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Ukraine's Foreign Minister says Mariupol is still in Ukrainian hands

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Two months, one week and three days - that is how long since Russia invaded Ukraine. The war, of course, grinds on. The toll in lives lost and physical destruction has been catastrophic. And if anything, it's harder to make out how or when it might end than it was back on February 24, the day of the invasion. Our next guest is one of Ukraine's most senior officials, the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba. I first met and interviewed him in Kyiv right before the war. Earlier today, we reached him again at his office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv, and I asked about the latest developments in another part of Ukraine, the devastated southern city of Mariupol. More than 160 civilians were evacuated this week. There were reports today that Russian forces have breached the Azovstal steel plant, that they are inside. Can you confirm?

DMYTRO KULEBA: I have, probably, the most reliable source from Mariupol, Azovstal. It is one of the Ukrainian officers who is locked up at Azovstal, together with his army fellows and civilians. And usually he texts me or calls me in the evening to update on the developments. The last message that I received from him was last night, and I haven't heard from him since. I pray that everything is fine, and I'm really looking forward to receiving the message or call tonight and he will tell me that everything is fine with him.

KELLY: How many people are still inside this plant?

KULEBA: It's hard to say - hundreds of civilians...

KELLY: Yeah.

KULEBA: ...Mostly children and women and more than a thousand Ukrainian soldiers. But it's true that they get bombed every day. It's true that wounded soldiers die because of the lack of proper treatment and because of the new bombings.

KELLY: Yeah.

KULEBA: And they die under the roof of the destroyed shelter. So it's a tragedy when you escape death once, but it reaches you from second attempt.

KELLY: I mean, this plant, it's the last holdout...

KULEBA: Yes, yes.

KELLY: ...You said - more than - something like a thousand soldiers and then hundreds of civilians. Russia says it has captured the city of Mariupol. Has it?

KULEBA: No, no. Until Azovstal holds, Mariupol holds.

KELLY: Mariupol is in Ukrainian hands, you're saying?

KULEBA: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. As long as we continue resistance, it means that Russia has not captured the city, whatever their propagandists tell us, tell everyone. But the problem is that Russia ruthlessly attacks Azovstal, trying to kill everyone who is there, destroy it and present Mariupol as their huge success before 9 of May.

KELLY: The 9 of May, the Victory Day celebrations that Russia...

KULEBA: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Is gearing up for. Let me turn to the battle for the East. Pentagon officials here in Washington say they do see Russia making progress, but they say it's minimal, that the Russian offensive thus far is anemic, is plotting. That's their words. Do you agree with that assessment? And how long can Ukrainian forces put up that kind of resistance?

KULEBA: OK. I want you to understand the nature of the battle for Donbas. It looks this way. There is a line that Ukrainian army holds - trenches, defensive positions. Russia throws on these lines artillery fire, attacks from the air and shells. Then, once they believe that they killed everyone and they can advance, they sent tanks with infantry to take over our positions. To their surprise, almost-killed Ukrainian soldiers dig out from the trenches and start shooting back, and we throw them back because the morale of Russian army is very low. They're not ready to fight. And to the contrary, our soldiers are ready to defend, to stand by every inch of our land until death.

KELLY: I do need to ask about unexplained fires, explosions at strategic locations in Russia. Russia's biggest chemical plant just burned down for reasons not known. Is Ukraine attacking inside Russia?

KULEBA: Whatever Ukraine does, Ukraine always defends itself. This is a defensive war, and we defend our country from an aggressive country that is much bigger and stronger than us. But again...

KELLY: Striking inside Russia would be offensive, though, not defensive, no?

KULEBA: No, I'm not saying it was - I'm not saying we are attacking objects in Russia. What I'm saying is that whatever we do here is aimed at defending the country. Imagine, theoretically, that a missile is heading towards target in Ukraine and we have, theoretically, the capacity to shoot it down. Should we wait until it reaches our city because we cannot shoot it down in the Russian skies? If we had the possibility to shoot them down, we would use them because the eventual target is in Ukraine, and we have to save people and our own houses.

KELLY: And I hear you using the word theoretically, so you are not confirming or denying what is targeting these...

KULEBA: No, no.

KELLY: ...Locations in Russia?

KULEBA: I think it's the military. I think is the military guys who have to confirm or deny hitting this or that target. My point to you is that we are fighting against the enemy who is much stronger and has more resources than we do. And everything we do is aimed at saving and defending and saving Ukraine. We have no aggressive plans towards Russia. We have no intention to invade Russia. We have no intention to cross the border between our countries. Everything we do is aimed at one thing - to defend our country and our right to exist.

KELLY: So that brings me to the last thing to ask you. You're a diplomat. As a diplomat, do you still hold out hope that diplomacy can end this war?

KULEBA: Of course - every war ends with diplomacy. This is how history works. In the end, it's diplomats who have to sit down and draft and sign an agreement.

KELLY: That would require Russia to negotiate in good faith, though. Do you believe that is possible?

KULEBA: You know, the chances to meet a Russian diplomat negotiating in good faith are equal to meeting a Martian on Earth. But still, we have to be ready to negotiate with them, to defend our positions. But as a diplomat, I have to make sure that my country approaches this negotiations in the strongest position possible. And the strength of our position will depend on the level and quality of sanctions imposed against Russia, on the amount and quality of weapons supplied to Ukraine, on the level of isolation of Russia in the world and on the ability of Ukrainian army to push Russian army back. If we - I can do the three first things to help our army to do the force. And as a diplomat, I'm focused on this. I am ready to negotiate, but I want my country to be very strong in those negotiations.

KELLY: Dmytro Kuleba - he is the foreign minister of Ukraine. He joined us from the capital, Kyiv. Foreign Minister, thank you - great to speak with you.

KULEBA: Thank you.

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