Defending Ukraine in the heart of Europe
Ukrainian diplomat Olexander Scherba is the country’s current ambassador to Austria, a role which has thrust him to the forefront of the fight to shape opinion in one of the most important capitals within the EU. Today’s Vienna serves as a headquarters for a wide range of international organisations such as the OSCE, and as such it is a crucial diplomatic hub where attitudes towards the Ukraine crisis are often forged and determined. Ambassador Scherba is a career diplomat who this year celebrated his twentieth anniversary in the Ukrainian diplomatic service. Previous overseas postings have included service at the Ukrainian embassies in Germany and America, but he first rose to genuine public prominence during 2014 while serving as Ambassador-at-Large for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. In this role, Ambassador Scherba became a regular commentator on international TV stations during coverage of the Euromaidan protests and the subsequent Russian military intervention in Crimea and east Ukraine. Ambassador Scherba, who says his diplomatic role model is nineteenth century French diplomatic legend Talleyrand, spoke to Business Ukraine magazine this month about the challenges of representing Ukraine in one of Europe’s liveliest diplomatic hotspots.
Vienna is regarded as one of the key diplomatic hubs in today’s Europe. How does Ukraine’s diplomatic mission in Vienna compare to other missions in major global capitals?
It’s a rather small embassy which is understaffed and under-financed, just like most other Ukrainian missions are at present. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, it is an energized embassy which is very much conscious of the responsibility resting on the shoulders of every Ukrainian diplomat amid today’s existential crisis. It is also important to note another immensely invigorating factor - the embassy is backed by a vivid, spirited Ukrainian community in Vienna.
Seeking understanding and support for Ukraine among the Austrian public is often an uphill battle. I cannot offer what Russia offers on a daily basis. But I can offer the truth. And the truth is that by annexing Crimea and starting a hybrid war in east Ukraine, Russia destroyed Europe as we know it. The truth is that one region of Ukraine is under direct Russian occupation at the moment, while another region is filled with hateful Russian citizens holding Russian guns and Russian flags while fighting against Ukraine. No matter how many billions you spend, you can’t hide this ‘elephant in the room’. The truth will prevail. It always does. My function as a diplomat is to make sure it happens sooner rather than later.
Do you ever feel outgunned by the scale of the large Russian diplomatic presence in Vienna?
I am outgunned in terms of the amount of money and manpower spent here by Russia. But what’s the purpose of all this ‘investment’? What the Kremlin is doing is the largest, most mind-boggling act of political seduction in the history of mankind. It seems like they are pursuing a threefold strategy designed to undermine Ukraine, confront America and seduce Europe. This strategy bets against freedom, democracy and tolerance, while offering all kinds of reasons to give up on things that until just recently were believed to be dear to Europe. Basically, it tries to buy Europe’s soul. In many cases this has not been unsuccessful.
What is your impression of Austrian public opinion regarding the Russian annexation of Crimea and military intervention in east Ukraine?
Austrians realize that something went massively wrong in Europe. And, instinctively, they now want this problem to go away. They understand that the annexation of Crimea was illegal, and that Russia is deeply involved in the events in east Ukraine. However, words like ‘war’ and ‘aggression’ are in most cases avoided. Saying them would mean taking sides, and Austrians passionately stick to their neutral status. My policy is to consistently remind them that neutrality doesn’t mean indifference. I remind them that all parallels, say, between the Ukrainian and Balkan wars are deeply flawed. What’s happening in east Ukraine is not an ethnic war. It is not a war for territory, but a war for values, for Europe’s soul. This means that it’s the kind of war where Europe, by default, cannot be politically and emotionally neutral.
How influential has the Russian information offensive been in shaping Austrian opinion towards the Ukraine crisis?
I don’t know how effective it has been in terms of costs and benefits, as the cost to the Russian treasury must be enormous. But it successfully pulls all the right strings: the anti-Americanism, the sour mood within the EU, the pain of economic sanctions, the historic connections from the past, and so on. The amount of money spent seems to be just as important here as the level of sophistication. But fooling people and telling them lies is a thankless task that ultimately never succeeds. So I would say it has been ‘influential’ but not ‘victorious’.
How would you describe Austrian media coverage of the Ukraine crisis?
Those media outlets which cover the war directly tend to try to avoid taking sides. Their motto seems to be: it’s a dirty war. Both sides are guilty and in violation of agreements, and the civilians have to suffer. That’s also the prevailing tenor of Austrian TV coverage. On the other hand, the analysts in serious newspapers are more critical of Russia as the party responsible for starting this whole mess. What is the most important factor here? TV coverage, I would say. As the Russian singer Boris Grebenshchikov commented, it’s a war between TV vs. common sense, and TV is winning. If TV says it’s an ethnic conflict, then it’s an ethnic conflict. If TV says things are too confused, then they are too confused. And if TV says nothing, then it obviously wasn’t worth mentioning and is not that big a deal.
To what extent is the Ukraine crisis being viewed in Viennese diplomatic circles in a geopolitical context (i.e. USA/NATO vs. Russia) rather than as Ukraine’s struggle for a European future?
Frankly, the debate in diplomatic circles is not my biggest problem. Diplomats are pragmatic, practical people who are generally deeply aware that the whole ‘Ukraine is just a battlefield’ mantra is being consciously cultivated by Russia. My problem is with politicians and the broader general public. And the further to the right or to the left of the political spectrum one stands, the more one is inclined to buy into this mantra.
The centrists of the political debate realize that the Ukrainian revolution is the logical continuation of the revolutions that shaped Europe 25 years ago. Those revolutions were all about values. The left and right wingers tend to overlook these values, and look away from the fact that Ukraine has chosen the same things as eastern and central Europeans did 25 years ago. They also overlook the fact that, unlike the nations who left the Eastern Bloc 25 years ago, Ukraine is being punished for its choice. This is the danger we face: with one small step, ‘pragmatic Europe’ can easily become a Europe without values. Is this the essence of the coming ideological shift on the continent, so vigorously anticipated by Russia? It may be.
Austria is a major investor in Ukraine. Has this business involvement in Ukraine played a role in bolstering official Austrian support for Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia?
Not as much as I wished it would. Ukraine is at war and many investments are seen as being at risk, or as an actual or potential liability. On the other hand, many want to see more encouragement of foreign investments on Ukraine’s part. I am not talking about fighting corruption which now, with Yanukovych gone, seems to be much less of a problem. Today’s big problem seems to be the bureaucracy and the internal political fights within Ukraine. Doing business in Ukraine must get easier. I see things evolving in this direction, and can only hope that it would happen more rapidly and prominently.
Do you see any parallels in the post-WWII relationship between Germany and Austria and today’s relationship between Russia and Ukraine?
No. There was no major hostility between these two countries, either in terms of political ties or human relations. In terms of Ukraine and Russia, this seems to be the case. I’m afraid that this will be our new reality for years to come.
Over the past eighteen months you have emerged as an active participant in the social media debate revolving around Ukraine. What tips would you offer to your colleagues in the Ukrainian diplomatic corps and the Ukrainian government on engaging with international audiences via social media?
I am not sure that I’m entitled to give advice. My activity on social media is not flawless as it’s not part of some broader strategy. It’s deeply emotional, coming from the fact that I simply cannot remain silent while my country gets badmouthed. My advice would be to remain patient and to always remember one thing: this war is about defending Ukraine, not attacking Russia. I would also stress that it is crucial to always try and check your sources.
Throughout the Euromaidan protests and subsequent Russian intervention, you have regularly been interviewed by the international media as a representative of the Ukrainian government. How have the lines of questioning you have faced, and the journalistic understanding of the issues involved, evolved during this period?
At first, before the active phase of the war began in the Donbas, interviewers kept asking me: “How do you plan to win this thing without really defending yourselves?” Now they are asking: “Why do you keep defending yourselves, even though you know you cannot win?” I always feel tempted to ask in response: How can you overlook the fact that we have no choice? We have to fight, and we will fight for as long as it takes to make Ukraine a better country.