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Americans should back Ukraine's fight against Russia, former wartime leader says

Former prime minster of Ukraine Arseniy Yatsenyuk was in office between 2014 and 2016.
Claire Harbage
Former prime minster of Ukraine Arseniy Yatsenyuk was in office between 2014 and 2016.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk served as Ukraine's prime minister from 2014 to 2016 and came to power as Russia was invading his country. Today, he says the Ukrainian military is completely different from that in 2014, with increased capacity.

But is it enough to deter Russia? Yatsenyuk thinks so.

"If we compare the Ukrainian military of 2022 with the Ukrainian military of 2014, it's a completely different thing. We have increased our military capacity a number of times," he said.

"Russia is the country armed to the teeth. They spent tens of billions of dollars in order to modernize its army and Russia possesses nuclear arms. So that's completely different type of armies. But can we deter Russia, can we withstand? Yes, we can. And we showed it, and we did it in 2014."

Though he is confident that Ukraine would withstand advances from Russia, Yatsenyuk says he does not believe sanctions are a good step before any advance by Russia. Instead, sanctions beforehand would be a major loss of leverage for Ukraine, he said.

"And this is the way to justify Putin's invasion. Putin will say, 'Look, I did nothing. They already imposed sanctions on me. So there is not any kind of roadblock. I'm going to move forward'," Yatsenyuk said.

Yatsenyuk spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about the current tensions between Ukraine and Russia, why Americans should want to help in this fight, and how Ukrainians have come together since 2014.

This has been edited for length and clarity.

On whether he has confidence in President Volodymyr Zelensky of whom he said, 'Vladimir Putin would eat him for breakfast if these two came face to face.'

The quote was, "President Zelensky can meet with Putin only in the company of President Biden, President Macron and the German chancellor." So after my comment, Zelensky actually launched a new idea that he's ready to have, not eye-to-eye conversation with Putin, but this is to be eye-to-eye and another eye of President Biden. So it worked well.

In terms of Mr. Zelensky, in this challenging time — frankly speaking, despite the fact that we are completely on the different sides of the aisle with President Zelensky — I don't want to criticize him, but I urge him to act as a president ... because we, as a state of Ukraine, are facing one of the most dramatic and challenging times in the history of my country.

On whether it's realistic for sanctions to be placed on Russia before it has tried to attack

There is a pattern on how to apply sanctions. Looming sanctions, in this particular case, are better. And it's just more reasonable, rather than sanctions that are imposed without any kind of real incursion. That's not the way it works. Putin has to know that sanctions are on the table. If he does something, he will pay a very heavy price.

On why it is in America's interests to help arm Ukraine to help fight this fight?

It's about freedom, liberty, sovereignty and independence. This is the bedrock of the United States. And the U.S. is to support everyone in this world who shares the same values. Ukraine is a free and independent state, which is under the Russian threat and under the Russian aggression. So Russia posed this threat not only to Ukraine. Russia posed this threat to the United States.

Let me remind you that Russia committed a number of crimes against the United States. Cyber attack. Meddling in the U.S. elections. Russia is threatening NATO. So Russia is threatening your life, I mean, American life. From the economic perspective, gasoline prices. Russia did a lot to destabilize the energy market, to increase the energy prices and to spur global inflation. So this is another tool that Russia is implementing.

On what feels different about this moment and what feels the same

We are much stronger, much stronger. Both militarily, economically. So Ukraine was on the brink of bankruptcy. Could you imagine that the treasury account ... had only $20,000 for the entire country. There was no military at all. There was no gas, no coal, no electricity, nothing. And there was no unity among the Ukrainian people. As for now, we have a very strong united nation.

On whether the threat of Russia also feels strong with 100,000 troops along the border

You could easily ship all these troops in a few weeks. Russia became more aggressive. The problem is that after Putin committed this international crime with the land grab of Ukraine, he didn't pay the real price. Even due to the sanctions, Putin has improved his stance. He's not isolated. His economy is not on the down escalator. He manufactured and fabricated this energy crisis. He meddles into the foreign elections into the Western in elections. He commits assassinations and killings of foreign nationals on the foreign soil. He makes cyber attacks. So the beast is very, very dangerous.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.