On the 2nd February, Oleksandra Matviichuk, co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize and leader of the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, addressed a packed Cambridge Union. She spoke movingly of the work that she and her many colleagues across Ukraine are doing to document the more than 120,000 individual human rights abuses already known to have been carried out by Russian forces and their proxies since February 2022. She reminded us that each of those who had been murdered, tortured, raped, imprisoned, or simply disappeared – including several of her own friends and colleagues – was a person whose name must not be forgotten.
Documenting Russian war crimes
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine she described is the tens of thousands of Ukrainian children who have been abducted and sent to Russia for adoption and re-education. This makes Russian President Vladimir Putin, in her words, “the biggest child kidnapper in the world”. She noted that she is often asked why Ukrainians are not willing to trade land with Russia for peace, she responds that it is because Ukrainians understand what Russian occupation brings.
She appealed to the international community for help with their work documenting these crimes so that the victims are not forgotten, and the perpetrators can be brought to justice. Not just the foot soldiers who committed the crimes in Ukraine, but those including Putin who ordered the invasion in which those crimes take place. There must be justice at the end of this if the concept of international law is to retain any weight; there can be no going back to “business as usual” with the Putin regime.
Authoritarians against democracy
Oleksandra Matviichuk described how authoritarian regimes, including China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, despite their very different state ideologies, work together to undermine democracy and the rule of law. What they have in common is that they all see freedom as a threat to their rule. Describing Russia’s war against Ukraine as a war between authoritarianism and democracy, she said:
Russia attempts to persuade the whole world that democracy and human rights are false values, which will leave you weak in a time of war.
It’s clear that if Russia prevails against Ukraine, it will not just be a catastrophe for the Ukrainian people, and it will not just be Finland, the Baltic States or Poland threatened next by Russia. A Russian victory would send a shockwave through Europe, giving a huge boost to authoritarian movements such as AfD in Germany, Fidez in Hungary and Rassemblement National in France that seek to undermine democracy and human rights from within. It is far from certain that our free, open and democratic Europe would survive it.
“Ukraine fatigue”, a lie we tell ourselves
At one point she was asked about the rise in “Ukraine fatigue” in the West. She paused, then replied that no-one sitting in London or Paris could genuinely say that they are fatigued by the war. The term fatigue is used because we don’t want to admit that it’s boredom, distraction or selfishness. Ukrainians are fatigued, but they continue to fight, because they know what they are fighting for, and what will happen if they stop fighting.
And they certainly are fighting, despite the slow-down in assistance from their allies. Bolstered by the supply of over a million artillery shells from North Korea, Russia has been on the offensive since last November. However, Russia’s advances in this offensive to date have hardly been worth their staggering losses in troops and tanks. Ukrainian troops resist with courage and ingenuity, and in places have even advanced themselves.
Ukraine has downed Russian military aircraft far behind the front lines and destroyed air defence systems and command centres deep in occupied territory. With a combination of missiles supplied by the UK and France, and sea drones they developed themselves, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have sunk 20% of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and driven it from the Western Black Sea, opening up a vital corridor for the export of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products that help feed the world. Recently, Ukrainian drones began striking oil facilities deep inside Russia, depriving the Putin regime of the fuel and income needed for its war of aggression.
Democratic Europe must do more
With the recent talk of Ukraine fatigue, the European Council’s recent unanimous agreement to provide Ukraine with €50 billion in financial support over the next four years was a welcome sign that the EU will continue to stand with Ukraine. The German Parliament’s approval of a budget for 2024 that includes €7.6 billion in military support for Ukraine, and ramping up of the production of artillery shells across the EU shows that member state governments are waking up to just how serious the threat posed by Russia is. They are well aware that if Donald Trump is back in the White House in a year’s time, US aid to Ukraine, and potentially the US commitment to its NATO allies, will cease. Indeed, Trump supporting Republicans are already blocking vital aid to Ukraine.
So is Europe doing enough? No!
Current military aid from the EU, UK and other European democracies is not yet sufficient to make up for the slowdown of US aid, and may not be before 2025. Ukraine will fight on, but the failure to adequately support Ukraine is prolonging the war and raising the risk of a direct confrontation between NATO members and Russia.
The democracies of Europe can and must do more, and the UK should start by doubling the military aid for Ukraine pledged for 2024 from £2.5 billion to £5 billion, bringing it closer to the per capita amounts pledged by allies such as Germany, Poland and Estonia.
But what can I do?
When faced with a crisis as enormous as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is easy to feel that our individual actions can’t possibly make a difference, but they can.
At the Cambridge Union Oleksandra Matviichuk described how, at the start of the Euromaidan protests, she and her Center for Civil Liberties colleagues saw hundreds of students and other peaceful protestors being assaulted and detained by the security forces of the corrupt pro-Putin president Viktor Yanukovych. So, they posted a message on Facebook offering to help anyone who had been arrested, then a second asking for lawyers to help with any cases that came in. Within hours they were inundated by both requests for and offers of help, and within a few weeks these actions had grown into a huge civil society movement against authoritarianism.
Again, in the spring of 2022, amidst the chaotic first weeks of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian civil society rallied around to help refugees, feed and clothe those in need, and help equip the military. Even today Ukraine’s army of drones that is wreaking such havoc on Russia’s forces is bolstered by the work and donations of many thousands who cannot themselves fight.
Ukraine’s lesson for us is that even in dark times like these there is still hope, but we must work together to keep it alive. We can all do something, even if it is just making a donation to support Ukraine’s resistance, or contacting our MP to urge them to increase the UK’s support for Ukraine.
In 2024 democracy, human rights and the rule of law face unprecedented threats. We who believe they are the values that underpin a just world and a better future must defend them, and that starts with defending Ukraine.
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