Ukraine is experiencing a unique moment when the Minsk agreements can be implemented, and the so-called "Zelenskyy plan" above all provides for an understanding with Ukrainians who remained in the temporarily occupied territories, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said in an interview with Hromadske. He specified that elections in the Donbas can only take place under Ukrainian law, and only the Central Election Commission and the Ukrainian Parliament can determine exactly how. The Minister also explained the essence of the "Steinmeier formula", what the conditions for the talks between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin in the Normandy format are, what is happening with the exchange, what to expect from Zelenskyy’s visit to the U.S. and the planned meeting of the Ukrainian president with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump.
The Foreign Minister, who until May 2019 was Ukraine's Ambassador to NATO, also explained why the level of the next NATO summit in London has dropped and when Ukraine could present the action plan for NATO membership.
Right now we see a lot of interest from our audience concerning the Steinmeier Formula, about which you’ve spoken. People are scared, they don’t trust [it]. So even though you’ve explained it before, can you explain it again? What is [the Steinmeier formula]?
The Steinmeier formula does exist. It turns out that all 46 million [Ukrainian citizens] know what’s in this formula. This document is one that was signed by two ministers of foreign affairs: that is, [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier from Germany, who’s currently the Federal President, and previously the [German] foreign minister, and French Foreign Minister [Laurent] Fabius (in 2012-2016). This text is that Steinmeier formula which not many people have seen. In order to avoid different interpretations on the formula, political advisors to the heads of state on March 2 agreed on a text which practically and compactly writes out the formula, and all four sides agree on it. In fact, I have it in this yellow folder, and there’s nothing interesting in it. This is the Steinmeier formula that everyone’s talking about but not everyone believes in. Unfortunately, I can’t show it to you on camera, but it looks approximately like this.
This has signatures? I don’t see them.
No, well this text – this document is one that isn’t signed. What happened after the meeting on March 2? The Normandy Four passed this text to the Trilateral Contact Group in order for the Group to examine and for all participants to come to an agreement, and those who have a role in it.
We’re moving forward as the Normandy Four have confirmed in writing that the submitted text is acceptable to everyone. Our next step, along with the challenges of all three points, these three test zones – this will be opening possibilities for holding summits on the level of the leaders of four nations.
Let me ask immediately for two clarifications. Do you mean specifically the separation of troops in these three points. If you can explain in more detail, and are these conditions for holding Normandy meetings?
Two conditions. The first is this text that everyone calls the Steinmeier formula but, in reality, it’s clearly-defined conditions that are agreed on by all sides. And the second is the separation [of troops] from these three points. The first part is Stansiya Luhanska, where withdrawal is already complete. There, as you know, a bridge is being built. Right now, there’s a technical reason for the stall in construction – like how long it construction will take, welded, how long the concrete will take to dry, and when will we finally be able to open the bridge for our citizens to use.
And the two next parts are Zolote and Petrivske – we’ve had separation agreements there for a long time, and at some point withdrawal actually happened, but later, unfortunately, troops were re-stationed there. So the security situation there has not been resolved. So these three points, and this text, which we call the ‘Steinmeier Formula’, are the two conditions which Normandy Four advisors have agreed on with their leaders, in order to meet in the summit format.
Last week, Russia spoke of a third condition. Does it exist? And if yes, what does it require?
We’ve haven’t agreed on a third condition, though I’ve understood in principle, when I listened to the Russian foreign minister and spokespeople, what they meant. They spoke about about the idea that there be an understanding of why and what will be signed at the leader’s meeting before the summit. Formally speaking, this wasn’t a condition. But we all understand that leaders don’t gather and take a fresh sheet of paper and write. They work with already proposed texts, and then all four leaders will be able to add or reject [it.] Sometimes leaders meet without any documents at all. We noticed that the effectiveness of a meeting rises significantly when leaders can agree on a single text which will then become compulsory for all countries to fulfill.
How is this text, this plan being prepared at this stage?
The negotiating groups are working on it, and it will really be prepared step-by-step. I hope it doesn't delay the meeting very much. Because we want this meeting as soon as possible. You know that we planned to have this meeting earlier, but for some technical reasons – they really were technical, we checked – the meeting could not take place. But now, I hope, all four leaders will agree on a convenient time.
Are we talking about mid-October?
We’re talking about a date that will suit everyone. [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron is inviting us to Paris. I think most realistically it will be mid-October.
You said that the Minsk group needs to confirm this document. What’s happening there right now? They met on September 18.
They’ve met a few times, even after the Normandy meetings. They didn’t agree on a text for several reasons. I think that soon, either in a videoconference format, or they'll gather in Minsk once more, they’ll agree on this text.
Let’s talk about substance, in order to avoid creating any more myths about this formula and agreements. What’s key in it?
Why was the Steinmeier formula invented in the first place, this idea [put forward] by the German Minister? It was an ideological conflict between what should be first – security or political regulation, but also that there isn’t any trust between the sides, and whether the second part should be done before the first, and finally it all led to Steinmeier coming up with a simple idea: on the day that local elections are held – we’re not saying which elections, under what conditions, whether there is demilitarization, there are all different questions which should be solved before the elections – we’re right now talking about this short formula and it says only one thing: that on the day the local elections are held, the law on temporary special status [for the occupied territories] takes effect, and on the moment that the OSCE says that the elections were held honestly to the high standards of the OSCE, this status becomes permanent. That’s all. There’s nothing about, there aren’t any more ideas, no one’s talking about when Ukraine gets access to the border or under what laws elections will be held, whether press will have access [to the elections], this is all in the OSCE standards for holding honest and transparent elections. The formula itself doesn’t have a word about that, people who think that way are just speculating.
Can it really take effect the same day? I mean – holding elections when we’ll know that at that time and on the eve of the elections there won’t be Russian soldiers.
I believe that President Zelenskyy expressed this clearly, when this question was raised by your colleagues during the second meeting, if I’m not mistaken, with the Estonian president. But it seems that it's relevant enough to constantly repeat:
President Zelenskyy said that holding elections can only be possible when on our land – under our laws, and it was [said] a long time ago that all elections must be based on Ukrainian law, and all necessary conditions will be set – not by the Foreign Ministry, not by the Office of the President, but by the hands of Parliament and the Central Election Commission. They will be responsible for setting when, what conditions, whether there’s enough security, whether there’s enough funding, all of the organizational conditions so that the elections could be held and so that the will of the Ukrainian people, on all of their territory, in all regions can be sufficiently expressed by these elections.
All these options – they’re being considered by the various actors you’ve named. Does that mean that at the moment you’re not negotiating them at the moment?
This is a task for the Trilateral Contact Group – to consider the variants for holding elections. This was in the Minsk Agreements from the very beginning.
You said previously that these elections, local or whatever, could be held in spring. Do you still support that assertion, that they can be held in spring?
I didn’t say spring, because the date can only be determined by the Central Election Commission, our Verkhovna Rada. I said that ideally – I keep repeating this word but somehow it keeps disappearing – ideally, elections will be held at the same time on the entire Ukrainian territory under a single Ukrainian law. I think that if we believe in the fact that we’ll live under a single unified government, then we can’t have different paths for different elections. They must be identical under Ukrainian law, which stipulates everything that we call honest and transparent elections.
Right now we’ve started discussing the Steinmeier formula – we, as journalists, are both interested in and professionally working on these questions, when we’ve talked about them, let’s say in winter, in spring – there were other questions: Amnesty, for example, for those that don’t have blood on their hands. Did this document that you’re all discussing not have all these questions?
There’s not a single word about amnesty, nothing. It has exactly what I’ve read to you, and nothing more. Only the relation between holding elections and the implementation of the law on temporary special status, and the implementation of the law on permanent special status at the moment the OSCE says that the elections were held honestly, correctly, fairly, and transparently. If the OSCE says no, then, obviously, the law will not become permanent. That’s all.
The question of a red line sounds great, it’s very important for the people. But a red line isn’t always what it seems like, for negotiations. If you call everything a red line, it’s hard to talk about other things. But are there any red lines?
A red line, as we see, is different for different political authorities. If you speak with those who believe that you shouldn’t allow enemies to gain any ground, I absolutely support that idea. I believe that the only ideal way to resolve the situation that we’ve found ourselves in for the past five years is full control of the territory by Ukraine’s armed forces. This is a completely ideal scenario which we should always keep in mind and bring to the table. Any compromise, any start to negotiations, lowers the chance of this ideal 100% – less and less and less. Any compromise that we agree to will create a worse world than we would have wanted. We follow any compromise with pain in our heart. But if we don’t have the strength to resolve this issue by ourselves, then we have to negotiate with the help of our friends and partners. These negotiations take place within the scope of some kind of corridor. Our society sets these walls, our MPs, our head of state. We can’t sell off our territory, our independence, our sovereignty. Not at all. And there are a lot of other lines that you and I can’t cross.
Questions like NATO membership for Ukraine. This is a political question.
There are a lot of countries that are members of the Alliance – 28 countries – more, with the addition of North Macedonia. But that’s a given amount. There are countries that exist on the other side of the planet that aren’t members of the Alliance, but are close to NATO and its members. There are other countries that think that they don’t need to join NATO to feel secure. That works for countries that exist inside the Alliance [territory], like Austria. It can calmly and at length talk about how nice it is to be neutral, being located right in the middle of European and NATO countries. My personal thought – regardless of how the current conflict ends, we have to think now about how to create our security for the future. I think that there’s nothing better on our side of the continent than NATO, realistically in the near future, that we can think of. That’s why the most effective method of defending our independence, for me, is membership in NATO.
What is the working relationship like between yourself, President Zelenskyy, advisor Andriy Yermak, who is also working on the issue of the conflict with Russia, meets with Kurt Volker, who also has a reason to talk to [Vladislav] Surkov [the advisor to the Russian president]. Who has responsibility for what? How do you coordinate?
We coordinate with Andriy Yermak very closely, I respect the work he’s doing. That he meets with Kurt Volker – we’re not the only two that meet with the American representatives and [representatives] of all sides. This lets us keep our partners in the loop. Sometimes, diplomatic tactics recommend that you should have both official and unofficial communication channels. Generally, we’ve always had these channels, if you remember, the Normandy Four was at first entirely a meeting of ministers in most situations. These were presidential advisors. This was previously Konstantin Eliseev, and there was also this format that involved spokespeople for the representatives. There was a separate format which involved the foreign ministers – this was called the supervisory mechanism, as well as a lot of mechanisms that we trust will all together help us get out of this situation.
Is there an understanding of what situations are official – foreign minister, while for more internal questions, they’re managed by Mr. Yermak?
There’s a clear understanding. We both do work, and we both advise the president. There are other people which take part in these conversations. The key here is the Trilateral Contact Group, which is led by Leonid Kuchma. Leonid also takes part in these conversations. There are four subgroups which work under Kuchma. When it’s necessary, coordinators from these four subgroups also take part. There are a lot of different mechanisms which more or less work together.
What’s the role of the foreign ministry if there are meetings between Mr. Yermak and people like [Rudy] Guiliani, who is the U.S. President’s personal lawyer, but no official formal involvement of the head of that government department?
There’s nothing strange here. Yermak is also a lawyer. Here is in fact everything works organically, there’s no contradiction. And [Guliani] is also a presidential advisor and assistant. If [President Zelenskyy] assigns Andriy Yermak to meet with a given representative of other countries and that requires either concrete involvement of the foreign ministry or less official measures, that’s normal, everyone does it. The only thing that differentiates this situation from previous ones is the fact that we are in constant, close contact with Andriy Yermak. He completely understands what the official line is, and we understand how to widen the walls of formal communication, in order to achieve what the government considers necessary.
What is the key element in the negotiations and what are we expecting from the president and delegation’s visit to the U.S, and from the meeting with Trump? Will this meeting take place?
There will definitely be a meeting with Trump, we have set time apart for it. And it won’t be some backroom meeting or a casual handshake. Both presidents found the time, despite the numerous meetings everyone has. For President Zelenskyy, this is actually his first trip to the UN, he will be attending the General Assembly for the first time. And he will see many of his colleagues with whom he did not even think there would be a chance to meet. At the same time, it will be a big one-hour meeting, during which we have set ourselves the priority of establishing a connection. President Zelenskyy spoke on the phone twice, but we are aware of the importance of having direct contact between the two leaders. Unfortunately, or fortunately, systems are constructed in such a way that leaders play a crucial role in diplomacy and in general relations between the countries. If a normal mutual understanding is established and we can explain to each other what we expect, how we see both the further development of our bilateral relations and the overall survival of Ukraine in the ongoing war - these are the main tasks. All the other tasks I won't be able to reveal to you, but – believe me – there is a whole list of problems that we will go through with the USA. Sometimes it's problems, sometimes it's just business ideas. For example, we need energy security. This is one of the key tasks of our national security. This is one of the issues that will certainly be discussed between the presidents.
On September 20, there was a piece in the influential New York Times about one of the staff members close to President Trump's administration. So there has been a leak of information under the official Whistleblower program that Trump may have violated some national security rules worth investigating when talking to one of the world's leaders. And this was probably President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It mentions Donald Trump's attempt to either pressure or just say that corruption in Ukraine must be investigated. This could mean that it is related to the case of Joe Biden, a former Vice President and now a potential rival of Trump. What do we know? What did Trump and Zelenskyy talk about? You were working in the Presidential Office at the time. What was this conversation about? There is now a request from the Democratic Party to show what it was about. How will we get out of this situation when there is this hint of Ukraine's attempt to somehow interfere in the U.S. domestic politics a year before the presidential election?
I think that the situation that’s taking place between Ukraine and the U.S., this confrontation between Republicans and Democrats someone is trying to drag us into, all these speculations that Ukraine helped the Democrats, that we wanted a President Clinton, instead of President Trump, this is, alas, a result of misinformation and evil intentions of certain people. We lost a lot of the momentum of progress. Those who work in relations between Ukraine and the U.S. understand that we have always worked with both parties. We always valued the substantial help from both sides, and our priorities won’t change with relation to the U.S., regardless of who’s in the administration. Different American presidents have supported us, and we value the support of Congress, but that doesn’t mean we could or have the capability of, even in theory, of helping one or the other party. There have been questions from President Trump, his attorney [Rudolph] Giuliani, the newspapers, Democrats, Republicans whether any pressure was exerted on Ukraine. I want to say that we’re an independent country, we have our own secrets. Our president has the right to speak to another president so that that conversation remains confidential. This is the one precondition that leaders set each other, so that they can exchange sensitive information. American investigators have the full right to turn to the U.S. and to get this information. If they think that our president has been pressured, they can establish this. I know what they spoke about, and I don’t think there was any coercion. There was a talk, talks can be on different topics, leaders have the right to talk about any problems they wish. This conversation was long, it was friendly, and it touched on a lot of questions, some of which required rather serious answers.
A question that was previously raised at the General Assembly is the question of introducing a peacekeeping contingent to the Donbas. President Zelenskyy made it clear at the YES forum that he has not raised the issue yet, as he fears that peacekeepers would come to the line of contact instead of the border. This was the first such statement, of course, because the process seemed to be progressing. Anyway, what is Ukraine's position on peacekeepers now? Have we given up on this idea? Will we get back to it if something suddenly doesn't work out? Please clarify. There was an understanding that some work was done, and we were just waiting for something.
If you remember, it was the Ukrainian side, President Poroshenko who proposed the introduction of peacekeepers, or to be more precise, a peacekeeping mission. The UN does not have intentions to bring about peace, they can only support it if it has already been reached. This is a key question. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian vocabulary preserves this term myrotvorchist (literal translation “peace making”), but we must call things by their names. Indeed, there was a proposal that did not develop in any way over a year. Then it was in some way supported by Putin, who assumed, to put it bluntly, the authorship of the idea, and it became known as “Putin's proposal”. Never mind whose authorship it had, but the idea did exist. This idea does have several threats. The first threat is that there have not been many situations in the world that were resolved by peacekeeping missions. Some situations weren’t resolved for dozens of years. And this is a major threat that President Zelenskyy is aware of. Moreover, the promises that the mission would be extended from the [contact] line to the whole territory of Crimea – we do not understand how it would be guaranteed, and this is an important part that we would like to discuss when we approach this issue. What President Zelenskyy tried to explain was that “yes, the mission is possible, we remember this, we would seek this opportunity if we exhaust all other opportunities, which we will still try to go through once again, i.e. the Minsk agreements and implementation of them”. You see, there is a certain result. The exchange happened. Not of all [prisoners] yet, but we are working on it.
That is sort of a plan B, let’s say.
That would be the next stage if the Minsk agreements do not work out. Remember that there was no mention of peacekeeping operations in the Minsk agreements.
President Zelenskyy agreed on the exchange with Russian President Putin. We know that foreign partners, at least we were told so, were less involved in this case. In what cases is it determined that the Ukrainian president should engage partners, and in what cases does he communicate directly?
President Zelenskyy, like his predecessor, does use the direct communication channel with President Putin. And first of all it was about exchanging our people. President Zelenskyy spoke with President Putin on three occasions, and each time there was talk of releasing our boys, returning them to their families. If we have to continue and this process stalls... Although I want to tell you that the process is making great strides, I will not announce anything, but I hope that in the near future we will have additional grounds for joy – then in such cases, of course, two interlocutors are sufficient.
It is such a delicate affair and the negotiations are so complex that even the presence of sympathizers is not conducive. Moreover, partners do not want to participate in these delicate negotiations. You see how difficult the decisions made have been and how costly the solutions sometimes are.
We understand that the part of the exchange concerning prisoners of war in the occupied Donbas has slowed down to some extent due to the names given to Russia during the previous exchange appearing [on the list]. But still, what is happening in the Minsk Group and what can we expect next with the exchange of prisoners in the Donbas? Is it a separate process from all those people also associated with Crimea, like [Andriy] Zakhtey, and other Crimean Tatars?
At the very least the three groups you have named, all three of these groups are constantly in contact and trying to coordinate their efforts at least to ensure that the same name is not included on different lists, as this reduces the chances of a positive outcome. The numbers up for exchange are not equal. We don't call it an exchange, we call it a simultaneous release, as it's not really an exchange. And in order for this to happen, all authorities, including the legal authorities, the courts, the police, the Security Service, and all the bodies involved in these operations, must work very accurately. A special group within the Trilateral contact group is also involved. Believe me, there are so many people who work day and night in the backstage, and no one sees or understands how much they have invested into getting those people back home.
Still, there was some provisional schedule on Donbas. The implication is that it's not just that we can't say it right now. It was mentioned that this issue was being raised at a certain meeting in Minsk. Now, is there any timetable for negotiations on this?
Each time, there were more than one hundred meetings in Minsk. One of the four separate groups that are constantly meeting is the humanitarian group. The whole humanitarian group assembles on a regular basis, and in fact, its only task lately is to agree on the possibility of exchanging or releasing detainees and those arrested and held in prisons.
You said that difficult decisions have to be made. Of course, there is the question of the witness in the MH17 case [Volodymyr] Tsemakh. Why was there insufficient coordination with the Dutch side? And after all, they were supposed to publish these so-called “letters of concern”.
I do not understand, to be honest, where the concept of lack of coordination comes from. I spoke with the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, I spoke with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The President spoke with Prime Minister [Mark] Rutte. There was a high level of interaction between the investigation teams. We had transferred the right to investigate. We are restoring this right, the parliament is adopting relevant legislation. The groups – they must have fraternized with each other by now – the Dutch, Ukrainian, prosecutors, investigators, SBU, all the bodies involved in the investigation. This work is ongoing. Moreover, the Dutch group came to Ukraine, they had full access to Tsemakh. What’s more, we handed Tsemakh over, we found him, our special bodies, which lost one person, another person was left injured and crippled so that we could hand him over. There should be minimal respect for the casualties suffered by the Ukrainian side – the Dutch side should have taken this into account as well. And criticizing Ukraine for not holding him until March next year, when their trial takes place, with Tsemakh held hostage for them in the territory of Ukraine so that he could be used as a witness, even in court, and not only for questioning – it seems to me, that was what the Dutch side had to start with. To say that we understand the sacrifice and high price that Ukraine has incurred to give us this opportunity because we all, including Ukraine, want an honest and transparent investigation. The Dutch side received all the information about Tsemakh. The President and the Prime Minister reached certain agreements that have been upheld by the Ukrainian side, and it would have also been fair for the Dutch side to say that there was an agreement, there was a request, and it was fully implemented by the Ukrainian side. But going further its value was not as high as the lives of our people.
Where is Crimea in the history of our conversations with Russia at this stage?
Crimea is part of the ongoing conversation. The only thing is that at present we are talking more about the east of Ukraine, the Minsk agreements, the Steinmeier Formula, etc. This is the part that concerns precisely our eastern problem. That is why the public's attention has shifted to all these problems, and in some way has put aside [the issue of Crimea]. But believe me, [the question of] Crimea remains. Likewise, in the exchange [talks], everyone – both the Crimean Tatar activists, and all ethnic Ukrainians, and whoever else was detained in Crimea and are on the territory of Crimea – they are all part of either the exchange that is taking place or the release
Does Russia insist that the Crimean issue should not be raised? For instance, at the Normandy [Four] meeting.
The Normandy [format] meeting is more about the east. And so we shouldn’t ask and insist on more from Russia. It’s not about this now. We remember that even sanctions are divided into two major packages. One package is the so-called Crimean one and the other one was implemented after the war began in eastern Ukraine. That is why this dualism is two parallel flows of sanctions, and corresponding reactions, and tasks. And they are separated. But neither the foreign ministry, nor the government, nor the president forget about the presence of both tracks.
You were the Ambassador of Ukraine to NATO. There is already information that the planned NATO Summit in December will be held at a different level, it will not be at the level of heads of state, its level was decreased. However, previously, President Poroshenko said that this is the summit where Ukraine would like to submit [an application] to be considered for the membership action plan. That is a new MAP (Membership Action Plan -ed.) update. Do we plan to raise this issue further? What is happening with the MAP?
I have commented on this issue more than once, and more recently, I spoke about it with your colleague from European Pravda. We do not remove the MAP issue from the agenda. We are saying that Ukraine's future membership in the Alliance and future EU membership remain Ukraine's priority. All the necessary formal mechanisms - if you need an MAP, okay, let it be MAP. We will request it when we can have a positive response and when Ukraine is ready for it. I think the London Summit may remain at the level of heads of state. But it probably won't even be called a summit, it will be just an official meeting of heads of state and government on the occasion of the anniversary of the Alliance. This is an event where there will be no partner part, partners are not invited, so Ukraine does not have the opportunity to hold a commission, where such requests usually take place.
How should Ukrainians perceive this signal that the summit level has declined? The format is that Ukraine won’t be present.
The decision of the heads of state is taken independently by the heads of state. No need to think there is something wrong with it. If the heads of state decide that this year, a year after the summit in Brussels, they should meet in a short format without carrying out all other activities - this is a decision of the Alliance, there is nothing to deconstruct here. NATO does no betrayal in this regard, first and foremost to itself.
And what specifically would Ukraine now want from our partners to ensure passage and presence in the Sea of Azov?
We are now awaiting the arrival of NATO, the so-called North Atlantic Council, which is to come to Kyiv and Odesa. And the Odesa visit is a symbolic step on the part of NATO, which should take place to approve the so-called Black Sea Package. The Black Sea Package is a set of measures to assist Ukraine in restoring its capabilities in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, across the whole water territory. And I hope that our capabilities will grow gradually so that we can restore our right for the Sea of Azov, the Kerch Strait, and the Black Sea.
You were asked about the Prystaiko-Zelenskyy plan, then you spoke of the Zelenskyy plan, explaining that there is no Zelenskyy plan on paper. But even after such a public appearance - did you discuss that with the President? And what does this Zelenskyy plan look like, I mean, of course the plan to settle the conflict with Russia?
It seems to me that this Prystaiko-Zelenskyy plan, or Zelenskyy plan, whatever you want to call it, should be put on paper, because the people’s expectations are that it must be clearly formulated. I agree, it should have been drawn up about five years ago.
It would have been ideal if it were Zelenskyy and Prystaiko five years ago, because I had certain ideas as a deputy minister five years ago, which started from the very beginning of these calamitous Minsk agreements, and I had certain ideas and plans back then. I offered them to the leadership of the state, some were accepted, some were not. It is for this purpose that the nation’s leadership exists: to choose from all the plans the best formats, its own plan. Zelenskyy's plan - now it is based on an attempt to somehow come to terms with the part of our people that will remain on the other side. And all these steps - exchanging prisoners, disengaging troops to reduce the danger to our residents, building this small bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska, which is only a tiny piece of the entire 400+ kilometers of our demarcation line. Similarly, lifting certain restrictions on the export of essential goods and products. This is all informative work. This is all that we are trying to show to Ukrainians who live on the other side of the line, in the territories that are temporarily not under our control, that we are waiting for them to return home. We know what is happening, we want to explain where we are going, what we plan to do, and if you want to be with us, if you want to build one common Ukraine which is not perfect, but let's build it together. This is what President Zelenskyy wants to offer. He understands that this is opposed by those people who have weapons, he understands that there are Russian soldiers. And that it won’t be possible to restore our country just by explaining this to people. That is why all other plans, all other ways, including negotiations, summit meetings, are being used. It’s all a complete set. Plus, growing the economy, strengthening our own defense capabilities are all part of Zelenskyy's plan. But I agree with you, I accept the criticism, we’ll put it on paper.
President Zelenskyy can say “I didn’t attend Minsk, I inherited this agreement, it was signed, so we have to fulfill it, there is no other agreement.” You were in a different position then, but you’ve been also preparing this document for several days. Many of those who had been there now say: there was no other option, we knew that this meant certain problems ahead. What can you say now? What problems were really included that could not be avoided? Let's say the uncertain order of priority. How can you now uphold the document you signed four years ago? Which society does not now accept for various reasons.
I can assure you that we had a very clear idea of this document from the very beginning, and there was no secret for us. I said that one hundred percent solution to our problems is our own forces, our armed forces. To put it bluntly, the formula that that two main allies are the Navy and the Army has not changed yet. The weakness of our state in the post-revolutionary period allowed Russia to bite off our Crimea first, and then to come and bite our East. And any involvement of the aggressor in the negotiations obviously will not allow achieving 100% of the desired result.
What could have been avoided? I believe we got the maximum out of the situation at the time. When our troops were killed by shelling, when we were constantly receiving information - the president was receiving information on a regular basis about how the operation was progressing and how our guys were being killed - we understood that this is part of the negotiating pressure that Russia is putting on us. Our partners have sincerely sought to help and bring peace, which has been achieved in principle. We agreed on ceasefires and the advancement of aggressor was stopped. This allowed us to acquire 4 years of time that I hope Ukraine used wisely, was able to recover, was able to strengthen its capacity, was able to show its people what the whole struggle was for.
So you are saying Ukraine is now strong enough to start a new stage? Because many critics or cautious people are saying: they rush too much, at this moment they rush too much. Maybe president Zelenskyy could win at the tactical level but some things have not been thought through. Don’t you think Ukraine is in a hurry now?
And who can really determine what is fast, slow, adequate? Only history will judge this. With an absolute majority in the parliament and the ability to consolidate our efforts, is this a good plan, or do we have to wait for five or so years for a political situation to form a coalition capable of acting with one strength, one word? I believe that the situation is unique to Ukraine. For the first time there is a complete consolidation of all branches of power. When does a country need to restore its material integrity and independence? It is at the time when it is fully consolidated and understands what it is doing. The only thing often missing is consolidation within society. Even if the society, as a result of our conversation today, understood what President Zelenskyy wants to do and took the steps we all need, if it appreciated the price of compromise and realized that we want to move on. If we want to live in a single state now, this is the last brick in the ceiling that President Zelenskyy is building.
With whom from Russia do you communicate? Is it clear what the roles are of [Vladislav] Surkov, Dmitry Kozak, who is thought to be the curator of the so-called [Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”], and is the deputy prime minister of Russia? Who is communicating with whom?
We are clearly aware of who plays what role and in what communication is involved. And we have clearly spelled out the roles of who communicates with whom. These channels are constant, they are working. But that doesn't mean I have to tell the journalist.
We talked about E.U. consolidation, about our relations with the E.U., NATO, the U.S. You’re the foreign minister now. I understand that it is difficult and takes a long time to outline what the Ukrainian strategy for the whole world is. Usually it has been very west-centric. But the world is changing and it is clearly not the case. Various people criticized [Ukraine’s diplomacy] for not paying attention to China and other countries, saying that the UN Security Council vote also shows that they don’t know what it is. Will there be a foreign policy concept? How are you going to work with it?
To put it briefly, what a plan of Minister Prystaiko is, putting aside our global plan... Unfortunately, a lot of my time is taken up by the negotiations, which are not really about foreign policy. We understand that the Minsk and Normandy formats are an internal situation that the country needs to address here. And the efforts should be taken here, not abroad. Unfortunately, it takes a great deal of the foreign ministry’s effort. I count on the help of the staff of the ministry, all ambassadors and my deputies, I give them the opportunity to be in constant contact and to work on the priorities we have. The only thing to describe how my position differs from the previous minister’s stance is that we are becoming - perhaps, “harsher” is the wrong word - but definitely more pragmatic. We, the diplomats, have three Ps, proposed by [later foreign] minister [Hennadiy] Udovenko, written on the walls everywhere: probity, patriotism, and professionalism. We just add the fourth P now - pragmatism. We have learned over the past 30 years to be more pragmatic, have learned from our western partners, who talk so much about the values we share, and then return Russia to the PACE or invite to the table in famous international groups. We’re finally starting to understand it after [experiencing] pain and losses, and become more pragmatic. We understand that our economic interests are where our political interests lie and vice versa. These are the changes that will happen. We will pay more attention to the economy because without a strong economy we will not be able to build the strongest army, the strongest diplomacy, the strongest cultural diplomacy.
When will the new ambassadors be appointed? Will there be many of them? There has been an issue since [Viktor] Yushchenko’s presidency that president’s administration has been approving the appointments of advisers, ambassadors, and this was slowing down the process very much. Do you agree with this, or do you plan to change something? Give us at least some timeline.
I strongly disagree with [the possibility] that the office of the president approves my advisors, heads of structural units and all the rest. I talk about this with President Zelenskyy, and I insist that it is my responsibility and I am fully responsible. If President Zelenskyy thinks that my decision is wrong, I am ready to quit this position, but I believe he should let me handle this. He has a lot to do besides approving the appointment of advisers, of whom there are several hundred around the world. As for ambassadors, there is indeed a shortage of appointed ambassadors. This is connected with the normal process that when the head of the state and the administration change, the diplomatic corps changes as well. The process is time-consuming, at least because the countries require a lot of time to agree on the appointment of a specific person to a particular country. The process on our part is largely completed.
President Zelensky was presented with my proposal for about 20 new foreign diplomatic mission leaders, and they are approved by him. We are now sending the proposals to the countries for them to decide. If they approve, the documentation process begins. It is necessary to give the person time to collect things, to prepare the children and wife for relocation and leave to fulfill his mission. There are no deliberate delays. It is a normal process of rotation of the diplomatic corps.
You are a career diplomat, a person from the system. What is special in the work with a president who is a newcomer in politics? What is the difference? Or is it the same?
It has always seemed to me that we have too much bureaucracy, but for the first time I am faced with a situation where it seems to me that a little bureaucracy would not hurt. And that is the difference. But by and large, many of the things I found most unpleasant in previous rigid, hierarchical, and complex systems no longer apply since a new team came that completely discards old templates and is not ashamed to ask simple questions: Why so? Who said it couldn't be any different? This is the ability of the president and the entire team to ask one more time, even sometimes stalling me: why exactly this way? Why not, for example, negotiate with leaders this way? Why can't you come up with clear, specific business offers? Why do we weave a web of complicated diplomatic negotiations? I want to say that a certain pattern break, if it occurs within the normal range, is very, very effective.
Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk