Exclusive: Former PM discusses ‘cold, cruel’ Vladimir Putin and the west’s response to the Russian invasion

Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko has described Vladimir Putin as “absolutely rational, cold, cruel, black evil” and claimed he is determined to go down in Russian history alongside Stalin and Peter the Great.

In an exclusive interview, Tymoshenko dismissed the suggestion that the Russian president was “crazy”. “He acts according to his own dark logic,” she said. “He’s driven by this idea of historic mission and wants to create an empire. That’s his hyper-goal. It comes from a deep inner desire and belief.”

Tymoshenko, a leader of the 2004 Orange revolution and twice prime minister, had several one-on-one meetings with Putin. They held negotiations in 2009 after Putin, then prime minister, turned off the gas supply to Ukraine. Tymoshenko stood for president in 2010, 2014 and 2019, finishing second twice and then third.

Close up, Putin was “always cautious” in what he said and always suspicious that he might be being taped, she said. “He is from a KGB school,” she said. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February, he made no secret of his belief that there was “no such nation as Ukraine, and no such people as Ukrainians”, she said.

His ambitions went beyond seizing Ukrainian territory and toppling its pro-western, pro-Nato government, Tymoshenko suggested. His geopolitical aim was to take over Belarus, Georgia and Moldova as well, and to control central and eastern Europe including the Baltic states, just as Moscow did in Soviet times, she said.

Tymoshenko was in Kyiv on 24 February when Russia launched a multi-pronged attack in the early hours. She said peacetime political rivalries and grudges immediately vanished. That morning she went to the presidential administration together with other senior opposition figures and met Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whom she ran against in 2019.

“We hugged each other and shook hands. Everyone was shocked, pale and afraid. None of us planned to leave Kyiv,” she said. “Everyone knew we should stand until the last. We agreed to support our president and our army and to work for victory.” Zelenskiy’s decision to remain in the capital and to “overcome his fear” was important, she said.

As Russian bombs fell, Tymoshenko took refuge in the basement of the modern office building belonging to her Batkivshchyna political party in Kyiv’s Podil district, which was hit several times by missiles. Asked if she was ready to shoot Russian soldiers, she said: “Yes. I have legal weapons. The Kremlin put me on a kill list, according to sources. We were prepared.”

The Russian government had always considered her an enemy, Tymoshenko said. She pointed to her support for Ukraine’s membership of the EU and Nato. In the 2010 presidential election she stood against Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by Moscow. She blamed her defeat on the outgoing president at the time, Viktor Yushchenko, a one-time Orange revolution ally.
The following year Yanukovych had Tymoshenko jailed in a case widely seen as politically motivated. “Putin and Yanukovych imprisoned me. Yanukovych was never an independent player. He was always Putin’s puppet,” she said. She got out of prison in 2014 when Yanukovych fled to Moscow after the Maidan anti-corruption protests. Weeks later Putin annexed Crimea and instigated a separatist uprising in the east of Ukraine.

Tymoshenko spoke in her downtown office decorated with the Ukrainian flag and photos showing her with western leaders including Margaret Thatcher. She praised the “unbelievable unity” of the “anti-Putin coalition” and singled out the UK and Boris Johnson for special mention, as well as the US, Canada and Poland. “We see Britain as a part of the broader Ukrainian family,” she said.

Last weekend France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said it was important not to “humiliate” Putin – a phrase interpreted as meaning Ukraine should sacrifice some of its territory in exchange for a realpolitik deal with Moscow. Tymoshenko said France and Germany – criticised for slow-pedalling on arms deliveries – should not be ostracised as Europe grappled with its worst security crisis in decades.

But she said Ukraine’s international partners had to understand that the only way to end the war was to crush Russian forces on the battlefield. Without naming anybody, she said they should not become “co-conspirators with evil”. She added: “There is no such thing as a peace agreement with Putin because it doesn’t lead to peace. It would lead to a new war several years later.”

The stakes for her country were existential, she said. The Kremlin’s objective was to “depersonify” Ukraine, stripping it of its language and culture, and leaving it weak and “atomised”. The civilised world had a unique opportunity to stop Russia and to prevent it from spreading “war, corruption, blackmail, disinformation and unfreedom,” she said.
Russia had largely given up on the pretence that it was only targeting Ukrainian military infrastructure, Tymoshenko said. The murder of civilians – in cities in the Kyiv region such as Bucha and Irpin, as well as in other areas – was cruel and deliberate, she said, with Russian soldiers following Moscow’s instructions.

“It’s an inseparable part of their genocide against the Ukrainian nation,” she said. “What happened in Mariupol was even worse than in Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel. I’m convinced we will be able to take back Mariupol and to uncover the scale of the horrible killings there. It was a tragedy, a human catastrophe of an unthinkable scale.”

Considering her words, the veteran politician concluded: “This is a great battle for our territory and our freedom. It’s a historic chance for the free world to kill this evil.”

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