Melinda Simmons on life in Kyiv, Putin’s motives, and learning to tell the difference between a boom and an explosion
On Monday morning Melinda Simmons was getting dressed when she heard an explosion. It was 7am. Russia was bombing Kyiv for the third time in a month. Simmons, the UK’s ambassador to Ukraine, went to the shelter of her residence, as cruise missiles hit the capital and other cities. “My hands were shaking. It was the adrenaline,” she recounts. Safe underground, she spent the next 15 minutes painting her nails blue and yellow, the colours of Ukraine’s flag. “It was something to do with my hands. By the time I’d finished they had stopped shaking,” she says.
Since Vladimir Putin’s “murderous invasion” in February – her blunt words – the ambassador has taken cover on various occasions. She points out that her situation is no different from that of millions of Ukrainians, who are now enduring daily power cuts and life by candlelight as a consequence of the Kremlin’s cynical attacks. As part of her diplomatic job, she says, she has learned to tell the difference between booms and explosions. The first signifies Ukraine’s air defences at work in the skies; the second an incoming missile or deadly kamikaze drone.
After the latest attack, Simmons put out a weary tweet. It said: “Sheltering down low and listening to booms outside. #Kyiv is under attack again. What is it about Monday morning?” The post was to remind a distracted world that the war goes on, she explains, saying that for Ukrainians it began in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea and staged a rebellion in the east. “We all have our personal way of dealing with it. Mine is: I don’t think about it too hard. If I thought about it I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes.”
This week Moscow accused the UK of masterminding a raid on the occupied Crimean port of Sevastopol, in which three Russian naval boats were damaged, and blowing up the NordSteam gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. Simmons says she does not spend time thinking about “nonsense”, even if the idea of the UK as an all-powerful bogeyman is a little bit “flattering”.
Why did Putin invade? Simmons says he set out his reasons in a “jaw-dropping” essay last year in which he argued Ukraine was not a country. “It was his manifesto for taking back what he thought had been wrongly given away,” she says.
There is this bizarre refusal to understand the people you want to subjugate.
Nine months on, the Kremlin has not met any of its strategic military objectives, she believes. Russian armoured convoys failed to take Kyiv and Kharkiv. Since September Putin’s troops have given ground in the north-east and south, where an apparent Russian evacuation from the city of Kherson is under way. “It’s not going well for Russia. They are in defensive mode at the moment,” the ambassador notes. She expects more “wily, well-planned” Ukrainian counterattacks. And, regrettably, that Moscow will fight on, unwilling to back down. “My personal view is we are still in this for quite a long time,” she says.
Russia’s president, she suggests, is uninterested in what Ukrainians might wish for themselves. His intelligence agencies appear to have told him they were waiting for “liberation”, and would greet their Russian occupiers with flowers. “There is this bizarre refusal to understand the people you want to subjugate. He continues to refuse,” she says. “He’s the leader. He has access to information. He could find out for himself why Ukrainians don’t appear to be happy at the sight of their buildings being razed to the ground, or their children being snatched from them.”
The UK, meanwhile, is popular in Ukraine. The former prime minister Boris Johnson is a cult figure. Simmons says this is in part because London delivered anti-tank weapons to Kyiv at a time when other western nations were “humming and hawing” about military aid. She also cites Johnson’s “uncompromising” backing for Ukraine and the galvanising effect this had on other G7 nations and at the UN. As part of her duties, the ambassador toured an art exhibition depicting Johnson as a lute-playing Cossack warrior. She listened to a popular rap song in his honour. “It became an earworm for me for a while,” she admits.
This enthusiasm for Britain pre-dates the invasion, she says, and recently there was an outpouring of tributes following the death of the Queen. Simmons says the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, is almost as well known as Johnson, and flags the role played by daily intelligence updates from the UK’s Ministry of Defence. These bulletins are picked up by the Ukrainian media and help to undermine “Russian narratives”. (Shopping in a market, she found a pair of yellow socks branded “British intelligence”.) And what about Rishi Sunak? The new prime minister has yet to visit Kyiv for his own walkabout with the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The ambassador says she expects this to happen soon.
Simmons met Zelenskiy last week and found him “fizzing with energy”. She describes him as “an incredibly charismatic person”, who during some of their previous encounters looked understandably weary. His refusal to leave Kyiv in the first days of the invasion showcased the Ukrainian population’s grit and determination, she observes, adding that since January he has lived separately from his wife and children for security reasons, working 24/7. She does not expect him to visit London or Washington before the war is over. “Most Ukrainians can’t leave the country at the moment. It feels like the right thing to do,” she says.
My staff are brave to be here. I think I’m brave to be here.
Born in the East End of London to Jewish parents, Simmons has Ukrainian and Lithuanian roots on her mother’s side. These date back to the 1890s, when her great-grandparents left Kharkiv and split up, with her great-grandmother moving to Cardiff. She grew up eating borscht on Fridays, not knowing the soup was Ukrainian. Her original career was in sales and marketing. In 2003 she joined the Department for International Development followed by the Foreign Office in 2013 and the national security secretariat. In 2019 she took up her post in Kyiv, after a year spent learning Ukrainian.
When Russian tanks rolled towards Kyiv, Simmons reluctantly left the capital – first to Lviv and then to Poland. She came back in April, soon after the Russians retreated. After the all-clear was sounded on Monday, she exited the residence, which is located next to the Dnieper River and a giant steel sculpture of a mother holding a sword. She went for a “short reset”. She tweeted a photo of autumn flowers in their “gloriousness”, adding: “Went back inside and got on with the work.”
“I love my job,” Simmons says.
She adds: “My staff are brave to be here. I think I’m brave to be here. We all feel we are working on something real. It makes a difference.”