Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba criticized the Israeli response to the Russian invasion of his country in an interview with Haaretz, saying that mediation efforts are no substitute for aid and that Israelis have “forgotten that [they] too were once rejected,” in a critique of the country's refugee policy.
Kuleba, 40, is one of the youngest top diplomats in his country’s history. He began his career at the Foreign Ministry in Kyiv at the age of 22, and two years later had already completed a doctorate in international law. Before being appointed to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s cabinet, he was responsible for promoting Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union and NATO – the latter being one of the reasons Putin is believed to have launched his deadly assault on Ukraine – which has killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.
Speaking with Haaretz by video call from his fortified headquarters in Kyiv, wearing sweats and a vest with the logo of the Dynamo Kyiv soccer club, Kuleba discussed the massacre in Bucha, the forced movement of Ukrainians to Russia, negotations with Moscow, and Israel’s role in mediation efforts.
Face-to-face talks between Ukraine and Russia ended two weeks ago with statements that provided grounds for optimism. Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have claimed that Ukraine has partially backed off of its offers, such as the offer to exclude the Crimean Peninsula and the city of Sevastopol from the areas where international security guarantees are to be implemented. What’s happening with the negotiations now? Are there plans for further face-to-face meetings anytime soon?
“Even as we’re speaking, Ukrainian and Russian experts are on a video conference call. But unfortunately, there’s no significant progress in the negotiations. After Putin’s latest statements, we understand they aren’t seeking real progress unless the outcomes of the fighting in Donbas improve for Russia.
“All the signs say Russia is concentrating now on the military scenario. The talks haven’t been stopped, but they’re on standby. They continue taking place to maintain the process. Real progress will be possible only based on the results of the Donbas offensive.”
Since the beginning of the month, documentation of widespread destruction and mass slaughter in towns in Kyiv Oblast, like Bucha, has circulated on every form of media possible. The images of bodies strewn in the streets and witness testimony – which raise a clear suspicion of Russian war crimes – have shocked the world.
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Given the evidence from Bucha and the missile strike on the train station in Kramatorsk, many people have said Ukraine is the one that will have trouble resuming negotiations. But Zelenskyy holds that negotiations remain the only option for ending the war. Do you think Ukrainian politics and public opinion will let you make any significant concessions – for instance, giving up Crimea and Donbas, or maybe even all of Donetsk and Luhansk?
“We have to alter the perspective. I tell our Western partners this and I’ll tell you, too. Ever since 2014, when people start talking about solving the conflict, the first thing everyone says is ‘What’s Ukraine willing to concede?’ They tell us, ‘Make this concession and Russia will be more constructive. Make another concession and Russia won’t launch a war.’ Now Russia has launched a war, and they’re still telling us what we need to concede.
“Why do we need to make any concessions? Why does the conversation start with the concessions Ukraine needs to make? We have to turn this story around. We have to talk about the concessions Russia needs to make.
“Russia is 100 percent responsible for everything that’s happening. Even countries traditionally friendly to Russia admit that this time it crossed all the lines. So we’re ready for a reasonable dialogue, for reasonable, judicious decisions, but we refuse to start the conversation with the question of what Ukraine is willing to concede.”
If I spoke to a Russian diplomat, I would certainly ask what Russia is willing to concede. But since I’m speaking with you, I have to ask about the Ukrainian position.
“I thank you for the question; I hope Israelis and Israel’s political elite hear my answer.”
Since the Russian invasion on February 24, Kyiv has hinted on a number of occasions its willingness to give up its ambition to join NATO. However, Moscow has remained vague about its position on the possibility of Ukraine joining the European Union. In fact, the takeover of Crimea and the Russian invasion of Donbas in 2014 was the result of the Ukrainian people’s aim to get closer to the EU.
Could Ukraine give up on joining the EU?
“The European Union? No way. Never, under any circumstances ... We’re not even willing to discuss this question with Russia.”
Does Israel still play an important role in mediating between Ukraine and Russia? If so, what’s its role, in concrete terms?
“Of course we welcome any mediation effort, but it’s very important to us that the mediator’s role not be grounds for refusing to give any kind of aid to Ukraine ... If we see a country starting to abuse the term ‘mediator’ or the mediator’s role to avoid supporting Ukraine in the current situation, we don’t need such mediation.
“This isn’t an accusation against Israel’s government. But I’d like our position on this issue to be heard very clearly, because there’s a whole list of countries that are trying to depict themselves as mediators.”
Still, is Israel doing anything concrete now?
“I’m certain Israel is doing something concrete, but I don’t know of anything.”
How do you view Israel’s refusal to sell Ukraine weapons, including defensive ones like Iron Dome? And what’s your opinion of the welcome refugees have received in Israel, including the fact that Israel won’t accept relatives of Ukrainians working here? Ukraine’s ambassador has met with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked about this many times. Have there also been higher-level talks on this issue?
“Yes, I had a very good conversation with [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid ... But on the two issues you raised, I have a negative view – both about arms sales and the de facto restrictions on accepting refugees.
“Two and a half million Ukrainians have entered neighboring Poland. That’s a heavy burden, as you realize. But Poland’s government and citizens welcomed them with open arms, like family; they removed all restrictions. When Israel begins imposing restrictions on various pretexts – after all, it’s clear you won’t get even 100,000 – it doesn’t look very humane.
“The truth is, I have a question. The Jewish people experienced a moment in its past when it badly needed help to survive. And we all know how, at the start of World War II, some countries didn’t accept Jews; they said, ‘You understand, we have our own concerns, our own reasons.’ Incidentally, they were very rational reasons.
“Yet now, after experiencing this tragedy, when it knows the price of these polite refusals on various pretexts, Israel is imposing restrictions on Ukrainians, the friendly Ukrainian people. I don’t understand this ... What happened to you, that you’ve forgotten that you too were once rejected and many of you were murdered because of it? ... What happened to your politicians that they’ve forgotten how once, you weren’t let in so you could be saved and start life anew?
“Regarding arms, I understand very well that you have Syria next door, and Russia is actively playing this card. But the answer is very simple – a Russian victory over Ukraine would free its hands even further for operations in Syria and other places...
“If anyone thinks it’s possible now to gain anything through a friendlier stance toward Russia, he’s wrong. Russia is in a completely different phase – a phase of destruction. The more unified the front against it, the less damage and destruction will be caused not just to Ukraine, but also to other countries. Therefore, we’re fighting and will defeat Russia so that you won’t have to face even more aggressive Russian actions in Syria.”
Back to Ukraine. Comments by ordinary soldiers I’ve spoken with and hints by President Zelenskyy himself – including his statement that he suggested Mariupol’s defenders leave the city, but they refused – paint the following picture: The political leadership is Ukraine’s face overseas, but the war is being run by soldiers. So even if the political leadership wanted, for instance, to retreat from someplace or stop the fighting in a certain region, the army would keep going. Do you see the situation differently?
“We’re a democratic country. Our military personnel defend the homeland, they don’t play politics. If there’s an order, the soldiers will carry it out. But I reject the possibility of an order by the commander in chief, Ukraine’s president, or the commander of the armed forces that would contradict our country’s national interests. There are and will be no military juntas here.”
Mariupol isn’t just a scene of monstrous slaughter and tragedy, it’s a point of disagreement between the local and central government and between the army and the political leadership. Fighters in Mariupol are demanding action to lift the siege, but it’s not happening. Moreover, is the fierce resistance in Mariupol, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, even necessary? Is the price worth it?
“It’s very hard to bear the news from Mariupol. But there’s actually no disagreement. If we could lift the siege on Mariupol through a military assault, we’d do it. But Mariupol lies deep behind the front lines. To break through, we’d need certain kinds of weapons. Still, we’re exploring all options, which I can’t talk about publicly, to support our soldiers in Mariupol...
“Regarding the civilian population, from the first days of the war, we demanded and negotiated for Russia to open Mariupol for a complete evacuation of civilians. But there are constantly problems. What’s happening to civilians in Mariupol is a terrible tragedy, and the fact that our soldiers are being killed there is also a terrible tragedy.
“It’s impossible in one interview to answer your question about whether the price is worth it. I think Jews understand that if there’s a choice of whether to fight for your land or not, you always have to fight, and the people there are fighting for their land ... The price is high. But if the enemy takes your land, in the end, he’ll also take your people.”
Regarding Russia’s ‘expulsions’: I’ve spoken to several people who left Mariupol for Russia. As I understand it, nobody’s forcing them to stay there. They can cross the border to Europe and then return to Ukraine. Can this still be called ‘expulsion’ or ‘forcible transfer’? Do you have evidence of children being taken to Russia without their parents? Are you talking with Russia about the fate of the people who were taken there?
“Imagine you’re in a besieged city and the Russians come and say, ‘We won’t open a corridor to Ukraine, but we’ll open a corridor to Russia ... If you want to live, go’ ... It’s not that they were shoved onto buses with their hands tied. They were simply told, ‘We’ve organized an evacuation there, and there, you’ll leave safely; in the other direction, it’s a matter of luck. Maybe you’ll be shot at a checkpoint, maybe mortars will hit your car and kill you’ ...
“If you look at this as a whole, it’s unequivocally forcible transfer in a pretty wrapping. The goal is to create pictures of Ukrainians fleeing the Ukrainian nation for Russia ... Once they arrive, nobody needs them. They were used, and now they’re on their own.
“We’re trying to help them as much as possible ... I’ve instructed our ambassadors in Georgia and Armenia that if our citizens manage to reach those countries they must get maximal help in returning to Ukraine. We’ve also asked the Red Cross to ask Russia for a list of evacuees so we’ll at least know who’s there, so we can contact them and help them come home.”
Regarding children taken without their parents, Kuleba said he has no exact numbers. Lyudmila Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, has accused Russia of abducting 121,000 Ukrainian children, but this number can’t be verified.
In several cases, Ukrainian statements, including your own – for instance, about missiles launched at Babi Yar or the nuclear threat at Chernobyl – proved to be inaccurate or exaggerated. The same thing is happening now regarding the use of chemical weapons in Mariupol. Aren’t you afraid this will undermine international trust in Ukraine’s statements?
“The Ukrainian government hasn’t said chemical weapons were used in Mariupol. Ukrainians soldiers said a ‘poisonous substance’ was used, but they didn’t say it was chemical weapons ... Regarding Babi Yar, it was fired on [Babi Yar is a large section of Kyiv, and a nearby television statement was hit]...
“There’s a war going on, and swift responses and accurate assessments of the situation are critical. I think it’s better to be ready than to miss something ... But there was one case where we erred.”
Regarding El Al.
“Yes. I corrected my statement.”
What has your life looked like since February 24? How do you survive this crazy pace? Do you ever see your family?
“I don’t see my family. My children aren’t in Kyiv, my dogs aren’t in Kyiv. The only good thing about the war is I don’t have to wear a suit to work every day. For all the rest – life is full of fear and tension. But we’re coping, because we have no choice. We need to get through this and win.”