Ukrainian MP Alona Shkrum: “We will win if we all stand together“

, by Jules Bigot

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Ukrainian MP Alona Shkrum: “We will win if we all stand together“
Alona Shkrum. Credits: Authorized Ukrainian TV channel «Inter» Youtube stream, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/license...> , via Wikimedia Commons

Last Tuesday, the 24th of February, a war broke out between Russia and Ukraine. After weeks of rising tension between the two neighbours following Russian troops gathering at the Ukrainian border, a speech by Putin about the supposed historical closeness of Ukrainian and Russian people and a series of negotiations between Western leaders and Putin- the latter decided to recognize the separatist republic of Donetsk and Luhansk on the 21st of February, before launching a full military operation on the Ukrainian territory on the 24th. Since then, Ukrainians have bravely resisted their occupiers, with thousands of civilians coming together to defend their country, undermining a rapid takeover of the country by Russian troops.

As Ukraine fought for the fifth consecutive day in its war against Russia, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament Alona Shkrum from the Batkivshchyna Party (All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland“) gave us some of her precious time to answer our questions about the situation in Ukraine, the foreign support to the country and the heroic resistance going on throughout her homeland. Although this interview was conducted on the 28th of February 2022, as events unfold very quickly, some of the information stated here might have evolved by the time this article reaches our readers.

Thank you very much, Mrs. Shkrum, for giving us some of your time in such tragic moments of Ukrainian history. To start-off this interview I would like to ask you how are you doing, and ask if you could tell us more about your situation and that of the place you are staying in today?

I’m sorry to say that the situation is not very good because as we talk Kyiv, the capital city and Kharkiv, a Russian speaking city, are being bombed by the Russian federation. We have a huge disaster in Kharkiv, the second city of the country which is mainly Russian speaking, where something ridiculous and horrible is happening today. Despite promises of a ceasefire for the ongoing negotiations with Russia at the Belarus border, the Russian army started shelling Kharkiv and its peaceful neighborhoods where civilians live. We have a huge number of pictures, videos, and maps, which show the places where Russian rockets and bombs were found, lying in the peaceful neighborhoods or near the kindergartens. More than 10 people are already dead, a lot are wounded and the casualties continue as we speak. We, members of Parliament, are now making a statement specifically about Kharkiv to stop the humanitarian disaster. It is really important and we do not understand how this can be happening because there was supposed to be a ceasefire, which was obviously not respected. These shellings aim to erase the Kharkiv population, which looks like genocide to us. A genocide of Russian speaking Ukrainians, as already told, there are mainly Russian speaking inhabitants in Kharkiv. This is ridiculous!

On a more personal level, I find myself a bit on the outskirts of Kyiv, which is why I can talk to you because if I was in Kyiv, I would be either in the shelter or in the metro, unable to talk. The place where I am right now is safer thanks to the day and night defense and protection of Kyiv. I did spend about 3 hours of my last night in the shelter. It was quite calm because the city next to where I am was defended by our Ukrainian forces: they even took down a Russian drone and missile. This is the situation right now.

In the West, the invasion of Ukraine took everyone by surprise despite the rising tension in the previous weeks. Did you expect such a full-scale invasion of your territory, with bombing in cities as Westward as L’viv or Lutsk?

I can tell you very honestly that I did not expect it to be on this scale. We all knew that Putin was crazy and [a] lunatic, but we never thought that the intervention could be at this scale because we haven’t seen this since the times of Hitler in Europe. Two days before the war started, I was in the United Nations in New York; I was at the parliamentary session in the U.N., where we met with a bunch of delegates. Some of them told us that there was certain intelligence information saying that the war might get started. We did expect some tension, especially in the East of Ukraine. We did expect that these tensions could involve our army at some point, but never our civilians. I never imagined in my life, never ever, that civilians would be bombed, that a kindergarten would be bombed or that children and women would be dying from Russian shells and bombs in Ukraine. This is something that we would have never guessed, especially because although Putin is crazy, a lot of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia, a lot of Ukrainians have ties with Russia. A lot of Ukrainians travel to and work with Russia. This operation was born out of Putin’s sole will, and although we knew he was crazy, we didn’t know he was that crazy.

Even if this invasion came as a surprise to everyone, we have seen that resistance in Ukraine has been heroic and extremely impressive so far, both in its courage and its rapid organization. Could you maybe comment on this resistance going on right now and on the resilience of the Ukrainian army?

I actually listened to Putin’s speech two days ago where he asked Ukrainians not to fight, to stop fighting and to select another President because Zelensky is a ‘Nazi’ and a ‘drug addict’. I listened to him and I was really surprised about how little he knew and understood Ukraine right now. He has some of the biggest intelligence in the world, one of the biggest armies in the world and he doesn’t understand a thing about what is going on. It is not about Zelensky, this is not about the “President, this is not about anything else but the protection of our lives, of our land and of our right to choose what we want to do on our land. This is something which Ukrainians always proved. The right to choose has always been deeply encoded in our DNA, and we’ve seen it in Cossack times with Catherine the Great. This is something we’ve seen in 2014 and it is something we are seeing right now. Putin has turned Ukrainian resistance into national resistance and triggered military action against him personally and against Russian troops. It will not stop. Even if Zelensky wanted it to stop, it is not about Zelensky anymore. It is about other people killing our children and Ukrainians will never forgive that, we will never stop fighting for that. It is something that Putin clearly doesn’t understand and this is where the resistance is coming from.

Honestly, we knew that our army was one of the best in Europe, we knew the numbers, we heavily financed the army for 5 years in the different budgets, but we never thought that our army would be that well trained. We have this joke that our army even surprised itself. Our army is very well trained, they have the best ammunition, they surely are one of the best in Europe right now, for sure. The level of support for the army is something that Putin never expected either. In every village, every grandma is supporting the army from medicine, to food to shelter to anything they have got. That’s why Putin can never win.

Martial law was adopted by the Verkhovna Rada [the Ukrainian parliament] on the 24th of February following the Russian invasion. What does that mean for you as a Member of Parliament? What have your days looked like since then?

Just before the start of the war, we adopted the emergency state and we did it because there were high possibilities that Putin would try to destabilize the country from inside, with certain demonstrations, rallies, etc. Obviously, we were wrong and should have adopted martial law before. But because Ukraine is a democracy, we had debates about introducing martial law before the war. Again, since nobody imagined the scale of the war, we introduced the emergency state and not martial law. Then when the war started at 5 o’clock in the morning, we gathered in the Verkhovna Rada again, responding to a previously set-up protocol. This protocol, which had been in place for a week, stated that if a conflict started, everybody should gather their belongings in one small bag, with a passport or an ID and come to a certain place within 1 hour. This protocol was triggered, we went to the Verkhovna Rada within an hour, and there were a number of places where we could meet. We did so and voted for martial law. Then there was another protocol triggered because we had a lot of intelligence telling us that Putin wanted his tanks to be in Kyiv in one day, and he wanted them to surround the Presidential palace and the Verkhovna Rada by the evening. We thought that the objectives of Putin could be of two natures: he either wanted to capture Zelensky and make him sign a capitulation, or capture 226 members of parliament and force them at gunpoint to vote for some kind of independence of Donbass, connection of Ukraine to Russia, etc. We were then told that we were to gather again (the same day) to vote on another specific issue for the army, but couldn’t do so because the risk was too high. We were given two orders by the President: the first was to try and stay alive, because he needs at least 226 members to vote in the future; the second one was not to be captured because to be captured is worse than dying in this moment. And then there was another protocol set-up to encourage us to stay close to the capital, very close, because we might have to gather again at some point. Everyone did what they could. Some went and helped the army - we do have members of Parliament who serve in the army and have served there before. Some of my colleagues are on the territorial defense of Kyiv. Right now, I have a really good friend serving there as well. Other members of parliament are doing humanitarian work, helping with medical needs etc.

I am doing a little bit to help supply the territorial forces and the army just as we all do right now. I am doing a lot of international work because I am a member of a lot of friendship groups and I know a lot of members of parliament. Obviously, we are doing all we can to inform the population of what is going on. Yesterday we had a committee meeting, not with all the members because that would be too dangerous, but with the pandemic situation we had previously voted for the possibility to set up online sessions for committees and commissions to be allowed, so we used that right. So yesterday at 4:00 we had a committee meeting online on Zoom where everybody in my committee [Committee on Finance, Taxation and Customs Policy] gathered. We did have a big discussion and a number of decrees were adopted on how the national bank is working right now, how stable is the hryvnia [Ukrainian currency], how to pay taxes, if people want to pay taxes, how can they, and if they don’t want to, to make sure that there will be no sanctions whatsoever. We listened to the Head of the National bank on how to provide currency to people through ATMs because it is not secured right now, but starting from today the National bank is doing everything it can so that there is currency everywhere. We then listened to the Minister of Finance on the financial system in general, then to the Head of the Tax Office, making sure that no one is sanctioned for anything and that there is no inspection etc. The Head of Customs was the next speaker because they opened all corridors for humanitarian aid as that is something that we need. Both humanitarian aid and for weapons from countries who support us. We, therefore, had 2 or 3 hours of really hard work and adopted a number of decisions and I think it was really important for people in Ukraine to see that the committee is gathering and working as normal, even though the situation is not normal.

Talks are ongoing at the Belarussian border as we speak with a great degree of skepticism on the possible outcome of these negotiations. What can we expect from them, what do you expect from these talks?

If I was optimistic - and I am not, because we cannot be optimistic about any negotiation with Putin anymore - I would say that we expect Putin to take away his troops from everywhere in Ukraine, including Donbass, and to stop the shellings and the bombings. Do we believe that he will do that? Unfortunately, at this point I think he has become completely crazy and that nothing will stop him. In addition, intelligence show us that Putin really wanted to capture Kyiv in one night. It has already been four nights, we are in the fifth day of war today so I would say that he is possibly quite irritated, he did not expect this kind of popular support for the army and to protect the land. I think that Kyiv will stand for as many nights as it needs to be because our army is better prepared every day. Putin introduced these negotiations but I think that he is quite crazy and that he will push for things like the neutral status of Ukraine, for Ukraine to recognize the territories they have captured or for Ukraine to federalize these territories- measures that will never pass in Ukrainian parliament, specifically because we are so angry that our children and women are dying every day from his bombs. None of these measures will ever pass in Parliament while Ukrainians are fighting. So, do I expect Putin to behave and remove his troops? Obviously not, even if that would be the best scenario because we need to save lives and we need to start negotiations. But do I expect him to be a normal person and do something logical? No, I don’t.

During these talks should Ukraine hold firm to its positions or should concessions be made to Russia, you’ve mentioned the neutral status of the country for example, to end this deadly conflict and save lives? How far should the government go in concessions if concessions were to be made?

I would say that during the time of war, it is too painful to even think about negotiations. I cannot even think about concessions. I just want the Russians to get out of my country and stop forcing me, my parents and my grandparents to spend every night in a bomb shelter. However,there should be atleast a an opening dialogue - not for the President, not for me, but for the diplomats. I think that the SWIFT sanctions that have been introduced and that are taking effect today will make Putin’s life harder and harder, and we Ukrainians will be better and better prepared. If the world doesn’t stop the support, if the EU continues with the sanctions and the support, I think that the people close to Putin will push him into some kind of concession because it will get too hard for the Russian population. We know that right now there is no money to withdraw from Russian banks anymore because it has all been taken out, there are huge lines in Moscow to get any kind of money. Russian people cannot travel, or can travel only through Kazakhstan as I understand. So, I think that we need to continue with the sanctions. Ukraine will hold the position on the army side, we will continue with the protection of our cities and of Europe at this point basically from this crazy guy, but we need the world to continue with the worst sanctions possible, because the worst is happening right now in Ukraine. I think we can win if we all stand together.

A lot of people have been demonstrating throughout Europe in the last couple of days to show their support to Ukraine and to ask for more involvement of our governments in this conflict. However, as individuals a lot of us feel powerless, especially youth. Are there any concrete actions we, European youth, can take to help you Ukrainians?

We obviously expected support and sanctions from the rest of the world but we did not expect that kind of overwhelming support and this is something that is not only inspiring but which really helps. It sounds ridiculous but when you are living this kind of life where you don’t know which day of the week it is, only that it is the fifth day of war, when you spend your nights in bomb shelters, when you read the news to see if no one died in the bombed cities where your relatives live, this kind of support from all over the world, from Milan to London, to Paris and small cities really helps.

The first thing you can do is to put more pressure on Russian embassies, on Russian officials and also on your officials to introduce tougher sanctions because we are still talking about a no-fly zone. We know that this is something that never happened before in Europe, but this kind of war also never happened before in Europe. We need you to put pressure on your governments.

Then, secondly, we need you to spread the word because there are countries where there is not enough information about what is going on. With a team of colleagues, we have created the Ukrainian News Alert, a number of channels on Twitter, Telegram, Medium where you can read the news in almost ten languages right now, starting from Portuguese, to Polish to Czech, etc. We have the Verkhovna Rada official English information website which can provide you with secure information. All these kinds of information sharing tasks are of great importance.

Third, any kind of help on the humanitarian side, starting from medical needs to any other aid/help/assistance. Polish and Romanian borders are open and allow us to get any kind of humanitarian aid very quickly in the country. There are a number of international accounts where people have been sending money from around the world as well. The National Bank has an account that goes directly to the Ukrainian budget to help the country and the army. If you do not wish to support the army, because some people are not comfortable with the idea of funding the military, even if it is defending the country, there are a number of organizations that are providing medical assistance, humanitarian assistance, or assistance to refugees in the West to which you can donate to as well. This kind of help is also very important.

The EU has just recently announced that it will be buying military equipment to be shipped in Ukraine, and that several Russian banks will be removed from the SWIFT system. How do you react to these sanctions? Isn’t it too late with Russians now at the door of Kyiv, and is it even enough?

Of course, everything is too late, we hoped all of this [would happen] before the war. We actually asked for Russia to be cut out of SWIFT in 2014/2015 when they annexed Crimea. I remember specifically talking to EU officials and US officials about that. But at the time, everybody still wanted dialogue with Putin. So now it is all too late, but it is not too late in the sense that Ukraine showed that it will not surrender and that it will never be easy for Putin to have Ukraine as his allies like Belarus. This never happened in history, no matter what he thinks of history because his speeches are like a history lesson from a very perverted kind of guy, but that never happened and it will never happen. It is not too late because any help is better now than never. I would say that SWIFT was an important step, I know how difficult it was to take that decision and how difficult it was for us to push for that decision. It is not a decision we’ve achieved 100%, SWIFT has not been cut off from all Russian banks, but only from those on the sanction list. I know that the only country that was entirely cut-off from the system was Iran, but I think that Russia will be the next one because Russia has become the North Korea of the world. It is not even Hitler anymore, it is North Korea. SWIFT should be pushed harder. Another thing we will push for is for a no-fly zone. If we cannot achieve it for the whole of Ukraine, we need to do it at least for Kyiv and Chernobyl, because there is a risk of humanitarian and ecological disaster for the whole world if a Russian rocket touches the central, and also for Kharkiv which is being bombed right now. This no-fly zone should at least be there. I do know that we are the first country to which the EU sends military equipment to, but we are also protecting Poland, the Baltic states and Finland somehow as well, because they are scared after Putin’s declaration. If we are going to protect the whole of Europe, we need more help and more sanctions.

You’ve decided to stay in your country to continue the struggle against the occupier, but many of your fellow citizens have decided to flee in the neighboring countries, with UN reports predicting that up to 5 M Ukrainians could flee. To what extend has Russian progression, and Russian bombing of Ukraine undermined this migration?

Most of the people I know have stayed, the only people that would be fleeing would be women and children and elderly people, which is normal and I really hope that they are safe. I know that a lot of countries are helping the refugees right now. I am not currently taking care of the refugees, there are a lot of countries doing that. In Kyiv, on the second day of the war when the city was being bombed and there was a risk of it being circled by Russian troops, a lot of people started to leave. At that point my parents and the parents of my husband were in Kyiv but they did not leave, we just could not convince them to leave. I have a very close friend who lives in London and who started working with fashion magazines to talk and write about Ukraine, about the fact that fashion should not be disconnected from politics, and about her father who is almost 75 is in the center of Kyiv. He cannot be enrolled in the territorial defense, but he went there and forced them to enroll him and he’s now working as a doctor there because he has a medical background. Even though a lot of people have left, much more have stayed and we had a certain number of territorial defense entities in every region of Kyiv. We are in a situation where there are more people volunteering to take the shifts than there are shifts, much more, with more and more people coming in every day. That is why I think Kyiv is standing very well. People are obviously ready to protect their country. And we actually have more people coming in from abroad. As an MP, I don’t deal with people going out but with people going in, because they want to fight, and these are not only Ukrainians, we are also talking about people who support us like Georgians and others. I think it is an amazing time we live in, still quite unbelievable.

The question of the dangerousness of movement in Ukraine right now is a difficult question. Every day I get questions from my friends about whether they should move or stay. Today we had a situation where an 8 months pregnant woman did not know if she should move or stay. I would say that right now it is not very dangerous to move to the West if you move from a city that is not under bombing and shelling. It is difficult to travel because we have a state of emergency, a state of war, so you cannot travel by night. Yesterday for example, you could not go on the streets of Kyiv for the whole day because Kyiv was preparing to defend itself. Today you could go until 8 o’clock. In today’s situation, if a friend asked me if he should move or stay in Kyiv, I would advise him to stay, and if he moves, to move in the morning and on the roads that are not occupied and are safe. I have friends who moved from Kyiv to L’viv, it took them a while to get there, but they did get in safely and now they are staying in the L’viv shelters because the city is also being bombed at night. But it is much safer than Kyiv right now. It is difficult and long to move but it is possible. There are however certain areas from which you cannot move out of. Moving from Kharkiv would be life threatening for example, it is better to stay in the city shelters. Moving from Sumy was also hard at some point. But a lot of people are moving. We discussed having a humanitarian corridor for children to move out and we did have a number of offers from mayors from Spain, from France, from Poland, from all over the world who told us that they would take children, just as they did in England during World War II, to take care of them and provide them with security. But we cannot do that because there is no humanitarian corridor at the moment. Even if we gathered the children in one small bus to be sent at the border, it would be a target for Putin to shoot at. This is terrifying but because there is no humanitarian corridor and because Putin has already been shooting children, we cannot let them escape safely in a bunch, but only one by one with their parents.

We’ve seen EU countries display their open arms to Ukrainian refugees, however we know of situations where people are unable to cross the border because they do not have passports. Can you tell us more about these situations?

We have discussed this situation with Poland 2 days ago, and the country is now allowing people without passports in. Poland is the only country to do so right now, but once you are in Poland, you are already safe and can work on getting your passport. Polish authorities are allowing everybody with any kind of ID to get in, children without ID are allowed in too, even pets are also allowed without vaccination or passport now! Poland has been great and very supportive to us. It obviously takes a while at the border, there are long queues but I would just ask everyone to be patient, anyone who wants to get out will get out of the country, except men who are, under martial law, supposed to stay here. But we do not have men who want to leave who cannot. I would love my father to be able to leave because he is not required to fight under martial law, but he does not want to leave.

For this last part of the interview I would like to give you the opportunity to freely address our readers and the European youth.

For a large part of my life, I have actually lived abroad, I studied in Paris and worked in Paris in a law firm and then I studied at Cambridge University and worked in London. These were times when Ukrainians wanted to feel and be European, to live and work in Europe, to migrate. It was a big dream for a lot of us. But I can tell you for sure that there is no other place that I would rather be in right now besides Ukraine. This is probably the worst time in my life and at the same time the best time. I remember on the first day, the feeling I had was literally the feeling you get when you have a nightmare and you cannot wake up and you hope that you will eventually will, because nobody believed that this could happen. We were standing with my friends who are also members of Parliament near the Verkhovna Rada when the sun was coming up and the Ukrainian cities were already shelled and we could not believe it, it was a complete disbelief. But then we have seen so much beauty, so many people supporting us, so much courage, so many people showing the best that you can ever see in human beings, things that are really inspiring and incredible, and this is something that is worth living for. It sounds very romantic but it is what we feel right now and this is incredible. We will not be the same after this. I do feel that this is the first time when Ukraine does not have anything to prove to the world or to prove to itself. Ukraine was always on the border of Europe, people know about the stereotypes on Ukraine: there is Klitschko, great football, great food, great cities, great vodka, it was always on the map. It has, but what else? I think that right now everything is changing and that it is quite a historic time for my country and for Europe as well because what I’ve heard from around the world is that we are reminding young people what it means to fight for your country, your culture, your land, your freedom, and I think that it is quite inspiring, it is quite great. I just hope that it ends well for us. I know that we will not stop fighting to free our land, but we will need the support of the world.

Thank you very much for your time once again, and be assured that in Prague, Paris, Berlin, Rome and every other European city, everybody is standing with you and that we will continue to demonstrate for Ukrainian freedom, Ukrainian people and Ukrainian nation. Best of strength and luck for this war and Слава Україні!

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