Ukrainians fighting for ‘values we as Jews share’, says envoy

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Ukrainians fighting for ‘values we as Jews share’, says envoy

Melinda Simmons, UK ambassador to Ukraine, spoke to the Board of Deputies, and said she believes Putin thought 'an invasion would probably not last longer than 48 hours to a week'

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Melinda Simmons speaks to Deputies at the March 2022 meeting chaired by Marie van der Zyl
Melinda Simmons speaks to Deputies at the March 2022 meeting chaired by Marie van der Zyl

The UK’s ambassador to Ukraine has told a Board of Deputies meeting that the people of the war-ravaged country are “fighting for strong and democratic values that we as Jews share.”

In a moving speech Jewish envoy Melinda Simmons said she believed it was “democratic values that are the threat to President Putin, not the present not the potential for NATO membership, not the presence of foreign troops…. the presence of a strong and confident democratic country on his border. ”

She added: “That’s what they’re fighting for. And those democratic values, those are our values too, those are the values, our government, our country, that we, as Jews camp on, that define us.

“That’s why we’re supporting them the way that we are. They’re fighting their fight for Ukraine, but they’re also fighting the fight for values that we all share.”

Simmons, who joined the Foreign Office in 2013 and was made envoy to Ukraine six years later, recalled how the build-up of Russian troops last March on the country’s borders was a signal to some of Putin’s intent.

She told the Board’s March meeting on Sunday: “We spent a good four or five months lobbying in the international system to call Russia to account for the presence of those troops. And eventually, they said that they were there for a military exercise.

“And then they performed military exercises and then said it was over and they were pulling everyone back.

“But they didn’t pull back … And that meant that from about September onwards, I watched and colleagues watched in mounting disbelief as a preparation began, for something that anybody who knew anything about Ukraine knew would be a massive miscalculation on the part of Russia.”

Simmons told Deputies she believes Putin thought “an invasion would probably not last longer than 48 hours to a week at most and that they would be greeted on the boulevards by Ukrainians waving flowers.”

After Russian invasion Simmons moved from the capital Kyiv to Lviv in western Ukraine, where the threat was considered less acute.

But she revealed:”I left Lviv after there were two missile strikes one to the west and one to the east.

“And on both occasions because it was unclear where those missiles were going to land.”

She said it was too much to ask colleagues to remain in the country under the threat of bombing and Simmons has now been living across the Polish border.

She said at regular border crossings she was “seeing thousands upon thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the country at the moment – most of them from the eastern centre of the country.”

But like many of the refugees, Simmons says she intends to return to Ukraine again in her role as envoy.

“I want to be inside Ukraine so that I can work alongside Ukrainians, as soon as it’s possible to do that,” she told the Board.

Simmons revealed she saw “two parts to the future.”

She explained:” One is about justice. It’s not too soon to be recording crimes that have been committed, encouraging those across the board to talk about their experiences so that we can put together that those stories, which will provide evidence deal with the already emerging allegations of widespread rape of women, who have been left behind largely older women who have been less able to travel in the east of the country.”

Simmons said the time would come also to ” think about reconciliation.”

The envoy reasoned:” One of the things I noticed even in the first week of the conflict even as I was just in bed was how many Ukrainians were becoming radicalised by the experience of this war.

“It’s important to understand that Ukrainians and Russians have lived side by side for centuries.”

Born in the East End but brought up in Essex, Melinda Simmons began her career in business before switching to work in government.

Her family is from Poland on her father’s side, but her mother’s side is both Lithuanian and Ukrainian.

She had first joined the Foreign Office in 2013.

After she finished speaking Simmons was given a lengthy ovation from Deputies, before President Marie van der Zyl thanked her on behalf of the entire community for her brave and determined efforts.

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