A day before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Etienne de Poncins, the French ambassador in Kyiv, hosted Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, in his office to discuss a more than €60 million French investment in a water treatment plant and other plans for a makeover of the southern port city.
“He proposed some projects to develop his city, particularly how he wanted to modernize the seafront,” recalled de Poncins.
Boychenko now presides over a city in ruins after a month-long battering from Russia’s military that has left 100,000 people believed to be trapped without food, water or electricity.
De Poncins and half a dozen other senior European diplomats have swapped their pre-war ambassadorial duties such as awarding “women in business” prizes and opening libraries to organize the evacuation of their nationals, help deliver emergency equipment and collect evidence of war crimes.
While the U.S., Germany and the Delegation of the EU in Ukraine have transferred their embassy staff to Poland, the ambassadors of France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Latvia and Lithuania have stayed put in the country, with some shifting their offices and accommodation to the western city of Lviv. The Russian assault has turned them into unlikely humanitarians, coordinating their countries’ medical and logistical assistance on the ground.
“Now, I do humanitarian help,” de Poncins said. “I handle the last kilometer for supplies coming from Poland … I go catch them here in Ukraine and then I handle distribution, as well as requests from Ukrainians on what they need.”
“The fact that I am here gives me much more weight,” said the French diplomat. “An ambassador is made for being in the country where he is posted … you are here in the difficult moments and hours. I would have felt very bad if I had left,” he said, adding that France’s current presidency of the Council of the EU made it even more necessary that he stay in Ukraine.
Earlier this week, de Poncins traveled to Siret, just over the border in Romania, to welcome 27 new ambulances, fire trucks and 50 tons of medical equipment sent by French regional authorities. “The Ukrainians said they urgently needed fire trucks due to the bombardments, so we passed along those requests to Paris … and then we receive the supplies,” de Poncins explained. He regularly leaves Lviv, under tightened security, to visit mid-sized cities “to see how the situation is there,” and gauge their needs.
From geopolitics to bussing out refugees
His Italian counterpart, Pier Francesco Zazo, won plaudits last month for sheltering about 100 Italians, including newborn babies in his embassy in Kyiv, from where they were later evacuated to neighboring Moldova. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi paid public tribute to Zazo and his staff’s “spirit of service, dedication and courage.”
“Before the war, I was focused on following the geopolitical situation of Ukraine’s contested eastern region of Donbas, the efforts of the Ukrainian government in pursuing the necessary structural reforms, and promoting economical and commercial ties between Italy and Ukraine,” Zazo said, noting that Italy is Ukraine’s third-ranked European trading partner after Germany and Poland.
“Now, we don’t have a full-fledged embassy anymore, we don’t even have easily access to contact numbers and therefore my job has become a very operational one … and a tiring one sometimes,” Zazo said. “We still represent an important reference point between Italy and the Ukraine government, the United Nations, the International Red Cross, our NGOs, associations and some Italian missionaries with whom we organize bus transfers with refugees.”
Zazo said that he and de Poncins have “a privileged access” to the Ukrainian government, including through meetings with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Ihor Zhovkva, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration.
The seven European ambassadors have set up a coordination group on Signal, an end-to-end-encrypted messaging app, to “exchange information, ideas on who to meet, what requests we should make, and it works really well,” Zazo said.
Besides the few hundred French and Italian nationals still in Ukraine, a major concern for the ambassadors are the dozens of their nationals still stranded in the besieged southern cities of Mariupol and Kherson.
“There was a family in Kherson who did not want to leave,” de Poncins said. “There are some cases of French people who want to leave but can’t because there is no possibility to come and transfer them.”
“For us, this is the main issue now,” Zazo agreed, adding that there were constant contacts with the U.N. and the International Red Cross to establish “safe humanitarian corridors” for their evacuation. His presence in Ukraine would provide some “psychological relief for the more or less 160 Italians who are still here.”
Those ambassadors still on the ground also now find themselves tasked with collecting evidence of war crimes taking place in Ukraine. Earlier this month, the International Criminal Court said it would investigate possible war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in Ukraine.
“Ukrainian authorities send us elements, there’s regular and ongoing work with the police … ” de Poncins said. “We do it on site … they send us documents and we send them to Paris … we’re like a go-between … but the case law is in Paris.”
Many of the European ambassadors still in Ukraine admitted that despite the alarm raised by their British and American counterparts, they could not have anticipated the timing and magnitude of the Russian invasion. Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, had told de Poncins during his embassy visit that he was “not worried” about an imminent war because “I know the Russians.”
However, de Poncins and Zazo acknowledged that their presence on the ground had become a moral imperative.
“There are a certain number of things we can’t do from the outside,” said de Poncins. “But staying on the ground is a political decision at the highest level, it is a gesture of solidarity, of trust … and diplomacy is about gestures, signals we send out.”