February 17, 2023
SEOUL – Ukraine will never accept a cease-fire deal that requires Ukraine to cede more territory to Russia and allows the presence of Russian troops in illegally occupied territory, Vitaliy Kim, head of the regional military administration in the war-battered southern city of Mykolaiv in Ukraine, said in a joint interview with The Korea Herald and its sister publication Herald Business on Feb. 2.
Kim was appointed the governor of the Mykolaiv region by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in November 2020. The 41-year-old shifted his business career to enter politics with a determination to root out widespread corruption inherited from the Soviet Union, but now he fights for the survival of his homeland on the battlefield against Russia.
Ukraine’s war with Russia has ground on for nearly a year, with no end in sight to the conflict and suffering. Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Russian Wagner Group and President Vladimir Putin’s close confidant, recently warned that the war could drag on for another three years if Putin decides to capture broader territories east of the Dnieper River that cuts Ukraine in eastern and western parts.
Kim, however, underscored that Ukraine will never flinch from nuclear-armed Russia’s relentless, indiscriminate attacks.
“We are very strong and we are ready for all the bad things,” Kim, head of the Mykolaiv Regional Military Administration, confidently said in the English-language video interview.
“We want to win the victory.”
Kim underscored that Ukrainian troops will prevail because they are fighting off Russian forces to protect their land, houses, people and children with “goodwill and motivation.”
“We are not attacking another country … In the near future, our military forces will make a counteroffensive and we will push back Russians to their territory,” Kim said.
“Truth is on our side. That’s why we are still withstanding (the war). We will withstand (the war) in the future.”
Russia has intensified brutal assaults on energy infrastructure including electrical substations and power plants, and residential areas especially during the winter as the war has been dragging into a stalemate. The attacks have aggravated the energy and humanitarian crisis and pushed Ukraine’s energy grid to the brink of collapse.
The regional leader accused Russia of seeking to frighten and infuriate the Ukrainian people and dissuade the Ukrainian government from fighting back by bombarding targets across the country.
But Kim emphasized Zelenskyy’s vow that Kyiv will never accept any peace or cease-fire deal until the whole country is liberated, and until it has seized back all internationally recognized territory. This includes Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 and the long-occupied eastern Donbas region.
“They do it on purpose like a terrorist to make us deal with them,” Kim said.
“But like our president said, only a deal can be (reached) after they move out from the territory of our independent country.”
As Russia is widely expected to launch a major offensive in the spring, Russian forces have pushed their advance in the eastern and southern territory of Ukraine with heavy shelling. The southern city of Kherson — which is located in the vicinity of Mykolaiv regions — has been partially occupied by Russia once again after the liberation of the region in November 2022.
But Kim is confident in Ukraine’s eventual victory.
“I believe that we can make a breakthrough. It’s something we’re preparing for,” Kim said.
More weapons needed to end war sooner
If the US and other NATO nations provide a sufficient volume of weapons, Ukrainian troops would be able to quickly turn the tide of the war and win the prolonged battle, Kim said.
“It is a question of time. … Nobody expected that Ukraine would be so motivated and united. Nobody expected that Russia would be so weak and stupid,” he said.
“We can do it in two or three years, or we can do it in two or three months. It depends on the quantity of weapons that we will have,” he said.
Kim underscored that the main problem on the front line is the depletion of weapons and ammunition because Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting off Russian troops for almost a year.
“We need support in fighting against evil — we are not numbers — but also for the million people in the country,” he said.
“First of all, we need weapons to defend ourselves and our freedom.”
Kim echoed Zelenskyy’s pleas for sending more anti-aircraft weapons, tanks, long-range missiles and artillery to change the dynamic on the battlefield.
“Western countries and the US provide weapons for Ukraine to save the lives of Ukrainian people and to save democracy in our country,” he said when asked why the international community should provide more weapons to Ukraine.
“Without this help, we couldn’t survive. We see what Russians did when they occupied territories. They murdered people, they raped people. They stole our goods. They even stole grain. … They want to destroy a smaller country, smaller neighbor.”
A recent survey released by the Pew Research Center in late January, however, showed that more Americans say the United States has provided too much military support to Ukraine, indicating a shift in public opinion. The US and NATO members have also diverged in opinions on whether to send Western fighter jets to Ukraine.
Casualties rising by the day
Kim insisted that the international community provide heavy weapons and fighter jets to Ukraine because casualties are rising by the day.
“We want to win this war fast because we have victims every day. Our people are (being) killed,” he said.
Although actual casualty figures are likely to be considerably higher, 7,199 civilians were killed and 11,756 civilians were injured in Ukraine as of Feb. 12 since Russia’s armed attack started on Feb. 24 last year, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Russia’s indiscriminate use of explosive weapons including missiles caused most of the civilian casualties.
Over 8 million Ukrainian refugees have left their homeland and fled to European countries as of Feb. 13 since Russia’s invasion, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre also estimated that around 5.35 million people have been internally displaced in Ukraine as of Jan. 23 this year.
But Kim refrained from taking a stance on whether South Korea, the world’s eighth-largest arms exporter, should provide lethal weapons to Ukraine.
“In that sphere, you are one of the best in the world,” he said. “So I think you can analyze and make a decision (on) how you can help if you want.”
Kim, who is a “Koryoin” or “Koryo saram” — an ethnic Korean living in post-Soviet Union countries — rather envisioned a bright future where the South Korean government establishes “many” liaison offices across Ukraine to better understand Koryo saram and step up support for them.
“I think that you need to open small offices in different regions of Ukraine that could work on-site, because you cannot see the picture and you cannot see the problems if you are not in the country,” Kim said when asked how South Korea can specifically provide support for Koryo saram suffering from the prolonged war.
Symbol of defiance
Kim has been playing a pivotal role in defending the strategically important port city of Mykolaiv. Last June, Zelenskyy awarded him the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky for making significant personal contributions to the protection of state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine with courage and selflessness.
The city of Mykolaiv is just north of the Black Sea and would be an access point for Russian forces to bring in troops and supplies. Ukraine’s second-largest nuclear power plant Pivdennoukrainsk, which was the target of Russian missile attacks in September 2022, is also stationed in the city.
Mykolaiv is also located between the Kherson region — which borders Crimea and offers a gateway to the peninsula that Russia illegally annexed in 2014 — and the largest Black Sea port of Odesa in Ukraine.
Due to its strategic importance, Russian forces had partially seized Mykolaiv regions including Snihurivka and Oleksandrivka, but the city was later reclaimed by Ukraine in November 2022.
The city of Mykolaiv has been still under heavy attack since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, however. Russia struck the Ochakiv and Kutsurub communities in the city on Feb. 12 and launched attacks by Iranian-made Shahed drones targeting the city this month.
But amid fierce battles, the political neophyte has become a household name and a symbol of defiance against Russia’s armed invasion, owing to videos frequently uploaded on his social network to inform the public of battlefield dynamics and war damages.
Russian troops launched a missile attack on the building of the Mykolaiv regional state administration, which housed Kim’s office, on March 29, 2022. The attack killed 37 colleagues, but he survived.
As Russia continues to target Kim, some may be shocked by his aplomb, humor and denigration of Russian forces in the videos that he posts on social media.
“Good afternoon! We are from Ukraine,” Kim starts off with the nonchalant greeting in many of his videos, dressed in casual attire. The innocuous statement later became an informal, popular wartime slogan, representing Ukraine’s defiance.
“The assholes hit the infrastructure trying to knock out the electricity,” Kim says in one of them, explaining that Russia sought to frighten residents and launched air raids and attacks from all directions. Kim also mocks Russian troops, calling them “orcs.”
Some see Kim as a strong candidate to lead the country after Zelenskyy. However, he said that his life is, for now, all about defeating Russia.
“I have no plans about the election, and I have no plans at all before our victory,” he said. “We need to win our war. And only after that, I can plan anything.”
Kim did promise, however, that he would fly to Seoul after winning the war.
“I will try my best to visit your country because I have never been to Korea and I want to do it very much. My father was there lots of times,” Kim said.
“By all means, I will be in Seoul if I am still alive.”
This is the second installment of a series of articles and interviews on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marking one year on Feb. 24, to shed light on the brutality of the war and its complex impact on the international community and South Korea. — Ed.