[Interview] Two years into war, Ukraine’s envoy in Seoul remains confident in prospect of victory

Posted on : 2024-02-27 17:18 KST Modified on : 2024-02-27 17:18 KST
Kyiv’s ambassador to South Korea reflects on the war on the second anniversary of the Russian invasion
Dmytro Ponomarenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Korea, speaks with the Hankyoreh at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Feb. 19. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
Dmytro Ponomarenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Korea, speaks with the Hankyoreh at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Feb. 19. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

The last two years have been trying, says Ukraine’s ambassador in Seoul, but they’ve demonstrated Ukraine’s ability to hold its own on the battlefield. 

When the Hankyoreh sat down with Ambassador Dmytro Ponomarenko, Ukraine’s envoy to South Korea, and asked if he was confident that his country could come out of the war victorious, despite the fatigue of two years of war felt by both civilians and soldiers, he answered without hesitation: “Of course.” 

All that’s changed since the Hankyoreh spoke to him at the start of the war is the date on the calendar. A former negotiator during the Minsk agreements that sought a ceasefire after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its incursion into Donbas, Ponomarenko said that there will be no possibility of negotiation with Russia so long as Putin does not realize he has “no chance of winning.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Dmytro Ponomarenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Korea, speaks with the Hankyoreh at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Feb. 19. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
Dmytro Ponomarenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Korea, speaks with the Hankyoreh at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Feb. 19. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

Hankyoreh: How has the past year been different from the first year of the war? 

Ponomarenko: In the first year of its full-scale armed invasion of Ukraine, Russia has not reached its strategic objective of occupying the whole country. Our forces have liberated nearly half of the territory seized by Russia since its start. In the year 2023, the front has not moved much. Having failed at a “blitzkrieg,” Moscow demonstrated commitment to a protracted war of attrition, hoping to win with the use of its still considerable resources, war fatigue and nuclear blackmail. Ukraine is still standing and fighting back, lifting Russia's naval blockade by sinking nearly a third of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and forming a global coalition in its support.

In 2022, the Russians critically destroyed our energy infrastructure with missile and drone attacks, causing long-term power blackouts in all Ukrainian cities. In 2023, with the help of our international partners who supplied us with sophisticated anti-missile systems, we managed to significantly strengthen our air defense capabilities and now most Russian missiles and drones are successfully shot down by our air defense forces.

One significant achievement for us was the historic decision made by European leaders last December to start negotiations on Ukraine's membership in the EU.

Hankyoreh: It seems that interest in the war in Ukraine has faded in the international community, including Korea. Do you find that to be the case?

Ponomarenko: I wouldn’t say that South Korea has lost interest in Ukraine. That is not my impression from meeting Korean people. Whenever I or members of my staff mention which country they are from, there is usually a lot of interest from ordinary people, who offer their words of support. I do wish that on an official level the Korean government was more proactive and vocal with regard to this unjustified aggression in the international arena. I am certain the voice of the Republic of Korea as a global pivotal state can be very influential in this region. In fact, Korean-made highly sophisticated weapons could be instrumental in changing the situation on the battlefield in our favor.

Hankyoreh: What’s the greatest difficulty that Ukraine faces currently?

Ponomarenko: Later in 2023 and earlier this year, the situation became challenging. Recently, we have witnessed a kind of slowdown in the arms supply and allocation of funds by our international partners due to some objective factors. Given the scale of this war, we require a large number of weapons and ammunition to defend a 1.200-kilometer hot front line. We have already greatly expanded Ukraine's domestic defense industry and increased our own arms production, but we still require significant military assistance. Top priorities include modern aircraft, air defense, artillery ammunition, drones, electronic warfare and armored vehicles.

Hankyoreh: Some analysts say that if Western aid doesn't arrive in the next couple of months, the front line might collapse later this year. Are these predictions accurate?

Ponomarenko: Right now Putin continues to send thousands of men into battle, hoping to achieve at least some minor success ahead of his sham “elections” in March. The Russian army continues to lose a great number of soldiers in “human wave attacks.” Its losses in the war are 7-8 times higher than Ukrainian ones. They sacrifice an average of 400 soldiers in exchange for 1 square kilometer of land. Russia's offensive operation, which began last October, is currently underway. The occupation forces increased offensive actions along the frontline, but cannot advance significantly.

Dmytro Ponomarenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Korea, speaks with the Hankyoreh at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Feb. 19. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
Dmytro Ponomarenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Korea, speaks with the Hankyoreh at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Feb. 19. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

Hankyoreh: Is the economic crisis likely to lead to a weakening of Ukraine’s fighting forces?

Ponomarenko: A full-scale invasion with a high intensity of fighting has been going on in Ukraine for two years. Of course it has had a grave impact on our economy. The devastation caused by Russia is currently estimated at US$411 billion. One of our key objectives last year was to maintain macroeconomic stability and support economic recovery. In January, Ukraine reached the prewar volume of sea exports. In terms of total exports, it is already approaching the level seen before the full-scale invasion. Of crucial importance to us is external financial assistance, which supports Ukraine’s budget needs while literally all internal resources are directed at countering Russia’s aggression.

Hankyoreh: Russia has seen some victories in the war or late, as is the case in Avdiivka. There is talk from the US side that the only realistic option is to negotiate. Do you see this as a possibility?

Ponomarenko: As for negotiations, I’d say there is nothing realistic in that option at the moment. Until Putin realizes that he has no chance of winning, all negotiations are a waste of hope and time. The “Peace Formula” presented by President Zelenskyy in Indonesia at the G20 summit in 2022 still stands. Yes, after six months of incessant attacks, Russian troops have managed to capture Avdiivka, which is a small town in eastern Ukraine. The cost Russia paid for such a success was enormous, which is recognized even by Russian propagandists themselves.

The decision to retreat from the eastern city of Avdiivka was taken to avoid human losses and due to a lack of ammunition. Our troops withdrew in an organized manner to pre-prepared positions on the second line of defense.

Hankyoreh: President Zelenskyy recently reshuffled his top brass. What are the implications of this reshuffle, given the rumors of a falling out with the popular former commander-in-chief Zaluzhnyi?

Ponomarenko: I think any rumors of discord between the president and the former commander-in-chief will remain just that: rumors. Gen. Zaluzhnyi is a national hero in Ukraine who has already secured his place in history. And his merits were recognized by the Star of the Hero of Ukraine, which was awarded to him by the president.

As far as I know, all the commanders recently appointed by the president to replace the previous ones are highly professional military officers. Most of them were on Gen. Zaluzhnyi’s team and have been fighting against Russia since 2014.

Hankyoreh: At the beginning of the war, Zelenskyy enjoyed extremely high approval ratings. But that’s fallen as the second anniversary of the war has arrived.

Ponomarenko: It’s natural that people who previously lived in normal, peaceful conditions and now have lived through these two years, that the war would end as quickly as possible. People are certainly asking the government to make more efforts to stop the war. That’s why it’s natural that they kind of blame the government or their leader for not being able to stop it right now. 

Hankyoreh: Are you confident that Ukraine can win this war?

Ponomarenko: Of course. Yes, I'm confident and we are working on it. We’ve shown that we could fight for two years. So if we have acquired sufficient resources, we can definitely withdraw the occupational forces from our territory. 

Hankyoreh: Will there be some breakthroughs on the battlefield sooner or later?

Ponomarenko: We have an active defense now, because Russia’s putting so many forces in their offensive operations. But if the conditions afford us, we will go on the offense, try to move them out, if possible. The process is quite difficult in the US and Europe, and we’re quite dependent on it. So when Congress finally adopts the new package of help to Ukraine, and we receive new packages just promised to us by Germany, France and Great Britain, I think we will try to move them out of our territory once again.

Hankyoreh: Do you think we’ll be speaking again this time next year?

Ponomarenko: You will interview us on the peace issues. We’ll need to discuss what we’ll do to renovate the country, how much Korean companies could be involved in the process of reconstruction, and how we can sign MOU agreements with the Korean government. 

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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