UK Ambassador Simmons: ‘The challenge for Ukraine is not to take support for granted’

UK Ambassador Simmons: ‘The challenge for Ukraine is not to take support for granted’

After four tumultuous and challenging years, Dame Melinda Simmons’ term as the British ambassador to Ukraine is coming to an end. Her successor Martin Harris will be arriving in September.

Since Simmons, a career diplomat, arrived in Kyiv in September 2019, she has worked through the coronavirus outbreak, a change of three UK prime ministers, the death of Queen Elisabeth II, and the coronation of King Charles III.

The only time when Simmons wondered, “Can I do this?” was at the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Her most challenging work was countering Russian disinformation narratives, such as its claim on Crimea.

The Kyiv Independent sat down with Simmons for an exclusive farewell interview on Aug. 17, shortly before her departure at the end of the month. The ambassador, one of the most outspoken supporters of Ukraine among Western diplomats, shared her perspective on sanctions against Russian oligarchs, addressed Ben Wallace’s infamous “lack of gratitude” statement, and opened up about the challenges of being an ambassador in a country at war.

The Kyiv Independent: Being an ambassador here during the full-scale Invasion, would you say you share the Ukrainians' feeling of separation with loved ones?

Dame Melinda Simmons: It's an important question. It's not one that diplomats talk about very much for obvious reasons. I was in Odesa some months ago, and a soldier came over to me. He said his wife had gone to the UK, had found a family who had taken her in, and got her visa at the beginning of last year. She had written to him to say that she missed Ukraine, and she missed him very much, but the family was lovely, and she felt safe, and he said, knowing that she felt safe, made it easier for him to fight. He wanted to give me his chevron to say thank you. And that moved me, but it also oddly reminded me of my own situation.

My family left a couple of years before, when the pandemic first began. They were never able to come back because the invasion followed. And that has made this a much harder experience because, of course, it's naturally more lonely. I think that what all Ukrainians are feeling, that sense of separation can really hurt. It’s also something that's kept me at work because I understand what this soldier tells me. I have a little bit of a sense of it myself.

The Kyiv Independent: When was the last time that you saw your husband?

Dame Melinda Simmons: I've probably only seen him two or three times at all in the last year and actually only two or three times every year, whenever I've been able to go back to the UK. He was supposed to move out here, and he was about to when flights stopped because of the pandemic. After that, we said, right, move out, and then he couldn't. So this has been a real story of separation for us. And actually, a fortitude for the two of us. This isn't just the challenge for me as an ambassador. It also has been a challenge for me as a person in a long-term marriage – trying to make sure that this separation isn't too hard for both of us.

The Kyiv Independent: The UK has undoubtedly helped Ukraine a lot – both by hosting refugees but also providing support, including military support. When it comes to the West’s expectations of Ukraine’s counteroffensive – is there an understanding that it’s connected to how many weapons Ukraine has? And do you believe that the West’s expectations of Ukraine's performance on the battlefield are a little bit more optimistic than they should be, having the weapons that are available to Ukrainians?

Dame Melinda Simmons: I think it’s a bit general to talk about the West like it’s one thing. I’m personally critical of the media coverage of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in general. It has been quite binary and has suggested that you can just line up your soldiers in one place and you can take it back.

The defense minister and the president have been really clear that it was never a sprint, it’s a marathon. I’m always struck when I talk with colleagues in the UK by how difficult it is for them to remember how long that contact line is, and how diverse Ukraine is. Kharkiv was liberated in a very different way from Kherson, and they have a multitude of challenges.

So I don't think it's as binary as “they need more equipment.” Although for sure I agree with the fact that they need more equipment. But if you gave Ukraine more equipment, I'm not sure how much it would speed it up because you are still talking about the size and the diverse nature of the territory, the fact that the Russians are dug in very well, and that this was always going to take time. Ukraine is one of the most mined countries in the world now. Ukrainian soldiers are having to deal with that. It's an unbelievably difficult task, and it requires patience – from them but also from all of us. That's a very difficult message for any country that is providing weaponry and wants to see clearly measurable results.

I think we need to talk about the strategic approach, but I don't think we can assume that if you just put the right stuff in their hands, it’s all going to change tomorrow.

The Kyiv Independent: But if we're talking about planes like the F-16, will that change the situation dramatically?

Dame Melinda Simmons: Yes, obviously, Ukraine needs air capability, but F-16 aren’t things you put in someone's hands and say “go tomorrow,” either. This is a capability Ukraine has not had. It's not a usual capability historically. That means that people need to be trained. They need to be serviced in a different way. You need engineers who know what they're doing.

These are not excuses for F-16s not coming as fast as I know Ukrainians want them, but we all make a mistake if we think it's just about shipping a few airplanes over and then you get into them, fly off, and that's the end of the war. It really is more complex than that. That is why the UK offered training before F-16s became available. Because at the point where they are available, at least, you know, you begin to have a cohort of pilots who do actually know how to use them.

The Kyiv Independent: Let’s talk about Britain's defense secretary Ben Wallace and his statements at the NATO Summit in Vilnius about Ukraine's lack of gratitude to the allies for weapons, which evoked some criticism. Do you agree that Ukraine is asking for too much from its Western allies?

Dame Melinda Simmons: I think it's quite important the whole of Ben Wallace's interview is read. When you read it it's pretty clear that he is not making that pointed a point. And in any case, if you look back at Ben Wallace's track record, Ben Wallace has been one of Ukraine's closest friends. People talk about Boris Johnson, and indeed Boris Johnson showed historic leadership at the right time but Ben Wallace was in his Cabinet, Ben Wallace was sorting out those NLAWs, making sure they were right, and he has been consistent. You could not ask for a more supportive defense secretary with a better understanding of what Ukraine was facing.

What he was trying to express was a general concern, if you like, that the more Ukraine asks, the more pressure, of course, that puts on some countries, the more they want a conversation, both about how that weaponry is being used in the military strategy, but also this issue about gratitude.

I personally haven't seen this lack of gratitude. On the contrary. I see that the president, the defense minister, etc. are very clear every time when there is an announcement from an ally, they acknowledge (it). I think what our defense secretary was trying to do was just to convey a sense that inevitably, that pressure from these requests will grow as countries look back to their stocks, and ask Ukraine to be alive to that pressure.

I genuinely do not believe that Ben Wallace was making a binary criticism of Ukraine, even if it came across that way.

UK Ambassador Simmons: ‘The challenge for Ukraine is not to take support for granted’
British Ambassador Dame Melinda Simmons is posing at her residence in Kyiv on Aug. 17, 2023, a week before her departure to the United Kingdom at the end of August. (Credit: Yelyzaveta Pyrozhkova/Kyiv Independent)

The Kyiv Independent: Lately, top-level Western officials have made many controversial statements regarding the possible peace between Ukraine and Russia and the bargaining of the territories. Do you believe that any peace with Russia is possible by just giving away some of Ukraine's land?

Dame Melinda Simmons: Emphatically, no. I'm astonished that people even think there can be a debate about it. Not because of what's happening now, but because of what you can see in history. You really don't need anything other than to look back to 2014, and to look at Moldova and Georgia. There is no question that if Ukraine settled in any way by agreeing that Russia could hold on to any part of this occupied territory, Russia would use it to remilitarize and launch again. It’s absolutely clear because they've done it before. So I do not see a way forward whereby Ukraine cedes territory that is sustainable.

The Kyiv Independent: If the international pressure on Ukraine grows over time, do you think that Ukraine could be cornered to agree to give away some territories and reach peace with Russia to keep receiving financial aid from the West?

Dame Melinda Simmons: At this time, I don't see any sense of that conditionality. There are elections in some countries, and one would have to look again, right, depending on the outcomes of those elections. At this time, I don't see anything other than the consistency of the message that these countries stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes.

The Kyiv Independent: Do you believe that the West, including the UK, which has indeed in the past welcomed Russian proceeds of corruption money for years, bears any responsibility for Russia's feeling of the permissiveness that triggered, consequently, its invasion of Ukraine?

Dame Melinda Simmons: You can point to several things that triggered Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I don't actually think that their access to bank accounts or schools or nice trips or yachts were a reason for them to invade Ukraine. I think that came from elsewhere.

But what I do think has happened is not just sanctions but the UK has looked much more closely at the tools that they did put in place to tackle corrupt sources of finance in the UK. Unexplained Wealth Order is a very good example of an initiative that was put through Parliament and was implemented, but was really quite slow in its first couple of years. And now, further legislation has been passed to give that mechanism more teeth and also to make sure that sanctions stand for longer.

I think we are learning the lessons of how you make sure that these mechanisms are safeguarded, so they can actually do their job.

The Kyiv Independent: Germany really continued some business as usual with the North Stream 2, the UK welcomed the Russian money for years and years, and there was this feeling that whatever Russia does with the illegal annexation of Crimea, occupation of part of the Donbas in 2014, really doesn't evoke any severe consequences. Do you think that somehow it made Russia feel: ‘Well, if we are not punished, we can just proceed with whatever we want to achieve in Ukraine’?

Dame Melinda Simmons: I think that Russia responds to strength. Ukrainians have always said it. But not just military strength. So if you put tools in place and they aren't proven to exert that same strength, then yeah, that will be taken as a message that they can proceed.  

The same happens in the international community. You know, every time you put through a Security Council resolution about Ukraine, you must make sure, and we do make sure, that there is a very strong support behind it, and Russia takes note of that message. If there isn't, yes, it sends a tacit message that Russia can do what they want.

But if I'm honest with you, we have enough on our plates to think about how we can keep this level of strength consistent across all elements of what we do because this is a hybrid іnvasion and I would rather, and I have, frankly, put more energy in that way than worrying about the past.

The Kyiv Independent: Talking about current affairs, there are Russian oligarchs in Britain under sanctions, who enjoy monthly allowances, consequently letting them carry on with their luxurious lifestyles. Are the restrictions in place against Russian oligarchs in the UK hurting them enough?

Dame Melinda Simmons: Sanctions are reviewed regularly, which is why you keep seeing new waves of sanctions. But also, sometimes you see additional sanction legislation. It's a direct result of those reviews.

Look, sanctions are a blunt tool. They take time to bite. If you go after someone's personal finances, then that has the most immediate effect, but of course, if you are an oligarch, you've got to that level of wealth, you sort of know how to protect your assets. It requires that layered effect to keep looking back at where these other sources may be. And if they are inside the UK, then you've got to go after that.

It's a bit like looking at, you know, weaponry being provided to Russia. You tell yourself: “We are not providing weaponry to Russia. We can feel good about that.” Then the Ukrainians pick up a missile, take it apart, and find 32 bits that come from different European countries. It's a constant conversation to work out how Russia is exploiting loopholes or using pieces of the system that we haven't yet explored ourselves to try to get around these sanctions, so it's an ongoing piece of work.

The Kyiv Independent: Back to the oligarchs' allowance. If the UK cuts the monthly allowance, would it make the oligarchs live more of a reserved life and consequently cut their ties with Putin?

Dame Melinda Simmons: I don't think it's helpful to talk personally about oligarchs, nor actually do I think it's helpful to collectivize them. They have different incentives. Many of them have got their money in different ways, and there are different conversations to be had with them. But I actually also think this is a conversation that needs to be led by the Ukrainians. Our sanctions are led by conversations with Ukraine, who tells us things like, for example, weapon parts are being made in these countries. We have the same conversations on a strategic level about sanctions. When it comes to the question of reparations, that too will need to be set by Ukraine in terms of sanctions on oligarchs. And I think if any oligarch wants sanctions lifted, that too is a conversation with Ukraine.

The Kyiv Independent: The UK recently passed new legislation which allows oligarchs to voluntarily give away the assets that had been frozen previously. Do you think that creates a risk of sanctions being lifted?

Dame Melinda Simmons: The issue of sanctions being able to be voluntarily lifted against, if you like, a reparation, that is a three-way conversation with Ukraine. So this isn't about us unilaterally saying this is fine. Also, that legislation doesn't say, “and therefore there will be no sanctions” or “therefore you won't find yourself in the International Criminal Court” or any of that. It just says “you can volunteer to liberate some of that money and put it towards a Ukraine cause.” It doesn't actually give them any impunity.

The Kyiv Independent: But why would they, then?

Dame Melinda Simmons: Look, I am not an oligarch. No person has got so many billions as to be thinking in that mindset. But I’m sure those who can see the proportionate loss of their income might think that by paying it forward, it may lessen any further penalty that comes in the future. If you really think you're someone who hasn't done malign business with Putin, you just got lots of money having profited from the Russian regime directly or indirectly, if you put a piece of that money towards the very cause that we're all trying to help, then that indicates that your future intentions will align – and so some oligarchs may feel that that's a business transaction worth making. But let's see.

The Kyiv Independent: Well, that really might be a business transaction, because these oligarchs might not be genuine about their help.

Dame Melinda Simmons: They might not be. No one said that sanctions were going to result in people undergoing a change of heart. Sanctions against Russia aren't going to make Russia think that they've done the wrong thing. What sanctions do is make it more difficult for them to do the wrong thing. So I'm sorry, but these aren’t ideological tools. They are practical punitive tools. The question of how you get around to a different mindset whereby Russians decide they're not going to invade Ukraine anymore – that is a completely different subject.

The Kyiv Independent: How far is the UK from moving from freezing the assets of the Russians to actually seizing and confiscating and then transferring these assets to Ukraine for reconstruction?

Dame Melinda Simmons: I would say we are about in the same place as most other countries that have frozen assets, which is to say that we are happy that we have done this. We have legislation in place to say that's not going to be unfrozen until Russia's paid for what they've done to Ukraine.

But this is like the F-16s debate. You find yourself in a much more complex environment than people understand — which frankly, I struggled to understand even though I come back to this over and over — how legally, you are able to liberate these assets, to be able to pass them over to Ukraine for reconstruction. It’s really difficult to get right. We have a working group on the use of frozen assets. We are talking with many other countries about the sort of legislation you need to evolve – such that not only you could do what you want to do, but also that it wouldn't result in multiple challenges in court. The current situation is that we don't have what is needed. And most countries don't have what is needed because this is a fairly unprecedented situation, and we've got to evolve them, and that just takes time.

The Kyiv Independent: Could you adopt some practices of, say, the U.S., which already made a transfer of some assets of at least one oligarch who breached sanctions?

Dame Melinda Simmons: Well, let's see. As I say, this is part of what's being discussed in the working group.

UK Ambassador Simmons: ‘The challenge for Ukraine is not to take support for granted’
British Ambassador Dame Melinda Simmons is showing her yellow and blue manicure that references the colors of Ukraine's flag at her residence in Kyiv on Aug. 17, 2023, a week before her departure to the United Kingdom at the end of August. (Credit: Yelyzaveta Pyrozhkova/Kyiv Independent)

The Kyiv Independent: How has the perception of Ukraine in the eyes of British citizens changed after the start of the full-scale invasion?

Dame Melinda Simmons: I think the Brits know so much more now about Ukrainians, frankly how utterly cool the country is, and even down to what kind of food you eat. Because, of course, so many people have taken in Ukrainians, and they're learning to make syrnyky and it's all fantastic.

But they aren't the only people who are waking up to this understanding of Ukraine's history, this sense of what Russia really is, this colonial fascist-leaning country. There is a dawning realization not just for the West, but for other countries who tended to see that as a geographically different part of history. This sense of Ukraine having been colonized under Soviet occupation – that is a narrative that is being understood by many other countries who have not been conventional partners of Ukraine but are now very interested in the nature of this invasion.

The Kyiv Independent: Is there any war fatigue from what you sense, and if there is, how do you think it impacts the UK's willingness on the governmental level to carry on its support for Ukraine?

Dame Melinda Simmons: There's no war fatigue. You can see that in terms of the polling that we do of our own population, support for government policy is very high. So 70% of the population believes the government is doing the right thing. That's really good numbers for the UK, and it has stayed more or less about that level since the beginning of the invasion. And it’s throughout the country, it’s not a London-centric thing. I don't see that changing in the medium term.

There's a clear sense from the British people that what Russia is doing is fundamentally just wrong. Just not in tune with any of your most basic values and things you want as a human being. We have a committed prime minister right now, a cross-government agreement, and support for what this government is doing. It's a good situation to be in.

The challenge for Ukraine from September onwards is not to take that support for granted, not just to assume that it stays there. It comes about because of the public communications on what Ukraine is doing and how it is fighting, and then how the UK is helping, and it can't just be for the UK to do that. The Ukrainian government and leaders need to make sure they are continuing to message out Ukrainian will to fight. I would even say that “Ukrainian will” is stronger as a driver of support than “how you are using UK capability.” People are moved to do more when they are inspired by the Ukrainian determination to defend their country.

The Kyiv Independent: What could be an example of this determination? What can Ukraine do to show this willingness to fight?

Dame Melinda Simmons: What they've been doing. There isn't more. It’s just to make sure that that doesn't drop.

I don't think there's any country that doesn't appreciate the absolutely fantastic strategic communications work that is done by your Foreign Ministry and by the Ministry of Defense. There is some very classy stuff, but the point is, it's also very personal, and it shows people around the world the human impact of the war, but also the achievements. The achievements can be down to the very smallest level – one soldier meets one person in a village that has been liberated. These stories are incredibly powerful, they make the emotional connection in their heads: We provided this capability, and now, the soldier has been to this house and liberated this house. People understand that in terms of their own aspirations.

The Kyiv Independent: Is there anything that Ukraine can do on the state level to ensure that the support continues?

Dame Melinda Simmons: I don't think the West is the only audience here. One of the recent things the Ukrainian government has been doing really well is engaging with countries in the so-called Global South. And with some success. You see that success in the Security Council resolutions. You can see it in the 10-point peace plan. You can see it in the last meeting in Jeddah. There is some extraordinary, bilateral relationship growing between Ukraine and countries that probably didn't know Ukraine wasn't part of Russia until this war began.

The Kyiv Independent: What will the future of Russia look like after Ukraine's victory?

Dame Melinda Simmons: Oh God, I don't know what Russia will look like. Honestly, I don't care, I really don't.

Let's say, Ukraine manages to push Russia out of its territory. It isn't going to stop Russia from wanting to invade in the future. So, even if you've got to a point of negotiation, I can't see a future right now in which Russia doesn't lose that visceral sense, that Ukraine belongs to Russia. So, you know, in that sense, I can't tell you. In a sense, it's not even relevant. You've got a security threat on your border. And we are all, as we said in the G7, going to have to work up these guarantees to help.

As for accountability, we have put funding towards the International Criminal Court, both in terms of training investigators and putting some of our own investigators in that. A program funding goes towards supporting women and children who have been raped by occupying forces and help them be able to produce their narratives so they can be part of those investigations. We are really closely involved in the range of accountability. But, the time that it takes or how Russia engages with it – that's for the future.

The Kyiv Independent: You were posted here in 2019. Throughout this time, many things have changed. What stands out in your memories as the most challenging task you had to do, and the most touching or incredible experience that you might have had?

Dame Melinda Simmons: I think the toughness may have been… Of course, Russia was doing before the war what it's doing now: promote disinformation about, for example, Crimea. For Ukraine, these disinformation narratives were very clear. For many other countries at that time, when I first arrived in 2019, they were not particularly clear. There was some sort of confusion about Crimea’s status. I think maybe my toughest work was to try to help get that narrative through. We did get it through, but that's tough work, which oddly has become easier now, with the invasion of Ukraine.

As for what’s the most touching, I think the most touching is that… I'm out and about on the streets, like anyone else is. And most days, I can't walk to the end of the street, anywhere, without being stopped by some random stranger I never met before, who wants to say thank you to the UK. And I think that's really, really lovely. Every time that happens, I'm a little bit overwhelmed.

The Kyiv Independent: You tweeted a lot about having to shelter and living through this invasion. Is there anything that this experience taught you?

Dame Melinda Simmons: Goodness, a lot. But probably the main thing was how much I had in me to deal with it. For everybody who had any kind of leadership job, and an ambassador is a leadership job, your leadership is tested in different ways, and this, I thought, was the ultimate test.

I remember being in Lviv three or four days after the invasion, during one of the first missile strikes. We all threw ourselves to the floor – and in the early days, you didn't really know much about what to do – and I remember being on the bathroom floor in my tiny hotel room, thinking: “Can I do this? Have I got it in me to do this?” I was acutely aware of my colleagues in the rooms around me, and I was going to need to tell them: “It's alright. We can work through this.” It took me about three seconds to work out the “Yes, I had this in me.” I may not have used it particularly, but now I was going to take out this resilience and use it. And I have never looked back from that moment.

The Kyiv Independent: Thank you for sharing this.

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