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Former Ukrainian prime minister discusses the possibility of an attack from Russia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Kyiv, Ukraine, where President Zelenskyy is telling Ukrainians, stay calm, think positively. But U.S. assessments are that a Russian attack could come anytime now, which is where I began my questions to this next guest.

So that we have it on tape, would you say your name for me, please?

ARSENIY YATSENYUK: Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the wartime prime minister.

KELLY: The wartime prime minister. Yatsenyuk ran the country the last time Russia invaded back in 2014. How does that inform how he sees this crisis unfolding right now?

Let me start with this moment and with a blunt question - how prepared is Ukraine to defend itself should it be called upon to do so?

YATSENYUK: Well, if we compare Ukrainian military of 2022 with the Ukrainian military of 2014, that's completely different thing. So we have increased our military capacity in a number of times.

KELLY: Still much smaller - much smaller than Russia's though. Is this David and Goliath or something like that?

YATSENYUK: Let's be frank, OK. Russia is the country armed to the teeth. They spend tens of billions of dollars in order to modernize its army. And Russia possess nuclear arms. So that's completely different type of armies.

But can we deter Russia? Can we withstand? Yes, we can. And we showed it, and we did it in 2014. Putin was completely convinced that he will take over Ukraine, that Ukrainian army will retreat. The Ukrainians, they don't have force, guts and will to fight for their freedom and liberty. And he failed. We won, and we succeeded.

KELLY: Another question about the situation now - how confident are you in the ability of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to lead the country at this moment of crisis? I ask because, just this month, you said - and I'll quote - that "Vladimir Putin would eat him for breakfast if these two came face to face."

YATSENYUK: Well, here is the thing.

KELLY: Do you stand by that quote?

YATSENYUK: Absolutely. I can reiterate this quote. The quote was that President Zelenskyy can meet with Putin only in the company of President Biden, President Macron and German chancellor. So after my comment, Zelenskyy actually launched a new idea that he's ready to have not eye-to-eye conversation with Putin, but this is to be eye-to-eye and another eye of President Biden. So it worked well.

In terms of Mr. Zelenskyy, in this challenging time - frankly speaking, despite the fact that we are completely on the different sides of the aisle with President Zelenskyy, I don't want to criticize him. But I urge him to act as a president in his administration because we, as a state of Ukraine, are facing one of the most dramatic and challenging times in the history of my country.

KELLY: To your comment that you don't want to criticize him but you do want to see him ask as - act as a president, is he...

YATSENYUK: As a wartime president.

KELLY: Is he acting as a wartime president, in your view?

YATSENYUK: He has to make it - not yet.

KELLY: Among the things Zelenskyy and his government are calling for are sanctions - a lot of sanctions - and now, before the Russians have done anything, before they have tried to attack. Is that realistic?

YATSENYUK: Well, that's the reason why I told you that he has to act as a president. There is a pattern, how to apply sanctions. Looming sanctions, in this particular case, are better. And it's just more reasonable, rather than sanctions that is imposed without any kind of real incursion.

That's not the way it works. Putin has to know that sanctions are on the table. If he does something, he will pay a very heavy price.

KELLY: You're saying if sanctions are imposed now, as the government of Ukraine is currently calling for, before Russia does anything, they lose leverage because...

YATSENYUK: Absolutely. Absolutely.

KELLY: ...The maximum consequences have already been imposed.

YATSENYUK: Absolutely. And this way, Putin - this is the way to justify Putin's invasion. Putin will say, look, I did nothing. They already impose sanctions on me. So there is not any kind of roadblock. I'm going to move forward.

KELLY: Why is it in America's interests to help arm Ukraine, to help fight this fight?

YATSENYUK: So it is about - it's about freedom, liberty, sovereignty and independence. This is the bedrock of the United States. And the U.S. is to support everyone in this world who shares the same values.

Ukraine is a free and independent state, which is under the Russian threat and under the Russian aggression. So Russia posed threat not only to Ukraine. Russia posed this threat to the United States.

Let me remind you that Russia committed a number of crimes against the United States - cyberattack, meddling in the U.S. elections. Russia is threatening NATO. So Russia is threatening your life - I mean, American life.

From the economic perspective, gasoline prices - Russia did a lot to destabilize the energy markets, to increase the energy prices and to spur global inflation. So this is another tool that Russia is implementing.

KELLY: Last question - you referred to yourself as the wartime prime minister because you were helping run this country the last time that Russia attacked back in 2014. What feels the same? What feels different about this moment?

YATSENYUK: We are much stronger, much stronger. We are in...

KELLY: Militarily or more than that?

YATSENYUK: Both - both militarily, economically. So Ukraine was on the brink of bankruptcy. Could you imagine that the treasury account of the entire government had only $20,000? Not $20 billion - $20,000. There was no military at all. There was no gas, no coal, no electricity - nothing. And there was no unity among the Ukrainian people. As for now, we have a very strong united nation.

KELLY: When you say Ukraine feels stronger, does the threat, does the danger also feel stronger? In 2014, Vladimir Putin didn't have more than 100,000 troops amassed on your border.

YATSENYUK: You could easily ship all these troops in a few weeks. Russia became more aggressive. The problem is that after Putin committed this international crime with the land grab of Ukraine, he didn't pay the real price. Even due to the sanctions, Putin has improved his stance. He's not isolated. His economy is not on the down escalator.

He manufactured and fabricated this energy crisis. He meddles into the foreign elections, into the Western elections. He commits assassinations and killings of foreign nationals on the foreign soil. He makes cyberattacks. So the beast is very, very dangerous.

KELLY: Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the former prime minister of Ukraine. Mr. Prime Minister, thank you.

YATSENYUK: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.