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Bull in a china shop diplomacy
Perhaps you’ve heard of Andriy Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin who might very well be the least diplomatic man ever to have run an embassy.
On his Twitter feed he regularly attacks the German political and intellectual establishment, sometimes very personally.
“You are a real ars…” he wrote in response to Johannes Varwick, a politics professor from the University of Halle who argued that German weapons deliveries would “artificially prolong” an inevitable Russian victory. Varwick advised the Ukrainian leadership to give up the fight and go into exile.
To Fabio de Masi, a politician for Die Linke who accused Kyiv of lying over the presence of far-right extremists in its military, Melnyk retorted that: “You’re better off shutting your leftist mouth.”
Melnyk also upset Finance Minister Christian Lindner by revealing to a journalist the details of a confidential chat in which a smiling Lindner told him that the Russians would soon install a puppet regime in Kyiv. Melnyk described the conversation as “the worst of his life.”
Meanwhile he has been snubbing German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier for over a year over a speech in which Steinmeier (formerly SPD Foreign Minister) justified the completion of the North Stream pipeline with reference to Nazi war crimes. Steinmeier called the pipeline a “bridge” to Russia.
After turning down an invitation from the President to an exhibition on Soviet prisoners of war last summer, Melnyk gave him the cold should again this weekend when Steinmeier organized a concert for peace at his official resident, Schloss Bellevue.
The Ukrainian ambassador tweeted that he “can’t be bothered with” a celebration of “great Russian culture” - a reference to the fact that Russian compositions were on the programme.
Melnyk’s frustration is understandable.
For years Germany attempted to dissuade other allies from sending weapons to Ukraine, while Berlin vetoed Ukrainian membership of Nato. In the lead up to the war the most that Germany was prepared to offer in the way of military equipment was helmets.
Even after the Russians invaded, the military equipment delivered by Berlin has been minimal while it has blocked sanctions against the Russian energy sector.
Given that Ukrainian flags have been raised at public buildings across the country, there is more than a whiff of cynicism about the public proclamations by German leaders that they stand with Ukraine.
Arguably though, Melnyk’s un-diplomacy isn’t doing his country any favours. By his own admission he is persona non grata in both the Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery.
Sören Bartol, an SPD man who is second in command of the Interior Ministry, probably expressed a sentiment felt by many colleagues when he vented on Twitter recently that “I’ve come to find this ‘ambassador’ to be unbearable.”
The government in Kyiv is sticking with Melnyk, though.
Perhaps they’ve noticed what, while he is terrible at the traditional skills of a diplomacy, he is brilliant at influencing public opinion.
Dashingly dressed and highly quotable, Melnyk has certainly gone down well with journalists. Both Der Spiegel and the Frankfurter Allgemeine - two of the most respected publications in the country - have run long, favourable profiles of him in recent weeks.
In Der Spiegel's account, sycophantic conservative politicians snuggle up to Melnyk for selfies, aware that he is making the SPD look bad. Meanwhile government ministers make a beeline for the nearest exit whenever they see him in the Bundestag.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine recounts how, in contrast to the straight-shooting ambassador, German politicians who have something bad to say about Melnyk will only do so off the record.
We are led to question what has gone wrong in German democracy when a foreign diplomat feels more at ease speaking the truth than the country’s own elected officials.
But for all that Melnyk’s emotional attacks seem to be coming from the heart, one shouldn’t forget that it is still his job to advance the narrative of his own political masters.
Sometimes those narratives are more than a little problematic.
Most notoriously, back in 2015 Melnyk travelled to Munich to place flowers at the tomb of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who was killed in exile by the KGB in 1959.
Bandera is one of the most contentious figures in Ukrainian national memory. He collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War when the nationalist movement that he led was involved in massacres of ethnic Poles and advocated the ethnic cleansing of Russians and Jews.
In modern day Ukraine Bandera is revered by many in the west of the country. Cities like Lviv, ambassador Melnyk’s hometown, have erected statues of him and named streets in his honour.
But in the east Bandera is remembered as a war criminal. During the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin explicitly referenced the hero-worship of Bandera as proof that Ukraine had come under the influence of Nazis.
During the current war too, Melnyk’s blind spot for Ukrainian ultra-nationalism has been clear. Both Die Zeit and Tagesschau have reported on the Azov Battalion, a regiment who are leading the defence of Mariopol but who were founded by and are still heavily influenced by neo-Nazis.
“Dear tagesschau, please leave the Azov battalion in peace. How long do you plan on supporting this fake Russian narrative in the middle of a war of extermination?” Melnyk tweeted on March 19th.
Responding to the Die Zeit article, he called the Azov fighters “courageous” and said they were the subject of a “campaign of demonisation.”
But the claim that the German press are parroting Russian propaganda is pretty thin. According to CNN, the US congress has long deliberated whether to classify the Azov battalion as a foreign terror organisation over its links to neo-Nazism.
So that is Andriy Melnyk. He is good at pointing out the hypocrisies of German foreign policy. But that doesn’t mean he’s so honest about the hypocrisies of his own government.