The Head of Delegation of the EU to Ukraine, Matti Maasikas talks to ANA-MPA about the first days of Russian invasion to Ukraine and describes the situation in Kiev at the moment.
“ Οn the 24th of February, I as all in Kiev woke up to explosions. An experience Europeans, we thought we never experience again. It’s no secret that the first days and weeks in Kiev were very tense. Kiev was under direct attack, an attempt to capture the capital. Almost all of embassies in Kiev evacuated” says Mr Maasikas adding that now “ once a day at least one needs to go to the shelters, because the sirens go on. But for very short period always”. In addition, he says that President Zelensky ratings have jumped to more than 90%. “ He has stayed, he leads his nation he does the best possible: he speaks, he inspires, not only his own people but also he has phone calls and appearances with global leaders and parliaments, meaning the people directly. His approval ratings have risen to over 90% and many people who were skeptical of his personality and of his presidency are now saying that he has now risen to the challenge” explains.
The Ambassador remembered also the period of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and talks about his Greek colleague, Theodoros Sotiropoulos with whom cooperated then in Brussels when the sanctions against Russia were decided.
Q:I would like you to describe the situation and what you have come through since the war started in 24th of February and the invasion of Russia to Ukraine and what you have been through till the flag of EU raised again in Kiev and what is the situation right now.
MM:Οn the 24th of February, I as all in Kiev woke up to explosions. An experience Europeans, we thought we never experience again. It’s no secret that the first days and weeks in Kiev were very tense. Kiev was under direct attack, an attempt to capture the capital. Almost all of embassies in Kiev evacuated.
With one exemption, the Polish Ambassador who stayed in Kiev. So did we. So did the EU Delegation, so did the Greek Embassy. We set up a hub in Rzeszow, in South-East Poland, closest to the Ukrainian border to coordinate humanitarian assistance, coordinate international cooperation from there because more than ten Embassies relocated from Kiev to Rzeszow.
But as soon as Kiev was out of artillery firing, early April, I went back. In diplomacy added value comes from the presence. You need to be there.
This great city is opening up, people are returning, restaurants and cafeterias are opening up. I don’t say it’s back to normal, it can’t be normal. It’s a capital of a country at war and Russians have made it clear any spot in Ukraine can be targeted by missiles but that’s the place to work.
Q:How is your daily life since you have returned?
MM:Once a day at least one need to go to the shelter, because the sirens go on. But for very short period always. Kiev was hit during this period only once. It was pointedly the day that UN Secretary General, Guteres was in town. Kiev itself was only hit once.
My daily work is a diplomat’s daily work. I go out to meet people, Ukrainian authorities and plan and steer EU support to Ukraine in this very very tense period.
A fully independent Ukraine is not something seen very favorably in Kremlin
Q:Could you believe before the start of this war that Putin would invade Ukraine and that Ukrainians could show such a resistance?
MM: Yes and yes. For the Russia’s planning there was sufficient information shared by and with allies. And Ukraine has always had a special place in Russia’s imperial thing. A fully independent Ukraine is not something seen very favorably in Kremlin. So, yes, I did believe that Russia would invade.
At the same time, it was very clear to anybody who wanted to see that Ukrainians will resist and will resist fiercely.
Ukraine has been at war since 2014 when Russians took over, illegally annexed Crimea.
Q. Whole world knew President Zelensky, “ a President Zelensky” that could not even imagine. He is considered a hero of our world at the moment. From day one, he was not willing to leave his people.
MM: The rule that President Zelensky has taken is carried our extraordinary. You rightly hinted. He stayed there, Kiev was under direct attack. And there were plans to take over the government buildings, the government quarter where Presidential office is as well. That was known. It has taken also a huge personal courage to stay. He has stayed, he leads his nation he is doing the best possible: he speaks, he inspires, not only his own people but also he has phone calls and appearances with global leaders and parliaments, meaning the people directly.
His approval ratings have risen to over 90% and many people who were skeptical of his personality and of his presidency are now saying that he has now risen to the challenge.
Q: Do you believe that Ukraine is satisfied with the EU, the humanitarian aid, financial or military assistance or even with the process towards the candidacy in order Ukraine to become a member of the EU?
MM: They are. It must be said. Recently it was spelled out by foreign ministry Kuleba. A trinity or a trident because Ukraine’s coat of arm is a trident- a trident of Ukraine’s motivation, wishes, arms’ deliveries, sanctions against Russia and EU membership perspective. These are the things that help Ukraine fight and win the war and to be motivated for that.
The EU has risen to the challenge as well. EU has a peace project for decades. Now, it’s coordinating its member states’ military assistance to Ukraine and financing it with 1,5 billion euros so far. And maybe more to come.
The EU has imposed sanctions against Russia which go to the areas that were though impossible, like deswifting Russian banks and others. Now, as we speak, Friday 6th of May, member states are discussing a new package of sanctions that also entails ban of import of Russian oil. So it goes to energy. Energy area as well. I mention this because that is exactly what Ukraine, Ukrainians always requested.
Ukraine’s membership application dealt at a record pace
MM:Membership application that President Zelensky signed in the darkest of hour, fifth day of the war from a defense position has been dealt now at a record pace. For us who know the history and the process of enlargement, this has gone very quickly. It was also helped by the fact that, since we have a very deep and comprehensive association agreement in place for five years we know already many things about Ukraine than normally an applicant country need to come through.
This process is in the EU Commission’s hands, who assess Ukraine’s compliance with the Copenhagen criteria, membership criteria and Ukrainians of course are very eager to the results of this assessment and then verdict of the member states as soon as possible.
Q: Despite the robust packages of sanctions and the unprecedented unity in the EY, there are still some critics against EU who say that EU is bureaucracy and that it is slow. What do you respond to them?
MM: Look at how quickly and smoothly these packages are adopted. Look at the first reaction… The first EU Council, gathered less than 12 hours after the war had started. Look at how EU Commission came out with a plan to reduce our dependence on Russian energy carriers. Within weeks and with deadlines. In the darkest of hours, the EU can put its acts together.
I was representing my country in the EU in 2014, when Russia annexed illegally Crimea and the first sanctions packages adopted. And it was the Greek Presidence who steered these discussions and my good Greek colleague Theo Sotiropoulos, as Greek Ambassador, very firmly and very smoothly sheperded the decisions. So, EU in the gravest moments is capable to act together.
We need to do more to preserve peace in our continent.
Q: On Monday 9th of May, it’s Europe Day. We celebrate peace and unity, however now we have a war in our neighbourhood. What does Europe Day mark this year?
MM: Even more need to be done to maintain peace. Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is daily work to make those achievements sustainable, to strengthen the institutions, to strengthen cooperation and also to strengthen our defense so that peace can be sustainable. So it is a very sad but relevant reminder that we need to do more to preserve peace in our continent.