This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

Sian MacLeod

Sian MacLeod

UK Ambassador to Serbia

Part of Russia's invasion of Ukraine UK in Serbia

25th April 2023 Belgrade, Serbia

Challenges, risks and threats

Slovyansk in 2017

On 24 February 2022 the world watched with horror and disbelief as Vladimir Putin had launched his illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Many people including in Serbia did not to believe or want to believe that Moscow would take such a reckless step, particularly against another Slavic nation with many historic, family and cultural ties to its own.

Since then we have witnessed unimaginable death and destruction, unimaginable cruelty and suffering.

But, unbelievable as it was, Putin’s use of military means to attack a neighbour was not new.

In 2014 he used military forces inside Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders to annex Crimea and stir up of conflict in the Donbas.

The UK was perhaps more aware than most countries of Vladimir Putin’s callous disregard for international law and human life.

After all, he had sent security operatives to use a deadly radioactive isotope and an illegal, military nerve agent on the streets of our cities. Planned assassinations using polonium and a novichok agent violated numerous international treaties and commitments and were carried out clumsily, endangering large numbers of people.

Russia’s conduct of war in Ukraine has been equally careless of human life and suffering – as shown by its targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure and its own extremely high casualty figures.

There is significant evidence Russian forces perpetrating war crimes: prosecutors at the International Criminal Court have so far focused on the forced removal of thousands of children from Ukraine and their dispersal across the Russian Federation.

Putin wants to take the world back to an era where large states dictate terms to smaller ones. But OSCE principles and commitments are clear on respect for sovereign equality, as well as on refraining from threat or use of force. Russia recognised Ukraine as an independent state in 1991. In 1994, Russia, like the UK, US signed the Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s security.

A lack of democratic checks and balances in Russia’s system of governance, supported by an industrial scale propaganda and disinformation operation has allowed this to happen.

But Putin has miscalculated badly. That is why he keeps shuffling or replacing his military command. It is why his propagandists have to keep inventing new narratives. It is why his proxies resorted to recruiting criminal paramilitaries from prisons.

Rather than stopping the madness to save lives and safeguard the generation upon which Russia’s future depends, Putin has continued to plunge his country in further.

I have many happy memories of living in Russia for nearly seven years. You only need to look at my bookcases to see my admiration for a nation that has given the world some of its greatest writers, composers, mathematicians and scientists.

I am appalled not only by the current suffering begin inflicted upon Ukraine but also the consequences for current and future generations of Russians. Repairing the damage and restoring any normality could take decades.

I have the utmost admiration for people in Russia who have bravely and publicly opposed a war that is a disaster for their country. I also spare a thought here for the millions of people across Russia being fed disinformation and lies about the facts and human costs of the so-called ’Special Military Operation’.

But of course, it is the Ukrainian people that are in most need of international support and practical help.

That is why 141 UN member states including the UK and Serbia, twelve months after the invasion, again voted to call on Russia to remove its forces from Ukraine. It is why states including the UK and Serbia have acted against Russia in other international organisations including the OSCE and the EBRD.

It is why states and individuals around the world have continued to provide much needed humanitarian support. I am proud that my Embassy helped organise a wonderful concert in Belgrade in the Kolarac hall with world-class viola player Maxim Rysanov and the St George’s Strings to raise funds for humanitarian work in Ukraine.

Many countries, including Serbia, are supporting refugees from Ukraine and providing help for medical and energy services. I welcome the steps that Serbian Government has taken and hope you will continue to do more.

Many countries including the UK are also providing military equipment and training to help Ukraine defend itself, as is its right under international law.

There is one area where at present UK and Serbian policies differ. The UK, along with virtually all European states and other major international partners has imposed sanctions to weaken the Kremlin’s ability to wage this senseless war. I very much hope that Serbia will be able to join this shared endeavour. That would be an important signal to the Kremlin.

Serbia has already taken some difficult decisions since the invasion of Ukraine – and is no doubt under a range of pressures. But your leaders have shown political courage at the UN and elsewhere and partners including the UK, US, Norway and the EU stand ready to help you reduce your energy dependence upon Russia. I am confident Serbia will have the courage to choose right over wrong and to be on the right side of history.

I am confident too that your best future is a firmly European one. The UK is happy to work alongside our former EU partners and other like-minded countries in support of the sustainable stability, security and growing prosperity of this region. But not all international actors share that aim. I do not believe that Moscow wants Serbia or your region to be able to take independent decisions, enhance economic development and regional connectivity, or solve long running problems. It will not put your interests first.

It surely is no accident that, wherever there are tensions or differences within or between states, Moscow is to be found encouraging dispute or difference, not promoting compromise and cooperation. You will not find the Wagner Group or Night Wolves working to improve cross border trade, educational opportunity or air quality – or to tackle corruption.

To protect and enhance peace, security and independence this region needs to work hard to minimise vulnerabilities that can be exploited by disruptive internal or external actors that want to hold you and your region back and to limit your opportunities.

Formal British and Serbian diplomatic relations go back to the 1830s. In 1837 our earliest formal diplomatic representative here, Colonel George Lloyd-Hodges was ferried across the Danube to present his respects to the Ottoman Pasha before travelling on to the Serbian Royal court in Kragujevac.

Our closest cooperation though probably came during the two World Wars as I am reminded whenever I visit the graves of British military and medical personnel here. When I arrived in Belgrade nearly four years ago, I said that my ambition was to build a stronger forward-looking relationship between the UK and Serbia, so we could focus on cooperation and shared opportunities, and talk about differences constructively.

I leave Belgrade in June confident that my successor can further develop this relationship built on mutual respect and understanding. It is only by working together that we can understand and respond to the threats facing us in our present day world. I hope that we can continue to work together and persuade Moscow to end the conflict and suffering.

About Sian MacLeod

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization…

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Sian joined the FCO in 1986. Her first posting was to Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she served briefly in the Embassy in Vilnius. Since then she has been posted to The Hague, returned to Moscow 2004-7, where she became Minister (Deputy Head of Mission). Between overseas postings she has worked in the FCO and the Cabinet Office.

Sian was Ambassador in Prague from 2009 to 2013 and then Director of the British Council Triennial Review and FCO Additional Director for the Eastern European & Central Asian Directorate.

Sian is married to Richard Robinson and they have three children and enjoy music, cycling and cross-country skiing.

Before joining the FCO she studied music at the Winchester School of Art and the Royal Academy of Music.