In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Denys Karlovskyi, a former News Editor at Ukrayinska Pravda, an online media organization in Ukraine and an Oxford-Weidenfeld-Hoffman Scholar at the Blavatnik School of Government, the University of Oxford. They talk about experiencing the first days of the Russian invasion in Ukraine as a journalist, changing social moods, resilience of the Ukrainian fighters, possible scenarios for the end of the war, and about why it is crucial for the West to support the Ukrainian cause.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What was the situation in Ukraine when the war broke out?
Denys Karlovskyi (DK): I was working as a news writer in a political department news agency before the full-scale invasion, covering current affairs and developments in Ukrainian politics. I really liked my job because I am deeply interested in politics, as well as cultural and social issues. I think that I have expertise and a good understanding of what is needed, how journalism should work, and how to cover important topics for the citizens in a Ukrainian context in terms of democracy building after communism and the transition.
Then, on February 24, the invasion happened. Our news agency had been preparing for such a scenario. We had a contingency plan to scatter our journalists across Ukraine, so in case anyone got killed, there would be other people working in different places. We had some members of the team moved underground, with other people preparing for evacuation to the European Union (to Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania).
I was not in Kyiv when the war started – I was in the Vinnytsia region, closer to the border with Moldova. I was lucky. My family asked me to come to a birthday party of our close relative, which I had been skipping for several years, so it would be rude of me not to attend again. It happened to be on February 20 in Vinnytsia, and I had a return ticket bought for my trip back to Kyiv for February 25. The train was supposed to leave in the morning. So, I was indeed really lucky not to be in Kyiv.
Still, I could not believe that in the 21st century a war of such a scale could erupt in Europe – with missile strikes, dozens of hundreds of tanks, helicopters, and jet fighters bombing cities and military infrastructure across country. This is why at first I was very skeptical of such escalation happening at the time and I was adamant that I should go back to Kyiv. But my management told me to move to the place they had rented in the countryside and to live there for some time. It was dangerous for journalists to stay in big cities.
I was living in a little house with good internet connection. However, during the first few days, I was living underground, because no one really knew what was happening. For us, journalists, it was also very difficult to get verifiable information as social media went wild. Everyone was sharing what was going on in their area and so it was very hard to distinguish real people from fake profiles.
The challenge was to filter all this information, create a coherent narrative, and verify it with the government officials – with our sources in the armed forces, the Ministry of Defense, and other law-enforcement agencies. It was very time consuming, because the management and leadership of the government agencies could not dedicate enough time to us, because they were busy defending the country. It was all very shocking and chaotic. We worked for over 20 hours per day, trying to uncover all the footage, photos, and audio files that was out there.
In the first days of the invasion, the Russian military tried to take the control of the airport facility near Kyiv (Hostomel). They sent about 60 helicopters with paratroopers to take over the airport. After many months of these battleground developments, the U.S. chief of staff said that they had predicted that the Kyiv would have fallen within 3 days, because they expected that the Hostomel airport would be taken over by Russians within the first several hours. But they did not.
The battle was going on for several days, and the people living in the neighborhood were recording what was happening. On the one hand, it is very helpful for journalists when civil society is gathering information on site, because we can get witness accounts of what is happening without the need to send a war correspondent into the area and risk the life of a journalist. On the other hand, however, we cannot trust the accounts of all of these people, as some of them may not have even been there and the footage could be doctored footage.
Therefore, we were all trying to make sense of what was happening, but we could not simply believe in what the Ukrainian or the Russian governments were telling us. The Ukrainian government could not just go to the press and say what was going on, because it could have endangered the Ukrainian military. And, of course, we could not trust the accounts of the Russian government.
LJ: On a personal level, what were you thinking at the time? How does it feel to have your entire life turned upside down?
DK: I went completely numb; my mind was blank. Shock and terror were real. I really did not think that such a large-scale invasion could happen in Europe, at the borders of NATO, in this day and age. First of all, because it is very risky – if you launch a missile from the Black Sea, it could reach Romania by accident. Also, because Ukrainians and Russians had so many things in common before the invasion – many people had friends and relatives in Russia, and vice versa. So, for me, the possibility of a full-scale invasion seemed like a very far-fetched prospect. And this is why I went numb – because I just could not believe it.
For the first few weeks, when I was going to bed, I was thinking at the possibility that I may not wake up in the morning because a missile could strike. I also kept thinking about my family and friends, as many of them stayed in Kyiv and could not leave for some time. Some of my acquaintances lived in the suburbs and villages occupied by the Russian military. A number of atrocities were committed there.
I remember that for the first several days I was unable to eat because I felt nauseous. The prospect of having some food made me feel severely sick. To boost my energy, I was drinking coffee and tea, and was forcing myself to eat some biscuits or a bar of chocolate. The same thing was with music – I could not listen to it at all, to any kind of music, because it would irritate me. It seemed like a thing from a distant and an unreal world – like a fairy tale. Music was a relic from the old world that was lost forever.
In February and March, I was not thinking about the future. I was living in the Present Continuous tense only. I was not thinking about going to Oxford, or about what will happen to me in the summer. I was focusing on today, and maybe tomorrow. I had no plans for the future, no hopes nor ambitions. It was very scary when the Russian military was stationed near Kyiv. Most of my colleagues had their houses, with documents and personal belongings, left behind in Kyiv. The whole lives of my friends were basically left there.
LJ: What was it like after a couple of weeks had already passed? What was the reality of war?
DK: Initially, people tried to buy as many supplies at the supermarkets and pharmacies as possible, and so soon, the shelves were completely empty. You could not buy anything – not even a bottle of mineral water or toilet paper. Everything was sold out. And everything apart from the supermarkets (for instance cafes) was closed.
A curfew was imposed at the time – people were not allowed to go out on the street at night. At the time, it was worrisome because there were these stories going around that you could get shot if you were outside, without any verification. So, it was really dangerous. Many disruption agents – the so-called fifth column – tried to cause panic by placing bombs. Everybody was suspicious of everyone else.
I remember the streets being like ghost streets – no people walking around. People were living their houses only to do some chores (like go to the store) and go back straight home. We did not know who could have a gun because the Ukrainian government decide to disseminate guns to anyone who was willing to take it and defend our country. This will become a huge issue for years to come, because people might not be too willing to give them back.
Because of all of these aspects – the curfew, Russian agents, and people holding guns – it was scary.
LJ: How were the emotions surrounding the war evolving in time? Has the situation been normalized?
DK: Before the summer, people were mobilized, very cautious, and aware of their surroundings and actions. They were following the instructions given by the government in terms of the curfew, expenditures, and other safety measures. When in April, the Russian military locked the outskirts of Kyiv in the northern region of Ukraine, which made May and June very difficult for the Ukrainian military because the weapons’ power was clearly better on the Russian side. The Russians launched a lot of ammunition on the Ukrainian units at the frontlines. There were many casualties. The mood was grave and somber at the time.
Then, by the end of June, people became slightly more relaxed as they felt that the frontlines had stabilized. The Russians were launching missile strikes less frequently. Cafes, cinemas, and theatres reopened. The only nuisance that emerged – as compared to the life from before the war – was that when an air-raid siren went off, you needed to hide. This has been a new way of living for us. Then again, people in Israel have lived like this for decades.
The summer was relatively easy for the people who live in the cities far from the frontlines. However, at the frontlines, it was a complete disaster because, usually, the summers in Ukraine can get pretty hot – the temperatures can rise to 38-40 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, the Russians were not stopping their attacks. A lot of casualties followed.
In late August and in the autumn, the situation changed in favor of the Ukrainian side. Ukrainians reclaimed plenty of territories in the east and south. We have also reclaimed Herson. The mood was very celebratory. However, at the same time, because of the missile strikes, there was no power in big cities (like Kyiv) for days on end. People have been sitting at home staring at the wall because there is nothing else to do – you cannot cook, do chores, work, or do anything else without power.
We do not yet know how the winter will unfold in terms of energy shortages due to Russian attacks on the energy infrastructure. In Ukraine, the temperatures in winter can drop well below zero, which makes for severe conditions for survival. People are very angry, and they seek revenge for the situation they have found themselves in, rather than feel humiliated or intimidated by Russians. Ukrainians are unwilling to surrender and lay down their arms.
LJ: How might the situation evolve for the Ukrainian people?
DK: The war is very destructive, and the casualty toll is rising every day. Recently, U.S. Chief of the General Staff General Mark A. Milley went to the press and stated that Ukraine and Russia have each lost 100,000 lives so far. It is a staggering number. It might be higher that the casualty toll during the Yugoslav wars, which would make it the bloodiest war in Europe after the WW II.
There are two possible scenarios with one crucial variable – the support of the West. The media may have not reiterated it enough, but the Ukrainian government depends heavily on the Western support in terms of financial aid and weaponry – especially on the European Union (financially) and the United States (for weapons).
The positive scenario is that Ukraine is going to persevere and survive the winter. The Ukrainian population will rise to the challenge. The good news is that, according to the weather forecasts from meteorological agencies, the winter is supposed to be mild. If the Western support continues, Ukraine can definitely reclaim the territories that were occupied before 2022 – apart from Crimea. Perhaps the Ukrainian government will be willing to start negotiations about the ceasefire and Crimea.
What is crucial not only for the Ukrainian government, but also for Ukrainians themselves, is that Russia moves their military out of Ukraine. They have been occupying a rather large part of our territories – twice the size of Austria. People there live under occupation – some of them are tortured, do not have access to basic products (foodstuffs, vaccines, etc.). If this will not happen, then Ukrainians will continue fighting.
Moreover, analyses show that Russian stocks have depleted severely because they are subject to sanctions regime. Meanwhile, Russia depends on western technology, and so they cannot build missiles on their own.
Another scenario is plausible if the Western support suddenly stops –because of the cost of living will rise and the mood of the voters will change (what we can already see in many European countries). If this happens, then possibly already during the winter or right after, the Ukrainian government would be willing to open negotiations with Russia. In this case, it would be crucial for Russia to leave at least the territory that was occupied after February 24, 2022. This would be the minimum requirement along with stopping missile strikes.
There is this story running in the media that if Ukraine agrees to negotiations, then the very next day Russia will launch an all-out military strike on the energy infrastructure. This way the media are destroying the prospect of negotiations as they do not take this idea seriously. However, recently, President Zelenskyy listed at the G20 summit ten key points crucial for negotiations. He is willing to open the negotiation process. According to him, the minimum requirements would be for Russia to leave the territory of Ukraine and pay reparations for all the destruction. But I, personally, think that President Putin is not willing to pay reparations, and he is definitely unwilling to leave the Ukrainian territory.
The variable of the Western support, which I have mentioned, will determine which of the two scenarios is going to unfold.
LJ: As a journalist, do you see any stories that are not so visible in the Western media, but which people in the West should hear about Ukraine?
DK: There are two such stories. Firstly, whenever we see in the Western media articles stating that negotiations are the only possible solution to the war, and that they should take place as soon as possible to put an end to the problem of rising cost of living caused by the energy crisis as well as to the destruction and the loss of lives in Ukraine, the authors often forget that there are still millions of people who still live in the occupied areas. These people are exposed to severe conditions and lack of access to basic healthcare and food. They may be tortured for their sentiments to Ukraine. We need to keep repeating this because sometimes the West forgets about that. Meanwhile, every Ukrainian is aware that this is the situation we are in – we think about it a lot on a daily basis.
Secondly, there is the story of the frontline workers, who sustain the effort of what is going on behind the frontlines. It is the story of Ukrainian firefighters, who rescue people from the rubble when a missile hits a civilian building. It is about the railway workers, who continue to work despite very low wages – their work is what sustains the Ukrainian war machine because they deliver food, weapons, medicines, and transport people from different cities. It is the story of doctors, who work 24/7, tending to the wounded and helping civilians get decent healthcare in wartime. It is also about teachers, who continue teaching children despite all of the disruption over the years. First, children in Ukraine did not receive decent education due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, and now they do not either because of the risk of a missile strike.
The story about the frontline workers, who work overtime on low wages, is the story of the people who sustain life in Ukraine. They are the reason it is still there. It is crucial for others to know the story of their daily heroic acts, even though they may not be perceived as worthy of a cover story.
The podcast was recorded on November 25, 2022.
Find out more about the guest: www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/people/denys-karlovskyi
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.