Ukrainian ambassador Iryna Venediktova: ‘Peace will only be possible after our victory’

Iryna Venediktova, Ukrainian ambassador to Switzerland, in the offices of Le Temps, 21 March, 2023. (David Wagnières/Le Temps)

Iryna Venediktova, former attorney general of Ukraine and new ambassador to Switzerland, called on Swiss authorities to make a decision on whether to allow the re-export of weapons to Ukraine.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Iryna Venediktova tracked down war crimes and collected evidence of abuses by Moscow’s army. Venediktova, now ambassador to Switzerland, was Ukraine’s first female prosecutor general before being removed from the role in July 2022.

In an interview with Le Temps, she talks about the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant against Russian president Vladimir Putin, the tragedy of flight MH-17 shot down by a Russian missile over the Donbas in 2014 and Swiss neutrality. But above all, the ambassador asks Switzerland to make a “rapid” decision on the re-export of weapons.

Le Temps: After serving as attorney general of Ukraine from March 2020 until July 2022, you arrived in Switzerland a few months ago to become Ukraine’s new ambassador. What does Switzerland mean to you and to Ukraine?

Iryna Venediktova: It is a privilege for me to be here because I think your model of governance is an excellent one. When I worked on Volodymyr Zelensky's campaign programme, when he was running for president, I was inspired by your model of decentralisation and direct democracy. Now being in Switzerland I can see how it works in practice.

However, for Ukraine, Switzerland represents a challenge. We understand and respect your country’s neutrality, as it is one of its main pillars. But we also believe that one of the other foundations of Switzerland is humanitarian law. Today Ukraine is a victim. This is not just a conflict, but a war, and the decision of one state to brutally occupy another sovereign state. It is therefore an enormous challenge for humanitarian and international law. As the cradle of these humanitarian values, it is important that Switzerland makes clear decisions and finds solutions.

Switzerland still refuses to allow European countries to supply Ukraine with Swiss-made arms and ammunition, citing its law on military equipment and neutrality...

It is important to remember that the law on re-exporting arms has nothing to do with Switzerland's neutrality, which was decided at the Hague Convention in 1907. We fully respect your neutrality. We are talking about the law on re-export, which you revised only two years ago. We are referring to the possibility of changing this law. Fortunately, the law is not a dead body. Laws live within society and its transformations, and can always be changed for the better. And for me, there is a very big question: why is it such a big problem for a civilised, developed country to allow third parties to help victims protect themselves?

In your opinion, is Switzerland hiding behind its neutrality to prevent the re-export of weapons?

I always try to be cautious with the words I use. Again, I have great and deep respect for your country and I admire the solidarity of the Swiss with Ukrainians. I have seen how Swiss people have opened their hearts and doors to refugees. But you are in an election year and some politicians are trying to position themselves by constantly invoking neutrality.

I asked some Swiss people what neutrality actually means. Not everyone could answer me, but they were all very proud of it. If you ask the same people if it is possible not to block third countries from helping victims to protect themselves, to let other countries help the Ukrainians, they will say yes. That’s because we are not talking about sending weapons or sending your army. The issue is about not blocking our allies.

Do you think that a European country can remain neutral towards the situation in Ukraine?

Let me tell you about flight MH-17, which was shot down by Russia over the Donbas. I was responsible for the investigation on the Ukrainian side. Exactly 298 passengers and crew members died (in the event). Those people had simply bought tickets and gone on holiday. They did not know and did not think that Russian missiles could kill them. Maybe they were neutral. Maybe they didn't want to participate in the war and didn't think about it. Today, the Dutch government and the Dutch people are extremely supportive of Ukraine because they realised that while they may be far away from the war, a Russian missile attack could kill their son, their mother, their friends (most of the passengers on flight MH-17 were Dutch). You can't sit back and wait to see what happens or who wins.

Have you discussed this with the Swiss authorities? What do you say to them?

Of course, I do – it's my favourite subject to discuss. I have a lot of meetings at the moment because officially I have only been the ambassador since 10 January. All doors are open to me in Switzerland, and my conversations with Swiss authorities are very interesting. Even today or yesterday, after some meetings, some politicians were telling me that I was right. I simply explain to them that at the time of the Hague Convention, war was a possible reality, but that after the Second World War, when international humanitarian law was established, a war like the one Russia is waging today was prohibited. I explain to them that the victim of this war has the right to protect itself and that other countries can and should help it protect itself.

Xi Jinping is currently visiting Moscow. A few weeks ago, China published a proposal for resolving the Ukraine crisis. What do you think of it? Do you have any diplomatic exchanges with China?

At the moment we have not had any contact. We will see how this visit to Russia ends. I think our foreign ministry and our president are very clear in their statements: it is important that China is a partner of the civilised world. The country is an extremely important and powerful actor. President Zelenskyy really wants to have a conversation with Xi Jinping to discuss what is really happening in Ukraine since the invasion.

Ukraine deeply desires peace. But for us, it will only be possible after we have won, because this is not only war. Crimes and violations of international law have been committed. The war is very personal for me – my husband is fighting on the front line. Russia's violations of international law should be of concern to everyone because they are very serious for the future. That's why I hope that Xi Jinping will take a very wise and intelligent position and approach.

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. How do you feel about this decision? Isn’t it only a symbolic gesture?

I am really very happy that the International Criminal Court and its chief prosecutor Karim Khan have been able to take this big step. I remember the beginning when he came to Kyiv and I was the prosecutor general of Ukraine. We discussed these cases of children being deported. You know, this warrant is perhaps the beginning of the end of tyranny. Of course, on the one hand, there are technical questions: how to arrest Vladimir Putin and bring him to The Hague and organise a trial. And they are very important. But this decision is not just symbolic. This arrest warrant covers all the countries that have ratified the Rome Statute. In 123 countries, Vladimir Putin is now considered a war criminal. This is very serious and I think it sends a very strong signal, particularly for the Russian government but also for its population, who must be thinking that something is not going as well as the propaganda says.

Aren't you afraid that this will alienate Putin and prevent any negotiations?

It is very difficult to imagine how Putin could be more extreme than he already is. But it is already impossible for us to negotiate with him. How can we negotiate with a war criminal, someone who has killed our neighbours and raped our children? That is why Volodymyr Zelenskyy is very clear in his position, which I repeat: we really want peace. But for us, peace is only possible after our victory. That's why our soldiers are fighting on the front line. That’s why our civilians are suffering but they are still there, paying taxes, working and studying. We have a state with a government, a parliament, courts and law enforcement agencies. In fact, the heroism of Ukrainians continues to prevail under Russian missile attacks.

It will only be possible to talk after our victory, with all the countries that will accept and respect the rule of law. Today, the Russian Federation demonstrates every day that it respects nothing and nobody. It kills Ukrainians because they did not want to be Russian. What a strange reason to be killed! And they don't respect other countries and their values either. They look down on the Western world while they put their money into it. Their children study in the West and they come on holiday to the mountains.

What do you expect from Switzerland?

I appreciate the solidarity that the Swiss have shown towards Ukrainian refugees. What is very important now is your speed in making fair decisions. We were expecting these decisions yesterday. It is about our relations and how we build a new international law while Europe is at war. That is why I really want to see decisions taken quickly and solutions found. A decision on the re-export of arms would send a signal. We’re not pushing you to change your values, because letting other countries help us protect ourselves is part of them. Your reputation is at stake, as is whether we will be able to look future generations in the eye.

Iryna Venediktova will be speaking on 4 April at an event, co-hosted by Geneva Solutions, Le Temps and the Geneva Press Club, on the risks of the war spilling over to other parts of the region and its humanitarian impact on Ukrainians who have been displaced by the violence. For more information or to book your tickets, visit the Geneva Press Club website.

This article was first published in French in Le Temps. It has been adapted and translated by Geneva Solutions. Articles from third-party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.