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Kyiv's First Wartime Prime Minister Says Ukraine Must Win Or 'Be Exterminated'


Arseniy Yatsenyuk (right) sits atop an armored vehicle during a visit to a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on May 7, 2014.

Post-Soviet Ukraine's first wartime leader has cited monumental stakes for Europe in the "bloody, difficult, and dramatic" suffering his country is enduring from Russia's all-out invasion.

Ex-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also welcomed a crucial shift among Western political mindsets since he came to office in the shadow of Russia's initial aggression eight years ago -- one that he thinks "has turned the tide" in favor of Ukraine and democratic forces in Europe.

In a wide-ranging interview from an undisclosed location in Ukraine with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Yatsenyuk, who served as prime minister between 2014 and 2016, warned of "very bloody and severe battles" as Russian forces seek control over Donetsk, Luhansk, and other parts of eastern Ukraine seven weeks into the war.

The 47-year-old political veteran also noted that Germany is paying a price for its misguided policies on Russia and said that if Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, "Georgia and Moldova will be next."

"We have just two options: to win or to lose; to survive or to be exterminated by Russians," Yatsenyuk says. (file photo)
"We have just two options: to win or to lose; to survive or to be exterminated by Russians," Yatsenyuk says. (file photo)

Yatsenyuk credited a staunch Ukrainian military resilience, a united Western response, and the failings of a "completely corrupted and outdated...so-called modernized Russian military" for thwarting Moscow's initial war plans.

[Putin] was completely convinced that the Western world is fragile, and the response to this kind of brutal aggression against Ukraine [would be] weak, dull, and ineffective."

But he warned of terrible suffering still to come for Ukrainians.

"We have just two options: to win or to lose; to survive or to be exterminated by Russians," Yatsenyuk said.

"I strongly believe that the victory will come," he added, calling Ukraine's defense a "righteous war. I do understand that this is a very bloody, difficult, dramatic route."

Yatsenyuk called the Ukrainian defenses "one of the biggest examples in the contemporary world of really heroic actions" and said the sinking last week of the guided-missile cruiser the Moskva, Russia's Black Sea flagship, is "an ominous and bad sign for Putin."

Moscow and Kyiv said on April 18-19 that Russian forces had launched a new phase of their operations in Ukraine.

Yatsenyuk, then a Ukrainian opposition leader, reacts as protesters clash with riot police during a rally to support EU integration in central Kyiv on November 24, 2013.
Yatsenyuk, then a Ukrainian opposition leader, reacts as protesters clash with riot police during a rally to support EU integration in central Kyiv on November 24, 2013.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has exhorted Ukrainian defenders to fight on as his armed forces cited "intensified offensive operations along the entire line of contact" that has mostly separated Russia-backed separatists from Ukrainian forces in Luhansk and Donetsk since 2014.

Germany has to realize that in the short term, they need to pay the price. And this price is nothing compared with the price Ukrainians are paying."

Russia's Defense Ministry said on April 19 that it had struck more than 1,200 targets and downed a Ukrainian MiG-29, claims that could not immediately be confirmed.

Yatsenyuk cited indications that the Kremlin hoped to achieve any victory by the May 9 anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany that ended World War II in Europe, a date that Russians and Ukrainians commemorated together for decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

While he might question official figures showing majority Russian support for Putin or his "special military operation" in Ukraine, Yatsenyuk said he doesn't "distinguish" between Putin and his supporters, whom he described as "the same criminals."

"I don't question the general mood of the Russian people. And the general mood is anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western, anti-freedom. This is the axis of evil. And it's not just Putin, because it wasn't Putin fighting in Irpin or Bucha, killing innocent Ukrainians. It isn't Putin in Mariupol. These are his soldiers. But they are Russians," Yatsenyuk said.

WATCH: Ukrainian soldiers have dug in and are bracing for battle in the eastern Luhansk region as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that Russian forces have launched their offensive in the Donbas. RFE/RL reporter Maryan Kushnir visited the Ukrainian trenches outside the town of Kreminna on April 18.

Ukrainian Troops Brace For Battle As Russia Launches Donbas Offensive
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The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said on April 18 that more than 5 million Ukrainians have so far fled their country since the invasion began on February 24. Another 215,000 third-country nationals have escaped Ukraine, according to the UN's migration authority, most of them students and migrant workers.

Death and other casualty figures on both sides are difficult to ascertain amid the ongoing fighting. Ukraine has said that around 3,000 of its soldiers have been killed, while Russia has officially stated that fewer than 2,000 soldiers have died, despite mounting evidence that the number is much greater.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) by April 18 had recorded 2,072 civilian deaths and another 2,818 injured in what many observers warn is a wild underrepresentation, given the lack of access to war zones.

Yatsenyuk, who took office after public unrest ousted a pro-Moscow president and government in Kyiv in February 2014 and served as prime minister until April 2016, predicted that Putin and Russia's tactics would echo their recent military campaigns elsewhere.

He cited the widespread destruction in Grozny, in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, as well as in Aleppo, where Russian forces propped up Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a strategic Black Sea coastal city that had around 500,000 residents before Russian encirclement and the accompanying humanitarian disaster.

WATCH: The port city of Mariupol was home to 400,000 people before Russia's invasion. It has been under siege by Russian troops and under constant shelling for more than 50 days. The city has been reduced to rubble, amid claims by Russia that it now has near complete control. Thousands of civilians are believed to have died and tens of thousands remain trapped in the city.

Mariupol: How A Prosperous Ukrainian City Was Turned Into A Cemetery
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"In the Kyiv suburbs, in Mariupol, in Chernihiv, in Kharkiv -- the tactics of the Russian military are very clear: to kill everyone and to destroy everything," Yatsenyuk said. "So that's the reason why a supply of lethal defensive and offensive weapons -- and I want to...[emphasize] offensive weapons -- is desperately needed for the Ukrainian military."

International prosecutors have launched war crimes investigations over Russian actions in Ukraine amid widespread bombardment of civilian targets, reports of rape and other crimes, and accusations -- including by U.S. President Joe Biden -- that Russia is committing "genocide" against Ukrainians.

In these dramatic and challenging times, it was so important for the Ukrainian people, and for the people of Georgia and Moldova, to show real unity, to stay as one united front."

Putin on April 18 issued a decree honoring a brigade accused by Kyiv of committing war crimes while it occupied the town of Bucha, where Ukrainian forces who retook the town discovered bound corpses and other evidence of atrocities.

Yatsenyuk welcomed what he said was "a tremendous change in Western politics," also crediting U.S., U.K., and EU support for Kyiv.

"That's what Putin didn't expect. And this was a very big misjudgment on his side," said Yatsenyuk, who took office in 2014 as Russia occupied Crimea ahead of its annexation weeks later, despite widespread international condemnation. "He was completely convinced that the Western world is fragile, and the response to this kind of brutal aggression against Ukraine [would be] weak, dull, and ineffective. The West has changed its policy towards Russia; it has turned the tide."

And while he said his "wishful thinking" suggested the change was "irreversible," he acknowledged "some minor doubts" as a veteran politician.

Yatsenyuk singled out worrying signs like Hungarian ties to Russia -- underscored by Budapest's refusal to join EU-wide sanctions against Moscow and a recently restated commitment to Russian gas and oil imports -- and support in the ongoing French election for "pro-Putin" presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.

He also cited a widely reported snub of a potential visit by German President Walter Steinmeier by Zelenskiy's office, which denied rejecting any request from Berlin to come to Kyiv as the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish counterparts were getting ready for a joint visit last week.

"I believe that it would be better for German-Ukrainian relations to have the German president in Kyiv," Yatsenyuk said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk following talks in Berlin on October 23, 2015.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk following talks in Berlin on October 23, 2015.

Under ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel, experts say, Berlin spent years tempering some of the West's most strident criticism of Moscow and calls for punitive measures in part to keep energy and trade ties open.

Social Democrat Olaf Scholz and his "traffic light coalition" government have pursued a tougher line since succeeding Merkel in December 2021. Scholz has cooperated closely with EU members and Washington to supply weapons and other support to Kyiv since the all-out Russian invasion began.

If Ukraine fails, both Moldova and Georgia will fail. Period."

Merkel and Steinmeier have each publicly acknowledged underestimating the Russian threat.

"German politics has changed dramatically, completely, which is good for Germany [and] is good for Ukraine," Yatsenyuk said, citing German reliance on Russian oil and gas, investment, and even diplomacy. "This kind of policy made Germany weaker, not stronger."

The former Ukrainian prime minister cited the cost in the eyes of the German public of the war in Ukraine and Berlin's past policies.

"Germany has to realize that in the short term, they need to pay the price," Yatsenyuk told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "And this price is nothing compared with the price Ukrainians are paying."

Now that they've made the "right choice," he said, "they have to execute this choice, to go down this road."

Among EU nonmembers or aspiring members, Yatsenyuk cited efforts by the governments of fellow former Soviet republics Georgia and Moldova to maintain neutrality in the current conflict as "just wrong, period."

Thousands of Russian troops are in both countries -- in Georgia's case to defend separatist bids since a five-day war in 2008, and in Moldova to hold onto a Soviet-era military presence despite Chisinau's repeated requests that Moscow remove them.

Both Tbilisi and Chisinau have formally applied for EU membership, fast-tracking their respective bids when Russian troops flooded across Ukraine's borders nearly two months ago.

"They know the Russian playbook. We all shared the same values," Yatsenyuk said. "And in these dramatic and challenging times, it was so important for the Ukrainian people, and for the people of Georgia and Moldova, to show real unity, to stay as one united front, to impose sanctions against Russia. If Ukraine fails, both Moldova and Georgia will fail. Period."

He cautioned those and other countries against trusting Putin and cited a history of broken promises.

In a speech in the days before launching the full-scale invasion, Putin called Ukraine an integral part of Russia, questioned Ukrainian nationhood and culture, and suggested it had never achieved "real statehood."

In the hours before the attack commenced, he cited the goal of "demilitarization" and "de-Nazification" of Ukraine, the latter a frequent canard in Moscow's years-long effort to delegitimize Ukrainian governments since the 2013-14 unrest that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

"Russia never needs any kind of pretext," Yatsenyuk said, "They will always find this pretext."

Written by Andy Heil based on an interview by Vazha Tavberidze.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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