Ukrainians expect anything from Russia and know that if it attacks them again, they will have to defend themselves, not wait for help from elsewhere, according to the a.i. charge d’affaires of Ukraine in Bucharest, Păun Rohovei. In an interview granted to Veridica and Breaking Fake News, the diplomat warned that a new invasion would be extremely costly for Moscow.
“Each state has a right to build its own future the way it sees fit”
VERIDICA: Russia has repeatedly called on the United States regarding NATO and Ukraine. Negotiations have taken place to deescalate the crisis, but only between Russia and the United States, Ukraine has not been part of the talks. European Union mediators have also been involved. Which are Russia's specific demands with regard to Ukraine and what is Ukraine's response?
PAUN ROHOVEI: First of all, I would like to mention that we are in a situation of extremely serious security crisis and this crisis is not only about Ukraine, about our common region, the Black Sea; it’s about the peace, security and stability of the entire European continent, about restoring international law, about reinstating a rule-based international order. Yes, there are many attempts by the Russian Federation to get our partners to make a certain decision about Ukraine, but without involving Ukraine. However, I want to assure you that, in the talks and negotiations with the Russian Federation, no friend or partner of Ukraine’s has ever addressed an issue that was not previously agreed or discussed with Ukraine.
VERIDICA: Moscow's most important request, as far as we know, is for the West, and especially the United States, to give firm assurances that Ukraine will never be a member of the North Atlantic Alliance. In your dialogue with the United States, what was Washington's response to this request from Russia?
PAUN ROHOVEI: Yes, Russia has tried to introduce something new into international rules: deciding the fate of a state without taking into account the position of that state. You know, Ukraine is a sovereign state, an independent state and according to international law, according to international regulations, including documents that have been approved and applied by international institutions, as an independent state, Ukraine has the sovereign right to develop its own foreign policy options, to formulate and implement its own foreign policy priorities, and European and Euro-Atlantic integration is a choice of the Ukrainian people. It is stipulated in the Constitution of Ukraine, and this is where we start from. We have the right to build our future, and the answer of the United States is very clear - every state has the right to build its future the best way it sees fit.
A Russian attack on Ukraine would be “suicidal”
VERIDICA: Currently, are there any communication and negotiation channels between Kiev and Moscow?
PAUN ROHOVEI: There are, via those structures that are meant to ensure peace, to stop this war. Ukraine has repeatedly stated that it is willing and ready for dialogue at the highest level. We do not yet see a response from the Russian Federation in this regard.
VERIDICA: There are warnings that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine. Are you ready? What scenarios are you currently considering?
PAUN ROHOVEI: Of course, Putin comes from a political culture that is quite different from the Western one. He is trying to achieve his goals by force, using threat. Putin only stops where he is stopped, he only understands the language of force. The Russian Federation must first offer explanations, as a state that has launched wars against Georgia, against Ukraine; as a state that has illegally occupied territories belonging to the Republic of Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine; as a state that commits cyber-attacks, assassinations, and carries out disinformation campaigns in NATO and EU member states.
Since last year, the number of Russian soldiers on the border with Ukraine has been steadily increasing. Various military exercises have taken place, currently with Belarus. If we look closely at the map, we are practically surrounded by over 130,000 Russian soldiers with offensive weapons. Such an aggregation of forces a few kilometers from the border with Ukraine is a sign of a very, very big invasion threat.
But we do not have enough information to clearly state that there will be an invasion tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. I think that at this stage Putin is using this demonstration of force more as a blackmail tool to get more than he is being offered. Well, indeed, there are several scenarios, including the scenario of a Russian military invasion of Ukraine. But Ukraine is not alone, Ukraine has partners and friends.
We have an extremely good cooperation with all NATO member states. With the United States, which is helping us a lot, with weapons, ammunition, new technologies; we also have a good cooperation with Great Britain, and an extraordinarily good technical and military cooperation with the Baltic countries. And here I would like to mention Romania as well. In various diplomatic and military ways, these states have prevented the Russian Federation from taking certain steps. I do not think that the Russian Federation, according to all the signals it has received from NATO, from the United States, from the OSCE, would take steps towards suicide. All the sanctions imposed on Russia after such a step would lead to a disaster for Russia's statehood and economy.
VERIDICA: You said that Vladimir Putin was using this crisis as blackmail tool. What is he seeking to get?
PAUN ROHOVEI: He would like to get Ukraine. But I want to assure you that the point of Ukraine’s return to the past has been overcome, we already have our own choice.
VERIDICA: And what is that point?
PAUN ROHOVEI: We are not going back to what it once was, you know very well ... You remember the events of 2013-1014 in Ukraine, when the Ukrainian people made a choice. In fact, in contemporary history, Ukraine is the only state that’s been fighting and shedding blood for its civilizational choice. I am talking about European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
“We are aware that is nobody else’s duty to protect our homeland”
VERIDICA: You were talking about the important help that the West and the North Atlantic Alliance have provided to Ukraine. However, their messages say that they will not send troops to Ukraine. Is this a point you are negotiating with the North Atlantic Alliance?
PAUN ROHOVEI: Here I would like to go back to what Mr. Dmitro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, said. Last week he made a very clear statement that Ukraine is aware that it must stand on its own two feet, to defend its own sovereignty and its territorial integrity. We are aware that nobody owes us, though many have rushed into stressing that they are not sending troops. We haven't asked for any troops, but at the same time, we see a lot of support initiatives. The United Kingdom, for example, without too much talk or consultation, loaded ammunition and military equipment on planes and flew them to Kiev in just a few hours. The United States, and other states have done the same. We are aware that we must defend our homeland on our own, but at the same time we are signaling that these threats posed by the actions carried out by the Russian Federation are directed not only against Ukraine.
Political and diplomatic messages are also very important. Here I would like to sincerely thank the Romanian side for its diplomatic and political approach. It has done a lot to bring Ukraine closer to the European and Euro-Atlantic structures. Since last year, at the initiative of Bogdan Aurescu, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, Ukraine has been invited to the meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of three NATO countries - Poland, Turkey and Romania.
I also recall Minister Aurescu's initiative to hold a meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Kiev. It is a very strong signal from Romania that it is on our side and understands what is happening and knows how to act, this is very important. In addition, we have other areas in which we cooperate very actively, including in the technical-military field. In 2020, we signed an intergovernmental agreement on technical-military cooperation, which entered into force after being ratified by both parties in December last year. There is a very wide field of cooperation between our states and this is not just about military equipment.
VERIDICA: Some Romanian politicians have stated that this agreement obliges Romania to fight alongside Ukraine against Russia.
PAUN ROHOVEI: I don't think so. Romania is a NATO member and has stated its choice. The choice a NATO member makes is more than just about fighting, arms in hand. After all, it is a fight for security and stability in the region, an exchange of experience or some joint military exercises with the partners in the Black Sea. It's a pretty strong signal, but I'm coming back and I want to emphasize this: we are aware that no one owes us to defend our homeland if we do not defend ourselves.
“There are no secessionists or secessionist territories in Ukraine. In Ukraine there are territories temporarily, and illegally, occupied by the Russian Federation”
VERIDICA: They say in the West that, given that Russia has occupied Ukrainian territories, Ukraine's pro-European and pro-Atlantic option is unreasonable and the time horizon for achieving this goal has widened considerably. What is your view on this issue?
PAUN ROHOVEI: There are different points of view here. Apart from the war with the Russian Federation, we have done much of the homework given to us by the European Union and NATO. That is why we believe that our choice could be put into practice, no matter what everyone things. As regards reforms, I want to assure you that a lot has been done in Ukraine.
VERIDICA: How will Kiev manage a potential energy crisis?
PAUN ROHOVEI: Russia has been gradually reducing the volume of gas carried through Ukraine's gas system. According to our data, since January 2022, the transit of gas from the Russian Federation has been reduced twice, from 109.6 million cubic meters to 52.5 million cubic meters per day. But natural gas consumption has fallen in Ukraine and the guaranteed capacity for imports has increased: from Slovakia to 42 million cubic meters a day, from Hungary to 8 million cubic meters a day.
Russia insists on the rapid launch of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and uses it as an asymmetric weapon. Nord Stream 2 has already caused an energy crisis in Europe. At the same time, Moscow is forcing some EU member states to violate the European energy law. Through the Nord Stream 2 project, the Russian Federation insists on its military presence in the Baltic Sea area and seeks to undermine NATO's ability to ensure security in the Baltic Sea region.
VERIDICA: What is the current situation in the Russian-occupied territories, especially in Donbass, but also in the Crimea? The war has been going on for eight years and there are still casualties. How many people have died and how many have left and taken refuge in other areas?
PAUN ROHOVEI: Yes, it is a tragedy for the people there, a tragedy for the soldiers' parents ... Since 2014 until now we have lost about 14,000 soldiers. Now there are fewer, but are talking about human lives, still ... Last year, more than 50 soldiers died, and in 2020, 61. Despite the ceasefire agreements, Russian mercenaries, along with Russian officers, permanently violate this ceasefire regimen. Even on January 14, so not long ago, despite the ceasefire agreements of December 2021, we had 99 violations in just one day, we had four dead and 14 injured in one day. More than two million people are internal refugees, but most of them have found their place in Ukrainian society, most of them in Kiev, Odessa or in the western part of Ukraine, in Lviv.
Allow me to stress the fact that there are no secessionists or rebels and secessionist territories in Ukraine. In Ukraine there are territories temporarily, and illegally, occupied by the Russian Federation - the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol and the temporarily occupied territories in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
There is no place more dangerous for ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers than the territories illegally occupied by the Russian Federation. The narratives about the “violation of the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine” were used as a pretext for the Russian military's aggression against Ukraine. These narratives have nothing to do with reality and are still used at the highest level by Russian officials. The aggressor always blames the victim for what they do: this has been a standard practice in all the Kremlin wars.
In the temporarily occupied territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Russia continues to maintain a military presence. The total number of troops in the Southern Military District of the Russian Federation in these temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine is 35,000. Many of them are mercenaries from the local population. The total number of Russian soldiers in these Ukrainian territories is 3,000, of which 2,100 are soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation who are constantly fighting against Ukraine. Russian generals and officers hold command positions.
“We can expect anything from the Russian Federation”
VERIDICA: Western and Ukrainian intelligence services have warned that Russia is preparing a diversion as a pretext for an invasion. The latest warning came from Washington, which has said that Russia is preparing a film about an attack by the Ukrainian armed forces and a genocide against the Russians.
PAUN ROHOVEI: We are very grateful to our partners for providing us with intelligence about possible challenges. We can expect anything from the Russian Federation. I would not comment on this information disseminated in the media, anything is possible. Analyzing some steps of the Russian Federation, for example [granting citizenship] to those who remained in Donbass - there are over 600,000 people who have already received passports of the Russian Federation - I wonder to what end. You know the Russian narrative: “we will defend the Russians or the citizens of Russia wherever they are.” I do not rule out the possibility of a situation created artificially for Putin to be able say for example, “Look, I have 600,000 people there, citizens of Russia, who need us to defend them”, and use this a pretext for a direct invasion. I believe that preparations are being made on several levels and that the challenges that we hear about might come true.
It's a hybrid war. In the current stage and in this war, any type of cunning is possible. International public opinion has learnt more about Ukraine's war with Russia in the last two or three years, but we have been at war with the Russian Federation since 2014. We have learned a lot, we have suffered a lot, but we have also learned a lot. I want to assure you that both the Ukrainian army and civilians are ready to retaliate if that should happen. But I hope it won’t.