“Ceasefire without regaining control over our land means that my son will inherit this war.” In the interview, Inna Sovsun and Yehor Cherniev, members of the Verkhovna Rada, demand to stop denying what Russia's war against Ukraine is about. The conversation was conducted by Robert Sperfeld.
Robert Sperfeld: What does Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine affect ordinary people and Ukrainian society? What gives them hope and confidence about the future?
Inna Sovsun: In Ukraine, we go through the hell of this war every day. Since February 24, it has become virtually irrelevant which day of the week it is. We check the news almost every half an hour. Another bomb blowing up in another city or something else is a constant. The war is very scary every single day. This very day, I saw photos from my hometown, Kharkiv, where another woman had been killed. It is so heartbreaking. Meanwhile, you get suspicious if, like a few days ago, there is no air raid alert in Kyiv for a while. But for people in the East [of Ukraine] it is a nightmare.
We should be grateful every single day for the army that protects us and saves our lives, although Russians are much superior in terms of weapons. Our army managed to mostly kick out Russians from the North of our country, and this gives us hope. Our combatants are highly motivated as they know what they are fighting for. However, we depend much on people’s support from all over the world as they demand assistance to Ukraine from their governments — this gives us hope too.
Which factors, in your opinion, will sooner or later define the outcome of this war?
Yehor Cherniev: The crucial issue is the weapons supply from the West. It is not about their volume, of course. Obviously, we will never have such a huge arsenal at our disposal as Russia does. And this is not the point. Quality and precision are decisive. The course of current fights proves this. With High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, we can more precisely meet the targets that are up to 80 km away and effectively destroy Russian arms depots in the occupied areas. But we have very few of these yet and therefore we can only selectively stop the enemy along the stretched frontline. Therefore, it is also about our Western partners’ supply swiftness. Then we will be able to shift the power balance in our favor.
Weapons supply seems to be the most urgent issue indeed. Yet, international partners have already met for the reconstruction summit in Lugano. Is it appropriate to talk about reconstruction while destruction is ongoing day by day?
Inna Sovsun: Of course, we should already think about the future of Ukraine. It is crucial for people remaining in the country and those fighting at the front — to have a vision of the future we are struggling for. And it is precisely about the vision when we talk about reconstruction. At the same time, we must be quite realistic. Right now, we do not know what the starting point for reconstruction will be after our victory, and we do not know how much damage is yet to come. That is why the crucial point is still how we can win militarily. Everything else makes no sense otherwise, even though it is alluring to talk about reconstruction. Some partners just say ‘we are willing to help you with the recovery, but you deal with the war yourself.’ That’s not going to work. Because to get to recovery, we have to win. And this is step number one.
Yehor Cherniev: Inna is right. But I would like to add that we have already deoccupied territories in the North with significantly destroyed infrastructure, for example electricity, etc. In these areas, reconstruction is needed right now as everything depends on it there.
According to some estimates, Ukraine has lost 35-50% of its GDP. Therefore, we need a fresh start in the previously occupied areas. However, there is no way back to the resource-based model. What we need is an economic structure that can create more added value within the country, in the agricultural sector, for instance.
Okay, once more, a little bit back to the actual fighting situation. What would you tell those German intellectuals who call on the Western leaders to make both sides, Russia and Ukraine, negotiate a peace deal?
Inna Sovsun: Oh, I have so much to tell them. First of all, I must say that one of those intellectuals used to be my favorite philosopher and I am very disappointed that Habermas now takes such a position. In my opinion, he and others seem to be still living in the old world of the Cold War, not realizing that the situation has changed. Ukrainians are an independent nation and we have fought for it for centuries. We have the right to our territory and our sovereignty. Everyone wants to live in a rule-based world, after all. And such a world should allow calling the perpetrators and victims by name. Therefore, calling for negotiations between Ukraine and Russia is like asking the family of a victim of violence to talk to the violator while the victim is still being raped. That is how such intellectuals’ calls sound to us. Nobody has the right to demand negotiations with such Russians as long as they kill our citizens and destroy our land. How can we talk to people for whom raping children is a means of warfare?
They have been torturing people in Donbas for eight years now. That is something that the world chose to neglect, fort he sake of cheap gas.
Talking to such Russia now would be inconsistent with what Europe had been built up for. This would mean violation of a neighbor’s sovereignty is an acceptable means. It would allow other countries to do the same without any consequences. This idea should be rejected from the moral and strategic perspectives.
We must stop this war. To achieve that, we need no ceasefire, no “Minsk 3”, or anything like that. Ceasefire without regaining control over our land means that my son will inherit this war because Putin or any other crazy person ruling this crazy Russia will come back. And then my son will have to fight. I can’t bear it anymore to hear him asking me before going to bed whether Russians will come to kill him. Whoever suggests negotiations with Russia should imagine such a situation with his or her son and then think over such a proposal once again.
Yehor Cherniev: I am from Berdiansk, an occupied city, and my relatives still live there. It is unimaginable for me to say — here we stop, this area will be now Russian. That would be ridiculous since it is our people who live there. That would be a betrayal. Moreover, we know perfectly well what Russians do to their citizens; Russia is a torture chamber on a very big scale. Why should we give up our people?
Let’s come to the political perspective. Ukraine has been officially granted EU candidate status. Beyond the symbolism of this step — what benefits do you expect from this status and what would be the specific actions in the upcoming months and years?
Inna Sovsun: First of all, do not underestimate the importance of symbolic steps. It is, in particular, important for the people fighting on the frontline, it is a recognition of their sacrifice. It shows that they are also fighting for Europe and a European perspective for Ukrainians. European integration is anyway anchored in our constitution, but now it has also been recognized on the part of the EU. This is crucial. On the other hand, this status also means a geopolitical loss for Russia. Putin has now tried to undermine the importance of this step — though he had had different rhetoric until recently.
We understand, though, that real membership requires accomplishing a lot of homework from our side, in particular fighting corruption. But we will also have to revise legislation in many other areas. This will take some time. And of course, the war must be over — we will not be accepted until we take control over our territory.
Another crucial topic is the energy sector and the related sanctions on Russia. Although there is a certain political will to put an embargo on oil, Russia’s revenues are still growing at the moment. What should be done to make those sanctions more effective?
Inna Sovsun: There are two arguments for the sanctions. First, it is about limiting the funding to Russia. From a purely economic perspective, this will be rather complicated to implement. Because if Europe purchases oil somewhere else, there will be other countries willing to buy Russian oil. There might be some changes and maybe slightly higher logistics costs. We should be realistic with regard to our expectations. It does not mean, though, that Europe should lift the sanctions. We believe that the democratic world should not limit its political will and scope of action due to Russian oil and gas. Dependence on dictatorships should be avoided. The existing oil sanctions have too many loopholes, e.g. some countries allow Russian tankers to come to their seaports. A completely different problem is Hungary, which is basically Russia’s puppet inside the EU. But I think it is all about political leadership in the EU. Violating sanctions should have consequences. This is about leadership. As well as the ability to communicate to your people the importance of giving up some luxuries relating to high energy consumption — that is also about leadership. These consequences are nothing compared to the sacrifice Ukrainians make every day.
Ukraine faces a severe oil and diesel shortage. What do you expect from the EU in this regard, to strengthen Ukraine’s energy security?
Inna Sovsun: It was our strategic mistake to supply oil before the war through Russia and Belarus to such a large extent. Now, it must be shipped from the EU by tankers. There is also an oil pipeline to Hungary but it can be switched in reverse mode. And here we come again to the issue of Hungary. If the EU exerted pressure on Hungary here, it would be good, because the supply through this pipeline would considerably alleviate the problem. This is a specific example.
What other central messages would you like to deliver to the German audience?
Yehor Cherniev: We must understand that there is a new reality since February 24 in the world. Russia has violated international law, unfortunately. Business as usual is not possible with Russia anymore; we must become independent from autocracies. After the Cold War, Russia became part of the global community with all its privileges, and Western countries got dependent on energy supply. The new order should make a stronger link between free economic relations and democratic rule. Autocracies must be excluded. Europe will pay the price with its comfort. We pay the price with our lives.
Inna Sovsun: Yes, this is the bitter reality.
It is easy to be in denial, plan your summer vacations, to worry about rising gas prices. But we have to worry every day about our loved ones! A friend of mine together with her son had visited a computer store in the shopping mall in Kremenchuk ten minutes before it was destroyed by a missile strike. Soon afterward, she saw the destruction and the dead people from that shop — just a few minutes accidentally made the difference between them. We do not have the luxury of being in denial.
Let’s not delude ourselves into that it’s going to fix itself. And the supply of several Multiple Launch Rocket Systems rather contributes to further denial in Europe than an effective defense of Ukraine. As uncomfortable as this may be for a country with a pacifist tradition, peace needs arms..
Ukraine must win. It is the only way to knock down Russia’s autocratic regime. Moreover, it will enable us to build more effective international institutions capable of timely preventing such situations. This is the only chance to build a really green economy without relying on fossil fuels from Russia.
Inna Sovsun (L) is a member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine since 2019 for the parliamentary group “Holos”. She is member of the Committee on Energy, Housing and Utilities Services. Before she was political science professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Vice Minister for Education and Science (2014–2016), and Vice President of Kyiv School of Economics (2016–2018).
Yehor Cherniev (R) is a member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine since 2019 for the parliamentary group Sluha Narodu. He is Vice-Chair of the Committee of Digital Transformation and Head of the Ukraine Delegation to NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
This interview was first published in German on boell.de.