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Ukraine’s UK ambassador on refugees: “Do you have to check that my family aren’t terrorists?”

Vadym Prystaiko is calm even in the midst of war but does not hide his frustration with the British government and Joe Biden.

By Harry Lambert

Vadym Prystaiko — Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK since 2020, and his country’s foreign minister and ambassador to Nato before that — speaks with a calm, wry logic, even in the midst of war. I meet him on Friday morning (11 March) at the Ukrainian embassy in London, where his days start at 8am and end at 10pm. Prystaiko, 52, a black belt in Taekwondo whose father was a lieutenant general in Ukraine’s security service, has the bearing of both a long-time diplomat and a military man.

At a time of atrocity, his manner is reassuring to both outsiders and to his team, for whom the pain of this war is more evident when you speak with them. He’s “a good man under pressure”, says a British government official who knows him well. The embassy is co-ordinating the delivery of all humanitarian aid being donated to the front, but the building continues to run as if in peacetime; I am offered tea on arrival. We sit perched over our cups as Prystaiko tells me the story of recent years, and of what Ukraine needs now.

“Many Ukrainians knew that the Russians would come,” he begins. “Our history dictates that they will come sooner or later. It was very difficult to bring attention to the globe that we’re not just paranoid. When you talk in peaceful times to people even here, in the 21st century, with the ‘end of history’ and all these things, you look outdated talking about wars and devastation and nuclear weapons. Who cares?”

“We knew that war would come,” he continues, “we just couldn’t believe that it would be such a devastating experience, that they can actually bomb the cities of those they claim to be their brothers and sisters. This was difficult to swallow. That’s probably why [President] Zelensky for a long period of time couldn’t believe what he was hearing from the intelligence of the US and the UK. But many Ukrainians, we always knew that we would have to fight. Ukraine was the biggest piece in the former Soviet Union [after Russia], the most important. It was 40-plus per cent of all industrial income.”

In 1994, under the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine’s territorial borders were guaranteed by the US, the UK and Russia in return for Ukraine dismantling its nuclear stockpile. Yet Ukraine is now fighting Russia alone. When that agreement was mentioned in recent years, says Prystaiko, the reception in the West was “blah, blah, we heard this, please go away”. “People don’t really remember that we gave up the nuclear arsenal,” he adds.

I ask Prystaiko if he feels conflicted being here in London, away from Ukraine. But he sees purpose in his work here — pushing the British government to become one of Ukraine’s most impactful allies — a purpose that helps to keep other questions from the past at bay.

“I was actually the guy who was drafting the Minsk agreements,” he says, of the ceasefire agreements signed in 2014 and 2015 that sought to end the conflict in the Donbas, south-eastern Ukraine, precipitated by Russia’s invasion in 2014. Prystaiko was part of the Ukrainian team working in Minsk “for many days before the leaders came. I have a moral responsibility for what is happening and how we could not resolve it by diplomatic means. I’m still asking myself, have you done enough? Should we have done it differently?

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“So sitting here, in a capital which is supporting us, which is helping, I find the excuse for all these lost opportunities and chances, which otherwise I would think over for years ahead. But the support here — establishing the [supply of] weapons, the political support, the economic support, [organising] people in the streets — this is helping me to understand that, actually, we might get out of this.”

The conversation turns to the shifting global perceptions of what is possible in Ukraine. Shortly after Russia’s invasion, the West appeared to accept the country’s imminent defeat. Attention was focused on arming a Ukrainian insurgency to resist Russian rule. Now analysts are increasingly suggesting Ukraine may defeat Russia with sufficient Western support.

Before the war, Prystaiko says, “people wouldn’t believe that we can actually put up a real fight, even quite experienced people”. But now, he thinks, the world has woken up to the Ukrainian army’s standing as the second biggest in Europe after Russia (with 215,000 military personnel), and perhaps the strongest. 

“I’m not stupid,” he adds. “That big Red Army can devastate half of the planet. And with their manpower, and their negligence to their own people, they can throw many young guys into this meat grinder. But we see now that we can actually get through it. What we need, and what we’re asking for, is to just allow us to be armed, to at least balance the forces.”

Ukraine’s forces appear to have fought Russia’s to a standstill but the country is suffering untold humanitarian crimes. The Russians, says Prystaiko, “believe that they will be able to push our people to the brink, when we will collapse by ourselves: that’s why they are cutting down the energy lines, they’re cutting the supply lines, they’re bombing the hospitals — which is very stupid, but they’re doing it to break the resistance of the people.”

How can the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of Ukrainian cities be stopped? A no-fly zone over Ukraine, enforced by Nato planes, has been ruled out by Western governments for fear of triggering a direct military confrontation with Russia. The solution now is to provide enough weapons to Ukraine to close the skies by themselves. That requires the mass transfer of more anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, primarily from former Warsaw Pact countries in eastern Europe who possess the systems with which Ukrainians are familiar. 

That is taking time, says Prystaiko. “You have to train people even if you get it. They’re expensive. They’re not in abundance, as you might imagine, because nations need them for their own needs.” He emphasises, however, that countries should be recalculating those needs, as Ukraine’s weakening of Russia’s forces degrades the very threat the West fears. “You will face a lesser danger because we will have taken care of it,” he says. 

A deal to transfer MiG-29 fighter planes from Poland to Ukraine has seemingly collapsed, but Prystaiko is confident they will eventually arrive. “We will need them,” he says. He explains that “there are technical issues, which won’t allow the immediate transfer of these planes to us”.

In time, Prystaiko believes many transfers of weaponry will become possible as “people see that we are actually serious and we’re fighting”. Already, he adds, things which “wouldn’t even be considered possible two weeks ago are now a reality”.

The wait for further Western action is painful, and something Prystaiko finds difficult to discuss. “I can’t talk about this,” he says. “What is the threshold for you: fifty kids killed? A hundred? Five hundred? There’s something which we can’t even talk about to our own people, that people have to fight and die so the West will feel it, and then the West will come to help. On a human level, how can you tell your own people: survive a couple of days, a week, a month — and then maybe they will come?”

Perhaps Prystaiko’s greatest frustration is with Joe Biden, who reiterated this week that the US would not intervene militarily in Ukraine even if Vladimir Putin used chemical weapons. “Why would you have to repeat this phrase each and every day?” Prystaiko asks. “That we are not coming to help you? Don’t tell the Ukrainians each and every day that they’re on their own. Why would you deprive people of hope?” In any case, he adds, “who knows what will happen in a month?” By being explicit about what he will not do, Biden makes it easier for Putin to act, rather than encouraging him to fear a possible Western reaction.

Tomorrow, the UK government will announce in full a new scheme to facilitate the housing of Ukrainian refugees in Britain. Prystaiko is at once circumspect about how much the British government can and should do, and frustrated by the UK’s present inflexibility. “It’s not for me to tell your own people how to run your immigration service,” he tells me. “I know how much you’ve been hit by immigration waves, one after another. And I don’t want to scare people more that Ukrainians are coming.”

But, he says, “in normal circumstances people would apply for their visas and 99 per cent would receive them because they are normal citizens coming to see their relatives. What is different right now is we don’t have consuls working.” This means that passports and visas cannot be easily processed.

Prystaiko’s mother and mother-in-law just crossed into Slovakia with his grandchildren; their parents stayed in Kyiv to fight. Under current British rules, they will now face a bureaucratic ordeal to reach him in London. “Just 100 kilometres from here [at Calais] they are already allowed and welcome. Do we have to check that my mother and her two great-grandchildren aren’t terrorists? Most of the men, if you are so preoccupied with men, they’re fighting back in Ukraine. What is it, exactly, that you are checking?”

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