‘It’s a war for democracy,’ Ukraine’s former chief minister says of lo…

‘It’s a war for democracy,’ Ukraine’s former chief minister says of lo…

Last week, US President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin not to move into Ukraine.

Since then, Russian troops have continued to build up along the Russia-Ukraine border.

Related: Russia may ‘break a tooth’ if they ‘take a bite’ out of Ukraine, analyst warns

US intelligence officials say Russia has moved 70,000 troops and is preparing for a possible invasion early next year. Moscow denies it has any plans to attack, as it did in 2014 when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula, but says it wants guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO.

European Union leaders on Thursday pressed Russia to return to peace talks with Ukraine and renewed their threat to impose unheard of sanctions on Moscow in tandem with the United States and Britain should Russian armed forces cross the border.

It might be a diplomatic game of chess, but the stakes are very real for Ukraine.

Related: Top aide to Ukraine’s president targeted in shooting

Oleksiy Honcharuk, former chief minister of Ukraine from 2019 to 2020, spoke with The World’s great number Carol Hills about what these escalating tensions average for Ukraine.

Honcharuk is currently a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Esposa Institute for International Studies, but we spoke to him in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.

Related: ‘We cannot close the door or turn the page’: Belarusian dissidents in Lithuania fear Lukashenko’s crackdown

Carol Hills: Oleksiy, what’s your assessment of the situation right now with these Russian troops along Ukraine’s border? What’s going on here?

Oleksiy Honcharuk: Look, I believe that we should understand this situation broader than just a regional conflict because it’s not a regional conflict. Russia, seven years ago, attacked Ukraine, annexed Crimea, because for Russia, it’s very important not to have a successful democracy as a neighbor. It’s a main threat for them to have Ukraine as a democracy because Ukraine could be an example for Russian people — how successful a country could be if the country chose democracy as a form. 

Let me ask you this. Bottom line, do you believe that Russia is planning another invasion into Ukraine? 

For sure. I believe [so]. But I don’t think that they will have this invasion now because now everyone is expecting this invasion. So now, the Western world already understands that this invasion is possible and this is the worst time for Mr. Putin to attack Ukraine directly. But it’s important to remember that Ukraine is already invaded, and this buildup creates additional pressure on Ukraine’s economy. Its resources become expensive, and investors feel additional risks and [may] not want to invest in Ukraine. So Putin is playing a complicated role and playing on the different fields. 

I want to bring this back to Ukraine and the government in Ukraine. From your conversations with officials currently advising Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, what’s the mood like within the Ukrainian government? 

I would say, in general, Ukrainians are ready to fight. So it’s not like [the] Ukrainian government or Ukrainian people are scared. It’s not — because we already have this seven-years-long war. And we understand that we should fight for our freedom. All our history of our nation [is] one big history of fights against different empires for our freedom, and this fight against Russia is not a new page in our history. So, in general, we are ready to fight. We’re not scared, but we understand that it’s a much more complicated game. You know, it’s not like Putin just concentrated his troops along our borders, and this is a main threat. No, no, it’s not the main threat. He creates everything possible using propaganda, different diplomatic and military tools and economic tools to destroy trust — among countries, among people, to undermine democracy — and this is the main threat, I believe. 

What about President Zelenskiy? Do you think he has the ability to rule Ukraine by a major crisis like a possible Russian incursion? 

Look, we will see. But Zelenskiy is not alone. Zelenskiy is around a lot of patriotic and clever people. So this fairytale that the Ukrainian government or Ukrainian nation is not capable to defend itself or to fight is fake. And the best example to understand it is to see how it happened seven years ago. Putin wanted to move into at the minimum half of Ukraine, so he wanted to annex not only Crimea but Odessa, and the Odessa vicinity, Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk, but he failed. 

If Russia does move into Ukraine again, do you think the US would step up to help Ukraine militarily?

Look, I hope that Western leaders are clever and wise enough not to allow Russia to attack Ukraine because they have all necessary tools to do this. Because Ukraine is not only a country, it’s an example — and a meaningful example — for a lot of countries in the vicinity. And if Russia will attack, to move into Ukraine one more time, of course it will be a big war because our nation, it will push back and it will be a big war between the two biggest countries in Europe. I believe that it will be a huge crisis and a very dangerous precedent for the future. So, I am not afraid that Russia will capture and annex Ukraine. I think it’s impossible. But Russia definitely can kill a lot of our people, and this is a main threat for us. 

I have one more question for you. It seems like the Kremlin has essentially said that it’s not willing to negotiate directly with Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy. Why do you think that’s the case?

Kremlin’s tactic is to divide and rule. So, it’s not a problem to speak with Zelenskiy. It’s not a problem to speak to some Western leaders. Kremlin is trying to shake the situation, to undermine the trust between partners, so he understands that if he has direct dialogue with Western leaders, and not to have a dialogue with Zelenskiy, for Ukrainian people, it could look like Zelenskiy is ineffective and nobody wants to speak to him…that someone decides [the] destiny of Ukraine without Ukraine. Look, this is a war of signals — a war of concepts — and Putin is trying to show that Ukraine is not capable, is a failed state and all such fake rumors, to [weaken] sustain from the West and inside Ukraine. I believe he will fail with his actions. But one more time, and I started [with] it, and I believe that it’s the most important idea: It’s not a Ukrainian war, it’s a war for democracy, and this is a war for all the world, because Ukraine was attacked because it becomes a democracy. So, Ukraine is only one battleground — the main battleground — and Putin will not stop in Ukraine. He will create additional problems across all of the world.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

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