Source: UnHerd/Youtube

June 1, 2023   15 mins

Inna Sovsun is a Ukrainian MP, deputy leader of the pro-European Golos party, and one of the most eloquent spokespeople for the Ukrainian perspective. She spoke to me from Kyiv about attacks inside Russian territory, the future of Crimea and political tensions inside Ukraine.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

There have been reports of explosions and attacks within Kyiv in recent weeks. What is day-to-day life like now in the capital?

Since May 1st, there have been seventeen or eighteen nights when explosions were heard here in Kyiv. That is extremely disturbing. You wake up in the middle of the night because of the very loud explosions. And your heart starts pumping and your hands are trembling, and then they go numb. At least that’s my physical reaction. It’s very, very scary. That’s something that nobody wants to wake up to. And this has been happening almost every other night. You go to bed and you don’t know when the explosions are going to happen.


Are people using the subway as a shelter?

Yes, the subway station will often be the closest bomb shelter to you but the basic rule that everybody is following is to be in a room that doesn’t have any windows. That is the minimum requirement. And I think you understand if it happens every other night, you simply cannot be spending every other night in a metro station. So I just tried to hide my son and myself in the wardrobe.

And yet normal life seems to be going on to some degree. Restaurants and nightclubs open. Is that right? 

Well, life goes on. To begin with, before the big war started, I would watch movies about war and think how strangely people behaved, going to restaurants and so on. And then you live through this and you realise that your life goes on. You still do lots of stuff for the war. My partner is with the army. My son goes to the bomb shelter at school when there is an air raid. But you still need to buy food, you still need to have coffee to wake up in the morning. So yeah, it can seem like from the outside, if you just take a snapshot, that it’s alright. But then you see signs of abnormality. One of them being that there is an enormous number of people in military uniform on the streets. You go to your social media, and you read yet another post about a friend of a friend who’s been wounded or killed in action. So it might look more or less normal because people have to live. My son will not have another childhood. So I take him to McDonald’s sometimes or we’ll get pizza. I have to take care of that but I think that you have to understand that though there are signs of normality, life is not really normal.

What about politics? Is that continuing to some degree? You are an opposition MP, but is there this sense that during wartime criticism of President Zelenskyy is not appropriate?

There are several issues where indeed politics is limited. One is any communication on issues of defence, and the army, and on international cooperation. When we go in different delegations on trips abroad, we always speak with one voice. And it’s not because we’ve been censored or forced to do so, but because the situation for us as a country is so black and white. We need more weapons to survive, and we need our partners to continue supporting us, regardless of which party you belong to. This is basically true for the survival of us as politicians in the country, because that is dependent upon the country’s survival. Then there is one matter where there is, I wouldn’t call it censorship, though actually technically it’s censorship. You’re not allowed to publish or to speak about information about where weapons are located and the like.

So, issues of security?

Yes. But other than that, life goes on and politics goes on. There are issues that we disagree on, but internal politics itself just takes up much less time right now. We are all focused on helping the army and making sure that we survive as a nation. I’ll give you one example: an issue I’m working on closely is LGBT rights, and the introduction of same-sex partnerships in Ukraine. I’m the main initiator of the bill, the main author of the bill. And yes, there is politics involved around that issue. It has raised quite a lot of debates. So that is one example where politics is still there.

When Zelenskyy was elected he was considered more accommodating, more conciliatory with Russian voices, and your party was among those that was a more strongly pro-European. Is any of that tension still there?

I think the situation has changed. Now the level of support for us becoming an EU member is 90%. For us becoming NATO members it’s more than 80%. It was different two years ago. And I think the President was trying to balance between different positions. We were more straightforward, like, “we need to go to the EU, we need to become NATO members, we need to fight corruption.” They were more — I would definitely not say they were pro-Russian, but they were more vague. They were trying to balance different positions in society. We were very straightforward. But waking up to explosions in your city kind of changes your perspective.

The media atmosphere elsewhere in Europe is tense on this issue. There are red lines around what can and can’t be said publicly about the war. Are there any voices inside Ukrainian media that are talking about negotiations rather than all-out victory? 

No. There have been several media bloggers that have been very active in promoting pro Russian ideas: “let’s accommodate, let’s have a deal, let’s make peace.” They’re still present. But they have many fewer followers now. And even they have changed their rhetoric. There is one blog that is in my mind. He definitely changed his position right now. So he still has his followers but his position is now the opposite. I mean, he still needs to be punished for what he did before and it was clear that he was being paid off by Russians. There is no doubt about that. He has not been censored by the government, but I think the people’s position has just changed so dramatically.

What’s your understanding of recent reports of anti-Putin Russian soldiers making independent raids into Russian territory? Are they acting with the endorsement of the Ukrainian government?

Let’s be realistic, can we say that we like what they’re doing? Yes, of course, because the inroads into Belgorod region is something that truly helps Ukraine. I’m originally from Kharkiv. Kharkiv is the second biggest city in Ukraine, or at least it used to be. It’s literally 40 kilometres away from the Russian border, and it has a border in Belgorod region from the Russian side. And Kharkiv has been shelled from Belgorod for 15 months now almost every day. Even if this war ends tomorrow, and Russian troops withdraw completely into Russian territory, Kharkiv will always be within reach of the Russian artillery. They don’t even need missiles to hit Kharkiv. So the idea that this Free Russia Legion have been promoting, that we want to make a demilitarised territory in Belgorod, is very close to my heart as a person born and raised in Kharkiv. I am not privy but I would guess that yes, there is some sort of coordination with Ukrainian military and intelligence.

It looks like they were using Humvees and American hardware, which is where it gets controversial, because, obviously, the West has been providing this equipment on the idea that they wouldn’t be used beyond the Russian border. And now it looks like they are, what should people in the West make of that? 

I was following very closely whether there will be any negative reaction on that from the American side. And it seems like they keep on saying “we’re investigating.” So that is as much reaction as we got from the American authorities, at least from the American administration. People need to understand that, even if this is happening, we are within our right to protect ourselves. We never wanted to be anywhere apart from Ukraine, we never wanted to invade Russia, we never have been a threat to Russia. But now our whole livelihoods have been destroyed, our lives have been destroyed. And we need to do everything possible for us to survive. There is no way that we want anyone to go through what we are going through. I know there are opposition voices in some countries, even pro-Russian groups claiming Ukraine wants to drag other countries into this conflict. No, we don’t even want to be in this conflict. We don’t want this war for ourselves. We definitely don’t want other countries to experience what we are experiencing. And what we have to do is to stop this war and the only way to stop is to win militarily. And if there are any actions that have forced Russians to relocate their forces, let’s say in Belgorod from Ukrainian territory, then it’s good for us because then they relocate within their territory, but then we can liberate our territory somewhere else.

So are incursions into Russian territory an inevitable part of any Ukrainian victory plan? 

I don’t know the whole plan. What I am sure of is that we’re not planning to take over any Russian territory, that’s for sure. We don’t want that. We don’t need that. We don’t want the people living in those territories to be part of our country. Trust me, we don’t want that. All we want is to liberate the territory that is ours within internationally recognised borders. So no, we’re definitely not planning a raid towards Moscow. That I’m absolutely sure of, but can there be some tactical moves to force Russians to relocate their forces and thus help us liberate our territories? Yes, that is within the realm of possible.

You recently Tweeted about the drone attack that happened on the Kremlin, saying “Ukrainians have two big dreams. One: to win the war Two: to see how the Kremlin burns. The second dream almost came true last night, Russian media report that Kremlin caught fire. Nice. To be continued?” Will you expand on that? 

I mean, there are multiple memes and multiple pictures you will see of the Kremlin burning. Do we imagine that? Yes, trust me, they have taken so much away from us, so destroying this centre of evil is something that we would like to happen, but it doesn’t mean that we want to do it ourselves. A pro-Russian group that wants to change the regime in Russia, they should be doing that. All we want is to make sure that they leave us alone. That is as far as we can dream of. So yeah, to be continued? Yes, I believe that there will be some action happening in Russia. And it needs to happen for the Russian regime to change, it needs to happen. But trust me, we don’t want to be doing this ourselves. It’s too costly. My partner is with the army. I don’t want him to liberate Moscow, I don’t want him to go anywhere beyond the Ukrainian border. That’s as much as we all want to happen. So I think anything apart from that is just tactical moves that aim at the single goal, which is liberating our territory.

Here’s where it gets difficult and sensitive, because if the goal is to get Western support to continue and weapons to carry on flooding in, it’s important that you also don’t spook your Western supporters. Do you think there’s a danger there, with actions such as this?

I understand the question, I understand where the concern can come from. Yet again, everybody in the West needs to understand that we are not moving outside of our territory into the East, that’s 100% sure. Everything else is tactical moves that help us liberate our territory. That is the only thing that we all want. I don’t want my partner to be within Russian borders. I don’t want that. I don’t want anyone else with a Ukrainian passport to be on the Russian side of the border. They have to deal with their regime by themselves. We don’t want to deal with that. And I believe that as long as this is the only goal that we are pursuing, which is to liberate Ukrainian territories, I understand there is lots of very intense communication between the military commands in Ukraine and in the US and the UK and the EU. And I believe that our military command explains that certain details of the plan of how we are going to liberate our territory. And I believe that as long as as Western military commands understand that this is our military plan, and that we are not going anywhere beyond our own border, then they are fine with that and we are not going anywhere beyond — we are not liberating Russia, trust me.

So you think the West will have a tolerance for what are considered tactical moves inside Russian territory as long as it doesn’t look like an actual attempt to seize territory?

There have not been any major backlashes from the Western side about that. I’m a member of the opposition party in parliament. I’m not making military decisions, and I’m not privy to all those communications. But I believe that for the West, it’s important to see that the only thing we’re doing is in line with this big goal, which is basically helping us win the war and liberating our own territory. And so it seems to me that they see that this is what is happening right now, that we’re not doing anything more than that.

Presumably, by ‘our own territory’, you mean the full, internationally recognised, pre-2014 Ukrainian borders? That includes Crimea. Is that a universal opinion in the Ukrainian elite — that recapturing Crimea is an integral part of what you would consider an acceptable outcome?

Yes, there is no debate about that. Crimea is part of the Ukrainian territory. It was annexed illegally with the whole world ignoring this, unfortunately. And we need to get Crimea back for multiple reasons. Reason number one, which is probably most important, is, strategically, if Russians continue to control Crimea, they will always use it as their military base from which they can launch yet another attack in five years. So if we stop there, and Russians just keep Crimea, they will continue militarising it. And then we will always, always be living under this threat that this can happen again. And I don’t want this to happen in the lifetime of my son. He’s going to be 18 in eight years. So I don’t want him to fight this war again. We want to be done with this. So strategically, from the military strategic standpoint, we need to control this territory. Secondly, of course, it’s international law. We cannot just allow another country to redraw borders. Not just for us, but also for the whole world order. And thirdly, which is no less important, Crimea is the native land of Crimean Tatars. It’s an ethnic minority within Ukraine. Crimean Tatars are literally called ‘Crimean Tatars’. That is the only territory which is their homeland. Russians deported them in 1946 and they continue to do this right now. There are thousands of Crimean Tatars in prison now, just because they’re Tatars. So we have to bring some justice to these people as well.

Still, there are sensible, senior people within Western governments, by no means Russian apologists, in the British administration, French and I believe American as well, who take a slightly different view. They think that full recapturing of Crimea is not realistic or likely as an outcome in this conflict. And that, actually, the escalation risk of trying to make that happen is not worth it, given that it’s such a vast Russian military base and is considered now such an integral part of their worldview. What do you say to those people?

We are not suicidal. My son lives here in Ukraine. I never moved him out of the country. He has been here since day one of the big war, he has been out of the country for five days, all the rest of the time he is here. So trust me: if I were to see that there is some escalation, a nuclear threat potential, the first thing I would do is take my son away. And I think that everybody watching this will understand the feeling. And of course, I don’t want to lead to the situation where this threat can actually be realistic. Chernobyl is literally two hours drive from here. We are the only country in the world that understands very clearly what a nuclear threat is. We don’t want that to happen again. And here, I get back to your initial question, is there a debate inside the Ukrainian political field about Crimea? There is no debate that we need to get Crimea back but there is a debate about how we do this. Do we wait till Putin dies? And then we do this: this is one scenario. And this is realistic, and that can be an acceptable scenario under some circumstances, right? If there is a chance that we take it back militarily, ensuring that there is no nuclear escalation? Yeah, we can go down this path. So there are debates about how exactly we can do this. And I think that is correct; again, none of us is suicidal, none of us wants to be living through this. So I think the right debate about how to achieve this goal is just that we don’t debate the goal itself. And that is the message that I would like to convey to the West.

So, would you be worried, then, if there was a straightforward military incursion into Crimea, about the risk of nuclear escalation? Do you think that is a legitimate fear?

It is a legitimate fear, I have the tablets that you need to take in case of a nuclear event, not something I wanted to have in my home. That’s very scary, but so far our military command and our intelligence have been pretty smart. And I continue to trust that our military and intelligence will make sure that if they make the decision to go into Crimea, it will be based on understanding that it will not lead to nuclear escalation. That is something that none of us wants here, none of us. And neither do the military command.

One scenario which you almost hinted at there is that the conflict might freeze in some state where the long term objectives (like retaking Crimea) remain in place but the fighting stops? Do you think that is plausible?

It is plausible. However, it’s not the best outcome. Why? Because we have to remember that, for us, we are leaving in the ninth year of war. For us the war started in 2014. So for us, this has already been a frozen conflict. And living in a country which is in a frozen conflict is very unpleasant. It’s an impediment to economic development: you always have to find different solutions. I’ll give you a very simple example of the way it stalls all the other things that need to be happening in Ukrainian society. I served as First Deputy Minister of Education and Science in 2014-2016. Half of my work was literally making up rules and procedures for kids from occupied territory in Crimea and from occupied territories in Donbas, to make sure that they can get into Ukrainian universities. It’s like 10% of the kids, but it takes up 50-60% of the workings of the ministry to make sure that you come up with some sort of solutions for those kids. And it’s the same for the Ministry of Public Health: what do we do with people who had Covid there? Do we treat them? Having this frozen conflict, it always takes away a huge part of the resources of the country, both mental, administrative, political as well, because, every time, this raises the issue politically. So also living in a country which does have a frozen military conflict, it means that the country will not be developing. And this is very sad. And this will mean that people will continue to leave, and that they will not come back. The economy will collapse. So I don’t want this to turn into frozen conflict.

I suppose it must be even sadder to be living in a country where people are dying in their thousands and tens of thousands because of an all-out war though? So, I guess in the scale of tragedy, would that be preferable to an ongoing war that lasts years and years?

Preferably, we would not be in any sort of war. It’s just extremely unfair that we have to do this, and we have to live through this. We never chose to do this, we never chose this to be our path. And I think that is what the world needs to remember: the world needs to help those who were attacked without any provocation. And I think we need to stop this, and we need to make sure that Russia just leaves us alone and does whatever they want within their territory. Because, given the choice of living in a frozen conflict, or in an active war zone, I don’t want either option. I want to live in my own country, and deal with our own society and how we develop, like any other country. It’s extremely unfair that we are presented with these two choices, neither of them you want for your children to live in.

Let me ask about a future scenario, because we don’t often talk or think about what might happen later, after such a deal may or may not be struck. How secure do you think President Zelenskyy is? Is there any concern that ultra-nationalist groups that are now very well-armed by the West might not accept a peace deal or frozen conflict scenario?

I don’t understand which “ultra-nationalist” groups are very well-armed. The only groups that are armed in Ukraine are the Ukrainian army. You call them ultra-nationalists, because they fight for our country. Well, then all other armies in the world are also ultra-nationalists in that case. But it’s difficult to speculate about that, because we don’t know what sort of solutions there might be, under what circumstances and in which situation and in which context. So I think, of course, the only solution that 100% of the society will be happy about is us winning the war, liberating our territory completely, and that’s it. Any other scenario will be unpleasant for some people, that’s for sure. I also believe it will not be the best one that we can get. So we should aim for more, because only more is the only acceptable solution for us, getting our lives back. So it’s kind of difficult to comment on that because there are many unknowns in that and too many variables, even to try to imagine that. I know what we have to do today, tomorrow, in a week from now. Unfortunately, we don’t have solutions to ‘what if’s.

I suppose I wonder, to return to our opening discussion about normal politics, whether you worry that your political opponents in normal times have been empowered during this war time? When peace comes back, you might find there are really quite unsavoury groups and political people that now have a lot more power than they used to.

There are people in power I don’t like. There have been lots of anti-corruption investigations that revealed corruption by certain officials in Ukrainian power. And I don’t want those people to get any more power and I want that to be punished. The good part of that is that those investigations were conducted by official anti-corruption boards that have been established within the last eight years in Ukraine, and which are now producing results. But yeah, I’m not happy about that. Of course I’m not. I want Ukraine to win this war as a democratic state. That’s absolutely a given. We don’t want to win this war as anything less than that. We do have a very strong civil society. And we do have a very strong political tradition, which I’m sure will ensure that this happens. Ukraine will always be democratic; it can be a messy democracy, but we’ll always be democratic. That’s something I’m absolutely sure about. And then we’ll get back to business as usual. Politicians will offer different plans for the country and society will choose which plan they like better. Ukraine now is on its sixth president; Russia is on the second and a half, if you count Medvedev as an independent figure. We are a democracy. We have always been and I’m sure we will continue to be.

How optimistic do you feel now? We’re more than a year into this conflict. What do you think the ending might look like? 

We are in the ninth year of this conflict. I know that Ukraine will win, and it will prevail. Because if we don’t, then we just cease to exist. So the only option is where Ukraine is a winner, that’s for sure. And I know what we have to do in order to make this happen, every single one of us, be it politicians, be it people in the army, doctors, teachers, whatever. I also think that this is going to cost us. It does cost us a lot right now. Seeing those deaths and killings and knowing all the details, everything that has happening on the frontline is extremely exhausting. And sometimes we do feel very exhausted. And I’m very tired of all of this but I don’t have any doubts that we will survive, and we will survive as a stronger nation than we were when it all started, as a nation that knows for sure what we are, what we can do, who our friends are and who our enemies are. So that I have no doubts about that. I’m just concerned about the price that we unfortunately have to pay for this.

Inna Sovsun, thank you so much for your time today.  

Thank you.

is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.