The years of the Trump administration were “a difficult time” for Ukraine, the country’s foreign minister told CNN Wednesday, ahead of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Kiev.
In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also touched on the buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, potential military support from the United States, and President Joe Biden’s offer of a summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Kuleba’s comments about Donald Trump’s fraught term in the White House follow the 2019 scandal involving Trump and allegations that he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rival Biden and his son, Hunter ahead of the 2020 election.
The long-running crisis upended politics in Washington, and evolved into a full-blown impeachment investigation – of which Trump was later acquitted.
Kuleba said of the Trump administration: “It was a difficult time and at that point we were all focused on one thing … on maintaining bipartisan support in the United States.”
The minister added that the Ukrainian government will continue to invest in relations with both Democrats and Republicans in the US to ensure relations between the two countries are on more “solid ground.”
Giuliani was ‘playing politics’
Kuleba also told CNN that he was “not aware” of any formal request for assistance from the FBI, concerning Trump’s long-time attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Last month, federal agents executed a search warrant at the Manhattan home of Giuliani in connection with a long-running criminal investigation into his involvement with Ukraine in the latter years of Trump’s presidency.
Kuleba said Ukraine would be “open to helping” any FBI request, as the country has “nothing to hide.”
The minister added that he could not say if Giuliani acted criminally. But Kuleba said that “he was definitely playing politics and he put the situation at risk for Ukraine, and for the country’s relationship with Washington.”
“We did our best to avoid the trap and maintain that bipartisan support from the United States.”
Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to Ukraine on Wednesday comes at another delicate moment in the country’s relationship with Russia, amid a buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border and in Crimea.
“[We are] gravely concerned,” Kuleba said of the movements. “I think every country would be extremely concerned seeing how hundreds and thousands of troops and heavy military machinery is being masked along your border.”
Kuleba raised concerns about Russia’s recent assertion in what should be shared waters between Ukraine and Russia in the Sea of Azov calling it a “creeping annexation.” In a show of force, Moscow recently sealed off the strategic Sea of Azov to non-Russian state vessels until October in what Ukraine says is a violation of international law, and against a 2003 agreement between Ukraine and Russia to share the waters.
“The Sea of Azov…is low hanging fruit for Russia. After the illegal annexation of Crimea and the takeover of the control over the Kerch Strait, Russia can conduct this creeping annexation of the Sea of Azov. And it’s constantly reinforcing its military presence there and disrupting trade routes,” Kuleba told CNN.
The massing of Russian troops in the region over recent weeks has reignited tensions in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists demanding independence from Kiev since 2014.
The Kremlin has repeatedly said these are just military exercises, but Kuleba rejected any suggestion that the risk posed by Russia was being overstated, saying the threat was “real.”
“When green men appeared in Crimea in 2014, Russia claimed these were not their soldiers, that it was not Russia and yet the peninsula was illegally occupied by Russian military forces,” he said. “Green men” is the Ukrainian term for professional soldiers wearing Russian combat fatigues but no identifying insignia.
“So at least today, they admit that it’s them, but they’re just exercising. But even if it’s just an exercise, what they’ve been exercising is an encirclement of Ukraine, and offensive operations against Ukraine.”
Amid this tension, Kuleba said he would be discussing a “list” of US military support with Blinken, when he arrives in Kiev.
As part of this, Ukraine will request air defense systems and anti-sniper technology, said Kuleba.
“I want to make it clear that it’s not only about receiving it from the United States, but also about buying it from the United States,” he added. “We want this partnership to work both ways. It should be mutually beneficial.”
Kuleba said he wants Ukraine to be treated by the United States as the “eastern border of democracy” in the central Europe and Black Sea region and be integrated into the West – including NATO.
Indeed the minister believes Ukraine’s ascension to NATO will arrive in only a matter of time.
“The path to NATO membership is absolutely on the table already … NATO membership does not come in a day. We have plenty of time to settle the conflict. But we have to have a clear a step by step road map of our accession to NATO. And this is where the United States can help us.”
‘Beautiful piece of diplomacy’
As for Biden’s recent offer of a summit with Putin, Kuleba was optimistic, calling it “a beautiful piece of diplomacy.”
He believed the summit offer “bought time,” as Putin would not break rules while a meeting is being planned to discuss the rules – even if not all Ukrainians saw it that way.
“I understand those who do feel anxious (about the summit), because of the lack of information, because of conspiracy theories, because of the inherited fear of betrayal,” he said.
“But I see it from another perspective – from the professional diplomatic perspective. And I do not see anything that would go against the interests of Ukraine, at least at this point,” Kuleba added.
Correction: A quote in this story has been corrected to reflect that Foreign Minister Kuleba described Russian operations around Ukraine as offensive, not defensive.