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«Everything I see now is inspiration» — Melinda Simmons

Dame Melinda Simmons recalls the day Russia started the full scale war against Ukraine, talks on Ukraine refugees in the UK, and explains how Russian nuclear threats are met in Great Britain.

«Everything I see now is inspiration» — Melinda Simmons
Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes

This is Ukraine Calling and I am Kyrylo Loukerenko. Today, we have a very distinguished guest with us here on Hromadske Radio. We talk with Dame Melinda Simmons, the ambassador of the United Kingdom in Ukraine. We talk on a January morning when Kyiv was bombed again by Russian rockets. Nevertheless, the interview happened just as agreed. We talk via Zoom.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: Madam Ambassador, probably it was a bit stressful morning today. But you still decided to have this interview with Hromadske Radio. What is your attitude to these air alerts (and we had an explosion somewhere in Kyiv earlier today)?

Melinda Simmons: Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity. I’m in this interview because you want to have this interview. That’s been the stance that I’ve had ever since I returned to Kyiv. If you’re going to work, then I want to support you to work. You asked for the interview, and I’m keen to give it. That’s why I’m here. And it’s the same for all the work that I’m doing. If Ukrainians need us to be here, then we’ll be here to do the work that needs to be done so that Ukraine can defend itself. It wasn’t fun last night. I probably slept two or three hours, I think, on the floor in an area of the residence where there are no windows. It’s not the first time I’ve done it. It’s all right. I have the resilience for it. You know, nobody chooses it. But sometimes it’s what has to be done to do the work. So that is what I will do. It’s what my colleagues will do.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: Madam Ambassador, did you expect that your mission as the ambassador in Ukraine will be as difficult as we witnessed last year and now?

Melinda Simmons: I started work when President Zelenskiy started work, actually, because I arrived in September 2019. And I would guess if you asked the same question to the President, he would say the same thing I’m about to say, which is no way. Could not have foreseen COVID, and that by itself was difficult enough. But I think nobody anywhere in the world could have foreseen the far-reaching implications that COVID would have, including on security. Because I’ve no doubt that the pandemic was part of what accelerated Putin’s thinking about what he wanted to happen in Ukraine. And so that enabled, if you like, this invasion. Did I ever think that Russia would do this to Ukraine, though? Yes, yes, I did, and I don’t claim any great hindsight either. While I was studying Ukrainian, and I was also reading about the country I knew perfectly well as you do that this is not the first time Russia has invaded, that Russia has been doing this since 2014 and of course Ukraine has a sad and painful history, too. So I figured that Russia having started the job in 2014, at some point, if the Minsk peace process wasn’t yielding the “weak and manageable” Ukraine that Putin clearly wanted on his borders, he would look to do it in another way. I just didn’t think it would happen in my time here, and it has.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: When we are speaking about a diplomat in a very difficult time in a very crucial location, what do you think a diplomat is? Is it someone who merely intermediates the policy of her or his government, or does this person actively formulate such a policy?

Melinda Simmons: Well, all diplomats are their government’s eyes and ears inside a country in the sense that my colleagues in London work really hard to support Ukraine, but inevitably it’s my colleagues and me here who are best placed to be able to tell them what is going on here. We’re experiencing it, but also we make it our business to travel as much, certainly as much as is safe right now, speak to people, pick up their own experiences, speak with government and be transmitting this back all the time so that when decisions are made in the UK, they are made informed by what’s happening here. I think there’s probably nothing more important right now, actually, than the way in which both Ukrainians, governments, civil society, but also diplomats transmit back to the UK what the lived experience of this invasion is.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: Just a few days ago, ex-premier Boris Johnson was in Kyiv. He was welcomed as a very good friend. But I would ask you to return to April last year when Boris Johnson, as a prime minister, first came to Ukraine. Was it a difficult decision for him and for you to come here? Basically, it was the first visit of a foreign leader to Ukraine. In Ukraine, it was accepted as a huge sign of support. But what was behind this?

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Melinda Simmons: It’s not, there’s nothing hidden in that. It was exactly as you saw it. Boris Johnson was a huge supporter of Ukraine from the beginning. It was utterly clear to him both what Russia wanted to do and what Ukraine wanted to do, and what Ukraine needed to do. Always clear to him. And therefore, I think it was clear to him from early on that Ukraine needed to be shown, visibly shown support, not just for Ukraine, but for other leaders too, to see what was possible. And that’s why he came, and I was in Poland at the time. Unspeakably proud. I really was proud that our head of government had made that difficult journey and had taken it upon himself. If you’d like to take that risk, incredibly proud. It’s a moment that I’m absolutely sure has already gone down in history. But what it also did, because I was in Poland at the time, was that it enabled me to say to my colleagues and I had been saying to them for a few days already, I then said, look, if he can go, I can go. And I moved back into Ukraine just a few weeks after he made his first trip.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: And well, you returned, but first you decided to leave-

Melinda Simmons: I did not decide to leave. I was instructed to leave. And I always told myself that if I was instructed to leave by my employers, by the Foreign Office, who have duty of care for me, I would not argue with them. I also thought that, and I still believe this was right, I did not want to be the responsibility of Ukrainian Armed Forces. The Ukrainian defence, all of it, you know, state emergency services, border guards, police, Ukrainian Armed Forces, territorial army, everybody involved in the defence of Ukraine, needed to be able to focus on the job, particularly in that first phase when nobody knew what was going to happen. They did not need to be running around protecting diplomats. That I still feel very passionately. Did I want to leave? Of course not. But I wasn’t going to disobey an instruction, and I wasn’t going to become a problem for the Ukrainian government. So as hard as it was, first to be in L’viv and then to be in Poland, as stressing as it was to leave, I maintained that it was the right thing to do at the time.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: When you recall that period of the beginning of the war, what recollections do you have? What images do you have in your brain when you remember this? And can you compare it to this particular situation right now, what you feel?

Melinda Simmons: No, it’s not comparable. I mean, these are the things that I remember because I’ve been back over it, of course, a few times because, you know, as you know, we’re coming up to the one-year anniversary of the invasion. So these are the things I remember. I remember sitting up all night, the night that it began, unable to sleep and watching the sky, and hearing the first air raid siren for the very first time in Lviv, and then hearing aircraft, low flying aircraft, and wondering to myself whose they were. I remember that. And then I remember, this I’ll never forget my whole life, being taken out of Lviv in one of our cars, together with a female colleague, the two of us were in this car, being driven towards the border with Poland, passing a stream of humanity, miles of men, women and children, but particularly women and children who had abandoned the buses or cars they were in and were walking in the bitter cold towards the border. And people had wrapped their children in blankets and extra coats, and they had their heads bowed against the wind, and I cried my eyes out. And I tried hard not to because after all I was the ambassador and I needed to be brave. And I looked across at my colleague, and my colleague, too, had tears streaming down her cheeks. And we realized the two of us were trying to be brave, but it’s impossible not to have been shaken to the core by the sight of this happening in a European country.

So, we– we took each other’s hands and we just held hands as we watched it. Those are my two overriding memories. Neither of those compares in any way to what I experience now. Everything I experience now, even as I see some of the worst things that Russian troops are doing elsewhere in the country, everything I see now is inspiration. Talking with you is inspiration, seeing my colleagues doing their work, returning to their apartments, being brave enough to come into the embassy and do their work, that’s an inspiration for me. Everybody around me, carrying on with their businesses, people bringing food into the city, people repairing electric infrastructure. All of this is about inspiration, much more than it’s about fear.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: Thank you. British government supported Ukraine immensely since the war started. Well, from the point of view of Russia, it’s unfriendly policy, and we- probably you saw those videos on Russian television with some Russian telepersonalities saying that Russia could bomb European and British cities or they can launch nuclear torpedos. How these — while not official, obviously – signals, how they are met in Britain, how it influences official policies of Great Britain?

Melinda Simmons: Thank you for that question. So, first of all, I try not to watch Russian state media as much as possible because, listening to them talk feels like eating a bad pizza. It makes me physically [sick]. It’s very hard to listen to that- to the slew of lies, really, particularly about Ukraine, but not just, and also all those bombastic threats about what Russia could do.

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Look, the UK does not discount the threat of a nuclear strike as some form of retribution. I think it would be mad to completely discount it. We all know what Russia’s capability is. But nor we or indeed many our allies judge that it is either an imminent threat or something, and this is much more important, which we can be held hostages in terms of our response to Ukraine.

I mean, it’s interesting how far we have already come, right? This time last year we were judging, all of us, nuclear threat on the basis of what might happen in Crimea, what might happen if we gave long range weapons systems. Here we are, Germany and the US, after the UK, have announced that they dispatch modern tanks. That is not to say you can keep pushing and pushing. What is does mean it’s ok for us collectively to be determined and united and brave, and to get Ukraine what it needs to get its territory back, without being paranoid about a thing, which may or may not happen. You have to keep your eye on it, you need to be guided by it, but you don’t need to be blackmailed by it.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: Again, thank you and the British people for your support, and there is one more stream of support or part of support: when Britain accepted thousands of Ukrainian refugees last year. Well, refugee issue for migrant issue is not an easy problem for domestic British debates but how British society met those people? What is the general attitude of the society, and the government?

Melinda Simmons: So, I know that there are cases and incidents of Ukrainian refugees who have found a place to live in the UK who may be struggling or may have struggled to get visas to come in, or may have struggled to find work, or may indeed have struggled with the place that they were put, or whose children maybe are struggling in the schools they were in. To a degree, and I think this is probably normal, all of this is normal in the sense of, you know, challenges that you could expect, and local authorities are doing their best to manage those, and the government is aware of that feedback. But I think what I can say is that what’s been so extraordinary about the British people is the way in which they’ve opened their homes, and I have colleagues and friends in the UK who have done this, who have taken in Ukrainian families. I have friends who have taken in people and discovered that many of them have come with a degree of trauma, which is to be expected. They’ve left husbands or fathers behind or they themselves have come from an occupied territory. And so, they’ve taken on more than just giving someone a room. They’ve actually taken on, you know, psychological care, maybe for a child who won’t go to school and whose mother who is there with them is finding it just too hard to deal with. So, I have colleagues and friends who have had to lean in support in ways that nobody had articulated- but they’re doing it. And again, I’m just really inspired by those people. There are lots and lots of those stories. When I’m in London, I make it my business to try and drop into refugee centres and social groups and language learning clubs and jobseeker clubs which have been set up around London for Ukrainian refugees. London, because that’s where I’m from and that’s where I live. And, you know, just as here, I come across Ukrainian families and children and parents who are doing their level best to give this a go and make it work, and British volunteers and hosts who are doing exactly the same. It’s quite an extraordinary thing to see.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: Madam Ambassador, and possibly the last question: we witnessed hugely loud debates, and even quarrels, about supplying of heavy armaments to Ukraine recently, especially in some countries of European Union. What is the key difference between policies of Great Britain and European Union and how are they similar? To what degree they are similar?

Melinda Simmons: I don’t think there’s any difference at all, actually, in the policy, the policy is very clear, the policy of helping Ukraine is very clear. No difference at all. I think operationally, if you can see a difference, the UK has tended to move faster. If you look back historically, from the beginning of this invasion, the UK has moved faster. That’s the only difference. As for where we’re at now, well, tanks are arriving. You know, the UK put tanks in, now Germany is sending them, and the US is sending them, and judging by the bangs outside, I don’t think Putin’s very happy about it. Which must be a good thing.

Kyrylo Loukerenko: Thank you for this interview. And possibly you have a few words to our audience, we will translate it in Ukrainian, and air. Maybe you have a few words to our listeners.

Melinda Simmons: I think only that we all need to do what we’re doing, which is to hold your nerve, hold your nerve and continue to do what we do. For as long as Ukrainians do it, they will continue to be an inspiration- an inspiration to each other and an inspiration to us all. Razom do peremohy! [Together to the victory! In the Ukrainian language.]

Transcribed by Caitilín O’Hare and Leah Wagner

  • You may find the Ukrainian version of this conversation here

This podcast is produced within the project «EU Emergency Support 4 Civil Society», implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Hromadske radio and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

Фото—"We don’t have any way of forcing states to do anything, that is the reality of it" — spokesperson for the ICRC | Hromadske RadioФото—"We don’t have any way of forcing states to do anything, that is the reality of it" — spokesperson for the ICRC | Hromadske Radio



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