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Shock jock diplomacy: Ukraine’s gadfly ambassador bids farewell to Berlin

Andrii Melnyk, Ukraine’s outgoing ambassador to Berlin, sometimes went too far. Like the time he told Chancellor Olaf Scholz to “stop being such a prima donna”. Or when he told a leftwing politician to “shut your gob”.

But in Melnyk’s view the end always justified the means. “I think I’ve shaken people awake,” he told the Financial Times. “And I’m glad I’ve done that, even though I sometimes had to do it in a somewhat undiplomatic way.”

Ask German officials what they think of Melnyk, who has been recalled to Kyiv after serving seven years as ambassador, and the most common response is “Nervensäge” — or “nerve-saw” — German for a royal pain in the neck.

It is a reference to his near-constant sniping at the German government over its Ukraine policies — a campaign he led with a complete disregard for diplomatic niceties. Melnyk’s interventions — on Twitter, in talk shows and through countless radio and print interviews — went off like firecrackers in a crowded room, causing panic, consternation and, occasionally, awe.

He defends his shock-jock style. “You have to stir people from their sweet slumber, out of their lethargy — where they just say: ‘Everything’s fine and dandy, so what does this man want from us? Why is he provoking us?’” he said.

An expert in international and human rights law and fluent German speaker who first joined Ukraine’s diplomatic service in 1997, Melnyk was unknown to the wider public until Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Then, suddenly, he was everywhere.

In a fusillade of interventions on TV and social media, he pleaded with Germany’s leaders to help his embattled country, needled them over their hesitancy in supplying heavy weapons, and mercilessly berated them for their past naivete in trusting Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In the process he became, in the words of Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, head of the Bundestag’s defence committee, “more a politician than a diplomat — loud, awkward and extremely disputatious”.

He crossed many lines, she said, but that was understandable. “He was a vocal fighter for a country that’s experiencing a terrible war,” she said.

It was for that reason that most politicians in Germany were prepared to overlook his occasional lapses of judgment, like the time he told the former leftist MP Fabio De Masi to “shut your leftwing gob” and called an academic who had suggested Ukraine be demilitarised a “real ar**”.

His sassiness reached a peak in May after the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier was told he would not be welcome in Kyiv and Olaf Scholz said he would not visit Ukraine over the affront. Melnyk then accused the chancellor of acting like an “offended liver sausage” (German for a prima donna). He later apologised for the remark.

But in June he went too far for even some of his most ardent fans. In an interview he was quizzed about his attitude to Stepan Bandera, the radical Ukrainian nationalist leader whose followers took part in massacres of Jews and Poles during the second world war. Melnyk appeared to question the historical record and refused to distance himself from Bandera. Poland and Israel were outraged, and said so.

Looking back, he acknowledged he made a mistake. “I do regret that my words could have hurt some people — that was not my intention,” he said.

Bandera, venerated by some Ukrainians as an anti-Soviet freedom fighter and reviled by others as an anti-Semite and fascist, was an issue for “historians, not diplomats” — what was needed was a “sober, factual” assessment of his role.

Though the gaffe cast a pall on his reputation, Melnyk is proud of his achievements as ambassador — such as ensuring the question of arms deliveries to Ukraine “was always at the forefront of the public debate” and “high on the political agenda”.

But his legacy remains contentious. Many in the German government sympathised with his view that Berlin should be doing more to support Ukraine. “But he didn’t do himself any favours with the way he presented that argument,” said one official. “He ended up alienating a lot of people and making things awkward for Ukraine’s true friends in Germany.”

Meanwhile, Melnyk leaves behind much unfinished business. There are, he said, “still too many vestiges of the old policy”, too many German politicians who want to revive the “special relationship” with the Kremlin, who hope “we can continue to obtain gas from Russia because that’s the basis of [Germany’s] economic success”.

“They’ve just got to ditch these fantasies,” he said. Now it will be up to his successor to “maintain the pressure on the Germans” and make sure they “don’t go wobbly on us”.

Melnyk was summoned back to Kyiv shortly after the Bandera imbroglio and his future fate is unclear. Friends say he has been offered the job of deputy foreign minister but he is hesitant to take it.

He knows he will probably never shake off his reputation as a nerve-saw. But there was no alternative, he said, to speaking out.

“Could I really just stay silent . . . even when I could see how bad things were getting and how blind the Germans were?” he said. “What choice did I have?”

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