Our woman in Kyiv: Meet Melinda Simmons, the British diplomat holding firm in Ukraine

From her home in the capital, ambassador Melinda Simmons talks Russian mistakes, Zelensky’s rock star status and Putin’s nuclear distraction.

8 May 2022 •

Melinda Simmons, the British ambassador to Ukraine
Melinda Simmons is the British ambassador to Ukraine CREDIT: Heathcliff O’Malley

Melinda Simmons, Britain’s ambassador to Kyiv, feels no great need to be diplomatic any more about Vladimir Putin. On Twitter, she accuses the Kremlin of “brutal depravity” in Ukraine, cataloguing a rampage of murder, rape and pillage. In person, she lays it on further, describing the Russian leader as “deranged”.

Yet when we met last week in Kyiv – where she has just returned after being forced to flee in February – it was her hands that really did the talking. Each of her fingernails is varnished alternatively in blue and yellow, the colours of Ukraine’s national flag.

It is, in some ways, a discreet gesture – the sort of thing a macho man like Putin might never notice, in the unlikely event that he and Simmons ever shake hands. But it is certainly a break from the Foreign Office’s usual buttoned-up style – and a sign of just how much Britain is now supporting Ukraine in the conflict.

Yet two months ago, as the pressure was building in the run-up to the invasion, those same hands were giving off rather less confident signals. In what doctors might term “World War Three nerves”, Simmons noticed her hands were trembling constantly.

“Throughout the two or three weeks beforehand, my hands never stopped shaking when I was running around talking to people,” she says, diagnosing it as a “not fun” side-effect of adrenaline. “But it stopped on the night when the shelling began and a kind of calm certainty took over instead. I’ve spoken since to others who also felt shaky in the run-up, and they also spoke of this curious sense of relief afterwards. That sounds like a terrible word to use – but the relief is about knowing that the thing you feared has happened and you just have to get on with your job.”

‘Ukrainians say the British gave the right kit at the right time’

Not that the job got much better. The embassy had already relocated to Poland, amid fears it could be targeted by missiles or Russian saboteurs. Simmons, who had stuck it out in Kyiv longer than some other ambassadors, took no pleasure in remote working – especially in the first few days, when it looked like the capital might fall.

President Volodmyr Zelensky, who had stayed put, was warning that Putin’s forces had orders to assassinate him. And crawling in menacing fashion towards Kyiv, like some vast crocodile, was the enormous convoy of Russian armour some 40 miles long.  

All of which explains why Simmons – whose background is in the cuddlier world of DFID (the Department for International Development) and peacebuilding – is now an expert on NLAWs, or Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons.

For those less familiar with military hardware, these are the shoulder-launched, easy-to-use missiles that Boris Johnson supplied thousands of to Ukraine ahead of the invasion.

In the conflict’s opening exchanges, they proved devastatingly effective, helping stop the Russians from strangling Kyiv. And to many grateful Ukrainians, they are now as celebrated a British export as the Beatles or fish and chips.

“I get stopped in the street quite often by Ukrainians, who tell me how the British gave the right kit at the right timewhen many other countries were only giving helmets and bullet-proof stuff,” Simmons says. “They feel the NLAWs were decisive in that first phase.”

So much so, indeed, that many local dignitaries now even keep NLAW casings as souvenirs – as Simmons discovered recently at a meeting with a minister.

“He had one in his office and brought it out specially for our meeting,” she says, smiling. “I was slightly taken aback and had to be reassured there was nothing in it – but they are extremely grateful, and I can see the role they played.”

So did she see the invasion coming in the early days and, if so, how did she brief Downing Street?

Foreign Office lore has it that whenever an ambassador is asked to predict the likelihood of war on their patch, they send two separate cables a month apart: one predicting mayhem, the other predicting peace. Depending on the outcome, they can then always say to the Prime Minister: “As per my cable of…”

Simmons doesn’t quite answer directly. But from the moment she first saw intelligence reports suggesting Putin was serious about his invasion plans, it struck her as a “fairy tale” to think that Ukrainians would welcome the Russian troops as liberators.

“My other reaction was that Ukrainians will fight, that this was a huge miscalculation by Putin and that thousands of lives will be lost – that was the brief I offered to the Government.”

‘Nobody on the inside thinks Russia is done with Kyiv’

While some diplomatic missions clung to the hope that Putin was just posturing, the scale of the Russian troop build-up removed any lingering doubts. “It was hard to see how you could surround the north and east of the country and not make a move – it was just a question of when. There was a 48-hour period when we figured it was going to happen, when I pretty much didn’t sleep, and on the second of those nights the invasion began.”

She is, she says, delighted to be back in the embassy, where the entries in the visitors’ book in the ambassador’s residence end abruptly in late January. Last week she was in the Kyiv parliament as Boris Johnson gave an online address to MPs, congratulating them on Ukraine’s “finest hour”. Deputies held Union Jacks in the Prime Minister’s honour – although as ever, the real hero of the day was President Zelensky, whom Simmons has met several times. So does he deserve his rock-star status?

“He has been extraordinary as a wartime president and he does have that X-Factor, that charisma, yes,” she says. “I’ve travelled three or four times to the East with him and he does have a genuine ability to connect – you’ll see people crowding to get a selfie with him.”

For all that Kyiv is now peaceful, though she does not exclude the possibility of being forced to leave for a second time. For if Putin’s new campaign to take the eastern Donbas region goes well, he may feel emboldened to besiege Kyiv again.

“Nobody on the inside thinks Russia is done with Kyiv or the rest of the country,” she says. “I know Ukrainians whose husbands who are mobilised in the east in the Donbas and they talk of constant shelling, 24/7. It is a relentless campaign, and while the east is clearly the focus right now, there may be a time when other parts of the country, particularly Kyiv, come back into scope.”

The war will “certainly” go on into next year, with peaks and troughs for either side, although she predicts Ukraine will ultimately win. But if Kyiv humiliates Putin on the battlefield – especially with Western help – might he level the score by using nuclear weapons, as he has occasionally hinted? Some analysts fear, for example, that he might explode a low-yield device over the Black Sea – avoiding all-out devastation, but testing the West’s mettle to the utmost.

“I think the whole talk about nuclear threat is a bit of a distraction right now, although that doesn’t mean I discount it,” Simmons says. “Everyone should listen carefully to what Mr Putin has to say, no matter how deranged some of it can sound, frankly. But right now it’s important to focus on the relentless assault in the East, in Mariupol and elsewhere, where civilians are dying.”

‘Hitting Holocaust memorials felt deliberate’

Born to Jewish parents in London’s East End, and raised in Ilford, Simmons does not regard herself as a “traditional” Foreign Office type. After reading French and German at Exeter University, she spent 10 years in advertising and marketing, before taking a pay cut to work for International Alert, a peacebuilding NGO. She moved to DFID in 2003, working on conflict resolution in Africa, before joining the Foreign Office in 2013 where her talents saw her brought in on national security issues. Fellow mandarins talk of her as one of a new generation of rising female stars, straddling the longstanding gap between policy and aid work.

Kyiv, where she arrived in 2019 for her first ambassadorship, has been a high-profile post ever since 2004. That was the year Ukraine’s Orange Revolution marked the start of a move away from Moscow’s orbit and a gradual rekindling of the Cold War. For Simmons, though, the posting also has a strong personal connection. Her maternal great-parents are from the northern city of Kharkiv, currently under heavy Russian bombardment.

As she knows all too well, though, it is not the first time the city has experienced horrors. On a freezing winter day in 1941, it saw one of the worst massacres of the Holocaust, when Nazis killed more than 16,000 mainly Jewish people at Drobytsky Yar, a ravine on the outskirts. Men and women were shot dead on the spot while children were flung into the gorge alive, where they froze to death in -15C temperatures.

After arriving in Kyiv, Simmons became the first member of her family to revisit Kharkiv since her great-grandparents left. Part of her quest was to track down details of four of her own extended family, thought to have perished at Drobytsky Yar. On a memorial wall near the main monument, she found them – an uncle and aunt and their two children, aged 10 and 12.

“It was the first piece of information that we had ever found about what happened to the family and it was a hard thing to process,” she says. “I was there during a business trip and afterwards I found it almost impossible to concentrate on anything, because the import of it was so huge.”

Hence also her outrage when in late March, the Drobytsky Yar memorial was hit by Russian shelling. It was the second time a Holocaust site had been impacted during the war, coming just a fortnight after the Babyn Yar memorial garden in Kyiv was showered with shrapnel. The Kremlin denied targeting them deliberately – a claim Simmons finds hard to believe.

The Babyn Yar memorial is one of the sites that has been hit
The Babyn Yar memorial is one of the sites that has been hit CREDIT: Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP

“I had quite an emotional reaction to it… that is two of the iconic Holocaust memorials sites in Ukraine that have been hit. The Drobytsky memorial is particularly inexplicable, there is nothing else there… so that felt deliberate to me.”

So what then, does she make of Putin’s constant claims to be “de-Nazifying” Ukraine?

“Vicious anti-Semitism is what goes through my mind,” she replies. Asked if she thinks this is just Putin or Russia more widely, she adds: “There is a problem more generally in Russia and it has gone back a really long time.”

By further example, she cities the “appalling” behaviour of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s grouchy foreign minister, who claimed in an interview last Sunday that Adolf Hitler “had Jewish blood”. His cack-handed comments – made to justify Russia’s demonisation of Zelensky, himself a Jew – forced Putin to apologise after complaints from the Israeli government.

Ukraine, she says, has its own lingering problems with anti-Semitism. There are markets where you can still buy “matryoshka dolls with Hitler faces and hook noses”. The country is only just beginning to have the “difficult conversation” about the role of Ukrainians in assisting the Nazis in Holocaust massacres. But she adds: “I genuinely believe that an anti-Semitic country would not elect a Jew as a president.”

‘Twitter isn’t a place for debate’

Not surprisingly, Simmons’s forthright views do not endear her to everyone on her Twitter feed, where she now has an impressive 60,000 followers (more than Britain’s ambassadors to France and the US combined). Engagement in digital diplomacy is a must for all ambassadors these days, but it comes at the price of heavy trolling – in her case much of it from Russia. “I get abuse for being female, for being Jewish, for talking about things that people want to disagree with in general,” she says. “My tactic is to be like a bird catching a fish – you shoot in, do your comment and get the hell out… Twitter isn’t a place for debate.”

Colleagues in the communications team do the job of so-called “doom-scrolling” – checking through the reems of reactions. These can often include numerous Disgusted-of-Moscows, for whom the Foreign Office’s championing of gay, lesbian and transgender rights is all symbolic of the moral decline that the West is now enticing Ukraine into. Such views are shared by conservatives in this part of the world – including Putin’s allies in the Russian Orthodox Church, whose senior priest, Patriarch Kirill, has backed the invasion of Ukraine as a “just war”. Might the Foreign Office be playing into Putin’s hands by championing such values so openly?

“The fact that another country doesn’t share your values is not a reason for you to champion those values. Ukraine itself as a very conservative society and it’s taken many years for gay and lesbian activists to make the progress that they’ve done,” says Simmons, who has taken part in gay rights marches in Kyiv. “We don’t go on these marches purely for our own sake – we get asked by gay, lesbian and transgender groups here to participate as a measure of support. Some of their organisations suffer appalling persecution, with arson attacks that aren’t investigated unless I call the local police myself and ask them to.”

Simmons wears yellow and blue nail varnish in tribute to Ukraine – a small but meaningful gesture for an ambassador
Simmons wears yellow and blue nail varnish in tribute to Ukraine – a small but meaningful gesture for an ambassador CREDIT: Heathcliff O’Malley

For her trenchant criticism of Putin, Simmons also has more than just Twitter trolls to worry about. With Ukraine now a warzone, she lives in Kyiv alone, away from her husband and their children. Given the Kremlin’s fondness for cyberhacking, poisonings and espionage against foreign critics, her family are also advised on taking certain security precautions against “asymmetric” threats. Does it worry her much? “It does now you’ve put it like that!” she jokes.

She makes no secret of the fact, though, that HMG’s diplomats are not expected to keep a permanently stiff upper lip. All her staff in Kyiv are encouraged to check in with a counsellor every so often, as she herself does. “I find it really helpful, especially for some of those harder conversations – plus there’s an informal network of other ambassadors who are very supportive as well.”

Meanwhile, if all else fails, she always has other ways to deal with stress. One is baking, a long-standing hobby. And the other is to strap on her boxing gloves and take it out on her punchbag, which sits in a room off the lounge in her residence. Mr Putin, you have been warned…

3 comments

  1. The article contained good vids of the NLAWS in action, but they could not be inserted into the article unfortunately.

    This is the language we want to see more of from public figures:

    “she accuses the Kremlin of “brutal depravity” in Ukraine, cataloguing a rampage of murder, rape and pillage. In person, she lays it on further, describing the Russian leader as “deranged”.

    Good woman. I think also that as a prominent member of the British Jewish community, she needs to lobby her Israeli opposite number in Kyiv and point out that the Jewish state must provide the things that can help protect Ukrainians from nazi Russia. Including Iron Dome and other useful stuff.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “Nobody on the inside thinks Russia is done with Kyiv or the rest of the country,” she says. “I know Ukrainians whose husbands who are mobilised in the east in the Donbas and they talk of constant shelling, 24/7. It is a relentless campaign, and while the east is clearly the focus right now, there may be a time when other parts of the country, particularly Kyiv, come back into scope.”

    Unfortunately she may well be right. This is why it is VITAL that Kyiv gets a proper air defence system asap. Also one assumes that long range artillery is already in place there. If not, why not?

    Liked by 3 people

  3. “…t struck her as a “fairy tale” to think that Ukrainians would welcome the Russian troops as liberators.”

    Only brainwashed monkeys from mafia land believed that dumbass narrative. Ukrainians rightfully do not want to welcome murderers, rapists, slave-drivers and looters.

    Liked by 3 people

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