Russia aims to destroy Ukraine if it cannot conquer the country, Ukrainian Ambassador to Estonia Mariana Betsa said. In a lengthy interview, Betsa spoke about her main duties during the war; refugees and the founding of a Ukrainian school in Estonia; and why Ukrainians will fight for Kyiv until their last breaths.
This interview took place on Sunday, March 13 by presenter Anna Pihl on ETV's extraordinary broadcast "Ukraina stuudio". The interview was carried out in English and can be watched above. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Anna Pihl: How have you been sleeping these past 18 days?
Mariana Betsa: Indeed today is the 18th day of the Russian invasion against Ukraine - a very difficult time for my country. When Russian airstrikes, missiles, tanks are in my country when Russia is bombarding our Ukrainian citizens, children, families, cities - it is not easy, of course, it is not easy. But Ukraine stands, Ukraine resists, Ukraine fights back. We will defend our country.
Since the war started you have been working 24/7, what are your main tasks at the moment?
Of course, since day one, since February 24, when Russia waged a full-scale war against Ukraine, we started working in wartime conditions as an embassy. We work 24/7 and of course, my main responsibilities are, first of all, we cooperate closely with the Estonian government to safeguard political support, military assistance, humanitarian assistance to Ukraine at these very challenging times.
Second, of course, we safeguard the rights of our Ukrainian citizens and refugees who flee the Russian aggression and come to Estonia.
What are the main problems Ukrainians who have arrived here approach you with?
Of course, [for] Ukrainians who flee from the Russian war against Ukraine, their main aim is to find peace, security and safety. I am very grateful to the Estonian government, to the Estonian local governments as well for providing really great help for [Ukrainians] here.
Last week, I visited the refugee center in Tallinn and spoke to a number of refugees from different regions from Kyiv region, from the eastern parts, and their stories are very similar. They are running from bombing, from airstrikes, they are running from devastation and destruction which the Russian war brings to my homeland.
And of course, they are seeking basic things at the beginning, to find food, home, a shelter where they can sleep, this is their top priority.
The second issue, of course, is the issue of documents and I am very grateful to the Estonian authorities that facilitate this. Of course, we are cooperating closely with them in terms of issuing proper documents for their children and for their stay in Estonia.
And of course, the third issue, which I think will arise a bit later, is the education of children. It is not on the agenda right now, but it will arise as time goes by.
Because so many of the refugees are children?
Exactly. Women and children and, of course, the need to take care of their education. But this is not on the agenda right now, but this issue is being discussed by the embassy along with our minister of education and our parliamentarians.
One of the issues is that we want to establish a Ukrainian school in Estonia. Where we can have Ukrainian children, Ukrainian teachers teaching in Ukrainian.
Already, I must say that 58 Ukrainian teachers registered with our Ukrainian community here that they fled from Ukraine from the Russian invasion, but they are teachers - 58 of them, as of now - and they are ready to assist and help Ukrainian children study.
So you basically already have the resources to start a Ukrainian school here?
It's a long process but we are working very closely with the Estonian side to get a Ukrainian school at least, maybe, from September, but yes we are working on it.
But another side of Ukrainians arriving here is that Estonia has quite a large community of Russians and some of them watch Russian TV channels and believe what is said. How do we avoid a clash between Ukrainians and Russians here in Estonia?
I do believe that there will not be major clashes.
Our people, our refugees, these mainly are women and children who come with peace and they would like to definitely find some safety and security in Estonia and they already feel it - that Estonia is very generous.
I do understand that there might be some provocations, I cannot exclude them, but I basically think there could be two types.
One is mostly sporadic provocations, but another type is a more dangerous one. It is provocations which are triggered by the Russian federation because information warfare is a very important element of the Russian war machine and of course, through social media, through different accounts, through Russian propaganda, through spreading Russian fakes [news], Russia could disseminate hatred and destabilize society from inside.
I do believe that it will not be the case between the Russian and Ukrainian communities. I feel lots of support from all Estonians, from Estonians, from different nationalities here in Estonia.
But I would just like just to urge everyone not to fall victim to Russian propaganda, not to fall victim to Russian fakes, and to check information very carefully and to be vigilant. This is, I would say, a top priority.
You already said you are very thankful for the help from Estonians, but what else do you need?
Well, I would say that for a really compact county like Estonian, the [level of] humanitarian assistance is unprecedented. From February 24, the start of the Russian war, it's [totaled] €1 million - it's huge. And part of it, €220 million, is military assistance. Its extremely important help for the Ukrainian army, for Ukrainian cities, for the Ukrainian people, refugees.
I think Estonia is doing a tremendous job. I'm very grateful to the president and the prime minister, to the parliament.
Apart from the humanitarian financial assistance, political support is very important and we feel it in terms of our European aspirations, in terms of our EU membership perspective, NATO membership perspective, and of course in terms of fighting Russian propaganda.
Estonia at all levels, speaks and helps the Ukrainian people and the government very much.
How many Ukrainian refugees will come to Estonia?
Well, of course, the number will rise because you see the devastation taking place every day. Russia is killing Ukrainians, civilians, destroying cities and it is really devastating to watch - I cannot watch without tears what is going on in my country.
Actually, I was in Ukraine myself on the first two days of the Russian invasion and I saw the explosions, I saw the beginning of Russia's war against Ukraine and there was no panic, there was mostly shock: How can it be [possible] in the 21st century that peaceful people, civilians, peaceful cities are being bombed, shelled, killed, destroyed and ruined?
But at the same time, Ukrainians are very brave, we will resist, we will fight, and we will stand firmly to try to fight Russian aggression.
As of now, 16,000 people, according to my information, fled to Estonia. But of course, the figure will rise because we don't see that Russia is willing to stop it only escalates, unfortunately, despite all efforts from the international community, very tough sanctions and I would say we need tougher sanctions if Russia still does not stop.
We need tougher sanctions on Russia, we need to disengage Russia from all banks and SWIFT, we need a trade embargo on oil and gas, we need to close all the ports for Russian ships. We need to isolate Russia, economically, politically, financially because, we don't see that, as of now, that Russia is willing to stop, unfortunately. Ukraine wants peace but Russia wants war.
First time in a shelter, basically a basement… never in my life i thought of such surreal events. I love my country, I love my hometown Kyiv. I love my people who defend Ukraine against Russian aggression. Слава Україні #StandWithUkraine pic.twitter.com/L2pq9uFwAF— Mariana Betsa (@Mariana_Betsa) February 25, 2022
Let's talk about the role of diplomacy in this war. For example, you yourself, do you have any contact with the Russian embassy in Estonia?
Oh no. We haven't had any contacts for all the years I have been working here, for three years, and we do not intend to have [them].
Russia is an aggressor state we cut diplomatic relations immediately after Russia [launched] a full-fledged war on February 24. As of now, diplomacy has a chance in general, because as a diplomat and as an ambassador I must say, you should always resort to diplomacy in all situations if it provides peace to your country and your citizens.
So, I do believe there is a chance but it is quite small, and I don't see right now that Russia is willing to stop and end this war.
But then what is the point of the talks that Ukraine and Russia are holding because it seems there is no outcome?
Indeed we had three rounds of talks between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations at the Belarus border, we had a meeting with the ministers of foreign affairs in Turkey these days. They didn't bring results but right now we are still working in other formats with the Russian delegations to stop the Russian war.
I cannot speculate on the substance of these negotiations because I understand there was an agreement between delegations not to disclose them until an agreement is reached but of course, our main aim is to make Russia stop Russian aggression, withdraw its forces from the territory of Ukraine and return all temporarily occupied territories to Ukraine, and of course, pay compensation reparations to Ukraine for all the damages it incurred.
Can you describe what are the red lines for Ukraine in these negotiations?
Our main redline is our sovereignty and territorial integrity with internationally recognized borders, I would say this is our main redline. We will never have any concessions in terms of our territory, not a single piece will be given to [Russia], Ukraine is a sovereign state and our territory and our territorial integrity is something we would definitely die for.
Russia is talking about a neutral state - what does this even mean?
Well Russia may talk about different things, but Ukraine was neutral - it didn't belong to any military block in 2014 when Russia started its aggression at the very beginning.
We are speaking right now that there has been a full-scale war since February 24, but the aggression started eight years ago in 2014 when Russia temporarily occupied Crimea and some parts of Donbas, Ukraine was neutral it didn't belong to any military block.
Right now, with what Russia was trying to say to the world, that because Ukraine wants to join NATO it has some security concerns, it is not the point. Russia wants a pro-Russia Ukraine, it wants to have Ukraine under its influence and it will not be the case.
I can assure you that Ukraine will not be conquered, never. It is the Ukrainian people, the spirit of the Ukrainian people, who will never let Russia conquer Ukraine.
Our President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is very strong and he said very clearly Russia will never occupy Ukraine and we will never surrender.
Ukraine has constantly been asking for a no-fly zone over your territory but the west is saying it is not going to happen at the moment. Also, there is a lot of confusion going on around [Poland's] MIG aircraft. How would you access the diplomacy in the case of the MIGs?
What I can say about the no-fly zone, Russia is trying to attack Ukraine from the territory of Russia, from the territory of Belarus, from temporarily occupied territories including Crimea and Donbas. It attacks Ukraine from everywhere.
Of course, its main targets are big cities like Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, because it wants to install a pro-Russian government. Kharkiv, which is totally destroyed now, is one of the biggest cities in Ukraine. Many other cities which are key in the regions, but it didn't succeed. It did not reach any of its huge goals because of our people, because of our army, because of our leadership.
That is why Russia decided to use airstrikes - because Russia has the advantage in terms of air, unfortunately.
Now what we are seeing is indiscriminate shelling of kindergartens, hospitals, schools, infrastructure. Thousands of people are killed. One thousand three hundred Ukrainian servicemen were killed as of yesterday [Saturday, March 12]. We have more than 80 children who were killed - 80 children. They had their hopes three weeks ago, they were going to school or kindergarten, they had their lives ahead of them and they are gone. Just because Russia doesn't care about human life.
That's why we see the only security for Ukraine right now is to have a no-fly zone to close the skies. We have been advocating for it on each international fora, with all our partners, with NATO partners. I am grateful for Estonia's support in this regard but we understand there should be consensus on this issue between NATO countries.
But we are saying closing the skies right now is the only guarantee to save millions of Ukrainian people. Millions of innocent lives.
But if you cannot close the skies with NATO forces, then give us fighter jets. Give us air defensive assistance. Then we will be able to close the skies ourselves.
The main purpose of a no-fly zone is not the declaration of war, the main purpose is to save innocent Ukrainian people and that is why we are asking for proper and very strong air defense assistance.
The negotiations have been held with different countries and I do hope they will be successful.
What happens if Kyiv is surrounded by Russia? Do you have a plan for this?
Of course, our president, our army, our defense minister all have a plan for that, that Kyiv will never be conquered by Russia.
First of all, you saw how the Russian army is not as strong as it was actually thought by many. The Ukrainian army has been able to withstand all the attacks. They [Russia] have lost more than 12,000 personnel. It is a huge figure. Ukrainians and the Ukrainian army will defend Kyiv, I would say, until the last breath. We will definitely, never surrender, even if they encircle Kyiv. It will be a battle for Kyiv, but we will definitely die for the capital and our country.
Finally, is your own family safe in Estonia?
My family is mainly in Ukraine, in Kyiv and in some other parts of Ukraine. Some of them are in the western part, where it is a bit safer, but I would not say it is really safe right now because as of today [Sunday, March 13], this morning, Russia fired several missiles at Lviv, Yavoriv military base and more than 35 people were killed and more than 100 wounded, it is terrible. And this is the western part of Ukraine which is almost 20 km from Poland. So it's very close to NATO countries.
So this is why we are saying close the skies, help us close the skies. Either close them with NATO forces or give us proper air defense assistance.
Of course, I worry about my family there are there. And some of them are in a safer place but I am afraid right now there are not so many safe places in Ukraine, in general, because Russia aims to destroy Ukraine if it cannot conquer Ukraine.
Editor: Helen Wright