"The World Was Not Ready to Support Ukraine": Interview with Ukraine’s First Foreign Minister after the Maidan

Monday, 20 November 2023 — , European Pravda

Ten years have passed since Ukrainians took to the Maidan, the main square in Kyiv, to defend their pro-European choice. We still remember the Euromaidan, which evolved into the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014, although the ongoing war with Russia is erasing the memory of it.

European Pravda has decided to document memories of these events and the role that diplomats played in them. So our guest today is Andrii Deshchytsia, the first Minister of Foreign Affairs appointed after the Maidan protests. He was the person who incited other diplomats to rebellion in January 2014. His name is the very first in the joint statement of Ukrainian diplomats in support of the Maidan.

But Deshchytsia is best known for being the first-ever diplomat to call Putin a "dickhead". He talked to us about the remarks he famously made in a crowd in front of the Russian embassy, which were an instant hit and actually enabled Ukraine to avoid a catastrophe.

In this interview, ahead of the 10th anniversary of the start of the Euromaidan, Deshchytsia tells us about what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did during the Maidan protests, his appointment as acting minister, and what happened next.

On why the Foreign Ministry was the first to "rebel" during the revolution

I remember this day (referring to 21 November 2013, when the government officially decided not to sign the Association Agreement, and Yanukovych confirmed this decision in a conversation with EU representatives). And it was a huge shock.

Especially for us diplomats, as we had been trying to persuade our partners to sign the Agreement in Vilnius for several months.

And then – the decision not to sign...

It was very painful for diplomats because it was a betrayal of our work, and because diplomats living abroad saw what was happening there. They wanted to see Ukraine in the EU.

That's why we saw protests by Ukrainian diplomats later.

By the way, diplomats were always the first civil servants to publicly express disagreement with the state line – in 2004 and 2014 alike.

This was very important, because it let our foreign partners know that Kyiv's official statements did not correspond to what was actually happening.

On when the first foreign partners realised that this was a revolution

Most of our partners did not sense this. Everyone was watching events in Kyiv, but no one was convinced that Ukraine was going to change.

Although there were some exceptions. Some understood this even before the students were beaten up.

The first was my Moldovan counterpart in the OSCE negotiations.

Ukraine was chairing the OSCE at the time. I was the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Conflict Resolution. The four hottest spots within the OSCE were Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

On 25-26 November, the latest round of "5+2" talks on Transnistria, in which Ukraine was acting as a mediator, was being held in Kyiv.

Protests were already taking place on European Square. I would go and join in the protests in the evenings. We would wear "badges of involvement" – large badges with European symbols and slogans like "Ukraine – a new star in the EU" on them.

Anyway, the participants of these negotiations wanted to see what was happening in Kyiv in real life, and they made their way to European Square. Arsenii Yatseniuk was speaking on the stage.

And Eugen Carpov, the head of the Moldovan delegation, then Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration of Moldova and a longtime acquaintance of mine, said: "Now I see that you have the potential for change. I even see who could be the next prime minister (pointing to Yatseniuk) and the foreign minister (pointing to me)."

I confess I didn't believe it back then.

For me, it was slightly later – on 1 December – that I realised that these protests would grow into something more. Eugen’s words passed me by at the time.

But when it happened, I remembered that conversation.

There were other foreign officials who went to the Maidan from the very beginning. On 5 December 2013, when a ministerial meeting of the OSCE was held in Kyiv, some ministers deliberately arranged to go to the Maidan. They were invited there by ministers who knew the situation in Ukraine, including the Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski.

On how diplomats supported the Maidan

On 4 February 2014, we published an open appeal by Ukrainian diplomats expressing solidarity with the people on the Maidan and condemning the violence against them.

We were far from certain then that the revolution would succeed.

But many diplomats seeking change in Ukraine were convinced that change had to happen despite everything. We also remembered that there had been a similar letter during the Orange Revolution in 2004 and wanted to show that we were not silent. We did this to support the people on the Maidan, and also to signal to our foreign partners that the official information they were being given by the Yanukovych-Azarov government was not always true.

The world had to know this.

There were two further statements after the shootings [when the police fired on protesters] – on 20 and 22 February. In the second one, we publicly declared that we would not carry out the decisions and instructions of Minister [Leonid] Kozhara [then Foreign Minister].

The main challenge was to explain to the world what was happening, because support for Ukraine was not as it seemed to many at that time.

First impressions as foreign minister: the world was not ready to support Ukraine

The Maidan Council elected me as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, which was unexpected. My main task was to convey the truth about Ukraine to the world.

The Ukrainian authorities had long been broadcasting misinformation about the Maidan, portraying us as seeking to cooperate with Russia. Unfortunately, many of our diplomats also contributed to this. The Western media often looked at us through the eyes of their Moscow correspondents, who would only come here on work trips and frequently had a distorted view.

It was a serious problem.

Dealing with journalists turned out to be easier. The events in Ukraine were so extraordinary that global newsrooms sent reporters here. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs assisted the civil society sector.

Decisions regarding media communication had to be made quickly. We gave the press service carte blanche for statements without approvals. For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where official statements sometimes took three days to be approved, this was something new. We had to act fast to counter the influence of Moscow, which was simultaneously launching its own media narrative alleging that there was a "coup" going on in Ukraine and an illegitimate government. We dealt with that well.

With Western governments, however, it was not so easy. On 1 March, when it became clear that Russia had occupied Crimea, Ukraine appealed to its partners for help. But there was no response.

The approach taken by other foreign ministers went like this: "We support you very much, but let's not provoke Russia anymore so that, God forbid, a large-scale conflict doesn’t erupt." I’d sum this approach up roughly as follows: "Everything was fine and dandy. We all met in Brussels and had coffee, and suddenly you showed up. And now we have to do something, and come up with statements. Why is that?"

They didn’t understand what had happened, but they saw that it was changing their lifestyle.

So they made suggestions like "Let's calm down and negotiate."

A few ministers and countries did understand us, of course. Poland and the Baltic states knew the threat posed by Russia from their historical experience, and they tried to persuade their counterparts, but it took time.

On the "Foreign Ministry lustration" that never happened

In addition to giving our partners proper information, we also urgently needed to make staff changes at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

When Kyiv was tasked with spreading misinformation about the Maidan, some ambassadors hesitated, biding their time, but others steadfastly promoted this line. We received many signals about this from our partners, and above all from Ukrainian NGOs. They expressly said: these ambassadors cannot represent Ukraine properly because they have discredited themselves by their fervent support for the Yanukovych-Azarov government.

So there were immediate orders to fire certain ambassadors.

But was there a full lustration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? I don’t think so.

In reality, what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needed back then was a reboot.

We limited ourselves to a few minor tweaks.

On the start of the war in Donbas and meetings with Lavrov

Late March saw the beginning of a period of American leadership that was genuinely helpful.

In my early days in office as the minister, I kept trying to contact [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov, but he refused to speak to me. All we got was: "We will not recognise this government or communicate with this minister." Even though I knew Lavrov: during Ukraine's OSCE presidency, there were several negotiations in which we had both participated.

Under US pressure, however, Lavrov did agree to a meeting.

It took place, symbolically, in The Hague. Lavrov would only speak one on one.

I’ve never spoken publicly about this conversation before. It was on 24 March. I started off the talks by accusing Russia of attacking Crimea, violating all existing agreements, and stating that Russia could no longer count on any good neighbourly relations. Lavrov responded: "Forget about Crimea. That issue is closed." I understood from the context that now we would be talking about the next territories. Then I realised that Russia would not stop at Crimea.

They began the invasion of Donbas.

When we asked the West to help with weapons, the response was the same as after Crimea — there was none.

But diplomatic assistance was there.

Under US leadership, Geneva-format talks were held at foreign minister level. In addition to Ukraine and Russia, the US and the EU, represented by Baroness Ashton, Head of the European External Action Service, also took part.

This was on 17 April, when the hybrid aggression in Donbas had already begun.

This format turned out to be a highly effective one for us.

Catherine Ashton spoke on behalf of the entire EU. Even if Moscow managed to soften individual countries’ positions, Brussels' position remained unwavering. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, was also firm and consistently put Russia in its place.

The Russians never agreed to negotiations in the Geneva format again.

Another meeting with Lavrov took place in Vienna in May, on the sidelines of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. It demonstrated why it was more advantageous for the Russians to negotiate through individual countries.

On that occasion, the role of "peacemaker" was taken on by Sebastian Kurz, then Austria’s foreign minister, who later became the country's prime minister.

He genuinely believed that we could "reconcile". I even remember how representatives of the Austrian protocol service tried to get me to stand next to Lavrov when the photograph was taken at the end.

This story demonstrates how some of our partners just did not understand – or didn’t want to understand – what was happening.

Even in February 2022, many Western leaders, and their approaches and attitudes towards Russia, didn’t change overnight. Now things have changed fundamentally, but unfortunately, they needed to see Bucha and Mariupol for that. Only this changed their approaches and awareness.

On singing a rude song about Putin

That song is still relevant today, as is the phrase "Putin is a dickhead". Unfortunately, millions of people now have experience of this, and this fact is known everywhere in the world.

Although it took the world ten years to understand this.

When I sang the song on the evening of 14 June, I was trying to stop a crowd of people who might well have attacked the Russian embassy. That would have not just made our situation more complicated – it would have made it a lot more complicated.

A provocation like that would have allowed Russia to send troops to Kyiv. I’m absolutely serious. In the event of a threat to the lives of Russian diplomats, if people had set fire to the embassy (as some were calling for) and, God forbid, someone inside the embassy building had been killed, the whole world would have believed that Russia had the right to do that because they would have been protecting their diplomatic institution.

I’ve never for one moment regretted saying what I said.

On the contrary, when I later arrived in Poland as an ambassador, they already knew me well because of this story. It even made it easier for me to establish contacts. So sometimes, a single phrase can change people's attitudes towards you.


By Sergiy Sydorenko

Editor, European Pravda

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