On 24th February 2022, a year ago from the date I am writing, Russia invaded Ukraine in a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war which began in 2014. This conflict has caused tens of thousands of deaths and triggered the largest refugee crisis since World War II as, conservatively, over 8 million Ukrainians have had to flee. Over 50% of Ukraine’s infrastructure has been destroyed, with the economy largely coming to a standstill. And yet… the people and leaders of Ukraine stand tall as examples of hope and dignity in the face of unimaginable battles – and continue to fight.
In this interview, I speak to Kira Rudik. She is a Member of Parliament of Ukraine and First Deputy Chairwoman of the Parliament Committee on Digital Transformation. Kira is Leader of Golos (Ukraine’s Liberal Political Party) and Vice-President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Before politics, Kira Rudik was an IT entrepreneur who headed Ring Ukraine company and ensured its acquisition by Amazon for $1 billion.
In our conversation, Kira describes the realities of life in Ukraine, a year into Russia’s invasion. We discuss the role of the international community, the threat of escalation, the strength of the Ukrainian people and what it will take to bring peace, and rebuild Ukraine.
Q: Why did the Ukrainian people show such solidarity in the face of aggression?
[Kira Rudik]: Our story, our fight, the story of President Zelenskyy… these all come together in the story of how everyone is capable of more than the world expects of them, and what we expected of ourselves. The response of Ukraine to the invasion was surprising for the whole world, and for us as Ukrainians.
Nobody can predict what they will do when an actual crisis comes – nobody knows. What would you do? Would you stay? Would you run? Would you fight? Would you help people or stay in place? The story of our nation fighting for independence – and the price that we have already paid for freedom – shows that freedom is more costly than we could have expected.
Before the invasion, we were saluting our flag, talking about freedom, talking about defining our own futures and democracy. It’s only when we were asked what price we were prepared to pay that we found the truth; we were prepared to pay with our lives.
Q: What has the international community done right, and perhaps wrong, in supporting Ukraine?
[Kira Rudik]: Firstly, let me extend gratitude from the Ukrainian people for everything we have received; all the support, humanitarian aid, military aid, and emotional support. It would be impossible to fight if we were doing it alone. Humanity is the key to standing against an enemy who is 10x larger than you – it’s the story of David and Goliath. David’s plan was very simple – to have somebody behind him, somebody to lean on. We are in impossible times; nobody could have believed where we are as a nation today. At the beginning, nobody believed we would stand for more than a couple of weeks… nobody believed we would get candidacy for the European Union… nobody believed we would get heavy weapons… nobody believed we would be capable of counter-offence… nobody believed we would win Kherson back…nobody believed we would get patchwork air defence…. or tanks. But, we believed, and we fought for those things. The recent visit of President Biden to Kyiv is also incredibly symbolic – a year ago, Putin wanted to have parades on the streets of Kyiv, and in a year not only did he fail to do that, but we are still fighting, and we have the American President visiting us.
But there are still things that hurt, especially the things we have been saying for many years.
It took 9-years for so many bright and good people to realise what we’ve been saying since day 1- that you cannot trust Russia, that Putin is rebuilding the Russian Empire and they are fighting not to win, but to rebuild their empire as an ideological way to resolve domestic issues, and further feed evil. In Putin’s recent speech to the Russian People, he still did not name a reason for the war – he still insisted that Russia is fighting because they are powerful, and because they can. Putin also announced he was intending to halt participation in the New Start Nuclear Arms Treaty. People were up in arms saying, ‘is this possible?’ but just look at Ukraine, look at the death, atrocities, abuses that Russia has committed… the crimes… the war crimes… is that list not long enough for you to believe Russia will not negotiate? Is that list not long enough for you to believe that Russia will not keep their word? We’ve learned this the hard way and paid with our blood, and our lives.
There are still people who are surprised by the actions of Russia, and who believe that peaceful negotiations are possible, and that hurts us.
We are also a full year into this invasion, and we are still unable to protect our skies. I remember sitting in this exact place, begging for help from our international partners to close our skies. Since that time, we’ve received air defence systems to help protect us, but we still live under terror. Every morning we are having to go into our shelters, and under stairs because Russia sends missiles to kill us. Three weeks ago, they hit an apartment building in Dnipro and killed 46 people; many of whom were in their beds. This is what we are afraid of – we are afraid that our people fighting on the front line cannot protect themselves. However brave you are, you can’t protect yourself against a huge pile of metal coming from the sky to kill you and everything you love.
Q: Are you worried about Russian escalation?
[Kira Rudik]: For us, this war has already escalated. Russia has committed war crimes, they are terrorising us every day, they are killing our people, they have broken international agreements which have an impact on global food security, not just ours. What would escalation look like? I’m not sure I have a good answer.
Everyone is worried about the conflict going nuclear, though it is we in Ukraine who would be the targets of the attack. It was perhaps likely last year, not so much now. Putin is failing to fight even the Ukrainian army. He is stuck. He tried to take Kyiv, and is now trying to take Bakhmut. History is no predictor of what Putin will do – people said he would escalate when we got heavy weapons… when we got tanks… when Finland and Sweden joined NATO…. As it turns out, these were just empty threats.
Let me explain what we’re afraid of.
We’re afraid of living under constant terrorism, and the constant threat of a neighbour who wants to kill you and destroy everything you care about. The escalation is already here. He has already reached a point of escalation that we must not tolerate – he is already doing everything he is capable of.
Q: What will it take to build peace and rebuild Ukraine?
[Kira Rudik]: We need to rebuild, and build peace, in parallel. We need protection for our skies, so we are not afraid of what we rebuild being destroyed straight away. We need to rebuild because life is passing us by otherwise. 50% of our energy infrastructure is destroyed – it’s not a question of if we should rebuild and when, we have to rebuild, and we have to start now.
I am joining you right now from a location where I am having to use a diesel generator because we don’t have electricity, and we have to use diesel just to keep going… just to have clean water… heat…. Russia continues to attack our infrastructure and destroy our heat and power systems. I have a friend with a toddler, recently she called me crying, she lives on the 13th floor of a building and had to walk up with her child and food as there is no lift, there is no power. She realised she forgot her home keys in her car, and she broke down, as even this simple thing was not so simple anymore, life is hard. It’s unbearable. This is why we need to rebuild now.
Back to the other question; how this war end will… We know Russia wants to destroy us, that’s what we have seen, and from seeing their attacks, we know they will stop at nothing. We cannot allow our children to continue having to fight this war a decade from now. We’ve seen enough death and pain in this generation. We need to get back to our 1991 borders – that is our aspiration, and our first goal. We then need to make sure that Russia does not attack us again – how can we be sure of that? As of right now, that’s the most complicated question. We cannot see any leader or organisation in the world who will stand-up and say, ‘yes, we will vouch for the fact that Putin will keep his word…’ there is nobody. How can we be assured of any guarantees they make in negotiation? It’s a useless exercise. We need a guarantee of peace for 3 years, for 5 years, it may be that Putin’s successor says, ‘well, we didn’t create this agreement, we want to start another holy war against Ukraine!’ This is why we fight – we have motivation – we have people – what we need is the supplies and weapons.
Q: What can the world learn from this war?
[Kira Rudik]: This war is setting an important precedent – Putin has had de-facto impunity for the last 8 years of aggression. He took Crimea, he annexed our territory in the East, the world just looked on and did nothing. That allowed him to move further – we need to learn from this.
If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, it will show that democracy and the world’s forces are not enough to stop him. Many of the world’s dictators will raise their hands and say, ‘great! We want to do this too!’ and I can tell you- across the world right now- there are so many nations who have dictators at the border… who are surrounded by nations who want to destroy them and attack them… if the world cannot police its dictators, what hope do we have?
Are we building a world where the rule of law means something? Or a world where the rule of law means nothing, and only firepower counts.
Q: How do you remain hopeful?
[Kira Rudik]: Hope is the only choice I have. I went to Bucha after the massacre, I have seen the mass graves in Kherson, and have seen evidence of torture. In Kherson, I remember one room I entered had a box full of dental crowns. It’s like what we saw in Auschwitz – the world promised never again… but here we are.
We have no alternative other than to have hope, and to fight. Every day I receive terrible news and good news. I have to learn to take the rage of the bad, and put energy into the good, seeing good things as miracles. Tomorrow is not a given, and we must be happy about small things and we must seize the day. We have learned that the things that matter are not the physical, and material things. What matters in life is hope.
Last year, I remember a bus left the occupied Mariupol. It was full of children, without their parents. Just like in the Second World War, parents gave their children away to save them. The bus had a driver and a teacher, and when the bus arrived, the driver opened the door and said ‘no casualties…’ how can you not be hopeful when you see things like that. Every day I see people doing heroic things without even realising. I am working – for example – on protecting homeless animals here, I have a shelter. Recently we gave 20 awards to people who made heroic deeds during the war. I cannot even begin to tell you what they have accomplished taking hundreds of animals and people out of Bakhmut under gunfire and bombardment.
What gives me hope is that people are able to find love and humanity in their hearts in spite of everything that is happening here in Ukraine.