The first question is inevitable. On September 27, 2022, President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed the Ukrainian ambassador to the Netherlands, Maksym Kononenko. The presidential decree was confirmed by Kononenko on Twitter: “My diplomatic mission is over”.
Four months later Kononenko receives his visit in the Ukrainian embassy on the Hague Zeestraat. Nothing indicates a change in his position. Kononenko maintains good contacts with Dutch politicians and is always present at Ukraine-related events in the Netherlands.
Are you still the ambassador of Ukraine in the Netherlands?
“Naturally. My president has decided to replace me. It’s a political decision and I’m a civil servant, so I have to respect that decision. In the meantime I do my job and wait to see where I will continue my diplomatic career and who will replace me.”
In the Netherlands, the reaction to your dismissal was surprised. Do you know the reason yourself?
“I know it has nothing to do with the bilateral relationship with the Netherlands, the cooperation between our countries is very good. Again, this is a political decision. I can’t say more about it now. Sometimes things happen in politics and diplomacy that cannot be clearly explained.”
Kononenko prefers to talk about his visit to Kiev and Mikolaiv in December, together with many other Ukrainian ambassadors. Kononenko lived in Kiev from the age of six. “As ambassadors, we sit at a distance and see the war on our screen. That’s why it was so important to see how daily life goes on despite all the hardships. Ukrainians remain motivated and hopeful. I returned with more confidence in a good outcome.”
The situation on the battlefield is not very hopeful. There seems to be a stalemate in both the south and the east. Do you see it that way?
“I wouldn’t call it a stalemate. Heavy fighting continues every day in many places. After the liberation of large parts of the Kharkov and Kherson regions, everyone hoped that the counteroffensive would continue quickly, but unfortunately it does not work that way. A military law says that you lose three times as many weapons and people in a counteroffensive as in a defense. We get a lot of western weapons, but what we receive doesn’t match what we need. It’s that simple.”
Ukraine needs heavy offensive weapons instead of defensive weapons?
“We are clear: in order to liberate our occupied territories, we must go on the offensive. We welcome all the support, and what we’ve received so far certainly helps us achieve our goals. But you remember what happened when the Americans started to deliver the HIMARS missile system. That changed the battle. We are now desperately looking for such game changer.”
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Is the German Leopard 2 tank such a game changer?
“Yes. I see three possible game changers. First: NATO-quality tanks. Second, antiaircraft that can stop Russian attacks on our energy infrastructure and civilian targets, such as Patriots. According to our analyses, 97 percent of Russian missile and drone strikes target civilian infrastructure. With chaos and misery, they hope that Ukrainians will pressure our leaders to negotiate. The third option is modern fighter jets.”
The longer the war lasts, the louder the call for negotiations. However, both parties make preconditions that are unacceptable to the other. When are conversations conceivable?
“Someday there will be talk. We have been open to talks since the beginning of the Russian invasion. The only question is: under what conditions? Loss of our country and our identity cannot be a condition for peace. Our five conditions are clear: Russian withdrawal, restoration of our territorial integrity, reparations, prosecution of crimes and security guarantees. This is elaborated in the Ukrainian Peace Formula, a ten-point peace plan. It is also clear what needs to be done to make this a reality: we must defeat Russia on the battlefield and kick them out of our country. Then we can talk.”
So the Ukrainian precondition for negotiations is complete Russian defeat?
“It is not a condition, but we see that Russia is not ready for negotiations now. After a defeat, they are.”
Then that defeat is de facto a condition, isn’t it?
“No, withdrawal from our territory is a condition. They can choose that too. The Russian leadership can make a ‘goodwill gesture’ tomorrow, as they have previously called their withdrawal from an area.”
And withdrawal also means withdrawal from the Donbas and Crimea?
“Certainly, we are talking about the borders of 1991, the year of our independence. Like many other countries, we never recognized the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. I don’t see how Crimea differs from other occupied territories in Ukraine.”
Because Russia has major military interests in preserving the peninsula because of the naval base in Sevastopol?
“Why should we consider Russia’s interests? Rather look at the interests of Ukraine, Europe and the world. As long as Crimea is Russian and Russia controls the Black Sea and threatens neighboring countries, there will be no peace in this part of Europe.”
Yet there are many people in Western Europe who want Ukraine to negotiate. In the Netherlands asks the Gulf Group, with journalists, scientists and politicians, to the Dutch government to push for negotiations. Do you understand that call?
“I understand. Erasmus said it: ‘The most unfavorable peace is better than the most just war’. But I have two questions for these people. What part of your territory or city do you want to give to Russia to achieve peace? And: how do you look afterwards in the eyes of your compatriots whom you have given up? Think of all the atrocities in the places that the Russians have occupied. The best way to stop the war is not to pressure Ukraine to surrender, but to pressure Russia to stop the war.”
Are you worried that support for Ukraine in Europe and the US will decline as costs for the West continue to rise?
“We are not afraid of that and we do not feel it. Of course there are concerns in the West, sometimes fueled by Russian propaganda. But we must focus on the reality of today. And that reality is that both political parties in the US support us, as do the EU and the UK. Elsewhere in the world, in Japan, Korea, Australia, we also see no decrease in support. On the contrary. Ten months ago it was taboo to talk about tanks. Now it is not about whether they will be delivered, but when.”
The best way to stop the war is not to pressure Ukraine to surrender, but to pressure Russia to stop the war
The Netherlands supports Ukraine with military, financial and humanitarian aid. For 2023, the government has pledged support worth 2.5 billion euros. “The exact use of the contribution depends on the needs of the Ukrainians and thus the course of the war,” said the four responsible ministers. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the Netherlands will contribute – in an as yet unknown manner – to the German-American supply of Patriot air defenses to Ukraine. On the other hand, compliance with sanctions against Russia is faltering and the Netherlands does not score high in international rankings for the reception of refugees.
Is the Netherlands doing enough?
“I can only say good things about it. The Netherlands does a lot, especially if you look at it per capita. We are extremely grateful for the Patriot support. This will help to close the Ukrainian skies and strengthen the security of our cities.
“The Netherlands also does a lot in areas that are less visible. Minister Hoekstra [Buitenlandse Zaken, CDA] is very committed accountabilityholding perpetrators accountable. That is very important to us: evidence of war crimes must be collected properly so that the perpetrators can be prosecuted. The Netherlands is helping the International Criminal Court with forensic investigations in Ukraine. In addition, the Netherlands wants to house the special tribunal that we are striving for. As far as we are concerned, The Hague is a logical location. That is where the Russian leaders must stand trial.
“Another example is the expertise that the Netherlands provides for reconstruction plans. There is a lot of knowledge here about agriculture, irrigation, water and port management, and sustainability in construction. It is of course still early days, but Dutch companies will be given a priority position in these plans. We will not see this as a violation of procurement rules. I have really come to appreciate the Dutch approach since I started working here. Very structured, but also pragmatic and concrete.”
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