In October President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have signed the Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA). What exactly will it change? Why it is so important?
- It was a really fantastic, very wide thought exchange. Ukrainian president brought many ministers with him, who went to have bilateral meetings with our ministers. The atmosphere was so positive. Our Prime Minister was really happy. The difference that it made was that it establishes the relationship as a partnership. I know that this sounds not that much, but when two countries decide, that they share common values and they want to bring a systematization in the relationship. The more this Agreement is saying is that both sides have more things to offer to each other. I think this is a sign of maturity of a relationship ever since independence. Since 2014 Ukraine has needed a lot from its partners and has asked for things and part of this we are delivering. But during these last years, Ukraine has been unfortunately learning a lot about things like how you take on Russian aggression and has quite a lot to share on that with the UK and with the other countries. At the same time, it has been growingits ability to trade with other countries. The UK at the same point has left the EU, is looking to establish bilateral relationships with other countries. And Ukraine is one of the first, we have signed a trade deal with. So, the SPA is about how we will trade in the future, but it also about acknowledging that we want a systemic partnership in the future. So for me, it is a kind of levels the playing field.
Is there any schedule of next steps, if we could call it this way?
- The first most important step is both sides need to ratify the trade agreement. It is on track to Parliament, then in the next few weeks, I have an assurance from the Ukrainian Ministry of foreign affairs that it should be ratified by the Verkhovna Rada by the end of December. The UK is still negotiating its trade agreement with the EU. And this SPA we have signed with Ukraine has to wait, before we can go into the areas where we can grow the relationship until the terms of that deal with the UK has with the EU is finalized. So the most important next steps are the UK needs to finalize the terms of its exist from the EU and Ukraine and the UK needs to ratify the deal that we have. Once that is done we can then look at who meets when we meet and what we need in the future. There is absolutely the potential within the agreement for the partnership to grow. The range of sectors, the depth of the sectors it is just we cannot start doing that until next year.
In your opinion, Brexit helps that process or it is rather an obstacle?
- In terms of the bilateral relationship, the political relationship - it makes no difference because Britain has always been a strong supporter of Ukraine's territorial integrity and Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. And what’s our country has decided about our own future aside from the EU has no bearing on that at all. If you look at our track record in the UN Security Council, in NATO and bilaterally, you can see that there has been no change there. It has been warm, it has delivered, it continues to be warm and continues to deliver. The area where it makes a difference is really on trade because being inside the EU means there has been no bilateral trade relationship, it all has been done with the EU association agreement. Now we have a bilateral trade agreement. There is quite a lot of incentive and quite a lot of potential by sides to grow that in a way that it would have been harder to do as part of a group of 27. So for me, that is the big thing that changes.
Which impact has the current pandemic on our trade and relations in general?
- There is no effect on relations in general, aside from what is happened all over the world. So there was no Ukraine-specific effect. Every country has experienced an economic downturn. Even the countries, who have been done well with COVID-19, are facing similar economic downturn. In every country, businesses are having to look to see how to cope, how to build resilience, what to do about the traditional way, which they have done business, wherever they have been. Ukraine is affected and the UK is affected by that too. In terms of the UK's trade with Ukraine, it has been affected in a negative way by the lockdown. So it is not so much by the pandemic, but with the lockdown. Of course, if you close borders, which Ukraine has had to do, in the same way as the UK has had to do in the first wave of the virus, then you can't transport goods so that's going to make an impact on your ability to import and export.And the figures from the first quarter of the year show that. As long as there isn't the return to that kind of lockdown, it shouldn't have that kind of continued effect on trade. It hasn't shifted the political idea of trading with Ukraine. It hasn't shifted the terms on which people trade. It's just have been the logistics that have been hampered by the pandemic. I hope that if we move to a kind of more localized set of restrictions to a world in which the majority of vulnerable people can be vaccinated, trade can continue, and then we can continue to see how we can recoup it and grow it.
Which Ukrainian products would have the best perspectives on the British market?
What I mean generally, first, there is huge potential for agricultural goods. I think there is a moment of opportunity for Ukraine on agriculture. It is entirely dependent on the Ukrainian government moving ahead with land reforms both on the bureaucracy and ownership etc. and then could create a huge opportunity. But I think beyond the agriculture for the UK there is potential in areas that have been small but could grow like iron, ore and steel production. But actually business services, in particular, IT-services can be multipliers. This is one of the first things that struck me when I came to Ukraine in September last year. It's a country full of young entrepreneurs, who are highly IT-literateand that was the sector, which is growing slowly, but steadily for the UK even as I have arrived. Now we have this trade deal that really looks like something Ukraine can be exploiting opportunities more generally right across the tech industry.
If we come back a little bit to our Euro-Atlantic aspirations, right now we have a Constitutional court crisis, which could potentially make significant damage to the image of Ukraine in Europe. Some talk even about the possible canceling of a visa-free regime for Ukraine. Of course, the UK is now not a part of the EU, but maybe you can comment on that issue.
- The important thing about this, and about the response to the pandemic, and about the economic growth, and about reforms in general, it is that it needs for countries to be working together to support Ukraine. Even though the UK is left the EU, I continue to work closely alongside EU countries and the EU Ambassador here, as well as in the G7 groupinng and with other countries that have an interest in Ukraine, like Turkey or Egypt. It is a very wide range of relationships, but the EU remains an important one for me. Although we left the EU, the values, on which we base our relationship with Ukraine, remain the same. So our interest in that regard is very similar to the EU.
Absolutely it's the case, that there has been a constitutional crisis, it relates to being in touch with juridical reform issue. We’ve been quite active in the G7, in seeing how we can support what is quite clearly an intention by the government to make things right. How the Ukrainian government plans to do that – is for the Ukrainian government. But what was very heartening to see is the strength of feeling in parliament and in the office of the President that something needs to be done to limit the effects of counter-interests getting in the way of the Judiciary to be able to do the right thing by the Ukrainian people. And then also my hope really about this crisis, a real win after that would be that it gives fresh momentum to complete judiciary reform. In terms of trade, certainly for the UK businesses, judiciary reform is the first thing, and tackling corruption is the second thing – these are the two priorities that they look to when they think about investing in some country. So, of course, if you going to grow the trade relationship these are the two things that need to be tackled. And it's been slowed. Both of two things, but particularly the judiciary reform has been slowed. So one of the prizes, that might come out of this crisis, and I'm feeling kind of quite positive, that it might, given the range of people who have got involved in it really and the range of ideas that have been coming out over the last couple of weeks is this fresh drive to the idea that a comprehensive judiciary reform must happen. In order to make these institutions sufficiently strong, that when the country-interests are trying to get involved, it is much harder for them to stage any kind of weakening of these institutions.
If we come from trade to security and defence – how could you assess the results of our partnership in this sector?
- Unfortunately, security and defence cooperation was affected by the pandemic exactly in the same way as trade. The training that we have been operating through Operation Orbital had to stop. Because in the first wave we were keeping people apart, so you could not train troops. So we stopped for a while a lot of that training. And now it has got started again which is good – not yet to the full speed but it will get there at some point.
The partnership is really strong. Defence ministers on both sides in Ukraine and the UK have put a lot of time and effort into developing this relationship. Our Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has been out to Ukraine twice in the last year to talk about this, to assess Black Sea security, to talk about maritime training. As you know the UK is a really strong maritime partner and look forward to what more we could do with Ukraine's maritime security. He himself has a military background and also a political background, technically very up to date. And he had a very good relationship both with the previous defence minister and with the current defence minister. That sort of relationship is critical to framing the ambition of the security relationship between our countries. And that brought about the agreement for building naval capacity, which was signed in the UK. Which is a really exciting venture, it makes total sense, because it's an area of expertise for the UK, of comparative advantages. It is a very obvious thing to come to an island state like the UK and ask to help with the navy. But it's a deal, that framed in such a way that Ukraine is also been learning how to do some of the construction.
On security, it is for sure, that relationship will stay really strong. What also has been exciting about it is that while Op Orbital has been doing a really good job at training troops, we have also been understanding from Ukraine how the conflict is shifting security priorities and we have been shifting our support as a result. It is a really important signifier that we are now looking at maritime support and hybrid support which are new in additionto the capacity build of the army. It shows I hope that we are paying really close attention to what current contemporary security needs are and working very close alongside Ukraine to help deliver on them.
Do you know the current status of the deal on purchasing British military vessels by Ukraine?
- The next thing then is to finalize the detail on the proposed boats. My understanding is that there was going to be a follow up visit by defence minister Andriy Taran. Of course, the second wave of the pandemic makes it quite difficult to do that. But there is an understanding on both sides what needs to be done. So the last step is a technical one, it’s about finalizing technical specifications.
Could you please share the current position of the United Kingdom on Ukraine's aspiration of NATO membership?
- Now Ukraine has Enhanced Opportunity Partnership (EOP) status with NATO. Achieving interoperability with NATO forces is a priority for the next stage of Euro-Atlantic integration. Deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine Olha Stefanishyna has made that very clear, and so has Minister Taran. The UK and Canada are NATO Contact Embassy, and our job is not just to raise awareness of what NATO does so that Ukrainians increasingly understand the benefits of the path the Ukrainian government is going on. It is also about demystifying and helping people to understand what interoperability is. For me, it’s got two parts. It is not only operationally being able to do exercises alongside NATO troops. It is also about institutional reforms that are required to have a strong Ministry of Defence. The UK is one of the main countries that has been providing support for reforming of Ministry of Defence, alongside updating of training.
We are supportive of Ukraine seeking membership of NATO, so we have been lobbying quite strongly for each of the stages – but there are stages. Coming back to reform work, that is why we are investing so heavily in helping the Ukrainian ministry of defence to achieve those reforms, because the institutional staff is going to be as important for going the long road to NATO membership as the interoperability. This progress is slower than it should be. There has been good progress inside the defence ministry, but next steps really need to be taken to make sure that career planning for troops, procurement reform continues that all the kind of building blocks for building an operation, happen inside the institution just as soldiers understand how NATO operates on the ground.
We do a lot of lobbying in Brussels, we were among countries who lobbying for EOP for Ukraine earlier this year. We are really very excited and happy for Ukraine when Ukraine got EOP. When I first arrived here, I was told by many people, that it was unlikely. By February, Ukraine had it. But it's really equally important to understand that this is just a waymark and there is quite a long way to go. And the things that we are talking about between September and February remain valid. Ukraine needs to continue to do all these things.
Is there a common vision of threats in the field of cybersecurity and a common response to them?
- Cyber is a security priority for Ukraine alongside military security. Russian aggression manifests itselfin several ways – and cyberattacks is one of them. We have a good dialog with the Ukrainian government about those, many of them are public. We have done a few things to help and work with the Ukrainian government, including the provision ofkit (or equipment – O.K).And we have spent quite a lot of time training on cyber. We are currently doing a cyber training for civil service. Because there is a thing just about understanding it first. And then there is a thing about providing the kit,so you can understand what that kit could tackle. But I had no doubt in my mind having had meetings with several cabinet members, with Secretary of NSDC Oleksiy Danylov, that they know exactly what the shape is of the threat, which Ukraine faces in the cyber domain. So for us, it's about the conversations, where best they think the UK can continue to help in the future. For now, the training that we are giving, is really helpful for cyber hygiene, literally for individuals to understand how they themselves are vulnerable as representatives of government.
Melinda Simmons. Gained a BA (Hons) in modern languages (French and German) from the University of Exeter in 1988; as well as an MA in European politics from the University of North London in 1995. From 1990 to 1994 had several positions in marketing. From 1994 to 1998 she was public affairs officer in a conflict resolution NGO. From 1998 to 2008 she held roles at the Department for International Development (DfID). From 2013 to 2016 she worked at the FCO as deputy director of the conflict department. She was the national security secretariat, head, Joint Programme Hub from 2016 to 2017, and national security secretariat, director, National Security Secretariat Joint Funds Unit from 2017 to 2018. Since 2019 Simmons has been Ambassador in Kyiv, Ukraine.