One woman’s story is a reminder of our duty to Ukraine

Published by The i paper (18th December, 2023)

The chilly winds of appeasement blow through the West as Ukrainians shed blood in their epochal battle between democracy and dictatorship. Last week, President Volodymyr Zelensky made valiant efforts to shore up support for his country’s fight for survival after a frustrating few months on the battlefield.

But in Brussels, pleas for fresh financial and military aid were frustrated by Viktor Orban, the populist Hungarian Prime Minister, who serves as the Kremlin’s stooge. And in Washington, Republicans, playing shameful political games, refuse so far to back another critical package with some prominent figures showing open contempt for Kyiv’s cause.

Meanwhile support for the war wanes in many places, polls predict the alarming return of Donald Trump to the White House, the far right is resurgent in Europe to the delight of Vladimir Putin and a swelling chorus of defeatist voices in the media demand that we force Zelensky to capitulate.

Clearly many folks have forgotten – or ignore – the lessons of history, let alone the reality of Russian aggression under its current regime and the determined mood of resistance in a nation suffering its war crimes. “The West can save lives but we will not surrender,” Oleksandr V Danylyuk, head of the Centre for Defence Strategies think-tank, told me last month in Kyiv. “It’s just a matter of how many Ukrainians will die.”

This is a critical time – and not just for a nation that has fought so hard to win back half its stolen land and spike the Kremlin’s military machine. Ukraine bleeds on the front line of a fight between rival political systems tussling for global dominance. If the West betrays its struggle for freedom, we tell the world we cannot be trusted, especially after the Afghan debacle. 

We shout that democracy is weak, our leaders short-termist, our citizens fickle. This would fulfil Putin’s expectations, undermining almost two years of stuttering but firm support. And it would embolden our most dedicated enemies – not just in Moscow, but other despotic regimes such as China, Iran and North Korea.

So as we prepare for seasonal festivities with families and friends, let me tell you about one woman I met last month in Makariv, the most westerly part of Ukraine seized by Russian forces after last February’s full-scale invasion in Bucha region.

Her name is Oleksandra. She is a 34-year-old mother with four children. They suffered “shelling and bombing and no food, all the usual terrible stuff with a state of war” but their tribulations were mild compared with the tragedy and trauma inflicted on many others. Makariv was liberated from Putin’s terror after five weeks’ fighting, while her family avoided the executions and torture that scarred the region.

This was fortunate: Oleksandra is a Russian who fled Kremlin repression 15 years ago, so she hastily destroyed all incriminating documents when Moscow’s troops turned up in her village. She worked as a journalist for Memorial, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights group founded under Perestroika to expose Stalin’s crimes against humanity but shut down two years ago by his savage successor.

She was threatened by Putin’s goons, compiled reports on dissidents and horrors unleashed in Chechnya, knew colleagues at the famous organisation who were killed. But she left her birthplace after the 2008 conflict in Georgia, shocked when so many “brainwashed” friends backed that battle, then fell in love with a Ukrainian who is now her husband.

She was an activist in the 2014 democracy protests that led to the overthrow of Putin’s patsy president and Russia’s subsequent attacks on Crimea and the Donbas. “I lost my family, I lost my friends, I lost everything,” she said. “Since then I’ve talked only a few times to my parents and it always ends unpleasantly.” Now she views Russian troops as “monsters” and wants to see Moscow’s empire destroyed, with her native land carved into several nations and forced into “civilised development”.

Oleksandra is tired of death and war. “There are funerals almost every day. I know a lot of people – my friends, my relatives – who have lost their lives,” she said. But like everyone I met in Ukraine last month, she insists they must continue with their fight, accepting they must brace for a long struggle yet scorning suggestions they might contemplate anything but recovery of all the occupied lands after Russia’s barbarity. “We can’t give up – the price has been so high, we have come so far, we must finish this war.” Such a stance is backed by polls showing the vast majority of Ukrainians staunchly reject trading any terrain for peace.

Like most Ukrainian citizens, her life revolves around supporting the war effort and her job helping displaced people. We met as she showed me Chudo Mistechko (Wonder Village), brightly-coloured homes built for old people driven from the conflict zone by a US businessman with a charity called To Ukraine With Love.

The affable pensioners told me grim stories of seeing homes destroyed, friends killed and the darkest of deeds done by humanity, their tears and obvious trauma puncturing the smiles of greeting. “War is pure hell,” said one weeping woman. “Putin has ruined everything – so many people have died, so many lives broken,” said another from Bakhmut. “He’s done so much to make everyone united against him that I think we can last.”

We do not know if Ukraine can sustain its struggle, let alone how this grotesque war will end. But this is a clash of rare moral clarity. Once again, I was humbled by the fortitude of people trapped on the frontline of this global fight for freedom – but left disturbed by the myopic, selfish or weak Westerners pushing for a “peace” deal that surrenders to evil. Having given up so much in the cause of freedom, Oleksandra said she is living in fear. “If the West stops supporting us, it could be over. Russia might take the whole country. I am very scared.” So whose side are we really on?

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