Jessica Berlin, Germany-based security and foreign policy expert
If Western capitals want this war to end ASAP, the way forward is clear: send more help. Full stop.
04.08.2023 15:17

President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian authorities, and public activists have received many favorable reviews regarding their efforts to ensure international support for Ukraine, arms supplies, and the introduction of sanctions against Russia. At the same time, communicating Ukraine’s needs to partners is a dynamic process that needs to be constantly adjusted depending on political circumstances in other countries and developments on the battlefield.

Ukrinform spoke with a Germany-based security and foreign policy analyst and commentator Jessica Berlin, who is in Kyiv this week, to discuss communication strategies for further increasing international aid and finding solutions to the problem of "Ukraine fatigue".

Holding a dual citizenship of the USA and Germany, as well as having considerable experience of working with African countries, Jessica shared her vision of the specifics of the perception of Ukraine's war with Russia in the Biden and Scholz administrations, messages that will be clear to the Republicans in the U.S., ways to expand cooperation with Africa, as well as a number of recommendations that will be useful to everyone who promotes at various levels further international support for Ukraine. One of her main messages is that in strategic communications, “it's always better to be effective than to just be right.”


What is your personal assessment of our government's work to promote Ukraine's interests abroad in times of war?

The Ukrainian government has done an outstanding job in communicating the needs and the urgency of the situation. A lot of my friends and colleagues here in Ukraine are actually less critical of NATO support for Ukraine than myself and my friends and colleagues from other NATO member states. That’s because from their viewpoint, at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, it looked like the Ukrainians were going to be left to fend for themselves. That was back when NATO was sending Javelins and small weapons. And so, the fact that we've come this far is really a testament to the political, diplomatic, and communications efforts of the Ukrainian governments and that, of course, having been supplemented and really carried by the raw courage and ingenuity of the Ukrainian people and Armed Forces in showing what is at stake in this war and that Ukraine will fight and will not surrender. I think that is really the driving force. That is what helped mobilize so much public and political support from Western states and around the world.

By the way, on Wednesday, our president convened the diplomatic corps and he spoke extensively about their critical role in these efforts to rally international support and get other governments and leaders on our side in this war. What is your opinion on the ways our diplomats should get their message through? What is better? A hard-line diplomacy like our former ambassador to Germany Andrij Melnyk pursued or is it better to stick to a softer touch? What do you think is better in times of war?

Well, there's no one-size-fits-all approach – it's not so black and white. The short simple answer would be “it depends”. It depends on who you're talking to and it depends on what you're asking for, what the strategic goal in the given situation is. To take the example you gave of Ambassador Melnyk in Germany, for example, his approach at the beginning of the full-scale invasion was very effective. He was being told on and off record that Ukraine didn't stand a chance, he had been ignored and belittled by the German political establishment. And so he succeeded by forcefully calling this out and exposing details of some of those conversations and pushing that was helpful at the beginning to mobilize.

However, as the war progressed, it became counterproductive because within the political context and communication, political culture of Germany and of German politics and media, after certain amount of time, that kind of aggressive, sort of hectoring tone was being ignored and so serious messages were getting lost because the messenger was no longer being perceived as serious. So this is why any ambassador, any minister, any advocate for Ukraine, whether they're in inside our outside of government, need to read the room. They need to be willing to always reassess their own tone and strategies. And again, the question is always ‘What's my goal here?’ It's always better to be effective than to just be right. And, and so i think now especially as natural donor fatigue and, shall we say, attention span fatigue sets in in a lot of western capitals and amongst a lot of western voters, Ukraine needs to be actively and proactively adjusting their communication strategy and also being willing rather than to fear and complain about donor fatigue, to understand that this is normal, this happens in any conflict or in any crisis. Whether it's in Europe, whether it's an Africa, whether it's in Asia, people tune out from bad headlines after a while. And so rather than despair at that and think, ‘oh no, this means that people aren't going to care anymore and aren't going to support us anymore,’ no, it's not as bad as that. It just means that we need to adjust and to consider what the goal is. What do we need now? How do we communicate this in a way that doesn't just get tuned out because it sounds like the same message as people have been hearing for the last year or more.


Well, I would actually like you to speak more on this topic of potential or ongoing fatigue. What's your opinion on whether this voter's fatigue, or donor fatigue, can eventually grow into a political fatigue? Do you think that politicians in the West are increasingly thinking that this war must be put to an end as soon as possible no matter what because “We're just tired of it, we're investing too much, we are helping Ukraine too much, and we’re feeling that our voters are tired of this.”  What can be done to prevent that fatigue from developing?

Firstly, to what you said about people being concerned that the war needs to end right away… Okay, if the war needed to end as soon as possible in the eyes of Western capitals, then the way forward is clear. Send more help. Full stop. If you want this war to be over ASAP, give Ukraine the long-range missile systems, the ammunition, and the air support capacity (the jets that you need). To succeed right now, Ukrainian Armed Forces are being asked to conduct a counteroffensive across thousand-plus kilometers of heavily mined entrenched defensive front without air superiority. This is something that no NATO military would ever even consider. It's madness, really, from a military strategic perspective if you're a NATO military planner. But this is precisely what NATO is expecting of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. So anybody who is complaining that the offensive going too slowly, the answer is clear. We need to send more help more quickly – demining equipment, long-range missiles, and air support capacity. Secondly, as for voters, the good news is – and I'll speak to Germany and the U.S. because I'm a German and American citizen – so from the perspective of my countries, the good news is that there is still a clear majority of public support for Ukraine, for sending weapons and other aid to Ukraine, especially in the context of the upcoming U.S. election. I know there's a lot of concern about the Republican Party and the potentiality of a Trump candidacy. But also, more than 50 percent of Republican voters are in favor of support for Ukraine. So this is good news.

What we do need to see in the medium term will be more battlefield successes. That's not going to happen right now. You know that the front is long, deeply defended, and heavily mined, so it's going to take time but the communications on that side need to be, I think, centered around giving people the context to understand that any overnight success that they saw on the TV last year with the liberation of Kharkiv region and the Russian retreat from Kherson, those overnight successes took months. Now, folks watching the news are not following it in the intimate detail that people like us are. But when they see those headlines, they think, ‘Oh, great. Wow, go Ukraine! They did that so fast!’ And now there's this sense of ‘Oh, what's taking so long?”

And the message there needs to be the combination of practical reminders that it's taking a long time because Ukraine didn't get the support, the equipment, and the munitions they needed in time to deploy them in the first phase of this counteroffensive. And secondly, also, it's helpful to give historical context. A lot of people have these images of World War 2 as a reference point in their mind. And the example, I always like to use is the allied invasion of Normandy on D-day, this historic, heroic moment and victory that ultimately led to victory in Europe. That didn't just happen in a day. After they stormed the beach, it took months to liberate all of Normandy. And it took a whole another year, almost, to end the war. So, I think this is the message for the average citizens in NATO member states and our politicians and media landscape. These things take time and it's normal in work to have setbacks, especially under the conditions that Ukraine are fighting. But if we persevere, if we keep our eye on the prize, our focus, if we speed our assistance, we will speed Ukraine's overall victory. But again, Germany didn't fall in a day or a month. This battle won't just take a day or so we need to be patient.


Let’s dwell a little bit on Donald Trump supporters and the fact that 50 percent of Republican voters stand for continued support for Ukraine. There are still concerns here among average Ukrainians that a potential shift may happen in the public perception of this war should the a Republican candidate win. At the moment, some of them are openly speaking about changing the United States’ attitude to this war, they're engagement in this conflict. Do you think those candidates will stick to their current agenda if they win or is there a chance that they may make a U-turn, actually, and once they take office, they will just continue supporting Ukraine just because it is a logical thing to do from the standpoint of a world champion in defending democracy. So what is your opinion given that you know some parts of the American political kitchen?

Oh, it's a legitimate concern. A lot of elements in the Republican Party these days are simply no longer rational actors. So, I'm not going to try to predict the future or their future behaviors because they're not following any logic and they're not even following our Republican philosophy anymore. I had to smile when you said the U.S. is defender of freedom and democracy because this is kind of that hoorah American thing that you would think Republicans would really be behind, but somehow that sort of Reagan-era Republicanism and notion of patriotism has flown out the window with a large section of the party. And that's bad news for everyone.

But the good news is there are a lot of folks, including Trump supporters within the party, Senator Lindsey Graham being a notable example, who are also very pro-Ukrainian. There's that generation of Republicans who, even if now they've sort of given up a lot of their principles and standards to support Donald Trump, they're still veterans of the Cold War. Not liking Russia and not trusting Russia is sort of in their political DNA. So that is a small, glimmer of hope.

And I think the second thing is, again, getting back to the battlefield realities. Americans like a winner - as simplistic as it may sound. It's a combination of being able to show that “Look, we're helping Ukraine, the Russians are crazy bastards and we can help Ukraine win. And Ukraine is winning. And they're an underdog.” These kinds of narratives, that simple messaging can appeal to a lot of folks, and to help basically the Republicans who understand what's at stake in this war to speak to their people in terms that they can relate to and to continue supporting Ukraine or at the very least to not go anti-Ukraine. I think that’s really the goal here. The fact that some people will lose interest and not be Ukraine supporters – we can live with that. What we can't have is someone who's actively hostile to Ukraine, like Donald Trump, turning public opinion actively against Ukraine.

I think this applies to both Republicans and, actually, especially Democrats. And the Biden administration. There's a strong sense that they are more concerned about the implications of a swift and chaotic Russian defeat and collapse and how that would impact China and strengthen the Chinese regional and global position. Then they're concerned about the implications of Russia coming out of this war with a status quo or even a small net benefit to global security and to the Chinese position and perception of NATO power or lack thereof. I think they've got it backwards quite frankly. And the fact that they've drawn this conclusion that it'll be better for Russia to land softly out of this disastrous and horrific war, they've drawn it wrong. Russia needs to lose – and lose badly. Russia needs to crawl out of Ukraine on their knees, begging for mercy. That's what every dictator on the planet needs to see. To ensure that they don't get any ideas themselves because if they see that Russia is allowed to invade a democratic European country, literally on the borders of NATO, to senselessly butcher tens of thousands of people, to threaten global food security, to cause refugee crises, to cause the kind of destruction we haven't seen on this content since World War 2, that they are allowed to get away with this in the 2020s and then get back to business, well, then nothing's going to stop the Chinese from attacking Taiwan or from pressing forward in the South China Sea, etc. That’s because NATO will have shown that we cannot even keep the peace in our own front garden.

And that is much more dangerous than internal political chaos in Russia would be. So for this, I think, we must continue to hear the stories of war crimes and the calls for justice. We must continue to hear and share those stories. But the truth with the hard “Real Politik” situation is that those stories and accounts are not going to change the strategy of the Biden administration or the Scholz administration for that matter. On these issues, their perception of the Chinese threat and the implications of Russian collapse or too hard the defeat of Russia will only be influenced at a strategic level and not on the human rights level.

So this would also be an area where I think Ukraine can and should, and indeed is reaching out more to the Global South, looking more at the geopolitical long-term strategic implications of this war because even though this the suffering, the fighting, the dying is happening on Ukrainian soil, the implications of this war are truly global. This war, this conflict shapes our century. And what we do or don't do will determine the rest of our geopolitical arrangement for the next generations.


Speaking about Global South, let’s talk about Africa. You’ve been an expert on Africa for more than a decade so you can probably speak of how we can reach out to many African countries to make them reconsider their attitudes toward this war and to Russia, which many of them perceive as if not a savior then surely as their helper – in contrast with Europe of which they have bad memories stemming back to the colonial times. We are seeing wide efforts by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs to rally support there in Africa. Our minister toured the continent, and we had our president speak with African leaders as well. What do you think is missing in this communication. What should be added, or fixed, or maybe something is being done exactly the right way to get more support from Africa?

It's a really important question. Firstly, the efforts and the increased focus and outreach from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the President's Office have been really great to see and it's just the beginning. You know, to be completely fair both to Ukraine and to African states, there are really obvious, clear historical reasons why relations aren’t closer and the networks aren't larger, and the familiarity isn't there. I mean, Ukraine as an independent state is just about 30 years old and you were understandably busy with other things and not out there making global diplomatic footprints in the 1990s and 2000s while you were building your democracy and just emerging from Soviet rule. So that makes perfect sense. And of course the Russian Federation inherited all the diplomatic business and military ties between the Soviet Union and African countries that had been built up during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union supplied lots of weapons, agricultural products, and money to African liberation movements. For example, in South Africa, it was for the anti-Apartheid fight. And so that view of Russia as a helper in the post-colonial independence struggles remains in place in a lot of African states. That legacy is an evidence in many people's minds. However, let's not forget that the Soviet Union also fueled coups and violence during the Cold War in African states as well, and especially over the past years, with their deployments of the Wagner Group. They have been actively destabilizing and undermining many African states, contributing to food and migration crises, killing people, committing massacres and atrocities against civilians in states where they're deployed. So African states are under no illusion that Russia are somehow the good guys. However, they have their own problems, like any country: “My first priority is my government and my people.” And so, in the context of Ukraine, it can’t just be about telling African states that Russia are the bad guys and we're the good guys so you should be helping us. That's not a political argument. Also, because of Ukraine's current situation, as you're in a wartime condition, there's not much you can promise right now at a state level that that a partner government can really take without a big grain of salt. That’s because talking about what we're going to do after the war is just good to know but nobody knows what's going to happen so people can't put their chips on that. My advice and my strategy to deal with this would be quite frankly to go private sector first.

I've done a lot of work over the years in African-European business relations, especially focusing on tech innovation, which was my normal work I've been doing for the last eight or nine years. And I previously lived and worked in Rwanda. I sit on the board of a pan-African fintech company. So I've been working in the space for a long time. If you look at it as a pan-African market, it's booming. It's growing, it's young, it's hungry, it's dynamic. And if you didn't invest in China 20 years ago, you regret it now. Well if you're not investing in African economy today, you will regret it in 10, 20 years, and so I think there's a real opportunity from Ukrainian investors, high net worth individuals and companies here, in partnership with European companies, especially Eastern European ones, who maybe are underrepresented on the continent, to invest in strategic industries like renewable energy, agriculture, and tech innovation. So, it’s MedTech, EdTech, AgTech – investing in those areas where Ukraine has really a lot of expertise and solid experience.

And African companies, African startups are doing incredible work and creating win-win partnerships because companies, especially tech companies, they're more agile, they work faster, they can make things happen much faster than at a government-to-government level. In those kinds of business partnerships, there's a mutual impact and also that sort of soft power of just increasing interaction and getting to know each other and understanding each other's context better. And also building stuff that adds value to the economy, creates jobs solves problems. This will be the foundation for after the war, for when peace comes and gives success stories that both African governments and the Ukrainian government can hold up and say that this is what African-Ukrainian collaboration looks like, this is what we achieve together. And you noticed I didn't mention grain. And there's a reason for that because, as you know, the grain issue is so important but right now, with Russia disrupting Ukrainian grain exports and literally stealing Ukrainian grain and then selling it or giving it away, what I don't see is grain being a stable basis for building the future relationships.

Because right now, it's turning to this: “Oh I'll give you this much for this price. Now I'll give you this much for this price,” and this sort of silly game that Russia is playing to try to win short-term favor. That's not going to build long-term relations. But investing, for example, in grain storage and import capacity in African port cities, in digitalization, renewable energy, or agriculture – these are huge opportunities for paving the way to larger Ukrainian-African business ties. And politics will follow business. You might just have trade delegations and speeches at the ministerial level and also at the b2b level, when something's actually there and happening and has been built, or a deal has been closed. Well, then the ministers will show up to for that photo up. So this, it's kind of helping wag the dog and build the relationships stronger and showing that Ukraine understands that African countries aren’t just going to support Ukrainian interest out of the goodness of their heart. There should be a real desire on both sides to benefit from a new relationship, to get to know each other, and to pave the path to strong African-Ukrainian ties.


You know so much about Africa but, since the war started, you've been focused on Ukraine. What was the main driver for you to make the decision to refocus your efforts onto this part of the world?

Yeah, good question. It wasn't really a conscious decision at the beginning. It was crisis response. As a European and as a German, “Never again” means something to me, and I'm not an Eastern Europe specialist or Russia specialist. But I was deeply concerned in winter leading up to the full scale invasion, all the missteps and misinterpretations of the situation that I saw happening in Germany. And folks who speak Russian and the so-called “Russia experts,” the “Russia Verstehers,” the “Russia understanders” in Germany were getting it so wrong. I may not speak Russian but i do speak “crazy dictator.” And I can do math. And I saw that this was not a drill, that they’re not doing this for show. This is serious and Germany must respond. But when the full scale invasion came, I had only just started in the previous weeks to reach out to the Ukrainian diplomatic and civil society community in Berlin, where i live, to talk to them about messaging with the German public and media. But then it quickly just tipped into crisis response and to actually that they were asking me to help, for example, with evacuation and getting aid supplies to groups of African students who were stranded in cities under attack because i speak French and it just have familiarity with the African context. So I was just firstly helping in an ad hoc way with sort of requests for assistance. And because I'm self-employed, I had the flexibility to just do that and put my normal work on hold. But then as it progressed and it became clear that NATO in general and Germany in particular were not going to step up as quickly as was needed, I just felt this sense of personal and civic responsibility that if I have skills and expertise, that could be useful in this situation. It was just what I needed to do and so I just did it.

And, I'm sure everyone here shares this feeling, time has also lost all sense of meaning, it’s just days turned into weeks turned into months. And now it's been a year and a half, and here we are. But i won't stop because I know the Ukrainian people won't stop either, and I do truly believe that as humans in general and especially as Europeans, it's like our continent has done nothing but war for almost 2,000 years or more depending how you want to count it. And After World War 2, we managed to create something resembling peace and stability for a little window of time. And I, as a Western European, was born into a time and place where I was safe and free. And i don't take that for granted. So that's why I'm doing what I can and hope that everybody else continues to do it as well.

Thank you very much for this insightful conversation.

Ievgen Matiushenko

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