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‘If we stop fighting, we, Ukrainians, will be gone’

A conversation with Ukrainian human rights activist Oleksandra Matviichuk about why, more than ever, Ukraine needs the world’s support in its fight against Russia.

A police officer stood next to a victim of Russian missile strikes on a mail depot in the village of Korotych, Kharkiv region, on Oct. 21. The strikes killed at least six people.SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

An increasing number of Americans and their elected representatives in Congress — particularly those strategically and ideologically aligned with former president Donald Trump — do not support further assistance to Ukraine. To date, the Biden administration and the US Congress have directed more than $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine for humanitarian, financial, and military support — a historic sum. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month found declining popular support for arming and funding the war-ravaged country, which was invaded by Russia nearly two years ago.

Civil and human rights activist Oleksandra Matviichuk.Right Livelihood

The waning support does not come as a surprise. Last month, additional funding for Ukraine was left out of a stopgap funding bill Congress passed on Sept. 30 to keep the government open. And just last week, President Biden, who has sought additional funding for Ukraine since July, resorted to folding $61.4 billion of support for the country into a $105 billion emergency funding request to Congress for Israel and Gaza.

Ukrainian human rights and civil liberties activist Oleksandra Matviichuk is on guard for Ukraine fatigue. She knows that the outbreak of war in the Mideast and humanitarian crises and conflicts across the world compete for headlines, sympathies, and funds. She is also convinced that the stakes of the war in Ukraine are no less than the continued survival of the Ukrainian people.


Since 2014, the human rights watchdog organization that Matviichuk runs in Kyiv, the Center for Civil Liberties, has documented Russian war crimes. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, alongside the Russian human rights organization Memorial and imprisoned Belarusian activist Alex Bialiatski. Earlier this month, I spoke with Matviichuk over Zoom just after nearly all of the European Union’s highest diplomats convened a surprise summit in Kyiv to reassert the bloc’s commitment to Ukraine. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.


What is your read on the international community’s support for Ukraine?

Even though the war has been going on for almost 20 months, the focus of the international community is still on Ukraine. That’s logical. Now Ukrainians are not only fighting for ourselves, but also for others. We are witnessing the dismantling of the world order that was created after the Second World War. Ukrainians are now fighting to prevent the start of the third.

What does Ukraine currently need — and lack — the most from its allies?

When a major Russian offensive began in February 2022, the world reacted with the idea that Ukraine must not fall. As a result of this, Ukraine began to receive the first shipments of serious weapons, and the first serious sanctions were imposed against Russia by the international community, for which we are, of course, very grateful. This allowed us to resist the large-scale Russian invasion.

But now the time has come to change that narrative: Let’s help Ukraine to win quickly. There is a huge difference between these two approaches — Ukraine must not fall, and Ukraine must win quickly. A difference that can be measured in practice. The type of weapon, the speed of decision-making, and the severity of sanctions and many other factors are what decide this. The problem is that we, Ukrainians, don’t have time. Time in Ukraine translates into many lost human lives on the battlefields, and in the interior, and in the occupied territories.


Most of my Ukrainian friends and acquaintances are exhausted, tired, traumatized. Because of war, because of insecurity, because they were torn from their lives. How do you feel? Where do you find the strength to continue?

It is difficult to live in a time of a large war. My mood changes constantly — up and down and up and down. We live in complete uncertainty. We have completely lost control over our lives. We can’t plan anything, not even the next day, not even the next hour! Another Russian attack could happen at any time. This also means that you are constantly afraid for your loved ones, friends, and acquaintances — especially those who joined the Ukrainian armed forces or live in the occupied territories. Or anywhere else in the country. Nowhere in Ukraine is safe from Russian bombs.

This is our reality. What helps me and many people I know to continue our struggle and efforts are two things. The first is our common goal — we fight for freedom. For freedom on all possible levels. Because we want to be a free and independent country, not a Russian colony. For the freedom to be Ukrainians and not to erase our identity and forcibly become Russians. For the freedom of our democratic decision-making and the freedom to build a country where everyone’s rights will be respected, a country where the authorities will be accountable to the people, a country where the judiciary is independent, and a country where the police are not violent towards protesters.


Another thing that keeps me — that keeps us — going is that we want to be an example to the others. I don’t wish any country or nation to go through our experience, but these dramatic times have given us an opportunity to bring out the best in ourselves. That we are brave, that we fight for freedom, that we make difficult but correct decisions, and that we help each other. Only with mutual help can we experience what a human being really is.

One example: When the large-scale Russian invasion began, international organizations evacuated their citizens from Ukraine, but ordinary people remained. And ordinary people began to do extraordinary things. Ordinary people rescued ordinary people from attacked cities. Ordinary people broke through blockades and cordons to deliver humanitarian aid. Ordinary people survived under constant artillery attacks. They also survived the last winter when Russia was deliberately destroying the Ukrainian energy system.

I also spent some time in Kyiv in an apartment without water, electricity, internet, mobile connection, and heating. This brought ordinary people together even more and inspired them to continue doing extraordinary things. This is how we fight against pain and despair.

Do you think the Ukrainian social fabric has been greatly strengthened during the war; that it is stronger than ever?

It’s hard to say it’s stronger than ever, but it’s extremely strong. I will put it differently: We have no other choice. We will never surrender. We will never give up. We will not become Russian slaves. If we stop fighting, we, Ukrainians, will be gone. This war has a genocidal character. The Russians are trying to destroy our identity. There is no existence without a struggle.


You recently said that a Ukrainian victory does not mean only the expulsion of the Russian army from the territory of Ukraine, the restoration of order, and the liberation of the people living in the occupied territories. Victory, you said, also means a successful democratic transition. How to achieve it?

We want to build functioning, efficient, sustainable democratic institutions. This would fulfill the will of millions of people who risked their lives nine years ago during the Revolution of Dignity and the protests against [then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s] corrupt regime. [Editor’s note: These protests, which began in November 2013 and culminated in February 2014, were also known as the Maidan Revolution, and they erupted in response to Yanukovych’s decision to spurn a European Union free-trade agreement in favor of pursuing closer ties with Russia.]

At that time, when you asked people on the streets why they were protesting in support of the European vision of Ukraine, they did not yet know the structure and functioning of European institutions. Even today, ordinary people do not know how the European Council and the European Parliament work. Back then — and even today — the choice was about values. People would like to live in their own country, which they themselves would build. And where the rules are the same and completely clear for everyone. Where the government doesn’t dictate who you must believe and who you must love and what you must live for and what you must die for.

We want to live in freedom. We want to be returned to the European civilization. Therefore, the choice is about the choice of values. And that is why Vladimir Putin started this war, which did not start on February 24, 2022, but eight years earlier, when the Ukrainian people succeeded in overthrowing an authoritarian regime, giving us the possibility of a democratic transition. Putin wanted to prevent this. That is why he launched an aggression, occupied Crimea and a large part of Donbass, and in February of 2022 launched a major invasion. Like any dictator, Putin is afraid of the idea of freedom.

Is Ukraine also a victim of weak international structures — led by the United Nations and the Security Council?

I’ll be honest: The international system of ensuring peace and security does not work. People in Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine know this very well. But now this is becoming noticeable even to people in developed democratic societies. We need a cardinal, comprehensive reform of the United Nations system. We recently heard a proposal by US President Joe Biden to increase the number of permanent members of the Security Council. But this is not a cardinal reform. We need a whole new approach. A completely new system of international assurance of peace and security, which will not be tied to the GDP or the geographical size of the members of the Security Council. It should be bound by respect for human rights and freedoms.

There is absolutely no indication that Russia is considering ending its aggression in Ukraine. Quite the opposite. It seems that the consequences of the colonial-imperial war for Moscow are not as severe as one might have thought they would be. How to stop Russia?

What do we need to win, you ask? Outcomes of wars are not decided on national borders. It is not just a war between Russia and Ukraine, between two countries. It is a war between two systems. Between totalitarianism and democracy. Putin will not stop. Putin must be stopped. If he is not stopped in Ukraine, he will go on. Russia is an empire that has its center but no borders. If an empire has enough energy available, it will always expand. To stop the expansion of this empire, many countries, not only Ukraine, need to get out of their comfort zone. Yes, we are grateful for arms and financial aid to the Ukrainian economy, but Russia is preparing for a protracted war.

Boštjan Videmšek is a Slovenian journalist, war correspondent, and playwright, and the author of eight books.