A Ukrainian tank drives down a street in the heavily damaged town of Siversk which is situated near the front lines with Russia in Siversk, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian tank drives down a street in the heavily damaged town of Siversk which is situated near the front lines with Russia in Siversk, Ukraine. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Why Ukraine’s Fight Must Continue

A premature deal would be wrong, not least because we already tried – and it failed. 

Friday, 19 April, 2024

My friend, a writer, texted last night from his trench to say a gentle goodbye. His unit is expecting an attack anytime, but they do not have the heavy artillery they need to repel the assault.

I am thousands of miles away from Ukraine, on a six-city lecture tour across the United States, addressing public meetings and briefing members of Congress. 

But, as with that text, the war stays with us Ukrainians wherever we may travel. No matter how comfortable the hotel, or pleasant the weather, rest is impossible when back home, the delay in delivering crucial arms is costing the lives of our friends, our relatives, our countrymen.

This 60 billion US dollar package has been stalled for months by what, for Americans, is domestic politics; for us Ukrainians, it is an urgent matter of life and death.  

In my public and private meetings here, I am frequently asked: Since Ukraine cannot expect to defeat Russia on the battlefield, shouldn’t it accept a land deal for peace? Won’t more arms just mean more death?

Indeed, Ukraine has seen far too much death – I know, because my colleagues and I see it daily.

"This is a war for the basic values of human rights, of democracy, of liberty."

Since 2014, my organisation and I have documented war crimes by Russian forces occupying my country. Since the full invasion, the scale of crimes escalated exponentially, and we created a national network of groups to continue the work. We have documented killings, rape and torture – beatings, peeling off fingernails, genital electric shock. One woman I interviewed had her eye extracted by a spoon. 

To date, we have documented 68,000 crimes. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg, because such crimes are central to both the method and the purpose of the invasion.

The Russian position, as the president has made repeatedly clear, is that Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture, that Ukraine and Ukrainians, do not exist. 

But a premature deal would be wrong – not least because we tried it already, and it failed. 

In 2014, Russia seized Crimea and part of the Donbas. Ukraine was not able to respond effectively, and the international response was muted. A cease-fire was then agreed. All Russia did was use the next eight years to prepare forward bases for the next attack. Emboldened by success, Moscow will only do the same again.

An early deal would also be immoral. You do not make peace by disarming the country which has been invaded. That is not peace but capitulation and occupation. After ten years of documentation, we know what that means. 

In a de-occupied area of the Kharkiv region, after the Ukraine army pushed Russian forces back, the body of beloved Ukrainian children’s writer Volodymyr Vakulenko was discovered in an unmarked grave in the Izyum woods. After extensive investigation, the Russian soldiers responsible for this crime have recently been identified. 

Why kill a children’s writer? Russia kills Ukrainian civilians because it can. After decades of brutal warfare – in Chechnya, in Syria and beyond – it has never been halted. It has never been held accountable. In Ukraine today, we know that such crimes continue in the occupied territories every day.

Russia is increasing its assaults on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, and we expect a major new attack this summer. Our capital city, my home, could again be under direct threat.  

Meantime, destabilisation activities are under way against Moldova and other neighbouring countries. Moscow has no defined or limited external borders. This nightmare – this endless cataloguing of human pain – will only continue.

The solution is to defeat Russia and this authoritarian ideology, to hold it to account. A stand must be made, and Ukrainians are bravely making it. It is very difficult, creates huge strains in society and comes at a high cost. War is horrible. But Ukrainians know what Russia brings, and the clear majority of the population – nearly 70 per cent – support continuing the fight. 

We respect American politics. We know every country has its own priorities and financial issues. We are grateful for the generous support we have received so far from the US, Europe and other countries around the world, both from governments and ordinary citizens.

But now we need more help, and we need it soon. Ukraine wants peace more than anyone. But we cannot fight evil with empty hands.

Strengthen Ukraine, let us pursue the war as far as we can – our vision is to the internationally recognised 1991 borders – and then we can discuss peace. Our friends in Russian human rights groups tell us the same: the best way to help Russian democracy is to defeat its militarism in Ukraine. 

This is not a war for land. It is a war for survival. Not just of the Ukrainian people, but of the basic values of human rights, of democracy, of liberty. The majority of American people know this and support more aid for Ukraine. The majority of members of Congress agree.

I continue to get text messages from the front every night. Will the US send fresh arms before it is too late? 

Oleksandra Matviichuk, a human rights lawyer and Board member of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, heads the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize for Peace.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Financial Times

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