Under different circumstances, our conversation with the new British ambassador in Athens, Matthew Lodge, would center on his Greek connection: He’s been married to a Greek woman for the past 20 years, is fluent in the language and considers the country his second home. “My bond with Greece is very strong and lifelong,” he says.
Current affairs, however, allow little digression from the subject of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or “Vladimir Putin’s hideous and barbaric venture,” as Lodge describes it.
He joined the Foreign Office in 1996 after a stint in the Royal Marines and has a BA in modern languages. He was previously ambassador to Finland and Kuwait.
Did you ever expect war to return to Europe?
No, to be honest. We’ve had crises in the Balkans and elsewhere in the past few years but, in general terms, the eight decades since the end of World War II have been more or less without incident. We did not expect a war on our continent, yet here we are. Why? Because of one leader’s distorted view of the world, history and his country’s role. It appears, unfortunately, that President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was premeditated. I am not a psychiatrist and I don’t know if he’s paranoid or not, but I do know that he thinks very differently than the rest of us. He is obviously cut off from reality and from his people.
What kind of role can diplomacy really play in a crisis such as this?
Diplomacy is more important than ever in this rapidly changing and complex world. Even though European diplomatic efforts failed to prevent President Putin from carrying out his illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, diplomacy is still necessary. At the United Nations General Assembly in early March, we saw 141 countries condemn Russia’s actions and this is a powerful example of what diplomacy means in action. At the end of the day, dialogue and diplomacy will be the only way to restore stability and peace to Ukraine.
But isn’t every war essentially a failure of diplomacy? Weren’t mistakes made?
It is true that every conflict is a setback for diplomacy. But this is not necessarily the result of mistakes; sometimes the distance between the positions of two countries is too great to bridge and the tensions such that they cannot be managed. European diplomacy has already played an important role in demonstrating the unity of European democracies and I believe it will continue to do so as it seeks a way out of the present crisis.
‘I hope that these very tough sanctions against Vladimir Putin and his inner circles of oligarchs pay off, but – and I don’t want to frighten you – I am not sure that they are enough’
Do you think that the sanctions against Russia will work?
It is important that the European Union and the United States showed such quick reflexes at the political, diplomatic and economic level. I hope that these very tough sanctions against Vladimir Putin and his inner circles of oligarchs pay off, but – and I don’t want to frighten you – I am not sure that they are enough. We may have to go a step further to defend our countries, our allies and the things we believe in, just like our parents and grandparents had to do.
What could ensure that such a venture is not repeated, by Putin or any other “Putin”?
The events in Ukraine underscore the horror of an unprovoked attack on a democratic country and the terrible toll paid by innocent civilians – men, women and children. This is why Putin must fail. We have a duty as an international community not to be indifferent to his savagery. As soon as we restore Ukraine’s freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity, we must create a viable and peaceful future for Ukraine itself, but also for the broader region – Russia included. Our dispute, after all, is not with the Russian people.
Do you think that Europeans can come out of this ordeal stronger?
I would describe this war more like a tragedy than an ordeal. But I am certain that the countries of Europe will rally to the defense of our democratic values and our belief in freedom. I would like to share a very powerful memory from my youth. One of our trainers in the Royal Marines had fought in the Falklands War. He had two dogs – cocker spaniels, like our dog, Bruno – and often brought them to the camp with him. One day we asked him whether he likes to hunt. “I have seen more death than I ever would have wanted,” he answered. “I will never hunt.” As a former military man, as a diplomat and as a father, I hope that from now on we have sufficient military might not to ever need to use it. Not to ever need our children to defend our nation with guns. And this is a hope that I think everyone shares: Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Britons. You cannot blame the Russians for the war; they are controlled by a system.
You spent some time studying in the Soviet Union. What do you remember from that time?
I traveled to what was then Leningrad in March 1990. Mikhail Gorbachev was president, the Berlin Wall had just come down and everyone in the West was talking about Perestroika as the last chance for the Soviet Union to become part of Europe. When I got there, I saw a country that had lost its way. Everyone was anxious for their family, deprived of things we took for granted, unsure of what bread would cost the next day, faced with empty supermarket shelves. At the same time, tourists could get everything they wanted at the city’s big hotels. I realized that while I was no different than my local fellow students – Maxim, Gennady, Vladimir – back home I enjoyed freedoms and opportunities that they did not have. Many decades later, Russia is facing the same problems. And it is such a shame that a country with so many resources should be beleaguered by poverty, plutocracy and corruption. So, this war is not the Russians’ fault. They share so much with the Ukrainians at a national, religious and cultural level, but they are under the control of Putin and an entire system that forbids any form of open, democratic discussion and leads them astray with misinformation and propaganda.
What about the other “war,” the pandemic – what have we learned from that?
The novel coronavirus brought many different changes to our societies. Things that we could not have imagined happened at great speed, but also with great care, within just two years. I spent the first few months of the pandemic at our embassy in Paris; it was a difficult period. There was no vaccine yet and every government was looking for the right answers to the incredibly pressing questions of this unprecedented crisis. Now look where we are. The landscape has changed completely: great leaps in biotechnology, joint European health policies, coordinated initiatives and measures, and a culture of cooperation which, in my opinion, is an invaluable legacy. In Greece, we saw pioneering innovations carried out by the Ministry for Digital Governance. At a personal level, meanwhile, the virus has made us appreciate the value of health and the importance of family ties at such difficult times. We have acquired all sorts of useful skills during the pandemic.
How have things changed with Brexit?
I can’t say that some things have not changed with Brexit – because they did with the 2016 referendum, an open and democratic process – but a lot has not changed. The United Kingdom was and will remain a European country; our role in NATO, the UN Security Council and G7; our excellent relations with our allies in Europe and North America. Not only were these things not affected negatively, they grew stronger. It has been 14 months since we left the European Union and we are still here, knowing that it will take hard work to forge a new relationship with our European friends. It is much easier with Greece, perhaps because of our traditionally close ties. Of course, there are always new opportunities that we could take advantage of in education, tourism and shipping. These are the areas we need to focus on.