A diplomat known for his unconventional diplomacy and sharp mind, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, has in the past described himself as an arms dealer. Now, in this time of war, he sees advocacy as the new diplomacy, with the task of getting more weapons to Ukraine being the order of the day.
In this insightful interview with the Kyiv Post’s Lesia Dubenko, which took place at the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin, the Ambassador shares his views on the dark side of human nature, Germany’s dependency on Russia, and the thorny topic of weapons. This leads neatly on to Ukraine’s prospects of EU and NATO membership and the upcoming Herculean task that Ukraine faces.
[Dubenko] Mr. Ambassador, I’ll begin by noting that you’re quite vocal and outspoken. Not the typical diplomat or envoy. What’s top of your agenda right now?
[Melnyk] Well, with the ongoing war in Ukraine, the main task that each Ambassador has at the moment is to push for the supply of more weapons, especially modern ones. That’s what my small team in Berlin is busy with.
[Dubenko] Do you like it here?
[Melnyk] I love Germany, the culture and the language. In fact, I’ve been working here now for seven and a half years. Also, since I know Germany quite well, I thought that by taking this job I’d be able to move some things forward for Ukraine.
[Dubenko] Have you always been the outspoken kind or is it a recently acquired skill?
[Melnyk] I’ve always been quite outspoken. In the very first days in the job, I started making contact with the press all over the country. My colleague overseeing press matters, Viktoria Kononenko, has lost count of how many interviews I’ve done. Possibly over a thousand. And believe me, from the very first interview, I received feedback from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was – to put it mildly – not very positive.
[Dubenko] Tell me a bit about yourself. What are your achievements and interests? What ticks you off?
[Melnyk] I’m an international lawyer, as is my wife. It’s been the love of my life.
I wrote my PhD thesis and many books on international law. Unfortunately, whilst in this post, it’s been impossible to devote any meaningful time to the field. Yet, my knowledge of the subject does help me understand difficult matters and find solutions.
For instance, everyone’s talking about aggression, acts of aggression, genocide and so on. But few understand what they mean from the point of view of international law.
[Dubenko] Do you have political ambitions once your tenure here is over?
[Melnyk] Honestly, I’ve never been a member of any political party. Following Maidan in 2014, I was Deputy Minister [for Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government], but it was a short-lived political assignment. I enjoy being a diplomat as that’s the only field where I know that I can move things forward. Still, never say never!
[Dubenko] What would you say you despise the most in human nature and its political extension?
[Melnyk] It’s difficult to single out one thing in particular. But what I hate here in Germany is hypocrisy, arrogance, and that many German politicians used to tell fairy tales and give empty promises. You wouldn’t expect Germans to be like that. They’re regarded as honest, hardworking and reliable, but my modest experience has not always confirmed that.
[Dubenko] I think I know who you’re alluding to and we’re going to talk about him a little later. Ukrainian diplomacy used to be much more low-key but has now gone up-tempo. What triggered the change, other than the war?
[Melnyk] This change emerged after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. From my perspective, that was the turning point for diplomacy to become more dynamic and unconventional. It’s impossible to act the same way diplomats did 200 years ago, such as during the Congress of Vienna.
Still, the “behind-the-scenes” approach is still important as decisions are ultimately taken behind closed doors. But I’m positive that without publicity, this kind of diplomacy cannot be successful.
[Dubenko] The EU has finally agreed on the sixth package of sanctions that features the much-contested embargo on Russian oil. Some are content yet others say ‘too little too late’. What’s your take?
[Melnyk] It’s a tricky issue. We have to be thankful to our friends and allies that they’re at least gradually expanding the pressure on Russia economically. The pace and the amount, however, are not something we can be satisfied with.
The sixth package contains many loopholes, which means that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin will still be receiving hundreds of millions of euros on a daily basis until the end of the year, enabling him to finance his terrible aggression against Ukrainian civilians.
We have been asking our EU partners, right from day one, to at least introduce a moratorium for a couple of months. It would be a painful step, yet it would also show Putin the determination of our European partners, and that they are ready to pay the price themselves for leveraging this pressure.
However, the chances that we can speed up this process are not very high. We’ll be pushing the federal government, which is basically what we’ve been doing every day for eight years. But right now, gas is still excluded from the debate as dependency is too significant.
[Dubenko] But it’s a self-inflicted dependency, isn’t it?
[Melnyk] Of course, it’s totally self-inflicted. It’s been a genuine shock for many that Germany’s economy has been so dependent on Russia.
I do hope this issue can be investigated further from a journalistic perspective at least, especially Russia’s Bundestag links. However, I’m not sure it would happen since too many people have been involved. The entire political elite, the current one included, cemented this dependency.
Still, if the issue is not investigated thoroughly, Germany runs the risk of making worse mistakes in the future.
[Dubenko] Is this self-inflicted dependency only about greed?
[Melnyk] Largely, yes. But it’s more about pragmatism and a desire for cheap energy resources worldwide.
It’s a systematic error within the state construct that industry and economic players have had such a tremendous influence on politics and continue to have it.
The core notion of [Der Weg zum] Wohlstand is that prosperity and the desire to be wealthier is one of society’s basic values. There was a consensus that we achieved so much – the fourth biggest world economy – so I’m not accusing the political class yet.
But that’s something Germany has to look into, i.e. the Putin question and industry’s behemoth influence.
[Dubenko] Lesia: Is this about wealth often coming at the expense of other people?
[Melnyk] Exactly. Let’s take the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as an example. Had it been launched, Ukraine’s pipeline system wouldn’t have been needed any longer, which was clear from the very first day of the announcement.
Believe me, we underscored this fact for years. Yet no-one wanted to listen to arguments like revenue loss [for Ukraine] or geopolitical repercussions. No-one cared.
[Dubenko] You’ve criticized Chancellor Scholz on many occasions, calling him “a sad sausage.” Why so modest given that evidence is mounting that he is still deliberately delaying the delivery of arms to Ukraine? It also seems like Germany has given in to Putin’s gas-for-ruble demand.
[Melnyk] I still have to respect my role as a diplomat.
It’s a tricky path for the Ukrainian ambassador to accomplish goals here in Germany. We still hope that the current government will reconsider many aspects and consider the Zeitenwende – a turning point in history – which was a notion coined by Chancellor Scholz on Feb. 28.
Now is the time to deliver on that promise to Germans and in part to Ukrainians, since it had been initiated during the ongoing Russian aggression, including by helping us with heavy weapons.
[Dubenko]: But Germany hasn’t sent us any heavy weapons, has it?
[Melnyk] Well, it’s still in process. Before the war, there was a consensus among the German elite, political class and society, that no weapons could be sent to conflict areas. It was the main argument for decades. We managed to change that principle and overcome that huge hurdle.
So far, Germany has delivered defensive weapons worth 200 million euros. It’s not much but at least it’s a start.
Now we’re trying to persuade German society that helping Ukraine with the heavy weapons is also in the interests of Germany.
I have a good feeling that we’ll succeed despite the decade-long inertia. Besides, Germany is one of the top five producers of modern weapons. Last year, the country exported weapons worth more than EUR 9 billion.
[Dubenko] Where to?
[Melnyk] Many regions. Countries like Egypt, Greece, and the U.S.
[Dubenko] Does Germany support arms deliveries to Ukraine?
[Melnyk] Yes. Today, there was a political debate in the Bundestag, and Chancellor Scholz has finally unveiled that he will help us access one of most modern air defense systems, even though we have not talked about this publicly.
So, going back to your first question, where the line between public and traditional clandestine diplomacy lies, it’s an example of that. We pushed this decision behind the scenes, and I’m glad that Chancellor Scholz made this announcement on the first day of summer.
[Dubenko] Yes, but will it definitely be delivered?
[Melnyk] We’ll ensure that Ukraine receives it in the fall. One must remember that weapons take time to be produced and delivered. Things you order now will usually be delivered in five years.
So, I hope that we – as in Ukraine – receive them in October. This means that cities like Kyiv and the suburbs will be able to better protect themselves from missile strikes.
[Dubenko] Do you think that Chancellor Scholz is doing this because he’s already facing repercussions for his behavior? For example, he lost some seats in the North Rhine-Westphalia land.
[Melnyk] Yes, we see that the Social Democratic Party has been losing support since the election last fall, as exemplified by two local elections.
I’m proud that one of the biggest political topics has been weapon deliveries to Ukraine. After all, if you support Ukraine, you deliver weapons. If not, your support is purely symbolic.
The fresh announcement about weapons reflects what has been going on in recent weeks, the rise in support for the CDU/CSU [the center-right Christian-democratic political alliance], and the realization that Ukraine does need weapons. Even the Greens have become more outspoken about the delivery of weapons.
It shows that there’s no fatigue in relation to the war in Ukraine. After all, we need to defeat Russia. The fascist system shall be defeated. Many people in Germany understand it, but they cannot yet see how that will happen.
[Dubenko] So, they can’t imagine Russia falling apart?
[Melnyk] Perhaps some do. But for many in Germany, Russia has been too powerful, especially since it was a colonial power here once, if you will. That kind of trauma is still present, which I can feel.
[Dubenko; How does this show itself?
[Melnyk] If you go to east Germany, which was ruled by Russia for over 40 years, you’d imagine they’re thinking the same way Ukrainians do because they were suffering under Russian rule.
However, pro-Russian parties like Die Linke or even AfD [Alternative for Germany] dominate in many federal lands of east Germany. This is something I cannot comprehend. These people vote for the very system which oppressed them.
It seems like in east Germany they prefer not to admit that they were traumatized and are sympathetic not just toward Russia, but Moscow rulers as well.
[Dubenko] Much has been said about the omnipresence of ‘Putinverstehers’ in Germany, but it seems to me that the term could very well be translated into several other languages, including French and Italian, but not for example Danish, Finnish, English, or Polish. What makes Germany and some other European countries so mentally dependent on Russia?
[Melnyk] In Germany, it’s a difficult issue since their histories are intertwined, which has a strong influence on how the Germans think.
Take Catherine the Great. From the perspective of Ukraine, she was the one who destroyed the Cossack State and Ukrainian identity. But for many Germans, she was one of the most successful local exports to Russia, helping to build and modernize the Russian state and create an empire with a similar mindset.
Even Tsar Nicholas II’s wife was a German princess. If you travel to Coburg in Northern Bavaria where she’s from, you’d have a completely different view of Russia. It’s as if the two states are Seelenverwandte – a German word for a soulmate – which makes it so difficult for society to deal with what’s going on.
Besides, although parties like Die Linke and AfD, for example, are trying to distance themselves from Russia, they are also asking what comes next as Russia will not simply disappear.
Another factor is Russian culture, which makes them part of the European family, in Germany’s world.
I remember when the first sanctions were introduced and Putin’s regime managed quite successfully to convince Germany and the EU that sanctioning Russia meant sanctioning Russian ballet, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the Bolshoi Theater.
Since Putin lived and worked here in Germany for a long time, he knew which buttons to push. And this is one of the reasons why we couldn’t step up sanctions even though the war in Donbas was still continuing.
[Dubenko] Let’s touch upon Ukraine’s EU membership bid prospects. It’s been confirmed that EU leaders will review the bid during the upcoming summit in Brussels in late June. However, it seems like Ukraine might not attain candidate status because virtually all the big countries are against it and are talking about the accession process that could take decades. Why are EU capitals so hesitant given that even in the best-case scenario a fast-track application will still take years?
[Melnyk] Political elites in Germany and some other EU member states remain conservative. Irrespective of the war, they have some doubts about Ukraine being a politically European state, coming up with many arguments why it shouldn’t receive candidate status, even though it’s necessary to grant it.
In Germany, the decision has not been taken yet since there’s a lot of skepticism at the Chancellery. We’re trying to persuade the Chancellor and his team that granting candidate status does not automatically mean a promise of accession.
Accordingly, we need this status as a political signal and a formal legal beginning of the accession process. There have been talks about fast tracks but we remain realistic. We just need a fair process without any unnecessary delays, since unfortunately it suffices for one country to voice political issues and that’s it – you can freeze the negotiation process for decades. Just look at the Balkans.
I still think we have a chance. After all, the so-called traffic light coalition (the SDP, the Free Democratic Party and the Greens) has a coalition deal where Ukraine’s EU integration issue is mentioned, with the Greens openly supporting the EU’s open-door policy.
The liberals and the SDP are, admittedly, more skeptical. Still, we’re trying to persuade the leadership of the SDP party, including Lars Klingbeil and Saskia Esken. Both have been outspoken when it comes to supporting Ukraine’s EU aspirations, so I think we have a chance to change the Chancellor’s stance and push him to take the lead.
So, not just say that we’re ‘not against it’ but trying to convince more skeptical states like France and the Netherlands. After all, 60% of Germans support this decision.
That would require leadership, yet I’m sure we’d be able to succeed. Maybe even in June.
[Dubenko] I hope so. Otherwise, it would mean that Dostoevsky’s novel was devoted to just one person in Germany.
[Melnyk] Yes [laughs].
[Dubenko] Lesia: Does the EU realize that if they don’t grant this status, it will not only be a huge disappointment but could have a spillover effect on the battleground? Ukrainian soldiers were very disappointed with NATO at the beginning of the war, and the EU stood out, sending the right signals. Undermining morale in times of war is a bad idea. Do they understand this?
[Melnyk] We used these arguments, but I’m afraid there’s a lot of indecision. This is not helped by a natural German tendency for pragmatism. For example, we often hear and do understand the argument that the EU needs modernizing and streamlining.
Also, if you speak to Germans, they tell you that Germany is among the biggest net contributors to the EU, and that they want it to function properly. So, the argument goes that if the EU gives the green light to Ukraine or the Balkan states, what will we end up with?
[Dubenko] It seems like the EU forgot why it started out.
[Melnyk] You’re completely right.
We need to give hope in times of war. That way, many people who fled would know that Ukraine has a European prospect and would want to return.
However, the focus on pragmatism is still overwhelming. The notions of prosperity, well-being and security are trumping all other values.
[Dubenko] Peace, for instance?
[Ambassador]: Yes, peace. We just want to be left in peace.
However, it’s important that this debate has started. Before the war, it was impossible to speak about these things or concepts like freedom and solidarity. They were almost irrelevant to Germans.
[Dubenko] Geldpolitik [money politics] seems to be more important. It’s a phrase I coined from realpolitik.
[Melnyk] Yes, it’s a good term, I like it.
[Dubenko] Let’s talk about NATO. Despite sending some positive signals lately, the Alliance pretty much consists of the same countries as the EU. Will we ever convince them to grant Ukraine that Membership Action Plan?
[Melnyk] The MAP is not a mandatory step. Still, many in Germany think that Ukraine’s membership prospects are out of reach and that we need to forget about them. But I believe, and this is something I’ve been trying to push through the German media, that our chances of joining NATO are higher now.
[Dubenko] How come?
[Melnyk] For many reasons.
NATO only wants to invite new member states if they bring added value, and bring more security than less security. In our case, everyone feared that Ukraine’s accession to NATO would result in a war with Russia and that German soldiers would have to fight in it. It was a nightmarish prospect for everyone here.
But after this war, and I’m not only talking about friendly Poland or the Baltic States, I believe there will be the realization that it makes more sense to have Ukraine in the Alliance, in unison with its army and people, who have shown courage and determination to defend their homeland, than to leave it outside.
To that end, I remember there was a poll in Germany some years ago, asking people what they would do if the Baltic States were attacked. And I was shocked that only 20-30% would support helping them. Perhaps Germany would not deny the legal obligation to help in line with Article 5, but in exactly what way? The same way it ‘supports’ Ukraine with heavy weapons now?
Plus, what does it mean for the Alliance if people don’t feel that they have an obligation to defend neighbors that are part of this NATO family?
So, if I were a German, I’d say: ‘We’ve seen how brave Ukrainians are and how they’re fighting to preserve their independence and nationhood, so we’re happy to have you in the Alliance.’
[Dubenko] Other than Ukraine’s victory, what are you really looking forward to?
[Melnyk] I look forward to rebuilding Ukraine. Everyone’s talking about it but it’s a Herculean task. It took decades to complete after World War II. It would be another milestone to see Russian war criminals brought to trial and reparations paid. My dream is to show how the country that suffered so much because of this terrible aggression can be rebuilt. Perhaps, it will become the most attractive state in Europe.
Many think that politics might get in the way. But right now we’re united and we need to prove to the world that we’re able to rebuild with the help of our friends.
[Dubenko] I hope so too. If there’s one thing that Russia is ‘helping out with’ they’re destroying their own legacy – all those Soviet buildings. I’d like Ukraine to have nice, modern houses and infrastructure.
[Melnyk] Maybe there’s a chance.
I’m glad that President Zelensky is already trying to put this program in place. But if we fail to rebuild Ukraine, there’s a risk that many people who had to flee will not return. Then again, no-one can rebuild it but us. Perhaps we can even create paradise cities.
Paris, for instance, used to be a horrible medieval city. Now, it’s a city that everyone enjoys traveling to.
So yes, it’s terrible that this had to happen under such circumstances, but at least it gives a chance to build unity for the cause of rebuilding Ukraine.
Just think about what Warsaw looked like after World War II. It was almost non-existent. So yes, we need to rebuild each and every city and village that was destroyed. It’s our chance to show that we’re not just able to fight, but that we’re a proud nation and we can construct an ideal state.
I’m sure we can manage.
[Dubenko] I’m sure we will. Many people I’ve talked to want to go back. Whatever the situation, there’s always a glimmer of hope.
On that note, thank you for the interview, Mr. Ambassador.
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