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«European Israel,» decline of the West and permanent war in Ukraine

Is Ukraine becoming “European Israel”? As Ukrainian soldiers fight for the survival of their country on the frontline, Ukraine’s diplomats fight for their country internationally. What is happening on the Ukrainian diplomatic front?

Has the West “overslept” and lost influence in the Global South? And what will Ukraine’s future be after Putin is no longer in charge of Russia?

«European Israel,» decline of the West and permanent war in Ukraine
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Brian Bonner: Hello, everybody. This is Brian Bonner again, host of Ukraine Calling at Hromadske Radio’s beautiful studio in downtown Kyiv. Ukraine’s war against Russia is being fought on many fronts, and the most critical, of course, is the soldiers on the front line.

But there’s also a diplomatic war, or diplomacy is a part of the war, and it needs its soldiers. They are Ukraine’s ambassadors and diplomatic corps, working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today, I am honored to have one of our top diplomats since 1995, Olexander Scherba. Welcome to the studio.

Olexander Scherba: Thank you for having me.

Brian Bonner: Olexander is Ukraine’s ambassador-at-large and is in charge of strategic communications. He was a longtime ambassador to Austria from 2014 to 2021. Before that, he served in Germany and, I believe, Washington as well. He’s fluent in Ukrainian, Russian, German, and English. He has a Twitter following that would love to have – 264,000 followers who tune in to his, I think, must-read updates and take on today’s changing situation.

He is also the author of “Ukraine vs. Darkness: Undiplomatic Thoughts,” published in 2021. I’m embarrassed, but I hadn’t read it until two days ago when I knew you were coming to the program. I decided I had to read it because it’s too embarrassing to interview somebody who’s written a book and has not read it. But I enjoyed it. It’s a fantastic book, and I am sure we’ll get into that conversation.

Olexander Scherba: Thank you. You are one of not many people who read it. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

What does it take to be a good diplomat?

Brian Bonner: Well, you know, you can just reprint a page on your Twitter feed, and you’ll have 265,000 readers, making you a bestseller. But he’s a great writer, and I recommend this book to everybody because it takes us through until 2021, the year before the full-scale invasion. You’ve been at this since 1995. What have you learned since then about what it takes to be a good diplomat and not a good diplomat?

Olexander Scherba: First of all, I learned that 99% of cliches and stereotypes about these professions and these mean jokes about them have absolutely nothing to do with the real profession. Most importantly, the joke about that diplomat’s tongue serves the purpose of covering and hiding his thoughts.

I always liked how Harold Nicholson, a very interesting British diplomat in the 1930s who wrote a book called Diplomacy, viewed diplomacy. Part of this book is about what it takes to be a good diplomat. And the number one thing on that list of what a diplomat should have is truthfulness. I was amazed by that. Ever since, I have just thought about it, contemplated that, and realized how right he was.

What is the current state of support for Ukraine in the world?

Brian Bonner: Well, yes, truth has been a short commodity from the Russian side, but that brings us to how the war is going. How is the diplomatic war going? Because as you know, Russia is sparing no expense to sow division and disinformation around the world. Where are we doing well, and where could things be better?

Olexander Scherba: Well, it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, of course, it’s amazing how unanimously, or at least almost unanimously, in the West, the Western political community, the governments, and, for the most part, the societies support Ukraine. Sometimes, I felt that many countries of the world, especially those involved in World War II, had these historical flashbacks in their minds right away.

I mean, Poland, for obvious reasons, and the United Kingdom remembered the Blitz. Germany and Austria remembered what it felt like to be in ruins—the whole of Europe. So it is on the positive side. It’s not only political impulse; it’s also emotional and historical, and it makes the West our ally.

On the negative side and minor side is what I see on social media and Twitter. Sometimes, you feel that the tides have turned, and suddenly, the world isn’t with us anymore, and the battle for hearts and minds is being lost. Then, you look at the sociological surveys in Western countries and realize they are not reality. 70% of the societies are still with Ukraine. But unfortunately, due to the efforts of Mr. Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson and etcetera, etcetera…

Brian Bonner: Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Olexander Scherba: Yeah, we have this kind of situation where in social media, in this dimension, we aren’t as successful as we wish we would be.

What is the role of diplomacy during the war?

Brian Bonner: Is it fair to say diplomacy at war boils down to three things: securing allies, countering disinformation from Russia and enemies, and convincing allies to give Ukraine the weapons it needs?

Olexander Scherba: Absolutely, very well put. Countering Russian disinformation was a very, very difficult job, which led to securing help for Ukraine. So, numbers two and three are very connected.

Brian Bonner: I’m interested in what you learned about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our diplomatic corps during the war. One lesson everybody learned was that we have some weak spots in the Global South, particularly Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America, that didn’t want to support us. They wanted to stay out of it and still want to stay out of it. I read the other day that we’re going to open embassies in several African countries, maybe elsewhere. What’s behind this push?

Olexander Scherba: The West has overslept the decline of its reputation in the Global South. It’s not only in the Global South. Quite frankly, in countries like Austria, I cannot describe to you how many times my conversations that started as a conversation about the Ukraine-Russia war and how terrible Russia is and in the 5th or 10th minute became: “But what about those Americans?” Even Austrians were bad-mouthing America.

Throughout the world, America and imperialism have become synonymous, which is unfair. It is partially fair, but for the most part, not. And America, the West, has overslept it. I once spoke to a very good South African journalist who was amazed by Ukraine and who loved Ukraine. Still, he said: “Please, for God’s sake, don’t mention that you’re fighting for European values because, for us, European values are colonizer values and imperialist values.”

So we, and by “we,” I mean the West, the collective West, and I don’t think it’s negative to say “collective West.” The more collective we get, the better, and in particular, Ukraine, of course. We have to amend the situation, although it will be a long uphill fight.

Brian Bonner: Is it a smart idea to open embassies? How many countries do we have embassies in?

Olexander Scherba: We have diplomatic missions, 50-something, not counting the missions where the ambassadors are basically in charge but are stationed elsewhere; 54, 58.

Brian Bonner: There are 190 nations in the world. Just like the war frontline is more than 1,000 kilometers, the diplomatic front lines are all over the globe. Is the ministry getting enough talent and money to field more embassies worldwide? Is it doing okay budget-wise?

Olexander Scherba: It’s spread very thin, of course. But I look at American and French diplomacy, for instance, the countries that are represented in all of the countries and are even facing problems. Even their reputation and interests are under attack in African countries and many countries of the Global South.

So, first of all, we should open these embassies. We are making up for all the time Ukrainian diplomacy lost on that front. But it will be a very, very long fight. And yes, it depends on the talent. I see this interest in young diplomats or even people from outside the system who have been invited and want to work in those difficult countries. It will be useful. But again, our expectations and enthusiasm shouldn’t get out of control here.

Brian Bonner: If you’re talking to Brussels, you position yourself in the West, Western values, and in the United States, you position yourself the same way. But then, do you have to position yourself differently with the Global South, India, and South Africa? I mean, maybe as a victim of an aggressor, or what approach works the best?

Olexander Scherba: I spent most of my career as a speechwriter before becoming an ambassador. And so my job was finding the right words, I was always a person who was very good at speaking. And it’s very natural that in a space that is very different from the West, even in the Western countries, you should pick your words differently in every country. But as I said, all of a sudden, European values, something so positive, something loaded with enthusiasm here in Ukraine, all of a sudden I just discovered that for some countries in Africa, it’s absolutely negative. So, yeah, we have to act there differently.

I was absolutely out of the blue invited to a very interesting conference in India in February. It was coincidentally on February 24, and everybody was talking about Ukraine. I was addressing this very skeptical audience, and I said, you know what, you have been the crown jewel of your empire. We have been the crown jewel of our empire. Your empire came to its senses and withdrew. The empire to which we belonged went batshit crazy. So please be more sympathetic and talk less about walking the same line between good and evil but picking the side of good.

I was surprised; people started applauding. So, those are the kinds of words that would work, for instance, in India. Every country should be respected. But it’s not like we are bringing a new version, a different version of Ukraine, to every country. We just find a different way to explain the same truth.

Brian Bonner: Early in the war, Kenya’s representative to the United Nations struck me, I wish I could cite his name. He said: “In Africa since the colonialists drew our boundaries, if we wanted to continue fighting over boundaries, we would have endless war.” Well, they almost do now in many nations. And so the time has come to say, whatever your internationally recognized boundary is, like Ukraine’s, that’s it. I think that’s very persuasive; it’s a good effort.

Olexander Scherba: Absolutely. And, you know, they have an even better situation in Europe, where the national borders in many situations are not relevant anymore. And it’s one of the things that makes this whole war insane for Europeans. Once you live in a reality where you don’t respect the same values and play by the same rules, it makes sense to claim these historical territories. ‘We will take it back like the Russians do.’ This is 19th-century thinking and not the 21st century. 21st century in Austria, you drive on the road, and on the right side of the road, it’s Austria, and on the left side is Slovenia. And nobody gives a damn about it.

The different paths of Ukraine and Russia

Brian Bonner: You write insightfully in your book. That reminds me of a passage where you said Russia and Ukraine, with all the centuries of proximity and relations, answered the question about the future differently. Ukraine one way and Russia the other. Can you explain that?

Olexander Scherba: That’s why these two nations that have been so similar in the beginning of their way, and that would be the moment of the Soviet Union falling apart, became so different. Because one nation was looking for a future in its past. That would be Russia. And the other one was looking for the future, where the future should be – ahead of it.

Two nations were not happy with what they had. One nation: “It’s all America’s fault, the West’s fault, and now we split with the West, we deny it and reject it, and things will improve for us.” And for Ukraine, the Ukrainians said: “It’s our fault.” We made bad choices in the past and are so imperfect in so many ways. We want to improve, and we want to improve in the same way Poland did, and the Czech Republic did because we saw how it works.

So these are the two paths these two nations took, which were indeed, in the beginning, rather similar, but we see now that they are eons away from each other.

Brian Bonner: You’re a Ukrainian who is much younger than me, more than 10 years younger than me, but you grew up in the Soviet Union, basically until your 20s. You’re 53 now, and your professional life and education were post-independent. Is this break irreversible? We’re never going back? Back to the Russian-Soviet mentality, the closed society mentality.

Olexander Scherba: I cannot imagine. I had a friend, a politician with whom I had this talk, and he said: “You know what, there is this Croatian or Serbian study that proves that no matter how hot and passionate hate is, it doesn’t live longer than 15 years.” For some reason, somehow, they figured it out in exactly 15 years. And after 15 years, you know, it’s smoother, and people don’t care as much as they did in the beginning when this erupted, this negative feeling.

But quite frankly, for me, it’s unthinkable. I cannot imagine after what has been done after people getting killed, raped, beheaded, and castrated. There was one person in Kyiv Oblast who was skinned alive. After this, going back to what was between Ukraine and Russia is unthinkable.

Brian Bonner: So, even after the fighting, no reconciliation with Russia?

Olexander Scherba: Well, living next to each other is inevitable. But all the positive things that connected these two nations, you know, my mother-in-law is ethnic Russian. She grew up in Russia until she was 17 and came to Ukraine. So, she is a very passionate Ukrainian citizen. Originally, she is from Kursk Oblast, a small town called Glushkovo, founded by Ukrainian Cossacks in the distant past.

I showed her how this town and this part of Russia was sending off Russian soldiers to fight against Ukraine with music, with enthusiasm, with everything, she cried. I don’t know how you get over this. It wouldn’t be possible for her to look at Russia the same way, although originally she is from there.

Reordering Ukrainian society along military lines

Brian Bonner: In your book, you said it would take generations even before the full-scale war. But then, unless there’s a big sea change in imperial thinking and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s and his successor’s thinking. Aren’t we going to be forever in what Zelensky said, the big Israel perpetually at war? And don’t we need to reorder society along those lines? And where are we in a restructuring society?

Olexander Scherba: Well, after this war, we will have a lot in common with Israel in the way that we should be very much aware that there is an enemy right next to us. I’m not an expert on Russia, and I’ve been wrong about Russia more often than I was right, but I liked what Vladislav Surkov once wrote about Putin’s system very much. The strength of Putin’s empire lies in the deep unconditional trust between “the deep people.” What he calls “the deep people” – people outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the supreme leader.

And it’s not any supreme leader, but this particular supreme leader. So, once this supreme leader is gone, I hope that this evil system in Russia will start to crumble one way or another. Unfortunately, as long as Putin is in charge of Russia, which means until he is alive, we will have a very tough time.

Brian Bonner: Here’s a diplomatic challenge, you have many of them. I mean, justifiably, Ukraine wants everything from the West. I agree that the West should give Ukraine all the money and weapons it needs to win. And that should be the strategic objective – victory, not just holding their own.

However, incumbent on that is that Ukrainians also do everything they can to win. And that’s come under fire a little bit by politicians and diplomats in the West who say, hey, you need to field more soldiers. You need to lower your draft age. You must also show that you’re doing everything in the fight. Do they have a point?

Olexander Scherba: Yeah, absolutely, I think so. I have a friend who left his comfortable life in Austria. He had a very comfy job with a posh salary. He left everything to fight in the Donbas, a Ukrainian from Bila Tserkva. And I meet with him regularly, not as often as I wish, because he’s fighting, but we meet every time he has a possibility and is in Kyiv. Quite frankly, I see this sadness in his eyes and his attitude when he, who gives everything for Ukraine to survive and to win in this war, when he looks at people walking by and having their usual lives.

It’s not okay. We in Ukraine need to wake up and realize that everybody should contribute much, much more. We all owe these soldiers. We all need to be, in one way or another, these soldiers. It’s happening in the country, but not as fast as it should be happening.

Brian Bonner: Sweden hasn’t fought a war since 1860. I believe they have this thing called “all-society defense.” It comes to the nation’s defense from 18 to 70 years old, which would include me if I was Swedish. It doesn’t mean they’re at the front line; it means they are in obligatory service of some kind. And I can see where we could use that at the front now because they’re furiously digging, the soldiers are trying to fight and dig defensive trenches. Is that the kind of service you see? Israel takes people from 18, and Russia takes people from 18.

Olexander Scherba: I don’t know how it will be after the war. Probably, there will be obligatory military service. And probably, it will not be like in my case where I studied a certain military profession at the university, which was the translator from Russian into German in Ukraine, strangely enough. And then, for 30 years, I wasn’t called into the army to somehow update my skills and knowledge.

It shouldn’t be that way. First of all, men should be called into the army regularly. And the army should be more like the American army. First, I was amazed when I lived in America and saw how respected the army was. I will never forget this moment when I stood in line in front of this Washington monument in downtown Washington, and there was this group of American soldiers, young guys, out jogging. And the whole line started exploding. It was like a moment from an American movie when just one little boy started clapping,, and then 100 people were clapping along.

So, one thing is that we need a lot of respect for the army, and it should be the most respected profession. Second of all, I was amazed at how smart the American army is. For us in Ukraine, and it comes from the Soviet Union, serving in the army very often was a moment in life when you had to face the incredible stupidity of life.

In America, I will never forget General (David) Petraeus. Back then, he was the commander in chief in Iraq. He came in front of Congress, I think it was 2006, talking, explaining things to senators and congressmen, and absolutely turning around the whole view of the political class and of society. And he did it in such a smart, lucid way. And I want my army to be like that. I want it to be David Petraeus’ army.

Brian Bonner: Something to aspire to. Yes, we haven’t had a draft in America since 1973, and it is a volunteer military. It is paid well; the State Department is the poor stepsister to the Defense Department, which gets $1 trillion a year. The State Department gets way less.

But I’ve understood that big military budgets are essential when evil exists. It seems to me another thing, and I have never been in the military. Still, generals I talked to say the reason why military service and fighting are not so scary to American soldiers is that we arm them well, we train them well, we put them in big units where the chances of death are low, the chances of survival are high. That is some of the fear that Ukrainian soldiers have as they assess their chances: Ukrainian men who don’t want to serve. Do you see that fear?

Olexander Scherba: Well, it’s a completely different situation right now because we are in an onslaught of a country that is much bigger and much more powerful than ourselves. America will never be in that position of being attacked by someone much bigger and much more powerful than America. But yeah, I understand.

There are two ways for Ukrainian men to fight today: volunteer or be drafted. Those who volunteered are already fighting. Now it’s time for those who would be drafted. And some of the men would be scared. Everyone would be scared. Someone would be hiding and running away. But a big part of society won’t be. And a big part of the men of the age of conscription would absolutely go if they were summoned.

If the president comes to the front and says the (John F. Kennedy) speech ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ many people will follow this call and go to war. I see this readiness and this feeling of patriotism among at least my circle.

Honoring the fallen in Ukraine

Brian Bonner: You write about, and you personalize them, the early victims of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the 2014. The first casualty in Crimea was Reşat Ametov. And that’s a name; you did it deliberately. You wanted to personalize this. And the first SBU colonel who was killed by Girkin (Igor Girkin – Russian FSB officer and war criminal – ed.), I believe.

Olexander Scherba: Yeah, Gennadiy Belychenko, yeah. The first blood.

Brian Bonner: You go around Kyiv, and many of what used to be Soviet statues have been destroyed and demolished. Should we erect statues of our new heroes?

Olexander Scherba: I don’t think we will, quite frankly. I don’t feel it in the air that we would somehow emulate what we did during the Soviet time, but in a different way. There will be a different way to honor their memory. First, I’m a big fan of this project, we need the Ukrainian Arlington near Kyiv. I lived in Alexandria, Virginia, near Washington, and drove to work by the Arlington Cemetery. This is such an amazing, dignified way. To honor the fallen. This is what we need. We need this kind of memory. Not just putting standard monuments in every village like people did in Soviet times.

Did the West wake up from “geopolitical sleep”?

Brian Bonner: You write, and I agree, that the EU and America, the West, did not wake up to the threat of Russia. And that was by 2021. Are they awake now? Or do they want to reconcile somehow?

Olexander Scherba: They are awake, they are learning to be courageous again. In the last three decades, the West has learned that we live in a time when it’s okay to be soft. It’s okay to be at ease. We live in a time where there are no problems that cannot be resolved in a peaceful, diplomatic way. And they were right. The 21st century should be this time; it’s a civilized time.

The thing is that such a big country as Russia and a couple of others, but most importantly, Russia, has never arrived in the 21st century. And now, the West is learning to be courageous. And it’s learning from Ukraine. And unfortunately, it’s not happening as fast as it should be. In my book, I quote this 2016 survey or 2017, in which nations of Europe were asked: “Are you ready to fight with weapons in your hands for your freedom?” And the level of readiness in different countries was very low. Surprisingly low.

Brian Bonner: In Italy, it was 16%.

Olexander Scherba: In Austria and Germany, it was around 15%. In Russia, it was around 20%. Surprisingly, in Finland, it was 73%. And in Ukraine, Ukraine was ranked second. So, some countries need to rise to the occasion and become more courageous.

Brian Bonner: Finland’s a fascinating story. Do you worry that the West, after year five of the war, is just going to cut Ukraine loose like Syria? Like Afghanistan? Like Vietnam, in America’s case?

Olexander Scherba: What hurts me is that I’m speaking not as a representative of the ministry and not for Ukrainian diplomats. In my personal capacity, what hurts me and shocks me is this disarray and polarization and many insane things that are happening in the United States. And the outcome of the upcoming election. That would definitely be the night I won’t sleep.

On the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine

Brian Bonner: You’ve seen a lot of foreign ministers How did you survive being in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during (Victor) Yanukovych’s time? I mean, you must have seen all the ugliness around you.

Olexander Scherba: Yeah. But surprisingly, it was a time when you were in a position where some things depended on you. You would make a lot of difference because you were the one keeping it together in a crazy time for the country and keeping the course. And I thought that was my mission. Plus, during the Yanukovych time, I was diagnosed with cancer, so I had my own Maidan, I always say. It was a crazy, difficult time in many ways, professionally and personally.

Brian Bonner: Your health is fine now?

Olexander Scherba: It’s fine now, I was lucky.

The state of officials in Ukraine

Brian Bonner: You also write, and we all know, because the people who hate Ukraine hammer us all the time with corruption and bad governance, we understand it. But there’s a big difference between being a democratic country that is trying to be better and one that is not democratic and is a source of evil. That’s Russia. But you write that Ukraine’s people have outgrown their elites, and the elites have not requited themselves well. Are they doing better during the war?

Olexander Scherba: You know, the amazing thing was, at least in the beginning, in the first and early stage of this war, even the bad elites became better. Even the corrupt people were trying to behave differently, decently. It was amazing to see the guys with zero reputation asking, where can I bring the money? Where can I contribute? Buying stuff for the army. That was one of many, many, many things that struck me in that unforgettable time.

Ukraine is improving elite-wise. I’m looking at Ukrainian diplomacy in 1995. Do you know what the most overwhelming feeling was for me as a young diplomat? The feeling of shame. Because as a young diplomat, you must be like a fly on the wall. Your function is just to take notes. And you’re sitting there and saying: “What is he saying?” It’s not the right thing; it’s not how you convince the West. It’s not how you represent the country; the words are not right.

I hope that now the people taking notes after me don’t feel that shame. Many of today’s ambassadors, who are part of the political elite, are more competent and fluent in foreign languages and less embarrassing than they were in the beginning.

Brian Bonner: I don’t have to be as diplomatic as you. I think the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is doing a great job, especially for the resources it has. And I know a lot of talented people. I think (Dmytro) Kuleba is doing a fantastic job, I like (Pavlo) Klimkin (minister of foreign affairs from June 19, 2014, until August 29, 2019 – ed.) because he was there at a very tough time for us in Ukraine.

Olexander Scherba: He’s a friend. They are my friends, so I’m very proud of them.

Brian Bonner: You wrote that Ukraine needs a Václav Havel or Angela Merkel. I’ll agree with the Havel part; the Merkel part, I don’t.

Olexander Scherba: I wouldn’t write this passage today. But back then; I am a faithful person, a Christian, and I believe in God. And I see a united, democratic Europe somehow as a fulfillment of this, largely still Christian Europe to finally live by the commandments. At least by two or three, which would be forgiveness, humility, and the strong ones serving the weaker ones. And I saw all these three things in Angela Merkel, and the humility of this person amazed me. But of course, now I understand.

Brian Bonner: She was lured by what you said, money— Nord Stream 2.

Olexander Scherba: She was not corrupt, she thought she was doing a good job for the German economy. The German economy prospered amazingly on this cheap Russian gas. But in strategic terms, not being ready to listen to Ukraine was a crime, we see it now.

Brian Bonner: Have we found our Václav Havel, or do we need hundreds of little Václav Havels?

Olexander Scherba: It’s a dream, not only for Ukraine, quite frankly.

Brian Bonner: But we’re getting better?

Olexander Scherba: We are getting there, yeah.

Closing remarks

Brian Bonner: Parting thoughts? We’re going to have to leave it there. Are we going to win the war?

Olexander Scherba: You know that we will win. We already won because we didn’t crumble when the world crumbled. We didn’t hide under the blanket when the whole world hid under the blanket.

Brian Bonner: Regarding blankets, that was your famous speech with Petro Poroshenko. He said you can’t fight with blankets.

Olexander Scherba: Yeah. And this is, by the way, the thing that Donald Trump likes to quote all the time: “You, Democrats, you are just supplying them with blankets, but me, I give them javelins.”

Brian Bonner: Well, you helped Donald Trump.

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