“Unpunished evil grows”: Ukrainian leaders warn of international complacency

“I was nine months pregnant when the war broke,” People’s Deputy of Ukraine Oleksandra Ustinova said. “My world crashed.”

Ustinova, who gave birth just weeks after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, named her daughter Victoria after the word “victory,” she explained. Now separated from Victoria to protect her safety, Ustinova looks forward to visiting Stanford with her daughter one day “after the victory.”

“Then she can choose whether she wants to go to school in Ukraine, or post-grad at Stanford like I did,” she said. “I want our kids to have that future.”

Ustinova and three other Ukrainian leaders speaking from Kyiv shared updates from the front lines of the Russia-Ukraine war with an audience gathered at the Bechtel Conference Center Friday, urging renewed support from allies. The Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) within the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) hosted the virtual panel.

The event marked almost exactly two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. In recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have faced ammunition shortages as a Senate-passed aid package stalls in the House of Representatives. Russian gains in momentum and the fall of the Ukrainian city of Avdviika on Feb. 17 have fueled uncertainty about Ukraine’s prospects in the war.

Michael McFaul ’86 M.A. ’86 — the Director of FSI, the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science and the former U.S. ambassador to Russia — moderated the discussion. Political science professor Kathryn Stoner, the Mosbacher Director of CDDRL and a Senior Fellow at FSI, introduced and concluded the event.

“I hope you leave with information and ammunition in American politics,” Stoner said. “Because obviously, this is not just a Ukrainian fight, it is a fight for everyone.”

In addition to Ustinova, the panel featured former Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, founder of the Center for Civil Liberties Oleksandra Matviichuk and Serhiy Leshchenko, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Chief of Staff. All four have previously been fellows or visiting scholars at CDDRL. The four previously spoke on an FSI panel commemorating the first anniversary of the invasion.

The panelists stressed that Ukraine’s military was in dire need of Western aid. “People do not understand that the war has changed,” Ustinova said. “Two years ago, the Russians were not prepared… Right now, they know how to fight.”

Ustinova has met frequently with Western government leaders to lobby for military and humanitarian support, including members of the U.S. Congress and British Parliament. “If a year ago I was telling them what we need to succeed, today I am telling them what we need not to lose,” she said.

Several speakers argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine posed a broader threat to democracy and European and U.S. security. They also warned of a potential alliance between Russia and fellow autocracies, naming North Korea, Iran, Syria and China specifically.

“I believe that not Ukraine, but all the free world is in a very dangerous situation,” Honcharuk said.

Matviichuk shared his sentiment. “Unpunished evil grows,” she said. “It’s not just a war between two states. This is a war between two systems: authoritarianism and democracy… If Russia succeeds and enjoys impunity, it will encourage other authoritarian leaders in the world to do the same.”

McFaul asked the panelists about their safety and state of mind. “A lot of your friends are in the audience,” he said. “We’re worried about you.”

Matviichuk said the war had taken a profound toll. “Everything which you call normal life was crushed in one moment,” she said. “You can’t plan your next hours because you have no idea when the next air alarm [will] start.”

Ustinova said that Russia has tripled its production of ballistic and hypersonic missiles, while the Western world has lagged in weapons manufacturing by comparison. She called for stronger sanctions against Russia and for the U.S. to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, while also expressing frustration with congressional gridlock over the aid package.

Leshchenko echoed Ustinova’s concerns that international aid to Ukraine was inadequate. He said he had witnessed dismay among Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region over a lack of ammunition and encouraged the audience to “take all measures” to push their representatives to supply weapons.

McFaul asked the panelists to refute some U.S. lawmakers’ opposition to Ukrainian assistance, referencing claims in Congress that Ukrainian corruption would lead to aid being “wasted” and that the war was “unwinnable.”

Addressing the first concern, Ustinova said that anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine had achieved significant progress, describing Ukraine today and ten years ago as “two different countries.” 

Leshchenko responded to the second argument with a comparison to World War II. “In 1941, no one [could] expect [what would] be the result of the Second World War,” he said. 

Nevertheless, a global effort came together to protect democracy, Leshchenko said. “Countries were shocked and tried to stop evil which was taking control over lands and killing millions of people,” he said. “No one was thinking, ‘Should we stop the weapons supply because we don’t see the light [at] the end of the tunnel?’”

Despite the uncertainty of life amid the war, the panelists expressed resolve and faith in Ukraine’s ability to triumph over Russia. “I’m still an optimist,” Honcharuk said. “For all people of the democratic world, the Ukrainian army is the best possible investment to contain Russia as the most dangerous aggressor in the world.”