Zelenskyy wants everything at once: what is right and what is not in his relations with Ukrainian diplomats

“I am usually critical of such events. But this time, the impressions are positive: unlike other meetings of diplomats, there was no pomp, just a normal business conversation. We received quite honest information about what is happening, including on the front lines. The tasks were set based on realities,” commented one of the participants on the emergency meeting of heads of Ukrainian foreign diplomatic missions, which took place in Uzhhorod, according to ZN.ua.

These assessments were generally shared by other participants, recalling a dense and intense schedule of meetings: on the first day of the conference, the ambassadors finished their work at half past one in the morning. At the same time, Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not criticize the diplomats but only praised them, especially those who contributed to the supply of much-needed weapons, ammunition, and military equipment. At first glance, it seems that a partnership has finally been established between Volodymyr Zelenskyy, his office, and the diplomats.

But indulging in hope is not worth it. The abrupt resignation of one of Ukraine’s most effective diplomats — the ambassador to the United Kingdom, Vadym Prystaiko, who unsuccessfully attempted to ease tensions that arose between Kyiv and London during a Sky News interview — demonstrated that personal loyalty is more important to Zelenskyy than professional qualities, and immediate revenge against a former colleague weighs more than preserving trustful relations with one of Ukraine’s most consistent partners.

In the four years since the presidential elections, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his office head, Andriy Yermak, have failed to understand the role of diplomats, embassies, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Otherwise, the Office of the President of Ukraine would not organize meetings between the President and other world leaders through the heads of embassies. Ukrainian embassies would not be seen solely as PR agencies to promote Zelenskyy’s image or hotel booking companies. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs would not primarily serve as a “postbox” for diplomatic correspondence.

Zelenskyy and diplomats: four years later

When Zelenskyy entered the office on the fourth floor of the building on Bankova Street in the spring of 2019, lacking experience in government and knowledge of international relations, he perceived diplomacy quite simplistically. Four years later, Zelenskyy began to understand foreign policy much better, especially concerning Ukraine’s NATO membership and relations with Russia. But the President also replaces diplomacy with Andriy Yermak’s charm and personal contacts, strategic vision with insights, and systemic work with a rush.

“Zelenskyy’s personal charisma compensates for the shortcomings of Ukrainian diplomacy. Becoming a global superstar, he has a voice that is heard in the world,” said one of the diplomats in a conversation with ZN.ua.

Another interlocutor pointed out that Zelenskyy’s emotional approach and disregard for protocol are his style, which is now taken into account in the West. Sometimes this presidential approach works, but not always. At the NATO summit in Vilnius, his trademark style was met with disapproval and irritation among partners.

Four years have shown that the President wants everything at once from diplomacy — economic optimization of foreign policy, establishment of relations with the Global South, supply of weapons to counter Russian aggression, and assistance from partners in the country’s reconstruction. At the same time, the Office of the President of Ukraine appreciates the creative style á la Andriy Melnyk. However, while celebrating flashy posts on social media, during phone calls with heads of states and governments, Zelenskyy and Yermak try to mitigate the negative consequences of such “creativity” for bilateral relations.

In the unofficial organizational structure, Bankova remains the main center for making foreign policy decisions, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs plays a passive role as the technical executor of decisions made in the Office of the President of Ukraine. The diplomatic agency has been in this position under all Ukrainian presidents. Sometimes the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs slightly increased due to the strengthening of the foreign minister’s personal influence during the formulation of strategic foreign policy decisions by the President. But not now.

Although Zelenskyy is supportive of Dmytro Kuleba, the influence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs on foreign policy decisions has diminished today. One of the signs of weakening positions for Kuleba is that Zelenskyy either rejects the candidates proposed by the minister for ambassadorial positions or delays their appointments. This is happening despite the fact that currently, nearly two dozen embassies remain headless, including those in Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Hungary. During wartime, this essentially amounts to harm.

The reason for the decrease in the minister’s influence is that the presidential adviser, Yermak, sees Kuleba as a competitor not only in the realm of foreign policy but also in providing information to Zelenskyy. Currently, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in the shadow of the hyperactive leader of the Office of the President of Ukraine. This can be verified by reviewing videos and photos from official meetings, where Yermak is always closer to Zelenskyy than Kuleba.

Currently, discussions about a possible resignation of Dmytro Kuleba have intensified. Traditionally, the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs is often predicted for the head of the foreign policy department in the Office. of the President of Ukraine. This time, Deputy Head of the Office, Andriy Sybiha, is considered a candidate for the role. Another candidate is the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Foreign Policy and Interparliamentary Cooperation, Oleksandr Merezhko. Appointing Merezhko as the new head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would demonstrate that the President’s mistrust of the diplomatic service continues, but this figure would suit Yermak due to loyalty.

However, discussions about Kuleba’s possible resignation have been periodic since 2020, and his relations with Yermak have fluctuated during this period.

Money and people

The problems that have existed in the foreign affairs department for years are now only deepening. Currently, two issues deserve attention — lack of funding and the exodus of personnel from the ministry. The matter of financial resources for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and embassies was deliberately discussed during the ambassadors’ meeting. (The President promised to discuss the budget request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the Prime Minister and Finance Minister, stating that embassies “will have resources to work for the sake of Ukraine”.)

During one of the initial meetings as the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba stated that the greatness of a minister is determined by his ability to obtain funds for the ministry. Unfortunately, the ministry currently lacks money for decent salaries and official trips. For example, a third secretary, who ranks lower on the career ladder in the diplomatic service, earns about 7,000 UAH per month — clearly insufficient for living in the Ukrainian capital.

See also: Maturity test: What will happen to Ukraine and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the future?

Meager salaries are one of the reasons for diplomats leaving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: even with savings accumulated after three to four years of foreign missions, they can barely make ends meet. Currently, many departments have numerous empty desks.

At Mykhailivska Street, they are filling vacancies by hiring individuals without prior experience in the diplomatic service. Meanwhile, more than a hundred diplomats who have returned to Ukraine after lengthy foreign missions cannot find positions in the central apparatus, waiting for months for a call from the HR department.

“This is demotivating,” one of interlocutors expressed his sadness.

Another diplomat also stated that this practice deprives his colleagues of career opportunities.

Financial issues and employment problems are factors that influence the decisions of Ukrainian diplomats after completing their foreign missions. According to data from the diplomats themselves, starting from 2022, 40-60% of diplomatic personnel do not return to Ukraine from the embassies. However, the reality may be much worse. For example, last year, about twenty people were expected to return from the USA, but only one diplomat came back. There are embassies from which no diplomat has returned at all.

“Non-returnees” include both young and senior diplomats, third secretaries, and counselor-envoys. Some choose not to return due to having already established families and well-settled lives abroad. Others fear mobilization. Some are afraid that after returning to Ukraine, they won’t be able to leave the country to visit their families, who have moved far away from the war zone. Yet, others anticipate prolonged waiting for employment in the central apparatus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And some simply do not want to be part of a system that is criticized and disrespected in the Office of the President of Ukraine.

Motives may vary, but now there is a war, and everyone must fulfill their duty honestly. Therefore, it is difficult to accept the decisions of the “non-returnees.” Moreover, a significant portion of diplomats who chose to stay abroad are primarily concerned with personal arrangements. But even if there were no war, the decision of a large number of qualified professionals not to return to Ukraine would be a catastrophe, demonstrating the state’s and its diplomatic service’s inability.

When diplomats do not return, despite their duty to defend their country’s interests on the frontlines, it signifies a lack of belief in the future of their homeland. This becomes an indicator for both Ukrainian society and foreign investors. Such a situation does not contribute to achieving the goal mentioned by the President during the ambassadors’ meeting — to bring Ukrainians back home. How can diplomats facilitate the return of millions of Ukrainians who fled the war to the USA, Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic if the diplomats themselves are unwilling to return?

One of the founders of the Ukrainian diplomatic service, Hennadiy Udovenko, used the following formula — professionalism, patriotism, and integrity when selecting employees for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As it turns out, this principle is an empty phrase for many diplomats. Meanwhile, in their information-psychological operations, Russians are fully utilizing the theme of “non-returnees,” explaining their motives as the Ukrainian diplomats’ unwillingness to work under a “Nazi Kyiv regime” and hence, their preference to stay in the West.

It was against this backdrop that the two-day emergency meeting of ambassadors took place in Uzhhorod.

About what did the President say

One more question. Given such financial problems at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, what was the necessity of holding an expensive event in the capital of Zakarpattia? Security? Yes, Kyiv is significantly more protected from missile strikes than other Ukrainian cities. Convenient logistics? However, the Prime Minister, heads of key ministries and agencies (including Oleksii Reznikov, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Yulia Svyrydenko), the head of the President’s Office and his deputies, and heads of Ministry of Foreign Affairs departments spent hours, if not days, traveling to Uzhhorod by train or car.

On the other hand, ambassadors were forced to travel to Ukraine by circuitous routes, but they were satisfied with choosing Uzhhorod as the venue for the meeting. It was easier for them to reach Zakarpattia from their respective countries than to travel to the Ukrainian capital.

Was it worth holding the meeting now, especially when the previous one took place at the end of last year? Usually, such events are held once every two years, and if needed, closed Zoom conferences are conducted. But here, there was such urgency… President Zelenskyy explained the urgency of the current meeting by referring to a “special moment when such communication is needed” to prepare for the new political season in partner countries and make it pro-Ukrainian.

One of the goals of the ambassadorial meeting is to provide diplomats who haven’t been in Ukraine for months with an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the President’s foreign policy visions and receive instructions from him.

“Ambassadors need to be ignited,” said one of our interlocutors.

During his speech, Zelenskyy skillfully did just that, stating: “From August to December, no one has the right to be a mere observer, and everyone should become a winner in their field because it’s all for the sake of Ukraine.”

The President highlighted five priorities for the ambassadors’ work in the context of the Ukrainian military advances, the challenging state of the Ukrainian economy, and differing approaches between Kyiv and its partners regarding the conditions for ending the war and the future of Russia.

The first priority is the support of the power and public opinion of the country for Zelenskyy’s peace formula.

“Particularly important is the work with Global South countries, which Russia constantly tries to manipulate,” stated the President.

The second priority is the supply of weapons to Ukraine and strengthening cooperation in the field of defense industry, introducing new sanctions against Russia, and stopping the country-aggressor from circumventing restrictive measures.

The third priority is working on consolidating EU and NATO countries around common security, expanding the number of signatories to the Joint Declaration with the Group of Seven on guarantees of security for Ukraine, as well as the neighborhood policy.

“In the coming months, various countries will hold elections, creating a complex situation. We need understanding that overcomes any such political internal situation,” Zelenskyy said, as differences in Ukrainian-Polish relations have increased.

The fourth priority is attracting investments to Ukraine and patronage of countries in the recovery of affected regions. The President also called on ambassadors to do everything possible to expand duty-free access for Ukrainian goods to the markets of partner countries.

The fifth priority is the protection of the rights of Ukrainians.

Furthermore, Zelenskyy urged the ambassadors to organize visits of foreign leaders to Ukraine and to work with experts, public figures, and journalists to garner support for Ukraine.

“Ukraine needs front-page headlines and prime attention. Your task is to ensure that peace is always with Ukraine. The Ukrainian ambassador is an ambassador who is heard by the country where he or she works,” the President convinced the diplomats.

Well, the goals are set, and the tasks are defined. To achieve the President’s outlined priorities, it is necessary to build a systematic diplomacy capable of ensuring stable work in protecting the country’s interests.

However, when professionals become increasingly scarce, and tasks during the war only become more complicated and multiply, the effectiveness of the foreign policy department will decline. Relying solely on the personal charisma of the President and the sympathy of partners for the tragedy of Ukrainians will not lead to diplomatic success. This could prove costly for the Ukrainian state and its society.

Originally posted by Volodymyr Kravchenko on Zn.ua. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Ukraine is not Israel. Is it possible to open the Ukrainian sky until the end of the war?



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