Interview with Yevhenia Podobna | “Evil must be called evil”
Natalia Khanenko-Friesen: I would like to start with a conceptual question. How much has the field of journalism changed since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine? What observations can you share as a scholar, professor, practitioner, and war correspondent?
Yevhenia Podobna: I will start by saying that there have been many changes. When discussing these changes, it is worth separating the Ukrainian and international contexts.
In Ukraine, channels that openly lobbied for Russian interests have already been shut down to protect national media space before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Nonetheless, even since then, the information field has changed a lot. Today, Ukraine does not have the same number of media outlets as it did before the Russian full-scale invasion. At the onset of the full-scale attack, in response to the government’s call, television channels were asked to pool their resources within the “United News” marathon framework. Some channels were not invited to the United News marathon, as they were the supporters of the opposition before the full-scale invasion. Channel 5, for example, was pushed to transfer their broadcasting to the Internet. Many other outlets were forced to reduce staff and volume of publications due to the fact that specific topics lost their relevance. Instead, bloggers, Telegram channels, and other similar social media channels have become very active, trying to take on the function of media, although these two means of mass communication function in very different dimensions.
Many Ukrainian journalists had to redefine themselves because the demand for generalists, as well as for narrow specialists, plummeted. Today, every journalist knows what a ballistic missile is and how it differs from an aeroballistic missile. The war became number one for everyone.
In the last years before the all-out invasion, we observed that some media reduced their coverage of the Russo-Ukrainian war to an absolute minimum, the situation then changed. For example, in the news programs of Channel 5, where I worked, there were three war stories covering the ATO JFO (Anti-Terrorist Operation – Joint Forces Operation). However, when many other TV channels delivered news, they often included only one war story, hidden between “more important” ones. The topic of war receded into the background because its active coverage led to a sharp drop in the ratings of TV programs. February 2022 then came as a watershed. The audience suddenly awakened its interest, started to read a lot about the fighting, and assertively sought information.
Paradoxically, it took the beginning of the full-scale invasion to become clear what it means to be a journalist and why this profession exists. In the first days of active fighting, informational chaos reigned. Nobody understood anything, and the audience received atomized news about someone seeing or hearing something somewhere. The enemy actively used this chaos as they threw in and spread misinformation and fake news via social media and Telegram channels. Regrettably, many people paid with their lives for such an absolute lack of media literacy.
Turning our attention now to the international context, many outlets started paying attention to Ukraine. They began to dig deeper and understand better what was happening. That change made me very happy.
It is also very important that the international journalistic community has become actively engaged in discussing professional standards. If one takes the broadest perspective, all journalists in the world have one reference system—their ethical standards. The general rule is to follow the BBC handbooks in this respect. At their very first lecture in every journalism program, students hear that pluralism of opinion should always be adhered to. Stories and articles in the media should always present the position of those who support something, those who oppose it, and those who remain indifferent. Unfortunately, during the ATO–JTO, I often faced condemnation of my professional activities. At international events, foreign journalists used to tell me and my colleagues that we were propagandists and scoundrels who purposely avoided covering the other side of the conflict. For me, this kind of accusation sounded like abuse of the profession. For me, there has always been a fundamental difference between the standard of presenting different positions and telling the truth. Evil must be called evil. All journalists must define for themselves whether they are routine communicators or socially responsible professionals. In addition to the fact that journalist stories and articles must meet the standard of pluralism of opinion, they also need to be accurate, up-to-date, and truthful. For me, no matter how unpleasant it may appear, the truth has always been paramount.
Toying with this standard of pluralism, many media outlets around the world became platforms for the spread of terrorist ideas and lies. For example, in one story, foreign journalists could show the Ukrainian side, with factual information, and representatives of occupied territories or spokesmen of the Russians, who would say that 200 missiles and 300 MRL shells killed 500 children of the Donbas. We had warned our foreign colleagues for eight years to be careful. If journalists deliberately spread lies, it was worse than if they did not adhere to the standard of pluralism. We used to ask them: “Why won’t you popularize Osama bin Laden’s ideas?” or “Why won’t you give a word to the Taliban or other extremist organizations, representatives of totalitarian cults? They are also on the other side of the conflict, just like the Russians.” Yet such discussions often led nowhere. Only today, when Russians themselves started hallucinating about mosquitoes as biological weapons, many foreign journalists understood that such things could not be broadcast. The world finally recognized that Ukraine was a victim and not a party to the conflict.
It seems to me that the most essential thing in journalism is to tell the truth and call a spade a spade. Otherwise, the media distorts the reality that it talks about. In turn, audiences far away from Ukraine do not understand the context.
In journalism, there is a rule that can roughly be phrased as “check three times, publish once.” According to this rule, each piece of news should be checked in at least three sources, preferably more. The information provided by the Ukrainian side can always be verified. Foreign journalists have the opportunity to go to the front lines and see everything with their own eyes, but this cannot always be done in the occupied territories. Thus, lies and fabrications from there are often broadcast simply to meet the “pluralism” objective and represent the position (no matter how dubious or suspect) of the other side.
Before the full-scale invasion, many foreign journalists had reproached us for not going behind the front lines and obtaining comments. They did not understand that Ukrainian journalists would have been imprisoned in the occupied territories, risking torture, rape, and beatings. Therefore, I am pleased today that many foreign colleagues acknowledge the blind spots in their standards.
I am also very glad that there has been a large influx of journalists to Ukraine recently who finally saw the war with their own eyes. Previously, they had reported about Ukraine from Moscow, where many international correspondents worked. They reported about Ukraine through the prism of Russian propaganda, in which they had been immersed for quite some time, even if they were good professionals and good people by themselves. When they started coming to Ukraine and had to hide in shelters from shelling and missiles, the quality and content of their materials changed significantly. They began to write more truth.
Khanenko-Friesen: What is the importance of information and quality journalism in Ukraine’s war effort?
Podobna: In the modern world, there is no such thing as a “pure war” or “noble war.” The medieval skirmish was very much contact-based: an army of knights stood against an army of knights. The side which could destroy more heavily armed opponents won the victory. Today, wars are no longer fought in such a way. Today, the informational component has become crucial. Before an assault, the military implements a measure called “artillery preparation”—when all available large-calibre weapons are fired at the target area into which the infantry enters. In fact, Russia works in the same way in the information space. First, it pours phenomenal volumes of disinformation, propaganda, and fake news into the target area and then brings in the troops.
The Russians have always invested a lot of money in informational preparation. They have produced hundreds of movies on themes of war. They meticulously readied the world and their society for aggression. In addition, their propaganda has always been very flexible. When the Russians arrived in Kherson, they discovered that the local people hated them and tried to shoot them down from behind every bush. They quickly caught wind and sought an effective communication strategy to silence the Ukrainians’ hatred. Thus, to change the public mood, they began to disseminate leaflets about the “future with Russia,” showing people in embroidered shirts.
In Volnovakha, where very heavy battles were fought, Russians entered the libraries in the first days of the occupation and threw away Ukrainian books. They like to abuse information, but they themselves are afraid of it. Russia is afraid of the truth like the devil fears incense. Therefore, the more truth there is in the information space, the fewer bullets there will be in the machine guns.
Khanenko-Friesen: How has the change from civilian to military journalism affected your personal projects and work?
Podobna: Apart from the increased volume of work, nothing else has changed. In 2014, when the invasion started some of my distant relatives from the Donbas—former relatives, I should say, since they decided to stay under the occupation—called me and complained in broken Russian that the Kyiv government had always suppressed their language rights. Thus, when I saw how my kinfolk changed under the influence of propaganda, how Ukrainian television towers were blown up, and how a bounty on the employees of Channel 5 was circulated on the Internet, I realized that journalists make the enemy feel afraid. Hence, I understood how important my professional activity was and that it should be continued.
My work as a military (or a war?) correspondent began with the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Once every three days, if not more often, I had to be on duty on the Maidan. Compared to the number of events that were happening, there were too few journalists working in the city centre. Also, winter conditions significantly complicated the activities of all journalists.
For me, coverage of the Maidan events gradually evolved into coverage of the war. In fact, I have been reporting on military operations for eight years already. What happened in February 2022 was only a different understanding of war appearing in my head: the “safe rear” disappeared, there was nowhere to retreat, and “tomorrow” might never come. It became clear that I should engage in as much analytical reporting as possible, even if the literary quality of the material may suffer. No one else could do that besides me. No one else could see the facts and events that only I observed. No one else would cover many unpopular yet important topics. Thus, I decided to find my niche and work within it. That is how I started regularly recording eyewitness accounts—for history to remember because people forget things quickly.
Khanenko-Friesen: Can you describe a bit more your practice of collecting eyewitness accounts? It is always hard to speak about war to people who experienced its cruelty. How do you do it; how do you abide by the principle of ethics in interviewing?
Podobna: Ethical issues become very acute when war occurs on your territory—when it is your war. Journalists can no longer work without feelings.
Regarding the recording of accounts, as a journalist and for the purpose of reporting, I use the interview as both a tool and a genre. This differs from how book writers might approach interviewing. Such writers often see an interview as a tool to produce their own full written narrative account of what had happened.
If you try to define the way I work with eyewitnesses, it will be like anthropological journalism. I am interested in recording and unveiling a variety of human experiences. Currently, I am finalizing a collection of women’s stories. I need to emphasize the diversity and multidimensionality of these stories to create as broad a picture as possible. This collection will narrate women’s war experiences, peacetime life, losing loved ones and property, resistance to the occupiers, persecution, and being a victim.
In addition, as a journalist, I am very careful about verifying information. I understand that people can unconsciously distort traumatic experiences. The mind gets confused when reconstructing events associated with major stress. I confirmed it myself! I was in Hostomel during the first helicopter assault by the Russians in late February 2022. It was absolutely terrible. Afterwards, when I tried to establish the exact time of the beginning of the assault, I could not do it. Other eyewitnesses could not do this either—we all mentioned different times, and sometimes, the discrepancies in our memories amounted to more than seven hours. As a result, we have established an approximate time of the assault based on the metadata of photos and videos. Therefore, I trust people’s emotions and reflections when recording eyewitness accounts, but I always double-check the facts. Any traumatized person can very easily unconsciously give false information.
Another point is that I always take note of who is facing me. Among interviewees, there are often people who want attention or just need to talk. There are also, unfortunately, people who pretend to be eyewitnesses, who present themselves as such. For instance, when collecting information about Ilovaisk, I was surprised to discover that with every new year, more “survivors” appeared who had “experienced” the fighting there. Therefore, I had to ask these “survivors” relevant follow-up questions, to verify their awareness of local geography by asking, for example, about the village of Mnohopillia, or another neighbouring village within the vicinity of Ilivaisk. If an interviewee could not demonstrate an awareness of what communities were in the vicinity, it was most likely a fake “eyewitness” sitting in front of me.
Before doing an interview, I try to learn as little as possible about the person but as much as possible about the context in which that person lived. When I was working on my previous book about Okhtyrka, which will soon be published, my interviewees were often confused about dates and events. During their assault on Okhtyrka, the Russians killed a child. This was a very important and iconic event, yet eyewitnesses named entirely different places where the killing happened. I had to turn to representatives of law enforcement agencies so that the investigative team could confirm the circumstances of the crime. The confusion appeared because on that day, the kindergarten “Sonechko” was shelled while the child, the girl Alisa, was killed near another kindergarten, “Rosynka.” In people’s minds, both kindergartens got merged into one. When I tried to clarify this, the interviewees looked baffled, and not all of them understood the importance of my picky questioning. I believe that history does not tolerate conjecture. If we allow such conjectures, then how will we differ from the Russians?
To try to summarize my practices, they stand on four pillars. First, I check the background of the person and confirm his or her relation to the event. Second, I formulate questions so that they uncover the broadest possible experience of this person. Third, I diligently check the facts and information presented by this person. Fourth, I formulate my questions depending on who is the person in front of me and how he or she feels.
I think interviews should develop in real-time, not follow rigid manuals. I am against lists of dos and don’ts with respect to the phrasing of questions. Many of my interviewees have already worked with journalists. After recording, I often ask them about their overall experiences of being interviewed; if something had been wrong during our conversation, if they had felt any discomfort. I am interested in their feedback to improve my practices in the future. Most people answer that they knew what they were getting into before agreeing to meet me. They could have predicted that my questions would be painful. In sum, people giving interviews understand roughly what they will be asked about, and manuals with lists of questions are superfluous in such cases.
I have discovered that interviewees are more willing to talk about their experiences in the first few months after a traumatic event than after a year or more. I explain this by the fact that the more time passes, the more people try to forget and distance themselves from the trauma. For the first few months, they keep scrolling through the events in their head. Afterwards, they do not want to. Thus, my questions are forcibly dragging them back into the painful past with which they have already learned to live. Not to mention that after a year or two, people naturally forget many important details.
Before every interview, I emphasize that the person has a right to pause. Of course, most of the people who agree to meet me are very motivated to speak, they are unstoppable. Yet, I make clear that at any moment every interviewee has the right to ask for a break. Then, we either go for a walk or agree to meet at another convenient time.
It is also no less important to clarify where the red lines run. I cannot know which topic will be painful for a person. Some interviewees can calmly describe how their legs were pierced with an awl or an awl was driven into their cheek. Some can tell in detail how the Russians scalped or ripped open a man’s stomach nearby. Someone can narrate how they held a severed head in their hands and smuggled it out of the occupation zone, because it was important to determine whose head it was. Some people can maintain their composure and speak relatively easily when telling such horrors. At the same time, the same people might categorically object to discussing their childhood because, for example, their father left the family.
With some interviewees, I should be careful not to speak too much about their family in occupied territory. Human (Person’s?) safety has always been essential to me. Therefore, I have to double-check the risks of releasing the information that was collected during every conversation. Sometimes, a person can be very open and trustful while his or her relatives remain, for example, in Enerhodar. Therefore, everything this person says must be published under a fictitious name. Sometimes, if my interviewees cannot realistically assess all the risks, I decide not to reveal their answers.
I avoid asking direct questions. Recently, I had an interview with a girl who escaped captivity. She told many details but did not want to touch upon the physical violence. She only briefly mentioned that she had been beaten very badly. When we started talking about her husband and family, about her conversations with relatives, about her family’s attitude towards her after captivity, she immediately asserted that no one had raped her. She confessed that she would not have survived a rape. Therefore, my observation here is that even if the interviewees do not want to talk about something directly, they might return to that topic in the context of other questions.
A lot of people are willing to talk about being tortured, which came as quite a surprise for me. Also, it is very hard to interview relatives, especially mothers. I prepare for these interviews to last over two days and am often adversely affected after they are done.
Khanenko-Friesen: What are the parallels and differences between how Western and domestic journalists work in the Ukrainian information field?
Podobna: The most significant difference resides in the perception of events. Ukrainian journalists approach the war as “ours,” while Western journalists report it as a conflict in a foreign country. We, as Ukrainian journalists, often feel pain when performing our professional duties, and our reports often appear more sensitive compared to what our Western colleagues produce.
I am very grateful to all the international journalists who decided to come to Ukraine. Their work is of paramount importance. They themselves may not understand how many lives have been saved because of their reporting. When the Western public reads the truth and sees what is happening in Ukraine, they go to rallies at their parliaments. Under this social pressure, another package of aid gets delivered to Ukraine.
Honestly speaking, I do not believe in politicians. I believe in people. If there were no massive rallies in Western countries, if citizens did not show their parliaments that Ukraine needed support, then their support would be minimal. Doubtlessly, Ukrainians are very brave and courageous people, but we could never withstand Russian aggression without external help. The resources that Ukraine and Russia possess are simply incomparable. This is why foreign journalists who produce truthful reporting save lives—above all, the lives of Ukrainian children who cannot protect themselves.
At the same time, I would expect foreign journalists to be more open to information. They often come to Ukraine with certain attitudes, stereotypes, and baggage of knowledge—or lack of such. However, to understand the country and its situation, they need to listen to people and be open to changing their wrong opinions, not clinging to them.
In terms of ethics, foreign and Ukrainian journalists also work differently. Some ask direct questions about everything they are interested in. Some constantly check with the interviewees whether they feel comfortable answering. Once, I met a journalist who came to Ukraine to report on “nothing but the truth,” but her approach was not notably ethical. However, from the point of view of standards, that journalist was not entirely wrong: she honestly performed her duty in collecting necessary information and passing it on to her viewers.
Very often, acquiring and disseminating important information is associated with ethical violations. For example, after [the young Ukrainian poet] Victoria Amelina was wounded [in the Russian missile attack on the pizzeria in Kramatorsk], journalists immediately posted about it in the media. In terms of standards, they did everything right: they promptly informed society about a serious injury of a public figure. However, her son did not know, and Victoria’s family wanted to inform him about his mother’s fate in person. Yet the media did it first, and the family was terribly traumatized by this development.
My most positive experience working with foreign journalists was with Czechs and Poles. These people were highly ethical and competent. They filled me with love for my profession. On the other hand, I was offended by unexpected requests with very unethical wording from some other of my foreign colleagues. They discovered that I had worked in Bucha and Irpin and approached me to find a victim of sexual violence for them. They asked me to find a woman who was raped and would be willing to provide details about her unspeakable experience. Some of these journalists went as far as to ask for a woman who had been raped by both Russians and Ukrainians! I answered that the Ukrainian military did not rape the female citizens of Ukraine.
It also happens that people with a dubious reputation write to me and ask for help. Looking up their qualifications and publications, I often see that they sing Putin’s praises and talk about the dire fates of the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk independent republics.” These people often brazenly demand that I take them to Bucha and show them the victims because they want to write a big article. Moreover, such people get very offended when I refuse them and explain that they are not real journalists. They regularly publish unverified information. That is, the question here is not about their political position but about professionalism. The information spread by these people is not true.
Khanenko-Friesen: Have you had a chance to work or interact with colleagues from countries in a so-called ‘frozen conflict’? If yes, what has been your experience? Are there any similarities between what is happening in southeastern Ukraine and ‘frozen conflicts’ in their countries?
Podobna: I have relatively extensive experience with such interactions. I visited Georgia and came close to the administrative border with occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Of course, I could not get to the side that was under Russian control, but I could speak to people on that side of the barbed wire and get a good understanding of how the occupation took place.
Just like it did with the Ukrainians, Russia had declared that the Georgians were “fascists” prior to their invasion. This scheme became standard in both cases. It was not chosen on a whim.
Russian propaganda uses the trigger word “Nazi” when it defines enemies of their country for the European audience, which is still recovering from the traumas of WW II. At the same time, the propaganda uses a related but different specific word for its domestic audience: “fascists.” Russians depict Ukrainians and Georgians as “Nazis” to the West—which gets triggered by that word in the context of the WW II experience—but as “fascists” for the domestic audience, which easily catches on to the recognizable Soviet narratives.
When visiting Georgia and working there, I communicated with people who had fled from South Ossetia. I also spoke with people whose yard borders the Russian demarcation line. Working in those parts of Georgia was a scary experience. Although no one was shooting, the atmosphere felt very tense and gloomy.
In Georgia, I met journalists from other countries in the region. By the way, Armenians and Azerbaijanis communicated very well, although the “frozen conflict” nurtured political hostilities between their countries. Similar openness could be observed between journalists from Moldova and the so-called Transnistria. When I asked the latter where they were from and how they self-identified, I heard “From Transnistria and from Moldova.” That is, Transnistria and Moldova were used as identity markers simultaneously.
The best connection that I established during my visit was with Georgians. They experienced much pain from their “frozen conflict” and could read our situation in the Donbas very well. However, Ukrainian journalists often felt confused about their attitudes. The majority of Georgians, both journalists and ordinary people, demonstrated absolutely no malice towards Russians. A huge number of Russians were bustling in their streets, but the Georgians claimed that those people were innocent even though aggression sometimes showed itself. For example, when I was shopping for spices at the market and tried to speak Russian, the vendor told me to go back to Moscow. I had to explain that I was from Ukraine and did not know Georgian. As a result, the vendor’s aggression changed to hugs, and I got some spices for free.
Many Georgians are fighting for Ukraine today. They established a whole legion that is continuing their war against Russia. Unfortunately, a little country like Georgia could not stand up to the aggressor in 2008 on equal footing. The international community was sympathetic to the suffering of these people but chose not to take any groundbreaking action.
I understand that Ukrainian society—which experienced genocide, war, revolution, and other attempts to destroy it every few decades—should constantly be ready to withstand external aggression and, therefore, should learn from the experience of other societies. As a member of a Ukrainian delegation of journalists, I studied that experience in Georgia. I watched how people adapted to the war, looked for housing, and tried to preserve their property.
I also visited Azerbaijan but failed to get close to Karabakh. However, in Baku, I spoke with many immigrants from that region. I also learned from them about ways for civilians to survive and adapt during active fighting.
After all this communication, I realized that although military situations and frozen conflicts in Ukraine and the Caucasus had much in common, they were still very different. Namely, the scales and timeframes were different.
Then, I decided to study how people survived the ‘conflicts’ on the Balkan Peninsula, particularly in Bosnia. Paradoxically, I found many more similarities there [than in the Caucasus] with what was happening in southeastern, northern and east-northern Ukraine. That being said, Ukrainians perceive their realities less confrontationally than the Bosnians did. And Ukrainians did not have so much hatred towards the aggressor.
Khanenko-Friesen: Considering the Bosnian experience, what might be the Ukrainian reality in future? How can the trauma of war be overcome? You once said that Ukrainians were fixated on their past—is that the case today?
Podobna: The main common characteristic of all the frozen conflicts I have ever seen and studied is that evil has never been punished. In fact, how the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague addressed crimes in the former Yugoslavia is a sad reality for me. I do not want Russians to be tried at the Hague—there will be no punishment for them! Many Bosnians could not overcome their traumas because, following the ICTY rulings, both victims and perpetrators continued walking the same streets and living in neighbouring houses. Ukraine must not allow cases against Russians to be resolved similarly.
The problem with all frozen conflicts in all countries was that key decision-makers—above all foreign ones—called for peace and negotiations instead of knocking out the aggressor’s teeth. Incomprehensibly, they would frequently brush off the reasoning that a toothless aggressor would no longer be able to attack anyone—no other country or society.
I feel very offended by the common international belief that it is necessary for Ukrainians to sit down at the negotiating table and make peace with the aggressor. Every time I hear such a narrative, I use a simple analogy to explain to interlocutors from abroad that there are no good Russians today. I ask them to imagine that they were raped and brutally beaten, their hair torn—then, when the perpetrator was finished, his mother would approach with a smile and offer them tea. That mother would be innocent, for she did not offend anyone, and she might even condemn her child’s actions. But would they drink tea with this woman? Hardly so. Then why are they forcing Ukrainians to do this? How could they force Ukrainians to forget about the atrocities?
I am very skeptical of any calls to seek peace with the Russians. Diseases should be treated, not ignored. If there is a tumour in the body, then applying a poultice will not help—the tumour must be cut out. If we are now faced with a Russian tumour that is metastasizing all over Ukraine, then it should be surgically removed, not ignored, with the hope that one day it will subside.
If evil had been justly punished in all the previous frozen conflicts, then there would be fewer of them today. If Russia had felt serious consequences after its invasion of Georgia, it would not have invaded Ukraine. If the world had responded adequately to the annexation of Crimea, there would have been no invasion of the Donbas. Russia did what it was allowed to do. Moreover, Russia is the only country in the modern world that provokes conflicts regularly.
Thus, aggressors should not be appeased but hit back. Ukraine is trying to do this—and therefore, The Hague Tribunal is far from the best solution to prosecute Russian criminals.
When you look at how Ratko Mladić appears in those videos, you do not see an international criminal who has a guilty conscience. He lives in a comfortable cell and can even select his food from a menu. Many of his accomplices have already been released from prison. However, their traumatized victims, whose future was taken away, continue stumbling in their destroyed country’s debris. So, which of the two is truly punished?
I am very skeptical about how international justice works today. Actually, it does not work. It neither prevents nor properly punishes crimes, as we have been shown many times. This dysfunctional justice gives perpetrators confidence. As for me, true punishment should reside in inflicting such grave suffering on perpetrators that their accomplices and sympathizers get terrified—not in socially isolating perpetrators in comfortable cells. In today’s Serbia, many criminals are still considered heroes, and newspapers glorify them on the front pages.
I clearly understand that there will be no restitution for Ukraine in the international legal field. Therefore, the only justice that exists for us is the one created by the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the battlefield.
Khanenko-Friesen: In sum, then, what are your key messages to Western audiences?
Podobna: The world must understand that if evil is not punished now, it will grow and spread further. If Ukraine does not defend itself now, then Poland, Moldova and the countries of the Baltic Sea will become the following targets. If the West presumes that Russia will never attack them because there are no conditions for it to do so, then it is worth realizing that Ukrainians thought the same way before 2013. At that time, no one thought that Kyiv would be bombed. But it was bombed today.
Western audiences should understand that the plans in Putin’s head are simultaneously insane and ambitious. The world must finally hear and take seriously the narratives of Russian propaganda, especially those threatening to wipe out “unfriendly” countries across all continents. When such threats were first voiced against Ukraine in the 2010s, we laughed at them—up until Russian missiles flew at us. These missiles can fly farther still. No matter how far away they live, people in the West must realize that Russia can reach them. Syria is located geographically far from Russia, but the sheer distance did not save it.
Ukrainian blood is being shed now, but it is not being shed exclusively for Ukraine. I am not trying to exaggerate or sound dramatic here. Russians hate the West. For them, the West is a single collective enemy that is supposedly jealous of the achievements of their so-called “civilization.” The Russians will keep on spreading their “Russian World” unless it is crushed on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Another message I would like to send is that people in the West should be ready to deal with different kinds of Ukrainians. As my colleague said, we are not a “museum of perfect people.” The whole country should not be judged by the unworthy behaviour of a handful of its citizens.
I understand that the world is tired of Ukraine. It is tired of reading every day about the bloodshed and the need to send more weapons. However, we cannot win this war without external aid. Every vote of a person in the West—every rally, every newspaper article—everything brings us closer to victory.
I want people in the West to be inspired by the example of Ukrainians and understand how much a single person can do. Because every person is powerful, every action counts. Sometimes, a small rally at a parliament in Old Europe can save dozens of lives in Ukraine. People in the West mustn’t be afraid to act for Ukraine—and, above all, for themselves.
My third message is that a genocide is happening in Ukraine. Russian lists of people to be exterminated, particularly in Bucha and Irpin, serve as the best evidence for me that the occupiers had a plan. They searched for specific people, Ukrainian patriots, and killed them deliberately.
I have often read how a person can become a wild beast in war and how insensitivity can grow. I do not see this in Ukrainians. Once, I asked a Ukrainian officer whose unit took Russian prisoners if they had tortured them. The answer was no; that officer said that torturing was below his dignity. He also added that if he was going to torture prisoners, how would he later embrace his wife with those same arms?
At the beginning of the war, my mother told me that she was afraid the Russians would kill me in two ways. The first was physical. She knew that I often got into difficult situations, under fire, where my life was in immediate danger. The second way was emotional. My mother was afraid that the Russians would harden my heart and that I would become as callous as them. Two years after the full-scale invasion, I am still holding. Other Ukrainians did not turn into wild beasts, either. The Russians did not break us! They did not defeat us, regardless of all the atrocities they committed.
When I ask Ukrainians what punishment they want for the Russians, they often respond that the aggressors should receive exactly as much as they committed in Ukraine. No more, no less. Therefore, it would be very fair if the victims in Ukraine chose the punishment for their perpetrators. Then I believe there would be fewer perpetrators in other parts of the world.
When we talk about a civilized approach to punishment—one enshrined in international law—we must realize that by default, genocides do not happen in the civilized world. However, if genocides do happen, then they become a sign that relations between people have crossed the boundaries of a civilized world. A different approach to punishment is worth considering then