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VOA Interview: Former Ukrainian President Poroshenko

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is seen in this screen grab from an interview with VOA.
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is seen in this screen grab from an interview with VOA.

Former Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko told VOA during a recent visit to Washington that he has held meetings with international partners, calling on them to neither trust nor be afraid of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Poroshenko said there are several things needed for Ukraine's victory over Russia: weapons and financial assistance to Ukraine, stricter sanctions on Russia, the creation of a global anti-Putin coalition, and Ukrainian membership in NATO.

During his visits, Poroshenko said he had meetings on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon and State Department and participated in an International Democratic Union forum. The conference, which brought together leaders of democratic parties from many countries, awarded Poroshenko with the IDU Bush-Thatcher Award for Freedom.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: The White House has requested almost $38 billion in new funding from Congress to support Ukraine. After meeting with members of Congress, what are your impressions of Congress' willingness to continue providing financial and military support to Ukraine?

Former Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko: We received positive signals about bipartisan support. We had meetings with senators from both parties — representatives of the Ukrainian Caucus — who delivered the messages that Ukraine is the top priority for the United States - the Congress, the administration, and, most importantly, the American people.

First of all, we talked about weapons supply. I returned from Kherson one week ago, and we were among the first who came to the city after its liberation. A few days before, we were near Bakhmut. [The place of heavy fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces.] We know exactly what the soldiers need. It is the long-range artillery system HIMARS with a range of up to 300 kilometers, which allows (Ukraine to attack) Russian ammunition storages and headquarters with high accuracy, while remaining in a safe position. It is a game-changer for us.

Second, is fighter jets. It is not an offensive but a defensive weapon that would help us to gain air dominance and to provide defense for the Ukrainian troops.

Third, and probably the most important, are the air defenses. Ukrainian armed forces demonstrated a very high efficiency using air defense systems during missile and drone attacks on the critical energy infrastructure. It was 100%: 18 drones were launched and 18 drones were liquidated. Our American partners were impressed.

We received an agreement that the quantity and variety of air defense systems will be increased, including THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or anti-ballistic missile defense systems].

The next position is fighting against drones and radio-electronic warfare systems. American drones, including attack drones, are seriously improving the combat capability of Ukraine because this is a different type of war. It is a war of long-range, high-accuracy artillery; the war attack drones. It is the war of air defense. Our most crucial task is to protect the critical energy infrastructure, including generators and converters, to minimize the results of Putin's attack on civilian objects.

Next are the sanctions. We shouldn't only sanction oil or individuals. We should block all Russian export that uses commercial fleet. Extraterritorial sanctions are our top priority. We should stop the billion dollars Putin receives from the civilized world each day. At least half of this money goes to kill Ukrainians. Our partners fully understand that.

Next, we need to create a global anti-Putin coalition. ... We should not allow Putin to weaponize energy, winter, food, refugees or anything else.

Another important point is bringing justice. … Justice means that Putin and his circle of military criminals would be in The Hague, behind bars. That`s why we should create an international tribunal within the G-7 group of nations or the EU for the international recognition of the war crimes of Russia.

The most important thing we raised is Ukrainian membership in NATO in the future. I want to deliver the message that we cannot finish the war without it and guarantee global or European security. Putin will use this time to renew the combat capability of the Russian armed forces. We expect the U.S. leadership in this process. Without NATO membership for Ukraine, there would be no peace in Europe.

VOA: How much would the ability and willingness of the Ukrainian armed forces to attack military targets on Russian territory change the calculus, militarily and politically?

Poroshenko: This is not about changing the calculus, military or political. Ukraine has a legal right to fire in response. We are not Russian; we don't attack objects of the civilian infrastructure, and we don't attack civilians. Sorry, not us. Somebody attacks the Russian points where the Russians keep their bombers that attack peaceful Ukrainian cities and civilian objects with cruise missiles. We do not accept that. We think that if Ukrainians pay such a high price, Russians shouldn't feel that they sit on the sofa and watch Solovyov on TV (Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian show host - VOA), and that's their kind of war. No! We protect ourselves, and nobody in Russia should feel safe until the war is stopped. The people of Russia, if they want it to stop, should put pressure on Putin to end the war, pull out of Ukraine, and recognize war crimes. Believe me; it is only the beginning - I know what I'm talking about.

VOA: When talking about assistance from the United States to Ukraine, another factor has become prominent: the sheer volume and scale of the volunteer assistance inside Ukraine — how much Ukrainians are helping themselves. Has Ukraine’s volunteer assistance been discussed and has it factored in as an influence on foreign assistance?

Poroshenko: The Ukrainian volunteer movement is the unique factor for our victory together with the armed forces of Ukraine. They [Poroshenko’s meeting counterparts] were impressed by the large numbers of Ukrainians participating in this movement. Our charity organization spent almost $50 million delivering necessary items to the Ukrainian armed forces and civilians in the de-occupied territories. For example, just today, we sent a generator from Great Britain. We are negotiating with the Canadians to send a generator by plane to Ukraine. We said there is no water, heating, electricity or food in Kherson. With this generator, a bakery can open and bake bread for armed forces and civilians in the area.

We also delivered the armored personnel carrier and more than 300 artillery trucks to every brigade of the armed forces of Ukraine. We're delivering UAVs with unique characteristics so that the artillery brigade can work with higher precision in any weather conditions. The most important thing is that we connect with our soldiers and deliver exactly what they need most cheaply and efficiently.

VOA: You met with Putin many times. You are one of the few who may understand his thinking. Before the invasion started, he talked about the security guarantee for Russia, NATO expansion, denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine as the reasons for Russian aggression. Now we hear the language of imperial conquest. How would you interpret this?

Poroshenko: I want to remind you that the war started not on February 24th but nine years ago. When I was elected president, we had to deal with the occupation of Crimea and Donbas without money or armed forces. We began the process of creating the armed forces within two months and liberated two-thirds of the occupied Donbas.

Now, I don't doubt that we would free all our territories, including Crimea. But this is not the final step. The final step would be bringing Putin to responsibility, freeing all Ukrainian land, and Ukraine joining NATO. I give two recommendations regarding Putin to my international partners: don't trust Putin. Don't be happy if Putin signs something because it means nothing. And don't be afraid of Putin, learn from the Ukrainian experience. This way, you will win together with Ukraine. Now, not Article 5 [of the NATO charter] protects Europe and the world from crazy Russian aggression. The yellow and blue Ukrainian shield protects Europe. Today, Europe and NATO need Ukraine more than Ukraine needs NATO. It is a win-win cooperation. Similarly, new weapons supply to the Ukrainian armed forces is the shortest way to peace. These are my lessons from meetings with Putin.

VOA: It is hard for many people around the world and inside Ukraine to understand why Russians are doing this to Ukraine. Do you have an answer?

Poroshenko: Nobody in the world can understand why Russia is doing it. I can only see one reason: Putin is a maniac. We don't have any other explanations. At the IDU forum in Washington, D.C., I met with the leaders or the opposition leaders of the African nations, because it's important to create a global coalition for supporting Ukraine and an anti-Putin global alliance. They do not need any additional explanations because Putin weaponized energy — poorer countries pay more for power. He weaponized food — now a half-billion people are in danger of starvation worldwide. Putin weaponized refugee problems. Putin weaponizes everything. We need to have a scenario of protecting the world from Putin. From my meetings at the IDU forum in Washington, I can see that everybody understands it.

VOA: So it's Putin. Is it not Russia? You see the problem with one man only?

Poroshenko: No! Let's not simplify the question because, unfortunately, many Russians support Putin and, thus, have a shared responsibility for the war crimes in Ukraine. Russia needs reloading. Russia needs a process of de-Putinization. We also must cut Russian influence on the world: stop Russian influence on politicians, non-governmental organizations and mass media financed by Russian bloody money. It would be an instrument of how we cannot allow Putin to use democratic mechanisms to undermine the democratic process in the world. Ukraine is fighting not only for our territory and for our people. Ukraine is fighting for freedom and democracy for the whole Western world. Putin is now saying that they are not fighting Ukraine, they are fighting NATO or the Anglo-Saxons. That's why the most effective way to stop Putin is to give money and weapons to Ukraine, and Ukrainian soldiers would do your job.

VOA: People say Ukrainians are doing tremendously well on the battlefield and diplomatically. If you were president right now, would it be any different?

Poroshenko: Wow. OK, my answer would be the following. On the first day of the Russian aggression, February 24, I came to [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and said, “I'm not the opposition leader anymore. Both you and I are soldiers. Until our victory, I will not criticize anybody.” I do my best to improve the situation, and that's why I'm on the front every week. That's why I spend and do my best to supply everything they need to our soldiers and civilians. Our victory will not be the victory of Poroshenko or Zelenskyy, but the victory of the great heroic Ukrainian armed forces.

When anybody says that we need diplomatic efforts to bring peace, I say we have a great diplomat. I know what I'm talking about because I was the minister of foreign affairs, and some said I was one of the best diplomats. However, we have significant competition. The name of this diplomat is the armed forces of Ukraine. They conducted brilliant negotiations to release Kyiv. They conducted brilliant negotiations to throw Russia away from the Kharkiv region. They had the next diplomatic success in the Kherson region. Those were the best diplomatic negotiations I have ever seen in my life.

VOA: It's a very diplomatic answer. How do you see the war ending?

Poroshenko: I ask this question every week, on the front, talking with civilians and international partners. For that, we need weapons, sanctions, financial assistance, an anti-Putin global coalition, and Ukrainian membership in NATO to end the war. We need all five factors and the war will be over.

VOA: It might be a while before Ukraine joins NATO. It may only happen after the war ends.

Poroshenko: Somebody said we would obtain candidate status until the war ended. Somebody said we would not receive a visa-free regime with the European Union. We demonstrated that we could reach the results. Imagine what would have happened if Ukraine didn't have a visa-free regime with the EU; how many people would die not finding an opportunity to go to the European Union? This situation demonstrated that the visa-free regime was a very bright decision. We need a decision about the open-door policy of NATO for Ukraine. It is not just a security issue. It is a very important stimulus for reforms. We should continue our reforms despite the war. We should continue decentralization. As the conditions for the candidate status require, we must protect democracy, the rule of law, the freedom of the press, anti-corruption reform, judicial reform, etc. We should demonstrate that democracy wins over Putin's authoritarianism.

VOA: What kind of Ukraine do you see after the war? Will it be a changed nation, a changed state?

Poroshenko: Ukraine would be different, no doubt. Ukraine would be better, despite our severe losses: people, industry, economy and cities. We will value the price we pay for future Ukraine.