Former envoy to UK on Western military aid, Russia’s ‘peace signals’ – interview

Former Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko
Former Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko

Former Ukrainian Ambassador to the United Kingdom and former Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko spoke in an interview with NV Radio on May 14 about military aid from Kyiv’s partners and Russia’s signals for peace.

NV: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kyiv [on May 14]. What do you think was the purpose of the visit?

Prystaiko: First, it’s clear that the secretary arrived after months of drama around military aid from the United States. And now, in the wake of this positive decision and a certain unification of Republicans and Democrats, a member of the current government came to us with a “I bring good news” message.

In addition, this isn’t only good news. You and I saw how efficiently and competently the Americans acted. All this time, while it seemed to us that nothing was happening and “everything was lost,” they were actually moving all the necessary weapons to the Ukrainian border. Because it’s very difficult logistically. Once [U.S. President Joe] Biden’s pen touched paper, all these U.S. military logisticians began to send us weapons from the territory of Poland and other partners and allies closest to us. It will take some time for it to go where it needs to go, for trained people to be where they need to be. But we can already feel it, our soldiers are already saying they are receiving ammunition and life is getting better.

I see another thing that few experts point out. The fact is that the U.S. president is going to attend the [upcoming Global] Peace Summit [in Switzerland].

How does U.S. diplomacy work? I can assure you that U.S. diplomacy will never allow the U.S. president to look ineffectual. I’m sure they’ve been working for a long time so that during this summit organized by Ukraine in Lucerne, Switzerland, not only top officials will come, but that they will achieve some kind of result. And one of the things that Blinken should talk about is how to implement or get the most out of this meeting, this summit, the Ukrainian peace formula.

NV: Can we speculate what that could be, given that Ukraine will not agree to make peace on Russia’s terms?

Prystaiko: The fact that [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin is going to visit [Chinese leader] Xi [Jinping] in a panic on May 16, I would say, is already a success. Because they also have to coordinate their signals.

You and I are finally playing an unexpected role in our existence. The United States and all our allies are coming to us, including NATO, the European Union, and many other countries. Putin is looking for his own [allies]. He’s so unsure of his victory over Ukraine that he’s simply traveling [to China] at the 11th hour to have time to negotiate with the Chinese, as well as looking for other partners around the world. That is, what we are told about the peace offered to us by Putin is clearly nonsense. If he could defeat us, he would have defeated us long ago. All Russian attempts to negotiate with us prove only one thing: we gave such a rebuff that Putin simply cannot, is physically unable, despite his strength, to finish us off.

Read also: Scholz expects significant progress at Global Peace Summit in Switzerland - German media

NV: We also invited China to the Peace Summit, but they declined. There’s a small chance that they’ll send their special representative, Li Hui. Is the summit meaningless without China?

Prystaiko: I think that today it’s already clear what the [geopolitical] axes are and who supports whom. For example, China isn’t our ally in this war. As of recently, it’s not a neutral state. We realize that. We saw their supplies [to Russia], we saw sluggish support in international organizations.

But when this plan, this [peace] formula that China is working out, finally became more or less clear to us, we realized it was meaningless. It centers on treating both sides of the war “fairly.” What kind of fairness can there be when they [the Russians] attacked us?

Obviously, China isn’t drifting towards Russia. They see the confrontation in Ukraine as a confrontation between the democratic model of governance and the model they chose. We may call it whatever we want — a controlled, autocratic, communist state, as they call it, although it’s not communist either. But there’s a clear division.

This is an unacceptable division for us, but at least it lets us understand who our allies are. Let’s be honest, not all 60 countries that will attend are our allies.

This is a risk for Ukraine, because when you gather many people, you must formulate your vision in such a way that all 60 of them can sign on to it. Otherwise, this summit won’t be successful.

Therefore, there’s a required position. Essentially, we want this summit to be a powerful signal to Putin so that he understands that most of the world has turned his back on him, he has no chance, and it’s necessary to look for a way out.

NV: You have certainly heard conspiracy theories suggesting that the United States, represented by Blinken or U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, are secretly trying to force Ukraine to sue for peace. How would you comment on those?

Prystaiko: I’m more often asked if it’s true that [former UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson came [to Ukraine] and didn’t let us sign it [the Istanbul ceasefire agreement in early 2022].

NV: It’s hard to imagine people who seriously believe this.

Prystaiko: People continue [to believe] because, according to someone, Putin had managed to intimidate us to contemplate surrender at that time.

If you want to blame the British, you should probably just blame, for example, [former UK] Prime Minister [Winston] Churchill, who once said that “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”

It was said 80 years ago, but it remains relevant.

As for Putin and his flirting with the West. This is, again, a demonstration of his lack of confidence in Russia’s ability to defeat us and our allies. And certain weak minds, which aren’t only in the West, but also in [the regions] that we call the Global South, respond to these signals very well. For those who still suffer from the phantom pains of colonialism, it’s embedded in their worldview.

I don’t think anyone is fooled [by Russian propaganda] other than people looking for an explanation as to why they should stay out of this conflict. Europeans are well aware of everything. There are those who are ready to understand or try their best to pretend that they understand Putin, because otherwise they would have to agree that it would be necessary to fight to the end.

But our partners increasingly understand the war has reached a point where we must shift gears. And I’m sure (I’ve already said this more than once) that we cannot win this war without direct military participation from our Western partners.

Read also: Concerns about Zaluzhnyi’s role as ambassador to London – expert interview

NV: Former Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi is going to be the next ambassador to the UK. It’s clear he’ll face many challenges as he’s not a career diplomat. On the other hand, he’s going there as a veritable celebrity. How do you think he will fare in the post?

Prystaiko: There’s a diplomatic joke. Diplomats say that “a person is going” only when they are on a plane with a ticket in their hands, and the plane takes off. Then you can say that you’re going somewhere, because there were many cases [last-minute changes]. But this isn’t the case with General Zaluzhnyi who is really famous in Ukraine.

As a former ambassador to the UK, I’m pleased that an ambassadorial posting to London is so important in Ukraine that everyone keeps up with the news about it. Thank God, this is a decent country and our ally, without whom, I think, we wouldn’t be in an independent Ukraine right now. That’s how I see the UK’s role, especially in the early days.

Therefore, it will be important for General Zaluzhnyi, firstly, to switch to civilian tracks. He’s a man who has devoted his life to the Armed Forces. This includes upbringing, mindset, military exactingness, discipline, accuracy, etc.

NV: Do you mean he won’t be as blunt as he’s used to be in what he says in his new official capacity?

Prystaiko: In general, a diplomat can say anything. And that’s how it worked all these years. Every time we talked to the British, they rolled their eyes, saying that “it’s impossible,” and then they supplied it all.

Sometimes it’s not even about material aid. For example, the [the Ukraine Defense Contact Group] Ramstein [format]. In fact, the first three Ramstein meetings were chaired by the UK, not the United States. The idea of gathering all partners at one table, saying “let’s help Ukraine,” was a British idea.

When the question arose, how do we get heavy tanks? The UK understood they didn’t have enough—only 240 tanks in total—but other allies were unwilling to act before they saw someone do so first.

The UK did the same with missiles, remember? They didn’t give us all the missiles we needed, but they said, “We will, but let all the other [countries] do the same.”

This is an opportunity to look for new and unconventional options. This is a much-needed ambassador who has direct access to the president of Ukraine and to an ally at the same time. He’ll be able to talk both to the UK prime minister and the Ukrainian president, and everyone else. This is his role.

Calling him a celebrity allows him to reach the British public, who should feel that Ukraine loves the UK and is grateful for the assistance. The fact that we’re sending a very prominent figure as an ambassador is also a signal. People realize that “Ukraine values us and is counting on us.” They think, “Not only are we important, but we have a role to play in the next steps.” This is exactly how they’ll take General Zaluzhnyi.

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