10 June, 01:56 PM


The UK’s ambassador to Ukraine talks about Ukraine's right to attack Russian territory and Macron's 'irrational statements'

Author: Olga Duhnich
British Ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons opposes making concessions to Russia in order to end the war.

Simmons has been the British Ambassador to Ukraine for three years, and she recognizes this time as being the most difficult in her career. First, she had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic in Kyiv, and now with the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Simmons spoke emotionally and frankly with NV about the Russian war in Ukraine and its consequences for the world. Our conversation, however, began with UK news.

NV: Ukrainians are happy because the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and a friend of Ukraine Boris Johnson retained his post after the June 6 vote of confidence. But in two years, the United Kingdom will go to the polls again. To what extent is the Conservative Party represented by Johnson and the British Labor Party united in supporting Ukraine?

- Johnson's approach with regard to Ukraine is absolutely clear and transparent and has cross-party support in the UK. Members of the Labor delegation that visited your country on the eve of the invasion made it clear that the political and military support that Ukraine is asking for is very important. Therefore, I wouldn’t expect any changes for Ukraine regarding this issue.

NV: Is supporting Ukraine an important domestic political factor in the United Kingdom?

- The vast majority of British citizens believe that what Russia is doing in Ukraine is wrong. This, of course, affects how the parliament understands Ukraine. Any analyst you read in the UK speaks equally of Russia's unprovoked and aggressive invasion of Ukraine and of Russia's very clear violation of international law. Any violation undermines the international system that has bound us together and maintained peace for so long.

Therefore, I think two facts are important for the British people and Parliament. The first is the invasion of a peaceful ally and the corresponding desire to help it. And the second is an analytical understanding of what it means (for Russia) to pose a wider threat to the world.

NV: The media write that the Kremlin is waiting for Western countries to get tired of Ukraine, stop sending weapons there making Ukraine easier to capture. Do you see any signs of such fatigue in the UK or other European countries?

- The Russians have always expected for the Western countries to get distracted. I believe that at this first stage of the war, the extraordinary unity of the Western countries over sanctions, the unity over military aid, the unity over political support for Ukraine almost certainly caught Vladimir Putin by surprise. This is a lesson that Russia hasn’t learned since the Salisbury assassination attempt (in the UK).

At the same time, certain discussions here continue. We may not always agree on issues, but there are values that unite us, and when these values were ignored – we united. And that is what we are doing now. Is there fatigue, or should it be expected? To some extent, you can already see some fatigue in the media, and that’s quite natural.

There are other issues that become the focus of attention. It’s one of the challenges for you, as the media. But at the moment, I don’t feel that anyone in the political space thinks that the issue of Ukraine has become less important, boring or tiring.
I believe that you will face many more challenges during the cold months of this year. A lot will depend on the decisions of the international community and the extent to which it manages to reduce its dependence on Russian energy. Very clear calculations are necessary here.

Because sooner or later this problem will arise, and it will also test how people in Europe feel about Russian military aggression. I expect tensions among the Western partners to increase, but I hope that will be constructive tension as we already have a great deal of unity as a basis for debating when the time comes.

NV: Is the United Kingdom ready to provide Ukraine with weapons with a range sufficient enough to reach Russian territory? We see that this issue, as well as the issue of Ukraine's ability to wage war on Russian territory, has provoked quite active discussions in the United States.

- The military support that the United Kingdom provides to Ukraine is provided so that the country can defend itself. For example, yesterday (June 6, 2022) there was a statement about long-range missile systems provided to Ukraine.

NV: Among some European countries there is an opinion that the war should end as soon as possible, but in order for this to happen, Ukraine should make some concessions. Does the UK support this position?

- There is no doubt that everyone would like the war to end as soon as possible. I want the war to end as soon as possible. I met parents who lost children in Mariupol, and it's unbearable. Of course, the war must end.

But Ukraine is defending its sovereign territory, and it is up to Ukrainians to decide when, in their opinion, is the right time to end the war and how they want to do it. The UK has no right to tell Ukraine what they should or shouldn’t do to end this war. It’s their war.

When the Ukrainians tell us that they want to negotiate and they think the time has come, then we will support those negotiations. If they tell us they want to agree to a ceasefire, then we will support them. Until then, we have no right to tell Ukraine how to end this war.

NV: The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, constantly asks not to humiliate Russia. What do you think of his statements? Do they make sense to you?

- In my personal opinion, the time to discuss how not to humiliate President Putin is long gone. I believe that humiliation is already there, and that President Putin must decide himself how to deal with it. This will not change the position of the countries that support Ukraine. Therefore, I believe that such statements are not particularly reasonable.

NV: What scenarios for the end of the war are currently being discussed among British experts? Can there be any concessions for Russia, and if so, which ones?

- It is up to the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian authorities to decide the conditions for the end of this war. The President of Ukraine has made it clear that he will not make concessions, either in terms of territories or in anything else. If this is his position, our job as an ally is to support that position. It seems to me that it is not time to talk about any concessions now.

NV: We know that rich Russians and Russian oligarchs like to keep their money in the City of London and in Britain in general. What is the current share of Russian assets frozen in the UK?

- Right after the invasion more than 1,000 people, as well as more than 100 organizations ended up under sanctions. We hit Russia's trade in import tariffs, we focused on foreign exchange reserves – more than 60% of them are under sanctions. We have made it extremely difficult to enjoy the fruits of it in the UK for those involved with this invasion, or with the Putin regime in general.

This is a very big shift. I have said before that the process of reviewing the attitude towards Russian assets began before the invasion. It may have been slower than it should have been, but in the last three months, we have done a lot in such a short period of time.

NV: You recently returned to Kyiv after being absent for several months. What are your impressions of the city today, after returning? How much has the city changed?

- I left Kyiv at the end of February, remained in Ukraine for some time, and returned to Kyiv in April. Those weeks were some of the longest weeks of my life, and every day I was waiting to return.
In the early days of the invasion I noticed how very few people remained in Kyiv.

Another shocking and painful thing to see was the scale of the destruction caused by this long column of tanks approaching the city. Then I left for London, and when I returned, I was amazed at how many people had returned to Kyiv while I was in Britain. I entered through the Polish border and saw long queues of returnees.

Now I’m pleased to be in Kyiv, because life here is waking up, and even more businesses, cafes and restaurants are reopening. But it’s still impossible to feel completely safe when you see historical monuments protected by sandbags, or the central government part of the city closed to visitors, parks closed for walks and you hear air raid alarms every day.

This is understandable as Ukrainians want to go home.

So, in this regard, Kyiv doesn’t feel normal. This is not the Kyiv I lived in two-and-a-half years before the invasion, but it is a city that is determined to get back on its feet.

NV: In the UK we see the incredible support for Ukraine not only on political level, but also at the human level. People have literally opened the doors of their homes to Ukrainian refugees. Where does such huge support for the people and the country, which is not so close to the British geographically, come from?

- We aren't so far from each other, even geographically. Both my predecessors and I have often talked about how little is known about Ukraine in the UK, and again there are polls that prove this. Russia's invasion helped the British to understand where Ukraine is located and how much it is a part of the European family.

The British now understand the nature of the challenges that Ukrainians face, and how strongly Ukrainians accept these challenges.I sincerely believe that many British people were inspired by Ukrainians while helping them. They see the endurance of the Ukrainian people, and this complements the long tradition of generosity and help that the British people have been showing for a long time.

NV: What is the most important thing you have learned about Ukraine during these three years at your post? Of which of your accomplishments here are you the most proud of?

- I am proud that, despite the pandemic, we have developed mutual relationships between our countries. We have signed an excellent agreement on political cooperation, free trade and strategic partnership. We had a fantastic visit from President Zelensky to the United Kingdom. We have expanded our trade relationships and increased the number of cultural ties.

All these years I have been learning the Ukrainian language, and if you study the language, you also study the people. You learn about their nation, history, culture. What struck me most was how much Ukrainians perceive themselves as a nation, how ready they are to defend it, to fight for it.

I learned this long before the invasion began, as well as the fact that Ukrainians will not allow anyone else to determine their fate after dealing with so many attempts throughout history to hurt their sovereignty. So, when the Russians began to gather their troops on the Ukrainian borders, I was one of the first ones in our government to say that Ukrainians will fight, as Ukrainians have always fought for their independence. This is something I understood very well.

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