Top Ukrainian official: Get the presidents of Ukraine, Russia, and the US together

With tens of thousands of Russian troops still massed along his country’s borders—and following a week of tense diplomacy between Russia and the West—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has a new plan to address the crisis: Sit down with his Russian and American counterparts for a trilateral summit.

That’s what his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, told John E. Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine, on Friday at an Atlantic Council Front Page event. He added that while the Kremlin hasn’t responded to Zelenskyy’s offer to sit down with presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, “our American partners [took] our proposal with some interest.”

Yermak insisted Ukraine was prepared to fend off any form of Russian aggression, but help from its international partners—whose positions don’t always align with those held by Kyiv—is still crucial. Here are some more highlights from the conversation:

Being frank with friends

  • Topping the list of required assistance, Yermak said, is clearing the way for Ukraine’s membership in NATO—which he described as “a question of the life and the death of our country.” He even laid out a specific timeline, saying Kyiv expects to see “absolutely concrete terms” about that prospect this year.
  • That’s not the only tough conversation Yermak said his country expects to have with its partners. Another sticking point is the Biden administration’s controversial waiver of sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which critics (and Kyiv) fear will give the Kremlin another tool for weaponizing energy supplies. “It’s necessary to stop any conversation about the potential of this project,” Yermak said.
  • At the very least, he added, the Ukrainian government is awaiting “proper, honest consultations” over the future of gas transit through Ukraine to ensure Kyiv isn’t cut out of the energy picture.

Cyber incursion

  • Responding to a question about mysterious cyber attacks that hit dozens of Ukrainian government websites Friday, Yermak didn’t explicitly name Russia as the suspected culprit—but conceded that officials “have some thoughts” about who was behind it.
  • He added that “the most strategic infrastructure in Ukraine” wasn’t affected by the attacks, which warned users on several of those sites to “be afraid and expect worse.”

All the presidents’ men

  • While he offered few details about Zelenskyy’s proposal for tripartite talks, Yermak said it was rooted in a simple concept: No discussions about Ukraine’s future without involving Ukraine itself. Whether those take place within the NATO-Russia Council or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, he said, “it will be more effective that Ukraine will be participating.”
  • Aside from the Russian troop buildup, Yermak noted the recent deaths of five Ukrainian troops amid ongoing low-intensity warfare in the Donbas region. For any negotiations “to work, we can have zero breaking of [the] ceasefire.”

‘Freedom is in our blood’

  • While Yermak said “it’s impossible to understand what’s in the head of another person”—referring to whether or not Putin intends to invade Ukraine—he claimed his compatriots are united in their struggle against Russian aggression. Freedom, he said, is “in our blood” and “independence is our mentality.”
  • If the Kremlin decides to send in troops again, he says “the majority” of Ukrainians will rush to the country’s defense, invoking Ukraine’s territorial defense forces—which the United States is reportedly considering supporting. “We are very seriously prepared in this area as well.”

Dan Peleschuk is the New Atlanticist editor at the Atlantic Council.

Watch the full event

Related Experts: John E. Herbst and Dan Peleschuk

Image: KIEV, UKRAINE - DECEMBER 1, 2021: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers an annual state-of-the-nation address at a plenary meeting of the Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada. In his address, Zelensky discussed foreign and domestic policy. Irina Yakovleva/TASS.No use Russia.