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Editor's Note: Chargé d’Affaires Kristina Kvien has served as acting United States ambassador to Ukraine since January 2020.
A week into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kyiv Independent talked to U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Kristina Kvien about sanctions, Ukrainians courage and a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Before the invasion started on Feb. 24, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine had relocated its core staff first to Lviv, then to Poland.
According to the United Nations, over 600 civilians have been killed as a result of Russia’s attacks in Ukraine.
Kvien said that the U.S. will do everything possible to bring Russian President Vladimir Putin to justice for what he is doing to Ukraine.
“From now on, Russia will be a pariah state and President Putin himself will be an international pariah. There is no possibility for him to recover from this,” Kvien told the Kyiv Independent.
Read the Kyiv Independent’s Q&A with Kvien:
The Kyiv Independent: Could you first tell us where you are now and what the embassy is doing?
Chargé d’Affaires Kristina Kvien: The core embassy group is situated in Poland, not too far over the border from Lviv, and we continue to do our work here.
We continue to be in close contact with the Ukrainian government to be following what’s going on in Ukraine and in Kyiv, and with the Russian attack. But we are also working on other issues like refugees on the Polish side. It’s the Polish government that takes the lead in that but we are supporting it as we can.
And we are also helping with the flow of assistance to Ukraine, which continues. The U.S. just gave another $350 million worth of security and defense equipment to Ukraine and that is already starting to flow. Part of my team here is helping to support that. Another part of my team is working on humanitarian and other assistance, also helping to get that to Ukraine where it’s needed.
The U.S. embassy, along with the embassies of some other countries, moved to Lviv early on, days before the war started. Why didn’t you stay in Lviv?
We felt that we would have more freedom of movement and ability to work with our allies and assist if we were on the other side of the border. We moved to Poland so we can continue to fully function and fully support the effort to get more defense assistance and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.
Do you see yourself and the embassy coming back to Kyiv, and do you see it happening any time soon?
Of course we want to come back to Kyiv as soon as possible. With the current security environment that’s not possible. We very much hope that the security environment can improve soon — for Ukrainians’ sake first of all, but second of all so that we can come back. We very much want to be in Kyiv and be helping from on the ground.
Where were you when the war started? What was your first reaction?
When the first attack on Kyiv and Ukraine happened we had just left Lviv. We had a warning that it could happen that night and I was pretty much up all night watching the news. In fact I’ve been up most nights watching the news now. I don’t sleep very much.
All I can say is I have a feeling of absolute dread and horror and I'm sick to my stomach.
The U.S. government has been trying very hard to be as transparent as possible with the information we had, so you saw that there were a couple of nights where we were giving warning that something might happen. Of course we were watching with great dread to see what will happen and then when it did finally happen we were all just heartsick – for Ukraine and Ukrainians but also for our own local staff, some of whom were still in Kyiv who we’ve been working since then to help get out if they wish, and try to make sure they’re safe.
We assume that you watched the videos of the attacks, including the attacks on Kharkiv. Is that worse than what you expected would happen? When you were talking about this threat for weeks and months, did you expect Putin to actually start hitting residential areas with artillery strikes?
We had certainly hoped that President Putin would not stoop to these levels but unfortunately he has. We consider what he is doing now to Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities to be a crime. An international crime that he will pay for. We are working already with the prosecutor general and others in Ukraine to make sure all of President Putin’s crimes are documented and we will make sure that President Putin and his cronies who are conducting these criminal attacks are brought to justice.
When you say that he will pay for it, what do you mean? What is a reasonable pay for a crime like that?
The U.S. has already imposed the strongest sanctions that we have ever imposed on any country. These sanctions have hit Russia. The ruble has devalued enormously. Russian banks are no longer operating. The Russian stock market won’t even open because if it opens I think they would find that it would fall through the floor. And we will continue to impose these sorts of restrictions on Russia and President Putin.
Now, unfortunately nothing can make up for the loss of life that President Putin is causing in Ukraine but as I said all of these crimes are being documented. There are international systems by which people can be brought to justice for crimes of this sort, and we will make sure we will do everything we can to make sure that President Putin and his cronies are brought to full International justice.
Ukrainе has been asking NATO to introduce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Can you address why that was ruled out?
President Biden has made it clear that we can’t impose a no-fly zone. It would bring us into direct conflict with the Russian military which would significantly escalate the conflict and not de-escalate it. We are trying to stop President Putin’s aggression but a direct U.S.-Russia war would not result in that outcome. So we are doing what we can to de-escalate the situation and not escalate.
You said that the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia are the strongest ever imposed on any country. But President Biden himself said their impact will be felt over time. Do you think that these sanctions are effective enough to stop Putin now? With all due respect, for Ukrainians suffering now it’s not very comforting to know that Russia is going to be hurt over time, economically.
The meaning of that is that the full impact of sanctions won’t be felt on the first day. However there is no doubt that the sanctions have been felt. For example, Russia has amassed a very large sovereign wealth fund which it now can’t access because even Switzerland, which has never imposed sanctions and considers itself neutral in just about every international conflict, has agreed to sanction President Putin and his wealth. The U.S. can’t take sole credit for this. International community has really banded together, and has been united in an unprecedented way to push back against President Putin’s immoral and illegal aggression.
I think the unity that we’ve been able to display will have a much stronger impact than just the U.S. or some other individual allies doing this because the entire NATO allies and other partners doing it together have had a real impact.
You’ve already seen the Russian banking system is basically failing, the Russian ruble has fallen to the floor, the stock market can’t even open, President Putin’s own wealth has been frozen overseas where he keeps most of it, and I think that unprecedented international response to this is being felt now.
And we haven’t stopped with our sanctions. We will continue to keep every option on the table — sanctions that we think would help squeeze Russia’s economy even more.
In addition, we continue to flow assistance to Ukraine, including lethal defensive weapons. The first of the $350 million extra (package) of equipment have already started to arrive. It’s not just us, it’s an incredible international group that has started to provide body armor and other things. Countries that have not done so before – Germany, Sweden, Greece – who don’t normally get involved in conflicts of this nature have come to Ukraine’s support and have given weapons and other defensive equipment.
It’s great that the international community is united against the Russian aggression, and I think President Putin is perhaps surprised that the international community has been so strong and the international condemnation has been so harsh.
There are many reports that Belarus is about to officially join Russia in the war. If it does, what sanctions will it face, and will Russia face more sanctions for getting Belarus involved and escalating the war even more?
We are very concerned about reports that suggest that Belarus is now contributing to President Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Of course we continue to explore all options for sanctions for Russia and if Belarus indeed does enter the fray we will certainly explore further sanctions on Belarus as well. We already have sanctions on Belarus but we will look to do more if indeed they are starting to join President Putin’s illegal war.
What is Ukraine getting in terms of defensive aid from the U.S.? Also, how is it being delivered now that it can’t be flown in?
The $350 million in new equipment includes Javelins and Stinger missiles. We are flowing those into Ukraine now. For security reasons we are not explaining how we are doing it because we want to make sure they make it into Ukraine safely.
How do you think this conflict can end? What can stop Putin from invading and completely occupying Ukraine?
I think that the incredible bravery of Ukraine’s Armed Forces and the Ukrainian people who are taking up arms to defend their cities and their country are what can stop him.
Because as we see, Russia’s forces are not well-trained and, from most reports, not very motivated. Many of them didn't even realize they were in Ukraine and were going to fight — they thought they were going to exercise. So the Russian forces seem to question why they are even there and no Ukrainian forces or citizens question why they are there — they are fighting for their country. The importance of it is incalculable.
The other thing is we are calling for Russia to de-escalate, to stop their attacks, and to reconsider this horrendous decision by President Putin. He seems to have miscalculated the response of the global community which is 100% aligned against him. He seems to have miscalculated the appetite of his own people to fight against neighbors and cousins.
And ultimately even the Russian people are now starting to demonstrate in Moscow and other cities against what President Putin is doing. That itself is a brave move because they know they will be severely punished by President Putin’s forces, but they are doing it anyway. It seems that it’s really only President Putin that wants this war.
What we can do as International community is continue to put as much pressure on President Putin as possible to de-escalate this war, stop his aggressive actions and call a ceasefire so there can be discussions at a time when Ukrainians aren’t being attacked.
When you say that Putin miscalculated the response of the global community, do you mean that he could have expected that for example the Nord Stream 2 wouldn’t be stopped or Russian banks wouldn’t be cut off SWIFT?
I can’t look into the mind of President Putin but it seems to me that he thought perhaps he could get away with an action against Ukraine perhaps because he was not brought to task for what he did to Georgia, Crimea, or the Donbas.
I think that his thoughts that he could divide the international community were wrong. And in fact the international community is united in a way that it has never been before against President Putin and his actions. So if he thought that he could get away with this and continue in any situation that would not leave Russia as a pariah state without any ties with the international community – financial, cultural, sporting – he’s wrong.
From now on, Russia will be a pariah state and President Putin himself will be an International pariah. There is no possibility for him to recover from this. What he’s done is so abhorrent to the entire international community that he’s going to be in league with the worst authoritarian dictators in history because of this action.
If he thought he could get away with this and remain a member of the international community he was wrong.
Do you think it’s even important for Putin to remain a member of the international community or he doesn’t care?
Honestly, I don’t know. I wish I was in the mind of President Putin to understand why he’s doing the things he’s doing but I honestly can’t assess that.
What’s your message to Ukrainians who actually despite all the International support largely feel like they are fighting this alone?
I can say that the U.S. is behind Ukraine. We are providing everything we can possibly provide to help Ukrainians fight and the Ukrainian spirit is something that can’t be replicated. And ultimately it’s the Ukrainian spirit that will prevail over Russia.