Millions in Ukraine are “paying the highest price for freedom”

A leading Ukrainian human rights lawyer says Russia is "carrying out a systemic transformation of the society.”The co-recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize believes this “is in order to transfer it onto the military track.”

A  leading Ukrainian human rights lawyer says Russia is “carrying out a systemic transformation of the society.”

The co-recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize believes this “is in order to transfer it onto the military track.”

She gave a wide ranging interview to this website about the situation on the ground in Ukraine and what more the West and EU might do to help bring the bitter Ukraine war to an end.

Matviichuk was in Brussels recently to address the International Conference on Accountability and Justice for Ukraine and be the Guest of Honour at the RSF Press Freedom Prize 2023. She also  participated in a European Parliament’s High-Level Conference on Human rights. Afterwards she took part in an interview with Modern Diplomacy.

How bad are things in Russia regarding press freedom and the war?

Oleksandra Matviichuk: “I constantly follow the events inside Russia, read qualitative research findings and have access to information from the field from our partners. Russia is going to spend 40% of its budget on military purposes, and these are just open expenditures. Russia is carrying out a systemic transformation of the society in order to transfer it onto the military track. The preparations for a protracted war are underway. The war is being turned into a business because the West is not taking strong action to punish sanctions violations, so Russia is continuing to fund this war. Russians from depressed regions are earning such money from the war that they could not earn in their whole lives. Therefore, it is naive to think that someone is worried about hundreds of thousands of dead. 

“Moreover, in the eyes of Russians, they are heroes who gave their lives to return the territories lost after the collapse of the USSR. Thereforе there’s no price Putin wouldn’t be willing to pay to achieve his goal. The preparations for a protracted war are underway. It is just a big mistake to think that Russia is preparing for a protracted war only with Ukraine.”

Who did you meet when in Brussels?

Oleksandra Matviichuk:  I usually have a tight schedule for each visit, especially to Brussels, where the heart of Europe lives. I spoke to politicians and experts at the International Conference on Accountability and Justice for Ukraine and the European Parliament’s High-Level Conference on Human Rights. I was honored to say thank you to the journalists who are covering the war issues at the RSF Press Freedom Prize 2023. I participated in a few round table discussions, had a line of private meetings with top-notch decision-makers, and conducted a dozen interviews on media. I literally did everything I could for these few days here. Like many Ukrainians I felt guilty about being in security abroad even temporarily, so I tried to use my time effectively.”

What do you think the visit achieved?

Oleksandra Matviichuk: “Two important issues are being resolved in Brussels. The first is how to stop blocking the promised financial aid to Ukraine, as the survival of people under Russian aggression depends on it. Secondly, preparations are underway for a meeting of the EU Council, which should give the green light to the opening of official negotiations on accession to the EU. The recent EU meeting had far-reaching impact on the two issues. Yes, this is only the beginning of a long journey, Ukraine still has a lot to do to meet the membership criteria, but this expected decision is more than just symbolic. 

“Ten years ago, millions of people in Ukraine stood up against the corrupt authoritarian regime that had curtailed the European integration process. The Revolution of Dignity won, but more than a hundred peaceful demonstrators had been shot. People were dying under the flags of Ukraine and the EU in the central square of the country. When the authoritarian regime collapsed and Ukraine got a chance to move on the European integration track, Russia started this war to stop us on this path, occupied Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine, and expanded it to a full-scale invasion last year. 

“The point I mention this is that millions of people in Ukraine are paying the highest price just for the freedom to make their own European integration choice. We need this green light from the EU that nothing was in vain.”

Is there a danger of war fatigue setting in. if so, what dangers does that pose?

Oleksandra Matviichuk: We should figure out what war fatigue means in the West. Because people neither in Berlin nor in Paris are physically experiencing this war, Russian missiles are not targeting their houses, they do not have to make strategic decisions in bomb shelters. I think something else is veiled under this expression – “war fatigue”. Because if you are tired, then reasonably you should give Ukraine everything it needs. I think that this “fatigue” stands for an unwillingness to take strong action to help Ukraine to end this war.”

Should the EU and member states do more to bring about a resolution?

Oleksandra Matviichuk: Ukraine waited more than a year for its first modern tank, and we still have no modern aircraft and had to launch a counter-offensive without the possibility of securing the sky. Russia received over a million artillery shells from North Korea and we did not receive even what had been promised. If autocratic countries help each other, then democratic countries should support each other even more. Because we are fighting for freedom, which is rapidly shrinking all over the world. Democracies should roll with the punches. Democracies should win wars. Otherwise, it will encourage other authoritarian leaders in various parts of the world to do the same as Russia.”

How much longer will the war drag on do you think?

Oleksandra Matviichuk: It is being determined right now, and it greatly depends on the stance of the international community. Because this is not just a war between two states. 

“This is the war between two systems – authoritarianism and democracy. Russia wants to convince the entire world that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are fake values. Because they do not protect anyone in the war. Russia wants to convince that a state with a powerful military potential and nuclear weapons can break the world order, dictate its rules to the international community, and even forcibly change internationally recognized borders.

“And this is not about Ukraine laying down its arms. People in Ukraine want peace more than anyone else. But peace does not come when the country that was invaded stops fighting. That’s not peace, that’s occupation. 

“And occupation is another form of war. Occupation is not about changing one state flag to another. Occupation means enforced disappearances, torture, deportations, forced adoptions of your children, denial of identity, filtration camps, and mass graves.”

How can it be resolved peacefully or militarily?

Oleksandra Matviichuk: In other words, how to persuade Putin to give up the idea of restoring the Russian Empire by means of diplomacy. He publicly announced this idea back in his 2007 Munich speech, and no one took him seriously at the time. In a year, Russia unleashed the war in Georgia, which the West did not respond to, and thereby encouraged the aggressor to further aggressive acts. I do not know if there is something like that in the arsenal of Western diplomats, or if it is just wishful thinking and unwillingness to perceive reality. I know one thing for sure, if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will go further.”

Have you ever been personally threatened for the work you do?

Oleksandra Matviichuk: Many times. During the Revolution of Dignity, thugs from paramilitary groups, which we called “titushky” at that time, came to my house. Consequently, I could not return home for more than a month. At the same time, the Yanukovych-era prosecutor’s office obliged me to come to testify, and it was a trick to arrest me. Then we were the first organization to send mobile teams to Crimea and to the east to document war crimes, constantly risking to be abducted or shot. 

“During the full-scale invasion, I stayed with part of the team in Kyiv, which the Russian troops were trying to encircle. We all were perfectly aware of what they would do to us if they went in. 

“Now in the entire country, there is no safe place where you can escape Russian missiles. However, this is an attribute of human rights activity in countries in transition, and many people in various parts of the world work like this.”

Have you any criticism of the Ukraine government over how the war is being prosecuted?

Oleksandra Matviichuk: Since the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine began, we have joined our efforts with dozens of regional organizations and established a nationwide network of war crimes documenters. Our “Tribunal for Putin” initiative has recorded more than 59,000 war crimes. This is only the tip of the iceberg. 

“Because Russia uses war crimes as a method of waging the war. Russia is deliberately inflicting pain on the civilian population in order to break the resistance of the people and occupy the country.

“Therefore, during my visit to Brussels, I also spoke about the need to reconsider the course of international aid for justice. You can conduct a million trainings, and you can pay for the work of thousands of international consultants, but if each Ukrainian investigator has to investigate 2,000 criminal cases at the same time, then all of this makes no sense. It is necessary to change the national architecture of justice and attract an international element in the form of qualified workers to give a chance for justice to all people affected by this war.”

Martin Banks
Martin Banks
Martin Banks, aged 63, is an experienced British-born journalist who has been covering the EU beat (and much else besides) in Brussels since 2001.Previously, he had worked for many years in regional journalism in the UK, including as chief reporter at his last paper there, and freelanced for national titles for several years, notably the Daily Telegraph. He has a keen interest in foreign affairs/geo-politics and has closely followed the workings of the European Parliament and MEPs in particular for many years. He has built up, since arriving in Brussels in 2001, a wide and reliable network of contacts, not just in politics but across the spectrum. He's also experienced in subbing, proofing, commissioning and editing and has also had stints on news desks.