Fellows in Ukraine fight hard for freedom and democracy

Bearing witness to war is painful. None know that better than our Ukrainian Fellows right now, though our Fellows from elsewhere in the region are feeling the pain too, including those in Russia.

At the John Smith Trust we usually spend our days helping build fairer, more sustainable and inclusive societies across the countries of the former Soviet Union. Now, we are doing what we can to support Ukrainians deal with the devastating consequences of Putin’s attack on their country.

Ukrainians are fighting hard for freedom and democracy in Ukraine and beyond, but they can’t win this war alone. We need to stand together. Here, our Fellows give perspectives, insights and eyewitness accounts of the war. Comments have been anonymised.

Kyiv, Mariupol and the battlefield

Ukrainian Fellow: “You never know in Kyiv when and where you are safe. They are attacking civilian objects and energy plants. We lack supplies for the army, civilians, hospitals – most of the shops and pharmacies are closed. We are organising humanitarian aid to meet demands as best we can.”

Ukrainian Fellow: “In Mariupol when the maternity hospital was destroyed, children, women and doctors were injured and three died, including one girl. We can see that the Russian government is targeting hospitals, schools and kindergartens – they want to kill Ukrainian civilians.”

Ukrainian Fellow: “It’s a unique opportunity for me to talk to you from the battlefield. The number of Russian soldiers’ lives lost, and tanks destroyed is enormous – we can compare it with the second world war. The Ukrainian army is operating quite effectively, but the biggest weakness is our anti-strike systems, which work well for Kyiv, but not so much for other cities. No one in Europe or Ukraine expected them to bomb hospitals and kindergartens.

“From a humanitarian standpoint it’s madness. Humanitarian corridors are being agreed, but on the ground it doesn’t work. My friend tried several times to escape, unsuccessfully. Trains were organised, but the Russians destroyed the bridge out and they couldn’t leave. The Ukrainian government was not prepared for such tactics.”

Information vacuum in Russia

Ukrainian Fellow: “I have relatives in Siberia – they have very limited information, Facebook is blocked, there is only Russian propaganda. Many people are totally unaware of what is going on. We need to open new channels of communication for Russian citizens. They need to know about the war crimes. We need them to know to mobilise society.”

Russian Fellow: “The situation is so difficult as we don’t have independent media. A lot of people have to wear the label of foreign agent and people can go to prison for 15 years for showing any kind of opposition. A lot of people are being arrested. We are trying to make proposals to the government deputies but I’m not sure it will help. It’s just horrible.

“I really feel guilty and want to apologise to my colleagues and friends. There is no justification for this war! The bloodshed must stop. There is a lot of propaganda, but Telegram is still an opportunity to receive information. We don’t have a lot, but the people I know are trying to do something.”

Russian resistance

Russian Fellow: “I feel as though Russia has been occupied by Putin for the last 20 years – this country is under a kleptocratic regime, controlled by criminal groups from the 90s. And we have little resistance to this regime which became aggressive against our own neighbours.

“I feel shame and I will help Ukraine as much as I can. I was brutally detained, my left shoulder was dislocated a couple of days ago by authorities. Almost 14,000 people in Russia have been detained.”

One of our Russian Fellows, is editor-in-chief of the St Petersburg branch of Echo of Moscow. Echo of Moscow is a liberal news outlet that was shut down as Putin launched war on Ukraine, along with all other independent media. But they have regrouped and are now broadcasting on Patreon and YouTube.

Ukrainian Fellows call for military assistance

Ukrainian Fellow: “In 2014, I spent four years in the war and there was not much of a reaction from our foreign partners. Only now do people understand Russia is not just fighting Ukraine but it is fighting against global civilised society. There are lots of people defending Ukraine, not just professional servicemen but also businessmen, teachers, scientists, engineers. Still, we need many more troops, we don’t have nearly as many as Russia does.

“Western countries need to optimise all forces to stop this madness. Russians have aircraft – we don’t have so much artillery capacity. We need this from other countries. This war is about survival of Ukraine and the civilised world. We don’t know who will be the next target of Putin’s missiles in Ukraine or Europe.”

Ukrainian Fellow: “We are not scared, we’re prepared to fight for our land. But we do need weapons and I don’t see how NATO can stay back. I don’t want to scare you, but it’s so clear to us. We said this eight years ago – but no one believed us when we said we must stop Putin.”

A threat to Ukraine is a threat to us all

Georgian Fellow: “In 2014 when I participated in the John Smith Trust fellowship the annexation had just happened, even then it was not only about Ukraine and we talked about a bigger scale than Crimea – and now it is not just a war of one country against another.

“If Putin succeeds, the rules-based international system that we know will exist no more. And we should really think about that when we are making messages. We need to help Ukraine knowing we are helping ourselves. We should not underestimate the gravity of the situation.”

Support for Ukraine

Since the war began Victor Liakh, one of our Ukrainian Fellows, has set up a shelter project for Ukrainians who’ve lost or fled their homes. They need funds now and you can find details about the project and how to donate on the East Europe Foundation website. They have also set up a digital tool to help the authorities and citizens communicate with each other in wartime conditions with information such as, where to find shelter and how to help the army.

If you know people in Russia, you can share information on the war with them from reliable sources, such as our Fellow and international journalist Natalia Gumenyuk. Other Fellows providing eye-witness accounts are journalist Taras Berezovets and Ukrainian MPs Lesia Vasylenko and Inna Sovsum. Inna was recently interviewed on Woman’s Hour about the choices Ukrainian women make today in war-torn Ukraine.