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Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk, interviewed at his country's embassy in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2022 (Times of Israel)
Main image: Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk, interviewed at his country's embassy in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2022 (Times of Israel)
Interview

‘Our children are dying’: Ukraine envoy pleads for 24/7 urgency in Israeli mediation

‘I wish this were done in a more active way,’ says Yevgen Korniychuk of Bennett’s efforts. And if not, he indicates, Israel should drop its neutrality and firmly back Ukraine

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image: Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk, interviewed at his country's embassy in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2022 (Times of Israel)

Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel has pleaded for urgency in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s efforts to mediate a resolution to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, stressing that there should be a permanent team working 24/7 to help bring about a ceasefire.

While confirming Ukraine’s appreciation for Bennett’s efforts, Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk noted in an interview with The Times of Israel: “I wish this exercise were done in a more active way; we are talking about people’s lives.”

“I’m nobody to teach your leadership how to deal with this issue, but I would be very much willing to see… a full-time team” at work, he said. “Not necessarily, of course, the prime minister, but somebody designated who is credible for both parties, and who is dealing with this matter on a daily basis.”

Speaking carefully in English in sometimes emotional and anguished tones, and striving to provide nuanced responses, Korniychuk also intimated his belief that, if the mediation cannot make rapid headway, Israel should forgo its “basically neutral” stance — useful in enabling Bennett to interact with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and take a clear stand alongside Ukraine, including by supplying arms and joining the international sanctions.

“You do have people in the current government who are very familiar with the situation, and who participated in previous negotiations with Russia related to Syria or Iran,” he noted, citing Kharkiv-born Minister Ze’ev Elkin as an example. “This is why I very much wish that we will see a more proactive and fast [effort at mediation].

He then added: “Basically, you summed it up correctly: Either do this [urgent, serious mediation] or join up with the rest of the democratic states and friends and help Ukraine, on the side of Ukraine.”

US President Joe Biden, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk in a hall during their meeting at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021. (Mikhail Metzel/Pool Photo via AP)

Korniychuk, interviewed in his office at the embassy in Tel Aviv, said he believes Putin could have been deterred, and the invasion prevented, if the United States had acceded to Ukraine’s longstanding requests for potent weaponry to deter Moscow.

“We were asking America for defensive weapons for a long time. If we’d had various types of defensive missiles that the Americans possess, different artillery, various naval capacities, we would definitely have been much stronger. And the Russians would probably have thought twice about making this move [to invade],” the ambassador said.

“But they didn’t give these [weapons and capacities] to us, assuming that our leadership might turn out to be like Afghanistan, where they have a bad history: They provided [the Afghan army] with weapons. And those weapons appeared with the Taliban the next day.”

Now, he said, some vital weapons systems were being supplied, and Ukraine was telling its partners, “We don’t just need light weaponry, for defending ourselves. We need to counterattack. So we need something stronger. And they are considering those possibilities.

“Broadly speaking,” he added, “since you guys left us alone to fight the big bear, we have to be very well equipped. You see that the spirit is there, and the willingness to protect the country is there. The heroism is massive. We will not give up. This is why we do need much stronger, effective weapons, that we [have been starting to] get since the start of the war.”

Korniychuk welcomed Israel’s substantial humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and warmly noted the opening of the Israeli field hospital. He also credited Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked with improving the process by which Ukrainian refugees are received in Israel and working closely with him regarding eligibility for Ukrainians to shelter from the war in Israel, though this issue is still being finalized.

“We are in a process and she’s taking the right steps, just a bit too slowly,” he said. “I will not criticize her for that. She’s awaiting more information about the numbers,” he said, explaining that large numbers of potential arrivals were not anticipated. “We are only talking about certain categories [of potential arrivals]. We do understand that they will not get refugee status here, and they will not get the benefits… And I strongly disagree with bargaining for a specific number.”

I do understand the reservations of the Israeli people that they’re making over the very personal issue of the Holocaust

Korniychuk also addressed the criticism in Israel of comparisons made by Volodymyr Zelensky, in the president’s speech to lawmakers on Sunday, between Ukraine’s plight and that of the Jewish people in the Holocaust.

“I do understand the reservations of the Israeli people that they’re making over the very personal issue of the Holocaust,” he said. “But I do remember President Zelensky’s story that he told when he visited [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, I think in 2019, when he was talking about his own family; the three brothers of his grandfather were killed in the Holocaust.”

Whatever I’ve been doing as the ambassador of Ukraine in Israel is not good enough for my president, because he will be always wanting to see more from Israel for Ukraine

For Zelensky, said the ambassador, “it’s a very personal thing and very painful. What’s happening in this country is very emotional for the president because of his Jewish mother, and his family history.”

Added Korniychuk, “Whatever I’ve been doing as the ambassador of Ukraine in Israel is not good enough for my president, because he will be always wanting to see more from Israel for Ukraine.”

When it comes to Israel, he said, “it’s very emotional for the president. Don’t judge us over the emotional discrepancies. You are better historians than us of your own nation.”

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Times of Israel: I want to ask you some very specific questions about what you think Israel’s role should be in this crisis. But first, do you think Israel and Israelis fully understand what is happening?

Yevgen Korniychuk: The terrible history of the current crisis, the current war, is nothing new for us. It’s been happening for the last eight years, since 2014. There was a very active stage at the beginning. Then, a kind of a low profile stage. But our people were dying constantly — if not every day, then for sure, every week. When this stage started, we were seeking support from all of our partners and friends. And clearly, we are counting on Israel as a partner and friend to do what it can in order to stop the violence and stop this bloody massacre, to stop this war.

Where do you see it ending? What is Putin trying to do?

Listen, nobody except probably he himself knows what he is trying to do.

Clearly, he started with one idea — to take control of the capital within three, four days, maximum a week, and to change the government. Now he’s realized that this is not possible.

What is in his mind at the moment, I don’t know. But clearly they’re changing strategy now. They’re trying to get a hold of as much territory as they can, in order to trade it in for bigger benefits in the negotiation process. They have not taken control of a single big city except Kherson. And even in Kherson, the people are opposing them, opposing the temporary administration. The idea was to organize the Kherson People’s Republic. That’s not working. The people are demonstrating. I saw from the news today that they were using tear gas in order to disperse the demonstration this morning.

What they’re doing to Mariupol is just unbelievable. It’s a similar story to what they did in Aleppo in Syria. We can’t even count the number of the dead and injured because nobody can bring them up from the basements.

So, for example, the theater in Mariupol, where we heard maybe 1,000 or 1,300 people were sheltering inside and maybe 130 came out, do you know what the death toll is in that incident, do you know how many are still alive inside?

No, we don’t.

It is too dangerous to try to get to them?

They’re bombing every ten minutes. Nobody can get there.

The city was a huge city. Almost a half a million population. I stopped watching it on CNN because it’s too heartbreaking for me, knowing those cities and those people personally.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) while accompanied by Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin who acted as a translator at Putin’s residence in Sochi, Russia on October 22, 2021. (Kobi Gidon/GPO)

Let me get back to our bilateral story. The dialogue with Prime Minister Bennett regarding the possible intermediary role of Israel started in October. And that was the kind offer of Prime Minister Bennett. We didn’t ask him, but his diplomatic adviser asked me during our very first meeting whether we were interested. And we said, of course we’re interested.

We very much appreciated this initiative. So the night before he flew to Sochi [to meet Putin], there was a phone call between Bennett and Zelensky. They discussed the details. And he raised the issue with Mr. Putin when he was in Sochi, without success, of course.

What exactly did he ask Putin?

To stop the war. Obviously, this is the biggest issue that can be brought to the table if you wish to be a good intermediary.

Israel is basically a neutral country at the moment to the conflict. We are getting no weapons from Israel, unlike from the rest of our partners. And there are no sanctions against Russia from Israel.

That’s why my personal idea was that Israel could do more as an intermediary than other states like Turkey, for example. Mr. Erdogan was trying to [mediate], but at the same time, the Turks are selling and donating lots of weapons to Ukraine. I don’t think that helps with this [mediating] role.

Israel is basically a neutral country at the moment to the conflict. We are getting no weapons from Israel, unlike from the rest of our partners. And there are no sanctions against Russia from Israel. That’s why my personal idea was that Israel could do more as an intermediary than other states like Turkey, for example

Prime Minister Bennett was in Moscow [to meet Putin on March 5] and Minister Elkin was also at the meeting. We discussed those matters before they left. Mr. Elkin is very familiar with the situation, and he spent a lot of time in Moscow together with previous prime minister Netanyahu. He has a good understanding of what’s going on, on the ground and psychologically. He came to Israel from Kharkiv 30 years ago and his brother is still living in Ukraine, which means that obviously his mentality is fairly close to what’s going on over there now.

If [stopping the war is] something that we can achieve with Israeli help, successful mediation, that’s something priceless.

We see this range of reactions to the Israeli mediation from Ukrainian leaders and officials. We saw President Zelensky in his speech on Sunday say “you can’t mediate between good and evil.” Was he intimating that Bennett was not doing a good job? Then he was much more positive [about Bennett’s mediation efforts] in his remarks later on Sunday night. Is Ukraine unhappy with the way Bennett is doing this?

No, no, of course not. Ukraine is happy.

It’s my personal feeling that Israel could do more. I do support the president’s position, of course, that we would be very pleased to see some practical results out of [Bennett’s efforts].

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, to Knesset lawmakers on March 20, 2022. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The country is starving right now. This [mediation] is not something that you could basically do forever. [Zelensky’s reference to] ‘between good and evil’ was to make it clear for the world who is standing for peace and democracy and who is standing for the war. Clearly, Ukraine was not aggressive to any of its neighbors. The allegations about Ukraine holding chemical weapons are false Russian propaganda.

I want to be sure I understand what you’re saying regarding Zelensky’s comment about mediating between good and evil: He was not saying, We don’t want you to do this, Mr. Bennett.

Of course not.

He was saying, generally, that you have to understand who is the good side and who is the evil side.

Clearly.

Part of the complication of this situation for Israel is a very serious concern about Putin, because he’s so dominant in our part of the world now. America is less engaged. And he runs Syria. Do you think Israel should be prepared to risk alienating Putin?

Listen, it’s not for me to tell you what you should do. You are an independent state and you do whatever is in your own interest.

Look at the Baltic States that have a direct border with Russia, all three of them. And all three of them are helping us with weapons, donating weapons. They are helping us with any kind of technical support, with sanctions of course, and they are not afraid.

But what I want to point out is that you are the only country among our friends that is neutral and not providing any military support or sanctions. It probably means that I’m a bad diplomat here, in not persuading you to do so. But this is a fact and you take it any way you want.

Somebody asked me at one of the numerous press conferences: You guys know that we have the Russian presence in Syria. I said, you can disagree with me, maybe, but look at the Baltic States that have a direct border with Russia, all three of them [Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania]. And all three of them are helping us with weapons, donating weapons. They are helping us with any kind of technical support, with sanctions of course, and they are not afraid.

What about the big, strong Western countries? America, first of all. Do you think this could have been prevented if the West had done things differently, said things differently?

For sure. We were asking America for defensive weapons for a long time. If we’d had various types of defensive missiles that the Americans possess, different artillery, various naval capacities, we would definitely have been much stronger. And the Russians would probably have thought twice about making this move [to invade].

But they didn’t give these [weapons and capacities] to us, assuming that our leadership might turn out to be like Afghanistan, where they have a bad history: They provided [the Afghan army] with weapons. And those weapons appeared with the Taliban next day.

The Americans were worried that weapons they’d give you would wind up with Putin?

Since you guys left us alone to fight the big bear, we have to be very well equipped. You see that the spirit is there, and the willingness to protect the country is there. The heroism is massive. We will not give up. This is why we do need much stronger, effective weapons

Yes, exactly. That was written between the lines. But fortunately, those systems are getting [to us now]. And we urge our partners: We don’t just need light weaponry, for defending ourselves. We need to counterattack. So we need something stronger. And they are considering those possibilities.

Broadly speaking, since you guys left us alone to fight the big bear, we have to be very well equipped. You see that the spirit is there, and the willingness to protect the country is there. The heroism is massive. We will not give up. This is why we do need much stronger, effective weapons that we [have been starting to] get since the start of the war.

How serious is the direct threat to the president? In the fog of war, is the claim that Russia is trying personally to get to Zelensky and kill Zelensky a serious and major concern?

I haven’t been in Kyiv, unfortunately, since the war started, since February 24. But from what I have heard from my colleagues, there were a few attempts. Clearly, the idea of the Russian leadership was to threaten him and hope that he would flee the country. That would have made their life much easier. Then the idea was to bring in [former president Viktor] Yanukovych, who ran away to Russia in 2014, as a legitimate president, and move in this direction.

Zelensky did not make such a gesture to the Russians and he is still in the office. Some of the Israeli ministers I’ve talked to were surprised that our cabinet ministers are still working, well-coordinated. The military is doing its job, the territorial defense is doing its job, the police is active. All the big cities are operating. Kharkiv, which was the second biggest city after Kyiv, suffered a lot, but the Russian military did not get into the city, despite massive bombing and thousands of buildings destroyed.

Somehow logistics are operating. Humanitarian aid has been delivered. We’re in contact with the mayors regarding humanitarian aid from Israel almost every day.

When it comes to our needs, what is putting Israel in a unique position regarding mediation is that you are neutral. But we definitely would love to see the results as fast as possible, because our children are dying every hour.

The only result that you can live with is for Russia to withdraw?

We don’t know exactly what’s going on in the negotiation right now, and the Russian participation is quite low-level. But it’s going on via Zoom every day. They are discussing neutrality. They are talking about demilitarization. The differences are huge of course, but you have to deal with that. How can you agree to limit your armed forces to 50,000 or 20,000 or whatever after what is happening right now? You can think about being a neutral country if you have a strong army. Obviously, especially after what has been happening over the last 27 days, you must have a strong army.

Associated Press photographer Evgeniy Maloletka stands amid rubble of an airstrike on Pryazovskyi State Technical University in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 10, 2022. (Mstyslav Chernov/AP)

First of all, though, there has to be a ceasefire. That’s step number one. And number two, the withdrawal of the troops. But Russia is insisting that [an agreement] has to happen while the troops are still staying. As a lawyer, I can tell you that any treaty signed under the threat of force is null and void. It’s in the Vienna Convention. It’s first-year law school.

Is Israel playing any part in these current talks? Does Bennett have a team that’s part of this?

I cannot comment. I don’t know all the details. But I wish for greater success and faster.

You don’t have the sense that there’s urgency.

Well, with all due respect to Prime Minister Bennett, and once again, I do understand he’s a very busy man, and that for Israel there’s a lot around you now that you have to deal with, so he might not have enough time…

Personally, of course, but did he set up a team?

That’s what I cannot comment on. There should be a permanent team. There should be a special person designated to deal with this issue on a daily basis.

I’m nobody to teach your leadership how to deal with this issue, but I would be very much willing to see something similar where we have a full-time team on the ground. Not necessarily, of course, the prime minister, but somebody designated who is credible for both parties, and who is dealing with this matter on a daily basis

I wish this exercise were done in a more active way; we are talking about people’s lives. As a lawyer, in commercial law, I participated in mediation. Multibillion-dollar mediation is very similar to the current circumstances in that you have a team of mediators, well-qualified lawyers, financial advisers, sometimes media advisers, etc. Those people are working on an approximation of the position of the parties, finding the gaps and balances and the compromises from both sides. That’s how it works in mediation.

I’m nobody to teach your leadership how to deal with this issue, but I would be very much willing to see something similar where we have a full-time team on the ground. Not necessarily, of course, the prime minister, but somebody designated who is credible for both parties, and who is dealing with this matter on a daily basis.

‘On the ground’ figuratively speaking, working on it 24/7?

Yes.

With that as their only job.

Yes.

That’s what should be happening?

I wish. I’m a modest ambassador from a small country, but a very important country… You either choose this and take it seriously as a mediator…

Either you side with Ukraine and you give up on the mediation, or you mediate very urgently and seriously. That’s what you’re saying.

Exactly.

I understand.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, pleads with Israel at a press conference to provide protective equipment such as helmets and flak jackets for Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, March 7, 2022.(Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

Does that make sense to you?

Yes. A week or so before the invasion, I interviewed [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid. It was clear something terrible was about to happen. I asked him whether he could speak out and clearly say that an invasion would be unacceptable. And he said, of course I can say that. And he has said that. He also said that Ukraine’s vulnerability underlined the lesson for Israel that it has to be able to defend itself, by itself, because nobody else is going to lift a finger. That’s one of the problems that Israel’s leadership feels it has. Yes, it wants to mediate. But it is wary of alienating Putin because it sees the world doing nothing against a bully who’s invading the country next door. That’s in the mix.

You do have people in the current government who are very familiar with the situation, and who participated in previous negotiations with Russia related to Syria or Iran. I know what I’m talking about. This is why I very much wish that we will see a more proactive and fast [effort at mediation].

Basically, you summed it up correctly: Either do this [urgent, serious mediation] or join up with the rest of the democratic states and friends and help Ukraine, on the side of Ukraine.

Getting back to the issues of what we need from Israel, of course you know the debates regarding the refugees are also very painful.

Do you now see people being treated properly when they arrive? Is Israel proving more open to refugees coming? How many refugees do you think want to come?

We do appreciate steps that have been taken — because it was terrible at the beginning and now it’s getting better. I have to credit [Interior] Minister Shaked. We meet regularly. We exchange our views.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked holds a press conference at Ben Gurion International Airport, announcing new criteria for refugee admissions, March 13, 2022. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Israel is not the best place for the refugees at all. You are the most expensive country. Tel Aviv was called the most expensive city in the world last year. The refugees will get no benefits here whatsoever, unlike in the EU, US or Canada.

The people who are coming here are not doing it for fun. They are escaping from the war. These are women and children, or elderly people. They fall into two categories. First, those who are [eligible for citizenship] under the Law of Return. Israel’s position is that you are treating them well. Of course you must treat them well. That’s your legislation. The more you accept or absorb, the better for Israel. As far as I know, that’s about 4,000 people from Ukraine. I don’t know what the numbers are from Russia or Belarus.

The second category are people who have relatives but not on a level that would give them the right to a passport — like great-grandchildren, for example, or second cousins — who are allowed in on an electronic visa after being checked by the ministry, and people with close ties to friends or relatives here who would like to give them shelter… I’d estimate that might be 10-20,000 people, who have close ties with their friends and families, who would love to give them shelter, only for the duration of the war.

We are discussing those categories with the minister now and I think she’s treating our suggestions positively to a large extent. We are still working on that and it’s a painful process for us, because it is striking that while [Ukrainian arrivals] are required to get electronic permits, citizens of Russia and Belarus are able to come in without such permits and with no limitations.

As tourists?

Yes… Once again we are in a process and she’s taking the right steps, just a bit too slowly. I will not criticize her for that. She’s awaiting more information about the numbers.

People are waiting at the borders of Ukraine, in huge numbers?

No, I don’t think it’s going to be huge numbers. Once again, we are only talking about certain categories. We do understand that they will not get refugee status here, and they will not get the benefits. So we are talking about the family members or friends of Israelis who are willing to provide shelter. Maybe a few tens of thousands. And I strongly disagree with bargaining for a specific number.

You mean you don’t want a formal limit imposed?

Yes… I also want to mention the interim court decision of the Supreme Court a few days ago, recognizing that there are some legal discrepancies that have to be addressed here.

I want to ask you something very specific and geographic, regarding Babyn Yar. This stems from the controversy over whether Babyn Yar was hit in the Russian missile attack on the TV center in the area. Can you explain where exactly was struck and where wasn’t. 

Yes, I saw this reporting that no memorials were hit.

Those were not hit; the menorah memorial was not hit. We understand.

The territory of the mass grave for the Jews, non-Jews — Gypsies, Ukrainians, Russians — killed there was a few kilometers long.

And that whole area is called Babyn Yar.

Of course.

The TV center is part of the Babyn Yar neighborhood area?

Yes.

Basically, the president said that they were killing those Jews a second time, and that was true. How cynical do you have to be as a journalist if you come in there to search whether the memorials are okay or were destroyed? Oh, the memorials were not destroyed, so that’s okay.

Do you know what was hit apart from the TV area? Was the cemetery hit?

Part of the cemetery, of course. And a whole family, five people, died during the bombing. It’s very cynical if someone says nothing happened because the memorial itself was not hit.

Ukrainian firefighters work to put out a blaze in a building in the Jewish cemetery located in Kyiv’s Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial site, on March 1, 2022. (State Emergency Service of Ukraine)

This is like the unhappy comments about the presidential speech where he mentioned the Holocaust in comparison to the current genocide of the Ukrainian people. I mean, we are in a war, okay. Similarly, I said publicly, and I made a mistake, that there were 4,000 Ukrainian Righteous Gentiles; it was 3,000. Okay. I was wrong, but some journalists made a big thing out of it. Come on.

It’s incredibly complex and emotive, and I’m not surprised by some of the Israeli response. The Holocaust was the systematic elimination of the Jewish people — not just to take the territory, but to kill millions of people. And then there’s the history of what Ukrainians did — there were Righteous Gentiles for sure, but many Ukrainians were deeply complicit, helped the Nazis carry out the killings, including at Babyn Yar of course. I could say much more, but I do want to say that.

Listen, I do understand the reservations of the Israeli people that they’re making over the very personal issue of the Holocaust. But I do remember President Zelensky’s story that he told when he visited Netanyahu, I think in 2019, when he was talking about his own family; the three brothers of his grandfather were killed in the Holocaust.

For him, it’s a very personal thing and very painful. What’s happening in this country is very emotional for the president because of his Jewish mother, and his family history.

You mean, the way Israel responds is very personal to him.

Yes, of course.

I had the conversation with him and he said wonderful things about Israel. He was so admiring of Israel when we spoke two years ago: What an incredible country. You thrive under attack and you defend yourselves. He was such a Zionist. I imagine he looks at Israel today and he’s full of conflicted emotions: I think they should be doing more. Well, maybe they can help mediate…

For me, it’s very serious. Whatever I’ve been doing as the ambassador of Ukraine in Israel is not good enough for my president because he will be always wanting to see more from Israel for Ukraine.

So you feel this pressure to live up to his expectations for Israel?

Don’t judge us over the emotional discrepancies. You are better historians than us of your own nation

I am fine. I’m sure they know that we are doing our best here. But definitely, when it comes to Israel, it’s very emotional for the president.

Don’t judge us over the emotional discrepancies. You are better historians than us of your own nation.

Let me tell you, we do admire the major humanitarian aid that has been provided by Israel, and more is coming. One hundred tons of humanitarian aid was provided immediately by the Israeli government, through the embassy, and with the Israeli people, we gathered another 400 tons that are at Ben Gurion Airport waiting to be sent.

The field hospital was just opened. Those are good things.

Solidarity is something that we are getting from most civilized nations, including Israel.

We do believe that the government could do more for us, and we are working hard in order to generate the ideas and the practical steps together in order to achieve our immediate goal which is the ceasefire, the withdrawal of the enemy troops from our territory, and to start rebuilding our nation, that would be hopefully becoming a part of the European Union, no matter whether we are neutral or not neutral in terms of NATO.

We do hope that after this horrible story is ended, we will get peace and we will become among the European Union countries — a prosperous, successful and peaceful nation. And that we will share the same spirit as Israel — to prove that we do have a desire to defend ourselves, and we will defend ourselves successfully and achieve peace, and not surrender.

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