10:45 07.11.2022

There's a close relationship between the need for essential defence reforms and the political decision on NATO membership for Ukraine - British Ambassador

30 min read
There's a close relationship between the need for essential defence reforms and the political decision on NATO membership for Ukraine - British Ambassador

Exclusive interview of the British Ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons to the Interfax-Ukraine agency

Text: Oleksandr Martynenko, Nataliia Pushkaruk


Madam Ambassador, Russia has significantly intensified rocket strikes on Ukraine, and its critical infrastructure, ruining our power plants and killing civilians. What can you tell about the participation of the United Kingdom in building a new Ukrainian air defence system?

The United Kingdom has been giving military support to Ukraine right from the beginning. We’re the second largest donor of support to Ukraine behind the US. Our Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who is still in his job, has done so well. He maintains close contact with the Ukrainian government to hear what they need, because of course, the invasion takes its twists and turns. And then, he is in contact with colleague defence ministers, who set up the Ramstein format. 

We have provided air defence systems about 4 weeks ago. We’ve provided more artillery. We are looking all the time to see how existing stock can be adapted so that Ukrainians can use it to defend themselves against the latest wave of attacks. Mr. Wallace is very conscious about what's needed.


We know that British military aid to Ukraine is very significant. What can you tell us about the current amount of military aid Ukraine is getting from Great Britain? 

It’s about £2.3 billion. We provided NLAWs right from the beginning, which everyone saw, of course, arriving in Ukraine, and which the Armed Forces use so effectively. Since then we have provided anti-tank weapons etc. We’ve helped safeguard the Black Sea coast, provided underwater mine detectors etc. So, we just keep going in a way that it's not just about the amount we give, but that what we give continues to be responsive. 


Everybody knows about the military training of Ukrainian soldiers in the UK. What are the real results of this training? Because all we know is that there are 10 thousand soldiers going to be trained. 

There are two results since we started. One is the numbers of trainees who've been through it. That is the six thousand, so we are making good progress.

The other result which I think is really significant is the number of countries who have supported the training programme. It’s up to eight countries at the moment, which is a fantastic alliance from Europe but New Zealand, Australia, the US, and Canada are also all part of it. Everyone can see the efficacy of it, everyone can see how responsive the Ukrainian troops are, who come and do that training. They soak it up in a way which is really quite inspiring. But also, they can see how quickly they can go through it.

So, that training will continue until we reach that goal. And then there is already a conversation about how it can develop, including where else it can take place, and also more sophisticated levels of training. But for nailing that basic training for people who have not had that before, it's really doing a good job.


What response did you get from the Ukrainian side, in particular, what do the Ukrainian military commanders say about that training and its efficacy? Actually, what are the skills that our soldiers gain as a result?

It's the basic skills. Because when you're looking at defending your country in wartime, then you're also looking at mobilizing numbers of people who may or may not have served in the recent past. But if they haven’t or whether or not they have, going back over basics is the difference between being able to survive on the frontline and not. So, you're just talking about being able to perform the basics if you're called up tomorrow. It means the Ukrainian army doesn't have to think about that initial training, you can immediately deploy. And it also prepares the same people psychologically to be ready to deploy. So, it makes a huge difference in terms of the Ukrainian army's readiness.

The Ukrainian army needs to arrive, for example, at the frontline during winter with the right kit. We already see that the Russian army is not particularly well supplied over the winter. These may look like small differences compared to air defence systems or drone jammers but they can actually be the difference between being able to succeed or fail in key parts of the country. The training provides a really important bolster. That means that Ukrainian troops deploy in a state of readiness that they may otherwise just struggle to do. 


As you know, Ukraine has recently applied for NATO membership. How do you assess this step taken by Ukrainian authorities? How important is this initiative? And what are the real perspectives on Ukraine joining NATO?

We know that NATO is in principle open to countries that can play their part collectively in European security. I don't think it's any surprise that Ukraine has aspirations to join NATO. But it needs consensus of all participating countries, and all participating countries at the moment are focused on the thing that's right in front of us, which is Ukraine's existential security.

I can absolutely see why the Ukrainian authorities have done it. I think it's really good to have the conversation about steps towards it. I suspect that the majority of countries are going to continue to want to focus on what they need to do right now.


Two or three years ago, when there were conversations about NATO membership for Ukraine we mostly talked about reforms, for example, in its military system, its democratic system. But now there is a war in Ukraine. Is the main issue in terms of the NATO membership for Ukraine a political one? Or is it the issue of reforms in Ukraine?

I think there's an element of political decision in all of it. There always has been and always will be. I don't think that's discounted. But I also think that there's a close relationship between the need for essential reforms and the political decision because if you don't make progress on those essential reforms, you provide a very convenient reason for those who may be less interested in expanding membership not to continue.  

I have had my fair share of interesting debates with the Ukrainian government at various times about the need to keep their eye on institutional defence reform, not interoperability. Because it's really clear, and, frankly, the one thing that nobody wanted - this war to happen - has shown how capable the Ukrainian Armed Forces can be of operating with NATO standard equipment. But we actually did know that before the war. I'm sorry to say they had to be tested on it. But we did already know the interoperability was not the issue, in the sense that was already being met. The issue was institutional reform of defence mechanisms, defence procurement, defence human resources, etc., where we all know there's quite a lot of work still to be done. 

I think it can be very hard for anybody who works in defence in Ukraine to be thinking about that kind of thing right now, when your water stations are being bombed by the Russians. It's really hard to think about that as still being important. But it is important. And it's not just important for this question of whether or not you join NATO, it's really important for having a strong Armed Forces going forward. Those people don't just need to be paid, they need transparent career opportunities, they need corruption to be weeded out in terms of defence procurement, so they can trust that these things are being procured and tracked in the right way. That makes the institution stronger, which in turn means it can support its army better. 

For me, these things are interlinked, and we are continuing this work. I have a reduced team working here on it, obviously, because we have fewer people here for just reasons. But that work is still ongoing with the Ministry of Defence. And I continue to think it is really important work. And my sense from Defence Minister Reznikov is that he thinks it's important too. It's just hard to prioritise it right now.


And what do you think about security guarantees for Ukraine before it joins NATO? Do you think this idea can be fulfilled? What is the position of the UK government on it? Did you get an explanation from the Ukrainian authorities on this initiative?

I think it's right to have the discussion about security guarantees. I also think it's right that we will all collectively need to work out what that looks like. It's really great that the Office of the President has been promoting the conversation about it. I still think we have some way to go in working out what it looks like, whether it is about weaponry and making sure that Ukraine just looks too difficult to invade in the future in terms of its own capability, or whether it needs security guarantees that look political. The formal part of it is still a conversation that we're having. But there's no question that we support the conversation in principle right now.


What is the current state of projects in military cooperation between the UK and Ukraine which started before the beginning of the fully-fledged war by Russia? I mean the construction of warships for the Ukrainian Navy and of two Ukrainian naval bases. Is this work still going on?

Those projects are still under development. But what's happened is that we've had to turn our attention to more pressing things. Those of our colleagues who were working on that project are still progressing it commercially, although, of course, it’s for the Ukrainians to run the commercial process. They're still working alongside. But of course, the bigger priority right now is the work we're doing to help keep the Black Sea open for the Grain Deal and help the Navy to defend itself right now. The provision of the right kit that helps do that is the higher priority. But the deal is still there.


What are your expectations from a new UK Prime Minister regarding relations with Ukraine? How does the changed political situation in the UK influence relations with Ukraine, and the amount of aid that we are getting?

I can't comment on domestic politics in the UK. I think it's really important to remember that Rishi Sunak was our chancellor all the way through this invasion and before the invasion, and it is the Treasury that led the way in imposing sanctions, it’s Treasury-led. They work very closely with the Foreign Office on it, but it is their lead, and the UK has sanctioned more individuals and entities than anyone else in the world. We're up to 1200 individuals, about 120 entities. That also includes Iranian individuals and entities associated with the drone programme. So that's the Treasury. 

I don't think anyone could accuse Rishi Sunak of not prioritising the invasion or not thinking that it's important. He has quite important domestic economic issues that he must pay attention to, which he's doing. But I have no sense that he's taking this invasion any less seriously, than either Liz Truss or Boris Johnson. We know that he called President Zelenskyy on his first day in office, and that was the first foreign leader that he called. That was his own choice to do that. I think it sent a very important message of continuity. I don't have any concern about Rishi Sunak’s commitment. I don't think that will change at all in terms of our policy for the future.


Can we expect the first visit of the British Prime Minister to Ukraine before the end of the year?

Well, I'm not going to comment on timings for a Prime Minister visit for security reasons, frankly. But I imagine that he will want to be ready to come as soon as he's able to do so.


What is the dominant attitude in British society to the war started by Russia, providing aid to Ukraine by the UK government and to rising prices? Do British people connect it with sanctions against Russia and providing support to Ukraine?

It's a really good question, because I think what's so interesting in the UK is that public support for the defence of Ukraine against this invasion has not changed at all - all year. Regular public opinion polling shows over 70% of the public thinks that the government policy is the right policy. 

At the same time, people are perfectly capable of worrying about the cost of living and the cost of their energy bills, which are really high in the UK and likely stay that way for some time. Whether they associate that directly with Ukraine and think of it as the fault of the invasion? I can't give you precise figures. I can tell you that Ukraine forms part of the conversation about what needs to be done. But I have no sense at all that people connect the hardship with the invasion. They want something done about it, and they totally get that this is having an impact on it. But nobody thinks this isn't Russia's fault. 

You're right to suggest, as I think you are, that there will always be a tension in terms of the public support for something happening, and the financial impact across society. Right now, there's no sense that that creates a pressure for the UK to do less, or indeed to try to make Ukraine do something they don't want to do. That's not there at all.


But the situation in the UK is different from other countries and in the European Union, isn’t it?

Yeah, it's different, actually. I'm not sure I can explain it. I've asked my own ministers this question when they travel in actually.

I think there are a couple of things, and I can only really talk for my own country. It's absolutely the case that the UK does not like a bully. That might not sound like a policy position. But it's true. There are even ministers in government who say that they're doing this because they do not like a bully. And when they say they don't like, they mean globally they don't like – that this is not what one country should be doing to another country, that we all prosper when we observe the rules, that we have set ourselves up for a prosperous and stable existence, and Russia is completely flouting them. That's just a no. And that's a visceral thing about British identity actually that drives an awful lot in public support. Not everybody here is thinking in geopolitical terms about what Russia is doing to Ukraine. So, there is part of that. But there is too this sense that the counterfactual: if you don't give this support, many people understand what that can look like, and that goes well beyond Ukraine. What happens to your neighbours? What happens to Russia's role in Europe? What happens to the proliferation of really dangerous weapons? It's the combination of those.

I think the UK has got real clarity on, maybe in terms of its own historical experience of, being alone for a little while. Maybe that's partly what sets it apart. But I think we've just always been clearer-eyed about what Russia’s invasion in Ukraine represents that keeps us going at the same pace, as we have since we started.


What are the perspectives of the expropriation of frozen Russian assets and providing them for Ukraine's reconstruction?

I think no one's against the principle that makes obvious sense for reasons of justice. Liz Truss, when she was Foreign Secretary, speaking at the Ukraine Recovery Conference, mentioned that this was something that in an ideal world you wanted to see happen. And it's also the case that we've started our conversations with the Treasury and with the Home Office, about how we can do this, so the desire is there. 

The problem is that it's such an easy thing to say. It trips off the tongue really easily; it makes emotional sense. Legally, it is really difficult. You've frozen them - that's the easy bit.  Then the difficult bit is extracting that in a transparent legal process that you know is going to be disputed by those who think that money is theirs, in a way that could take years. The question is: how can you find a process that doesn't end up with you running court process and court process after process for years? And that is the conversation that we're having with both the Treasury and Home Office.


How are the preparations for the Ukraine Recovery Conference that will take place in Britain in 2023 going?

It’s quite an early stage, obviously, because it's not till next June. But we have started our conversations with both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here, the Office of the President, the Office of the Prime Minister, and the aligned ministers that will be involved.

What we know about the conference, which will be jointly hosted, of course, by the UK and Ukraine, is that the most important thing it needs to do is to keep up the momentum for longer-term support and investment. We're keen that, at that conference, we don't just think about government grants or what the IFIs do. We must also think about how we integrate private sector investment in Ukraine. It brings me back to your reform question earlier on.  Businesses, too, will need to know that they're able to do business.

One of the interesting longer-term questions about what Ukraine looks like after this invasion is that the country will have all kinds of challenges. But it might also have the opportunity in the sense that you already see quite a few of the sorts of historical, quite Soviet, practices falling away. Partly because Ukraine has just had to be agile, but partly too because in the same way, as I hear fewer people speaking Russian in the street, and far more people speak Ukrainian, I also see evidence that Ukrainians at every level are shedding Soviet ways of doing things, and innovation blossoms as a result. That's going to send a really positive signal to businesses who will absolutely see all this fantastic talent and opportunity, as well as the job that needs to be done to be rebuilt. If the Ukraine recovery conference can help in opening up some of that, I think it could really unleash potential. It's important to have really ambitious aims for the conference. And that's where we're at to try to produce some momentum in the round.


You have a lot of meetings with Ukrainian authorities on the issue of recovery. What do you think about the current work of the Ukrainian government in this field? Is it effective? I mean creating of a recovery fund, for example, and other institutional things. I see that we have a lot of problems now with different countries, because we have different sources of financing, and lots of very different structures.

Do talk to them about this. The truth is that I'm a little bit more relaxed than it sounds you are about it. For sure, it looks like a bit of a mess. But the truth is that Ukraine's requirements for recovery and reconstruction to keep the economy going, frankly, which is an existential issue, every bit as much as fighting on the battlefield, are so huge that no one single effort is going to be able to deliver on it.

It's good that the government has the Ukraine recovery fund. And it has its law that is going through Parliament, and there'll be questions about transparency and governance, and all those questions will be right. But the truth is, not everybody is going to invest in that fund. Actually, some may choose not to: they may choose to go for trust funds in the IFIs, or they may choose to set up their own. I can see the US doing something like that, for example. And there is the question of how the private sector gets involved. 

The way I prefer to see it is that there will be several initiatives, and some of them are going to tread on each other's toes, and there's going to be a little bit of chaos. But in the end, the job of all of us will be to try to organise this as much as possible. So that what you have is a jigsaw puzzle. I personally think that's the most realistic thing.

We can talk Marshall plan, and Marshall plan will be a really great thing when we all are able finally to step back and look at what's happened to this country. But the fact is no one wants to wait for that moment. For now you're going to have several initiatives. And as long as we can more or less organise them, that's great because they will cover different themes over different time periods.

Whichever choices we make about how we support Ukraine, we can see how to do that. I don't think [having several initiatives] matters. It matters mostly that the funds are rolling, that we can see where they're going, and that however it is we decide it's best to help, the help gets to where it's needed.


When President of Germany Mr. Steinmeier came to Ukraine a few days ago he discussed with the President of Ukraine Mr. Zelenskyy a partnership at a local level, with local authorities. Also, as we know, Denmark closely works with Mykolayv. Is it possible to establish the same ties between Ukrainian and British cities and local authorities?

It's perfectly possible. And of course, when Boris Johnson was here, he discussed with President Zelenskyy the idea that the UK would lead on Kyiv Oblast, for example. I can see the merit in doing it, as a way for a city creating a channel for themselves for the projects that they need. In reality, there is a big difference for example, in getting involved in Chernihiv, or Kyiv, or Mykolayv, given the scale of damage there. 

I think the reality is going to look slightly different. A country can play a role for a city in galvanising support for it. In the case of Kyiv Oblast, they really need to do that, because it includes Kyiv City: it's the most visible. And it can help channel the requests. But the reality is that the UK won't have the comparative advantage for everything that needs to be done in Kyiv Oblast. Some countries are really good at roads, and some are really good at bridges, and some are really good at buildings. And in the end, surely what every mayor or governor wants is to be able to take wherever the best support comes from, where it can come, the most quickly. So, that's another area where I think in the end, you'll find a combination of the two. There will be towns and cities where that bilateral leadership really works. And the way others work, frankly, will all just pile up. For example, Chernihiv is not our lead, but we are doing some work in Chernihiv, because we have a Partnership Fund for a resilient Ukraine that is really, really good at moving very fast to repair partially damaged schools. In partially damaged schools, if you can build those quickly you are doing so much more even than just getting kids back into school. You're also enabling families to function, people to go out to work, and so on. We have an advantage there, we can play a role. Why would you confine that to one oblast? You would go where it's needed. 

It's just going to be another example of a slightly messy but it's all right, it will work. A combination of leadership of cities, and then plugging yourself wherever you can make the most difference.


For example, it would be interesting if Coventry, which was destroyed during World War II, had ties with some Ukrainian cities that were also destroyed in this war. 

Yes, it would. Those partnerships are growing. They were too, before the invasion, but it was happening at a much slower rate. So that's really galloping. But also twins between educational institutions, between universities, there is a new Universities UK initiative, which I think is brilliant: these two will both bolster partnerships. It comes up thematically underneath the city-to-city partnership.  More of those will be really helpful. 


What is your perspective on the UK terming Russia a country that sponsors terrorism? What are the obstacles, and to your mind what is the significance of it?

The question I've always asked all the way through since this began to be a thing is: what happens as a result of doing that? And that varies from country to country, because different countries have different toolkits for addressing terrorism for example. The UK has got pretty robust set of tools for designating terrorists and terrorism, and it most usually finds its way through the sanction system. We've just talked about sanctions, we have a really good and robust sanction system here, which is working well with regards to Russia. 

Within that terrorist toolkit, we don't actually have one for designating a country as a state sponsor of terrorism; that is something that's under discussion. It's not that we're not saying we'll do it, and it's something that, maybe unlike some other countries, we don't currently provide for. We have to work out how we do that. But actually, we also want to work out whether we want to do it. If we can answer the question, what difference does it make? If it makes no difference at the national level, in other words, all roads just lead you back to sanctions, we already have that covered. So, then the debate, which I think is important that we're having at the moment, is what difference does it make at the international level? And that is an ongoing conversation.


With regards to the reforms in Ukraine, Madam Ambassador, what is your assessment of SAP and NABU current activity in circumstances of war?

They've never been more important. We've long been huge supporters of NABU investigators and SAP prosecutors. Their job is as important as ever. There is corruption in wartime justice as there is in peacetime, and that needs tackling in wartime just as it does in peacetime. It's dangerous to suspend that kind of work. 

The thing that concerns me right now about NABU and SAP is that they both have specialists who have gone off to fight. And of course, some of them have lost their lives, which is like all loss of life incredibly sad. This is one of those really difficult moments where I am not going to argue that anyone should not go off and fight. I completely understand the impulse for your country – you want to go and defend it. But the truth is the country needs defence in more ways than one. And it's going to be really important that NABU investigators are enabled to do the important work that they do, and that there are enough SAP prosecutors to be able to proceed with the caseload, because it's an important thing in wartime to keep governance strong. 

I have that concern. But it's not a concern I'm going to be lobbying hard about because I really understand the delicacy of that balance. It's not for me to be telling the country who goes to fight and who doesn't. It’s more generally about making sure that the two organisations are properly resourced to be able to do their job. That hasn't changed for me at all. That continues for me to be a really important part of Ukraine's future. 


What is your opinion on the controls of the international community over the aid that is provided to Ukraine? Are you satisfied with the current situation, and is there a need in more instruments of control? This issue was much discussed during US elections. 

Yeah, I'm aware of the US concerns. I don't have those concerns. We are happy with the controls that we have over the range of aid that we give. I don't think we need anything else.


Are there any plans to evacuate the British Embassy Kyiv’s staff from Kyiv again? When would it be likely, and under what circumstances?

No, there are no plans to evacuate. We're here with security that enables us to be here. I've now been here for months, I’m living in this war, just like you're living in this war. It's certainly true to say that the circumstances for taking us out are already different from the circumstances under which we first left back in February. That's not just because we think the threat is less serious: it’s still serious. We have a better idea now of both Ukrainian capability and also Russia’s.

I would say it's a daily conversation as it must be for any Ukrainian, frankly, to look at the circumstances. But we are prepared to live with quite a lot to do the work that we do. For now, there aren't any plans to leave Kyiv. And I think it's probably quite important for many people that we stay.

I went to a Turkish National Day event on Friday, and the Turkish ambassador gave a speech that I was deeply moved by. I've not heard anyone talk this way about diplomats who had elected to stay in Kyiv because, of course, many missions are here, it's not just the UK. He said he was very proud to be among a group of, as he called us, ‘lionhearted diplomats’ who have shown bravery to stay here and stick with Ukraine. I might just have not thought about it. My eyes are on the work, just like most Ukrainians’ eyes are on making sure their daily life keeps going. For all of us here, I think in terms of what I have to do, I don't often stand back, look at myself and think: why are you here? But that's what he did. I was really very moved to be in a room of all these other ambassadors and their colleagues, who were still here, sometimes without electricity, and sometimes without water, and sometimes in shelters. We just know that it's important. 


It's a signal for Ukrainians.

Yeah, this is what I am told. I go into shops to buy something and someone gives me my change and says: “You're not leaving, are you?” So, I know that it's important for many regular Ukrainians and certainly for some countries, in particular. I do notice. It can create a pressure, in the sense that, maybe you can't leave because then it sends a signal. We all have to look after people, and the Foreign Office in the UK has a duty to care for us all [British Nationals]. But we are being very pragmatic about the appetite to be here that I and my colleagues have. And I can tell you that our commitments are pretty strong – it turns out we're quite brave. And we're very ready to be here.


Some sceptics draw attention to the fact that Ukraine is much smaller in size than Russia, that it has less recourse, and support from Western countries can be reduced as a result of their internal politics. What makes you believe that Ukraine will fully win Russia and will take back its territories? 

Because I’ve watched them. Russia does have more weapons but they haven’t used them very well. Now, here we are in November, this has been going for longer than six months, and Putin hasn’t achieved one of his strategic objectives. He doesn't have Kyiv, he doesn't have Odesa, he hasn't been able to take all of these. Crimea is looking a little bit uncertain; Crimea is actually less certain than it was before this started. None of those sounds to me like a win. Of course, appalling things are still happening and Ukrainians are still losing their lives, and people are without water, and people are without electricity. But none of that actually makes much difference to Putin in terms of what he wants to happen inside Ukraine. 

Then they tell me that this might be a smaller country. Although I tend to laugh when people who have never been to Ukraine talk about Ukraine being a smaller country. Please, it's the second largest country in Europe, it's enormous! I think there are some people who need a bit of perspective about Ukraine. There is Ukraine relative to Europe - huge. And then there is Ukraine relative to Russia - a smaller country than Russia. 

But the Ukrainian Armed Forces have shown themselves not just to be determined, not just to be resilient, but also to be incredibly agile. And the Russian Armed Forces are literally the opposite of agile. Ukrainians know their terrain and have made a study of their enemy. Russians know this terrain a lot less well and are refusing to make a study of their enemy. 

All I'm saying is this is not just a question of size and capability. It's also a question of wile and brains. And then, of course, there is the question for every Ukrainian I ever ask, who say they don't have a choice. Russians have a choice, they can stop tomorrow and go back home. Ukrainians if they stop, that's it, that's the country gone. 


Some journalists and bloggers compare the situation in Ukraine with the situation in Great Britain during World War II, especially regarding civil population, bombings and so on. Do you see something in common with Ukrainians now and Britons at that time?

Actually, I think it goes more widely than that. I can see why Ukrainians compare it to UK experience, the Blitz. I was reading about this in the last week and I'm thinking about it myself. I'm not Ukrainian, I don't get the option to say, you know: “How dare you come after my country?” It's not my country. I'm being hosted in this country. Still, when there is a hit on Kyiv I'm incredibly angry, I'm much angrier than scared. And of course, the first thought I think is, ‘well, I'm not leaving, keep going with my work’. That's been my reaction every single time. 

When you read not just about the Blitz, but about Dresden, Vietnam, Syria…every time there is evidence to show that the population gets more stiff-necked, gets more determined to just do what it needs to do. I can't explain the psychology behind it. I can say, though, that it brings me back to maybe Russia should do some studying. Because they're not shifting Ukrainians any more than Hitler shifted Brits. It appears to just make us all more determined to live with what we have. But not just in terms of existence, but in terms of staking our right to be here.