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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

"Welcome To Our Hell..." Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba Speaks

In a rare in-depth interview, Ukraine's top diplomat didn't hold back as he discussed NATO, EU candidacy, and the future of the war with Russia. He also reserves a special "thank you" for Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

Photo of Dmytro Kuleba, Foreign Minister of Ukraine at the summit of foreign ministers

Dmytro Kuleba, Foreign Minister of Ukraine attends the summit of foreign ministers of the G7 group of leading democratic economic powers.

Oleg Bazar

KYIV — This is the first major interview Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba has given. He spoke to the Ukrainian publication Livy Bereg about NATO, international assistance and confrontation with Russia — on the frontline and in the offices of the European Parliament.

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At 41, Kuleba is the youngest ever foreign minister of Ukraine. He is the former head of the Commission for Coordination of Euro-Atlantic Integration and initiated Ukraine's accession to the European Green Deal. The young but influential pro-European politician is now playing a complicated political game in order to attract as many foreign partners as possible to support Ukraine not only in the war, but also when the war ends.

The interview below has been edited for length.

How difficult was it to get EU candidate status?

The hardest thing is to find the right argument to explain to every skeptic that granting Ukraine the status of a candidate for EU membership must be done here and now. Because for the last 30 years, no one in the European Union actually talked about it seriously or thought about it.

And each [country] had to be approached in their own way, because the arguments in Germany were different from the arguments in the Netherlands. It was necessary to convey to the European politician, who basically lives according to plan for decades, “Look, you have been sticking to one position for 30 years, but, sorry, we have a month to completely change everything, to admit that all you said and did before was wrong.”

Just imagine the leaders of the countries who spoke with Zelensky or came to Kyiv over the past three months and said: “Listen, well, we are really on your side, but there will be no candidate status. Let's come up with some kind of semi-status, some combination... " And how do these leaders feel now? This was not a transformation; this was a real psychological turning point that happened to them. And bringing them to this turning point was the most difficult task.

Whose mind was the hardest to change?

The major skeptics never proposed to us half measures, because they were against it. They believed that something but nothing connected with a legally fixed promise of EU membership should be given to Ukraine. Such countries were the Netherlands and Germany. Despite the well-known notoriety of President Macron on Ukrainian Facebook, I must say that he played a significant role in, strange as it may sound to some, finding the right approach in communication with the German Chancellor.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi also played a very important role. Let me remind you that a month ago, leaving the meeting of the European Council, Draghi commented that he was the only leader of a major European state who directly supported candidate status for Ukraine. Then it flashed in the news and disappeared, but it's true. There was a meeting of the European Council. Everyone was silent, but Draghi took responsibility and said: "I support, I am in favor." He wanted to show that not only our traditional best friends – the Poles, Batlic states, and other countries — support the candidacy, but that there is a large country, traditionally considered more favorable to Russia, that made a strategic decision for itself.

When can we open the door to NATO, and will we do it at all?

I really want Ukraine to be a NATO member, but let's look at things sensibly, and not through the prism of religion. Ukraine is still on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration, but I do not see the potential in the near future for NATO to change its position, like the European Union, and begin to take concrete steps to ensure Ukraine's entry into the Alliance. The Secretary General of NATO, whom I have a lot of respect for, is a very cool leader, deeply committed to Ukraine and I am grateful to him for what he has done, but it was strategically decided that NATO would not be at the forefront in supporting Ukraine.

Instead, the so-called coalition of the willing was created including many NATO members. And they are the ones who really help. Therefore, we need to distinguish between assistance from the United States as a member of NATO and assistance from NATO, where all this is coordinated by the Secretariat and provided to us.

Photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during meeting

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda

Sarsenov Daniiar/Ukraine Preside/Planet Pix/Zuma

When you watched the news about Finland and Sweden being accepted into NATO, didn't you feel bitter that we should be in their place?

On the contrary, I smiled. I smiled for two reasons. Firstly, I am happy for the Swedes and Finns, and secondly, everything that individual partners told us about why Ukraine should not join NATO was simply nullified by the membership of Sweden and Finland. We were told: “We cannot expand towards the border; we will have a common border with Russia. Hey, this is... escalation.” Come on, they now have 2,000 kilometers of a common border and NATO will stand at the gates of St. Petersburg.

So, all these arguments about why Ukraine cannot be accepted into the Alliance have been nullified. I said that at the macro level, since Feb. 24, NATO has done nothing globally for Ukraine. NATO got offended. I understand them perfectly. I would also get offended if they said that about me. But I told our ambassador: Go and ask what exactly NATO as an alliance has done for Ukraine since Feb. 24 of this year. Not as individual allies, but as an institution.

The EU leaders and NATO members are the same countries, except for the USA, Great Britain and Turkey, which are quite loyal to us. Why does NATO as a unity behave this way? Those leaders who were skeptical about Ukraine's accession to the EU and those who do not see us in NATO are the same people.

The same, but not the same. NATO is an important story. We are absolutely for membership, as well as for Europe to be a calm and safe place. But after Feb. 24, we all need to face the truth, and move from religion to very practical things that are based on faith in the ability of people and states to change. There is no longer an alternative to the full integration of Ukraine into the West.

And the West is, in particular, the North Atlantic Alliance. So here is a question for them. You told us one thing, now Sweden and Finland have joined. We wonder how you will now justify why Ukraine cannot join. You saw Scholz's reaction when he was asked at the G7 summit about security guarantees for Ukraine: He just laughed. Before that, there was an interview with Victoria Nuland [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] in Ukrainska Pravda, in which she said directly: We are not ready to give security guarantees, we are ready to give security assurances. Well, we know what security assurances are. We have already received security assurances in the Budapest Memorandum.

What other international organizations are important for Ukraine to win the war?

We see that where Russia's veto power remains, there is stagnation and decline. These are the OSCE and the UN. With all my due respect for the sacred cow of international relations, the UN. A diplomat cannot criticize this wonderful organization — but this is the reality.

The big war has been raging in Ukraine for four months. The fifth month has begun, and our Western partners say that it will continue for a very long time. And if you look at the perception, then, unfortunately, people begin to get used to the war. Russian aggression, unfortunately, is no longer on the front page, it no longer worries and shocks. On the other hand, an array of economic problems is piling up, which affects the average person in Western countries. And it seems that Putin is counting on this: that war weariness and the desire to avoid economic problems will sooner or later push Western countries to try to negotiate with Russia.

The problem is obvious and it is clear what to do with it. To be honest, it does not bother me because we have already experienced it. We know how to deal with it. I am much more concerned, in fact, about the readiness of the Ukrainian people for long-term resistance, with great sacrifices — physical and economic.

In Davos in May, U.S. journalist Hadley Gamble asked you: "Why 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?" How do you manage to remain calm while answering such questions?

The President, talking to people who, let's say, adhered to such logic, categorically rejected it even before the war, but after the war it became extremely harsh. This is actually the main achievement: In key offices, they understand that the story “Ukraine must make concessions so that we can stop Putin” no longer works.

However, vertically this idea has not yet been rejected. That is why the Russians are throwing into the information space experts and former politicians, who say: "We must." All this causes unrest. Therefore, there are questions from journalists, such comments from experts who are trying to return us to the logic “why do we have to pay for you?”.

Don't pay, please! We will fight ourselves, you will starve, and then a hypothetical Russian victory in Ukraine will inspire everyone like them in the world, and you will be at war too. However, you will fight with your neighbors, who will understand that, in principle, no one can stop them. Go ahead, if you want to live through this hell — so, welcome to the hell we've been living in for four months already.

If not, then don't send us six howitzers a month. You say: “How many do you need, 500 howitzers? Here you have 500 howitzers, it's just a matter of logistics."

For you personally, what will be the victory of Ukraine in the war?

The same that I propose to the partners to accept: the restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity and the creation of a shield of Europe in Ukraine.

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Inside Putin's Deal For Iranian Drones

Outgunned by Ukraine's Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, Russia has reportedly started importing armed drones from Iran, which may have explained Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Tehran, which is looking to flex its muscles internationally. But it could prove to be a dangerous turning point in the war.

At an underground drone base, in an unknown location in Iran

Christine Kensche

The satellite images show a hangar. The rough outlines of two geometric shapes are visible — a triangle and an elongated object with wide wings. According to intelligence information from the United States, this is the Kashan airfield south of Tehran, where Iran is training its regional militias.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

The geometric objects are drones: the Shahed-191 and the Shahed-129, both considered capable of carrying weapons. Their name translates to martyr. According to U.S. information, the picture also shows a transport vehicle for visitors from Russia. If what the White House recently said is true, the "martyr" drones could soon be circling Ukraine, controlled remotely by Russian soldiers.

Tehran's drone army

According to national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Iran wants to deliver "several hundred" drones to Russia and train Russian soldiers on the devices. Training may have already begun, Sullivan said. In June, Russian delegations traveled to the Iranian airfield twice. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Tehran in person on Tuesday.

It's a turning point for Iran as an international arms dealer.

"This is a significant turning point for Iran as an international arms dealer," says Israeli drone expert Seth Frantzman, who has published a book on the subject (Drone Wars). So far, outside the circle of its allies in the region, Tehran has only sold its technology to Venezuela and built a drone factory in Tajikistan. "The deal with the world power Russia finally makes Iran an international player in the drone business, with its influence reaching as far as Europe."

In terms of technology and trade, the world's drone powers are the U.S., Israel, China and, by some margin, Turkey. Indeed, the Turkish-designed Bayraktar drones are deployed by Ukraine against Russia, which initially gave Kyiv important strategic successes.

There are two key reasons why Russia is now apparently buying from Iran: its own drones cannot keep up. And Iran's drones are technically less sophisticated than those of Western competitors. But they do the job – and are quicker and cheaper to make. Even Iran's nemesis Israel recognizes the powerful potential of Tehran's drone army.

"Iran has massively upgraded its drone program in recent years," says Frantzman. The Shiite regime introduces new types of drones almost every week. According to information from the Israeli army, Iran has a complete production chain, from missiles to navigation systems. The parts are often copied — for example, from U.S. drones that Iran shot down in the past. It now has a variety of different series and types — from unarmed reconnaissance devices to combat drones and those called kamikaze drones (small unmanned aerial vehicles with explosive charges that ram their target). The damage Iranian technology can do has been demonstrated by the regime's devastating attacks in recent years.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receiving Russian President Vladimir Putin in the presence of his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi (right) in Tehran

Iranian Supreme Leader's Office/ZUMA

Attacks by Iranian drones

Iran's arsenal of remotely piloted aircraft stretches from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to the Gulf and Yemen. The technology is used by Iranian allies — by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, by Yemen's Huthis against Saudi Arabia, by Shiite militias against the U.S. Army. Or, indeed, by Iran itself.

The "Pearl Harbor" of the drone war happened three years ago: Iran used drones and rockets to attack the Abqaiq refinery of the world's largest oil company Aramco in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi air defenses were powerless. The attack shut down Saudi Arabia's oil exports for several months. Global oil production collapsed by six percent.

Iranian drones were used in the last Gaza war.

Since then, Iran has systematically relied on weapons. Drones are said to be responsible for at least five attacks on U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq in May and June last year. Iranian drone technology also played a role in the last Gaza war. Hamas not only fired 4,000 rockets at Israel last May. It also deployed a new explosive-laden drone.

Last year, Iranian drone attacks claimed human lives for the first time: Kamikaze drones attacked the Mercer Street oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most strategically important choke points between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Two crew members died, including the captain. Then, in the spring, drones attacked tankers and Abu Dhabi airport. Three people lost their lives. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supplied with weapons and technology by Iran, said they were responsible for the attack on the U.A.E.

A military unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) launched from an Iranian navy vessel in the Indian ocean

Iranian Army Office/ZUMA

No war is won by drones alone

There is no precise information on exactly which drones Russia could acquire. The types shown by the U.S. on the satellite images are among Iran's most important reconnaissance and combat drones. The Shahed-129 is the country's oldest combat drone. It can stay in the air for up to 24 hours and can be armed with eight guided missiles. Also known as the Saegheh (Thunderbolt), the Shahed-191 is a combat drone whose specialty is great mobility. It can be mounted on the back of a truck and launched while the vehicle is in motion.

Kamikaze drones are easier and cheaper to produce.

This combat drone, which can be equipped with two remote-controlled anti-tank missiles, is therefore extremely flexible. However, it is doubtful that Iran can actually deliver hundreds of these types in a hurry. A deal with Russia is therefore likely to include kamikaze drones, which are easier and cheaper to produce.

If Russia were to use Iranian drones in the near future, it would not be a turning point in the Ukraine war, says expert Frantzman: "You don't win a war with drones." However, Russia could use them to damage Ukraine's strategic infrastructure comparatively cheaply, without having to put expensive war equipment at risk.

And another target could become the focus of Iranian drones — Western war equipment, such as the HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, which the U.S. supplied to Ukraine and which play a central role in defense against Russia.

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