Thursday, December 8

Kyiv is ‘the right place to be’, says UK ambassador after returning to city | Ukraine

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is unlikely to have given up his ambitions to seize Kyiv after losing the battle for the city this spring, Britain’s ambassador to Ukraine warned as she returned to work in the wartime capital.

Melinda Simmons, who has moved back to Kyiv despite Russian threats against diplomats based there, said it was “overwhelming” to be back in a city that she once feared she might not see again.

“I wasn’t sure I’d make it back to Kyiv, so coming back is an extraordinary thing,” she said in her first interview from the capital since evacuating the embassy in February. “It absolutely feels like the right place to be.”

Simmons drove into the city from western Ukraine late on Friday, a journey along a highway battered by some of the most brutal Russian assaults. The charred remnants of destroyed buildings that line miles of highway are testament to the intensity of the fighting.

“It’s helpful to drive because you get a real sense of what was going on… and it’s truly shocking. But what is equally extraordinary is to see how Ukraine kept Russia out of Kyiv. Every way in which Ukraine has been able to do that is a thing to celebrate and to treasure.”

Moscow has shifted its focus to a new offensive in the east and south after retreating from Kyiv, at least for now. “I think Putin would certainly want to give it another try if he thought he was making progress,” Simmons said.

But even in the east, after concentrating their forces for a new offensive, Russian’s military has struggled. It is appearing to repeat some of the tactical mistakes it made around the capital and is bearing heavy losses on the frontline.

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Around the city of Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces made some gains against Russia, despite heavy shelling that killed one and five injured.

The Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, on Friday briefly choked with emotion as he described the destruction in Ukraine and denounced Putin’s “depravity”.

Ukrainian prosecutors say they have pinpointed more than 8,000 war crimes by Russian troops and are investigating 10 Russian soldiers for suspected atrocities in Bucha near Kyiv. It has been a month since the Ukrainian army pushed Russia out of the Kyiv region, yet police and volunteers are still finding new graves.

The gradual return of many western ambassadors to Kyiv has served as a show of confidence and solidarity for the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who on Friday welcomed Simmons back by name in his video address to the nation.

Perhaps for that reason, Russia has threatened to target foreign diplomats in the capital, which hit it with missile strikes that killed a journalist during a visit by the UN secretary general António Guterres last week.

“I’m not minimizing it. I’m not discounting it. You have to take it into account, but I’m still here,” Simmons said, pointing out that she was not a lone potential target.

“[There are 27 ambassadors here] so that’s quite a lot of diplomats to target,” she said. “I am here with a heightened level of security protection and bearing in mind that potential risk, but for now I feel comfortable working under those circumstances.”

She said that despite strong Ukrainian resistance, and Russia’s failings, the war is not likely to end soon. “You are looking at quite a long game… certainly through this year and probably through next year”, and she effectively warned that Kyiv will not be safe until Russia has been defeated.

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“Politically, I don’t doubt that Putin’s objectives for Ukraine have not changed, even though their tanks had to withdraw back to the north from Kyiv,” she said. “I can also see that the Kyiv city administration and the Ukraine armed forces are not taking that gain for granted at all. And they’re right.”

Asked whether the UK thought Ukraine should try to push the struggling Russian military out of the country altogether, and reclaim Crimea, she said the first military focus should be reclaiming seized territory since the invasion began.

“The most important thing right now is to push Russia back to where they were before February… because that’s where the existential threat lies. Let’s get to that stage. And then let’s see,” she said.

But she added that the UK “has never recognized the illegal annexation of Crimea”, or the separatist claims on the Donbas region, and that those land grabs now have “an awful lot more profile than they did before the invasion. It’s focused an awful lot more people’s attention on it. So let’s see how that translates itself.”

The British government is in touch with families of two aid workers who have been detained by Russian forces, but continues to advise citizens not to travel to Ukraine for any reason, she said.

A British citizen was killed fighting for Ukraine last week.

“That has to be (an individual) choice, but our advice is really clear. That nobody should be doing this because it’s not safe, ”she said, adding that despite her return from her, the embassy has not reopened in Kyiv and they are not running a consular service.

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