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‘Give us the damn Patriots’ — Ukraine needs air defenses now, minister says

In a POLITICO interview, Ukraine’s chief diplomat Dmytro Kuleba delivers some blunt messages to Kyiv’s allies. BY JAMIE DETTMER KYIV — Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba doesn’t mince his words. There’s one item his country desperately needs to fend off Russia’s relentless missile attacks. “Give us the damn Patriots,” he demanded. Originating in the United States, Patriot surface-to-air missiles are the best defense system to combat the ballistic missiles that have been raining down on Ukraine with increasing intensity in recent days. “If we had enough air defense systems, namely Patriots, we would be able to protect not only the lives of our people, but also our economy from destruction,” he added. The need for such defenses is all too clear for residents of Kyiv. Just an hour before Kuleba sat down with POLITICO at the foreign ministry on Monday, in broad, mid-morning daylight, the Ukrainian capital came under attack from Russian ballistic missiles. A couple of loud blasts rang out just moments after air raid sirens blared across the city. Kuleba was in the city’s botanical gardens to make a video for an upcoming trip at the time. The missiles were intercepted by Patriot air defenses. But nine people, including a teenage girl, were still injured from falling debris, including in the district near to where Kuleba was filming. The foreign minister’s demand comes at a fraught moment for Ukraine in its attempt to repel Vladimir Putin’s invading forces. Western support, strong at the start of the invasion two years ago, has weakened in recent months, with a major new U.S. aid package held up by partisan divisions in Congress. European allies have struggled to plug the gap in the supply of funding and arms that Kyiv so badly needs. Ukraine’s war of self-preservation is precariously placed. Russia is making advances on the battlefield and Putin, fresh from a distorted election victory, is leaping on every opportunity to intensify the Russian assault. Ukraine’s tired soldiers in the east of the country must somehow hold their lines. “When Ukrainian troops are losing positions, let's look at the reason why,” Kuleba said. “It is because Russia has began to massively use upgraded aerial guided bombs.” No escape He explained that these bombs are weapons “you cannot escape from” if you’re the intended target. “You cannot jam it. It just falls on your head and destroys everything. This is how we're losing positions and the only way to prevent this is to shoot down the planes carrying the bombs,” he added. “We need air-defense systems on the frontlines.” Kuleba, 42, has foreign relations in his blood. He is the son of a former Ukrainian ambassador and has had a long career as a diplomat himself. Yet even he couldn’t hide his frustration with the delays to Western support, and some of the strings that come attached to it. Last week, it was reported that the US has urged Kyiv to halt attacks on Russia’s energy infrastructure and oil facilities, fearing Ukrainian drone strikes will drive up global energy prices. Kuleba wouldn’t confirm that, but asked if he sometimes feels Western allies want Ukraine to fight with one hand tied behind its back, he replied: “Yes, I do.” Kyiv is, of course, unconditionally grateful for all the support that is coming from the Western alliance, he said. But he worries the allies’ actions don’t always match their rhetoric and as the war drags on, they are “going back to the usual way of doing politics.” He describes a vicious circle – weapons are withheld or delayed or supplied in insufficient numbers and then the allies say Ukraine is retreating, it is impossible for Ukraine to win. And the allies ask themselves, why they should provide Ukraine with “game-changing” weapons. “But guys all this picture of reality that you paint for yourselves is the outcome of one simple fact — that Ukrainian soldiers do not have sufficient amounts of weapons because you did not provide them,” he said. Asked about Joe Biden’s $60 billion aid package for Ukraine that’s been stalled for months by Republicans on Capitol Hill, the bespectacled Kuleba is terse. “We will welcome a decision,” he said. Ukraine has been given timeframes for delivering the aid since last October. “Every time I hear a new deadline, I just say, ‘God bless America and the U.S. Congress,’” he said with a smile. What about Germany, which is tying itself in knots over whether to supply long range Taurus missiles, another important item on Kyiv’s wish list? “Listen, I'm tired of answering this. Sorry. You can quote me, I don't mind. But every time I answer the question, I get irritated feedback from Berlin. Leave it to them. They put themselves in this situation. Let them find a way out,” he said. French President Emmanuel Macron escapes the Kuleba critique. After a shaky start, Macron has recently stiffened his resolve — in his public commentary at least — insisting that Europe cannot rule out sending ground troops to Ukraine if that’s what is needed to prevent Russia winning. “We were pleased to see President Macron evolve in that direction,” he said. While Ukraine has never asked for “European combat troops’ boots on the ground”, EU leaders need to get used to the idea that “the day may come.” “I'm perfectly aware that Europeans are not used to the idea of war,” he said. “But this is a carelessness Europeans simply cannot afford — neither for themselves nor their children,” he says grimly. “Ukraine can win. But if Ukraine loses, Putin will not stop.” ©POLITICO