‘He’s a spokesperson for the Devil’: Ukraine’s ambassador on facing down Russia at the United Nations

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On the evening of February 23, as nearly 200,000 Russian troops were massed at the border with Ukraine, the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting to address an apparently imminent invasion.

By the time Ukraine’s ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya began to speak to the chamber, the war had already begun. The 52-year-old diplomat put aside his prepared speech and spoke directly to his Russian counterpart, Vassily Nebenzya, urging him to call his superiors in the Kremlin and tell them to stop the aggression against Ukraine.

“There is no purgatory for war criminals. They go straight to hell, ambassador,” he concluded.

Looking back on that moment now, four months into the war, Mr Kyslytsya has no regrets about the language he used.

“I had to expose the zero level of morality of Putin’s regime and his envoys around the world,” he tells The Independent at the Ukrainian mission to the UN in New York. “The Russians often try to project an image of being morally above the decaying collective West, and everything associated with it, but it’s not true.”

Video of Mr Kyslytsya’s rebuke was shared far and wide in the following days, even as Russian troops began their assault. His speech, which eschewed the usual diplomatic niceties of the global body, captured the shock and anger felt not just by Ukrainians, but around the world, at the invasion.

Today, Russia continues to push its advance in the southeastern Donbas region of Ukraine. Despite early successes against a far larger and more sophisticated army, Ukraine is struggling to hold its ground.

Here at the United Nations, far from his homeland, Mr Kyslytsya has waged his very own war. In his speeches to the Security Council and General Assembly, the Kyiv native has appealed to the moral conscience of his allies, and shamed Putin’s representatives on the world stage.

He has frequently attacked Mr Nebenzya, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, comparing him to the Nazi diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop. When asked what he believes motivates his counterpart, Mr Kyslytsya is direct.

“His situation is very miserable,” he says. “The Russian diplomatic service traditionally consists of two major blocs: they are either generations of Soviet, communist, diplomatic families, or more than half are basically representatives of the many intelligence and secret services of the Russian Federation. They have no way to express freely their opinion.

“Nebenzya himself is probably about to retire. So if he defects and stays in the West, who is he? And what is he? He’s nobody, he wouldn’t even earn his living. So he basically has nothing to lose.”

Does he pity the 60-year-old Russian ambassador, in some small way, for this unenviable position?

“It’s not about pity,” Mr Kyslytsya says. “We are seeing a scale of the human tragedy such that it’s not even in my way of thinking to express any pity for him. He is the spokesperson of a devil.”

Mr Kyslytsya was deputy foreign minister in 2014 and held the role when Russia annexed Crimea that same year. He spent years rallying support to counter Russian aggression against Ukraine, before moving to the US to take up his current role in February 2020, just at the outbreak of the pandemic.

He is no newcomer to the US, however. Before becoming a career diplomat, Mr Kyslytsya spent time studying in Kansas as a young man, a place he says reminded him of his homeland.

“You can travel for hours and see the yellow field of sunflowers and the blue sky, which is basically the Ukrainian national flag,” he says.

Vasily Nebenzya, the target of Sergiy Kyslytsya’s anger at the UN
Vasily Nebenzya, the target of Sergiy Kyslytsya’s anger at the UN

Here in New York, he has made the most of his platform to draw attention to Ukraine’s plight, frequently making the headlines for his striking speeches. In one of them, to the General Assembly in late February, Mr Kyslytsya read aloud what he said were text messages between a Russian soldier and his mother, taken from the phone of his body after he was killed in action. In another, responding to Vladimir Putin raising the threat of nuclear war, he said of the Russian president: “What a madness. If he wants to kill himself, he doesn’t need to use a nuclear arsenal. He has to do what the guy in Berlin did in a bunker in May 1945.”

He carries with him a copy of the UN Charter, from which he frequently reads aloud the rules and regulations that guide member countries. Citing the rules in that charter, Mr Kyslytsya has repeatedly called for Russia to be banished from the Security Council altogether.

“I often need to remind people that in my opinion, and in the opinion of many legal experts, Russia continues to occupy illegally the seat of the Soviet Union in the Security Council,” Mr Kyslytsya says, turning to a bookmarked page in the charter.

“I also remind my colleagues that Article Four, for example, reads that membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states. Russia is certainly not a peace-loving state.”

Mr Kyslytsya’s appeals to the world’s conscience have a practical purpose. The regular and prompt delivery of heavy weaponry to fend off further Russian advances is essential to Ukraine’s survival. Like every other Ukrainian diplomat around the world, Mr Kyslytsya has made it his business to advocate for these deliveries.

Since 2014, the United States has pledged more than $7bn in assistance to Ukraine. In March, president Joe Biden approved an additional $13bn in military and humanitarian aid. Weapons have flowed from the UK and European allies, too. But he says it has not come fast enough.

“Someone may have an impression that Ukraine has got enough weapons, given the hype in international media. This is not true. And that is basically the reason why we still cannot turn the tide,” he said.

“The Russians cannot advance, but we are losing up to hundred soldiers every day and up to 500 wounded. So the toll is very high. And if our allies do not expedite the supply of necessary weapons, we will see more bloodshed in the front.”

The front, at present, is not shifting in either direction by much. The fighting in the Donbas in recent weeks has been characterised by long-range artillery battles. According to Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Anna Malyar, Ukraine is using 5,000-6,000 artillery shells a day. Russia is firing around 10 times more.

Those Russian shells have had a devastating impact across Ukraine, leaving once-bustling towns and cities completely destroyed. More than 4,000 civilians have lost their lives since the start of the war in February, and nearly five million Ukrainians have fled their country in search of safety.

Being so far away from the devastation does not protect him or his staff from being affected by it. Mr Kyslytsya says he asks the people who work for him not to watch videos of the carnage back home because it will impact their ability to do their job.

He does, however, have ample opportunity to speak with the office and advisers of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and to the president himself.

“After serving for the Ukrainian government for more than 30 years, I think that president Zelensky is the first president who is willing to listen to you,” he says.

“He may not agree with you. He may not even know certain things, and he should not really know, every beat of our gibberish or what we do on a daily basis, but it is so commendable that an ambassador has a chance to express himself or herself and offer some ideas.”

Ukraine’s plight has drawn huge support from Western governments and citizens alike, many of whom have been convinced by the arguments of Mr Zelensky and Mr Kyslytsya that the war is not just a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, but between authoritarianism and democracy.

Many British and American volunteers have travelled to Ukraine to fight. Two British men and a Moroccan national were recently captured while fighting in the Ukrainian army in Mariupol. Twenty-eight-year-old Aiden Aslin, from Nottinghamshire, 48-year-old Shaun Pinner, from Watford, and Saaudun Brahim from Morocco, were sentenced to death by pro-Russian separatist forces after a show trial on charges of “terrorism.”

Mr Kyslytsya called the sentences “null and void from a legal point of view.”

“It’s all in the hands of Putin. Those so-called authorities, they have no authority whatsoever. Whatever they do, whatever they say, is basically decided by Putin himself and his henchmen.”

On Wednesday, the US announced that it will send a further $1bn in military aid to Ukraine, the largest single allocation of weapons and equipment since the war began. Whether it will be enough to turn the tide remains to be seen. But already in some European capitals, there is talk of urging Ukraine to make concessions, to give up territory for peace. Ukrainians have balked at the idea.

“Well, I would suggest that some countries give up their territory whenever there is a difficult situation,” Mr Kyslytsya says to those suggestions. “It’s totally unacceptable.

“We have a shortage of weapons, but the fact that we have no shortage — after four months of a full-scale invasion — of Ukrainians willing to fight and defend Ukraine, testifies to the fact that any idea of concessions territorial concessions is not acceptable.”

Instead, he argues, Ukraine’s allies should help them win the war, so that Putin’s imperialist ambitions are curtailed.

“If the governments and parliaments do not finish this business and we stop halfway, Putin will [..] will fire his degenerate generals, reform the army, and then he will certainly hit again in five to seven years from now. And we will all pay triple the price.”