The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has shocked the world into fears of nuclear war, famine, and energy crises. With war ravaging Ukraine and sending millions of refugees into Eastern and Western Europe and beyond, the conflict’s immense global repercussions include new political and economic impacts on Middle Eastern countries in general and Lebanon in particular. Executive sat down with Ihor Ostash, the ambassador of Ukraine, to discuss relationships between smaller countries and their belligerent neighbors, assess regional responses to the Russian aggression and chart how “Putin’s war” might alter the region’s political circumstances and in the long term even create new opportunities for Lebanon. We bring you central excerpts from the extensive conversation that was conducted in Executive’s offices one month after the invasion was first unleashed.
From the average person’s perspective, the war between Russia and Ukraine came as a tremendous shock. It reveals the fallacy, widely held by Europeans for almost 70 years, that a violent cross-border attack in Europe was a sad but overcome reality in our history. One month into the war, this shock is still far from being digested and its unfolding traumas must be expected to impact European and global perceptions for years to come. But from international and regional perspective in the Middle East and from the vantage point of Executive as a publication that advocates for political accountability, free elections, peaceful development and economic democracy in Lebanon, the war between Russsia and Ukraine is also an economically and politically highly relevant topic. Mr. Ambassador, let us thank you agian for visiting the Executive offices and say that the shock of the development is still with us because we know that the impact of conflict upon lives is incalculable.
Once, when I was a very young politician after I became a member of parliament in Ukraine in 1990, I visited a memorial in Washington where I saw the inscription “Freedom is not free” (on the Korean War Memorial; editors). I was surprised about this statement, which for me was very linguistic, because in 1991, Ukraine redeemed our independence without a single shot. It was peaceful. But now, I understand why freedom is not free and now we pay a very high price for [our freedom]. You said that this invasion was a surprise, as it was for all of us, but we are already eight years in this war. The war started in 2014, not as real war but as one of [President Vladimir] Putin’s battles against Ukraine. I cannot say that this is Putin’s war. It is not Putin’s war but it is [the war by] Putin’s Russia.
(Ostash explains Russian attempts and Western mistakes in the lead-up to the outbreak of the Crimean crisis in 2014).
How do you see the referendum in which people in Crimea supposedly said they wanted to return to the embrace of mother Russia?
We have a saying in Ukraine that with a lie you can cross the whole world but you never will get back home. [Lying] is a one-way [route]. Putin is a liar. All his explanation of Crimea and Donbas is a total lie. He alleged that it was a coup d’état in Kiev, not a revolution of a million people. But we had two elections after this, in 2015 and 2019, and we had different presidents. In Ukraine, in the past 30 years, we had six different presidents. In Russia, we had Yeltsin, Putin, and Putin, and Medvedev. It is an important issue in discussing democracy and autocracy.
How do you then comment on the De-Nazification issue being raised by Mr. Putin?
It is a mythic claim. There are no Nazis in Ukraine. Most Ukrainians vote for centrist parties. All our presidents were not from the far right or far left. [President Vlodymyr] Zelensky even does not have political background, which is impossible in a country such as Russia. So concerning the referendum on Crimea: the referendum was scheduled for May 2014 but it was done in March with Kalashnikovs, with invasion, total military control, and total fraud. Nobody knows how many people came to vote but it was a very low percentage. It was like in Stalin’s time and not about democracy.
But do you concede that that there are some people in Crimea who would prefer to be part of Russia?
Yes, of course. Crimea has a complex situation of different nationalities. Historically for me it is very clear that Crimea belongs to the Crimean Tatars who have a long history and rich culture. The part [of the Crimean peninsula] that is next to Ukraine is mostly Ukrainian people. Russians came to Crimea only after the Russian-Turkish war and were guests in this territory. But Russia deported Crimean Tatars three times. Tsar Katharina started this and the last [mass deportations took place] in 1944 when they sent 300,000 Crimean Tatars to Kazakhstan, Eastern Siberia, and different places in the Russian Federation. Upon independence in 1991, the Ukrainian government declared that we should take back [repatriate] all Crimean Tatars and this was an important democratic step by the Ukrainian government. You have this mix of Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and Russians and a majority, although not very clear one, is Russian. And the Ukrainian parliament has now declared that Crimea in near future will be an autonomous republic.
How would an autonomous Crimean republic work in the context of Ukraine? Would it be comparable to the Kurdistan region under the autonomous regional government (KRG) in Iraq or perhaps like the Basque region in Spain?
Crimea is a very organic part of Ukraine and there is no comparison. This is because there is natural unity. The situation is that without Ukrainians, the Crimean [people] are not so good, and vice versa. The relationship is very close despite the fact that the Crimean Tatars are Sunni and the Ukrainians are Greek Orthodox and Melkites. Another very serious fake is about Donbas. It started with the same scenario as Crimea. ‘Green men’ [soldiers without insignia that might as well have been aliens from Mars] came to Ukraine. These green men made the invasion, and at least half of Donbas is now under Russian control. But the main fake [claim] is that Ukrainians committed genocide against Ukrainians in Donbas. It is fake claim that Ukrainians killed Ukrainians. It is unbelievable. The Ukrainian government made an appeal to the International Court of Justice two days after the beginning of the invasion and this appeal is based on the convention against genocide. It was very important for us to show that this crazy fake is not the truth, and functioned as trigger to start this war.
Now the war has been going on for more than a month, there are daily news of atrocities and the media are full of human interest stories of victims of the Ukrainian war. The UNHCR said at the end of March that there are more than 3.6 million refugees from Ukraine and in total about ten million people, or almost one fourth of the population has been displaced. Every man in Ukraine who is not too old or young is bearing weapons and there has been an influx of volunteer fighters and mercenaries on the Ukrainian and the Russian side. What is you best-case and what your worst-case scenario for this invasion after one month of fighting?
It is a humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and over ten million people are now temporarily displaced persons. Four million children are displaced. Three and a half million Ukrainians are abroad. The infrastructure of schools, universities, maternity hospitals has very seriously been damaged. Over 5,000 apartment building have been destroyed.
How much in percent of the approximate building stock is that?
It is not a very high percentage but it is very serious damage because the total cost is now over 600 million dollars in damages. This is a very preliminary assessment. From my point of view, we can thank Putin for some very important things. First of all, Ukrainians are united and consolidated to almost 100 percent. It does not matter if they are Ukrainians that speak Russian, or Polish, Hungarian etcetera. We are one nation. It is today, very rare to find a person who lives in Ukraine and is Russian speaking or Russian and does not hate Putin.
Are you saying that the sense of unity of the Ukrainian people has become strong in ways that did not even exist at any previous time in Ukrainian history?
Yes, absolutely. Also, suddenly, the whole world has discovered this Ukrainian nation which is able to be very well organized against an invasion by the second largest army in the world. And it is a heroic nation, a nation of heroes. And they are fighting to the end because of freedom and for their families and land. So, it is very important that this is the rebirth of the Ukrainian nation and that we have one of the most professional armies.
It must have been an enormous rebuilt of security forces over just eight years since, as you mentioned earlier, President Viktor Yanukovych had practically dismantled the capacity of the Ukrainian military.
This [development of military capacity] was not occasional. There were eight years of war and many of the military [were shifted] back and forth to Donbas as they were fighting there. Ukraine debunked the myth of the greatness of the Russian army. In Ukraine, Russia showed that there is no Russian Army. They are very bad [in terms of] being connected and communication, have very bad supply [lines], can fight only on major roads and have no serious experience. They clearly try to avoid direct confrontation and many are not motivated. We have almost 1,000 young Russian soldiers that we have captured and put into a camp that is set up according to the Geneva Convention. The Ukrainians have shown how to fight against such an army.
Twenty-five years after the initial Orange Revolution in 1991 had been very peaceful, Ukraine, as you are saying, has reinforced the message that freedom is not free with a high price of blood by resisting the aggressions in Donbas and Luhansk. How do you see the Russians as people today?
From the beginning, it was my opinion that this is Putin’s war. [I thought that] once very serious sanctions are brought against Russia, people will feel the pressure and [protest against the invasion]. But then, in monitoring Russian mass media, I was shocked by surveys that showed 60 percent, 70 percent of support [for Mr. Putin]. When you hear interviews in Russian TV, even with independent mass media, the answer from 70 percent or more will be “Putin is right.” [Putin’s] message of “you should fight these Nazis” is the message that is repeated at least by one in two people. And then, you understand that this is a zombie nation. There is this one-channel TV where every day there are these messages: ‘We are strong, we fight against America, we fight against NATO, and we have very serious enemies.’ Ukraine became enemy number one for Russia, despite being the neighboring country with almost the same religion.
Weren’t they saying on both sides for a long time that this is our brother nation?
Yes. But over 70 percent of Russians say today that Ukrainians are their enemy. It is unbelievable. From this, I discovered that I was wrong. It is not Putin’s war. I came to say this is Putin’s Russia, it is a zombie nation with an authoritarian leader, who is Hitler number two. [When Russia] went to fight against Ukraine, a Slavic nation with thousand years of shared history and culture, and when Putin is talking about Nazis, you should understand that the number one Nazi in the world today is Putin. He made a clear claim even before the war, saying ‘Ukrainia is a failed state, there is no Ukrainian nation and no Ukrainian language. We are one nation.’ This means that his main goal is to clear away the Ukrainian nation, this is real genocide.
If we turn to the situation in Lebanon with relation to Ukraine, 80 percent of the Lebanese present at our Executive editorial meeting this week agreed that the relationship between Russia and Ukraine was parallel to the relationship between Lebanon and Syria in the past. The experience of Lebanon was the same as that of Ukraine and Russia, they said, with many Syrians in their perception opining that Lebanon is not really an independent nation but should come back to greater Syria. What do you see as the best way for negotiating in such a relationship, when one country is much larger, far more populous and militarily better endowed than you as their neighbor? How can you assert independence against a neighbor who thinks you are his junior appendage? How do you deal with big brother?
You [in Lebanon] are lucky that you at least speak one language; there is no danger that you will be forced to speak the Syriac language. Our Ukrainian-Russian coexistence started many centuries in the past, when Russia was [the Grand Duchy of] Moscow and Kiev was what was called the Kievan Rus’. In the 17th century, then there were very serious battles between on one side the Moscow army – because Russia came into existence from 1721 when [Tsar] Peter I issued the decree to introduce a new name, of the Russian empire [as successor to the Tsardom of Russia]. Before that we called Moscow the Cossack state, because it was a state with very democratic rules and the hetman in Cossack Ukraine was an elected man. Tsar Peter I was very aggressive and killed many Ukrainians before and after a key battle in Politava that involved a famous Ukrainian, Ivan Mazepa. There are stories of Mazepa that relate to Cesar Debbas.
The following 300 years was what we call the time of ruin. We regained our independence in 1918 but after three years became part of the Soviet Union after another, communist Russian, invasion. In 1991, again we declared independence. It is a very long story of battles and I can say it was our fight for independence, to have our own Ukrainian state. During the 300 years, [use of] Ukrainian language for publishing was forbidden, and all this time Russians were saying that they were our big brothers. But today things look a bit different. Ukraine showed this experience of democracy – we started a new style democracy and now understand what it means to have democracy and all Ukrainians are now fighting for democracy. It is about values and about our lives. We cannot come back to this Soviet Union. Russia today is a clear [mirror image] of the Soviet Union, with Gulags and camps, etcetera. It means the younger brother has become much more progressive, much closer to European values and this was one of the major triggers for Putin. He tries to tell Russians, ‘we are a great country, we are the best country’. But Ukraine is next door to Russia and it has real freedom of expression and many possibilities of travel and of exchange with global life.
Do you think Putin could bring Gulags, the Soviet era “corrective labor camps” and forced mass internments, back in Russia?
[This danger] is very close. It is a very serious signal for me when they took part of Mariupol that they sent 20,000 or 30,000 Ukrainians and forced them to go to Russia. Now they are trying to make some camps for these people, because the majority of these people want to come back to Ukraine. For Putin, it is no problem to make one more Gulag.
That would mean we are talking about totalitarianism and state terrorism.
Absolutely, it is a terrorist [path].
We have now seen one month of war and Lebanese fears over food and energy supplies have been exacerbated by the Ukrainian war. What do you hear from Lebanese people when they talk to you? What comments did you get at the embassy from the Lebanese people, outside of the political responses?
In the first days of this war, I received a lot of messages at the embassy, from ordinary people. They wrote that they would like to help Ukraine, would like to fight for Ukraine – but this is a very delicate matter. Then, we started to collect humanitarian aid, and a lot of ordinary people gave us boxes. I then asked our friends, [Lebanese people and businesses with relations to Ukraine], to support Ukraine. The embassy now looks like a [warehouse]. We already sent one shipment by plane via Poland into Ukraine, ten tons.
Ten tons in aid were collected by the people here and delivered to the embassy and shipped from Lebanon to Ukraine?
Yes. (Cites donations of foodstuff from several Lebanese producers.) I was proud when I received boxes with hummus. This is given with great love, I said, because the best of Lebanon, hummus and moutabbal, duck meat and pasta, is given to Ukraine. I can now say this about Lebanon what I call ‘To Ukraine with love’. You understand that I was surprised because they brought the best. It is really amazing, and I would like to express great gratitude. Ukraine is a very serious supplier of food to Lebanon, 60 to 70 percent of sunflower oil is coming from Ukraine, the same with wheat and flour. Currently there is a shortage of Ukrainian products; [however] I understand that when war will stop, our seaports will be open and the first ships will sail to the Mediterranean, Lebanon will be one of the first [destinations].
And take a look, there are 1,175 students from Lebanon in Ukraine. When the war started, they were mostly in Kharkiv. Even Kherson, Dnejpro, etcetera. I received many messages that these young Lebanese were sheltering underground, in metro [stations] in a situation that you cannot imagine. They spent a week or two underground and then we organized a special operation to take them to Kyiv and from Kyiv to Bucharest and Warsaw, Lebanon and Ukraine worked together on that.
(Refers to Russian shelling forcing students to shelter in subway stations and quotes recent Russian propaganda offering stipendiums to resume their education in Russia to Lebanese students displaced from Ukraine.) But my point on that is very simple: I am not sure that Russian universities will now be recognized in other European countries, for example. But [this issue] is about moral [behavior], and I said the war will be over one day and we will try to help young Lebanese. We will find some partners, Europeans, and will find scholarships for them, etcetera. We will find a solution for this problem. It is about the moral image of the people, of the country.
So you feel that morally, Ukraine will commit to helping those students who were hit by the war, and Ukraine will make sure that they can continue their education in Ukraine with the Ukrainian government’s support?
Yes, of course. It should be a special cooperation. I don’t know but perhaps we can talk about a special fund for that, etcetera.
Lebanese have for many years gone to study in Ukraine, right? Lebanese students going to Ukraine is not something that happened just for the past five or ten years.
It started in the late seventies and the lowest estimate is that it was around 12,000 Lebanese students, but the real number looks to be higher. And I also like the fact that 40 to 50 percent of Lebanese students have married Ukrainians. I can say that there are at least 5,000 [binational Ukrainian and Lebanese] families, 1,000 in Ukraine and around 4,000 in Lebanon. In each and every village in Lebanon you can find an architect or medical professional who studied in Ukraine. Also in construction. There is a long story and many connections between Lebanon and Ukraine. And in these days, these very good doctors and architects try to support Ukraine and some of the doctors are going to Ukraine, as well as other volunteers [from Lebanon].
It appears that there is no public sector and governmental capacity in Lebanon for bringing humanitarian support to Ukraine at this time. Is there something specific on the interpersonal level that the Lebanese can do for Ukraine?
During the time of the Beirut Blast, in August 2020, and August 4 is my own birthday, many binational families moved to Ukraine. After the start of the war, they have moved back to Beirut. This means it is one house, one family. For me, as ambassador, I feel that there is such a deep interconnection between the two nations. You mentioned that there is no government capacity for Lebanon to help Ukraine, but, my friend, when Lebanon as a state declared and the Lebanese government condemned the Russian aggression, it brought tears to my eyes, because I never expected this and that it will be such a strong wording.
After the Lebanese statement, which was the first statement in the Arab bloc with such wording, condemning the Russian aggression, the Lebanese government decided upon a coordinated decision on voting in UN with the Arab League. I was worried at the time and the expectation was tragic for me. But when the decision was to [adopt the Lebanese wording], by almost all Arab countries, except for Morocco, Algeria, and UAE, it was major. What does it mean? Maybe I am wrong but in the final result, the small Lebanese country looks as the most influential country for this purpose [of making a joint statement] when there were several positions on the table.
Talking about Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, several countries in the Middle East, beginning with Turkey, seem to have found a place as intermediaries. From the Mediterranean axis, where we have many confrontations and tensions, suddenly seems to emerge the idea that this region is a good place to negotiate between the two warring parties of Ukraine and Russia in Europe. How do you see the role of the Middle East in relation to the European conflict?
Turkey is a country that is very important for Ukraine with relation to the dossier of the Crimean Tatars, because many Crimean Tatars now live in Turkey. Turkey played very important role in Crimean history, helped us to free some Crimean Tatars who were under arrest in Russia. Due to Turkish influence, they came free and many of them are my friends by the way. Turkey was already part of this intermediation process between Ukraine and Russia, and we are also thankful to Turkey for the Bayraktar [drone] the special weapons that we bought from Turkey two years ago.
Do you expect quick results from negotiations between Ukraine and Russia?
There are different scenarios. If we are talking about the possibility of finding some solution, it will be not easy. From one side, the Russian side, there is only one decision maker. That means it is easy to sign everything from the Russian side. On the Ukrainian side, we have a democratic country and some procedures in parliament and the constitution. Russia is demanding things from the Ukrainian side that are [involving] the constitution, for example, a neutral status. This is a demand that requires amending the Ukrainian constitution. This means the procedures will require at least two sessions that will take at least half a year, or even more. There are some democratic procedures which [President] Zelensky cannot guarantee [the outcome of] and this might even help him to negotiate.
In principle, the concept of neutrality for Ukraine could be agreed to?
If it involves the withdrawal of Russia from our territory, we can agree on such a status. Russia’s conditions – to recognize Crimea and Donbas, demilitarize and De-Nazification etcetera – are many and very tough. But the Ukrainian position is our territorial integrity, including Crimea and Donbas, and the neutral status. This is our main principle. But what does the so-called neutral status mean for us? In 1994, the Budapest memorandum [on security assurances for Ukraine, Belorussia and Kazakhstan] was actually about the same [issue], the security of Ukraine with five guarantor [states]. But this memorandum failed and such a situation cannot be repeated one more time. We can talk about guarantees. But with a very strong legal wording of [legal obligations].
Countries like France, Germany, Britain, the United States, and Turkey are ready to be part of this process. However, if we are talking about these guarantees, the bilateral discussion becomes a multi-lateral one, and each player can influence the process. For us, this may be very good because we have one more possibility to be protected. You understand. But there is a chance that the negotiations will take a very long time, because of their multi-lateral nature.
From what you are saying and what I see happening in Europe it looks like the situation today could bring a new spark of greater cohesion and unity to the project of European unity which has for years seemed to move day-by-day politically and economically, rather than advance strategically to a stronger union in constitutional, and security terms. Would you agree to this view?
Yes. If we are discussing the neutral status, for Russia, this should be a non-NATO status but Ukraine is now talking about a new umbrella of security for Ukraine, involving the mentioned five countries. For me, it is very clear that Ukraine will, after the war, become one of the Eastern European leaders which very seriously will influence security and I do not exclude that Ukraine will try to establish a new body around the situation. We already have this triangle of Poland, Great Britain, and Ukraine which will be a base for this new configuration.
That would be a security alliance and umbrella for Central and Eastern Europe?
It will be centered in Central and Eastern Europe but with Great Britain.
So if Ukraine now were to become the linchpin of European security, couldn’t this mean that the future of Europe, which has struggled for 60 years with the concept of its own security alliance, will be reshaped in a way that Putin’s Russia never was gambling on?
Absolutely. And Ukraine will be a very important part of reshaped European security in this case. From this point of view, I can say – speaking as a politician, not a diplomat – that Putin’s [descent] has started. The era of Putin is ending and this [invasion of Ukraine] is the beginning of the end. For me, it is now the question of how long he will stay in power in [Russia], which is a zombie country from which already all brains have left, all opposition has been killed, and all oligarchs are also out[side] of the country and lost everything. It is a question of time how long Putin will last.
Right after Putin, there will be another possibility to rethink the situation with the Ukrainian territory and integrity. In this case, we will still seek very strong support from Western countries, from Europe and our partners, and there will be another chance to talk about Crimea, with what I call the Russia after Putin. And this relates to your earlier questions about Lebanon and Ukraine [refers to importance of Helsinki Process as process that facilitated trade and security for big and small countries since latter days of Cold War]. The list of Russia’s external pursuits of power and influence is very long, including Syria. Helsinki was a very good international security configuration but Russia made every effort to destroy this process, which albeit imperfect, allowed small and big countries to coexist in a type of peace and find peaceful solutions for many types of problems. But we now should try to make a new solution.
I mentioned in my press conference [to Beirut media shortly after the start of the Russian invasion] that the Middle East will play a much more important role after this war. It is my prognosis that Europe now will make a turn to the Middle East, the first sign of which was the German-Qatar linkage and German-Saudi negotiations on energy. When Europe is getting closer to the Middle East economically, the second echelon will be political. Europe will now play a different role in the Syrian conflict, which means that Russia will be very weak. Russia was main intermediator between Syria and the Western world, and the resolution will be reshaped with more powerful influences of European countries. For Lebanon in this situation a serious chance will open up with regard to Mediterranean gas and oil – upon one single condition: throw out Russia and make a European consortium for Lebanon [offshore oil and gas]. This will be a rebirth of Lebanon in modern energy policy.
To add another remark about Lebanon and Ukraine, Lebanon has suffered a lot from neighboring countries and Ukraine has suffered a lot. But now there is a new chance for Ukrainian-Lebanese relations and trade relations beyond commodities such as wheat, oil, and steel that was the top Ukrainian export to Lebanon before 2014.
One of the large economic problems of Lebanon has historically been the massively negative trade balances. Could Lebanese exports of goods, such as agro and agro-industrial products, but especially services, such as IT and digital economy services, grow in a post-war scenario?
Steel and food are important but the future is for new IT technologies. When I checked Lebanese exports to Ukraine, in the first place was – tobacco for shisha. Ukraine suddenly became shisha country, due to Lebanon. Everybody in cafes and restaurants and these exports went up. The second top export after tobacco for shisha was hummus. There was significant increase of Lebanese restaurants in Ukraine that buy canned food such as hummus and moutabbal from Lebanon. Also, in restaurants that especially serve fusion foods, hummus was a top ingredient. But the Ukrainians are very smart, they started to help Lebanese to make hummus. And then there is avocado. Ukrainians like avocados very much and in the past two years, we bought a lot of avocados from Lebanon.
What is the embassy doing most right now? Other than talking to Executive magazine, what keeps you busy every day?
Every day the number one [activity] is the hybrid war, the information war. We should fight from the morning to the end of the day because it is unbelievable [what you see written in Russian embassy statements and Russian mass media]. [Recently] there was an international marathon in support of Ukraine and it was broadcast on LBC, two hours live from Warsaw. We worked on that and it was a very good result for us to see that this was covered live for the first time in the Arab world by Al Jazeera and LBC. We also help Ukrainian-Lebanese families who recently arrived from Ukraine and sought refuge in Lebanon. They are, of course, in turbulence now. They come to the embassy and need help with food and services such as payments related to their homes and possessions that they left in Ukraine.