UK ambassador’s parting message in Kyiv: Tackle corruption or risk losing support
Simon Smith, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Ukraine, is wrapping up a three-year tour of duty this month with a clear parting message to Ukraine’s leaders: Fight corruption or risk losing international support.
“Right now, in my country, in a lot of countries around the world, there is a really substantial degree of commitment to Ukraine,” Smith said in an Aug. 27 interview in the ambassador’s residence in Kyiv. “You will put that investment at risk if you don’t show results on modernization, reform, renewal agenda and you will run the risk of engendering Ukraine fatigue if you are not showing these people that what you’re working on is something that is fundamentally new.”
Smith’s warning comes as those who run Ukraine’s post-EuroMaidan Revolution institutions − including politicians, judges, prosecutors and police − have little to show in their promised fight against oligarchs and corruption since President Viktor Yanukovych fled power on Feb. 22, 2014.
Many also fear that the same “untransparent, unaccountable interests,” as Smith described them, will return to political power. Some argue that they never really left.
“One of your biggest enemies at the moment could be a gathering assumption amongst these countries who have supported you that what is happening is just the reversion to the same old, same old Ukraine,” Smith said, recounting his parting advice.
Smith said he gets a receptive response to the warning from Ukrainian decision-makers. “I get heads nodding and I feel my message is being understood,” he said.
After a vacation, Smith will watch Ukraine events mainly from London. He returns to a new assignment with the U.K.’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office, where he’s served for nearly 30 years.
His successor, Judith Gough, starts Sept. 7. She is a veteran of the region, having served most recently as the director of Eastern Europe and Central Asia for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which she joined in 2001. She was the British ambassador to Georgia in 2010-2012. Before joining the foreign office, she worked as a consultant at EY in emerging markets and financial services. She described herself as honored to be going to Ukraine “at this critical time” after her appointment in March.
While the United Kingdom has vigorously criticized Russia for its annexation of Crimea last year and its war in the Donbas, some U.K. critics think the nation is too much on the sidelines. France and Germany have taken the lead in peace talks. Many are also skeptical about the willingness of London to dispel its reputation as a money laundering capital for Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. Smith answered both criticisms. “I find it hard to reconcile the proposition that Britain has been on the sidelines with the role that we’ve taken, first and foremost with the European Union in advocating the case for sanctions against Russia right from the start,” Smith said. “We have been absolutely a consistent and powerful voice for sanctions.”
As for London’s reputation as a haven for dirty money from Russia, Smith’s response was that the U.K. will have to take a hard look at the accusations.
“I don’t take umbrage,” Smith said. “We have to operate on the basis of continuous improvement in the efficacy of laws, of regulations in this field. If people are saying we’re not doing enough, the wrong response is to take umbrage − how dare you accuse us? The right response is let’s look at what you’ve got − certainly if you have evidence that is not apparent to law enforcers, let’s see it, let’s work on it.”
Western nations, including Britain, are also accused of stinginess in economic aid to Ukraine.
The U.K.’s direct bilateral assistance to Ukraine might add up to only $50 million yearly. But Smith said that much of the U.K.’s aid comes as part of a larger European Union assistance package. Moreover, he said, the U.K. is a supporter of Ukraine in other forms such as the International Monetary Fund.
The U.K. is also helping bolster Ukraine’s defense capabilities. The nation has had an adviser in Ukraine’s Defense Ministry to revamp budget procedures with the aim of spending more effectively on soldiers and equipment at the war front. British troops have also been training their Ukrainian counterparts in “dealing with casualties in the field, logistics, in all of these areas. It is designed to enhance the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces and defend against aggression and to deter future aggression,” Smith said.
Ukraine is still getting high-level attention from Britain’s leaders, with Prime Minister David Cameron meeting with his counterpart, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in London in July and British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon coming to Ukraine in August.
Some of the U.K.’s words about rule of law and European values seem to be undercut by its actions on two fronts.
Russian fugitive Alexander Litvinenko, a former Federal Security Service agent whose book “Blowing Up Russia” accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of many crimes, was killed by polonium poisoning in 2006. But only this year has a public inquiry started, giving rise to criticism that the British are guilty of the same kind of political meddling in their criminal justice system that they accuse Ukrainians of doing. In this case, critics think that the U.K. wanted to downplay the Kremlin’s links to Litvinenko’s murder to appease Putin. When bilateral relations worsened because of events in Ukraine and other issues, the U.K. criminal investigation into Litvinenko’s death became more active.
“I think that it may look that way to you and any number of members of the public,” Smith said, but, in reality, the U.K.-Russian relationship has undergone numerous strains over many issues, before and after Litvinenko’s death, including Britain’s willingness to grant political asylum to Putin’s enemies.
A second issue that raises questions about the U.K.’s advice to Ukraine to adopt European values is the strong opposition within Britain to remaining in the EU. The issue will go to voters in a referendum next year at the ear- liest. But Smith sees no contradiction, saying that Britain wants the EU to become more democratic, responsive and transparent. “We want the sort of EU that countries like Ukraine will want to join in the future,” Smith said.
As he leaves, Smith does not see a quick end to Russia’s war.
“I would have liked to have seen quicker progress by key decision-makers in Russia waking up to the deadend nature of the strategy they have embarked on,” Smith said. “The fact there has not been quick progress is not a reason to stand down. We have to be in this for a relatively long haul. We should be confident in our convictions that we are doing the right thing to invest in a successful future in Ukraine. I think we are investing in the right sort of vision for Europe as a whole. If Russia wants to buy into that vision and look to ways to collaborate successfully with European institutions rather than needlessly confronting them, that will be real progress.”
Outgoing United Kingdom Ambassador to Ukraine Simon Smith. (Anastasia Vlasova)