Our embassy in Kyiv: working in a country at war

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Belgian embassy in Kiev

Our embassy building in Kyiv. © FPS Foreign affairs

Since July 2022, Belgium has again an embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. What are the duties and what is it like to work in a country at war? We had a conversation with Ambassador Peter Van De Velde.

Most Belgians have never experienced war. And that is a luxury in a world that has always seen war and conflict somewhere since WWII. But with Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, war came very close. It was a major conflict right from the start, with many deaths, injuries and refugees, which rocked an entire country and even the entire world.

Video call with air alert

On 6 March 2022, the Belgian embassy in the capital city of Kyiv closed its doors. Consular services were monitored from the embassy in Warsaw. Several months later, the embassies in Kyiv were gradually reopened. Belgium had a renewed presence in Kyiv as of July. Belgian diplomat Peter Van De Velde had applied for the ambassadorship and has been living in a country at war for more than six months now.

On 23 February 2023, we had a video call with him; the connection was perfect. As soon as the first minutes of the conversation, he reported that an air alert was going off. 'The air alert often goes off and does not always mean danger,' he reassured us. 'It might just be a plane that took off in Belarus. But if you hear anti-aircraft gunfire, missiles could fall and, of course, you have to go to the shelter. Not far from the embassy, 2 missiles have already come down since the renewed Russian attacks on Kyiv since October.'

Immediately, the tone was set: this is no ordinary mission. 'In the past few months, we've had to go to the shelter on average once a week or every 2 weeks,' he said. And that hiding place is a small, windowless kitchen with thick walls in the basement of the building housing the embassy, some 5-6 km from the centre, in a suburb of Kyiv. He himself lives in an apartment in the city and not in the official residence, because the risk there is too great. Indeed, nearby is a military-industrial complex that has already been bombed several times by the Russians.

Van De Velde with president Zelensky

Ambassador Van De Velde with President Zelensky after the presentation of credentials.. © OP.ua

Politically and symbolically important

Why does Belgium insist on keeping an embassy open in a country at war? 'It is politically and symbolically important, and it is greatly appreciated by Ukrainians,' Van De Velde said. 'It's also just convenient. You can have contact with the people on the ground – you see first-hand what is happening. And you can act immediately in a crisis and assist the Belgians in Ukraine.'

He emphasises that this is completely illegal aggression from Russia. 'The invasion is a violation of the United Nations Charter and the Budapest Memorandum (1994), which Russia also signed. That memorandum stipulated that Ukraine must relinquish the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union, in exchange for guarantees of its territorial integrity. Yet Russia invaded Ukraine. So Ukraine is perfectly legitimately defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In that self-defence, the country is being aided by a broad coalition of countries, including Belgium.'

Plan C

There are only 2 Belgian expats from the FPS Foreign Affairs working in Kyiv – himself and a deputy. The rest of the 12-member team is of Ukrainian nationality. 'Of these, 2 people work from Brussels and 1 from Poland.'

And the team has its hands full. First of all, it was extremely important to be prepared for everything and to have a plan C in addition to a plan B. Van De Velde: 'That means buying generators for when the power goes out, stockpiling firewood in case we run out of heating – we heat on gas – but also stockpiling water and food. At one point, we even filled a bathtub with slush water to flush the toilets when no more water was coming out of the tap.'

Such a plan C is certainly needed. 'In the past 2 weeks, we haven't had any power outages, but before that we were without power for 4-5 hours every day. The heating doesn't run when the power goes out, and telecoms connections and the Internet also fail regularly. We've regularly sat in the office with a warm coat and scarf. But you get used to it.' Fortunately, it wasn't a hard winter. 'Normally, it can freeze down to -20°C here, but now we've only occasionally had it down to -10°C, at least in Kyiv.'

Diplomatic duties

In addition to practical matters, the embassy also handles normal diplomatic duties. 'First and foremost, we maintain contact with Ukrainian authorities, stakeholders, civil society, think tanks and suchlike. Secondly, we liaise with the international community, EU counterparts, the UN and other embassies. Based on those first-hand sources, we report on the situation in Ukraine to Brussels.'

'Thirdly, we must always be ready in event of a crisis. About 70 Belgians are still living in Ukraine today: people with dual citizenship, Belgians married to a Ukrainian, business people and finally Belgians working for international organisations.'

'Fourthly, there is a continuous flow of questions from Belgium that we need to answer. People who want to visit, who want to send humanitarian aid and so on.

Visit by Prime Minister De Croo and Minister Lahbib

One of the major tasks in recent months has been preparing for the visit of Prime Minister De Croo and Foreign Minister Lahbib to Kyiv on 26 and 27 November 2022. 'That required intense preparation, which had to be done largely in secret. I did most of that myself, along with 2 co-workers. The rest of the colleagues were not even aware.'

Part of the reason that so many security aspects had to be arranged was that the Ministers were staying in Kyiv for 2 days, so they had to stay overnight. 'Most politicians who visit arrive by train in the morning and return the same day.'

It turned out to be a fruitful and cordial visit. Van De Velde: 'Both Ministers had very good talks with President Zelensky and with the Ukrainian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Culture. They also commemorated the Holodomor, the massive famine of 1932-1933 when 4 million Ukrainians starved to death as a result of Joseph Stalin's harsh policies of collectivisation of agriculture. Prime Minister De Croo and Minister Lahbib also participated in the Grain Summit organised by Ukraine.’ Our country donated 10 million euros, with which the World Food Program (WFP) shipped Ukrainian grain to Africa via the Black Sea.

Few journeys

Normally, an ambassador travels regularly in the host country, but this is more difficult in Ukraine. 'It's a big country and, because of the war, you can't take planes. By train or by car, you can easily be on the road for 2-3 days. Moreover, everything must be in order in terms of security. Nonetheless, I was able to make some visits anyway, especially to Lviv, Vinnytsia and Lutsk. Of course, I have also made several trips to the suburbs of Kyiv that suffered greatly under the Russian occupation, such as Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and Hostomel.'

Mural Banksy

Banksy mural in ravaged Borodyanka during the visit of Prime Minister De Croo and Minister Lahbib in November 2022. © BELGA

From the front row

Ambassador Van De Velde did not apply for the position in Kyiv for no reason. He felt it was important to be there. 'This is a geopolitical conflict; the interests transcend the region. Two views of society are colliding. If you can get a front row seat for that, you should not hesitate to do so as a diplomat.'

Moreover, he had found that he could maintain composure in extremely turbulent circumstances. 'Between 1992 and 1996, I worked at the embassy in Kinshasa (DR Congo), in the last years of President Mobutu,' he says. 'Violence occurred regularly, including looting, riots, tanks and deaths in the streets... The French ambassador was shot dead in January 1993 during riots. We also evacuated 800 Belgians via Brazzaville at that time. In 1994, the genocide took place in Rwanda, which also affected Congo. Many Rwandans fled to eastern Congo. It was the beginning of a long, violent conflict that continues to this day.'

Apparent normality in Kyiv

Meanwhile, Peter Van De Velde has already adapted well to the living conditions in Kyiv. At first glance, it even looks as though life there is going about its ordinary business, but he stresses that this is only for appearances' sake. 'If you look a bit closer, you can see anti-tank obstacles, roadblocks and soldiers on the streets. And a curfew has been imposed for 11pm. At a restaurant, they'll ask you to leave at 9pm. This isn't normal, although the Ukrainians are doing everything possible to maintain normality. That’s linked with their grandiose resilience.'

'You might not notice it when you walk down the street and take the subway, but the war is affecting people tremendously. Almost every Ukrainian knows someone at the front or has lost someone, from their family, among friends and acquaintances. Everyone is being affected.'

No end in sight

The relatively mild winter was a windfall for Ukraine. 'Russia failed in its intent to destroy the energy infrastructure and put Ukrainians in the cold and dark. Indeed, Ukraine was able to get itself through the battle by importing a huge number of generators, and it also managed to repair the destroyed facilities quickly.'

This does not mean that the end of the war is in sight. Van De Velde: 'It doesn't look as though Putin has abandoned the strategic goal of replacing the Zelensky government with a pro-Russian puppet government and annexing all or part of Ukraine. That makes it very difficult to find a basis for negotiations and for peace. Moreover, Russian occupation forces have committed some grave, systematic human rights violations in Ukraine over the past year. And there was already a major breach of trust with Russia owing to Russian lies. Remember President Putin's assurances to President Macron just before the invasion that Russia would not attack Ukraine.'

Ambassador Van De Velde has every intention of staying at the Kyiv mission for at least 2 years. As a show of support from Belgium to Ukraine and to provide immediate assistance to Belgians in Ukraine in the event of a crisis.