Interviewed by Dylan Rogers
Almost every Ukrainian kid knows the phrase “4am Kyiv is bombed”. It is the expression that was used to announce the start of the German bombardment in 1941. Yet last Thursday morning it came alive again, as Russian dictator Vladimir Putin began an unprovoked attack on his democratic neighbour.
Today is day six of Russia’s invasion. Hundreds have now been killed and over 500,000 are estimated to have fled their homes. Key cities including Kharkiv and Mariupol are surrounded and being subjected to increasingly indiscriminate shelling. An armoured convoy is inching its way towards the capital. Yet Ukranians are not surrendering.
To find out why, I talked to former member of parliament and foreign policy advisor to the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Svitlana Zalishchuk (GS’16). Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Thank you for joining me, Svitlana. Can I ask where you are at the moment?
At the moment I am in a small town called Beregovo, in the Western part of Ukraine. It is many hundreds of kilometres from my hometown of Kyiv. We left Kyiv on the day war started.
How have the past few days been for you?
On the day the war started we woke up to explosions – there were like eight at five o’clock in the morning. I lived in the centre of Kyiv, near one of the oldest churches. Usually I wake up to the Church’s bells, not explosions.
Before then information had already been circulating on CNN and other media outlets that Russia might invade Ukraine the next morning. Yet no-one could believe it. It seemed so unrealistic that something like that, something so horrible, so unjustifiable, could happen. Therefore many people did not leave the city or their homes. Like me.
Usually I wake up to the Church’s bells, not explosions.
First we decided to stay in the capital and started to help some journalists reporting what was going on, to circulate the information around the world. But later we talked to some military experts who advised us to leave. They told us the Russians would try to encircle Kyiv, blocking the entrances and exits, cutting electricity, heat and food supplies. Some of this is already happening. The Russians just sent a missile to electric station 6, which provides electricity to people living in Kyiv.
So we left. We travelled for two days because the roads were so packed with hundreds of thousands of people leaving with their kids, their grandparents, to get closer to the Western border or cross the border. I already know too many heart-breaking stories about families trying to cross the border. How humiliating and devastating it is.
We decided to stay in Ukraine. There is a psychological threshold that I have not reached yet that would allow me to leave my country. I can’t accept it. I have somewhere to stay abroad, I have friends and relatives and so on. But at this point I cannot absorb the new reality.
You can’t bring yourself to believe that the invasion actually happened?
Well, yes. But it’s difficult not to believe it at the same time. You’ve seen the footage.
I just don’t want to leave my country. I want to stay here. I want to do something, be useful, and be proactive. So this is what we are doing. Me and my husband are in a little hotel and we are working hard to help my country defend itself.
You mentioned the extent of the assault on Kyiv. How long can Ukraine hold out?
It’s very difficult to say. I think Putin expected his assault to be a quick and victorious march on Kyiv, taking the city in two days. But it is turning out to be a humiliation for him, causing international isolation and a loss of authority.
He has lost his authority externally, of course, because the world can finally see Putin for who he is. The mask has been taken away. But it is also internal. Many in Russia, even around him, can also now see his evil.
There was a lot of doubt among Ukranians themselves about what would happen if Russia invaded. There wasn’t much of a conversation around what we would do as a nation or as a society if Russia invaded. Because we still couldn’t believe it would happen. But when it did happen we saw the immediate mobilisation of all kinds of organisations and resources and institutions and unions and so on. The President has shown tremendous leadership, and he is backed by a courageous army and a nation of 40 million people.
These are our houses, our memories, where we live, where our children live. We cannot emigrate.
Everyone is trying to do something. It is a horizontal coordination on an unprecedented scale: people are trying to get humanitarian aid, or help people on the ground, or evacuate people. There is a lot going on, a lot of help that doesn’t need to be planned or prepared. It’s just a human instinct.
If I am to predict how long the conflict will last…Kyiv will not surrender. That is my message. Kyiv will not surrender. Because it is our home. It is our land, and we did not attack anyone. We don’t have anything else. These are our houses, our memories, where we live, where our children live. We cannot emigrate. We are a nation of 40 million people. We cannot all emigrate somewhere.
It’s going to be a very long fight. But it will depend on the support of the international community. If the international community helps us, then it will be a shorter fight.
Today we expect the State of the Union from Biden. Somebody asked me what I expected to hear from him. I said I hope he says it is our shared fight. Because we stand for humanity, dignity, a rules based order. If it is not our joint fight, then then all of the charters of the UN, OSCE and EU are waste paper.
If the conflict in Ukraine is so significant, striking at the heart of a rules-based international order, what more should the West be doing to support Ukraine?
Well, I would like to say that Ukranians are very grateful for the help provided. It resonates, because it is so human to help others in need.
Secondly I want to say that at the moment Ukranians need humanitarian aid. We need food, water and medicine. I know our Prime Minister and members of the government are negotiating with other nations to ensure this aid is delivered to Ukraine. But it is difficult as Ukraine is a no-fly zone and materials can only be delivered from the west. It is a logistical problem so we need help with that as well.
Third, weapons. Ukraine has been asking for weapons for a long time and we still need them. Russia has an advantage in numbers of military equipment, so we need proper lethal weapons to defend ourselves. Even things like helmets or bulletproof vests.
Already over 100,000 people have volunteered to join the army or the so-called “territorial defence units”. My brother joined one of them. He is a businessman. He has nothing to do with the armed forces or the military, but he went. Such people need protection. So we ask our international partners to provide us with this personal protection equipment.
We also need means to secure civilian infrastructure. This is also an issue at the moment. We see the shelling of civilian infrastructure…look, when I say civilian infrastructure it sounds like a technical term but what I mean, in real terms…I talked yesterday to a friend, a 60-year-old masseuse whose home has been completely destroyed by a missile. She had been building her home for more than 10 years. Brick by brick. Dollar by dollar. But now she is alone. She is homeless, and she is not alone. Hundreds of people have become homeless. So we need help on that front as well.
Most important is political and strategic support to stop the war. We need to be creative in devising a cost for Putin and those around him to pay. And what is extremely important is to have an impact on Russian society, because in the end I do not think Putin is afraid of sanctions. He has his billions in Russia. He himself will not suffer. Ordinary Russians might, but he will not. If there is something that can stop him, it is millions of Russians on the streets. Angry Russians, protesting against the terrors and mistakes of their own leader, forcing him to stop. Also, of course, the elite around Putin should feel full fledged pain from this war, because they have influence. They can stop him. We have to calculate in these terms and try to stop the war.
You mentioned that your brother, a businessman, has volunteered. Have you been tempted to take up arms?
To be honest, I would not have left Kyiv were it not for my husband. He insisted that we leave. I am very tempted to join one of the territorial defence units.
Yet at the same time I understand that I am not trained to fight. But I know how to do other things. As a former Member of Parliament and Member of the Committee for Foreign Affairs I have a very strong network of contacts. I know how to talk to people, how to convince, how to coordinate. I think I will be much more useful on this front.
But don’t get me wrong. If you asked what I feel at the moment, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for leaving Kyiv and leaving others behind. But I have to evaluate where I can be useful, and here I know I will be more useful to my country.
The pain with which you speak of leaving Kyiv seems to summarise the feeling among Ukranians that they cannot afford to take one step back. Do you think Vladimir Putin miscalculated when he re-invaded Ukraine?
Without a doubt. He miscalculated Ukraine as a country, I think. When you read the article he wrote in July, you get a sense that he repeated so many times to himself that Ukraine was not a state and that Ukraine was not a nation that he came to believe in his own fiction.
The truth could not be more different. We are an old nation. We existed when Moscow was little more than a village. We have our own history. We have our own language. But most of all we have freedom. We have dignity. We have choices, and we made our choices. We want to join the European Union, the democratic camp of the countries of the world.
This was the honest choice of the people, from the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 when we protested against the falsification of the elections and the poisoning of one of the candidates, to 2014 with EuroMaidan, when we protested against corruption and the grey zone of Russian influence over Ukraine. Then we chose European values.
Somehow Putin thought he would be welcome here. But we can see that even in Kherson, Kharkiv, and other southern and eastern cities, despite the fact that people speak Russian and often don’t even know the Ukrainian language, they fight for Ukraine. They fight for Ukraine.
We have our own history. We have our own language. But most of all we have freedom.
As I speak to you, both Russian and Ukrainian are maternal languages to me. My grandparents come from Russia. But blood doesn’t matter. What matters is values.
Putin, in the beginning, his plan was a blitzkrieg into Ukraine. His plan was to destroy critical infrastructure and blockade large cities like Dnipro, Odessa, Kyiv, Kharkiv and others. He was also hoping to use intelligence units to sow chaos and create panic.
But what he has met is courage and leadership. Not just from the President. But from every single town and village. People are standing unarmed in front of tanks and preventing them from entering their towns and villages. They are ready to die. Even grandparents are ready to give their lives to protect their people. To protect their home.
The response to what is happening now has to be based on morality. We stand at a moment of history. This is an emerging new world. Life will never be the same, the balance of power on this planet will never be the same. We will either ensure peace and justice in Europe or we will further encourage the bullies of the world to assault smaller nations.
It’s up to us. What kind of brand new world do we want to live in?
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.