Behind the scenes at the Dutch embassy in Kyiv


The Netherlands has approximately 150 diplomatic missions around the world, ranging from large to small. Today we take a look behind the scenes at an unusual one: the embassy in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Our diplomats talk about working in a country at war and what they're doing to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

Enlarge image De Nederlandse ambassade in Kyiv.
The Dutch embassy in Kyiv.

‘Our remit has changed, essentially,’ says deputy head of mission Esselien van Eerten. ‘Usually, working at the embassy means representing the Netherlands’ interests and strengthening its relations with the country you're posted to. Here we've turned that around to focus mainly on how Dutch knowledge and expertise can help Ukraine keep up the fight against Russia.’

Tjitske Wildervanck, political section

War is also raging beyond the battlefield, says Tjitske Wildervanck. ‘The war isn’t confined to the front lines – Russia is also waging a cultural war. It's deliberately attacking cultural targets in an attempt to erase Ukraine’s culture and identity. I look at how the Netherlands can support Ukraine in terms of culture, and I facilitate cooperation between the Dutch and Ukrainian cultural sectors. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science have deliberately made Ukraine a priority country with regard to international cultural policy.’

Enlarge image Tjitske Wildervanck van de politieke afdeling op de ambassade in Kyiv.
Tjitske Wildervanck.

Tjitske: 'I've visited some special places - the Khanenko Museum, for instance. Most of its collection was removed as a precaution soon after the war broke out. What couldn’t be moved was securely wrapped up. Luckily so, because a bomb landed close to the museum early on and caused significant damage to the building. It was a strange coincidence: it had been damaged in more or less the same place during the Second World War. It all shows how important it is to protect cultural heritage.’

Mark Heemskerk, economic section

Economic stability is the basis for Ukraine’s ongoing war efforts, says Mark Heemskerk, from the embassy's economic section. ‘As much as it can, the Netherlands is helping to keep Ukraine’s economy ticking over. Because if its economy collapses, Ukraine won’t be able to fight a war. Our work at the embassy involves mobilising the business community, thinking along with them about the initial phase of reconstruction work that will contribute to economic development. The cost of war damage in Ukraine is already estimated at more than $400 billion, and the government can’t come up with that on its own. It absolutely needs help from the business sector.’

Enlarge image Mark Heemskerk van de economische afdeling op de ambassade in Kyiv.
Mark Heemskerk.

He continues: ‘It's difficult to have businesses set up operations in Ukraine at the moment, given the obvious risks and the red travel advisory. Even so, we're doing all we can to create the best possible conditions so that they can eventually start investing significantly and helping Ukraine get its economy up and running again. We hope that will be sooner rather than later.’

Ukraine won't be the only beneficiary, says Mark. ‘The Netherlands has a lot to offer Ukraine, but Ukraine also has a lot to offer us. Their IT and agricultural sectors in particular are very strong, and these are areas where we have a lot in common economically.’

Natalya Bongers, economic section

‘If you want to find Dutch businesses that are a good match for Ukraine, you need specialist knowledge,’ adds Natalya Bongers. Born in Ukraine, she’s a local employee in the embassy’s economic section.

Enlarge image Natalya Bongers van de economische afdeling op de ambassade in Kyiv,
Natalya Bongers.

She gives an example: ‘In one of our current projects, Dutch water companies are helping Ukrainian ones to repair and modernise their supply systems. The disaster caused by Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka dam left many people with no access to drinking water, a basic necessity. So we’ve been supporting local water companies by providing knowledge and training, but also equipment such as water pumps, so that people will be able to return to severely affected areas.’

Things can get hectic at the embassy, says Esselien. ‘Kyiv has symbolic significance in many countries’ foreign policy, and this is certainly true for the Netherlands. This means that we have a lot of incoming visits, for example by the prime minister and other ministers. These visits are important for Ukraine, since they demonstrate our support. Besides that, when delegations visit Kyiv they see first-hand that there is actually a war raging on European soil.’

Enlarge image Plaatsvervangend ambassadeur Esselien van Eerten.
Deputy ambassador Esselien van Eerten.

Roy Spijkerboer, political section

The Netherlands supports Ukraine in various ways, says Roy Spijkerboer, who works in the political section. ‘For instance, my work has to do with Ukraine’s EU accession process and the reforms that will require,’ says Roy. He explains: ‘Future EU membership is a major ambition for Ukraine. The authorities here often say that Ukraine should become part of the EU when it has won the war. But there’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done before that can happen. We're monitoring the process very carefully here at the embassy. Through support for various projects, including in civil society, we're doing our best to facilitate reform programmes. Without question, we think of this partly as an investment in relations with Ukraine as a potential EU member state in the future.’ 

Enlarge image Roy Spijkerboer van de politieke afdeling op de ambassade in Kyiv.
Roy Spijkerboer.

Roy says it is a special time to be working in Kyiv. ‘Talking to our Ukrainian colleagues at the embassy as well as ordinary people here, you can tell they’ve been through a lot. It makes a deep impression, and it motivates us to carry on with our work here so we can help Ukraine win its fight against Russia.’

Patrick Urselmann, defence attaché

Ukraine urgently needs Western military support to keep up its fight, says Patrick Urselmann, a defence attaché working at the embassy as part of a team from the Dutch Ministry of Defence. He explains their role: ‘First and foremost, we’re here to coordinate military support for Ukraine and to maintain our network of international coalition partners.’

Enlarge image Patrick Urselmann, defensie attaché in Kyiv.
Patrick Urselmann.

‘But we also work closely with staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The embassy has gained a lot of additional capacity in the past few years, and we need it, because we're juggling so many different things. For instance, I work with foreign ministry staff on combating wartime impunity, which is a top priority for the Netherlands. We also work hard on protecting critical infrastructure such as energy and water supply facilities, which Russia targeted heavily in the first year of the war.’

Facts and figures about the embassy

  • About 40 people – staff posted from the Netherlands and local employees – currently work at the embassy, compared to 19 before the war began.
  • Jennes de Mol has been the Netherlands’ ambassador to Ukraine since 2019; his posting will end in the summer of 2024, when he becomes ambassador to Poland.
  • Two months before the war broke out, the embassy had opened a small assistance point in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv where it could provide support to Dutch nationals.
  • The embassy in Kyiv closed on 19 February 2022 and all of its diplomats moved to the Lviv office. A few days later they had to leave Ukraine entirely.
  • The embassy was able to open its doors once again on 29 April 2022.

‘Staff at the embassy are juggling a lot of tasks,’ says Esselien. ‘You might have your day planned out when you start in the morning and then all kinds of unexpected things happen. The recent news that Ukraine’s Chief of Defence, Valery Zaluzhny, was removed from his post was announced just as I arrived home and I had to go straight back to work. So in practice everyone here is on call around the clock. But that’s also something that makes this a very special place to work.’

Marco Wijnands, operational manager

Someone else who understands this is Marco Wijnands, who recently joined the mission as its operational manager. He explains: ‘As operational manager, it's up to me to keep the embassy running smoothly. My team and I are responsible for financial administration and human resources, as well as things like building maintenance at the embassy and incoming visits. It’s a challenging job in exceptional circumstances. The work goes on even against the backdrop of war, and that’s not something you experience everywhere.

Enlarge image Marco Wijnands, Operationeel Manager op de ambassade in Kyiv.
Marco Wijnands.

The air raid sirens went off four times during my very first week here, one time at night. When that happens, you spend the next two hours sitting in the shelter. The security managers who work at the embassy coordinate all of that. It all means this embassy is very different from any of the others I've worked at.’

Natalya Vasilchenko, general affairs section

Work at the embassy has changed so much, including for local employees at the embassy, who are Ukrainian. Natalya explains: ‘The sirens go off all the time. Every time there’s a Russian attack, all of us staff talk about it the next day. It’s important for us to be able to do that.’

Working at the embassy also gives her a sense of stability in these tumultuous times, she says. ‘I'll never forget the day we were allowed to return to the embassy a couple of months after the invasion. It felt a little bit like normal life again.’

In her work, she sees how important it is that other countries continue to support Ukraine. Natalya: ‘Actually, Western support – including from the Netherlands – is important for democracies everywhere. I never could have imagined that Russia would invade Ukraine in the 21st century, and murder people as it is doing now. The support must continue, because Russia will never stop of its own accord.’

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