By Emma Waxlax
Following the one-year anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, I spoke with Ukrainian civil society activist Olga Aivasovska (GS’22) on the current situation in her home country. We discuss ongoing efforts to hold Russia accountable, the importance of history in understanding the war, and the future of Ukraine.
Last April, you spoke at the Geneva Summit where you gave us a glimpse of your immediate experiences following the Russian invasion. You described having to suddenly leave Kyiv, your husband going to fight on the front lines and your longing to return home. Now that we’re just over one year since the start of the war, how has your life changed since then?
Today, I’m in Kyiv. My husband’s still in the ground forces. Because he was mobilized, he can’t just leave since war is ongoing. When I spoke at the Geneva Summit last year, it was a very crucial time for the future of Ukraine. It was after the liberation of Kyiv and the whole world heard about refugees, war crimes, and the crimes against humanity that were happening because of the Russian invasion. In those days, it was a huge shock because we saw how even in the 21st century, such crimes could happen before our own eyes and we had online evidence and testimony from survivors to prove it. However, the scope of the tragedy and war crimes were not very well known at the time. Since then, everything has changed. Now we have nearly 70,000 criminal cases opened by the General Prosecutors Office in Ukraine regarding war crimes committed. As a result of the activity of Russia and their soldiers, my life changed because I don’t feel that there are any borders now.
I’m currently working to try to mobilize work to help Ukraine. My main topic for now is accountability and justice. First of all, regarding advocacy, we are in the process of establishing a special ad hoc tribunal because of the crimes of aggression with the full-scale invasion on the 24th of February, though such crimes started in 2014.
“International law was destroyed because of the decision by Russia to forget about independence and the territorial integrity of its neighbours.”
When Crimea was annexed illegally it was the start of this war for many of us. I’m working with a tribunal advocating on this premise, traveling a lot and trying to find support in different parts of the world. This is critical because we have to increase people’s awareness on a global level of how it’s important to go back to the roots of the international agreement laid after the Second World War. International rules and order were adopted by different communities after the Second World War as a result of the huge tragedy that transpired when 75 million people were killed because of war.
Coming from different organizations, my colleagues and I established two institutions. One of them is a centre for preliminary documentation of war crimes in Poland since we have a huge number of refugees there. There are many organizations and institutions that we are working with to obtain documentation in Ukraine but it’s not as easily done outside of Ukraine and abroad. We have communication with prosecutors from different states such as the General Prosecutor’s Office in Ukraine, and the General Prosecutor’s Office in Poland. We already have huge progress in this field through preliminary interviewing, testimonies, and evidence. The centre also tracks the progression of this war and what we mean by war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The second institution is one established by a group of Ukrainian women named The International Center for Ukrainian Victory. I am a co-founder of this centre. We are working on different topics including advocacy for Ukraine and abroad.
As you mentioned, there have been many reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity raised by the UN, NGOs, and world leaders such as President Biden. In your speech last year, you had the following line: “If evil is left on punished, it will only keep growing.” Do you think, at this point in the war, the crimes committed against innocent Ukrainian civilians have been committed with impunity? Going forward, what should justice look like for these victims and their families? What’s the best scenario for allowing that to happen?
There are different jurisdictions and we have to focus on each of them. First of all, there are the local jurisdictions, which operate under Ukrainian legislation. There’s the General Prosecutor’s Office, who has the capacity to investigate war crimes in Ukraine because there are not any international institutions that can cover all the tens of thousands of cases existent right now. On this level, we have progress because there are good relations, coordination and communication between officials, authorities, and NGOs. We already have different methods of how to exchange data and information, and how to involve each other in the different processes because it’s not just about interviewing. It’s about the development of legislation, new practices and rules, communication with partners abroad, and figuring out how to support Ukrainian authorities to investigate these types of cases under Ukrainian jurisdiction in a better manner. We need three forms of further training in this regard. We need training for judges, we need equipment capacity building programs and training for investigators. These are a mountain of objectives and activities. I believe that we have already had effective cases where investigations were finalized under Ukrainian jurisdiction and the court delivered a decision.
At the same time, we have a cooperation on the international level between NGOs and other stakeholders with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is very important for us. We know that the ICC can’t cover all the tens of thousands of cases. It’s impossible to have an effective investigation for all of them. But I believe that this is a win-win story already, because after a year, we have an official warrant for arrest.
On March 17th, 2023, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights, regarding the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from Russian occupied areas of Ukraine. Why are these arrest warrants so significant?
The arrest warrants are not issued for the soldiers or middle-ranking authorities. It’s about making headquarters accountable. It’s about making Putin personally responsible, which is significant because it is very difficult to find a connection between the war crimes being committed on the ground and President Putin. You will not find a signature under an official act signed by Putin ordering a soldier to commit a war crime. But here we were successful thanks to the evidence on the relocation and adoption of Ukrainian children by Russians. There are interviews between so called “child ombudsman” in Russia and President Putin on the issue. We also found documents which adopted new rules regarding the adoption of Ukrainian children and re-educating them to be Russian and not Ukrainian. Here we’re not just seeing war crimes but genocide.You can check the UN convention and see what genocide means. The last point on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is on children.
“The ICC found the right topic for investigation and adopted a very brave decision against the perpetrators.”
Another topic is destroying critical and civilian infrastructure, which we have much evidence and testimony. This became especially evident after last winter when it was a part of official Russian policy to destroy electricity access for civilians in addition to destroying heating systems, hindering water supply, etc. Because of this, the past winter was very difficult for Ukrainians. It was the official position to destroy all of that infrastructure just to push Ukrainians to stop their resilience, to stop fighting for their rights, democracy, rule of law, and independence.
I believe that it’s a fight not only for Ukraine but for the international order to ensure clear, effective rules are followed, which mean irreversibility of punishment. If you are doing bad things, if you’re really violating rules, you have to be punished. Not solely soldiers but high-level politicians as well. All of us are aware that we are living in the 21st century. We have access to cyberspace, we can find the name of the soldier who raped x woman in Bucha, kidnapped stuff from her flat and destroyed the sanctity of her home. That’s not a problem at all.
The significance of the ICC case also extends to the work of Ukraine’s local jurisdictions as it can be used in the ad hoc tribunal. On the international level, the ICC is limited by the fact that, while it can develop these cases, it can’t arrest Putin given that Russia is not a signatory. Therefore, they can’t develop this case before the end of the war and before a relocation of Putin from Moscow to the Hague.
Even so, the ICC decision can have a direct impact on the effectiveness of the cases brought forward in Ukraine. That’s why we need to advocate for creation of an ad hoc tribunal as there is not any institution in the world which can further develop this case. What can help us to develop the case against Putin is to adopt the ICC decision and to use this court decision against Russia as a state, which produced this war, and against Putin as the president who signed all the documents in connection to the invasion. In this regard, we have progress, especially in the last six months. A year ago, nobody wanted to listen about the need for an ad hoc tribunal. Now we have 33 countries and a core team whose official mission is to develop the status of this ad hoc tribunal and to participate in establishing this process. While it’s not a victory yet, the attitude around the tribunal changed very much, which is a considerable development.
Regarding the deportations of children in Russian occupied or formerly Russian occupied areas of Ukraine, are they ongoing? Has the process turned now to retrieving the children? Has there been success in this regard thus far?
Unfortunately, the deportation process is ongoing. We can monitor through cyberspace and understand what is going on beyond the public statements of Russian authorities. We see case by case the adoption of Ukrainian children, who have been kidnapped from occupied territories not under Ukrainian control. Separating families in this way is part of this process of genocide, not just war crimes or crimes against humanity. According to Ukrainian officials, there are more than 16,000 cases. Russian authorities published information about hundreds of thousands of children, but they present it to the world as a form of salvation instead of what it is, kidnapping and re-educating children. So yes, it’s an ongoing process unfortunately. Only hundreds of these children are back in Ukraine based on official statements by the Ukrainian ombudsman.
An element of this war has also been the propaganda spewed by Putin in his attempt to justify Russia’s actions; not only in the case of deporting children but also in his decision to invade. He presented a narrative that the rest of the world, or most of the rest of the world, knows is false, labelling Ukrainians as Neo-Nazis and speaking of a supposed genocide against separatists. Why do you think he actually invaded in February last year? Were Ukraine-Russian relations at a specific juncture?
I believe that it’s not just Putin’s decision but one by the Russian Federation who seek to bring back the golden age of the Soviet Union. What Putin is doing now is to try to join the territories they lost thirty years ago. They started with the Slavic countries like Belarus through political occupation. In contrast, Ukraine as a society decided to be a part of Europe and the European Union as an international, intergovernmental institution. Invasion is not a result of something that we did in a wrong way. Invasion happened because Putin is a very old man who does not have so many years left. His ability to play a great role in history in bringing back the old territories is dwindling. The invasion happened because it was a moment when the Ukrainian army became less strong, not like it was in 2014. In 2014, Putin’s Russia didn’t have enough capacity to start a full-scale invasion. During the Munich Security Conference, he said that the biggest tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, he doesn’t have enough time because his life will not go for another hundred years. Russian aggression against Ukraine did not happen just on the 24th of February. It happened after the invasion of Georgia, the occupation of territories in Ukraine, and in the illegal annexation of Crimea. This is the new stage of his political historical agenda.
Nothing was provoked by Ukrainians. It was a clear, unprovoked, full-scale invasion. Ukraine didn’t do anything against international rules or order. We don’t have any legal evidence of war crimes from our side. I believe that war is a very difficult period and stage of development. It’s damaging human rights for sure. But the reason for these deaths and refugees is the position of the Russian President and the Russian Federation who seek to gather the lands back to Moscow. It’s about imperialism, which is against human rights.
“For the Russian Federation, Ukrainians don’t have any choice. Our voice doesn’t matter as a society, as a people, as human beings.”
One component of your speech at the Geneva Summit highlighted how Russian aggression against Ukraine is a generational trauma. Your grandmother was confronted by it and now your son has to deal with it as well. For our audience, what is most important in understanding the historical component of the aggression Russia has exerted against Ukraine? How do you think such historical aggression shaped, and continues to shape, Ukraine’s sense of national identity?
The problem is that nobody is looking to history as a point of great influence on our current times. History is important because there is not any end to it. Liberal democracy didn’t start this war at all. Democracy is not a state of being, it’s a process of becoming. We didn’t end the Cold War with a clear identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union because Russia retained a huge influence on our politicians and our political process. Russian money was here in Ukraine. Russian propaganda was here for many decades and pervaded political circles. The problem is that Russia as a state and Moscow as its capital didn’t accept that other nations – other groups of people with their own culture, language, and identity – have a right to be independent. It’s not about ethnic groups because Ukraine is composed of Crimeans, Tartars, and Muslim people as well. Russian speakers in Ukraine now reject the Russian language in Ukraine because it is a result of colonization, nothing else.
For many centuries, Russia blocked our rights to develop our country, to save our identity, and so on and so forth. The Soviet Union tried to build special Soviet people without diversity, languages and so on and so forth. My nation fought for independence for many centuries. During the Soviet Union, Ukrainian leaders and intellectuals were killed for many decades just because they had the potential to help the Ukrainian nation survive. It is not a crime to have an identity. It is not a crime to be a nation. It is however a crime to prevent other people from building their nation and to continually interfere, both physically and mentally, on their policies and regions.
The historical perspective is that Ukrainians have been suffering for many decades and centuries. I’m happy that many European – and not only European – countries established a decision about the genocide waged against Ukrainians in the 20th century. Eight million people were killed because Moscow decided to deny Ukrainians access to food. We had rich fields of wheat and other resources in Ukraine, but the people couldn’t take it for themselves to cook needed food to survive. It was awful. We see how this history connects to 2022 since Russia decided to invade Ukraine and subsequently produce a food crisis in the world. They went as far as to use the food crisis as a bargaining chip, stating that that if Ukraine would stop their resilience and defending their own rights and territories, people in Africa would still have access to food. The USSR manipulated the food crisis back then and we similarly saw this being done by Russia today. Unfortunately, we also saw the war against Ukrainian identity in Crimea. They just relocated these people from Crimea to other territories of the USSR, tried to kill them physically during this relocation process, and tried to reintegrate them into Russian society just to break their Ukrainian identity. But the good point is that we are fighting for our rights together to develop our future as a part of the free world, one free from Russian Imperialism.
Democracy is not an endpoint, it’s a process. In many ways, Ukraine was on the road to becoming a democracy, though it was flawed. In the past, you took part in protests calling for enhanced democracy and against Russia’s involvement in the country. Do you think that the current war has deepened Ukrainian resolve to achieve a full-fledged democracy?
First, the total majority of Ukrainians want to have a fully-developed democracy in Ukraine and the level of support for this system is now more than 90%. We didn’t have such unity before the war because democracy has its own weak aspects such as the bureaucracy often involved. It’s also not so easy to manage ad hoc issues and so on. But now we have full support for developing our democracy in Ukrainian society. Second, it’s about EU integration. And it’s not just to be a part of EU, it’s about having the same system of good governance found in those countries. One that’s transparent, accountable, and has respect to the citizens. There are many weaknesses to the bureaucracy in Europe, but they are well-developed societies now. Third, it’s about NATO membership, which has a high level of support from Ukrainians. We are very well aware that NATO will not accept any requests from Ukraine until the end of the war, but it’s about joint security in this part of the world, and it’s about common responsibility between neighbours.
In the last 40 years, Ukraine has experienced three revolutions, each of which were about human rights and democracy. We first had Leonid Kravchuk as President of Ukraine. It didn’t work as he expected, or his partner in crime Putin expected, because Ukrainian society has a voice. We are going to continue to work with that. Of course, during martial law as we in now, it’s not so easy to have everything according to what we had before, or comparatively to other EU states. But we still have journalists, freedom of speech, independent media, and political parties.
“Everyone is seeking victory, which they see only in the direction of democracy for our state without compromise.”
That’s why I believe that even with the current challenges brought by the war, we will establish those roots for democracy after the end of the war as we have open space for discussion, for the presentation of different positions, and for reform.
The endpoint of this war, as you just mentioned, is the road towards democracy. There is no other option. However, at the moment, it seems Putin and the Russian Federation are not keen on peace negotiations. Where do you envision this war going in the near and distant future?
I think that peace negotiations will happen, but with the next president of Russia. I don’t believe that we can forget about the war crimes, genocide, cases at the ICC, and go on to negotiate with the individual responsible for them. It’s impossible. For now, what is possible is to build the capacity of Ukraine to liberate its own territories to the official borders and to give a chance to Ukrainian society to start these recovery processes inside the country. We have a clear position from many states, not only Ukraine, that full scale aggression occurred, and thousands of war crimes have been committed, alongside crimes against humanity. There is not any window of opportunity to start negotiations as they happened in 2014.
“I only see a small window of opportunity for peace negotiations after the end of Putin’s regime.”
As a final question, what type of message do you want to leave our audience on the future of Ukraine?
World international order will be in danger without an honest answer of who is responsible for this war. This is an exercise for all of us on how to use international law effectively, not just formally. That’s why I believe it’s in our interest, as a part of the civilized world, to win this war on the field, to save our democracy, to develop it together with our partners, and to fight for the decolonization of others who are suffering as we are now. I believe that our partners in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean region, will accept that this is not a European war at all. It’s about countering the imperialistic vision which seeks to occupy its neighbors and other nations. As such, I believe that we have many things in common with our partners across the globe. This is an exercise on how to develop a world without imperialism, an idea we thought inhabited an ancient space. Unfortunately, history is playing a huge role now. That’s why it’s time to open history to try to observe what is painful for each of us.