A year ago, Ukraine's top diplomat, Dmytro Kuleba, admitted that Ukraine is suffering from a shortage of his kind.

“We are about to take an unprecedented step – we are creating an open mechanism that allows both diplomats inside the system and people outside it to offer their candidacy for an ambassadorial post,” Kuleba wrote, announcing that Kyiv would be searching for ambassadorial candidates to 21 countries.

Almost a year later, the list of countries needing ambassadors but which don’t have candidates hasn’t changed much: going from 21 to 18. 

The UK and Hungary, which also have long been without ambassadors, aren’t even on the list, because these countries aren’t lacking candidates. 

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Open search of diplomats is not an international practice

Open competitions and searches for candidates outside the diplomatic system is not a common international practice, said Ruslan Osypenko, a diplomat and international relations expert, in exclusive comments to Kyiv Post.

“For a career diplomat, the fact that a person from the street can simultaneously apply for and be appointed as an ambassador is, frankly, a shame,” he said. “That means a diplomat graduated from the Institute of International Relations, then from the Diplomatic Academy, worked for about 15 years in the Foreign Ministry, rising in rank from a leading specialist to an ambassador, studied languages, protocols, his country, and he is told: ‘You will not go, because politically there is an open competition here to conduct...’”

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After obtaining their position, the ambassador manages career diplomats on his team, including advisers and secretaries of different levels, Osypenko said.

Osypenko said that appointing a non-diplomat as an ambassador reduces the embassy’s effectiveness.

An ambassador should be highly qualified and experienced in the field, as they are “empowered to speak and act on behalf of his state and is responsible for all areas from the economy to culture. In fact, an ambassador is an alter ego of the president in another country,” Osypenko said.

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Ukraine's Ambassador to the US is rather an exception

Ukraine has a tradition of sending former ministers and public officials as ambassadors to different countries. 

The most well-known of these recent appointments is Iryna Venediktova, a former prosecutor general, who was appointed as Ukraine's Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and Pavlo Riabikin, a former minister of Strategic Industries, the Ambassador to China.

“Actually, this situation arose because the President's Office took over the authority to appoint ambassadors, and has been doing it, let's say, for political reasons. While former politicians can be appointed for their professionalism, it should not become the main practice,” Osypenko said.

There is a good example of this approach in the appointment of Oksana Markarova, a former Minister of Finance – the ambassador to the US. However, this is more of an exception, Osypenko said.

“In this case, a successful geopolitical configuration has developed. The IMF, the World Bank, and insurance corporations are located in the USA, so Oksana Markarova actually found herself at some decision-making center of financial, military, and other aid to Ukraine. For sure, this was a reasonable appointment,” Osypenko said.

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The most scandalous example of an ambassadordial appointment has been Olesya Ilashchuk, an “expert in sexology and jewelry,” as Ambassador of Ukraine to Bulgaria in April 2023. 

She has never worked in a diplomatic role, nor served in state government.

“Questions about the reasons of the appointment should be addressed to the President's Office. We are not yet 100 percent sure that the new ambassador has published her official biography. Practice shows that this is usually done when the new ambassador is already at his work place,” Osypenko said.

However, the ambassador's official biography has not been released on the embassy's website yet, and her Facebook page has been closed to the public for over two years.

A new ambassador is usually appointed within two months

Ambassadors have a fixed term of office, and their accreditation process consists of seven stages. 

When things go smoothly, this process, which includes the host country’s consideration, takes one-and-a-half to two months.

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To prevent a large gap in which a country lacks an ambassador, the Foreign Ministry usually prepares the next ambassador before the end of his predecessor's term to ensure policy continuity, Osypenko said.

“If there is a gap of six months to a year, things will have been changing a lot in this direction. Firstly, you will not understand the trends in bilateral relations with this country. Secondly, you demonstrate to another country either that this is an unimportant direction, or that you cannot find an appropriate person, or that it is not on the agenda to send someone there. In other words, this is a kind of ‘silent diplomacy,’ and some countries take it as a very negative sign,” Osypenko said.

Furthermore, the new ambassador must acknowledge the work of his or her predecessor, including any recent agreements made.

“This process allows for a smooth transition of power within the embassy, and demonstrates Ukraine's commitment to maintaining proper international relations, as well as bilateral relations further develop and deepen,” Osypenko said.

Political will or technical points?

Ukraine has been without an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United Kingdom since Vadym Prystaiko was dismissed in July 2023. 

At that time, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the lack of a UK ambassador was an “important and sensitive issue.”

“Speaking of our relations with Great Britain: they are very powerful. It is critical that each of the officials and diplomats dealing with our relations with Great Britain is at the highest level. Therefore, we are carefully considering several candidates,” Zelensky said, speaking in reference to Ukraine’s delay in appointing an ambassador at the January press conference with British PM Rishi Sunak in Kyiv.

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Zelensky did not disclose the names of any candidates, although he was asked about former Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov potentially taking up the role.

“I believe the President's Office keeps such important countries for people who change in power,” Osypenko said. “He spoke about renewal... Some three to four ministers will allegedly be replaced. And they can offer this position as a ‘political pension,’ and then Kyiv will negotiate with the UK to accept, for example, its former minister…”

Meanwhile, the renewal of not only the military leadership – with former Commander-in-Chief being replaced by Oleksandr Syrsky at the beginning of last month – but also the possible resignation of several ministers, including Ukraine’s PM Denys Shmyhal, are discussed in the Ukrainian political community.

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The Minister of Youth and Sports, Vadym Gutzeit, and Minister of Veterans Affairs, Yulia Laputina, were among the first to resign. 

According to Osypenko, Laputina is an example of a “ready candidate” for an ambassador position following the Ukrainian practice of appointing former politicians.

At the same time, the delay in the appointment of Ukrainian ambassadors may be due to the fact that the host country has the right to refuse – without giving reasons – if they’re not in favor of the proposed candidate.

For now, the most difficult situation is the appointment of Ukraine’s ambassador to Hungary.

Hungary is a strategically important neighboring country that never distanced itself from the Kremlin, despite Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 2022. 

Budapest’s approval of Ukrainian issues will impact key matters including EU and NATO support and accession.

Back in July 2022, Kyiv dismissed Liubov Nepop, the latest Ukrainian ambassador in Budapest. 

Almost a year later, in March 2023, Kyiv announced the candidacy of Fedir Shandor, a Ukrainian professor-turned-soldier from Zakarpattia Oblast, better known as the “professor from the trenches.”

In August, then-president of Hungary, Katalin Novák, approved Shandor's candidacy, but Zelensky's decree on his appointment has never been published. 

In a comment to Kyiv Post, Shandor confirmed that all this time he was at the front line, serving as a sergeant.

In late January, following talks in Uzhgorod with his Hungarian counterpart, Kuleba said that Shandor was just about to be appointed as Ukraine’s ambassador in Budapest. 

Kuleba said the delay of almost a year was a “big problem” stemming from Shandor’s resignation from the military and “the renewed special check procedures for candidates and for already appointed ambassadors.”

Osypenko said that part of the problem might have been getting the go-ahead from Budapest.

“First: in Hungary, a major role is played not by the president but by PM Viktor Orban with his anti-war and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric,” Osypenko said. “So they might have thought that appointing an honorable military person as ambassador would be inconsistent with or discredit their politics. Another reason: in the case of rejection of the first candidate, a contest may already be taking place between former ministers inside Ukraine.” 

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