POLTAVA, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 1, 2020: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and Iuliia Mendel (press secretary)
In an exclusive correspondence with Iuliia Mendel, former Press Secretary for President Zelensky of Ukraine and journalist whose work has been in the New York Times, Politico Europe, the Atlantic Council, VICE, World Affairs Journal, Spiegel Online and CNBC, we went over the current position in Ukraine and what further Russian invasion entails.
While the current impasse in Eastern Europe may be presumed as a new development in U.S. news, Ukraine has been experiencing an onslaught from the Kremlin since February 2014. After Ukraine's former Russian-influenced President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a significant trade pact with the European Union, more than 300,000 Ukrainians took to the streets in a political protest that resulted in violence and parliament voting to remove President Yanukovych after he fled the capital of Kyiv to a pro-European opposition in Donetsk. That of which was followed by an illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, a peninsula located in the southern part of Ukraine.
Shortly thereafter, an armed conflict broke out in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas after pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts declared themselves respective people’s republics (DPR/LPR) and therefore independent from Ukraine. During the war between these quasi-republics and the Ukrainian government, an estimated 14,000 deaths occurred, while millions became refugees. Since then, the quasi-republics have been recognized by Ukraine as terrorist organizations. A counter-offensive military, Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) was launched to protect against these pro-Russian forces. While a Minsk agreement ceasefire protocol was signed on September 2014, it was the first of 29 ceasefires.
“[T]here were times of ceasefire when there was no shelling for weeks and even months. It was the diplomatic work of President Zelensky, but on average, there were 1-2-3-4-5 shootings per day. Sometimes there was a wounding, mostly military [personnel], but sometimes civilians. And sometimes there was death, of course,” said Mendel.
The War in Donbas has comprehensively perpetuated since the 2014 onset. In early 2021 there was a significant increase in Ukrainian fatalities as the Russian military began to build up at the Donbas-Russian border. On the evolving accumulation of Russian soldier buildup Mendel said, "[there were] Russian mercenaries there and several thousands of official Russian troops that were based there for the last eight years, [followed by] around 3,000 troops, then there was officially 5,000."
"In recent days," she stated, "[this winter] the biggest optimum was [when] the Russian president recognized quasi-republics that exist in Donbas. Russia also started escalation and we see how the number of shellings and deaths grow. We see that the escalation showed there were 60 up to 100 shellings per day and of course, we have more civilians wounded and killed."
More recent reports have suggested that more than 190,000 Russian troops surround the border with alleged "peacekeeping" troops inside Donbas. Russia has not only taken recognition of the quasi-republics but "has hinted that they want the recognition, not only on occupied territory but also on the territory within the borders of these two regions in Ukraine, expanding the aggression."
POLTAVA, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 1, 2020: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and Iuliia Mendel (press secretary) speaks to people during his official visit
That statement derives from a speech from President Vladimir Putin on the 21st of last month where he stated, "Those who embarked on the path of violence, bloodshed, lawlessness did not recognize and do not recognize any other solution to the Donbas issue, except for the military one. In this regard, I consider it necessary to take a long-overdue decision to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic. I ask the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to support this decision, and then to ratify the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance with individual republics. These two documents will be prepared and signed in the very near future. And from those who seized and hold power in Kyiv, we demand an immediate cessation of hostilities. Otherwise, all responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine."
In a statement the following day in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said there is every indication that Russia is planning a "full-scale attack" on Ukraine. Further claiming, “We urge Russia in the strongest possible terms to choose the path of diplomacy. This is the most dangerous moment in European security for a generation."
While future sanctions rest solely on the decision of one person – President Putin – Ukrainians are prepared to stand up and fight for their country. As the Kremlin sees the country as their own, threats of Ukraine joining NATO only angers Putin. As the original point of the treaty was to unite in defense against the USSR, that is a regime that no longer exists. As stated by President Putin in July of last year, he understands the anguish of that time, "I would like to emphasize that the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy. These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods of time. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity." In modern times, NATO has proved to essentially be just a central economic system alliance with Europe and America on board. This ambiguous fight over Ukraine's alliance is what could potentially turn into something of a larger magnitude.
In observation from a more psychological outlook, Mendel explains, "[Putin] tries to show that he doesn't see the difference between the independence of the real republics that appeared after the collapse of the USSR and the republics that he's making artificially by sending his own machinery and troops to the countries. In fact, it's a very primitive type of psychology when Putin considers that the United States and the West made the republics after the USSR. He's dividing these republics into less republics, and he says that it's the same for him, those artificial terroristic organizations that occupy the territories. He tries to make them equal to the real republics that have been existing for the last 30 years. It's a pawn of the diplomacy and of them, he's making a pawn of their established world order."
In response to a potential resolution, Mendel said, "the whole world is working on its resolving, but it's a very difficult matter. It's about the ability of Russia to move forward with diplomacy, but Russia feels very offended by the collapse of the USSR 30 years ago."
In reference to further material in Putin's aforementioned speech on the 21st of last month, Mendel said, "He showed that he doesn't respect NATO, he doesn't respect Western culture and values, and he doesn't respect the independence of the republics that appeared after the collapse of the USSR. If Ukraine is let down, the next will be Poland, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia."