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Ukrainian foreign minister says global democratic order at stake in Russia standoff

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The United Nations Security Council is meeting today for the first time to discuss Russia's troop buildup on this country's borders. And, of course, that same troop buildup is dominating the foreign policy conversation in Washington and other world capitals. So it seemed like a good moment to come meet the man in charge of Ukraine's foreign policy. We are here at the Foreign Ministry - big, imposing building. We're going to head inside to meet the foreign minister.

On the third floor, we're shown to a sumptuous reception room - red velvet sofas, parquet floors, beautifully painted high ceilings, a stately grandfather clock ticking in the corner.

DMYTRO KULEBA: Hi.

KELLY: Mr. Foreign Minister.

KULEBA: Good to meet you.

KELLY: Dmytro Kuleba strolls in. He's wearing a sports coat, no tie, a woven bracelet on his left wrist. It's blue and yellow - the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Let me dive in and ask this - your current estimate of the number of Russian troops on your borders.

KULEBA: It's somewhere in between 100,000 and 130,000.

KELLY: Between 100,000 and 130,000. And is it still growing?

KULEBA: Slowly but steadily. We heard the announcement yesterday that - coming from the Russian Defense Ministry - that they are withdrawing part of the military force, but it's too premature to make any conclusions because we don't...

KELLY: What do you think it means?

KULEBA: Well, for the time being, it means nothing because we don't understand which units, what is the number of troops that are being withdrawn and, more importantly, where they're being withdrawn from.

KELLY: When I interviewed your American counterpart, Antony Blinken, earlier this month, he told me he thinks Vladimir Putin is really good at keeping his options open, that maybe even he doesn't know what his next move will be, that there is still room to influence his next move. Do you agree?

KULEBA: Yes. That's exactly where we currently stand. That's exactly what we are trying to do. You know, when the whole - when this - when the first alert was made about the potential Russian military operation against Ukraine last autumn, we were initially told that it may happen until the end of the year. Then the updated intel information was about January. Now you and I...

KELLY: Now we're on the last day of January.

KULEBA: Now we are on the last day of January. And the only conclusion we can draw is that diplomacy works.

KELLY: Help me understand this. Your government says the U.S., the media have been hyping the threat, have been fueling panic. Your government also says, we need weapons - we need more - we need them fast - this is urgent. Which is it?

KULEBA: Information is an art. And there is only one difference between us and the United States. We both understand the reality of threat and the risks that Ukraine - and more broadly, Euro-Atlantic security - are facing. The difference is that while the United States prefer to speak about it loudly almost every day, we are quietly focused on preparing the country for any possible scenario. That's it. We in Ukraine do not need to be reminded every day that the war is imminent. We have been living in a state of conflict with Russia since 2014. However, what happens when you start speaking about the war every day and telling the people that this is coming, this is unavoidable, it really hits economy. It spreads panic in the society. It...

KELLY: Your currency just hit a four-year low, as I understand.

KULEBA: Exactly.

KELLY: Yeah, against the dollar.

KULEBA: It throws markets into depression. So...

KELLY: But you understand how people sitting in Washington might hear what you're saying and think - hang on - we're racing to send hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons to this country that says, don't worry, we got it under control.

KULEBA: No, no one is - I think it's a total misunderstanding and an attempt to sow divisions among Ukraine and the United States, something that we...

KELLY: The last I want to do. I'm just saying...

KULEBA: ...Want to avoid. I'm not blaming you.

KELLY: ...What your government has said and trying to make sense of how all of these things can be true.

KULEBA: I'm not blaming you for that. What we are trying to do is the following. We - last November, the moment the United States shared certain information with us, we, Ukraine, came up with the idea of a comprehensive deterrence package that should include diplomacy, sanctions and military support to Ukraine. So we were not sitting down with our hands down and expecting anyone to do all the job for us. We are working hard. And again, there is this attempt to show that we are - that there is a big difference between Ukraine and the United States, or that Ukraine does not appreciate what the United States have been doing. It's a misleading narrative.

KELLY: You mentioned diplomacy. You are a diplomat, so I'm not surprised that you would view diplomacy as the way forward. But what would work that has not been tried?

KULEBA: Well, we have plenty of options in our pocket. I think...

KELLY: There have been a lot of diplomatic meetings these recent weeks. And here we are.

KULEBA: Meetings is one thing. But here is what I want to achieve. The state of play when we, Ukraine, and its partners, will not be calculating only the leverage as which Russia has on us but will have a clear set of effective leverage in our pocket against Russia. And this includes economic sanctions. This includes the issue of Nord Stream 2. This includes continued military supplies to Ukraine. It may sound weird, but actually, supplying weapons to Ukraine is part of the diplomacy. It's part of the diplomatic effort to prevent the war and therefore prevent the use of these weapons.

KELLY: Last question - and it's one that I've put to a lot of people since we arrived here in your country, but I'm curious what your answer is. You're speaking directly to millions of Americans listening right now. Make the case - why is it in the national security interest of the United States to help you, Ukraine, fight this fight?

KULEBA: Because what is happening in Ukraine, it's not only about Ukraine. If Russia succeeds here, that will send a clear message to everyone who wants to rewrite rules on which the world is based - that this is possible, that the United States and the Democratic Coalition led by the United States, that they are weak, and if you behave in a bold, aggressive way, you will eventually succeed. So for all Americans, all I can say is that we always said, we are fighting this war. This is our land. These are our people. We don't need your boots on the ground. But help us to fight this war diplomatically, militarily, and we will defend the current world order led by the United States and other democratic countries. And the last reason why your listeners should be interested is very simple - because Ukraine is a nice country, and it's worth being defended.

KELLY: Foreign Minister, thank you.

KULEBA: Thank you.

KELLY: Dmytro Kuleba, the Foreign Minister of Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.