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Russian War Crimes Have Hardened Ukrainians Against Peace Talks, Activist Says

A Kyiv-based activist says Russia’s mass attacks on civilians have bolstered many Ukrainians’ resolve to keep fighting.

People walk in front of buildings damaged by Russian attacks in Dnipro, Ukraine, on February 27, 2023.

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The world held its breath when Russia invaded Ukraine one year ago. Would Kyiv fall to Russian forces, as President Vladimir Putin and a small inner circle had planned? Would the Kremlin install a puppet dictatorship and brutally crush dissent, just as Putin does at home?

We soon learned Putin seriously underestimated his neighbor and its allies to the West, but today there is no end to the war in sight despite growing global awareness that the current stalemate is untenable. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday that the Russian invasion “triggered the most massive violations of human rights we are living today,” with attacks on civilians and infrastructure unleashing “widespread death, destruction and displacement.”

Heroic Ukrainian resistance forced Russia into an embarrassing retreat last year, but experts say the outcome of the war remains in doubt. Time does not appear to be on Ukraine’s side as attacks on critical infrastructure continue. Ukrainian officials said Monday that Russia launched yet another wave of overnight drone attacks, killing two rescue workers and injuring others far beyond the front lines. Russian forces continue an offensive on the eastern battlefront, where casualties remain high on both sides, and the Ukrainian military claimed Russian shelling killed civilians on Sunday as Ukrainian forces rebuffed dozens of attacks.

Despite the war’s global humanitarian, economic and environmental consequences, prospects for peace negotiations remain distant. Antiwar activists across the U.S. and Europe remain deeply divided over the role of the U.S. and NATO allies in the war, as well as the escalating effect that U.S.-led weapons shipments to the Ukrainian side may have on the conflict.

Vladyslav Starodubtsev, a historian in Kyiv and member of the Ukrainian democratic socialist organization Sotsialnyi Rukh, argues that Ukrainians need international solidarity more than ever, as well as more weapons from the U.S. and European allies to drive out Russia. If Russia is allowed to keep punishing Ukrainian towns and cities with drone attacks and rocket strikes, there may not be much of Ukraine left to salvage when a settlement is eventually reached.

“We cannot fight Russian imperials with sticks or stones. Okay, we can, but it wouldn’t be very effective,” Starodubtsev told Truthout. “So, our goal now is to strengthen our anti-imperialist position, strengthen our resistance so we could drive out the occupying forces that continue destroying our land and killing our people.”

After a year piled with abundant evidence of war crimes committed by Russia against Ukrainian civilians, Ukrainian resolve to push Russia out of eastern Ukraine, if not the annexed territory of Crimea, has hardened. Starodubtsev said working-class Ukrainians are absolutely exhausted by a war they never wanted to fight, but they see no sustainable end to a conflict dating back to 2014 until Russia is pushed back across its internationally recognized borders.

“They saw rapes, they saw mass executions, and the jailing of political activists, journalists, trade unionists and just ordinary people; they saw mass strikes on civilian infrastructure, they saw blackouts and a lot of other horrible crimes,” Starodubtsev said. “And so, after this, we can actually see in polls that more Ukrainians now are against unjust peace negotiations than in any time of this war… they feel like there is no space for selling their own people to Russia.”

Indeed, cities and towns lie destroyed across eastern Ukraine, where both sides are dug into a bloody battlefront bisecting the contested Donbas region. The total number of deaths among soldiers and civilians is likely reaching into the hundreds of thousands. Millions more are displaced, both by fighting in Ukraine and political repression in Russia. The war has devastated Ukraine’s economy, pushing the poverty rate as high as 60 percent according to some estimates, and leaving behind an estimated $138 billion in infrastructure damage.

If the war drags on for years on end, there may not be much left of Ukraine to save. Putin knows this. The Russian president, who has shocked the world with talk of nuclear weapons, seems to be betting that his country can survive sanctions and sustain a war of attrition to wear down Ukraine and its allies over the long haul. Putin once again described his aims in apocalyptic terms on Sunday, framing the battle over mineral-rich areas of Ukraine that Putin wrongly claims belong to Russia as an existential battle with the U.S. and Western nations whose main goal is a “strategic defeat” of Russia.

Meanwhile, comments from President Joe Biden and others in his administration have fueled this narrative by hinting at a desire for regime change in Moscow, even if that is not the official U.S. policy. Critics of the U.S. government have argued that the U.S. and NATO could have done much more to prevent the war through diplomacy with Russia but pursued their own geopolitical interests instead.

Under international law, Ukrainians have the right to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. The left in the U.S. is split, however, over whether to advocate for international military support for Ukraine, given the attack that Ukrainians face from Russia, which has shown little regard for human life and international law.

A left-right coalition in the U.S. now argues the top priority should be bringing both sides to the negotiating table, either by halting weapons shipments to Ukraine or leveraging them to influence the Ukrainian government. Another U.S. anti-imperialist camp is coalescing under groups such as the Ukraine Solidarity Network and the slogan “Russia Out,” which urges activists to listen to what Ukrainians say they need and support a victory over Russia’s invasion, along with war reparations, reconstruction funding, and labor rights for Ukrainian workers in the long term.

Starodubtsev, who is appealing for solidarity from left social movements in the U.S., said halting weapons to Ukraine would be a mistake. Ukrainians were left with two bad options after the invasion: either defend themselves with weapons, or be attacked by murderous Russian soldiers, potentially imprisoned, and forced to live under an imperial authoritarian regime. To break the stalemate in Ukraine without rewarding Putin for his brutality, Ukraine must be supported militarily in pushing Russian occupiers out of the country, Starodubtsev asserts.

Of course, forcing Russia out of more territory would also strengthen Ukraine’s position at the negotiating table. As Truthout has reported, isolated pacificists in Ukraine are working internationally to demand an immediate ceasefire and challenge coercive military conscription policies, but Starodubtsev said most Ukrainians do not see nonviolence as a viable option.

“More than 80 percent of everyone in Ukraine [has] a unity position on this — like, we are for delivery of the weapons because we need something to fight against Russian imperialists,” Starodubtsev said. “It’s just the position that everyone has because everyone now lives under rocket strikes, and whether they live in unoccupied territories or near front lines, they understand Russia needs to be pushed out.”

British, French and German officials are reportedly preparing a pact that would provide arms and advanced military equipment to Ukraine while withholding NATO membership and protections. Concerned about the West’s ability to support a prolonged war effort, diplomats said the pact aims to support Ukraine in a counteroffensive that brings Russia to the negotiating table while signaling to Ukraine’s government that it must also make concessions. That could include dropping aspirations for NATO membership, which Russia views as an implicit military threat just over the border.

Starodubtsev warned that conflict would continue in the Donbas region until Russia is defeated and pushed out of all Ukrainian lands. Russia has supported separatists in the region since 2014, when Russian troops first invaded eastern Ukraine and Crimea. A civil war simmered in the Donbas for years, culminating in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine one year ago.

“After all of this experience of the war, people … don’t want to surrender, they don’t want to return to the [same] situations as eight years before the full-scale invasion, of this occupied, very authoritarian land that was isolated and the people are repressed,” Starodubtsev said.

While much of the international community supports a ceasefire conditioned on Russia’s immediate withdrawal, Putin appears determined to salvage some kind of victory and take more territory, if not topple Kyiv given the chance. Starodubtsev said this leaves Ukrainians with no choice but to continue civilian and military resistance while seeking international solidarity and military support. He suggested that U.S. antiwar activists and trade unionists organize with Ukrainians both at home and abroad to build lasting solidarity networks.

“Listen to Ukrainians, try to look through propaganda and investigate what’s right and what’s wrong, and continue to promote cooperation with the diaspora communities in America, because it’s those people who know about Ukraine more than anyone else in America,” Starodubtsev said.

Note: Substantial edits and additions were made to this story post-publication to clarify the wording and prevent misinterpretation. Additional quotes have also been added.

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