Olga Rudenko

The Kyiv Independent


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Dear journalists, editors, and guests of the conference,

It’s an honor to be able to address you.

I’m here as a journalist, as an editor of an independent news site, the Kyiv Independent, and as a Ukrainian.

If this event had taken place seven months ago, the trip here would have been an easy and pleasant one. I would have come to the airport in Kyiv, checked in, had a cup of overpriced coffee, and boarded my flight to Berlin. Two hours later, I’d arrive. It would be normal and safe. Now, to come here, I have to spend nearly 20 hours on trains, and then take a flight from another country. The trip takes at least one whole day. I don’t feel safe for most of it because Russia has attacked trains in the past. There are no more flights from Ukraine. We don’t know if any of our airports have survived, as Russia targeted them with missiles in the first days of the invasion.

Seven months ago, my life changed forever.

I remember the morning that changed it almost minute by minute. It was the early hours of February 24, and I left the office at 3 a.m. In my taxi home, I read Western intelligence reports that the invasion of Ukraine would begin before dawn. There was a sinister sense of inevitability. Shortly after, Russian media started broadcasting Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s new address. While listening to it, I typed up a news item of just several sentences long. It said that Putin was declaring war against Ukraine. I prayed that I was wrong, that I was misunderstanding something, and that I wouldn’t have to publish it.

But when the dictator ended the address, it was clear that there was no misunderstanding. I pressed “Publish” and on top of the Kyiv Independent’s website, the big red letters showed up: “Putin Declares War Against Ukraine.”

I felt sick, and I sank to the floor. And that’s when I heard it: Something was exploding in the sky above my city. Russia was hitting Kyiv with missiles.

We all grow up reading stories about the wars of the distant past. When I was little, my grandmother told me stories about German soldiers that occupied my hometown. She told me how she labored to rebuild the city after the war, helping repair the bridges that were bombed. Every year in May, my school had events dedicated to World War II, honoring the fallen. I’ve read about the atrocities of the Holocaust and the atrocities of Soviet soldiers in Germany. In Kyiv, my home is next to Babyn Yar, the place of the largest single massacre of the Holocaust, where more than 33,000 Jews were killed in just three days in September 1941.

We grow up surrounded by stories of wars and tragedies of our past, and they always seem so distant. Growing up, if I was confident about one thing, it was that I would never have to live through an actual war. Many things could go wrong in my life — but surely, surely I would never hear missiles pouring down on my city. That’s what I thought.

The stories of wars of our past seem more than distant — they seem insane. They always seem like a result of fatal mistakes, rare and unlikely coincidences. Surely, that can’t happen again, we all think. It’s insane to think that it’s possible — planes bombing schools and hospitals, armies invading another country’s land, soldiers committing genocide — in the middle of Europe, in 2022? Surely, all of that belongs in history books.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the war came closer to me. But I told myself I’m safe in Kyiv, in my big, safe, normal European capital. The war is only in the east, and I’m so far west from it. Does that sound familiar? The war is not going to come to me, because that would be insane, I thought.

And yet there I was. Standing in the middle of my small apartment at 4 a.m., hearing loud explosions in the sky. I read about the bombings of London and Dresden, but I’ve never thought much about what the people in these cities were feeling when bombs were falling on them. It turns out that an air attack brings a sense of utmost vulnerability. Knowing that there might be a missile on its way will kill you, and you’re powerless against it.

On that morning of February 24, I felt powerless and thought my life would end then and there.

It is only because of the astonishing bravery, skillfulness and sacrifices of Ukraine’s military that seven months later, I can stand here, on the stage in Potsdam, and address you.

But back in late February, Western news channels didn’t speak of whether Ukraine will fall — they spoke of when Ukraine would fall. Nobody believed that Ukraine could resist Russia, the second military in the world. Seven months later, Ukraine has not only not fallen. We are actually pushing Russia back, and liberating our cities in the east.

The price we are paying is unimaginable. Many thousands of Ukrainians, both military and civilians, were killed. In the city of Mariupol alone, an estimated 20,000 people were likely killed during the merciless, murderous siege of the city by Russians. You all know of Bucha, where Russian soldiers were shooting civilians for fun during the one-month-long occupation.

There has never been a more black-and-white war in recent history. I keep hearing these words, and I fully agree.

And yet, there is so much disinformation surrounding it.

You will hear that reports of Russian atrocities are fake. That those massacres were staged. I wish! My journalists went on the ground and talked to witnesses, and I can tell you they are real.

You will hear that Ukraine provoked Russia. That’s also a lie. We want nothing from Russia, except for it to leave us alone. We don’t want their lands — they want ours. We don’t want to make them speak our language — they want to make us speak theirs. We don’t want to influence what alliances they make — they want to dictate to us what alliances we can make. We don’t want to decide their future — but they want to decide ours.

You will also hear that Ukrainians are nationalists. Why is it that when Americans love their country, it is called patriotism, but Ukrainians loving their country equals nationalism?

You will hear that many Ukrainians are far-right. You should know that those far-right exist in Russian propaganda and in the imagination of a handful of Western commentators. Not a single time has a far-right political force been able to get representation in the Ukrainian parliament — unlike in many European countries. Our president is Jewish and he was elected by over 70% of the vote. Russia calls him a Nazi. If you think that it’s insane, it’s because it is.

Another lie you will hear is that Russia doesn’t suffer from the sanctions. In fact, you will hear that sanctions are harming Europe more than they harm Russia. That’s also not accurate. Yes, the Russian economy is still working, partly due to draconian currency controls, but economists say it is significantly weakened and may even be collapsing.

Another popular narrative is that the war in Ukraine is stealing the spotlight from other countries in crisis. Every crisis deserves attention, and I’m sure the world is big enough to pay attention to more than one at the same time.

So what’s the purpose of spreading these false narratives? There is just one goal: To weaken the West’s support for Ukraine.

Russia spreads false narratives vigorously because it knows that there is only one way that it can win this war: If the West’s unity and support for Ukraine crumble. If Europe and U.S. continue to stand behind Ukraine, and grow their aid, Russia has no chance against this alliance.

And we’ve seen it last week, when Ukrainian forces suddenly pushed Russia out of one of its eastern regions, Kharkiv Oblast. I’m no military analyst but some have called it the most successful counteroffensive since World War II.

I can’t put in words what it meant for us, Ukrainians. In my thoughts, I’m going back to that morning in February when I thought I would die under missiles, and the world thought that Ukraine was about done. How wrong was everyone to underestimate Ukraine.

Seven months ago, Ukraine is standing strong. Two things account for it. First, the incredible resilience of the Ukrainian people, both military and civilians. Second, the help of our allies.

But what’s next? President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week: “The next 90 days will decide more than the previous 30 years.” He didn’t mean that just for Ukraine.

This winter, Russia will try to break the unity of the West. It will use all kinds of blackmail and disinformation techniques to make the world believe that it’s easier to give up Ukraine — to sacrifice this one foreign country and tame the beast.

But the beast of Russian imperialism can’t be tamed — only defeated. If the West sacrifices Ukraine today, Russia will come for more tomorrow. Next, it will be Georgia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, and more.

Don’t forget — this isn’t a war between Russia and Ukraine. It’s the war between two polar sets of values. Authoritarian regime against a democracy. Dictatorship against freedom. The winner of the war will determine the future of the world — of your world.

Make no mistake — there is no place to hide from this threat. There is a very thin layer of normalcy that protects your everyday life in Berlin or Brussels from the kind of reality that Ukraine is living in. None of you are untouchable for Russia. Missiles don’t need visas.

I never thought I would have to live through a war. Neither do you, for now. But remember that the peace you have is fragile. Taking it for granted is the surest way to lose it.

So what can we all do? This winter, we all will be paying the price for peace. You will pay the price to preserve peace. We, Ukrainians, will pay the price to achieve it.

The price we pay will be smaller if we stand together. Ukrainians have shown that with Western aid and weapons, they can stop Russia. If Ukraine gets more aid, it can end the war.

It is simple: The allies must give Ukraine whatever weapons it asks for. Ukrainians are already making the utmost sacrifice, and paying the highest price. They fight for you, the people of free Europe. They fight for yours and our freedom. They shouldn’t beg the world for help.

I don’t make forecasts about the war, except for one: Ukraine will win. It’s a matter of time and price. And that will be decided by Ukraine’s partners. If Russia breaks the West with its false narratives and disinformation campaigns, the price of victory will be unspeakably high. But if the West stands firmly behind Ukraine, the victory will come sooner and many lives will be spared.

So which one will it be?

Will Europe prove Vladimir Putin right and quietly walk out, hoping that something will spare it and the dictator will stop at one invasion, even though dictators never do? Or will Europe prove itself worthy of its values, grit its teeth and stand up to fight — not for Ukraine, but for its own future?

In this war, Ukraine has shown an example of remarkable resilience. I believe that the rest of Europe will find the strength to follow it.