Andrij Melnyk — Ambassador of Ukraine

There is no other diplo­mat fea­red in poli­ti­cal Berlin like Andriy Melnyk. Where ever­yo­ne is tal­king about stra­te­gy, he is tal­king about life and death.

By Livia Gerster

Melnyk in der ukrainischen Botschaft
Melnyk in the Ukrainian embas­sy — Jens Gyarmaty

Andriy Melnyk knows that German atten­ti­on is fick­le. That’s why he takes every oppor­tu­ni­ty to exp­lain to them what’s at sta­ke “as long as someo­ne still wants to see and hear me”. Germans have got­ten used to the ambassa­dor broad­cas­ting from a talk show to their living room night after night, always dres­sed as ele­gant­ly as he speaks. A German that you can envy him for, also becau­se he finds words that are stron­ger than ours. “Small carat” is such a word.

For examp­le, the Bundestag’s reac­tion to the Ukrainian President’s speech last week is small-scale.

Andriy Melnyk sits the­re in the grand­stand and kneads his hands. “We have said again and again that Nord Stream is a pre­pa­ra­ti­on for war,” says Zelensky from the screen. Olaf Scholz sits small in his swi­vel chair and loo­ks up at him. Melnyk blinks behind his glasses.

The “we” that Selensky speaks of means abo­ve all him, the Ukrainian ambassa­dor in Berlin. He has repeated­ly cri­ti­ci­zed the con­struc­tion of the pipe­line, and when he felt it was necessa­ry, so did Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He did­n’t feel heard. When Melnyk kno­cked at the Foreign Ministry or the Chancellery, they did­n’t even open the door. There has been a kind of house ban for Melnyk the­re for years.

Dear Chancellor Scholz,” says Selensky with dark cir­cles under his eyes. “Give Germany the lea­ders­hip role it deser­ves.” Melnyk can only see the back of the Chancellor’s head, sur­roun­ded by black head­pho­nes through which the interpreter’s voice is spea­king. Then the screen goes black, Scholz is silent and Selensky’s appeal falls on the agenda.

Melnyk does not dele­te his tweets

Melnyk did­n’t want it to hap­pen like this. Two days ear­lier, he asked Olaf Scholz to react to the speech and make a government state­ment. The SPD found that presump­tuous. State Secretary Sören Bartol wro­te on Twitter that he “now finds this ambassa­dor unbe­ara­ble”. He put the word “ambassa­dor” in quo­ta­ti­on marks.

Melnyk does­n’t know Bartol, but he can under­stand him. “He was just reflec­ting the mood in the fac­tion,” says Melnyk, and it sounds as if he feels sor­ry for Bartol. Melnyk knows that many in the SPD think like Bartol, but don’t say it. Melnyk pre­fer tho­se who speak their minds.

What can you do when you’­re angry? Send a nas­ty tweet.” He often feels the same way. “You are a real Ar…” he wri­tes, for examp­le, to a poli­tics pro­fes­sor who calls on Ukraine to capi­tu­la­te. “Shut your left mouth,” he wri­tes to left-wing MP Fabio de Masi, who wants to dis­cuss Nazis in the Ukrainian army. Unlike Bartol, Melnyk does not dele­te his tweets.

Downstairs in the ple­na­ry hall, the Vice President of the Bundestag congra­tu­la­tes two mem­bers of par­lia­ment on their six­tieth bir­th­days. You’ve only expe­ri­en­ced peace and free­dom for six deca­des, and now it’s sup­po­sed to be about com­pul­so­ry vac­ci­na­ti­on, without tran­si­ti­on, without dis­cus­sion. Melnyk gets up, he has no more busi­ness here. In the morning his friend’s house in Kyiv was bom­bed. “He recent­ly pain­sta­kin­gly reno­va­ted the apartment.”

Direct line from Stalin’s hun­ger ter­ror to Putin’s attack

He stri­ves for the exit, the came­ras stri­ve after him. The Green vete­ran Marieluise Beck atta­ches herself to him. The two have a com­pli­ca­ted rela­ti­ons­hip. Beck is one of tho­se for­eign poli­cy­ma­kers who have always view­ed Russia with a clear per­spec­ti­ve. Your friendship with Ukraine is unsha­ka­ble. But the one about Andriy Melnyk got deep cracks two years ago. At that time it was about the Holodomor, Stalin’s hun­ger ter­ror in the Ukraine. Melnyk wan­ted the Bundestag to reco­gni­ze the Holodomor as geno­ci­de, but Beck thought that was unwi­se. For Beck it was a stra­te­gic ques­ti­on, for Melnyk it is an exis­ten­ti­al one. The epi­so­de shows the dimen­si­ons in which Melnyk thinks. For him the­re is a direct line from Stalin’s star­va­ti­on ter­ror to Putin’s attack.

Melnyk wants to go down­s­tairs to the cafe­te­ria, whe­re the Polish Deputy Foreign Minister is alrea­dy wai­t­ing. Two Hessian mem­bers of the CDU inter­cept him at the ele­va­tor. “You have such a cou­ra­ge­ous pre­si­dent,” says Michael Brandt. It is a shame that the chan­cellor is silent. There was a shit­s­torm in the con­sti­tu­en­cy, says Stefan Heck. He shares it with State Secretary Bartol. Melnyk nods poli­te­ly and puts the busi­ness cards in his pocket.

The entou­ra­ge around Melnyk lurch­es through the halls of the Reichstag buil­ding. A young par­lia­men­ta­ri­an wants a sel­fie with the ambassa­dor. “That was real­ly embarr­as­sing, espe­cial­ly in the ple­num,” he whis­pers. Melnyk wants to say some­thing, but then the next one pushes its­elf in front of his face. Everyone wants to send him words of soli­da­ri­ty, at least when the­re is no no-fly zone.

Svitlana Melnyk, the wife, loo­ks on in silence. You could also say warm words to her, but no one seems to know who the lady with the long blon­de hair is. She can stu­dy the inscrip­ti­ons on the his­to­ric walls undis­tur­bed. “It says Kyiv,” she exc­laims soft­ly. “And the­re,” she hur­ries a few steps fur­ther, “Donbass!” These are the Cyrillic inscrip­ti­ons of young Ukrainian sol­di­ers who defea­ted Hitler here with the Red Army. “This is our sto­ry, in the heart of Berlin,” says Switlana Melnyk. It sounds bit­ter. Because the Germans regu­lar­ly for­get that not only Russians, but also mil­li­ons of Ukrainians were mur­de­red by the Wehrmacht.

He just for­wards all my emails”

As late as February 2021, Steinmeier had adver­ti­sed Nord Stream 2 as one of the last “brid­ges” to Russia, with a view to the “event­ful histo­ry with Russia”. He recal­led the Soviet vic­tims of the German war and said: “This does not jus­ti­fy any mis­con­duct in Russian poli­tics today, but we must not lose sight of the big­ger picture.”

For Andriy Melnyk it sound­ed as if the suf­fe­ring of Ukrainians and Belarusians was irrele­vant. He was so outra­ged that a few mon­ths later he decli­ned the Federal President’s invi­ta­ti­on to an exhi­bi­ti­on on Soviet pri­so­ners of war — in the German-Russian Museum in Karlshorst. An affront that has not been for­got­ten in Berlin.

Zeitungen im Vorzimmer des Botschafters
Newspapers in the Ambassador’s antech­am­ber — Jens Gyarmaty

TV crews have posi­tio­ned them­sel­ves in front of the ent­ran­ce to the ple­na­ry hall. Well lit, Friedrich Merz accu­ses the government. Norbert Röttgen speaks of the “most undi­gni­fied moment” in his time as a mem­ber of parliament.

When Melnyk comes out of the can­te­en, the mode­ra­tors poun­ce on him too. His wife wat­ches as her hus­band poli­te­ly addres­ses his deman­ds to the came­ras for the hund­redth, thousand­th time. The way the par­lia­men­ta­ri­ans nod to each other, import­ant­ly grab their ties. How Christian Lindner comes through the glass door, takes a look at Melnyk and quick­ly turns again. How Rolf Mützenich pas­sed the ambassa­dor without a word. “He just for­wards all my emails,” says Melnyk.

He is sor­ry if he hurts others

There is time at the embas­sy to sort the encoun­ters. Melnyk asks for a green lea­ther sofa. He is tired. He only sleeps a few hours a night. “Maybe I have to go to the doc­tor,” he says, having his levels che­cked. “Do you know one?”

There is a fee­ling that com­pels him to get up every morning. It’s the fee­ling that he can still achie­ve some­thing here in Berlin. First thing in the morning he inqui­res about his rela­ti­ves, makes sure that Kyiv is still stan­ding, then he asks hims­elf: “Who could I con­vin­ce today?” Every day he meets par­lia­men­ta­ri­ans, shows up at the Defense Ministry, repeats his inqui­ries at the Foreign Office. In the evening he sends a text mes­sa­ge to Selensky or to the for­eign minis­ter. Sometimes he does­n’t know what to wri­te. “Did this day bring anything good for my home­land?” he then asks hims­elf. “Or was I just pis­sing off new poli­ti­ci­ans again?”

It’s not like he enjoys it. He is sor­ry if he hurts others. “I’m human, not a Melnykomat,” he says, shrug­ging his shoul­ders. “Or a Mülleromat,” he adds, becau­se Melnyk’s name is Müller, and Melnyk never stops trans­la­ting his world to the Germans.

When Melnyk talks about German poli­ti­ci­ans, he does­n’t dif­fe­ren­tia­te bet­ween par­ties. He dif­fe­ren­tia­tes bet­ween tho­se who are serious about Ukraine and tho­se who only pre­tend to be.

Habeck was “devas­ta­ted”

He counts Robert Habeck among the first. Melnyk could bla­me the ener­gy minis­ter for not impo­sing a gas embar­go. But he does­n’t. “He has to repre­sent this posi­ti­on, even though it is moral­ly dif­fi­cult to main­tain,” says Melnyk. He is con­vin­ced that Habeck hurts. He saw him with Lanz and Anne Will, “he almost cried”. And, more import­ant­ly, he saw him on the day that chan­ged everything.

Melnyk bei der Sondersitzung des Bundestags zum Ukrainekrieg am 27. Februar
Melnyk at the spe­cial ses­si­on of the Bundestag on the Ukraine war on February 27 — AP

In the morning Putin had atta­cked Ukraine, in the after­noon Robert Habeck was sit­ting with him on the green lea­ther sofa and was “devas­ta­ted”. Bitter and asha­med becau­se he allo­wed hims­elf to be crus­hed by his par­ty when he deman­ded arms for Ukraine in the sum­mer. It was a fun­da­ment­al­ly dif­fe­rent con­ver­sa­ti­on from the one I had with Secretary of Defense Christine Lambrecht, who was pri­ma­ri­ly con­cer­ned about her public image. Or with Finance Minister Lindner, who sat the­re with “such a poli­te smi­le” and tal­ked as if he the defeat of the Ukrainians was sea­led long ago. “You only have a few hours,” he said. Supplying arms or exclu­ding Russia from SWIFT is point­less. Instead, he wan­ted to look ahead to what Lindner thought was ahead: a Russian-occu­p­ied Ukraine with a pup­pet government. Melnyk says: “That was the worst con­ver­sa­ti­on in my life.”

Melnyk also told the “Spiegel” about this con­ver­sa­ti­on three weeks ago. Afterwards, “Lindner’s peop­le” com­p­lai­ned to him. He alrea­dy knows that. All the poli­ti­ci­ans who anger Melnyk send peop­le to direct the anger. And the next time Melnyk asks for an appoint­ment, they send peop­le out to fend him off. Melnyk does­n’t have peop­le he could send up front to fil­ter his emo­ti­ons. He only has Frau Kononenko in the hall, and she also works late into the night.

German poli­ti­ci­ans are very afraid of bad press,” says Melnyk. “Diplomats should sit in their offices and be silent — but that does­n’t work.” Melnyk tried the clas­sic rou­te. He poli­te­ly asked for an appoint­ment, expres­sed his views, voi­ced cri­ti­cism. It was of no use. So Melnyk star­ted tal­king to jour­na­lists. Even if the Foreign Ministry did­n’t appro­ve of it. The first com­p­laint came in 2016. “And back then I was still a diplo­mat!” says Melnyk indi­gnant­ly. Since he had not insul­ted anyo­ne as an asshole.

Not a soft-spo­ken man

In Ukraine and most other coun­tries, jour­na­lists are allo­wed to wri­te what they hear. In Germany, most poli­ti­ci­ans demand that quo­tes from dis­cus­sions be shown to them first. Melnyk is always hap­py when a jour­na­list for­gets to sub­mit his quo­tes for aut­ho­riz­a­ti­on. When things are writ­ten in the news­pa­per the way he meant them, unem­bel­lis­hed. He never says: “But plea­se don’t quo­te that.” Very dif­fe­rent from his cri­tics in Berlin. They only speak under the gui­se of anonymity.

In so-cal­led back­ground talks, they then say that Melnyk got lost. An ambassa­dor, they say, is a soft-spo­ken man. But Melnyk always hit it. Even tho­se who agree with him on the mat­ter say: That’s not how you do it. You can’t let the Federal President appe­ar publicly. No won­der he did­n’t want anything to do with him any­mo­re. They call him “undi­plo­ma­tic”. And again and again the sen­tence falls: “He con­fu­ses friend and foe.”

In Berlin, peop­le have been won­de­ring for a long time why the rulers in Kyiv are let­ting the que­ru­lous ambassa­dor do as he plea­ses. Melnyk has to laugh, he puts the ques­ti­on back: “If you were pre­si­dent and had such an annoy­ing ambassa­dor in an important coun­try, why should you tole­ra­te that?” In respon­se, he tells a litt­le sto­ry that took place in the sum­mer of last year, short­ly after the scan­dal with Steinmeier. Selensky came to Berlin and met the Federal President. Afterwards, Melnyk met his pre­si­dent in his hotel room to pre­pa­re for the mee­ting with the chan­cellor. According to the sto­ry, Zelensky was furious becau­se Steinmeier had com­p­lai­ned to him exten­si­ve­ly about Melnyk.

Normally, a pre­si­dent abroad hears: you have such a gre­at ambassa­dor!” Melnyk loo­ks at a loss. “But you always hear the oppo­si­te about me.” Melnyk tried to exp­lain to his pre­si­dent about Nord Stream and the bridge and the Soviet dead. Then Selenski just loo­ked stern­ly and waved his hands as if it were okay if Melnyk puts things right in the inte­rests of Ukraine. “I think,” says the ambassa­dor, “in Kyiv peop­le think: if the Germans com­p­lain, they will at least noti­ce us.”

After all, the­re are more than 200 ambassa­dors in Berlin. But only one that ever­yo­ne knows.