OOn Monday morning, Melinda Simmons was getting dressed when she heard an explosion. It was 7 a.m. Russia bombed Kyiv for the third time in a month. Simmons, the British ambassador to Ukraine, was taking cover at her residence when cruise missiles hit the capital and other cities. “My hands were shaking. It was the adrenaline,” she says. Safely underground, she spent the next 15 minutes painting her nails blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. “It had something to do with my hands. By the time I was done, they had stopped shaking,” she says.
Since Vladimir Putin’s “murderous invasion” in February – in her blunt terms – the ambassador has ducked for cover on a number of occasions. She points out that their situation is no different from that of millions of Ukrainians who now endure daily power cuts and candlelit lives as a result of the Kremlin’s cynical attacks. As part of her diplomatic job, she says, she learned to tell the difference between bangs and explosions. The first shows Ukraine’s air defenses at work in the sky; the second an incoming missile or a deadly kamikaze drone.
After the last attack, Simmons put out a tired tweet. It said: “Take shelter deep and listen to the roar outside. #Kiev is under attack again. What’s Monday morning about?” The post was intended to remind a confused world that the war rages on, she explains, saying it began for Ukrainians in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea and staged a rebellion in the east. “We all have our own way of dealing with it. Mine is: I don’t think about it too much. If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes.”
This week Moscow accused the UK of planning a raid on the occupied Crimean port of Sevastopol, which damaged three Russian naval boats, and of having blown up the NordSteam gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. Simmons says she doesn’t waste time thinking about “nonsense”, although the idea of Britain as an all-powerful bogeyman is a little “flattering”.
Why did Putin invade? Simmons says he set out his reasons in a “stunning” essay last year in which he argued Ukraine is not a country. “It was his manifesto to take back what he felt had been wrongly given away,” she says.
Nine months later, the Kremlin has not achieved any of its strategic military goals, she believes. Russian tank convoys could not take Kyiv and Kharkiv. Since September, Putin’s troops have been retreating in the northeast and south, where a Russian evacuation from the city of Kherson appears to be underway. “Things are not going well for Russia. They are on the defensive at the moment,” the ambassador notes. She expects more “cunning, well-planned” Ukrainian counterattacks. And, unfortunately, Moscow will fight on and not be ready to back down. “In my personal opinion, we’re going to be around for quite a long time,” she says.
Russia’s president is not interested in what Ukrainians might wish for. His intelligence services seem to have told him that they were waiting for “liberation” and would greet their Russian occupiers with flowers. “There’s this bizarre refusal to understand the people you’re trying to subdue. He keeps refusing,” she says. “He’s the leader. He has access to information. He might find out for himself why Ukrainians don’t seem happy when their buildings are razed to the ground or their children are snatched away from them.”
Great Britain, on the other hand, is popular in Ukraine. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a cult figure. Simmons says this is partly because London was supplying anti-tank weapons to Kyiv at a time when other Western nations were “buzzing and hailing” about military aid. She also cites Johnson’s “uncompromising” support for Ukraine and the electrifying impact this has had on other G7 countries and at the United Nations. As part of her duties, the ambassador attended an art exhibition depicting Johnson as a lute-playing Cossack warrior. She listened to a popular rap song in his honor. “It was a catchy tune for me for a while,” she admits.
This enthusiasm for Britain dates back to before the invasion, she says, and recently there has been a spate of tributes following the Queen’s death. Simmons says Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is almost as well known as Johnson, noting the role played by the UK MoD’s daily intelligence updates. These bulletins are picked up by the Ukrainian media and help subvert “Russian narratives”. (When she was shopping at a market, she found a pair of yellow socks with “British Intelligence” written on them.) And what about Rishi Sunak? The new Prime Minister still has to visit Kyiv for his own tour with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Ambassador says she expects this to happen soon.
Simmons met Selenskiy last week and found him “bubbling with energy.” She describes him as “an incredibly charismatic person” who, understandably, looked tired in some of their previous encounters. His refusal to leave Kyiv in the first days of the invasion shows the courage and determination of the Ukrainian people, she notes, adding that since January he has been living apart from his wife and children for security reasons and has been working around the clock. She doesn’t expect him to visit London or Washington before the war is over. “Most Ukrainians cannot leave the country at the moment. It feels right,” she says.
Simmons was born in London’s East End to Jewish parents and has Ukrainian and Lithuanian roots on his mother’s side. These date from the 1890s when her great-grandparents left Kharkiv and separated and her great-grandmother moved to Cardiff. She grew up eating borscht on Fridays, unaware that the soup was Ukrainian. Her original career was in sales and marketing. In 2003 she moved to the Department for International Development, in 2013 to the Federal Foreign Office and the National Security Secretariat. In 2019 she started her job in Kyiv after studying Ukrainian for a year.
As Russian tanks rolled toward Kyiv, Simmons reluctantly left the capital—first for Lviv and then for Poland. She returned in April, shortly after the Russians withdrew. After the all-clear was given on Monday, she left the residence, which sits next to the Dnieper River and a huge steel sculpture of a mother with a sword. She opted for a “quick reset.” She tweeted a photo of fall flowers in their “splendour,” adding, “Went back inside and got on with the work.”
“I love my job,” says Simmons.
She adds: “My employees are brave to be here. I think I’m brave to be here. We all feel like we’re working on something real. It makes a difference.”