“The real price is paid in lives and blood”

Kateryna Musiienko, a John Smith Fellow and city council member from Kremenchuk, Ukraine, talks about the impact of the war and calls on Ukraine’s partners to stand firm in their support. 

On the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine, the John Smith Trust reiterates its condemnation of this unlawful act of aggression. We stand with the people of Ukraine and continue to support all efforts to end Russia’s unprovoked invasion.  

Kateryna Musiienko (Ukraine, 2024), one of our new Fellows, is a member of Kremenchuk city council in the Poltava region. Kremenchuk is located close to the frontlines in eastern Ukraine and around 30,000 people who have been forced to flee their homes have come to the city.  

“We have a lot of industry, so people see opportunities to stay because there could be jobs,” says Kateryna. “They’re not willing to leave Ukraine – they want to stay as long as it is possible.” 

Empowering displaced people 

When Russia launched its invasion,  a heavy burden  lay on the shoulders of local communities, who had to come up with quick solutions for the problems they faced, despite lacking clear instructions. The city council was unprepared and initially overwhelmed by the influx of people. But like so many parts of Ukrainian society, Kremenchuk’s authorities and residents have come together and stepped up to the challenge. 

“We’ve learned a lot because we’ve had to provide people with essentials for their livelihood, from accommodation to access to medical care and education,” Kateryna says. “For example, it changed our vision of the education process, because of the constant shelling and the need to build shelters in schools, but also because children who leave the occupied territories need mental health support and rehabilitation.” 

Kateryna acknowledges that living conditions for people newly arrived in the city are far from perfect. Most are living in shelters set up in old buildings, which are poorly equipped and cold in winter. But despite the hardships, they are determined to stay. Kateryna’s action plan, which she is developing through her John Smith Fellowship, is to set up a hub which will empower displaced people to build a new life in the city. 

Preparing for reconstruction 

Kateryna says: “This project is to equip people who move to Kremenchuk with the tools they need to integrate successfully and become part of our political and economic processes. Those things could be very practical, such as helping people acquire new skills to find jobs, understand their rights or access legal support to open small business. For children, it could be learning opportunities or psychological support.  

“We also want to provide courses so people can learn skills that will support small and medium-sized entreprises in the city, which in turn will boost our reconstruction. The economy is very damaged and after the war we will need to rebuild. For that, we will need people who have the right skills and understand where to start. We must prepare people for victory because, the moment the war is over, we will face another battle on the economic frontline. 

“We hope that our new citizens will feel that they’re real citizens and that this will boost their political confidence to vote in elections, help control our municipal processes and oversee reconstruction. We want to them to be actors in this situation, not observers.” 

Advocacy at home and abroad 

Another aspect of Kateryna’s action plan is to advocate for policy changes at a city level to support the inclusion of the displaced people. “It’s a relatively new situation and we need to ensure that these people are treated equally and have access to education, medical care and jobs” she says. “We need to develop a special policy line with the consultation for them because if we just impose a policy, it could be something which is not useful. We need to hear their voices.” 

At the same time, Kateryna sees strengthened local democracy as essential to support Ukraine’s ambitions for European integration. “We need a powerful civil society,” she says. “To achieve this, we want to engage people more as citizens, so they can exercise their democratic rights to vote for good projects and be part of the reform process. Locals need to understand what’s going on with European integration and we need to engage them as much as possible to boost the reform agenda. Because integration, as well as reconstruction, should not only be imposed from the top, but nurtured within every community and among people on the ground.” 

Kateryna is also advocating for Ukraine on the international stage as an advisor to Member of the European Parliament Andrius Kubilus and coordinator of United for Ukraine, a network of 600 politicians and experts from over 30 countries. 

Human cost of war 

Looking ahead to the residential part of her Fellowship in March, Kateryna is planning a series of meetings with representatives from government, business and civil society. Her priorities are to convey the situation on the ground, find areas for potential cooperation that could support her plans in Kremenchuk, and listen to partners’ feedback. 

And as the war enters its third year, Kateryna has a clear message to get across. “I would like to remind people that war has a human aspect,” she says. “Behind all the numbers and discussions about technical issues, are people’s lives. People are dying every hour. The problem is whether this massive payment, this blood payment, will reach Europe or not – because the danger is there. Russia will invade other countries if we do not stop it in Ukraine now.”  

She adds: “I want to remind people that the real price – the highest price that we are paying – is not in billions of dollars. It is in lives and blood. We are ready to pay this price because we don’t want the war to spread. After two years, we remain optimistic, and people have so much spirit and confidence to fight for our common values. But we need our partners to stand with us even more than before. We need a new level of support, which is more consistent, comprehensive, and strategic. We need to wake up to the new reality which already exists, and  to understand that we cannot use the old toolbox to fix this unprecedent challenge and threat to democracies worldwide.” 

New John Smith Trust programmes 

At the John Smith Trust, we are proud of all our Fellows from Ukraine who are defending their freedoms and working tirelessly to counter the devastating impacts of the war on their people, society and environment.  

As well as supporting Fellows like Kateryna who are working within Ukraine, we will be running a tailor-made Ukrainian women’s leadership programme in June for refugees in the UK. The programme, delivered in partnership with the University of Edinburgh Business School, recognises the crucial role Ukraine’s women will play in their country’s recovery. 

Also in the pipeline is a new programme to support regional civil society leaders and public servants in Ukraine as they rebuild their country and work for democracy and peace. We hope to launch the programme later this year or in 2025. Watch this space. 


Photo by Mathias Reding via Pexels