“Russia is getting humiliated, because its extensive, aggressive, imperial war with the goal of destroying the Ukrainian state has essentially been repulsed,” Sviatoslav Yurash, a prominent Ukrainian politician, tells Kyiv Post – before heading back off to the front lines to deliver vital supplies to his people.
Yurash isn’t your stereotypical politician – and that’s a good thing. As a People’s Deputy (the equivalent of a British Member of Parliament) since the onset of Russia’s illegal invasion, he has frequently converted thoughts and words into actions. In doing so he has helped to coordinate foreign fighters and supply food, water, medical equipment, and a vast array of necessities to embattled towns, cities and villages across the breadth of Ukraine.
“It’s very obvious that the Russian military machine isn’t as strong as it pretends to be,” he says, continuing to reflect on the first days of the war as his dog sits loyally by his side.
“Her owner was killed,” he says, looking down fondly at her, “so I thought that the choice between taking her home or not was no choice at all. So I took her.”
Born in Lviv, Yurash’s image was splashed all over western newspaper pages during the first days of Russia’s invasion after he was photographed carrying a Kalashnikov on the streets of the nation’s capital. Since then, he has appeared in interviews with the BBC, Sky News, and many other outlets across the world.
“The reason I was photographed was because the central police station of Kyiv, where many weapons were distributed to citizens who wanted to take part in the fight, is right near a hotel where most journalists were staying,” he says.
“They were photographing myself and my colleagues there with those weapons. But after that point we went on to different battle stations to try and be more effective in different capacities.
“I’m a rudimentary soldier at best,” he admits, “but getting those skills and upping those skills is part of my routine now.
“I’m also trying to help organize the foreign legion with various individuals who have lots of experience and are battle-hardened. I help get supplies to them, and the means for them to conduct the fight, bettering our skills as we go along.”
Yurash’s work with Ukraine’s International Foreign Legion has seen him and his team make numerous dangerous trips, delivering supplies to civilians, community leaders, hospitals, and army barracks in places such as Kharkiv and Bakhmut.
His most recent trip, this time to Zaporizhzhia over the Christmas period, saw him and his team delivering vital food, water, and other supplies to villagers currently suffering from the relentless shelling and daily blackouts imposed upon them by the Russian invaders.
“Foreign affairs and national relations has been part of my portfolio for my entire life, so helping to organize the foreign legion is part of my work right now,” he says.
“I’m blessed with a team of people who joined forces. I made an organization, part of which is trying to handle all the foreign legion volunteers, to aid their integration into armed Ukrainian services. I see that the solution to that lies in many more systemic efforts from the government, which I’ll continue lobbying for. But as for working with foreign individuals, we were blessed with many people from around the world who saw that Ukraine is in a time of need and they have joined our fight.
Battling Putin’s obsession
“We must remember that we’ve had a war with Russia for eight years in the east of Ukraine, on the frontline, so the idea that Russia might do something like this [invade in February] was not inconceivable. It didn’t seem probable, but it wasn’t inconceivable.
“I had many maxims before the Crimean annexation. After Crimea and Donetsk in 2014, I very much stopped believing that history had ended, and something like this was impossible. The reality is that anything can happen in this tumultuous world of ours. With regards to the build-up of Russian soldiers on the border, warnings were coming in every day from Washington.”
“Russia’s strategy here in Ukraine seems very similar to their strategy in Syria – destroying cities and crushing everything within them.”
Regarding support from Ukraine’s allies, Yurash welcomes their aid and staunch backing, but criticizes a general lack of action in dealing with Russia before the war.
“There are many precedents of the West intervening in dire humanitarian situations around the world. When there have been such situations, western leaders and governments have declared time and time again it shall do something. But it did very little, almost nothing, about [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and perhaps direct intervention is something that is needed because Putin will only stop when he is met with a response to his actions.
“Countries cannot attack other countries without pretext or reason. Russia has been attacking and taking away our integrity since 2014, and even before then. As for our right to be a part of the West, we have battled for that every single day of the fight here. Our goal is very clear for us – the complete restoration of our integrity and the protection of our independence and sovereignty. It’s our right to choose our own future, not to be limited by whatever banalities that President Putin possesses about our history.
“Instead of flowers, Russians are greeted with bullets.”
“Putin has a firm idea about where Ukraine should be,” he continues. “He has said it time and time again during his presidency – he believes that Ukraine as a nation doesn’t exist, that we should be part of Russia. The problem is that he believed his own propaganda, he believed that he would ‘sweep away’ Ukraine and Ukrainians would cheer him on. The opposite happened. Instead of flowers, Russians are greeted with bullets.
“Mr. Putin said himself, he doesn’t want to leave the Ukrainian question to the future generations. You might remember somebody else in history who said the very same thing about other nations. This is a man who has been in power for so long that he doesn’t think about the repercussions. He’s just obsessed with the idea and doesn’t care about the carnage he is causing to try to realize that idea.”
Although calls for a no-fly zone to be implemented have since dwindled, Yurash believes such a measure is imperative to protect Ukrainian civilians.
“Russia isn’t winning the air fight but has overwhelming numbers to try to control the sky and attack anywhere in Ukraine. We’ve all seen the images – they hit residential buildings, they’ve killed civilians, they’ve killed children. That overwhelming and numerical advantage gives them a chance to cause havoc in our lives.
“A no-fly zone would be a humanitarian measure that can stop Russians indiscriminately destroying civilian homes and killing innocent people. A no-fly zone would stop those images which come to western TVs every single day, informing you of the carnage the Russians are causing in Ukraine.”
Debunking Russian disinformation
Asked about Russian propaganda, anti-Ukraine conspiracy theories, and the role of social media in tackling the dissemination of ‘fake news’ relating to the ongoing war, Yurash says that the “lies are utter madness.”
“We see many claims that fly in the face of reality. Meanwhile, Putin is tightening his grip on his state and closing it down entirely. Twitter is down in Russia, so are Facebook and Instagram. Russia is clamping down on information showing the reality of what’s happening here in Ukraine. The world must see this control of information as a weapon of war, an information war, and they must fight against it.”
He does, however, believe that journalists are playing their part in debunking disinformation.
“On the day when the invasion started, we had all the world’s press right here in Kyiv and across the country. And they could cover the story and tell the truth. People didn’t even need to only listen to Ukrainians, they could listen to their own press – journalists who are here, seeing the reality and sharing it.”
“We’d make Kyiv their Stalingrad.”
“We can only tell the world one simple fact, that our nation wants Russia to get out. Our nation wants to choose its own future. That’s it. What Russia wants is to destroy the single largest state in Europe, and do that by any means necessary. But we’re going to resist that by any means necessary. And we’re going to win.
“Ukrainians are motivated here,” he adds. “Ukrainians are fighting for their own land. Ukrainians are willing to do whatever is needed from them to push the Russians out and keep them out. We aren’t going to give up. We’re going to keep pushing on and on, no matter what Russians throw at us.
“Even if Russia mobilized millions of conscripts and sent them into Ukraine, we’d make Kyiv their Stalingrad.”