Vladimir Putin Wants to Wipe Ukraine From the Map, Ambassador Warns

  • Vadym Prystaiko says Putin "just doesn't want us to exist."
  • Ambassador urges U.S. to say "we are not afraid of escalation"
  • "At some point, we have to resolve this."

Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue a cycle of aggression until a tougher Western response deters him, warned Kyiv's ambassador to the U.K., as tens of thousands of Russian troops sit along Ukraine's borders threatening a full-scale invasion.

Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko—who formerly served as ambassador to Canada and NATO, as well as Ukraine's foreign minister—told Newsweek in an interview at the embassy in London that Putin is resolute in his desire to subjugate Ukraine

"He just doesn't want us to exist," Prystaiko said. "He wants one thing: Ukraine to cease existing. You can't give it to him. You can't go half way."

Months of tensions along Ukraine's borders have settled into a high-stakes face-off. Putin is demanding guarantees from the U.S. and its NATO allies that Ukraine—backed by the West since its pro-Russian government was toppled in the 2014 Maidan Revolution—will not be allowed to join the transatlantic alliance.

Countless articles have been written trying to pinpoint the 69-year-old Russian president's strategy and eventual goal.

Some suggest Putin is distracting from Russia's stubborn economic problems. Some say his ambition is an eastern European buffer zone for Russia's own defense. Others believe Putin is bent on restoring the Soviet Union that so shaped his world outlook.

As American and European leaders try to thread a line between deterrence and de-escalation, the Ukrainians are urging their Western partners not to indulge the Kremlin.

"Some people, because of the novelty of this, think: 'Why not? This is a good idea, let's give him this,'" Prystaiko said of Putin's demands that NATO excludes Ukraine from the alliance permanently.

"But in return for what? He brought his troops, pressed us, pressured us and the West for this new document. Then say he withdraws his troops. The next day he could have a new military exercise and bring another 300,000 troops...He gets everything he wanted, and then he comes again.

"Nobody knows what is really in his head—which is getting older—or whether he has some great idea to leave a legacy.

"And if his legacy is the Soviet Union, he might—just out of being crazy or detached from reality—decide that whatever the price he has to pay, he will get in the history books as the recoverer of the lost lands."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment on Prystaiko's remarks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took office in 2019 vowing to sit down with Putin and end the war in eastern Ukraine, which for almost eight years has been sucking up attention, resources, and lives.

But Zelenskiy has made little progress, and Putin has shown little willingness to negotiate with his Ukrainian counterpart as equals. Even Germany and France—who mediate Russia-Ukraine talks in the Normandy Format seeking peace in eastern Ukraine—have been unable to cajole Putin.

"He, like every new president, believed that we can actually deal with Russia," Prystaiko said of Zelenskiy. "If you don't have anything to bargain with, you don't have anything to discuss with Putin. It's not going anywhere."

There is a danger of basing a political platform on negotiating with Russia, he said: "You promise too much, Ukrainians will be unhappy. You do less than that, Putin will be ahead. At the same time, you can't be fighting with him on and on. At some point, we have to resolve this."

Ukraine soldier front line trench Donetsk Ukraine
A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists, not far from town of Avdiivka, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, on December 10, 2021. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Kyiv's leverage is with its foreign partners, particularly the U.S., though Prystaiko and other Ukrainian officials have told Newsweek they are frustrated at what they consider an overly cautious American approach.

"We're heading in the right direction," Prystaiko said of the Kyiv-Washington, D.C. relationship. Still, the ambassador said the U.S. and its allies could do much more to support Ukraine, including providing more and better weapons to Kyiv, increasing NATO training missions inside its borders, and shutting down Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

"The important part is to openly stand with Ukraine," he said. "To say, 'We are not afraid of you, we are not afraid of escalation, we decided that it is the right thing to do to help Ukraine.'"

The new German government, too, should re-evaluate Berlin's past cooperation with Moscow, Prystaiko said.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline will bring much-needed fuel directly to Germany, but critics say it will allow Putin to hold the EU hostage and further isolate Ukraine, which currently earns billions each year from Russian gas transiting its territory heading West.

Unable or unwilling to stop the project, the Biden administration agreed on a deal with Berlin earlier this year committing to action if Moscow is perceived to be weaponizing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline—which is complete but not yet operational, awaiting final approval by German regulators.

Few in Ukraine put much trust in the agreement. "We're not happy, but we're trying to be realistic and understand how important it is for the Americans to rebuild their relationship with the Germans," Prystaiko said.

"We are frustrated that it comes at our expense. We thought they would be more aggressive in showing that we are all in the same boat."

For now, Ukraine remains trapped between a belligerent Russia and an ineffective EU. Biden's tough talk on Russia is encouraging, but the West's slow and hesitant response to recent tensions has left Kyiv worried about their partners' commitment.

The U.S., EU, and NATO have spent years encouraging pro-Western governments in Kyiv to pivot away from Russia. Now, Prystaiko said, the West must back its talk of values and democracy with investment and action.

"Maybe you never believed in the first place when you were selling it to us—maybe it was useful for you to explain to us why we have to get out of the Soviet Union because it was weakening your enemy," Prystaiko said.

"If it was a practical, pragmatic calculation, here's the bill. Pay for it. By paying you allow us to live. Help us to survive this."

"If you do believe in those values, even better," he added, suggesting that Ukraine is ready to partner with the West on a range of military and economic issues.

But in the meantime, Prystaiko said, Ukraine will resist subjugation; from the East or the West.

"We are not going to do something that we believe in the future will be disastrous for us," he said. "And that's why we are fighting."

Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko pictured in Kyiv Ukraine
Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.K. Vadym Prystaiko is pictured at a press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 2, 2020 while serving as the country's foreign minister. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images