HAVANA TIMES – February 20th of this year will mark the second anniversary of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The military situation currently seems deadlocked – little progress is being made and peace is currently not in sight. Last but not least, there is also the question of what the situation will be after peace finally comes to Ukraine and in what timeframe the country will be able to carry out the reforms required for its planned EU and NATO membership. Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy initiative, spoke to Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna about these and other questions in a Zoom call.
Prime Minister, for seven years now, our opening question has always been: How important are democracy and democratic values to you personally?
Olha Stefanishyna: The importance of these things for me personally is probably no different from their importance for all Ukrainians at the moment. The general perception here is that democracy and the values we adhere to are elements that are vital for our survival. Sticking to our European principles and respecting the dignity and the right to choose for all Ukrainians have in fact been the pivotal elements in every transformation our country has experienced.
The fact is that two massive demonstrations, which are now known as the Revolution of Dignity and the Orange Revolution, were the prime drivers of our development as a free nation. Therefore, a strong sense of the importance of democracy runs in our blood. In fact, I think this is felt more strongly in Ukraine than anywhere else in Europe, and fundamentally this situation means that Ukraine has essentially become the voice of these values at this particular point in time. That is the perception in my country, and it is a perception that I myself share.
For so many people in this country now, democracy is something that can be taken for granted. What would you say to people in Germany whose trust in democracy is declining?
Olha Stefanishyna: I think that, first and foremost, I can only congratulate the German people simply on being able to have this kind of discussion. Democracy is a way of life; it is the way of life you all enjoy today, and the way of life in my country too. But, unfortunately, Ukraine has to fight for this right and protect it every day.
This means that life that you are able to live on a daily basis in a democracy is in itself something very precious. We should never forget that and should never take anything for granted. Looking at Ukraine and many other parts of the world, and learning from Germany’s own history, each of us must always bear in mind that you do not only have the privilege of enjoying a free life but also the duty to stand up for it and protect it every day.
Presidential elections are due to take place in Ukraine in March 2024. But President Volodymyr Zelensky says: “This is not the time for elections.” Does that describe the current state of democracy in your country?
Olha Stefanishyna: There has of course been a number of public statements on this subject, as the debate has been evolving for some time. But clearly, we have to understand that, similarly to the situation in Germany, it is not up to the president to make a decision on calling elections.
It is in fact mandated by law: martial law states that no election process can be held at the moment, primarily for security reasons. However, we have also been consulting public society and a wide range of political groups on this issue, and it is clear that this legal restriction is in line with the public feeling at the moment.
All parliamentary parties have issued a joint statement saying that an election is not something we should now focus on; basically, our main focus is on helping our people stay alive. Polls of public opinion also indicate that an election is currently not a popular demand in Ukraine. There is simply no public concern regarding a postponement of the election. Ukraine has shown to the whole world that the will of the people always has precedence and must be respected. After all, we have seen what happened in Ukraine when that right was not respected. There are no doubts or concerns about this issue now. There is rather a general recognition of the fact that, with or without an electoral process, we are facing massive missile attacks on our civil infrastructure practically every day. For example, just yesterday, the university, the hospital and a residential building were destroyed by Russian missiles in Kharkiv. We also had massive shelling of the Kramatorsk train station just when civilians were trying to flee to safety.
We have already seen what can happen when crowds congregate. With an election, we would then basically be pointing at the places where the entire Ukrainian population is gathering at a certain time to cast their votes. That would be highly irresponsible, we believe. We have accordingly made a decision to comply with our legal obligations and let elections take place as soon as the security situation allows.
The second anniversary of Russia’s attack on Ukraine will come next month. What phase of the war is your country currently in? What will be the challenges in the coming weeks and months?
Olha Stefanishyna: Well, that’s a rather broad question, and I can’t give you a short answer to it. But the feeling is that we are now precisely at a moment in this war where everyone around the world finally understands how existential the threat is. Two years ago, we were talking about the brutal aggression, the massive missile attacks, the war crimes which were beyond human comprehension in their brutality. Since then, we have made a number of decisions to hold Russia accountable for its crimes and to structure the process in that regard.
It is only now that an understanding is forming of how existential this struggle is, and that awareness will affect several of the next steps to be taken – for example, the need to consolidate long-term security guarantees and military support, where Germany and other European countries are taking more and more responsibility for structuring, shaping and building a sovereign European defense system. And I also believe that we are now talking not so much in terms of time-lines for the war – although that is naturally something of vital importance for all Ukrainians – but rather we are talking about the means needed to end the aggression, to hold the aggressor accountable and to restore peace in Europe. We have now arrived at a moment in history when this discussion is becoming really substantial.
The EU summit on 14 December paved the way for accession negotiations between the EU and Ukraine. How quickly can your country implement the reforms that are still outstanding? What are you currently working on?
Olha Stefanishyna: We have already shown our capacity to move forward quickly, to implement the will of the 91 percent of Ukrainians who support advancing Ukrainian’s European program, even while the war is still going on. We are therefore very happy to see that all EU leaders, including those who were initially skeptical, have now recognized the sincerity of our efforts, have heard this plea from Ukrainians, and have now made a decision to proceed with the accession talks.
We have the necessary administrative structure, we have strong support from civil society and the think-tank community. Our resources are strong. We have also made all the necessary preparatory work for starting the accession process. If the European Commission were not playing certain games in terms of delays and blocking the process, we would then be able to move forward extremely quickly and would in fact need just a couple of years to structure the entire accession framework.
According to NATO Alliance standards, the military of each member country must be subject to civilian and democratic control. When and how do you intend to create these structures?
Olha Stefanishyna: We started a very serious engagement with the Allies following the NATO summit in Vilnius in 2023, and we have a clear vision for achieving the required interoperability. There is a special mapping of the stages of the process that we will stick to, and for this year we have undertaken the obligation to structure the legal framework for building the necessary chain of command, including balancing the civilian and military components. Our Minister of Defense is currently working hard on this. The vision is there. I think that in the course of this year we will see a lot of clarity in that respect.
However, this is an ongoing process. And at the same time, we generally hear from our Allies that they are currently learning so much from Ukraine, learning from the Ukrainian armed forces. This is thus the particular angle of our dialogue: innovations in the war theatre, in military tactics, but also innovations on the battlefield. We are now talking about our army of drones and other military elements that have hitherto not been part of conventional warfare or part of NATO standards. The necessary interoperability process is well on the way, but at the same time Ukraine is itself now formulating a new NATO standard!
Prime Minister, our last question is always a personal one. How does this war impact your private life? What gives you the strength to get up day after day and provide public service for your country?
Olha Stefanishyna: That’s a rather difficult question for me, but I will try to give a simple answer.
In Ukraine there is a feeling that we have, how shall I say, a joint social contract, that each of us has to get up every morning and do whatever he or she can do. We all have this moral obligation in relation to all those women and men on the front line who have to live in a far less comfortable environment than the rest of us, who are risking their lives, sometimes very regrettably losing their lives, for us. We all have family members who are serving at the front line; part of my family is serving in the armed forces. And of course, I also have a special moral obligation in relation to my children, who have made a decision to stay with me in Kyiv even throughout the war.
So that is for me the major drive and source of energy. Probably first and foremost what motivates me is the honor that I feel in these tough times of having a special duty towards my country and my family and a special responsibility to bear.
I cannot imagine receiving a higher honor in that regard, although of course living up to it is something that is very complex and difficult.
Thank you very much for this interview, Prime Minister!