Ambassador Maryna Mykhailenko presenting her credentials to President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa
Ambassador Maryna Mykhailenko presented her credentials to President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa

Interview: Maryna Mykhailenko, an ambassador at war

In a war, top diplomats have little time off. Two months after taking up her post as Ukraine’s ambassador to Portugal, Maryna Mykhailenko is giving new impetus to the Ukrainian diplomatic mission.

At the Ukrainian Embassy, in a leafy area of Belém, Portugal Resident spoke to Ambassador Mykhailenko about her aims for this mission and the current state of the war between Russia and her country.

“It is important for us to improve our cooperation in several different spheres – military, because unfortunately we are in a war now, but equally cultural and educational. I would love the people of Portugal to perceive Ukraine as a country with extremely deep European roots,” said the Ambassador.

“After the start of the full-scale war, Portugal demonstrated unconditional support for Ukraine – humanitarian, financial and military – we are immensely grateful.”

Since February 24, 2022, Portugal has also welcomed over 59,000 ‘temporarily displaced persons’. “This is a huge number. Everyone is well integrated, but we would like all our people to return to Ukraine after the war.” The active Ukrainian community has four Ukrainian schools in Lisbon teaching the Ukrainian language, traditions and history, and there is also a Ukrainian online school.

Ukraine estimates between 200,000 and 300,000 children have been deported during the war from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia, ethnic cleansing in violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Putin is under a life-long International Criminal Court arrest warrant for alleged war crimes of unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.

Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa visited Ukraine in May 2022 and, a week before the start of her mission, the Ambassador participated in the visit of the President of the Portuguese Parliament, Augusto Santos Silva.

Ambassador Mykhailenko cites Portugal’s contribution to the European tank coalition, with three Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks, and Portugal’s training for Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets, starting this summer.

The Ambassador loves history and art
The Ambassador loves history and art

On June 1, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Ukraine’s “rightful place” is as a member of the NATO military alliance. Ambassador Mykhailenko comments on a crucial NATO summit due to take place a few days after our conversation. “The Vilnius Summit will be very important for us. We are realistic, we understand we cannot join NATO immediately, but we would like to receive a strong political signal from NATO member states and be invited to join.”

The conversation touches briefly on family members in Kyiv living under frequent Russian missile attacks. “We’re very grateful for the support of our Western partners, which has enabled us to have an extremely effective anti-missile system. Unfortunately, this is still not sufficient. We need more.”

At the end of June, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin held the world’s attention for a tense 36 hours with his insurrection against the Russian state. “We don’t have the full picture on these events,” the Ambassador believes. As this article goes to press, the Belarus dictator and Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko has claimed Prigozhin is a free man in Saint Petersburg, but this is not verified.

The Ambassador says there are three lessons to draw from the Prigozhin episode:

First, “Russia is weak and getting weaker every day, so this is not the time to step back, it’s time to increase pressure.”

Second, “Putin only has a language of threats, so we have to talk to Russia from a position of strength. There is a real need to abandon the undue fear of escalation that has prevented, or delayed, so many important decisions during these 16 months of war.” The inference is that perhaps Russia has had too long to prepare its defences, meaning a breakthrough by Ukrainian forces will be even harder to achieve.

Lastly, “we understand how unpredictable the situation in Russia is, so we need to think with our European friends about the EU Common Security and Defence Policy, and Ukraine, of course, should be a part of this policy, as well as a member of NATO.”

“Our goal is to liberate all our territories. We are advancing and continuing to push the invaders back, but, at the same time, we want to save as many of our soldiers’ lives as possible. We believe in our armed forces, but for the counter offensive, we need more demining equipment and, of course, fighter jets.”

In the meantime, Ukraine is reinforcing its energy security, ahead of next winter, after suffering 33 massive missile attacks on its energy infrastructure last winter, while the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, is occupied by Russia, which is only allowing limited access to International Atomic Energy safety inspectors.

Detonation of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, on June 6, was an environmental weapon of mass destruction that has left hundreds of thousands of people without water, or with only very limited supply. This act of ecocide has caused long-term damage to agricultural land that will lead to increased food shortages.

It may be impossible for now to predict when this war will end, but all wars do eventually end. Ukraine has asked the EU to support setting up a special international tribunal to punish the crime of aggression committed against Ukraine.

Looking ahead to the immediate post-war period, the Ambassador reflects: “I think accountability is hugely important and those responsible must be brought to justice. It’s absolutely essential to create a special tribunal for the crime of aggression, and we’re very grateful for Portugal’s role in pushing for this tribunal.” And how about financial reparations? “Yes, of course! We need reparations, accountability and the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from our territories.”

How does she view the role of the United Nations in the conflict? “Frankly, we’re disappointed. It’s ironic, the main role of the United Nations is to preserve peace, but we have a full-fledged war in the heart of Europe, with Russia a member of the UN’s main body, the Security Council … We need to think about how to rebuild this system after the war.”

The UN Secretary General António Guterres has supported the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), of particular importance for feeding populations in Africa, and equally President Zelensky’s Grain from Ukraine initiative, but BSGI is currently operating at less than 20% of its capacity, obstructed by Russia delaying ship inspection.

Since the start of the war, more than 260 Ukrainian cultural sites have been damaged. In the middle of her high-pressure diplomatic life, Maryna Mykhailenko finds occasional moments of peace in Lisbon’s museums. Wistful, she murmurs, “I love history and art.”

  • pt – Ukrainian Refugees UAPT provides humanitarian support to temporarily displaced Ukrainians living in Portugal.
  • If you wish to provide humanitarian support for Ukrainians living in Ukraine, the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund is a Ukraine-based pooled fund, managed locally under UN leadership.