Putin 'has miscalculated will of Ukrainians to resist oppressors'

Kiev's ambassador to the UK insists Ukraine will not need foreign troops to defend it if Russia stages a full-scale invasion

Ukraine's Territorial Defence Forces participate in firearm drills at a former asphalt factory on the outskirts of Kiev. Bloomberg
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Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK has said he hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin has miscalculated the Ukrainian population’s will to resist any invasion, cautioning against a rush to panic among his compatriots.

In an interview with The National, Vadym Prystaiko suggested the Russian leader had a warped view of Ukrainians and the strength of their desire to hold on to freedom for themselves and their children.

“They are threatening each and every day with their statements, with their troops on our border and making our life difficult to the extent that they expect — I hope it will never happen and Russians have miscalculated — they hope that we will crumble down ourselves,” he said.

“Over eight years they [the Russians] were trying different tactics, they were having conversations, they were having negotiations … they created a new reality,” he said, referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and rebel enclaves. “We still need time to appreciate what it is, but for obvious reasons we will be able to withstand this pressure, we are prepared for this as well,” Mr Prystaiko said.

'Dangerous developments'

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Prystaiko touched on Ukraine’s need to bolster its air and sea defences, Germany’s lacklustre support, and how life has been carrying on as normal in his homeland.

He was speaking on Wednesday, two days after Russia recognised the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics”, and ordered troops and soldiers into the eastern Ukrainian regions. Hours after the ambassador spoke, Mr Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine.

Mr Prystaiko said Mr Putin’s readiness to recognise the breakaway republics means “he is opening up to options [for a] further incursion” into Ukrainian territory. “This is a very, very dangerous development which we have to find our answer to.”

The Russian president gave an hour-long speech on Russian TV on Monday, railing against Ukraine’s behaviour since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In a bid to trash Ukraine’s right to sovereignty, he said the country “has never had traditions of its own statehood” and said it had morphed into a US colony.

Mr Prystaiko said Mr Putin’s rhetoric showed he is living in the past and has his head stuck in another era.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday said that more British weapons would be sent to Ukraine in response to the heightened threat of a full-scale Russian invasion.

Lethal defensive weapons and non-lethal aid would be sent, Mr Johnson said.

The UK has already sent anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian military to help counter the threat posed by Russian troops, tanks and ships ringed around the country's borders.

“In light of the increasingly threatening behaviour from Russia, and in line with our previous support, the UK will shortly be providing a further package of military support to Ukraine,” Mr Johnson said. “This will include lethal aid in the form of defensive weapons and non-lethal aid.”

Ukraine 'will defend itself against Russia'

Mr Prystaiko insisted Ukraine did not need foreign troops to defend it against a foreign aggressor, but said the country needs help bolstering its air, sea and cyber defences.

“We will defend ourselves, we have enough troops. What we need is equipment, we have almost covered our immediate needs if they decide to come through land, over the border with tanks and people. What we’re missing is air and sea [defences],” he said.

From conversations with his relatives in Ukraine, the ambassador perceives that life looks relatively similar to that in other European nations, despite the increasing threats from Russia.

“Our relatives [in Ukraine] understand that the West is waking up to the call of Russians and are somehow aligning with us in our position,” he said.

“I am happy to report that they actually feel quite sure that the government is doing enough to defend them. Life is sort of normal, the shelves are full of produce and the people are not fleeing.

“There are some worrying moments, like when the airlines are cancelling their flights … many are leaving, companies are closing down, they are pulling out staff, embassies are closing down or moving to the west of Ukraine, further from the Russian border — all these signs are quite worrying.”

On Thursday traffic heading out of Kiev was brought to a standstill as people tried to flee the capital. The city was reportedly targeted by multiple Russian missile strikes in the early hours of the morning. But despite the rush to escape cities and Ukrainian territory, many remained defiant, staying in their communities.

Germany’s 'hesitant support is regrettable'

In recent months Nato member states have ramped up military and moral support for Ukraine as Russia has increased its troop presence on the frontiers.

The UK and the US have taken leading roles in offering military training and equipment, as well as stepping up diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the crisis.

While some of the alliance members have outshone others in their responses, Germany’s response has been described as regrettable.

Berlin long resisted pressure to halt approval of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline built to pump Russian gas directly to its territory. On Tuesday it finally said the project would be suspended after Russia ordered an invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Mr Prystaiko welcomed the move but said it was regrettable that several Nato countries had been “very, very restrained” in their support for Ukraine.

“The most bright example is Germany. We ask them to allow us to defend ourselves, we are not encroaching on anybody, we are talking about our own national survival, and they’re still hesitant to provide us with anything.”

Putin fears for his legacy

President Putin’s desperate efforts to stay in power have been plain for all to see in recent years.

Russia last year passed a law that would enable the 69-year-old former KGB foreign intelligence officer to remain president until 2036.

Russia’s aggressiveness towards Ukraine and its increasing isolation have left many analysts questioning what Mr Putin’s real intentions are.

Mr Prystaiko said he believes the Russian leader is in a race against time to leave behind the legacy he craves.

“We [Ukrainians] are by far the biggest chunk and most valuable prize. We are 40 million [people] … and the same — Orthodox, Slavic and white. This is the core of his ideas, the core of ‘create Russian greatness’ … We want to be in the West, we just want to live the same way [Europeans] do.”

Ukraine on Wednesday declared it would introduce a nationwide state of emergency in which special restrictions would apply in order to keep the country calm and protect its economy.

The state of emergency lasts for 30 days and can be extended for another 30 days, Oleksiy Danilov, a senior Ukrainian security official told a briefing. Parliament must now vote to enact the decision.

After Russia announced a military attack on Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday morning, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy introduced martial law and urged people to remain calm.

Updated: February 24, 2022, 12:40 PM