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EXCLUSIVE War in Ukraine Sweden

Exclusive Insight: Candid Interview with Swedish Ambassador to Ukraine

Military Historians Will Write Books About Ukraine’s Counteroffensive In an interview with the Kyiv Post, Swedish Ambassador to Ukraine Tobias Thyberg, who has served in the position since 2019, talke

Sep. 17, 2022

Military Historians Will Write Books About Ukraine’s Counteroffensive

In an interview with the Kyiv Post, Swedish Ambassador to Ukraine Tobias Thyberg, who has served in the position since 2019, talked about the Ukrainian military’s stroke of genius, commented on the latest elections in Sweden, pushed back the notion of Stockholm being soft on Russia, and answered the question of whether Sweden will promote Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being with us here today. My first question is what is the mood like in Kyiv at the moment in light of Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield?

It feels like the place that I want to be in right now because Ukraine is the center of the world – for tragic reasons, but nevertheless, this is where the fate of Europe is being decided as well as some of the most fundamental principles of international law and international relations. So, for someone like me who works in foreign policy, this is absolutely the best place that I can be in at the current time professionally. You mentioned the battlefield successes. That’s a source of great joy. I can’t say that I’m hugely surprised.


Ambassador: I think we were all surprised at the stroke of genius that Ukraine has displayed in the way it managed the latest counteroffensive. I think military historians will write books about Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression in 2022. It is one of the most brilliant examples of the military tactics that one can imagine.

This is a great source of joy, but it’s mixed with sadness because we’re now getting reports of the absolutely mind-boggling acts of cruelty that the Russian Federation has been systematically committing on the occupied territories. I also think about the price that Ukrainian soldiers are paying for the liberation of Ukraine.

To that end, have you traveled to Bucha?

I’ve been to Bucha, Borodyanka, Velyka Dymerka, Kryviy Rih, Dnipro, and Kropyvnytskyi -many places that have suffered from both Russian occupation and shelling.

And what are your impressions? How did that make you feel?

I hate getting that question because I can’t think too much about how those things make you feel. Obviously,  it’s painful  but  you need to keep in mind that I am a foreigner working here, so that question must be foremost addressed to Ukrainians. Still, it’s very painful.

Sweden just had a general election, and it looks like the right-wing coalition may take the reins, with the once marginal Swedish Democrats becoming the second-biggest party in the country after the ruling Social Democrats.

In your view, will the potential change of government affect Sweden’s foreign policy, including its military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine?

Judging by the political platforms of the parties that have been elected to the Swedish  parliament, I see no reason to believe that there will be any changes to its policy regarding Ukraine. The support for Ukraine is massive among all the political parties that the

Swedish citizens have elected to the Parliament. Still, it remains to be seen.

Sweden hasn’t been neutral in decades

Your country has been officially neutral for centuries. Now, however, it’s on its way to join NATO, of which many in your country have been wary. Do you think it might affect the Swedish image of a humanitarian superpower given that it is about to abandon neutrality? Perhaps, undermine that image?

I don’t think so – and there are several reasons for that. One of them is that Sweden abandoned neutrality decades ago. Indeed, there is a difference between being neutral and militarily non-aligned and Sweden, so far, has not been a member of any military alliance; but that doesn’t mean that Sweden is neutral. It’s a member of the European Union, the key treaty of which obliges member states help each other in need, and that is a principle that Sweden cherishes very highly.

Sweden is also a very adamant supporter of international law and the United Nations Charter. We strongly support the European security order, according to which the borders can’t be changed by force and countries are free to choose their political orientation.  So, Sweden isn’t neutral and we haven’t been that for decades, but, indeed, true that we haven’t been members of a military alliance. That will of course change now, assuming that all the NATO member states ratify Sweden’s accession. And the reason for that is, of course, that through its outrageous violation of international law and criminal invasion of Ukraine, Russia has deteriorated the security environment in Europe to such an extent that  it’s necessary for Sweden to enter NATO.

As far as the humanitarian question is concerned, I don’t think for a moment that anything will change. NATO is an alliance which is built on principles such as respect for democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Sweden will continue to pursue those core values, irrespective of our NATO membership.

Let me make an observation. You’re using very strong language right now towards Russia but I’d say that it hasn’t always been the case. Russia’s behavior in the Scandinavian region and toward Sweden, in particular, was provocative even in the Soviet times when their submarine got washed ashore in Karlskrona in 1981.  They also kept violating your air and water space and, until recently, they tried dictating your foreign policy. Perhaps you have heard of Russia’s Ambassador to Sweden Tatarintsev’s interview that he gave to Aftonbladet where he was quite vocal. My question, therefore, is why has Sweden’s response – until the war in Ukraine – been somewhat soft toward Russia? Or am I wrong here? 

I think you’re fundamentally wrong. First of all, what Russia’s government officials say in the media is up to them: It’s hardly a reflection of Swedish policies. So, I don’t see the relevance of Mr. Tatarintsev’s comments. However, one can be certain what Russian officials say to the media in Sweden is pretty unlikely to affect Swedish policies, especially right now.

Now, as far as our position is concerned, I’d push back quite strongly on your suggestion that Sweden has been weak on Russia. On the contrary, I believe that Sweden belongs to the European countries which have been most principled in calling out Russian violations of international law. Those violations began long before the invasion of Georgia through hybrid means. For example, (Russia’s) attempts to meddle in the domestic politics of its neighbors, for instance, in the 2004 Ukrainian elections; or through economic warfare such as applying gas coercion against Ukraine, support of corruption; or military threats, for instance, through its continuous presence of its naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea.

Sweden has been very strong in its opposition to that kind of coercive behavior, including when Russia crossed the Rubicon in August 2008 by illegally invading Georgia, Sweden was among those European countries that has worked most forcefully to ensure that there are convincing sanctions against Russia.

So, I wouldn’t share your view that Sweden has been soft on Russia. The policies that Sweden has been pursuing since (Russia) launched its war against Ukraine in 2014, which escalated into a full-scale invasion of the entire territory on Feb.24, 2022, have remained consistent.

Your prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, has stated that Stockholm will promote Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Do you feel that Sweden views this as its moral obligation in light of how the situation is unraveling and NATO’s hesitance to give Ukraine a membership action plan, or simply grant membership like in Sweden or Finland’s case?

You know, until Sweden is a member of NATO, I’m not in a position to comment on the policies of NATO. We can get back to this conversation once all the NATO allies have ratified our application.

I will say one thing though. NATO has an open-door policy, which means it will not allow any country to dictate the terms on which it engages with future members and I’m pretty convinced that, as an ally, Sweden will be strong in its defense of this policy.

That said, do you think Sweden would have filed its NATO membership bid, had it not been for Finland’s decision to do so?

Ambassador: Sweden makes its own foreign policy decision, and the same goes for Finland. I can’t speculate about a counterfactual, but Finland is probably the country in the world that is closest to Sweden not only politically but in many other ways as well. We have an exceptionally trustful partnership, and there are hardly any issues regarding foreign and security policies, on which we do not communicate and coordinate very closely with our Finnish partners.

Ukraine is not bad at reforms

Sweden has been one of the most active countries when it comes to supporting a host of reforms in Ukraine, including the decentralization reform which is largely dubbed a success. Now that Ukraine has received the EU candidate status, more reforms – real ones, not Ukrainian kind of reforms, let’s put it that way – will be necessary. How’s Stockholm willing to help Kyiv in that respect?

Tell me, what do you mean by real reforms, not Ukrainian kind of reforms?

I’d say that sometimes in Ukraine we have reforms that are a bit of a sham – too little too late, window dressing things. That’s diplomatically put.

My perspective is somewhat different, to be frank. I’ve worked with this part of the world quite a lot during probably half of my professional career and I have followed developments in Sweden’s eastern neighborhood for many years.

When I cast my mind back to the country that Ukraine was thirty years ago –  the millennium shift, the Orange Revolution, the Yushenko and Tymoshenko era, Yanukovych presidency, the Revolution of Dignity, and the years under President Poroshenko and ultimately the last few years –  what strikes me is not an absence of reforms, but a country that has achieved huge transformations and done a lot in an extremely unfavorable political environment.

Unlike countries like Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, Ukraine didn’t have the benefit of membership in the EU or NATO, and at the same time, Ukraine was a country which was more exposed than any other country to the corrosive, aggressive policies of Russia. Despite this, this country has achieved huge improvements and developments in the last thirty years. So, I actually wouldn’t agree that Ukraine is bad at reforms, as it is continuously reforming. There are still many important transformations ahead that I think would be very valuable for Ukraine, and Sweden will continue to support them. I sincerely hope that Ukraine’s status as a candidate country serves as a stronger political incentive for the country to complete them. We will remain supportive.

My question stemmed from the fact that there was quite a lot of criticism before the war regarding the reforms, that they’re too sluggish. Take the Association Agreement, for instance, the completion of which is slow.

Look, some areas can be frustrating, and I do think, for instance, that in some areas, notably rule of law and corruption, where probably due to very strong vested interests. Reforms are extremely difficult. So, yes, I see the point, and I think that it’s extremely important that Ukraine has a strong civil society and free independent media such as the Kyiv Post which make sure that there is transparency and attention given not only to the successes, but also to the problems.

Still, I think it’s also important to push back all the negativity against Ukraine. Sometimes, it frustrates me to hear all these cliches about Ukrainian corruption and the absence of reforms. Not because they’re necessarily untrue but they only show part of the picture and I think it’s also important to show the other part. As far as I’m concerned, Ukraine is a glass half-full, not half-empty.

To that end, I also know that Sweden has been consistently supporting the creation of a popular  and  effective public broadcaster. Do you think we succeeded in that respect? Because, quite frankly, it’s been quite frustrating as the amount of time and money that has been invested in that project didn’t really pay off in terms of viewership. 

I believe that a well-functioning public broadcaster is essential to democracy. It’s as simple as that. If we look at European countries, be it Germany’s ZDF, United Kingdom’s BBC, or Sweden with our public broadcaster, those institutions are essential: especially at a time of increasing polarization in the public debate and accountability becoming   more   and   more   problematic   in   news   reporting   because   of   technological developments; also, at a time when there can be very high concentrations of private ownership in the media markets, which makes it extremely important to have a public broadcaster.

Now, let’s look at Ukraine, for instance. It’s so easy to point at these wonderful channels 1+1, Ukraina. They have many more viewers. It’s not as if their profitability has been great, right? And it’s not like those outlets have been paragons of independence. I’m not saying that they’re not free media, but I think that Ukraine is a country where a small number of extremely rich individuals have owned a huge part of the media market, and those media holdings were not exceptionally profitable.

Yet, unlike Suspilne, they have money. So, it’s not fair to ask why Suspilne isn’t doing any better compared to those outlets. Especially since they have to fight every single year for the budget allocations to which they’re entitled. They don’t always get them so they can’t grow a business. Besides, as far as I can tell, they produce very high-quality material: news, documentaries, reportages, and high-quality entertainment.

Finally, ratings are not the primary objective of a public broadcaster. Trust is.  One of the things that both the  Covid pandemic and Russia’s invasion showed  was that when the country is facing existential challenges media consumers turn to the public broadcaster.  So, do I wish for them to have higher ratings? Yes, I do. But to conclude that the public broadcaster has been a failure, I think would be a huge mistake.

On a non-political note, Swedish culture has always been big in Ukraine, even in the Soviet times, especially Astrid Lindgren’s books like “Carlsson who Lives on the Roof.” Ukrainians seem quite fascinated by Scandinavian concepts of living, like Danish hygge and Swedish lagom, with several books translated on the subject. Have you noticed this rise in interest?

Not really, no. I know that there is a café near Pechersk Monastery which is called Lagom, and that’s kind of sweet. Then again, you’re asking the wrong person to be frank, because I think the whole concept is silly. Lagom is just a word in Swedish and it’s pretty uninspiring because it means “not too much, not too little,” and I never understood why that’s such a great thing.

It certainly isn’t a lifestyle, a philosophy, or a religion. It’s just a word. So, maybe there are smart PR guys who thought, “Hey, we can make a book out of this and add some nice pictures and call it Swedish lifestyle. “As you hear, it’s not really my thing [laughs].

The printed version of the interview is complete. The video is an abridged version.