Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Ukrainian and Russian negotiators are set to hold the third and final round of talks on Monday. Delegations have had two rounds of talks since Russia launched a full-scale invasion on February 24.
Chief Ukrainian negotiator and leader of President Zelenskyy’s party in the parliament David Arakhamia tells WHD News the Ukrainian side is in negotiations for the results, not for the sake of process.
Arakhamia spoke to WHD News’s Nana Sajaia via Zoom from Kyiv.
What is the status of a potential humanitarian corridor?
Humanitarian corridor is the only achievement from our negotiations. We have so many people stuck in the cities, children, women, and foreign students from China, India, Pakistan from Turkey. We agreed with the Russian side that we will do a humanitarian corridor under Red Cross supervision.
The main fear for the military people is that when we have a ceasefire on the sector, sides might use this to regroup military forces and get some competitive advantage. When we release a ceasefire both sides have to stop moving military troops.
Which towns are we talking about?
In the East. It’s Mariupol, one of the hottest spots, where we have 200,000 people and a small village of Volnovakha, we have about 25,000 people.
We prepared buses and trains, and we also have lists of foreign students. We don’t yet have an exact list for local citizens, but we have a local administration supporting this. If both sides confirm the ceasefire early in the morning, we will start the evacuation process.
Next round of talks with Russia is scheduled for Monday. Any progress so far?
I would not say we are moving fast because we have a lot of people killed every day, especially civilians. It’s tough, honestly, but we are still demonstrating some progress. At least, two groups are listening to each other and actively discussing different things.
The only parts which are almost impossible to agree on are Crimea and so-called republics that Russia insists that we recognize as independent. This is not acceptable within Ukrainian society. And it’s not about the politicians, it’s about Ukrainian people who will never let this happen. This is the main challenge and, honestly, we still don’t know how we could overcome those barriers.
What are the major issues that you are not willing to compromise during these negotiations?
The territorial integrity of Ukraine. I don’t think that we have a choice now to even discuss some models where we would recognize those territories. Our position is firm. We are ready to discuss any other dynamic options, but not recognition of those territories.
How about NATO membership? Is it something you are ready to negotiate about?
The response that we are getting from the NATO countries is that they are not ready to even discuss having us in NATO, not for the closest period of five or 10 years. We would not fight for the NATO applications, we would fight for the result, but not for the process.
We are ready to discuss some non-NATO models. For example, there could be direct guarantees by different countries like the U.S., China, U.K., maybe Germany and France. We are open to discuss such things in a broader circle, not only in bilateral discussions with Russia, but also with other partners.
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NATO voiced its decision yesterday, saying they will not implement a no-fly zone over the Ukrainian sky. What is an alternative to it?
We started to get some military advantages and Russia started to use aviation heavily. In the first days, they destroyed all of our air defense facilities. They are basically flying in empty sky, they dominate the sky. Once we stop their domination in the sky, we will fight back on the land. Even considering the fact that their army is five or ten times bigger than ours, we are pretty sure that we will fight back and put them away back to the place where they started from. That’s why the no-fly zone is so important, it saves so many lives.
We know that the recent surveys show 70 percent of U.S. citizens, American people, are supporting that we should stop Russian planes. It could be done in different ways – not only by providing the guarantees that NATO is afraid of, but also by providing Ukraine with air defense weapons, so that we can defend ourselves. We don’t need NATO planes, give us air defense rockets and we will do the job ourselves.
We are hearing that former U.S. President Donald Trump is planning to visit Kyiv together with a couple republican congressmen to show their support to Ukraine. This is a good sign. Politicians are beginning to listen to what American citizens support and they support providing additional weapons to brave Ukrainian soldiers. I think eventually. Politicians will make that decision.
David, you are from Abkhazia yourself, [a Georgian region under Russian occupation]. Tell me how it felt to sit across the table from negotiators of the Russian government, while your both homelands are under Russian occupation?
It’s crazy, when I was 12 years old I had to leave my country and run away just because the Russian soldiers invaded my country. I moved here, I grew up, I built my own business, I started up my family and got kids in Ukraine. I was strong in Ukraine. And then the same happens here, same people. For me, it’s very personal. At 12, I could not fight back and now – at 42 I will fight back for sure and I’ll do my best to stop them.
You showed up at the negotiation meeting in all-black street style outfit with a baseball cap on, that photo went viral on social media. Was there a message you were trying to relay?
I decided that we need some creative solutions. All you see is old school diplomats wearing black ties and talking from the paper, they just read instructions from Moscow.
In peaceful conditions, I never wear these caps. But because we have to shake hands and we have to follow certain protocols, I decided to use my baseball cap to show my real attitudes to this country. And I will not stop using it until we find peace in Ukraine’s interests.
There is no dynamics, no flexibility on their side. Every time I offer some deviations of processes, they say they need to contact Moscow. On our side, we have more freedom, more choices, because we need the result, we don’t need to demonstrate the process. If it’s just to demonstrate the process, we would prefer to skip it and honestly tell our people that this process is not workable.
I said from the very beginning that the negotiation process shall be on the win-win conditions, not listening to their ultimatums under the gun. If you want to continue this strategy, we will just stand up, go home and we will fight back.
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You sound very energized and optimistic. Is this the overall morale in Ukraine now?
The morale is crazy right now, president Zelenskyy has 95 percent support. This is an unprecedented support and he has it because he is not leaving the country, he is not leaving Kyiv.
A couple of days ago, we had a real talk and decided to stay in Ukraine until the last minute. And if we have to die, we will become symbols and all other Ukrainians will fight back until the last drop of their blood. This is a strong, strong sign to Russia.
Russian soldiers have low levels of morale because they send young people who don’t know why and for what they are fighting here.
Though they have these planes and equipment, our people are still fighting and we have millions of people who are ready to fight. We just need more weapons to give them and I’m pretty sure that we will win.
If there is anything you’d like American citizens to hear from you?
I would like to thank every American who supports Ukraine right now. I know there are millions, tens of millions of them. Some even come here willing to sign up in battalions and ready to fight the Russian army because they see that Russia invaded us with no reason.
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I would like you to contact your politicians, your congressmen or senators, and put as much pressure on them as you can. Ask them to send us air defense, because without air defense, we would lose hundreds of thousands of civilian people. Give us these weapons and we will do the job ourselves.