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Ukraine’s UN Envoy on Russia’s War and the Significance of ‘Swan Lake’

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Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN
Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s envoy to the UN, unwinds from dealing with the “aggressor state’s” violence against his country by taking bike rides in Manhattan, where he lives, with his dog, Dezi. In an interview with PassBlue, he also has choice words for his Russian counterpart at the UN and expounds on whether a third world war is underway. Here, he is shown outside the Security Council chamber, April 5, 2022. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

When he needs to unwind amid Russia’s disastrous invasion of his country, Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, takes long bike rides in Manhattan with his dog, Dezi (Dez, for short), a sprightly Jack Russell terrier. Her name is a riff on the title of Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata,” which means something that is “desired” or “wanted.”

“Security will probably say it’s irresponsible for me to say, but I like to go downtown on my bicycle and put my dog in front, in a little basket,” Kyslytsya told PassBlue in an interview on April 6, held at the Ukrainian mission to the UN, in Manhattan, a day before Russia was suspended from the Human Rights Council by the UN General Assembly.

For the last six weeks, the ambassador — who was born in Kyiv on Aug. 15, 1969 — has been entirely focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine. In emergency Security Council meetings (there have been at least 16 on Ukraine since the war started on Feb. 24), he’s faced off with what he calls the “aggressor state’s” envoy to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, comparing him to the Nazi foreign minister adviser and diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop. Von Ribbentrop, like Nebenzia, Kyslytsya contends, “denied any knowledge” of atrocities committed by Nazi Germany but “was found guilty at [the] Nuremberg war crimes trial” and executed by hanging.

Kyslytsya graduated with an international law degree in 1993 from the Institute of International Relations of Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, and he speaks five languages: Ukrainian, Russian, English, Spanish and French. “My childhood was English on Monday. French on Tuesday, German on Wednesday and Ukrainian and Russian on Thursday and Friday,” Kyslytsya said. “My family always put special focus on education.”

As to his speeches recently at the UN, Kyslytsya said: “I am most likely perceived as being very emotional when I speak. But . . . I’m very cynical. The cynical attitude helps me a lot to navigate . . . this very tragic environment.”

What began as President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” has reduced large swathes of Ukraine to rubble, internally displacing more than seven million people from their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration. Since April 7, the war has sent more than four million Ukrainians fleeing next door to Poland, Romania, Moldova and elsewhere in Europe and as far away as Mexico to reach the United States, according to data from the UN high commissioner for refugees.

Last week, Russia was accused of committing war crimes and potentially genocide in Bucha, a city north of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where bodies of people were left piled in the streets, some with their arms bound behind them and others with bullet holes in the back of their heads. As the world reacted, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States ambassador to the UN, called for the General Assembly to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, referring to Russia’s membership as a “farce” that hurts the Council’s credibility and the UN “writ large.” She added that it is “simply wrong.”

On April 7, the Assembly did just that: voted by two-thirds majority to suspend Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council for “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights” and violations of international humanitarian law in Ukraine. The resolution passed, 93-to-24, with 58 abstentions. Shortly after the decision, Russia said it was withdrawing its membership, a move that Kyslytsya predicted in his remarks before the vote. “If Russia expulses itself from the Council, it would be its own choice, and there will be no need to blame others,” he said.

In the interview with PassBlue, Kyslytsya and his loyal sidekick, Dez, who is “obsessed with following him,” he said, the ambassador also discussed the peace talks so far, Nebenzia’s slip-up at a recent press briefing at the UN, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the possibility of a third world war and why Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” is his favorite ballet. The interview has been edited and condensed.

PassBlue: Since President Putin began his “special military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24, representatives from Moscow and Kyiv have met at least 10 times to negotiate terms for a cease-fire and establish humanitarian corridors. But progress has been slow. What do you make of the peace talks so far?

Kyslytsya: So, the talks in Istanbul, as my president said, [there are] some positive sounds coming out from the Russian side, but those sounds do not drown the sounds of war because the war goes on. I’m not a part of the current negotiations . . . because I’m in New York, and they are taking place in Istanbul. So, I can’t really say exactly what’s going on there, but based on my personal, professional assessment of the situation, I question how much discretion the Russian team has and how reliable their suggestions and ideas are. Unlike speaking to the Americans or to the British . . . in the case of Russia, it is basically just one person [Putin] who makes decisions. [That’s why] I don’t trust Nebenzia because I don’t really believe that he is important enough in the Russian scheme of things like Linda [Thomas-Greenfield] or Barbara [Woodward, the British ambassador] or like myself. At any given moment, I can write to my foreign minister [Dmytro Kuleba], and I will get a reply, depending on his availability, but I will always get a reply. If he’s online, he will reply immediately. I can write to the office of the president, and the foreign policy adviser would immediately reply to me. So, the question is, can Nebenzia do it?

PassBlue: Speaking of Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, when you’re in the Security Council chamber, listening to him talk about dead bodies on the streets of Bucha being “fake” or “staged,” what’s that like for you? Does it make you want to scream?

Kyslytsya: I’ve learned in my 30-years-plus professional career that you should only bother to emotionally engage with things that you can change. In the case of Nebenzia, it doesn’t matter.

PassBlue: On April 4, as images of dead, bound bodies lying in the streets started emerging from Bucha, Nebenzia held a press conference at the UN to address accusations that Russian troops were committing war crimes in Ukraine and specifically in Bucha. During the briefing, he referred to Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as “war,” which the Russian government forbids its citizens to say, and you tweeted: “Well done! After weeks of denying putin’s amb called it a ‘war’.  It’s against Kremlin’s version of ‘special operation.'” Why was Nebenzia’s slip-up significant?

Kyslytsya: The Russians are very creative in semantics. . . . So, when you hear the Russian ambassador saying “warfare” and “war” several times in his broken English, you say: Wow, finally . . . you cannot lose this opportunity. He’s the ambassador. It’s not like we are sitting, drinking brandy, and he throws jokes. He was in his official function . . . at a press conference at the UN headquarters. The problem with the collective West is that in spite of a good number of so-called Sovietologists, there is a tendency among politicians and diplomats to listen to the Russians, as they would . . . a [Western] diplomat. But the Russian culture is very different . . . [unlike] American and British cultures, we are direct, we say what we mean. The Russians read between the lines.

PassBlue: Let’s go back to the Security Council and President Zelensky’s live video address on April 5. He was direct and openly critical of the Council and urged the body to either fulfill its mandate and bring peace to Ukraine or “dissolve.”

Kyslytsya: No, he said if we are not able to reform ourselves, then dissolve. . . . So, it’s not like “get lost.” It’s like, I appeal to [the Council] to get serious. Do your job right now. If you cannot do your job, if you cannot reform yourself, then dissolve. [After the war in Ukraine] if we allow the United Nations to switch to business as usual, they’ll be putting yet another layer of fresh paint over a rotten structure. And you know what happens next? Someone comes and pushes it with one finger, and it collapses. And that is why President Zelensky said in his statement that after the war, the nations should get together. He said in Kyiv, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the level of dedication of the leaders to discuss business seriously. . . . We need to avail of something that appears to be a unique opportunity . . . to sit down and to say the truth, and that is that the security architecture as it is doesn’t work.

PassBlue: How often do you talk to President Zelensky?

Kyslytsya: I am happy that when he is physically in New York, I can always talk to him and he’s willing to listen. I’ve had quite a number of bosses in my professional life who believed [they were] the ultimate authority on everything. Some of my colleagues would lose interest in talking to you after five seconds, if you did not support their [views]. I’m difficult myself because I’m very opinionated. But the good thing about Zelensky is that he listens. He may not agree, but he invests time into listening to people. That’s a game-changer.

PassBlue: You’ve referenced World War II in many of your tweets and remarks at Security Council meetings. For example, you’ve mentioned the Nuremberg trials and the execution of von Ribbentrop, one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials convicted of war crimes. And you’ve tweeted about crowds in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II, about the menorah memorial near Kharkiv that was recently shelled by the Russians and commemorates the death of 15,000 Jews killed by Nazis in the 1940s. Recently, you shared an article from The New York Times about Ukrainian World War II survivors reliving the hell of war in Ukraine. Do you have a personal connection to World War II?

Kyslytsya: Who doesn’t have a connection to the war? I’m sure that almost every family in continental Europe has someone who either was killed, wounded, disappeared or was a survivor of the Holocaust.

PassBlue: Do you think we’re headed for World War III?

Kyslytsya: If you believe there is no World War III [then it’s] already [here]. Because World War III is not about having tanks crossing the land border. World War III is about cyberattacks . . . financial terrorism, energy and food insecurity. So, it’s not like a conventional world war, where you had to start bombing Kyiv at four o’clock in the morning.

PassBlue: Your tweets also suggest that you appreciate the arts. For example, you’ve tweeted about the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition on Ukraine, “In Solidarity,” the Metropolitan Opera’s benefit concert for Ukraine and a 2Cellos concert celebrating Slovenia and Croatia’s 30 years of UN membership, held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. I mention this because PassBlue published a story by Barbara Crossette about Russia shelling theaters and museums in Ukraine. What are your thoughts on this?

Kyslytsya:  My favorite [Russian ballet] is “Swan Lake” because “Swan Lake” means someone died. [When Brezhnev, the head of the Communist Party, died, they played “Swan Lake”] So, if I turn on the TV and see “Swan Lake,” I will know that Putin probably died.

PassBlue: You definitely have a quirky sense of humor. If you weren’t a diplomat, would you be a comedian?

Kyslytsya: No, no. The problem is that I can’t really pick up a note and I can’t dance. I always knew that I would be a diplomat. My mom can corroborate.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dawn Clancy is a New York City based reporter who focuses on women’s issues, international conflict and diplomacy. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she has written for The Washington Post and HuffPost.

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Ukraine’s UN Envoy on Russia’s War and the Significance of ‘Swan Lake’
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Mary eliza Kimball
Mary eliza Kimball
7 months ago

In my understanding, permanent Members of the Security Council carry a heavier responsibility to uphold the ideals of the Charter than other Member States, hence the higher amounts they are assessed. Could Russia’s status as a Permanent Member not be removed by the GA, not only because it only unofficially inherited the Permanent status from the USSR, but also because it has not respected its obligations under the Charter?

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