Former FM Klimkin on Ukraine-US relations — interview

Pavlo Klimkin
Pavlo Klimkin

As the United States has finally relaxed the restrictions on using U.S.-made weapons for attacks on Russian territory, Ukrainian officials suggested to Western journalists that relations between Kyiv and Washington are increasingly tense.

In an interview with NV Radio on June 4, Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin commented on this topic, ahead of three major diplomatic events on the horizon: the G7 summit in Italy, the Global Peace Summit in Switzerland, and the 75th NATO summit in Washington.

NV: The United States allowed us to use its weapons to strike Russian territory. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will attend the Global Peace Summit instead of U.S. President Joe Biden. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will also be present. At the same time, we read about the alleged crisis in the Ukraine-U.S. relations. How would you describe the relations between our countries now?

Klimkin: Allowing strikes on Russian territory is very important. This isn’t everything we would have liked, given what Western weapons are capable of. But we know that decisions are made gradually, they’re never made on an all-or-nothing basis. And our mentality during the war is just like that.

Nevertheless, the ground is clearly shifting. This is one of the most important red lines, which has always been with the Americans and hasn’t moved in any way for two years. The fact that there are certain limitations, both geographical and by types of weapons, by types of situations, of course, interfere with our ability to prosecute the war. We would like to skip all that. But I remember how at the beginning of the war someone talked about [sending] helmets [in lieu of substantial military aid]; this is a quantum leap, by comparison.

This is one of the most important red lines in the minds of the Americans: the permission to strike Russian territory, albeit with certain restrictions. I believe this is what our American friends and partners call a game-changer — a fundamental change in circumstances and decision-making.

Regarding the Swiss meeting. Emotionally — it’s a pity party, substantively — it won’t affect much. We fully understand that Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, is responsible for curating this process. He will steer the process from the U.S. point of view, as he has done before.

But Biden’s presence would have been a symbolic item of political history; we’ll miss that. Biden is Biden and Harris is Harris. Here we all understand the stakes very well. Even if I don’t share Biden’s logic, nevertheless, I understand it.

Things aren’t easy for Biden with the election campaign. Now everything is teetering on the edge, in some states that are critical to victory, there’s a certain, albeit super small, shift in [U.S. presidential candidate Donald] Trump’s favor. Difficult statistical and economic data for May, both by the number of new jobs and orders, while the economy is always paramount [in U.S. electoral politics].

So emotionally, both with my heart and mind, as a Ukrainian, I would really like Biden to be in Switzerland. But he has his own challenges. We shouldn’t see Biden’s absence as a major setback. Although, of course, we cannot underestimate the political symbolism of this.

Read also: Biden says peace in Ukraine doesn't necessarily mean NATO membership

NV: Would you say that U.S.-Ukrainian relations are in crisis?

Klimkin: No, I don’t see a crisis. I don’t register the signs of a crisis. I was asked by your colleagues about our relations with the United States, and it was with the French yesterday, and with the Germans last week. This topic is actively discussed in our media.

I believe the signs of the crisis is a loss of trust and the ability to talk seriously. But what we’ve seen lately, what the Americans are doing... I’ll give an outline. The decision to strike Russian territory has already been mentioned. The second is secondary sanctions. [They’re being introduced] gradually, I think too slowly, as usual, but the Americans are following this path, trying to stamp out loopholes in the sanction regime.

The third and very important story (I think it’s very cool) is the G7 summit that will take place in a few days. It will have both public and non-public decisions. But the public decision will concern the use of profits from frozen Russian assets [to aid Ukraine]. And this is actually a fundamental change in circumstances, since this decision is very difficult to move because of EU’s concerns. But if this decision is adopted, it will mean a fundamental raising of the stakes, both politically and in terms of pressure on Russia.

Other very important things are also being discussed, including arms supplies: the next U.S. aid package, and the first deliveries of F-16 aircraft in the near future.

If we take it all comprehensively, it certainly doesn’t look like a crisis of confidence.

NV: Turning to the NATO anniversary summit in Washington. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith says that during the summit, the Alliance plans to offer Ukraine a security package that would serve as a “bridge” to membership. How would you interpret this statement?

Klimkin: First, this is part of the non-public discussion at the G7 summit, as there will be one more round before the NATO summit. G7 summits [exist] for leaders to talk to each other, while NATO summits are for finalizing decisions.

In no way do I want to suggest that NATO summits are all scripted in advance, but, usually, this is exactly what happens.

The G7 summit is about using Russian assets. The significant part of this is that the lion’s share of these profits will be used for military aid to Ukraine.

The network of Ukraine’s bilateral security agreements is taking shape. The NATO summit will discuss the possibility of sustained financing of security assistance through a NATO mechanism. Now it’s mainly bilateral, with NATO playing more of a coordinating role. But there will be an understanding of how Ukraine will be integrated into the process.

By now, all these plans are developed. What will be the funding and resource provision? This is also an element of the decision in Washington. But we must be honest: as of today, I don’t feel a general agreement, a consensus of our partners regarding a direct political step, to invite Ukraine to join the Alliance. But we’re moving towards it in such a practical wrapper.

Read also: US and G7 advance plan to fund Ukraine with frozen Russian assets

NV: Those who are against Ukraine’s NATO accession aren’t even Hungary or Turkey, but the United States and Germany. Why are these countries the ones who decide Ukraine’s fate and our accession to NATO?

Klimkin: I wouldn’t single out just the Americans or Germans. They have their own peculiarities and nuances of positions, but it’s not just those two countries.

The picture looks much more complicated. There are countries with their positions, and it’s much more than two countries. I’ll say it carefully, so as not to “grade” our friends, but more than two countries are obstructing the process.

Moreover, when soma say that if the Americans agree, they’ll convince everyone the next day—it doesn’t work like that either, because I understand the decision-making mechanisms, especially political ones, within NATO.

Today, honestly, I don’t feel a consensus to take this leap in the near future. But I’m also absolutely sure that there are no possibilities [for a durable peace] other than guaranteeing our security through NATO mechanisms. Moreover, this war may end when [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin realizes that Ukraine belongs to Europe, to the West through formal membership in the European Union and NATO.

But the Kremlin is still hoping to destroy our path to both NATO and the European Union. And when the West says that “Ukraine is part of the West and Europe, and we must protect it, in accordance with Western mechanisms, since Ukraine cannot have a separate security model,” that will be a fundamental signal [to Russia]. But the West is still making its towards this.

NV: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently openly criticized China. He said China is persuading the so-called Global South countries to ignore the Peace Summit in Switzerland. I heard suggestions that we are beyond the point of no return in relations with Beijing. Is this a realistic assessment of our relations with China or is that too dramatic? 

Klimkin: My short answer is absolutely not. Indeed, the Chinese have chosen the path of fundamental support for the Russian military industry, and they’re building it up quite deliberately. But they’re building it up not against us, but against the United States. If you look at the world from Beijing, you see everything through the lens of strategic rivalry with the United States. Similarly, Washington sees it through the lens of strategic rivalry with China. And this is their No. 1 priority.

By the way, when I read statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, they’re very careful about their participation in the summit, leaving, if you like, some room for diplomatic maneuver.

But China’s policy isn’t fundamentally anti-Ukrainian, it’s an element of a strategic game with the United States and Europe, a desire to keep all opportunities for strategic mediation in the future.

By the way, I think the logic of the Saudis, their cautious attitude to participating in the summit in Switzerland, is about the same. Of course, there are nuances, but we won’t discuss them now, since this isn’t a topic for a short conversation. Both the Chinese and the Saudis want to keep a free hand and freedom of maneuver to be able to talk both with Washington and Paris, with us, with Moscow, with others. And this is exactly the reason for declining to attend the summit.

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