MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Ukraine, the weekend came and went, along with Vladimir Putin's self-proclaimed cease-fire, except there were, in fact, no signs of a cease-fire. Instead, both Russia and Ukraine accused the other of continuing to launch attacks. Ukraine had never agreed to the cease-fire, arguing it was just a Russian excuse to regroup. So where do things go from here, both on the battlefield and on the diplomatic front? Well, I want to bring in the man in charge of Ukraine's diplomacy. That would be Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. He's in Kyiv. Foreign Minister, good to speak with you again. Happy New Year.
DMYTRO KULEBA: Thank you.
KELLY: Let's begin with this cease-fire that did not, in fact, happen. On the contrary, Russia is claiming they killed 600 Ukrainian soldiers over the weekend in an attack on Kramatorsk. I know your government is denying this, says there were no casualties. Is that right?
KULEBA: Well, these are two big Russian lies. The one on the cease-fire working - it's not only the government of Ukraine who rejects this allegation. It's also the international media present on the ground in Kramatorsk, who immediately went to the places where allegedly Russian missiles hit dormitories with Ukrainian soldiers. And it didn't happen. These soldiers did not die. So it's just one - another evidence that you should never trust what the Russians are saying.
KELLY: I wonder if Vladimir Putin's strategy is becoming more clear to you. I'm remembering the first time I interviewed you, it was a year ago, and there were more than 100,000 Russian troops lined up on your border. They had not yet crossed at that point. But I remember discussing with you that Putin was good at keeping his options open, that maybe he didn't even quite know what his next move might be. Do you think that is still true?
KULEBA: Oh, I think we were - we miscalculated him. By the time he was pulling all this army to the border of Ukraine, deep inside, he made the decision that he was going to invade, and he was setting the stage for this invasion. But, you know, we are looking back in this situation, and now we can understand the sequence and the logic of his actions. Things were not as clear as they look now back when you and I were sitting down in Kyiv and talking. If I look at the battlefield and the situation now, I think that Putin doesn't have too many options. In fact, I think he has only one option, but he doesn't want to accept it. And that option is losing the war. The difficulty and the tragedy of this moment is that he is not willing to face the truth and to seek the way out. Instead, he's throwing more and more resources and, most importantly, human resources into the battle, trying to win at any cost. But this is not going to happen. He's not going to win.
KELLY: Let's talk about what winning looks like from your point of view. I want to get to the diplomacy in a moment. But to stay with the battlefield, what counts as victory for Ukraine as of now?
KULEBA: Well, point one is restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, not a square...
KELLY: You mean to include Crimea.
KULEBA: I have to - you know, I always ask journalists to not ask me this about include Crimea. And the reason for that is very simple - because for us, there is no difference between Crimea and Donbas. There is no difference between Kherson and Simferopol or Yalta, cities in Crimea. And when you make this point, including Crimea, you kind of single it out as if it was something special while it's not. It's just another part of Ukraine that was stolen by Russia - as simple as that. And, yes, we're talking about the restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity, including every square inch of our soil.
KELLY: So point taken. But as you know, the Pentagon here in the U.S. says that's not likely to happen, at least militarily. General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have said a Ukrainian military victory, if you're defining that as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine, including Donbas, including Crimea - he says, and I'm quoting, the probability of that happening any time soon is not high militarily.
KULEBA: Yes, I understand that. But we always have to remember that the probability of Ukraine surviving the Russian invasion and the probability of you and me talking in January 2023 was even less likely, was even lower than the one you're mentioning.
KELLY: You're saying Ukraine has outperformed all expectations so far. Why not keep going?
KULEBA: Ukraine has outperformed even its own expectations.
KELLY: So let's turn to the diplomacy. I saw where recently you talked about how you hoped to have a peace summit toward the end of February, preferably at the United Nations, maybe with Secretary-General Guterres as a possible mediator. I'm trying to square that, the idea of Russia coming to the table, with what you have just told me about how you perceive Russia continuing to fight and continuing to attack. Do you see any signs of Russia being willing to come to the negotiating table?
KULEBA: Not at this point. In fact, we see that they are rejecting the peace formula proposed by President Zelenskyy. But it doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep trying. We have to pursue a diplomatic process as well. And this is what President Zelenskyy came up with, this formula consisting of 10 simple steps. Some of them require Russia's participation. Some don't. Russia may like it or may not like it, but it's about building a coalition, a coalition of countries who are willing to seek a diplomatic solution along the lines proposed by President Zelenskyy.
KELLY: Foreign minister, I want to put to you the same question that I put to you the first time I interviewed you a year ago. I asked you to make the case why was it in the national security interests of the United States to help you, to help Ukraine, fight this fight. And I want to put it to you again today because, as you know, some Americans, including some members of Congress, grow weary of sending so much money to Ukraine when we have so many problems of our own in America. So make the case for why that aid should continue.
KULEBA: Because if Ukraine loses, the world in which the United States plays such an important role will begin to fall apart; because if Ukraine loses countries, some malign actors across the world will prefer to follow the Russian path and to take the same risks, to invade, to commit atrocities, to destroy trade. And this is everything that the United States had defended over decades and centuries of its foreign policy.
KELLY: And to be clear, this is however long it takes. If you and I are having this conversation again in January 2024, the case remains the same.
KULEBA: Hopefully not. But...
KELLY: Hopefully not, no, indeed.
KULEBA: Yeah. It's up for the U.S. government and other partners of Ukraine to make their decisions on how long they are going to support us. But we have made our choice. We have made a decision. We are going to fight against an invader as long as we can breath.
KELLY: Dmytro Kuleba. He is the foreign minister of Ukraine, speaking to us from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv. Dmytro Kuleba, thank you. It's a pleasure to speak with you again.
KULEBA: Thank you, Mary Louise - all the best to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAM EVIAN SONG, "CAROLINA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.