Deputy PM Kuleba: Ukraine is not Russia’s buffer

Dmytro Kuleba, 6 November, Brussels [Photo: Georgi Gotev]

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, discussed the chances of holding a Normandy-type summit, the upcoming NATO summit and strategies for his country to come closer to the EU, in this wide-ranging interview.

Dmytro Kuleba is a career diplomat. In 2013, he left the civil service to head the UART Foundation for Cultural Diplomacy. He has been the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the Council of Europe between 2016 and 2019. In December 2017 he was named the Best Ambassador of the Year by the Washington-based Institute of World Politics. He is the Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration since 29 August 2019.

He spoke to EURACTIV Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

Congratulations for your recent appointment and welcome to Brussels! Will there be a Normandy format summit soon?

We will see. The Normandy summit was initially scheduled for September. Then it was postponed for October. Now we want to have it in November. The Russian side always has new ideas or preconditions for ‘Normandy’. Ukraine proceeds from the fact that having such a meeting is absolutely essential because the four leaders have to get together. Two of them are completely new, President Macron and Prezident Zelenskiy. They do not have this kind of personal background story, them going back to 2014 and 2015, where the Minsk agreements were concluded. So we work hard on having this meeting in November. But the final decision rests with our Russian colleagues.

Ukraine peace drive hits first bump, but Moscow says ‘Normandy’ summit possible

Ukraine on Wednesday (9 October) refused to pull back troops in its restive east, saying for the second time this week that continued shelling by pro-Russian separatists there precluded the implementation of a disengagement agreement.


There have been protests in Kyiv and there is a perception that maybe because he’s new to politics, President Zelenskiy can be in a way bullied by Vladimir Putin and accept the so-called Steinmeier formula, or in any case, get a bad deal at the summit. How do you respond to such views?

Thousands rally in Kyiv to protest the 'Steinmeier formula' for eastern Ukraine

Thousands of people gathered in Kyiv’s main square on Sunday (6 October) to protest against President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s deal with Moscow to grant autonomy to Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebel-held east as part of efforts to end a five-year conflict there.

Well, I joined the President’s team, I joined the Government of Ukraine in September only, so I do not have an experience of working with the president before that time. But from what I’ve seen so far, the President is first, absolutely committed to defending territorial integrity and the sovereign right of Ukraine to decide its own future. Second, he has all skills necessary to be efficient in negotiations. I was present in a number of negotiations and I saw him in action, and I’m happy with what I’ve seen. And third, if anyone tries to bully him, he has a very powerful weapon against that, it’s his excellent sense of humor. So if President Putin tries to bully my president, I’m sure that President Putin will lose the game because the joke with the President will respond with will be far more powerful and stronger than President Putin’s attempt of bullying.

Is it embarrassing for the new president to have been involved with the telephone conversation of the 25 July, where allegedly, President Trump asked for an investigation on the Biden family?

It’s not about the embarrassment. Our partners and friends, which is the United States of America as a whole, have a domestic issue, it’s a domestic political issue. Unfortunately, we became part of it. But we do not play any role in this situation and we wish our friends and partners in America to come out of this crisis as soon as possible.

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To your knowledge has Ukraine investigated Biden Jr.’s dealings while he was in your country?

First, I’m not aware of it, because this is not part of my direct mandate, I mean bilateral relations with the United States. And second, even if I was aware, I would refrain from commenting on it because I don’t want to add oil into the fire.

On the NATO Summit in London: I think this is the time decisions could be made, including on North Macedonia, if the ratification of this country’s membership is completed. How about Ukraine? Are you going to press for joining the Membership Action Plan (MAP)?

Well, I think NATO has unintentionally misled public audience on the format of their gathering in December in London, because initially their gathering was planned as the organisation’s summit. But then the format of the summit was changed to the format of the meeting – high level meeting of leaders. For an ordinary person, it means nothing but for a diplomat it means a change of the status of the event and that new status does not provide for any opportunities, or any special formats of presence of partners of NATO. At this high level gathering.

So President Zelenskiy is not going?

No, it’s not about not going. It’s about NATO gathering on its own, without partners. Yes, if this format had envisaged the participation of partners, the presidents and President Zelenskiy would indeed go and attend the meeting, but the format as such does not envisage presence of partners. I would like to reiterate that Ukraine is committed to continue its Euro-Atlantic integration. We included this into the program of our government and it’s an official public commitment of the government endorsed by the parliament to meet accession criteria within five years, we had an extremely successful visit of the North Atlantic Council to Odessa in Kyiv just a week ago. And we had an extremely successful meeting of the Ukraine-NATO Commission under the leadership of the President of Ukraine and Secretary General Stoltenberg. The president made it very clear. Ukraine keeps moving forward to NATO membership,

Why do you target readiness for NATO and the EU in five years? Wouldn’t it be safer to achieve them under the mandate of this President? Five years sounds like ‘Inshallah if Mr. Zelinskiy is reelected’…

Actually no one is criticising us for that. Some criticise us saying that five years is not enough, that we need more time, but we in the government believe that, if we are committed, if we have sufficient resources we can achieve, we can meet those criteria within five years. And the same applies by the way to the EU, [fulfilling] the Copenhagen criteria, the goal is also five years. The entire programme is designed for five years, all ministries have undertaken commitments and have set goals for them for the upcoming five years.

Is it correct to say that the government has to face a pro-Russian and a pro-Western opposition and possibly some critics of the government think you are too ambitious regarding NATO, while the other say that you are not ambitious enough?

Well, Ukraine is a lively democracy. And of course, we have plenty of views and opinions on how ambitious Ukraine should be on this or that, or other track. My point that I communicate to all factions in the parliament, all of them, I might have my personal sympathy or my personal disrespect to some specific members of the Parliament for what they’re doing or stating, but I do respect them as people who are elected by the people of Ukraine. And my message to all of them is the same, whether it’s the governing party or the opposition of any kind. European integration of Ukraine should stay above domestic turmoil, conflicts and political struggle. This is something that should unite us because European integration is what brings the people of Ukraine together. We have data showing that the support for Ukrainian membership in the EU is permanently growing. On NATO, it’s more complicated. But if you look at the polls you can also easily see that the number of people who support Ukraine’s membership in NATO is growing, including in eastern Ukraine, where the most obvious opposition to NATO had been registered before. And we should thank Russia for that. They helped us a lot. Because the best arguments in favor of joining NATO is the presence of occupying army on your territory.

How do you respond to those in the West, even in the United States, who say Ukraine should not become a member of NATO because Russia needs its buffers?

Well, I wish they can be the buffers themselves for Russia. We are not a buffer for Russia. We are part of Western civilisation. We are part of Europe. And we made our choice. We are moving towards full membership of the EU and NATO. I do not care whether the EU and NATO are ready to accept us right now or in the short-term perspective, but I see no strategic objections to membership within mid- and long-term perspective. Thinking in terms of buffer, I mean this is a nice discussion for a think-tank or for politicians of certain segments of the political spectrum. But in my conversations, even the most confidential conversations that I had, I have never heard a suggestion that we should be a buffer between Russia and the rest of the world. Moreover, I think we should not overestimate Russia, in its current form. If you look, for example, at the trade volumes of Ukraine, the European Union is the biggest trade partner of Ukraine as a community of states. And China is the biggest trade partner of Ukraine as a single country. It’s not Russia.

It means the flows of goods have changed completely since Maidan.

Yes, and it all happened in the last five years. It’s a revolution in itself. It is something that no one could expect to have happened at such a high speed.

Even speaking about energy, your minister said recently that, if necessary, Ukraine can stop transiting and importing Russian gas.

No, he said something different, in my view. He said that Ukraine is ready for a situation when Russia stops transiting its gas through Ukraine. We play hand in hand with the European Union in this whole story. We voluntarily adopt EU legislation in the energy sector. We have the annex to the Association Agreement that obliges Ukraine to consult with the European Union on draft laws in the energy sector. The strategy of Ukraine is to integrate our energy sector into the EU energy market as soon as possible. So we cannot work against our strategic partners. And say that we will stop transiting Russian gas, we will never do because we follow the rules. We play by the rules, by the EU rules. But at the same time partners here in Brussels understand that Russia may stop transiting gas because this is the strategy of Russia, to outplay Ukraine in gas transit and to send gas through different streams. So the minister said, what minister meant is that it is, it will be a damaging, a bad thing if Russia decides not to transit gas through Ukraine but Ukraine is ready for that scenario. And our colleagues in the European Commission share that understanding.

Ukraine ready in case transit of Russian gas stops

Ukraine is ready for the gas transportation being stopped on the Ukrainian territory in case a new gas transit contract with Moscow is not negotiated, Ukraine’s Energy Minister Oleksiy Orzhel announced on Monday (4 November). The current gas contract expires on 31 December.


There was a meeting in Sweden of the countries of the Eastern Partnership. Your country, together with Georgia and Moldova, wish to have an ‘additional format’ to the Eastern Partnership. Can you explain?

The idea is simple. We have the Eastern Partnership where six countries are brought together. Now among those six countries, three have Association Agreements format within the Eastern Partnership.

These countries declared that they want to join the European Union.

Yes, and three other countries [Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus] do not want that. So our idea is simple. We appreciate the mechanism of the Eastern Partnership. We’re not big fans of it, but, okay, we accept it and appreciate what it’s doing. But then let’s bring it closer to reality. And the reality is simple. You have to split, to differentiate three countries inside the Eastern Partnership from the rest from three other countries. And so, we have this notion of ‘Association trio.’ And the European Union can easily differentiate us by offering us specific joint projects which will bring us closer to the EU and which will serve the purposes of integration. For example, free roaming. The EU potentially can establish free roaming with three associated countries. Through the mechanisms of, mobile roaming I mean, through the mechanism of Eastern Partnership. Or joint infrastructural projects like transport projects through Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. These are the things which could be done for three associated countries. We do not try to break up the Eastern Partnership, but we want Eastern Partnership to meet reality and to help serve the purposes of association and integration.

What’s your reaction to the recent European summit where it was not possible for the leaders to agree on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania? Some consider it as the end of EU enlargement.

It is a very upsetting mistake that we hope will be corrected. I’m confident that it is against the strategic interests of the European Union to slow down enlargement, especially in the context of global struggle for power, where the European Union has to mobilise as many resources as possible to get higher stakes in the global struggle between the United States, China, India and other players. The Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia are natural parts of the European strategy, of the EU strategy to play big in the world, and I do not see why we should be considered otherwise. Everything else, you know, these tactical considerations of why EU should not launch negotiations with North Macedonia or Albania defeat the big strategic goal of having a stronger EU as bigger player globally.

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President Macron delivered his annual speech to the French ambassadors in which he mentioned Russia more than 20 times and Ukraine not a single time. He also appears to have big geopolitical ideas about much better relations for Russia in the future. Isn’t this strategy one of the reasons why North Macedonia was not offered the start of accession negotiations although they were promised such a reward, having changed their name and their constitution?

Well, I think the best way to answer your question is to address it to President Macron or French officials. We have very deep relationship with France. President Macron is part of the Normandy format. There are issues where we may disagree, but there are many issues where we agree with France and appreciate its support. I’m planning a visit to France to talk with French colleagues to better understand their kind of line of thinking and where they stand on this.

Are you going to ask them a question similar to the one I asked?

Yes, absolutely. Why shouldn’t I? I mean, the question is simple. What do you have on your mind? What is your strategy? What is behind this or that decision? We have to talk. We are partners. We’re friends, we have to talk openly about these issues. And they will be asking some questions in response, because they may also have questions about some developments in Ukraine and I’m ready to answer. We have to talk and I do not see the reason why we should shy away from an open and frank conversation.

Basically, your strategy, both for NATO and for the European Union, is no matter what happens on the EU side, is for you to get ready.

We keep moving forward. And we will be ready for the moment when the opportunity comes.

So what will happen in five years, you will be ready for both organisations or you will fulfill the Copenhagen criteria for membership?

In five years we want to meet the accession criteria. I want to visit Brussels and say: guys, we are ready. It’s your turn.

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