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A day before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Etienne de Poncins, the French ambassador in Kyiv, received the Mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko, in his office to discuss a French investment of more than 60 million euros in a water treatment plant and others Plans for a remodeling of the southern port city.
“He proposed some projects for the development of his city, especially how he wanted to modernize the coast,” recalls de Poncins.
Boychenko now presides over a city in ruins after months of beatings by the Russian military that left an estimated 100,000 people behind captured without food, water or electricity.
De Poncins and half a dozen other senior European diplomats have their pre-war embassy duties such as the award of “women in business” prices and open libraries to organize the evacuation of their nationals, help deliver emergency equipment, and collect evidence of war crimes.
While the USA, Germany and the EU’s delegation in Ukraine have relocated their embassy staff to Poland, the ambassadors of France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Latvia and Lithuania have remained in the country, with some moving their offices and accommodation to the western city Lviv. The Russian attack has made them unlikely philanthropists, coordinating their countries’ medical and logistical aid on the ground.
“Now I’m providing humanitarian aid,” de Poncins said. “I take care of the last kilometer for deliveries from Poland… I get them here in Ukraine and then take care of distribution and inquiries from Ukrainians about what they need.”
“The fact that I’m here gives me a lot more weight,” said the French diplomat. “An Ambassador is made to be in the country where he is stationed… You are here in the difficult moments and hours. I would have felt very bad if I left,” he said, adding that France’s current EU presidency makes it even more necessary for him to stay in Ukraine.
Earlier this week, de Poncins traveled to Siret, just over the border in Romania, to greet him 27 new ambulances, fire engines and 50 tons of medical equipment sent by the French regional authorities. “The Ukrainians said they needed fire engines because of the bombing, so we forwarded those requests to Paris… and then we get the supplies,” de Poncins explained. He regularly leaves Lviv under heightened security to visit medium-sized cities “to see what the situation is there” and assess their needs.
From geopolitics to the expulsion of refugees
His Italian counterpart, Pier Francesco Zazo, won praise for last month house about 100 Italians, including newborns, at his embassy in Kyiv, from where they were later evacuated to neighboring Moldova. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi publicly praised Zazo and his staff for their “spirit of service, dedication and courage”.
“Before the war, I focused on following the geopolitical situation in the contested eastern region of Ukraine’s Donbass, the efforts of the Ukrainian government in implementing the necessary structural reforms, and promoting economic and trade ties between Italy and Ukraine.” , Zazo said that Italy is Ukraine’s third largest European trading partner after Germany and Poland.
“Now we don’t have a full-fledged embassy, we don’t even have easy access to contact numbers, and that’s why my job has become very operational…and tiring at times,” Zazo said. “We remain an important point of reference between Italy and the Ukrainian government, the United Nations, the International Red Cross, our NGOs, associations and some Italian missionaries with whom we organize bus transfers with refugees.”
Zazo said he and de Poncins have “privileged access” to the Ukrainian government, including through meetings with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Ihor Zhovkva, Deputy Head of Ukraine’s Presidential Administration.
The seven European ambassadors set up a coordination group for Signal, an end-to-end encrypted messaging app, to “share information, ideas about who we can meet, what requests we should make, and it’s working really well,” said Zazo.
In addition to the few hundred French and Italians still in Ukraine, the ambassadors are concerned about the dozens of their nationals still stranded in the besieged cities of Mariupol and Kherson to the south.
“There was a family in Kherson that didn’t want to go,” de Poncins said. “There are some cases of French people who want to leave but can’t because there’s no way they can come and transfer them.”
“For us, this is the main issue now,” Zazo agreed, adding that there are ongoing contacts with the UN and the International Red Cross to set up “safe humanitarian corridors” for their evacuation. His presence in Ukraine would bring “psychological relief to the approximately 160 Italians who are still here.”
The ambassadors who are still on site now also see themselves tasked with collecting evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Earlier this month, the International Criminal Court said it would investigate possible war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in Ukraine.
“Ukrainian authorities are sending us elements, there is regular and continuous work with the police…” de Poncins said. “We do it on the spot…they send us documents and we send them to Paris…we’re like an intermediary…but the jurisdiction is in Paris.”
Many of the European ambassadors still in Ukraine admitted they could not predict the timing and scope of the Russian invasion, despite concerns from their British and American counterparts. Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, had told de Poncins during his visit to the embassy that he was “not worried” about an imminent war because “I know the Russians”.
However, De Poncins and Zazo acknowledged that their presence on the ground had become a moral imperative.
“There are a number of things we can’t do from the outside,” de Poncins said. “But staying put is a political decision at the highest level, it’s a gesture of solidarity, of trust… and diplomacy is about gestures, about signals we send out.”
https://www.politico.eu/article/last-remaining-european-ambassador-hold-eu-fort-ukraine/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication How the war changed the everyday life of diplomats - POLITICO