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'We will fight for our independence,' says Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We begin this hour with what could prove a major foreign policy headache for President Biden early in 2022. Russian troops are massing along their border with Ukraine, tens of thousands of them. Now, the Kremlin denies any plans to invade. But if that's true, what are the troops doing there, and why do more keep arriving? What can Ukraine or its allies, including the U.S., do about it? President Biden says the U.S. stands with Ukraine. He says there will be no decisions or discussions about Ukraine without Ukraine at the table. Today joining our table, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova.

Ambassador, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

OKSANA MARKAROVA: Thank you, Mary Louise. Thank you for having me here.

KELLY: Let's start with exactly what the situation on the border is. How worried are you that Russia is planning to invade your country and to invade soon?

MARKAROVA: Well, let's start by reminding everyone that Russia already invaded. Crimea remains illegally annexed. And we have...

KELLY: You're talking about 2014 and the Russian invasion of the Crimean Peninsula.

MARKAROVA: Yes. Yes. So for the past eight years, we are in this situation, which is far from perfect. And Russian troops already are in Crimea, which is Ukraine, and in the part of Donetsk and Lugansk territories. So unfortunately, this is nothing new to us.

KELLY: Let me let you respond to a couple of things that Russia has said. Russia is accusing your government of moving heavy artillery towards the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. They're accusing you of preparing an assault. Are you?

MARKAROVA: First of all, let me be crystal clear. We do not plan any military offensive, as we've never did before. Second, I would like to remind Russia their own words, that on our territory, we are developing our defense capabilities. We never attacked anyone before, and we do not plan to attack. But we are prepared to defend our country.

KELLY: But when General Gerasimov - this is the head of Russia's military - he has just been quoted by Russian news agencies saying Ukraine is bringing in helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles and planes to the east of Ukraine. Is that true?

MARKAROVA: Well, we actually are rebuilding our defense capabilities throughout the country. I just want to remind you again the situation in 2014 after the active cold period of the war. Our troops had been devastated by the attacks that we incurred then. So we are rebuilding the country, and we will continue to do so with the help of our partners. So we will do it, and it's our sovereign right to do so.

KELLY: Could you defend against a Russian attack on your own? I mean, with respect, your military is outmatched.

MARKAROVA: Let me tell you this. First, our army is very motivated, and it's a battle-tested army. Second, we have 4,000 veterans in the country. And I'm positive that each of them, every man and woman, are ready to fight for their country. And, third, Ukrainian people in general clearly said - and the polls can prove it - that the majority of Ukrainians support Euro-Atlantic movement as a member of NATO. So, yes, we will fight for our independence. We will fight for our European future and for Ukraine to remain a sovereign country. This is about the civilizational choice for us.

KELLY: Let me turn us to the question of the U.S. role. President Biden, as you know, says the U.S. has your back. He says the U.S. will beef up military support for neighboring allies, but he has ruled out sending American forces to Ukraine. He says that is not on the table. Are you satisfied with America's commitment to your defense?

MARKAROVA: Well, first of all, of course, we are thankful for everything the U.S. is doing to us. I mean, U.S. is a strategic partner and friend, I would say No. 1 for Ukraine. And this year has been a very successful year in actually getting our cooperation to a totally new level. So we have a strategic partnership charter, which we just signed in November. Our president already visited Washington, D.C., and we also signed during that visit a strategic framework agreement on our defense for the next five years. So we have a very clear plan how we would like to rebuild our defense capabilities and what is the role for U.S. as our strategic partner there.

KELLY: It prompts a question. What gives you confidence that, if the U.S. is not going to send forces, that anything the U.S. says would deter Vladimir Putin from attacking your country if he is determined to do so? I'm asking because President Biden has told Putin to knock stuff off before. I was there this summer for their summit in Geneva, and there were a lot of warnings and a lot of talk of consequences for Russia, but here we are.

MARKAROVA: Well, first of all, we believe it was very important that there was a direct call between President Biden and President Putin and that President Biden has been, we are positive, very clear about this, talking directly to President Putin. As you rightfully said, you know, we are talking about a three-layered package that would deter and demotivate Russia from further aggressions. And political deterrence - it's also economic deterrence. And you saw a clear statement from President Biden that he has informed President Putin what would be the consequences. And those consequences would be much harder than Russia even suffered in 2014. But also security deterrence - helping us to build our capabilities in addition to our very strong willingness to fight is a deterrence in itself.

KELLY: Last question, ambassador, which is just to invite you to speak directly to the many Americans listening to this conversation. America, as you know, has just wound down, very messily, a long military engagement in Afghanistan. There is profound weariness, according to polls. Americans do not want to get involved in another conflict overseas. We have enough problems to deal with here at home. Make the case for why it is in America's national security interests to come to the defense of Ukraine, should it be required.

MARKAROVA: What I would say to American people is despite the fact that there are 9,000 kilometers that are between our two countries, there is something that we have in common. First is the spirit of entrepreneurship, and second is our love for freedom and the willingness to fight for it. So we are not asking the United States or Americans to fight for us on the ground, but we are asking the U.S. firmly support us in helping us fight this fight.

This fight is not only important for Ukraine because ultimately, again, Russia attacked us because of our civilizational choice to be democratic and to be free. And I think it's in the interest of all three countries of the world to essentially show that you can make the choice and be successful and not be attacked by the autocratic regimes. So for the United States, which is a leader of the free world, it's very important to be on the right side, and we're very happy that U.S. is on the right side of this battle.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Oksana Markarova. She is Ukraine's ambassador to the United States.

Ambassador, thank you for your time.

MARKAROVA: Thank you very much.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this interview, Ambassador Oksana Markarova incorrectly says that Ukraine has 4,000 veterans willing to come to the country's defense. After the interview, the embassy said the ambassador misspoke and meant to say 400,000 veterans.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 12, 2021 at 11:00 PM CST
In this interview, Ambassador Oksana Markarova incorrectly says that Ukraine has 4,000 veterans willing to come to the country's defense. After the interview, the embassy said the ambassador misspoke and meant to say 400,000 veterans.