We present you the first podcast from the Liberal Europe Podcast: The CEE Focus. In the first episode, the host, Leszek Jażdżewski, Vice-President of the Board of the Poland-based Liberte! Foundation and the Editor-in-Chief of the Liberte! magazine, talks to Olha Konsevych, a Ukrainian journalist and researcher, the Editor-in-Chief of the Ukrainian newspaltform 24tv.ua, about the war in Ukraine.
This is a dark hour for the entire free world. Therefore, it is of utmost importance we are well informed on the recent developments regarding the aggression of the Putin’s Russia on the free state of Ukraine.
Leszek Jażdżewski: It is February 25, it is noon here in Poland. In this very precarious time, I am talking to Olha Konsevych, a Ukrainian editor, researcher, and media expert for a media outlet normally based in Kyiv.
As we speak, the Russian military is approaching Kyiv, has already been bombarding the capital of Ukraine for a couple of hours. It is the second day of the war. You are now in Lithuania, but you are following very closely what has been happening in your hometown. Could you tell us what is the situation right now? What are the Western media outlets missing? Is it possible to get in touch with people in Kyiv or has the communication been already cut off?
Olha Konsevych: I am trying to communicate with people, it is okay now. Mobile network work, internet access is okay. While it is possible to communicate with people, some of my colleague journalists spent the entire night in shelters, at the metro stations. Now they are exhausted. Sometimes people cannot work or write pieces for media because of this emotional pressure.
If we talk about the situation in Kyiv, I had a talk with the authorities, with the office of the president. They keep updating us with messages about the situation in Ukraine, including Kyiv. There is some fighting happening right now in some districts of the capital, on the banks of the Dnieper River.
The mood among the people and the atmosphere is heightened. Many people are very brave. There are reports of Ukrainians who stopped a group of Russians on the streets and even send them to the Ukrainian army. People try to fight even in the face of shooting or when they are forced to hide in shelters.
This is very painful because Vladimir Putin said that he wants to defend Russians in the eastern part of our country, so why then did he send his troops to Kyiv, Kharkov, Chernihiv (near the Belarussian border) and so on? We are free, we have our own president, government. We have chosen this government in free elections. We have a free election system in comparison with Russia, where they have only one big party. So, I do not understand, this is all a big shock. I guess that all the Ukrainian people who – even those who have been very supportive to Russians or who speak Russian – will now be very patriotic. Because now they understand who Putin really is and what is he trying to do.
I saw calls to arms by the administrative defense in Ukraine, instructions how to make a Molotov cocktail, and the Klitschko brothers taking up arms. Vitali Klitschko is still the Mayor of Kyiv, so the situation must be really grim on the ground if the mayor is doing that. The citizens are now expected to defend the capital. Do you think that it is rational to expect of the residents of Kyiv – ordinary citizens with no military background – to defend themselves against the Russian army? Is it really happening?
We were prepared for that, because before this attack we saw reports from military stores that all the weapons had been sold. Ordinary people – even my colleagues, journalists – were taking first aid courses. We knew that we had to be prepared even if nothing was to happen.
I think there is no chance that Putin’s Russia will stay in Kyiv. He may be able to cause chaos, but I guess Kyiv will remain free. As Klitschko and some of the authorities stated, even if the worst-case scenario happens, there will be created a special corridor for the Ukrainian army to evacuate all the civilians from the city in a very peaceful manner. So, I think everything will be okay.
So, there is a plan to evacuate not only the authorities – the president or the Verkhovna Rada, – but also the residents?
Yes. Of course, it will be very difficult because of logistical matters, but the mayor of Kyiv and government representatives declared that if the Russian troops come and there is no way out of the city, they will relocate all the civilians.
I was also surprised by that, because before the war began, I was also very critical of our president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. I thought he was just a comedian, so how could he rule the entire country in such an unusual and perilous situation? Now, when I receive all the reports, he is still in Kyiv, along with his staff. Members of the government and the Verkhovna Rada, even though they were in hiding when we received the emergency call, they are online 24/7, as some of the news channels report. So, indeed, I was very surprised to hear that they will organize the evacuation should anything happen, but I believe it will be the case.
Do you think it is the time for the Ukrainian authorities to plan a relocation of the government to avoid decapitating legal authorities and installing in Kyiv Russian puppets? Or do you think that defending Kyiv is crucial, because, otherwise, if Russia takes over the capital it may mean that they will try to pretend that there is a legal government now in Ukraine? What do you think is the strategy here? For the government to leave Kyiv, relocate, and continue to fight? If so, maybe it should happen pretty soon?
Yesterday, I asked one of the president’s officials about it – because we have heard this fake news that President Zelenskyy had already left for Lviv, – but this would be a total capitulation and a huge problem for the army and for the people to have your president hiding somewhere, even if it was Lviv.
Now, it is crucial to defend Kyiv, because this is the heart of Ukraine and its sovereignty. So, I believe that President Zelenskyy and his staff will remain in Kyiv until the fighting here ends. It is important for them to stay here, and the authorities understand this.
Do you have any news from your friends or staff members? You have mentioned that some of your colleagues are in hiding because of the air raids. How are people coping with the entire situation? Do they plan to stay indoors, like the authorities told them to or do they consider leaving? What are their expectations and what is their situation in Kyiv at the moment? I understand that some of Ukrainians were making the necessary provisions and stocking up (for example, on food) and taking precautions in case of war.
It very much depends on a family and the conditions they have lived in. Young people were prepared, they had packed their backpacks just in case already two weeks ago, when the first news of the possible escalation of the conflict from the Russian side. If there is no dedicated shelter nearby, most of them stay at their homes as it is safer. If they hear noises, they hide. The people who live near airports or some key infrastructures are since Thursday, February 24, hiding in subway stations, as it seems safer.
We try to connect every hour via Instagram, Facebook, or via special apps that we have been using in case of emergency – such as if Russia was to occupy Ukraine, if Facebook was to be suspended, or if the mobile networks were to shut down. So, we are prepared for communication issues, but no one knows what will happen next.
Some of my colleagues left the Kyiv area and went to stay with their grandparents in the countryside, hiding in smaller buildings, as the buildings with many storeys may be dangerous. The situation is difficult.
I was watching Ukrainian news and I realized how calm the people are in this situation – as if they were expecting the attacks to happen any time. It seems that the Ukrainians are facing this tragedy in a very brave and balanced manner. Maybe it has to do with the fact that you have already been at war with Russia since the invasion in 2014. People were killed basically every month in the Donets and Luhansk regions. Do you know what is happening, especially in regard to civilians, in the territories attacked by Russia from the south and east? Are there any news from the people over there? It is really difficult to understand what is happening in these parts of Ukraine that Russia invaded. Is seems that especially in the south they already made it as far as Kherson. In other areas, they seem to be contained.
The hardest part is finding reliable information on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, because these are the territories that have been occupied by separatists. But we do have some information on, for example, the Port of Mariupol in the Donetsk Oblast, as well as the cities in the south of Ukraine (like Melitopol, Kherson, etc.). To my understanding, the most dramatic situation is there, because we need to stop the Russian troops on the borders with these occupied territories and not to allow them to move further inside Ukraine.
Now, the main frontline is set on the places where Russians try to start new activities. Fow instance, a few minutes ago, I received reports from Kharkov, in eastern Ukraine, on the border with the occupied territories, where two rockets were observed in a civilian district, there is no army infrastructure there. And let us remember that Putin said that he is fighting the Ukrainian army. But he launched rockets to an area inhabited by civilians, so which is it? This is a war crime.
The key thing at the moment is, therefore, to defend the areas near the occupied territories in the south, because yesterday we lost the Zmiinyi Island (Snake Island), located on the Black Sea. It is very difficult to control any territory out there, as Russian forces are stationed there. Other countries, like Turkey, Bulgaria, or the Portuguese Azores, may help us, but the European Union has so far been passive in this matter, because the countries that are members of NATO do not want to get in trouble with Russia. At the moment, they only observe this war.
Some of my colleagues noted that this is the first war that we are streaming online. This is a new reality. Everyone knew what will happen thanks to the reports from The Guardian or The New York Times, but nobody helped us in any significant way. We hear only strong words, we are being reminded that we are not in NATO, there are declarations of sending weapons to Ukraine so that you can defend yourselves. But it is foolish to think that Putin will not come for other countries – the Baltic states, Poland, and so on. It is not only the problem of Ukraine, but a European or even a global one. This man will not stop in Ukraine.
I am grateful we are able to talk with international media, with people like you. Because, now, a lot of disinformation is happening as we know that Russia has forbidden its media outlets to provide information outside of the Kremlin sources. As a result, our editorial board is considering translating Facebook posts into Russian, to explain the situation to the Russian people who follow certain social media channels.
It is, therefore, not only a conventional war, but also a digital one – oftentimes, people do not even know what is happening. They may easily think that the Russian troops are only in the Donbas region and so everything is okay. This is not the case. These crimes should be brought to light.
You are absolutely right. I think it is great that both the President and the media are thinking of Russians and trying to get through to them with information on the current situation. There are many personal ties between Russians and Ukraine (regardless of cooperation between these states) – people who were born in your country and live in Russia, or the other way around, so I would assume they try to follow the information about the recent events in Ukraine. It is not a far-away country, like Syria, it is their neighbor. At the same time, many people claim that the chance for Ukraine is turning away from this unconventional, partisan war to fighting in the cities, which is clearly a very costly thing to do. Do you think that Ukrainians are determined to fight this way, or perhaps – for the sake of saving the cities and citizens – people would be willing to support installing some kind of a Russian puppet government, with someone like Yanukovych and the likes of him? Or will you fighting for months if necessary? I know it is an awful question to ask, but it seems that people of Ukraine do not stand a chance in a conventional conflict. Maybe there is some chance, but no one wants to see another Iraq and lose 100,000 people.
I have heard different stances on this topic. Some of my colleagues in Dnipro, an eastern Ukrainian city, believe we should let Russians in, because they are tired of this war and hope that everything will turn out alright. Kyiv and eastern Ukraine would not be affected, but the eastern Ukraine would be under the Russian influence – in peace. I think only app. 10-15% of people think this way.
The war has been going on for eight years already. We have grown really angry. The scenario of a partisan war or a special civilian army would be more natural for Ukrainians. We have already suffered a lot because of Russia, as it has been trying to tear our country apart.
To my mind, there are two possible scenarios: a quick war, with Ukrainians defending our state and, after a few days of fighting, Russia trying to negotiate the special status of the Donets and Luhansk regions. At the same time, the situation in Kyiv and elsewhere would be alright. In this scenario, we would have lost the said territory. The second option is a long war, where Ukraine may become the next Afghanistan – with different types of troops, including partisan activities, creating political parties to destabilize the situation. All in all: a total mess.
The second scenario would be the harder one. Ukraine would become a hotspot for Europe, near the EU border. We would be fighting for months to ensure stability. This is why I really hope negotiations will happen and that politicians will try to talk to each other. Because now we are destroying Ukraine – blowing up bridges and other infrastructure. Even now, it has all been a great blow to the Ukrainian economy and people. If it lasts for the next two or three months, it will be a tragedy for us all. It remains to be seen which way it goes.
Maybe Vladimir Putin will stop at some point because of the cost of his actions? We see strong sanctions and the economic consequences announced by the global community, which have an impact on Russia and its currency. But it is very difficult to look to the future and it seems impossible to try to predict the possible scenarios.
It is real surreal to talk to you about your country and hometown. You are coping very well with this situation and try to be active as a citizen and as a journalist. Meanwhile, there seems to be very little meaningful action from European countries or the United States. A direct military intervention seems to be off the table. Is there anything Western countries can do – apart from offering big meaningless words? Anything other than accepting refugees coming in from Ukraine? Can anything be done to persuade Putin to have a sit-down and negotiate? Or not much can be done at this moment?
Some action can be taken on different levels. On the governmental level, Europe needs to be united. Yesterday, Hungary, Italy, and Germany declared they do not want to impose stricter sanctions on Russia – this is not okay. All EU states need to understand that they are not only protecting Ukraine, but also their own countries. On the level of the United Nations and other organizations, they need to declare that Putin committed a war crime. There should be held a special hearing, like it was in the case of the Nuremberg trials, which was the biggest crime of the beginning of the 20th century on innocent people.
For seventy years, we have been all trying to keep the balance between the US-inspired and European style of governance – in opposition to the Soviet one, – but now all of this collapsed. Now, the world is changing. The world order has been broken. Now, special action must be taken against Putin himself – not only the Russian people, who will bear most of the economic sanctions.
On the individual level, citizens from every country – be it Poland, Hungary, Romania, our every other neighbor, – what will be very helpful is spreading the information about the situation in Ukraine in your own communities. Wherever you work or live, follow verified sources – for example, channels of the Ukrainian authorities. Now, a lot of their content is also translated into English to keep the foreign public informed.
Talk to other people – to your friends, family, – and explain that we did not want this war, we are not the aggressor. This is our country, our homeland – we live here, we have our history. We are not an informal structure, but a real country. This would be very helpful – maybe even more than any sanctions.
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.