Ukrainians Are the Missing Voice of the Russia Crisis Story
We watch and speculate on President Vladmir Putin’s next move while the West works to unify and remain a step ahead.
What is so often missing from the headlines though are the voices of Ukrainians who have lived with these threats since 2014 when Russia invaded and seized Crimea.
“For the last eight years, we’ve been actually fighting a war. This current magnitude that emerged in recent months, it’s not something that got to us out of the blue; it was already in the air,” said Mariia Zaiets, a communications and public diplomacy expert and alumna of GMF’s 2020 Policy Designers Network.
Seated comfortably in front of her bookshelf, Mariia speaks calmly and softly into the camera, but her words carry an air of conviction. Though she describes herself as “not a very vocal person,” it is not evident while listening.
To tell Mariia’s story—who was born, raised, and currently lives in Kyiv—is to speak of her strength and resilience. Her story, like those of so many other Ukrainians, is hopeful, driven by the solidarity among her fellow citizens.
It’s already a huge trauma for our society. We Ukrainians, we’re feeling prepared, more stoic, and we’re not evacuating or panicking. We’re showing solidarity with each other.
“It’s already a huge trauma for our society. We Ukrainians, we’re feeling prepared, more stoic, and we’re not evacuating or panicking. We’re showing solidarity with each other,” said Mariia. “This sense of unity is what is at the core of our values as Ukrainians: freedom and unity.”
Living through the last eight years has caused many Ukrainians to take a “life must go on” approach, despite the intense backdrop. For Lesia Vasylenko, member of Ukraine’s Parliament and 2020 GMF Marshall Memorial Fellow, 2014 was a turning point, when she realized that “we are in a state of war and there’s no way to hide from it.”
“I want to run [but] the only thing that is to be done is to stay put, stay calm, and carry on fighting for the country, which I call my home,” said Lesia, her emotions so clear even through the phone.
Hanna Shelest, director for security programs at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian PRISM” and 2016 Marshall Memorial Fellow, who is based in Odesa, echoed this sentiment. Her energy and passion radiated as she spoke: “We are tired of being afraid...we are tired of being in constant stress. So now you feel much more determination.”
Ukraine Needs a Seat at the Table
Much like the voices of its citizens, Ukraine’s position in the crisis has been underrepresented and overshadowed by allies and Russia. “I think Ukraine’s position in general needs to be more robustly put out there in the media. There’s a lot about what Russia wants, what the United States wants, what allied powers want, what they don’t want—but there’s almost nothing as to where Ukraine stands in all of this,” explains Lesia.
“It’s almost as if Ukraine is just a pawn in the game. And it’s definitely not the case,” Lesia continued, pointing to the huge responsibility that Ukraine has taken on to counter authoritarianism, not only for itself, but for Eastern Europe. “Ukraine has been the reason why [war] hasn’t yet broken loose...and for that matter why the rest of the world hasn’t been pulled into a World War III scenario.”
While the role of allies is a crucial and necessary piece in the complicated puzzle of resolving the Russia crisis, Ukraine must also be a key player and part of the conversations, at the negotiating table but also in the media. "So far, I think a lot has been done to help Ukraine and Ukrainians are forever grateful to our transatlantic partners in this respect,” said Lesia.
...It is unacceptable for the fate of a sovereign state to be decided without that state present.
“The only thing missing in this is that, should negotiations happen, any kind of negotiations around or about Ukraine, they should definitely include Ukraine at the negotiation table and in the negotiation room because it is unacceptable for the fate of a sovereign state to be decided without that state present.”
Ukraine should be viewed by its allies as a partner in the fight against Russia, explained Hanna. “Washington presents Ukraine only as the victim, but not as the partner. And definitely in terms of Russian aggression, we are the victim because we haven’t triggered this crisis. But at the same time, Ukraine is a very serious partner and we would like to be seen like this, and a security provider as well.”
Though much attention has been given to the West’s fragility, including Germany’s reliability or lack thereof among allies given its complicated relationship with Russia, the support of international leaders is more important now than ever.
Yaromyr Udod, international development consultant and 2021 Policy Designers Network fellow, based in Kyiv, called the support of international partners of Ukraine “very significant” in this crisis. “In general, I view the support provided to Ukraine as quite unified and solidified. And I think Ukrainians appreciate it.”
“For me personally, it’s very important that my country is not alone in this situation,” said Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, political scientist and 2021 Policy Designers Network fellow based in Kyiv. He is a long-time political observer whose work over the past few years includes missions to Russia, Moldova, Norway, and an upcoming trip to Hungary.
Ukraine’s right to freedom not only applies to Ukraine, but to all countries that uphold democratic values.
“All of this is happening in the center of Europe, you know? All is happening despite all previous agreements, pre-agreements, and guarantees given to Ukraine actually by Russia, to keep sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Dmytro explained.
He went on to discuss democratic values held by the West, such as human rights. “We believe in this and we try to implement this in our country, to decide our future on our own, we try to be the sovereign state...but Russia is against this,” he said. “This is the core issue."
People definitely want to see the government and allies united. Weakness could provoke Russia.
People definitely want to see the government and allies united. Weakness could provoke Russia, noted journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, a 2017 Marshall Memorial Fellow.
An Anthem of Freedom
For Ukrainians, freedom is so important and the determination to protect it is in their DNA. “Our anthem starts with the words, ‘Ukraine is still alive, both our dignity and our freedom and our glory,’” said Hanna.
For Mariia, this desire for freedom not only extends to her country and fellow Ukrainians, but to the Russian people living under President Vladimir Putin’s regime. “What I would hope for, in the coming years, is Russians, and the people who live in Russia, stop being in fear, and stop being afraid, and start to voice their [opinion]...because I know they want a prosperous, democratic country as much as any other country in the world.”