‘Ukraine cannot negotiate its existence.’ Angelina Kariakina In Dialogue With David Patrikarakos
In order to comprehend the events of recent days, PEN Ukraine has launched a series of conversations entitled #DialoguesOnWar.
On June 28, Angelina Kariakina, journalist and editor, held a conversation with the British journalist and author David Patrikarakos. This is a transcription of key moments from their conversation. You can check out the recorded conversation here.
David Patrikarakos: It is always a pleasure to speak to Angelina, who is one of the preeminent journalists in Ukraine, and who has been in Ukraine pretty much throughout the war. Angelina is a very brave journalist as well. I visited Ukraine about a month ago, I left in mid-May. What I would really like to know, Angelina, especially in light of all the stuff we are hearing outside Ukraine, what the progress has been like specifically over the last few weeks?
Angelina Kariakina: Thank you, David, for your kind words. It is always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you, PEN Ukraine, for having me.
There is no major news about the Russian breakthroughs in Donbas or the south. With all the dynamics, with all the missiles, with all the weapons used by the Russian army, the prognosis has been different over this past month. So, the latest and the biggest update is, of course, that we, I hope temporarily, have lost control over Severodonetsk by withdrawing our forces from the town that was under heavy bombardments. Our journalists are rotating and every other week we have a crew working in Donbas, in Lysychansk, which we still control. There are heavy battles taking place there. The Russians are burning down each square metre of Ukrainian positions. They are using all the weapons they have, heavy artillery, air bombardments, rocket missiles, everything they have, and they have gone as far as Lysychansk so far. Of course, if we look just at the frontline, it’s not that much. But every day, the cities across the country are attacked. In this regard, even one day is critical. You see, yesterday a small town of Kremenchuk on the border of Dnipropetrovsk and Poltava regions was heavily attacked, dozens of people dead. A civilian target was bombarded.
Thinking about the perspective of other attacks, the situation is very dangerous in any part of the country. If you went back in May, you probably witnessed how many Ukrainians came back home from European countries. Three days ago Kyiv also was bombarded. There was a missile that hit a residential building, killing a 37-year-old and injuring his wife and 7-year-old daughter. It is the reality of each day. Counting the lives that are lost, every day and every hour is critical.
David Patrikarakos: I tried to go to all the fronts. I went to see the southern front, I went to see Donbas. What struck me is the morale of the Ukrainian troops. Not any person was interested in surrendering or making any territorial compromises. Putin got a reverse of everything he wanted. He wanted to destroy the Ukrainian national feeling and now it is at a height it has never been. He wanted to make the country militarily weak – it has never been stronger. He wanted to divide the West – he has for the moment united it. I am not Ukrainian, I am an outsider, but it seems to me that Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, but it became a nation in 2014. Is this your independence war?
Angelina Kariakina: Indeed it is, on one hand. On another hand, it is a war for existence. It is a war for the mere fact of being Ukrainians. All of us are targets just because of this. This is probably the most important point to stress. But I want to get back to the issue of morale. Of course, it is something that keeps the country and the society strong and mobilised. On the other hand, it is exhausting, both in terms of finances and physically, to be in a state of war and high mobilisation for several months now. We do have internal resources to raise money very quickly, we help each other, stay in touch, and volunteer extensively. But you have to understand that Ukraine, at a certain point, will face economic problems, and all the attacks against the civilian infrastructure are not going to make our lives easier. There is still a necessity for very strong support for Ukraine, and it will only grow in the future. We spend everything we have right now on supporting our army. Even though it is equipped the best it has been in years, every family would still buy something for a soldier. A better helmet, a better pair of shoes, something for the regiment, etc. This is something we will keep on doing anyway. It is just impossible for the state to equip everyone with everything.
David Patrikarakos: Ukraine is a horizontal, not a vertical country. It is quite diffused and decentralised. I remember speaking to a soldier in Donbas, and he said to me: ‘The only thing the government gave me is my gun and its bullets. Everything else was crowdfunded and donated’. I do not think people still realise the degree to which the Ukrainian army is funded by the very people who are already struggling.
Angelina Kariakina: You have been to the frontlines and you have seen that in this war, you do not really use a gun. You are using heavy artillery. You need to have tanks, military vehicles, HIMARSes, rocket launchers, and missile launchers. It is not about actually having a gun. Even though the state is capable of giving you this gun and bullets, it is not always going to be used in this kind of war, with heavy artillery and air bombardments.
David Patrikarakos: As things progress, it is unlikely that Russians can defeat Ukraine militarily now. But what they can do, I guess, is try and sit on the country economically. Are we entering that phase where Russia tries to slowly strangle Ukraine because it failed to defeat it militarily? And what needs to be done about it? It is about more than just assistance, there needs to be political action at the international level.
Angelina Kariakina: In order to have political action, you need to have your societies and your audiences informed. Of course, the world’s eye is on Ukraine right now, and the foreign media are doing an extremely great job of covering the events that are taking place here. But we understand that it is a breaking news situation. And just like any breaking news situation, it often lacks context. The story that is unfolding in front of our eyes right now, in front of the whole world actually, is the story of an approaching famine. And it is a story that would involve many countries of the Global South. They will be affected most by this crisis caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine. What the world needs to know is the context and implications of Russia’s actions. It is not only about Russia attacking Ukraine somewhere far away. The world does not know much about the famine of 1932-1933 when the Soviet Union and Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death because they did not want to be part of the Soviet Union. This story is giving the exact context of repeated crimes of Russian colonialism. With this angle, we could engage more media from the Global South to take a closer look at Ukraine and specifically at this story.
David Patrikarakos: Exactly. People need to understand that Africa is the latest front of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In February, when the war started, I was in Accra, Ghana. On these electronic billboards, in the capital of Ghana, I saw the Ukrainian flag. There was a real outpouring of support for Ukraine.
What Russia is banking on, and what I fear, is how long this support will last if people will not get their grain. It all comes to the point we were discussing earlier: as Russia is defeated on the battlefield as it was in parts of Ukraine, it is going to use other tools. Inside Ukraine, it is just going to start pounding the cities, trying to kill as many civilians as possible, to defeat Ukrainian morale. But outside, it is going to do things like this.
I would like to ask you about something broader now. I think when people say that Ukraine is not only fighting for itself, it is also fighting for the West or Europe, it is true. What is being hammered out on the battlefields in Ukraine now is not just the future of Ukraine and Russia, but the future of the West. And I say this because, if Ukraine had fallen in three days like Putin’s asslickers told him it would, then they would be halfway to Georgia and Moldova right now, because why wouldn’t they? So why does this matter to everyone interested in the safety of Europe, the security of Europe, and the security of a broader Western alliance?
Angelina Kariakina: This is a really good question. Let me think about it from the perspective of journalism and media. What we have seen and witnessed is that indeed, if you are living far away from the frontline, it is hard for you to feel what it is like to be under a missile attack, to go downstairs several times a day and stay in a bunker for several hours, what it is like not to have access to water or medicines. We faced it during these eight years when the Russian war was contained in the eastern part of the country. The rest of us had a chance to live our normal lives. And I can understand why the rest of the world, including some Western European countries, does not feel this threat so close to them. However, this is also an ethical question. We understand that the heating season is coming and that discussions in Germany, for example, may change critically in favour of ‘talks’ between Ukraine and Russia. This is one of the Russian narratives, and it is working. The European countries need to understand what they are willing to pay for their peace. In our view, this discussion looks like thousands of Ukrainian lives are cheaper than a gas bill. Are those the European values that millions of people were fighting for for centuries? As you pointed out, it is not just a Ukrainian war, it is a war for European values.
David Patrikarakos: You are talking about the gas. Europe is going through an energy crisis because it gets its energy from a rogue state. We understood with China, COVID, and supply change, you cannot rely on a rogue state. It is in Europe’s interests, apart from an environmental aspect, to get themselves off Russian gas and oil. Millions of people beyond Ukraine are going to be suffering this winter, and it is because of Russian aggression.
Angelina Kariakina: And I think it is also a question of political responsibility. Ukraine should not become the one to blame. With the approaching energy crisis, there might be pressure on Ukraine to sit down and negotiate with Russia, which, at this very specific moment, does not seem like a solution because there is nothing to negotiate, apart from the fact that we need to exchange our people. Any other general negotiations do not seem possible, because, as I said before, this war is against Ukraine merely being a state. You cannot negotiate your existence.
David Patrikarakos: It is a very interesting lesson in power politics, and a sad one too: people love a winner. The West has been so great in supporting Ukraine because it became clear that Ukrainians started to win and beat the Russians back. For me, it is all coming back to what I saw. I went to all three fronts, and you have seen them all as well. It is clear that at least in the first stage, the military battle was lost by Russia. But now the game has shifted. The Russians know that media cycles are fickle things. They are banking on the fact that attention is going to drop, news cycles are going to move on, and people are going to start to forget. That, to me, is a really big challenge right now. We need to keep this in the public consciousness.
Angelina Kariakina: One of my friends and colleagues recently made a really good point. We are not here to entertain. We are not here to keep your attention on what is happening in Ukraine. I know it sounds cynical but this is how this business works.
It is really important to understand what country you are covering. Unfortunately, for many global media, Ukraine for decades has been the region covered from head offices in Moscow. The global media have not been present in our country for a long time.
Ukraine is not only about war. Ukraine is a very interesting democracy, and with many countries facing crises of democracy and trust in institutions, Ukraine is like an experimental hub for many practices that could be a breath of fresh air for many societies.
Covering Ukraine and the war is not only a story of total suffering and victimisation. It is a very interesting mix of civil society, volunteering, working with local and central authorities, and interactions between different religious and national communities. I think lots of stories are missing from this war coverage. Despite this brutal war, Ukraine is still operating as a state, and this is an interesting aspect to highlight.
David Patrikarakos: As we are getting to the end of our discussion, let's strip away political analysis and journalism. As a Ukrainian, how do you feel? I feel pride and I am not even Ukrainian.
Angelina Kariakina: Being exhausted is just a physical part. This is what comes with sleepless nights and the need to keep in touch with so many people in so many dangerous places. Apart from the fact that I am Ukrainian and the fact that this makes me immensely proud, I find journalism hugely empowering. It gives sense to what we are doing. You see around yourself so many senseless and tragic deaths, but you know that you still have to cover them, talk about them, and explain the implications to the world. That’s me translating the feeling of pride.
However, seeing how many people from my generation, in their 30s, 40s, and 20s, are getting killed… Those doing their best during Maidan, fought corruption and criminal circles. They were brave enough not to stay home or to leave the country or to stay away from all that is happening. And they are getting killed in the first place. Each week someone whom I know, respect, or love is getting injured or killed. And I understand that, with the war still in progress, there would be more.
I do not want to finish on a note like that. But the world needs to understand that each day of this war is killing someone who brought so many positive changes to this country. It is killing a universe that will never come back, and this is a huge tragedy for us. We are mobilised, we are doing what we have to do, but there is also so much anger in Ukrainians for Russians killing the best of us.
Edited by Cammie McAtee
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