, to keep the country afloat. And the third element is actually sanctions. As I mentioned, Russia feels pretty comfortable with current oil and gas prices. And we have to seriously reconsider the sanctions policy.
Q: Do you believe you’re making any progress on that in terms of your European counterparts? Hungary, obviously being the major holdout when it comes to sanctioning Russian oil for now.
A: There are two ways to approach sanctions. The first one is to say okay, we will focus on oil and seek ways how to stop the purchase of Russian oil. There is another way you can do a more in-depth analysis and come to a conclusion, for example, that the vast majority of Russian oil sold to the global market is carried by maritime means – so by vessels. So if you tell the shipping industry that everyone carrying Russian oil anywhere in the world will face problems that will mean a big issue.
Q: So sanction the shipping industry?
A: I was very constructive and engaging and always trying to understand the concerns of partners when it came to sanctions. But now, after three months of fighting, my message is very simple. Kill Russian exports, except some critical items that the West needs, but we need a broad strategy aimed not at blocking this or this, but the strategic purpose should be kill Russian exports. Stop buying from Russia, stop allowing them to make money which they then invest in the war machine that destroys, kills, rapes, and tortures people in Ukraine.
Q: Let’s talk about the money a bit, because we are here at the World Economic Forum. Just a few days ago, President Zelenskyy, essentially saying that we needed as much as $500 billion to rebuild Ukraine. That was in some estimates, a conservative estimate, frankly. But when you talk about that kind of money, you know a year ago when we would talk about Ukraine, we’d talk about it as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, a country run by oligarchs. Today, though everybody’s a hero. But folks here at the Forum, who understand money have real concerns about that kind of cash going to Ukraine, how it’s going to be used, how it will be deployed, and whether or not it’s going to just end up in the pockets of an oligarch. How do you respond to that?
A: Maybe guys here at the Forum are as wrong on corruption, as on their estimate that Ukraine will not survive three days because the Ukrainian army is corrupt, everything is corrupt and they will fail. I think the best evidence of the fact that the issue of corruption in Ukraine is exaggerated, is actually the fact that we’re still fighting. If we had an incapable state, run by oligarchs and corrupt from the bottom up. We would not have sustained pressure, we would not have been sitting here and talking. I think we are in the moment when we all cannot allow ourselves to be honest with each other. And if people are saying, wow, we underestimated you on your capacity to defend yourself, perhaps the same people have to reconsider their stance on the scale and the threat of corruption in Ukraine. To be back on the track that everyone likes, when Ukraine is covering its head with ashes, recognizes all of its disadvantages and everyone else is sitting and appreciating this act of self-humiliation. I can say that of course, we are open to building all necessary mechanisms that will ensure transparency and efficiency of the use of costs that will be allocated for the reconstruction of Ukraine. What we want to avoid, in particular, is also that some of this money will be lost on the way to Ukraine, because of the numerous intermediaries involved in the financial model. And this is why you know, for example, take the European Union, they are providing us with macro-financial assistance – $1.2 billion – goes straight to the budget. Right? Would they be doing it if they had no trust in us? Now, this is a big amount of money for us, $1.2 billion.
Q: True, but you already have the Germans, for example, pushing back on the idea of taking on debt to rebuild Ukraine. They’re essentially saying we can’t ask our taxpayers at a time when oil prices, gas prices, are through the roof to take on debt for rebuilding Ukraine. So you’ve already had difficulties there in terms of how much money you think you’re going to end up getting?
A: I totally agree with you and I don’t think that American, German or any other taxpayer in the world has to pay for what Russia did. There is an alternative way to recover Ukraine, it’s to make Russia pay for it.
Q: And we’re talking about the seizure of assets?
A: Absolutely – seizure and transfer. And this is why the European Commission has recently come up with certain initiatives on how to create the legal framework for that. Canada passed a piece of law that allows not only the seizure of assets, but also the transfer of those assets to the projects associated with the recovery of Ukraine – make Russia pay for it. Why is everyone trying to be merciful to Russia? Why are some countries or some leaders or some politicians concerned that we we should not go too far in putting pressure on Russia? Putin betrayed even those who tried to help him by launching a large-scale, full, open aggression against a sovereign country. The aggression that will go into textbooks, as the most apparent example of an aggression of one country against another. Make Russia pay for it.
Q: There’s a counter-narrative which is that President Biden, of course, has called President Putin a war criminal. There are those in this room and there are those attending this Forum, in countries in the Middle East, India, the broader world beyond the West, who would say actually, it’s President Zelenskyy that’s the criminal for continuing a war that is killing his own people and costing the world a heck of a lot of money because now we’re not just talking about inflation, stagflation, the possibility of recession, we’re also talking about an energy crisis, as you know, that’s been ongoing for a long time and famine. How do you respond to that?
A: One has to be a political pervert, to put blame on Ukraine for continuing to fight against the country that attacked it, against the army that committed unspeakable atrocities in Ukraine, and against the country that basically challenged the entire rules-based order. What we have now is the permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, who possesses nuclear weapons, attacked another founding member of the United Nations – a sovereign country – for no good reason. And is trying to destroy it, denying the right of this country to exist.
Now today, we saw the statement by the Russian official from the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, who said, for example, Russia will unblock Ukrainian ports to allow exports of Ukrainian agricultural products to the global market, if sanctions imposed against Russia are lifted. So this is clear blackmail. You could not find a better example of blackmail in international relations. If anyone is buying it. I think there is a problem with the person and we shouldn’t waste too much time trying to understand why that person is making that point.
Q: I understand what you say, but does the whole world have to pay for the fact that Ukraine refuses to give up territory to Vladimir Putin? By famine, by higher energy costs?
A: I think that we live in a world where everyone can make their own choice on what to do and what not to do. Some countries believed in the beginning of this war that this will never affect us. This is just Russia and Ukraine, this is their affair. Now some of these countries are already feeling the pressure of the food crisis and they feel the repercussions of this war on them. And this is only the beginning. And if we allow President Putin to continue his military madness, the crisis will go deeper and deeper. Because let me just explain one thing where we’re heading to, if Russia does not lift its blockade.
So if we did not export our crops currently stored in the territory of Ukraine, we will soon harvest another crop. We will bring it and put it next to the current storage which are full. And while there will be a food crisis unfolding in some parts of the world, Ukrainian grain will be getting rotten under open skies. Now, if this problem is not resolved, Ukrainian farmers will not plant another crop. And the whole agricultural cycle in Ukraine will be interrupted and that will mean a multi-year food crisis. Now, if anyone tries to say that it’s Ukraine to blame for fighting for each other. It’s the same thing as you see a criminal and the victim was fighting for survival. And you blame the victim for fighting too much.
Q: There’s just been a report in the press that Vladimir Putin has decided to lift the retirement age of the military, essentially say that he can keep more people in the military for longer. In terms of what’s happening back at home, how would you assess the strength of Russia’s military capabilities today? Because they’re undoubtedly lethal.
A: They’re extremely strong when it comes to ground heavy weapons. Artillary, military, multiple launch rocket systems, all kinds of radio jamming, tanks, but not because they are more advanced than other similar weapons in the world, but because they have a certain quantity of them that they can throw on us one wave after another. The morale of the Russian soldiers is very low. They don’t understand what they’re fighting for. But if you imagine a trench with Ukrainian soldiers who hold the ground, one attack after another but on the other side, there are commanders who send more and more soldiers and tanks and artillery and helicopters into the battle, you cannot win, if you do not get sufficient amount of heavy weapons to oppose them. One day or sooner or later, they will break the line. And this is the risk.
Q: Do you see President Putin, like Stalin before him, willing to use his own people as cannon fodder?
A: This is a difference between us and them. We care for human life and he doesn’t. I think it’s one of the conceptual differences between Ukrainians and Ukrainian and Russian systems. For him human life is nothing, whether it be a Russian soldier or Ukrainian civilian, and not to mention Ukrainian soldiers, of course. And that’s why Donbas now, for example, we hold the position, our soldiers repel attack, killed dozens of Russian soldiers, there is another wave coming, they killed them. And instead of changing the tactics, Russian commanders order more and more of their soldiers to go into the battle.
Q: What about the loss, eventually, of public support? When Ukraine is not necessarily on front page news anymore? It’s not leading the news in the evenings or in the day. It’s not on Instagram. It’s not on Twitter. You’ve been very, very active on social media. And that’s no doubt helped your cause. But when you think about what happens next, look at Syria.
A: I understand that we all live in a big TV show and the situation to a large extent depends on what people see on television and on their social media. And the difference between such people – and it’s hard to blame them – and us is that they can afford to get bored and we can’t. So, even if the entire world refocuses its attention to another catastrophe or another war or something, we will have to continue fighting whatever it costs, because this is the war for our existence as a nation, for our identity. That’s why you know, there’s no gray zone in this war. It’s either black or white. It’s black or white, and we’re the white ones.
Q: Donor fatigue. Are you already experiencing that? To a sense, at least with European counterparts or in the US?
A: Not really. I don’t I don’t see the fatigue. But some decisions take too much time
to make and the price for every delayed decision – be it Brussels, Berlin, Washington or any other capital is the loss of life and loss and loss of territory. So what seems to be just a decision-making process for some, is real blood, tears and suffering for us. I must tell you that since 24 February, we saw some revolutionary decisions made in Washington. And I remember calling Secretary Blinken one day and he said Dmytro, half of my day is signing different papers related to supplying weapons to you. And I will always remember what he did and what he keeps doing. I really appreciate that. But some countries were dragging their feet on the issue of supplying us with all the necessary weapons. We simply lost time and some small pieces of our territory. Allow me to be a diplomat, to remain a diplomat, at least here. But I can tell you honestly that often, quite often, we heard that, you know, countries are reluctant to give us certain weapons, because anyway it will take too long for Ukrainian soldiers to train how to use them. And therefore, this is not something urgent.
And at a certain point, I said to the foreign minister of one country, and I keep saying it every time I hear this argument, that guys, it takes much less time for Ukrainian soldiers to get trained on your weapons than for you to make a decision to hand over that weapon to us. But again, I don’t want to complain, this situation is much better compared to one month ago.
Q: President Macron continues to have a dialogue with President Putin. Do you believe that’s counterproductive? Can somebody be negotiating for Ukraine without Ukraine?
A: No one is negotiating for Ukraine without Ukraine. But I think the European political culture is based on the principle of dialogue. And President Macron called President Putin many times before the war, and we are still where we are. So he keeps calling him and talking with him. Fine. We do not see that he’s compromising us in his conversation with Putin. He believes this helps, he can continue doing it. He runs a sovereign nation and he does what he believes is the best, but we don’t see a lot of sense in it.
Q: And what about NATO today, talking now about Finland and about Sweden becoming a part of NATO. And President Putin, again and again, warned that if they were to take that decision, there would be problems, there would be repercussions. Now Turkey is a holdout at this point, but I’m told that that’s only a matter of time before they decide that they can be a part of NATO. What’s your take on that? Because when we first met at the end of last year, we talked about Ukraine’s ambitions for NATO and for Europe. And you said if we were part of NATO right now, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
A: Thank you for memorizing my words. That’s really nice of you. And yes, I can say it again. I believe that Sweden and Finland now understand Ukraine even better than they did because they know now how it feels when you’re trying to join the club and a member of the club is saying ‘I have questions, I have issues about that’. But seriously, I don’t think Putin has any serious leverage to prevent Finland or Sweden from becoming members of NATO.
And that once again proves that the whole discourse about Ukraine not being ready or NATO not being ready not based on specific merits. It’s based on the political understanding of who belongs with us and who doesn’t. NATO is about to absorb a country that has many 100 kilometers of joint border with Russia, right next to St. Petersburg, and no one is taking care of all the arguments that Putin is making about the speed of the missile and the vicinity of the NATO military base to the capital of Russia. When it comes to Ukraine, the moment you raise the issue you needed to hear hundreds of arguments why this is impossible. Hundreds. People were saying our army is not ready. Look at our army, it’s now the strongest army in Europe – I mean, among the European nations, we do not compete with the Americans for obvious reasons. NATO standards. We are fighting a war against someone who is much bigger than us. We are more successful than anyone expected. So all these technical discussions about standards, criteria, once there is a political decision that these guys belong to us, we are part of the same, everything else follows. As long as there is no such political decision, you are hearing hundreds of arguments why this is impossible. We understand how this business works. But I believe that many in NATO lost moral and professional grounds to make any comments with regard to Ukraine.
Q: Do you believe that you will ever be part of NATO?
A: Now I’m focused on something completely different. We are focused on winning the war. And, you know, my people criticize me for saying that. NATO did nothing since the beginning of the war. And my experts, my NATO experts, they say I have to be more constructive. But I am constructive.
My point is very simple. We see allies helping Ukraine out. With this group of allies, NATO allies, helping us. But, in the beginning of the war, the people of Ukraine it was a public sentiment they believed that NATO is a strong force and EU is only capable of expressing different various levels of concern – and that’s it. The war is always a test that rips masks off. And we all saw real faces. What we saw are some revolutionary groundbreaking decisions taken by the European Union, which even they themselves did not expect to make. And we see NATO as an alliance, as an institution, sidelined and doing literally nothing. I’m sorry to say. I do not complain on allies.
Q: Do you see them as irrelevant?
A: No, I think it’s actually the decision of the allies themselves. Not to allow NATO as an institution to act under the circumstances, because of their concerns, which they have NATO and Russia at war, all this stuff. But again, when it comes to accommodating Finland and Sweden, no one is making the point that this increases the risk of NATO and Russia coming to war with each other. So there is an element of hypocrisy in this – I understand that this is life. We as a country, you know, we spend 30 years fighting prejudices and stereotypes in attitudes towards Ukraine, so I can live with it. Don’t get me wrong, I think NATO is important. The integration of Ukraine to NATO is part of our Constitution. Jens Stoltenberg as Secretary General is a man who really does his best. But we see that the circumstances are not the good ones for for NATO to show its best. And therefore we can speak openly about the status quo.
Q: I want to ask you about oil and the OPEC plus group. Do you believe that they have made the right decision to continue to include Russia as part of that alliance?
A: In the first two months of the war, I became an expert in weapons and I spent the last month of the war becoming an expert in oil and global oil market. I think it’s complicated. I think that the oil thing is more complicated than people think. And the issue now, in my view, is not in the amount of oil available on the market, but in the logistical capacity of the global market to restructure itself to the new reality we are facing. And I’m still trying to understand this market in all details, which will help me to come to a judgment on the position of one country or OPEC plus as a message as an organization.
Q: So your message to them?
A: My message to them is very simple. First, if you’re making extra profits because of the high prices, the only reason for that is because Ukraine is suffering, because it’s the war, the Russian aggression, that brought this change.
Second, work with Europe to help them overcome current difficulties with oil and gas. Because I think one of the lessons that Europe learned since 24 February, is that Russia uses oil and gas as a weapon. For many decades, Russia’s strategy was to convince everyone in Europe that they are reliable suppliers. This is not the case anymore. And I think that the Europeans realized that they cannot trust Russia and they want to diversify, so it’s really important for other countries who belong to OPEC, except Russia, of course, to help Europe restructure its energy balance, and solve at least some of the issues that are solvable. That’s what I would want them to focus on. This situation now is ridiculous because what is happening is the following, Europe is allocating huge amount of money to help Ukraine on a federal track. They pay even more to Russia – for gas and oil. Russia is investing this money into its war machine. This war machine inflicts more damage on Ukraine and the Europeans are allocating even more money to mitigate the consequences of this war. So it’s a vicious circle, that has to be broken.
Q: Is there a point when you believe that Ukraine will start exporting its own energy and I’m talking about electricity? Because I understand that that’s tied up in the parliament?
A: Yes, this is one of the good things happening. There are very few good things happening in the Ukrainian economy, I have to be frank with you. But one of the good things is that the European Union accepted us as part of the joint electricity grid. I think we are kind of one month away from actually becoming a participant on the market. For example, in two weeks, I will be seeing foreign ministers of some European countries with whom we will be discussing the export of Ukrainian electricity to the EU market because we make EU electricity grid more sustainable. And this is a win situation for both Ukraine and the European Union. And then when it comes to exports, I don’t think we will ever become exporters of gas, not to mention oil because we produce gas but not oil in sufficient quantities. But I think we should seriously look into renewables, especially green hydrogen. The European Union sees us as the production facility for green hydrogen. And this is something that we will definitely be able to export once all the necessary infrastructure is put in place.
Q: Your Excellency, before I let you go, at the conclusion of most of our interviews – and I think we’ve spoken about four times prior to the invasion and since then – I often ask you, do you believe that this is a war that you can win? And you’ve consistently told me, not only will we win, but we must win? What’s your assessment today of how long President Putin can keep this up? Because wars are expensive, his military not doing that well? But as you say, he continues to just throw people into the cannon’s mouth. But there are economic and social and, frankly, even bigger than that, world consequences for what he’s doing.
A: This war is a war of sustainability. Putin believes that we will collapse before he does – I mean, we as a country. We can not allow ourselves to think about timelines. This is definitely not the case. Because as I said, this is the war for our existence and for our identity. It’s not just an economic conflict or piece of land or a source of revenue. This is a war for identity. This is the war between Russia as a state and the people of Ukraine and I think it’s impossible to win the war against the people.
Q: No end in sight?
A: One of my favorite sayings is that if you see the light at the end of the tunnel, make sure it’s not the light from an oncoming train. So there’s always something in the sight, but I’m not sure whether it’s the end or the oncoming train.
Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine
This article is republished and originally appeared in the World Economic Forum.