In an interview with New Eastern Europe, the leading expert of the National Interests Advocacy Network «ANTS», Maksym Kiyak shared his own memories of the beginning of the full-scale russian invasion into Ukraine, explained why the Ukrainian victory is important for the whole world and what the Ukrainian Armed Forces need to defeat the aggressor on the battlefield.
MACIEJ MAKULSKI: Do you remember where you were on February 24, 2022, when you got to know that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had started?
MAKSYM KYIAK: Yes, I can remember it. I also recall the evening of February 23 when I was attending a military course. We were supposed to have an exam in shooting two days later, but of course nothing like this happened and we finally had this exam six months later. But I remember when I was going home, I received a message from a fellow in the army who said there is a high risk of a Russian full-scale invasion and rocket attacks. I decided to listen to this information carefully and stay outside Kyiv. I tried to sleep that night, but I could not.
I also remember I was monitoring pro-Russia Telegram channels, which I tried to do regularly to know what the ongoing narratives about the events are.
What did you notice there?
I noticed that pro-Russian trolls were very active on a large scale. A few hours later I was woken up by my friend who told me, “Maksym, it has started”. I heard explosions and the sound of rockets.
What was your first reaction?
I had to go to my hometown, Chernivtsi, where my mom was. I was trying to help my mother to move to an EU country. But she refused! The most problematic thing was that it took me two days to get there, while usually it takes no more than ten hours. There was already a huge traffic jam and many stops on my way there.
It was all terrible for me and every Ukrainian. Since that day I have had problems with falling asleep and waking up. It is because you don’t know what will happen the next morning. And a part of my work was also to read all the information about the killings of civilians, shelling, and rocket attacks. I think this fear will stay in me and other Ukrainians, who have suffered a lot due to the war, forever. But this fear also made me angrier and more resilient.
The whole of Ukrainian society has shown this incredible resilience.
This resilience means that Russia will fail. Russia has already lost in a strategic and moral sense. Even If Russians conquer our territories, they will not conquer our minds.
Russia has arguably lost any potential to appeal to Ukrainians by any soft means.
Yes, and I have just read the conclusions of the survey which was done in November 2022 among Ukrainians who were asked according to what rules they would prefer to live by. Respondents could choose among such options as European, American, Russian, or other developing countries.
I bet Russia didn’t score high in the survey.
Russia scored zero. Absolute zero. The majority, about 62 per cent, said they would like to follow European rules, about 20 percent American and about 8-10 per cent chose other developing countries.
We hold this conversation on the day when President Joe Biden paid a surprise visit to Kyiv which is a very symbolic and strong message that arguably will only increase the resilience of the Ukrainian army and society. But we are also on the verge of an expected renewed, large-scale Russian offensive. Would you say that the morale of the society is still as high as at the beginning of the invasion?
I would say even higher. Russia does not have the advantage of surprise now. Now, Ukrainian society is more or less prepared. Of course, we do have shortages of electricity and water, but the most important thing is that no Russians are here – so the morale is quite high.
Personally, I am very happy about the visit of the US president. I am sure that other people feel the same, although there are traffic jams in Kyiv because the streets in the city centre are closed. In the morning, when I was participating in shooting training, I shared the news about the visit with my colleagues and everybody was happy. It gave me an extra boost in training, I hit all the targets! [laughs]
We feel we are not alone in this war. We have friends. The United States is one example but there is also Poland, the Baltic States, the United Kingdom, the EU, Australia, and others. We are very thankful for the support of these countries.
By the way, today we also celebrate the ninth anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity. I still remember when I was building a barricade on Maidan when I was asked by an old lady why I am doing so. I replied I am tired of being scared. It is this emotion; Ukrainians are tired of being scared of Russia.
Do Ukrainians try to think about the long-term, about peace, and how Ukraine will be rebuilt? Or does the focus on daily needs, the here and now, prevail?
The problem is that winning a war is not enough for Ukraine. A modest victory means that Russia will try to conquer Ukraine in the future again. This is why some people may think peace is important, but a peace agreement for Russia means nothing.
For sure people think about their future, for instance, what they are going to do this summer. But the most important thing is victory. Not on Russia’s terms but our own. And Russia has to pay for what has been done to Ukraine.
So, the first thing to do is to win. Then we can think about the long-term future. Because if we fail, the next ones might be Moldova or the Baltic countries. And Russia will not stop. If Russia wins it would mean that any other aggressor or terrorist state can do the same. That is why supporting Ukraine is important. By helping us you are helping yourselves.
Symbolic support is important but what kind of arm deliveries from the West are crucial now for Ukraine?
Usually, you need everything during a war. I think the supply we need now are fighter aircrafts, because we need to secure our sky. But we also need artillery because Russia outnumbers us with regards to the number of military personnel. Drones are also in need. But no matter what we put on the top of the list of priorities here, the most important is timing. You could hear the assurances that recently came from different countries stating that Ukraine will be supported as long as needed. It is good but we need it as soon as possible since Russia has more resources, and later could be too late.
Let’s come back to your mom ending our conversation. Has she stayed in Chernivtsi this whole time?
No, she is abroad now. But she wants to come back home soon, and I am trying to convince her to stay where she is now! She lost her children, but she is a Ukrainian patriot and probably that is why I am too.
Maksym Kyiak is the chief expert of the ANTS NGO and senior researcher of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine’s Kuras Institute of political and ethnic studies. He is also a territorial defense volunteer.
Maciej Makulski is a contributing editor with the New Eastern Europe.