Full text of the interview of President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The conversation took place on May 29.
- I would like to start with the issue of aggression in the east. There is a buildup of Russian troops in the east, in the occupied Crimea and at sea. Russia says troops are being withdrawn. Is that true? Are there still many of them?
- We know specific figures. 30-35 thousand (military - ed.) were in the temporarily occupied territories of Donbas at the time of escalation. Along the borders of Ukraine and Russia, we detected in different periods somewhere between 50 and 80 thousand soldiers and in Crimea also about 33-35 thousand. When I talk about the occupied territories, there are troops there: 30-35 thousand separatist troops, plus about three thousand Russian staff officers.
And when Europe and the United States began to put pressure on Russia - we called for it - because of this joint pressure, the likelihood of escalation decreased. About three and a half thousand servicemen left the territory of Crimea. All others remain there, 90% of equipment is there. Therefore, I think that escalation is possible at any time until the end of September, say, exactly until September 12-16. We know that there will be a West-2021 exercise. Therefore, I believe that the situation is very dangerous by this time.
- What danger do you expect: an attempt to build a land connection between Russia and the occupied Crimea or an attempt to get the territory north of Crimea? What do you expect, what should you be prepared for?
- There are many military options possible on the part of the Russian Federation, in particular naval operations. We are very concerned about this, and now there is a blockade of the Azov-Black Sea region by Russian ships. They control it, despite international law, in violation of it. This is what you said - one of the options of reaching Crimea and cutting this corridor from mainland Ukraine. There may be an escalation on the part of the occupied Donbas, we understand that perfectly well. Big jump, blitzkrieg to the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. We are considering and preparing for such steps.
But there may be, so to speak, "surprises" from the other side. The situation in Belarus is very dangerous now. These are our northern borders. And we understand that Russia and Belarus are constantly considering and negotiating an important geopolitical and, probably, defense agreement. After that, there may be a really serious influence of Russia and serious coordination and control of the Belarusian armed forces. Then we can consider the risk from the other side.
We do not know the details of this treaty establishing a union state.
But if, for example, we are talking about a corridor to Crimea, it means that it will not be possible to hide this situation behind the "civil conflict". It will be an open full-scale war.
- Mr. President, you talked about the potential of blitzkrieg. It is possible from the east, south or north, right?
- Will this aggression be easier for Russia if the Nord Stream 2 pipeline starts working and they do not worry about losing transit through Ukraine? Because if the pipe is damaged during the war, they will say it is not a problem for them, because there is Nord Stream 2. This project makes Russian aggression easier.
- Nord Stream 2, I think, is no different from the annexation of Crimea. I will explain why. In order to take Crimea and be able to bargain, a war was started in eastern Ukraine, then the issue of Crimea was gradually "forgotten". Even in the Normandy format, I raised this issue, and all parties said that Crimea was not on the agenda. But we continued to raise this issue. That is why I decided to create the Crimean Platform. After all, we understood that the issue of occupation of Crimea is being forgotten.
Now Russians are following the same scenario. That is, they have constant leverage to trade. And Crimea is moving further and further away. There has been passportization in Crimea for many years - Crimeans have always had both Ukrainian and Russian passports. Then there was the annexation of Crimea under the pretence of the protection of Russians. Then - Donbas to "forget" Crimea. Russian passports are currently being distributed in Donbas - about 300,000 have been distributed.
Then, in order to bargain for Donbas, to obtain an amnesty for the separatists, to leave Russia in control of the results of local elections, etc., it is necessary to raise the stakes. Nord Stream 2 is a trump card today. In reality, they have a royal flush in their hands, which is also partially supported by Europe. If they complete Nord Stream 2, it is a threat to the energy security of Ukraine and Europe. Russia will definitely shut us off. Yes, we have a contract. By the way, thanks to Germany and France, we agreed on this contract for five years in the Normandy format. And almost two of those five years have passed. This contract will expire in three years. If they complete the technical aspect of Nord Stream 2 this year, it will start working in two or three years. And we know what will happen. All this is done so that there is no next contract for Ukraine. To be more precise, this lever will be used in the Donbas issue.
- Doesn't the existence of Nord Stream 2 increase the risks of war? Because the escalation of hostilities can now pose a threat to the pipeline and, as a consequence, to transit. And with the launch of Nord Stream 2, the blitzkrieg you are talking about will become possible for the Russian side. Because if they lose this branch of the pipeline due to the war, they can easily replace it with Nord Stream 2 capacity.
- Is it their goal? I am asked if we are afraid to get a MAP from NATO or to be a member of the Alliance (and you know Russia's attitude to this issue), if I am afraid that this will start a war? And the same is asked about the pipeline. I just want to answer that we already have a historical fact. In 2014 the war began. We were not in NATO then, we had excellent relations with Russia, and no one in Donbas wanted to secede from Ukraine, nobody had any problems. Therefore, I agree that there is such a possibility of escalation, but it seems to me that this is not a reason for Russia to start or continue hostilities.
I really think it would be cool to have Europe and the United States as partners, as co-owners in the GTS of Ukraine. Because the question is not that no one would damage this pipe or take any action against it, the question is that everyone would protect these contracts and protect the security of Ukraine and Europe in general.
- If, hypothetically, Ukraine soon becomes a member of NATO, it will mean that the Allies will have to defend it and thus enter into a military conflict with Russia. This is a problem because no one wants it. How are you going to solve this dilemma? Ukraine wants to be in NATO, but NATO does not want to go to war with Russia because it is a hot conflict.
- I believe that this is an uncivilized, outdated, incorrect attitude to the security of mankind. The political selfishness that exists today because of these fears could lead to World War III. There can be no "we’ll see" position. Yes, no one wants that, but we already have this situation. It seems to me that this is not entirely fair. After all, we do the defense, we are the security wall of this philosophy of existence, European civilization, human rights and freedoms.
- How can NATO membership be politically constructed for Ukraine in order to circumvent the fifth article of the NATO Treaty so that the Allies do not have to defend the future NATO member - Ukraine - by military means? Because Germany does not want a war with Russia, a nuclear state, despite the fact that Russia will wage war against a NATO member - Ukraine.
- I believe that the Russian Federation will not dare to go to war with NATO. On the contrary, I think it's intimidation. Russia will not go to war with Europe. Russia is at war with the former CIS or USSR countries. I do not wish this to our friends, but we must look at the Baltic countries. What will we do with the Baltic countries, small beautiful countries that will definitely fall from the Russian aggression, if it happens? And they are members of NATO. What will everyone do then? So far, Russia has not attacked the European Union and NATO member states. But Moldova has Transnistria, Georgia has Abkhazia, and Ukraine has Donbas.
- If Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, won’t it immediately activate Article 5 with the words: aggression is being waged against us, bring your troops in and protect us?
- I think it is a question of negotiations. Ukraine does not want to wage war.
And if, pardon, all NATO countries are afraid that someone will ever attack a NATO member state, if they are afraid that they will have to defend, then there is a question in general to this construction. If so, then what is the purpose of this construction, which is afraid to protect a country that is a member of a union? What is its value then?
And if in NATO some countries want to see Ukraine in the Alliance, and some countries that have good relations with Russia do not want Ukraine in NATO, then there is the question to this construction again - is it really so strong and powerful? I think this is the fragility of this construction. And draw a parallel with the European Union, where this fragility has already shown results. Great Britain left the EU. Has the EU become stronger without Great Britain? Definitely not. This is no longer the "arched" structure, which is the strongest in the world. This is a crumbling structure.
And do we see an alternative to the Alliance? If this is the point of the question. How to get out of a difficult situation because of this threat, if Ukraine gets NATO membership?
I can answer. Ukraine can have a plan B, when Ukraine gets its full territorial integrity, gets its territories, it will be enshrined not in some conditional document like the Budapest Memorandum, which may be violated. There will be serious players - the European Union, the United States, which consolidate Ukraine's status in the security situation. This may indeed be the way out of the current collapse of Europe. We have an understanding of such a plan, and frankly, I was going to talk about such a plan with President Biden as it is already outside the Normandy format.
- Is it a plan before Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, or is it an alternative plan?
- This is a plan before that. Why? Because this plan is to stop the war immediately, guarantee security to Ukraine, solve the issue of energy security in addition to territorial integrity. And if we do it today, it is a quick alternative. It is not about geopolitics, it is about saving people, about ceasefire, about saving lives, our army. That is, it is a plan B, which is a very quick way out of the collapse everyone is in.
It is a matter of dialogue with major political players. This could be a quick plan for Ukraine's membership in NATO or an alternative. We can talk about it, we understand European countries that are afraid of our membership in the Alliance. But we must get all the guarantees so that in the future, in two or three years, we will not find ourselves in a difficult situation again when Europe lifts sanctions against Russia. And this is what some Europeans want to do.
- Should this include certain guarantees of a military nature?
- Of course. Guarantees of a military nature, energy security and everything else.
- Will this mean that the current Normandy format will step back, and this new format of Ukraine, the United States, the EU and Russia will guarantee your country's security?
- This cannot be an alternative, because it is a more global format than the Normandy one. What the Quartet must decide on will be part of this plan. Because the Normandy format is about the east of Ukraine. It is not about Crimea, it is not about the "pipe", it is not about guarantees of our security, it is not about NATO membership or the special status of partnership with NATO.
A very important step has been taken in the Normandy format as of today. The so-called clusters were written, agreed upon by Germany, France and Ukraine and handed over to the Russian Federation, but we do not see any serious interaction and desire on the part of Russia. Here, all that needs to be done today by the countries that are part of the Normandy format is to put a lot of pressure on Russia to take this plan, these clusters and end the war in Donbas.
Why doesn't Normandy solve everything? This format was initiated in Minsk. This is a technical round table, which addresses the issue of ending the war. But at the last meeting of advisers to the leaders of the Quartet, where Russia was represented by Mr. Dmitry Kozak, he asked our European partners whether Russia is a party to the conflict. Representatives of Germany and France did not directly answer that Russia is a party to the conflict. They have reactivated such "cautious" diplomacy, with which Ukraine does not agree, because Russia is a party to the conflict and we understand that.
This is an example of how everything happens. How the Normandy format works, how the meetings of the Trilateral Contact Group take place. Russia's position in these video conferences is that Ukraine should talk to the separatists. But the Minsk agreements state that there is a Trilateral Contact Group: Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE as a mediator. These are the parties, it is clear.
And you’re asking me about NATO, that someone is afraid to join, about the army, about the war. But everyone is afraid even at the level of recognizing Russia as a party to the conflict.
- If I understood correctly, the German Chancellor's foreign policy adviser did not directly recognize Russia as a party to the conflict?
- They could not directly answer this question. I think this is a problem. I can't be diplomatic in these matters, because the war has been going on for seven years, people are being killed. And we do not have time to constantly run in a circle.
- Don't you think that Germany feels responsible to Russia, which it attacked during World War II, but forgets that it also attacked Ukraine?
- Here I think that Germans feel their guilt for what happened during World War II. For example, on May 9, we went to Milove, where we honored the victims of World War II. The Ambassador of Germany to Ukraine went with us. She laid flowers at the monument, at the Eternal Flame. Germans feel it all, they recognize it all. I have no questions about this, and I feel their support.
- However, earlier this week you met with Robert Habeck, the leader of the Greens. And he offered to help Ukraine with defense weapons as the first leader of an influential party in Germany. The German government immediately rejected the idea. What is your opinion on this position of Germany?
- First, I want to say that Angela Merkel has done a lot for Ukraine. It's true. And I am very grateful to her as a Ukrainian. We want more, and I expected more from her, especially in the Normandy format. We are grateful for what we have, but I know that Germany can do more. Because what they do for us, they do for themselves. I don't know why they don't understand that.
But as for Mr. Habeck. I first met him two years ago when I had an official visit to Germany. I met with the Chancellor, as well as with Mr. Habeck in his new office, without air conditioning, I remember that. I understand him, and I want him to understand me, to understand the situation in Ukraine, the situation with Russia, and the fact that we know directly that Russians and the Kremlin are not the same thing, because many Russians support Ukraine. We don't hate Russians, we don't do that on our television. And I wanted to show him what was going on. And he understood me, he understood that Nord Stream 2 was just a weapon, not an economic one, but a political one, a very powerful one. I believe that he (Robert Habeck - ed.) is a very open, powerful person. And he said he clearly understands that there is no navy in Ukraine, that our shores are unprotected, he understands what lethal weapons are, he understands that Germany has not provided us with any weapons or military assistance since the beginning of the war. And it can - Germany has powerful ships, missile boats, patrol boats.
- Are you grateful to Habeck for actually raising this issue in Germany?
- Yes. I didn't ask him to do that. It was his choice. But I'm grateful to him for that.
- You talked about ships, patrol and missile boats - what other military equipment should Germany provide?
- There are assault rifles, radio equipment, military equipment - a lot of things. Germany is powerful in this sphere. Germany is also one of the leading countries in the automotive industry. And Germany has geopolitical weapons, and this is exactly the question of the European Union. If we return to the topic of NATO, it is one of the countries that has a decisive vote in this direction. And the third issue is Nord Stream 2, in which Germany also has a decisive vote. Because sometimes you can do much more, and that depends on Germany.
- Mr. President, if it is possible, can we talk about your origin, off the record?
- Yes, sure.
- You said this in Israel - about your grandfathers who fought, who survived the Holodomor. I think it's important for Germans to know. Ukraine is not just the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union is not just Russia. But the Holocaust affected Ukraine, the war affected Ukraine. And that's why I want to ask you…
- From my paternal grandfather's family only my grandfather survived. Everyone else was killed. My grandfather, despite his very young age, went to war in the ranks of the Soviet Army. His older brothers were also conscripted, and all of them, except my grandfather, died as soldiers. Everyone else from this part of my family was executed because they were Jews. Children as well. My grandmother and her younger sister were evacuated to Uzbekistan. And her father also fought and returned from the war alive.
- You know that there is a certain propaganda about Ukraine, that it is an anti-Semitic, fascist state. You are a Jew. Have you encountered this in your personal life? This alleged anti-Semitism that is being talked about as regards your country?
- I believe that I am the result and the answer that there is no anti-Semitism in Ukraine, that it is at the lowest level. Because there are no perfect forms, there are no perfect people. But it is a fact that anti-Semitism in Ukraine is at the lowest level compared to any European country. I believe that I am the answer. I know that anti-Semitism was the case in the Soviet Union, it is true. I know stories about my relatives, my father - people were afraid of it, yes, it was the case. But in modern, independent Ukraine, all this has changed a lot. That's why I don't think we have it. Sometimes there are provocations, but it happens everywhere.
- Thank you!