Maksym Kononenko, extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of Ukraine to the Republic of Estonia, sat down for his first interview in Estonia as Ukraine prepared to mark its 32 years since the restoration of its Independence – and 547 days since the full-scale Russian invasion – on 24 August 2023.
TF: NATO leaders have praised the July Summit as a success. Does Kyiv share such an assessment? What messages and what deliverables did Ukraine receive in Vilnius? Is the mood in Kyiv less or more optimistic today?
MK: It is always a question of one’s point of view. We can be optimistic and say that the glass is half full — or half empty. Of course, Ukraine had very high expectations ahead of this summit. And of course, Ukraine did not get the final invitation to join [the Alliance]. Yet, at the same time, NATO members have confirmed that Ukraine is welcome, that the Ukrainian membership in NATO is only a matter of time, and that the invitation does not depend on the Russian position.
It is important to assess the outcomes of the Vilnius Summit by analysing our main realistic expectations. First of all, NATO has finally got rid of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine so that its accession will be direct, with no additional preconditions or roadmaps. This expectation has been met. The same goes for the creation of the NATO-Ukraine Council. For us, it was important to deepen our political dialogue and create a new type of platform for it — we have achieved this result.
The last expectation was assistance to Ukraine — a new package of assistance has been agreed by NATO countries. We perceive NATO membership to be a very important goal, but at this stage, when Ukraine is fighting against Russian aggression, it is essential to have weapons and ammunition — additional military supplies, which has been agreed on in Vilnius.
From this point of view, this was a success for Ukraine. At the same time, I think that it would be correct to give our assessment of the Vilnius Summit only after the implementation of its decisions. From a Ukrainian point of view, however, it was a milestone on our way to membership in NATO. We pin our hopes on the next Summit, which will take place in Washington. We will prepare our country, our army, and our people for the next step. And we hope that it will be successful, too.
Maksym Kononenko is an Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Ukraine to the Republic of Estonia. Before arriving in Estonia in July 2023, Maksym Kononenko was Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Netherlands and permanent representative of Ukraine to the OPCW (2021-23). Throughout his career in foreign service, he has worked in different roles, including the minister-counsellor of the Embassy of Ukraine to the French Republic in charge of political affairs (2020-21); deputy director – head of the analysis and forecasting division of the department of EU and NATO (2018-20); deputy director – head of the state border division of the department of international law (2016-18); legal advisor at the permanent representation of Ukraine to the Council of Europe (2012-16). Ambassador Kononenko holds a master’s degree in international law from the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv.
What are these next steps?
It concerns our preparation for the Summit in Washington. We continue working closely with all Allies on to build the consensus on inviting Ukraine to join NATO. We will continue to improve the interoperability between the Ukrainian armed forces and those of our Western allies. We are now working on introducing all the NATO standards: not only in our combat tactics or strategy but also in our supply logistics.
It concerns both the NATO and European Union membership tracks, as we continue to implement democratic reforms that are necessary for these two strategic goals. The judicial reform and a functioning Constitutional Court, as well as fighting against corruption and money laundering, are all of equal importance for our path to NATO and European integration. Thus, we are moving on all fronts and in all directions at the same time. I hope that our efforts will be assessed, on the merits, by our partners.
What obstacles remain on this path towards full membership in NATO?
The main obstacle is the war as such. We understand that Ukraine cannot become a full-fledged NATO member during the active, hot phase of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Of course, we understand that we should first put an end to this bloody conflict, and only after that, we will become a member of NATO. I also think that there is no contradiction here: we can work and get our invitation to NATO even now, during wartime.
It is very difficult because our attention is focused mainly on the frontline, on our soldiers. Yet, we know that we should do our homework and deliver, which will inevitably lead us to membership in NATO and the EU. There is a strong political will from the Ukrainian side, and we do not see any obstacles from the side of our Western partners. Russia does not have a say in this case. All nations are free to choose their path of development and their future. Ukraine has chosen a future in Europe and in NATO. There is no further debate about it.
What, if anything, is Ukraine willing to compromise on or negotiate to achieve these strategic goals?
For us, our territorial integrity is non-negotiable. This is a very clear principle of international law — that of territorial integrity within the internationally recognised borders. We see no reason why we should give our territories to anybody, especially to the aggressor state.
Every time I am asked about any concessions to the Russian Federation, I have two questions to ask back. My first question: “What part of your national territory are you ready to abandon and to give to Russians in exchange for some peace negotiations or a peace agreement?” What piece of your territory, what village, what town? I have not yet found a country or an official who would be ready to do so. My second question: “Are you ready to look into the eyes of the people who would remain in the occupied territories?” As my President said, even if it were one village of two elderly people remaining under Russia’s control, Ukraine would never, ever cease to fight to bring them back.
I do not see how after Butcha, Borodianka, and Izium — after all these horrible atrocities and war crimes committed by the Russian invaders — anybody would have any illusion about what they do to the population in the occupied territories. We understand that if we leave these people under Russian control, they will be tortured, raped, and killed. There will be no human rights or freedoms, and people will suffer. We cannot grant ourselves a privilege to say that tomorrow, we will abandon these people and these territories. We have neither moral nor legal right to do so as Ukrainians, as the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian society. This is why there is no place for any territorial concessions when talking to the Russian invaders.
It now appears that the counteroffensive has been less successful than anticipated, and its toll has been huge. Moscow clearly means to exhaust both Kyiv and its allies with the war of attrition. Strikes against civilian targets and critical infrastructure have intensified In the meantime, winter is coming. What resources does Ukraine need to survive it, and do its allies have enough of those?
I would not say that the Ukrainian offensive — or the counteroffensive — is less successful than expected, because all these expectations were just speculations. We all may have some expectations, but those are not a professional assessment of the situation. When it comes to the professional assessment: we are moving forward progressively, slowly but surely, according to the plans of our General Staff.
I am often asked about the difference between Ukrainians and Russians. On the battlefield, one can see a very clear difference. Russians use cannon fodder and send their people to death, without any moral consideration. This is not the case for Ukrainians. For us, every human life is important. We care about our servicemen, about our Armed Forces. We cannot allow ourselves to sacrifice thousands and thousands of people in frontal attacks against the Russian lines of defence, which they had over six months to prepare, to mine everything.
We are using a strategic, I would say, very careful, and smart approach to this counteroffensive. We have been destroying their ammunition stocks and their logistics, weakening their military units on the frontline. We have been demining the frontline. This is the biggest mine laying operation in human history — there are up to four mines per one square meter.
Russians are trying to impose their own agenda by counterattacking in the north, near Kupiansk [a city in Kharkiv Oblast]. There is heavy fighting near Mariianka and Avdiivka [Donetsk Oblast]. They have been trying to deviate us and prevent us from breaking their defence lines in the south, but they have not been successful.
We have three main problems now. The first problem is the well-prepared, multi-layered defence lines —sometimes, up to seven lines. They had time and deployed a lot of effort. The second problem, as I have already mentioned, is the massive minelaying. And the third problem is the lack of necessary military equipment. If we had F-16s, it would be a game-changer. Our counteroffensive would be much more efficient and much faster.
It is a paradox. On the one hand, it is an old-school war. Sometimes, it looks like the First World War, with all these trenches, or the Second World War, with all the artillery duels. On the other hand, it is a new type of war where new, more sophisticated equipment gives one an advantage. Ukraine is, I would say, in a more advantageous position now because we are backed by our Western allies: NATO, the EU, the US, and the UK. We can count on military equipment that is more sophisticated and much more efficient.
After we had received HIMARS, we quickly liberated our territories as part of the Kharkiv and Kherson operations. When we received 155 mm artillery weapons, it was a game changer. Now, we have received cluster ammunitions, and it is another game changer. It is time for us to get the F-16s and the long-range missiles. It would be, once again, a game changer that will help us — will let us — finish this war as soon as possible. There should be no artificial restrictions on military and technical assistance to Ukraine.
Winter is coming, and I hope that we will achieve tangible results before the wintertime. We do not see any solution other than to liberate our territories and restore our territorial integrity. Ukrainians are very resilient. Despite the war fatigue, Russian missile and drone attacks, and the attempts to destroy our infrastructure, we will continue to liberate our homes and our homeland.
Estonia has given all it has and even more to support Ukraine in this effort. There is no reason to ask what Estonia does for Ukraine but — to paraphrase US President John F Kennedy — what can Ukraine do for Estonia in terms of security?
We are grateful to Estonia for its tremendous efforts to support Ukraine. Estonia has given us all its howitzers and all kinds of ammunition. This support is very valuable for us because, in our situation, no help is [too] small — all assistance is crucial.
I think that Estonia can continue to help us, maybe not by providing us weapons or ammunition — because Estonia does not have much — but by showing its leadership. It is important to create a precedent. When Estonia initiated the “ammunition coalition” for Ukraine, it was a good idea — but nothing concrete. Yet, Estonia has shown by its own example what is possible.
If Estonia can provide us with the 155 mm ammunition, why shouldn’t — or couldn’t — other countries do the same? Sometimes, this may be even more critical than direct military assistance. Estonia is a big and strong country. A country cannot be small if it shows leadership, mobilises support, and proposes initiatives.
It is a two-way street. The past, present, and future of Ukraine and Estonia are interconnected. In 1709, Ukraine, together with Charles XII of Sweden, lost the Battle of Poltava. Russian Tsar Peter I won the Great Northern War and took control of Estonia. Tallinn fell into the hands of the Russian Empire and remained under Russian rule and oppression for centuries.
What could have happened if Ukrainians, together with Swedes, had not lost that battle? We have many more such examples in our countries’ history. Based on the fact that our fates are interconnected, we should become the guarantors of each other’s security. Ukraine is already doing a lot — not only for Estonia but for the whole of Europe — by defending NATO’s eastern flank from the Russian invasion. We are already doing our job here as a partner and a reliable ally, but we cannot remain in this in this grey zone.
Of course, our main strategic goal is to become a member of NATO and have all the security guarantees under the Washington Treaty, but we understand that it will probably take over year to achieve. At the same time, we cannot remain in this in this grey zone — we need international guarantees. President Zelensky proposed the 10-point peace plan and the Kyiv Security Compact, which include guarantees for Ukraine during this transitional period. There was one more pivotal event that took place during the Vilnius Summit: the G7 states signed the Joint Declaration of support for Ukraine. It is an umbrella document (and 12 states have already joined) that allows countries to design some kind of guarantees, and not only for Ukraine.
We can sit at the table and discuss what Estonia and Ukraine can do for each other. Unfortunately, nobody is safe. The Russian Federation has taken off the mask and lost any civilised appearance. It is ready to do whatever it deems necessary, and the Baltic states are under threat. We should sit with our Estonian friends and discuss how we can improve each other’s security. When Estonia decides to join the G7 Declaration [On 17 August, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined], it will be the best platform to discuss any mutual guarantees.i
Last year, Kyiv secured one of its biggest achievements so far – the EU candidacy status. And Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, at one point, even suggested that Ukraine could join the EU in 2024. However, the European Commission’s recent evaluation concluded that Ukraine has only fulfilled only two out of seven criteria needed for the accession talks to begin. How far has Ukraine progressed on this European integration track?
In June 2022, when the European Union granted us this candidacy status, the European Commission issued seven recommendations that Ukraine had to fulfil before the beginning of the negotiations. It concerns the judicial sphere: the judicial reform, the Constitutional Court, improving our system of the protection of national minorities, fighting against money laundering, implementing the anti-oligarch legislation, introducing a new law on media, and so on. We did not waste our time — we immediately began working.
It is very difficult to implement any democratic reforms of this scale during wartime when our focus is on the frontline and our essential needs — that is, to reinforce our military. At the same time, we realise that there is no other way, there is no other solution. We should complete our democratic reforms, meet these criteria, and fulfil these recommendations, even under these most difficult of circumstances. And we have been working hard to achieve it. Look at our Parliament: even under the constant bombardment, it never, ever ceased to convene and pass legislation. Yet, this kind of legislation demands careful analysis and preparation, so it takes time.
Indeed, according to the European Commission’s interim assessment (I would like to emphasise that it is an interim assessment), only two recommendations have been fulfilled. However, the other five have either been completed partially or had some success. Even though not everything has been accomplished yet, we have already made enough progress to show that we are moving forward. We still have several months ahead of us to finalise a number of reforms and adopt some additional pieces of legislation. And I think that we will have been able to show our compliance with these recommendations by October.
Sometimes, it is not only the legal work of drafting. Sometimes, it becomes very political, especially when it comes to the issue of national minorities. We understand that we may have some tough discussions with our European colleagues to prove that our legislation is in line with European standards.
The European Commission and the EU member states have legitimate expectations that Ukraine will fulfil all these criteria. From the Ukrainian side, we have a legitimate expectation that our progress will be assessed on the merit-based principle – not on the political principle. We are seeking a strict but fair assessment. I am sure that Ukraine will have delivered, done its homework, and have begun the negotiations by the end of the year. At least, we will do everything possible to achieve this result.
You have touched upon how much Ukraine is doing amidst the war and how much it is fighting, so to say, behind the front lines. Kyiv has developed multiple recovery strategies and reconstruction plans. How realistic are they with no end to the war in sight?
I think that they are fully realistic, and the Estonian example is very elegant case in point. Estonia has already begun to successfully implement several infrastructure projects in Ukraine. A kindergarten in Ovruch has been built very quickly and is already functional. It was done in partnership with a Ukrainian company that constructed a bomb shelter for this kindergarten. Now, the Estonian authorities are funding the restoration of a bridge in Malyn. We have one more project — building homes for foster families. Finally, Estonia will join Portugal to reconstruct a school in Zhytomyr Oblast that was damaged by Russians.
First and foremost, it is a matter of leadership. Estonia shows: while you are talking, we are doing, so why can’t you follow our example? Please, follow this example. This is our hope because it makes people in Ukraine feel that they have not been left behind by the international community.
It is always important to hear the words of support, but it is much more important to see real deeds. To see the real projects, to see that these words are not an empty sound but that they have a real impact on our everyday lives. People are living now — they were living in 2022, and they are living in 2023. Nobody knows when the war will finish. Ukrainian people may live under these war conditions next year. For them, it is important to see that despite the war, there are reconstruction projects underway.
Here, the Estonian experience has not only a practical dimension but also a psychological one. It supports people psychologically: they see that this is not an abandoned territory and that there is a constant international presence. We are trying to multiply Estonia’s best practices in reconstruction and use Estonian technologies in other regions. This is our goal, and we will work together towards it.
After the war has ended, Ukraine will be granted a Marshall-type plan. Ukraine will be a destination for international investments and grants. In my opinion, it will be much easier to take part in these efforts if one has already been present on Ukrainian soil. This is my appeal to Estonian businesses: come to Ukraine at this stage, at this moment. Start investing today, because tomorrow it will be an El Dorado. Do not lose time, come now. Show your best practices and how efficient you are in big reconstruction efforts in Ukraine.
As an ambassador, I can only invite Estonian companies — and maybe even the Estonian government to think about some sort of state guarantees for the businesses working in Ukraine during wartime. It is not easy: it will require additional funding and certain conditions, but it will help not only Ukraine but also Estonian businesses. They will feel more confident, safer, and more protected by their own authorities. Of course, it is a national affair that is up to the Estonian side. I know that other countries have already been providing this kind of guarantees or thinking about them, so it would be a really good idea for Estonia.
President Zelensky has visited the Nordic-Baltic region multiple times already, recently travelling to Finland and Lithuania. Yet, neither he nor any other top government official has been to Estonia. When is Tallinn to expect a high-level delegation from Ukraine?
I am working on it. One of my priorities now is to intensify our political dialogue and to organise visits by Ukraine’s top officials to Estonia. The situation is evolving very quickly. There are many security risks, and the responsibility of Ukraine’s high-ranking officials is so huge that sometimes they cannot leave the country for more than a day or two. They do not have much room to manoeuvre. It is not because they do not want to come to Estonia but because their travel options are very limited. However, I think that we will find a solution. There is a new Estonian ambassador in Kyiv, and I am the new ambassador here. It is our job to work very closely together and mobilise Ukraine’s government officials to come to Tallinn. It will be a strong gesture of gratitude and partnership. I will not divulgate any details, but I hope that soon, we will organise several visits.
Estonia accepted the largest share of Ukrainian refugees among the EU countries. Over a year into the war, how well-integrated in Estonia and how connected to Ukraine are they?
I was impressed to learn that there are up to 100 000 Ukrainians in Estonia. Nobody knows the exact number because it changes constantly, and there are different estimations by the Ukrainian community (including people who have been living here for many years). In our estimation, it might be 90 000 or even more. It is a huge number for Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million. We are immensely grateful to Estonia for receiving Ukrainians. It is our enormous responsibility to be grateful and to respect the Estonian national traditions, Estonian language, Estonian political system, and Estonian way of life.
We understand that this is not our home. At some point in the future, Ukrainians will go back. Ukrainian families will go home. From our side, Ukrainians have put in a lot of effort to become a valuable part of Estonian society and to make their contribution to the Estonian economy. Many have already found jobs; they are working and paying taxes. They are trying to do their best to express their gratitude with deeds.
Many cultural events have been organised to show this unity, this cooperation. Some problems may arise even in the most peaceful society. But in general, mutual understanding is there, and both sides are trying to make this difficult situation as liveable as possible. I will do my best to support this climate of good neighbourhood between the Ukrainian community and the Estonian nation.
This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).