Iran acknowledged deliveries of its drones to Russia. What will be the reaction of Kyiv to this step of Tehran? About the future of Ukrainian-Iranian relations, the prospects for the supply of weapons from Israel, the peculiarities of the position of African and Arab countries regarding Russian aggression, and the influence of Russia and China in these regions, Journalist spoke with Ukraine’s Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa Maxim Subkh.
– Recently, Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba said: Ukraine informed Tehran about the consequences for Iran if it hands over missiles and even more drones to Russia. What will these consequences be? Kyiv will break off diplomatic relations with Tehran? And will there be other steps?
– Kyiv is determined to react decisively and seriously to the supply of drones by Iran for the Russian army because we are talking about our national security, about the participation of a third country on the side of Russia in aggression against Ukraine. And severing diplomatic relations with Iran is on the agenda. This was officially reported to the Iranian side, and it is trying in every possible way to avoid this. The President will make the final decision to break or not to break off diplomatic relations in the coming weeks.
Iran is a very important trade and economic partner for us. Last year, trade with this country amounted to more than $700 million. But it is unacceptable for us that this state has chosen an alliance with Russia against Ukraine. We do not accept the thesis of the Iranian side that military-technical cooperation with Russia has historical roots and continues to develop. We cannot sacrifice our national security just to have permanent trade relations with Iran. Therefore, Tehran is warned.
– So Ukraine will not limit itself to severing diplomatic relations?
– Until Iran abandons its allied relations with Russia, there will be no such relations between Kyiv and Tehran. Therefore, I cannot rule out that the next step after the break in diplomatic relations will be economic sanctions from Ukraine.
– Parliamentary elections were held in Israel, and there is a high probability that Benjamin Netanyahu will head the government. Will the supply of drones and missiles by Iran to Russia affect the position of the new government regarding the supply of weapons to Ukraine?
— President Volodymyr Zelensky and Minister Kuleba have been quite frank in their statements about Ukraine’s expectations toward Israel. We are working to ensure that the Israeli government overcomes that barrier, that red line that it has set for itself – the inability to provide military assistance to Ukraine. Iranian-Russian military-technical cooperation may be one of the factors that will bring our positions closer, as Israel feels threatened by Iran.
Mr. Netanyahu is an experienced politician who has led the government on several occasions. We look forward to establishing direct trusting contacts at the level of the President of Ukraine and the Prime Minister of Israel. We are ready for contact with the Israeli side. After the appointment of the government, we will work to ensure that high-level visits take place, just to convince Israel that Israel urgently needs Israeli assistance in the supply of weapons, and air defense systems, including for combating drones.
— With a few exceptions, the countries of the Middle East and Africa take a two-digit position regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war. During the tour of Minister Kuleba to African countries, did the Ukrainian side manage to convince their leaders to support Ukraine in the fight against Russia?
– Kuleba’s tour (and this is the first trip of the head of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry to the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa in the history of Ukrainian diplomacy) was extremely successful. In particular, because it brought certain results in the vote on October 12 on the resolution of the UN General Assembly condemning the annexation of Ukrainian territories: for the first time, not a single African country voted against it. Some even changed their position by voting in favor – Angola, Cape Verde, Egypt, Madagascar, Senegal, and others. Among them are the countries that Minister Kuleba visited the day before.
It should be taken into account that the African Union does not have a unified approach both to Russian aggression and to many international issues, and large African countries, in particular South Africa, influence the position of their smaller neighbors.
Moreover, there are a lot of things that, from our point of view, are obvious, but they require clarification for many African countries. In particular, the fact that Ukraine is not a crisis, but a war that began not on February 24, 2022, but in 2014. That Ukraine is a sovereign state and not an arena for settling scores between the West and Russia. Now we see the evolution of the position of African countries, which understand that this war is an aggressive war on the part of Russia.
— How can Ukraine win the support of the African and Arab world? How to involve African countries in the sanctions against Russia? This is real?
– The accession of the countries of the African continent to international sanctions against Russia is one of our main priorities. But the issue of sanctions is sensitive for African countries because some of them were themselves subject to them.
At the same time, I repeat, many countries consider the war in Ukraine, and Russian aggression as a conflict between highly developed industrial countries, between the West and Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, manipulates in every possible way the fact that African countries in the past were colonies of Western states. At the same time, Russia is trying to monopolize its right to the legacy of the USSR, which helped the young states develop after they gained independence. Therefore, we constantly repeat: Ukraine, being a part of the USSR, made a huge contribution to the development of African countries, building their infrastructure.
In addition, my communication with African diplomats showed that many countries on the continent also take into account the fact that Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has the right to veto. This is a very serious factor that is holding back some African countries, if not most, from taking effective steps in support of Ukraine. Because Russia can block many resolutions on border conflicts, which are submitted from time to time for consideration by the UN Security Council if one or another state starts supporting Ukraine.
Finally, some countries are historically heavily dependent on the supply of Russian weapons. First of all, Algeria. This dependence is one of the levers that Russia uses to shape the political agenda in these countries. Another such lever is the Wagnerites. Many are wary of what is happening in countries where Russian PMCs are present. Therefore, there is a fear in Africa that if African countries begin to act contrary to the interests of Russia, they may use the “Wagnerites” to overthrow legitimate governments.
— That is, the Ukrainians should not count on the fact that African countries will join the sanctions against Russia soon.
– We are not inclined to idealize the attitude of African countries towards sanctions or other initiatives that are introduced or initiated by the countries of the Western world. We must be realistic: many African countries are trying to adhere to the principles of non-alignment.
“ But when there is a war between good and evil, one cannot adhere to the principles of non-alignment. It is necessary to make a choice, because neutrality pushes the aggressor to new crimes, and thus the “neutral” takes the side of the aggressor.
– Undoubtedly. Therefore, our task is to work with such countries, because in the UN every vote counts. And during the second African tour, which we are preparing for the first quarter of 2023, the Minister of Foreign Affairs plans to visit Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya.
We are now focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa, which no one in Ukraine has dealt with and where Russia is now strong. Until recently, all our cooperation with these countries was reduced to sporadic contacts, one-time visits, or telephone conversations.
As a result, while Ukraine has ten embassies in Africa, five of which are located in North Africa and five in Sub-Saharan Africa, Russia has more than 40 embassies on the continent. After the visit of Minister Kuleba to Ghana, a decision was made to start the activities of the Ukrainian Embassy in this country. It will open in the coming months. We are also working to appoint ambassadors to all African countries, where for a long time we did not have heads of foreign diplomatic institutions.
Our ambassadors are also in constant contact with all their counterparts from EU and US partner countries. Thanks to this, systematic work is underway to support the dialogue with African countries: our partners regularly send demarches to the Foreign Ministries of African and Middle Eastern countries in support of Ukraine, for which we are grateful to them. And this common work with the countries of the Western world is bearing fruit. At the same time, in conversations with Africans, we constantly emphasize that Ukraine, in dialogue with Africa, presents itself as an independent.
– Which of the African countries are permanent members of the “friends of Ukraine” club?
— We have many countries that consistently vote for pro-Ukrainian resolutions. In particular, Liberia, Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo…
I would like to note that when the second summit of the Crimean Platform took place, several African countries took part in it for the first time. In addition, two African countries joined the participants and signatories of the Crimean Platform Declaration — Liberia and the Republic of Niger. This is a big achievement. We expect Ghana to join the circle of signatories of the Crimean Platform Declaration shortly. This is evidence that African countries prefer to adhere to the principles of international law.
— Russian narratives about the Russian-Ukrainian war are very popular in both Africa and the Middle East. In particular, because there are strong anti-American sentiments and there is a post-colonial syndrome. How to change the perception of these narratives, given that our financial and economic capabilities are incomparable to those of Russia?
One of these ways is to convey to politicians and ordinary citizens of these regions that Ukraine has never been a participant in colonial processes, that it is becoming a victim of Russia’s neo-colonial policy, and that our country is fighting for its existence. That is, Ukraine is now in the situation in which the African states found themselves at one time. We also say that Ukraine will never agree to peace on any terms: six months ago, some African countries persuaded us to accept Russia’s terms.
We appeal to the principle laid down by the Arab countries – “land in exchange for peace”: if the Arab world were ready to give up their Palestinian territories for the sake of peace with Israel, such peace could be achieved tomorrow. But the Muslim world insists that for peace to reign, the occupied Palestinian territories must be returned. We say the same to our partners in Africa: Ukraine cannot make peace by giving up its territories and its sovereignty.
We refute the African countries’ misconception that sanctions are the cause of the food and fertilizer crisis that these countries are suffering from. African countries openly supported the signing of an agreement on the creation of a grain corridor on July 22. And African countries, in particular Ethiopia, openly called on Russia to continue this grain agreement, because they understand that it is the blockade of Ukrainian ports that is the cause of their suffering. Now they understand it.
At the same time, it should be understood that not the entire African continent is dependent on grain supplies from the countries of the Black Sea basin, including Ukraine and Russia: the countries of North and East Africa are more dependent than West or South.
– Until recently, Russia was one of the main exporters of weapons to the countries of Africa and the Middle East. And the dependence of African countries on Russian weapons affects their position regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war. Do they understand that there are fewer and fewer Russian weapons?
— During the visit, we heard from our African partners that Ukraine proved the helplessness and ineffectiveness of Russian weapons. And I see such trends that countries dependent on the supply of Russian weapons have already begun to look towards other suppliers.
– In narrow circles, there is such a story: when, after a large-scale invasion in Ukraine, there were not enough 152-mm shells and we began to look for them all over the world, two Arabs agreed to supply us with these shells. And they sent photos of the boxes, the registration numbers of which were among those that allegedly exploded in warehouses in Balakliya. Have you heard about this story?
— No, I haven’t heard about it personally, so I can’t comment on it.
– At last year’s meeting of ambassadors in Huta, the president demanded that diplomats move away from patterns and look for new markets to promote Ukrainian products. But is Ukrainian business interested in the markets of Africa and the Middle East?
— We are now working to ensure that the interest of Ukrainian business in Africa is systemic, not sporadic. Nine months ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine launched the Nazovni (“Outward”) international platform for economic diplomacy. And after the minister’s tour, we see a significant increase in interest in entering the markets of Sub-Saharan Africa by companies in the agricultural sector and the food industry.
Interest in activities in Africa must be based on the understanding by our exporters of the specifics of this market. This understanding is gradually emerging. And that’s why.
During the minister’s visit to Ghana, I visited the headquarters of the African Continental Free Trade Area. Our African partners sent us a very clear message: if Ukraine wants to gain a foothold in the African market, it should look towards creating common enterprises, and creating high value-added products. Having started such production on the territory of African countries, Ukraine will be able to export jointly produced products to the territory of the entire continent.
We need to move away from the trivial export of raw materials, which we have been doing for 30 years, and look towards general investment activity. When I say “investment”, this does not mean that Ukraine should invest money or material values there. We are talking about the transfer of technology, the transfer of know-how, and the implementation of projects, including infrastructure ones, that are supported by the governments of these countries or financed by third countries.
— Considering the positions of Russia and China in Africa, and the tough competition on the African continent, how can Ukrainian business gain a foothold in this market?
— Firstly, Ukraine has a positive reputation in many African countries. Including the fact that Africans studied in Ukrainian higher educational institutions. Many of them became well-known figures, businessmen, and politicians. These graduates are a favorable factor for Ukrainian businesses to enter the markets of these countries. We rely on them and have a clear plan on how to communicate with them. We want to rally them around the Foreign Ministry so that they feel that we have not forgotten them and that we will keep in touch with them.
During the tour, the minister and I held meetings with businessmen who studied in Ukraine at different times and who promote the interests of Ukrainian exporters in their countries. In Nigeria, we had a meeting with one of these businessmen, who introduced a network of electronic payment machines throughout the country. The software for this project was proposed and developed by Ukrainian IT specialists. This company also has plans to build factories for processing plastics and producing meat products using Ukrainian technologies.
Secondly, the Ministry of Economy initiated the issue of signing agreements on the creation of free trade zones with several African countries, in particular North Africa. Negotiations are now underway with Egypt, and Tunisia… A similar proposal has been sent to Morocco. The signing of such agreements will help increase our exports. We also want to provide for the possibility of creating common enterprises on the territory of these countries.
— In your opinion, what policy in the field of oil production and export should be expected from the countries of the Middle East? How will the price of energy carriers move further?
– These are not the best times in relations between the US and Saudi Arabia. Russia is actively trying to use this for its purposes. The position of Riyadh, which sees no reason to increase oil production, was ambiguously perceived not only in Western countries but even in the Arab world itself. We have heard about some tensions between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but still, within the framework of OPEC +, decisions were made to maintain production volumes.
And although at the current stage the situation is as it is, I do not think that this OPEC+ policy will be long-term. For the countries of the Persian Gulf, the threat from Iran is growing. And the Gulf countries will continue to try to maintain close security cooperation with the United States. The Iranian threat may play a decisive role in getting the Arab countries to better coordinate their position with the US and Western countries on issues related to oil production.
– Are the issues of attracting credit resources from the countries of the Middle East for the purchase of weapons by Ukraine being considered? Is this option even possible?
– Firstly, this issue is very sensitive and cannot be the subject of public discussion.
Secondly, we are in constant dialogue with our Arab partners from the Persian Gulf countries to obtain broad support for Ukraine regarding Russian aggression.
Thirdly, we will try to attract financial resources, which are owned by the powerful oil-producing Arab countries. First of all, for the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine. We are talking about the fact that we will not wait for the end of the war, but will start this work right now. The Arab monarchs of the Persian Gulf are listening to us, they have been offered specific projects.
– Which ones exactly?
— Arab diplomacy loves silence. As a rule, Arab countries announce a particular project when they clearly understand that they will carry it out or begin to implement it. Therefore, I want to say that such projects have been submitted to the powerful financial countries of the Gulf, and they are considering them. We offer them to take patronage over entire regions, to restore the destroyed infrastructure. These are hospitals, schools, and educational institutions.
– And what will be in exchange from our side? Earth?
– Before the war, we had developed very effective investment cooperation with the Gulf countries. For example, Saudi Arabia has leased vast areas in western Ukraine in recent years for development, cultivation, and grain crops. Qatar took the port of Olvia as a concession, and our country received investments. That is, investment cooperation existed even before Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine.