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Opinion Ukrainians don’t see Russia’s war crimes as an invitation to negotiate

A woman pauses outside a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Nataliya Gumenyuk, founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab, is a Ukrainian author and journalist specializing in foreign affairs and conflict reporting.

KYIV, Ukraine — The Russians have asked Ukrainian forces to surrender Mariupol. The Ukrainians have refused.

I can easily imagine that some observers in the outside world might find that bewildering. The Russians have shelled the city into a smoking wreck, targeting residential areas. First, the airstrikes destroyed power stations, so there’s no more electricity. Then the biggest supermarkets were obliterated, so there’s no food. After another deliberate attack, the firefighters no longer had vehicles, leaving them struggling to put out fires and rescue survivors.

Nothing could show more clearly how Russia aims to continue this war. If Vladimir Putin’s troops don’t win battles with the Ukrainian military, they’ll attack civilians, pressuring the government to surrender. In Mariupol right now, an estimated 300,000 people are effectively being held hostage by the Russian troops who have encircled the city.

Those watching from afar struggle to understand how Ukrainians should respond. I’ve been getting calls from analysts in Paris and London, asking me why we don’t simply give up Mariupol. They’re also asking me how Russians and Ukrainians can arrive at a deal to end the war. Surely, the reasoning goes, anything must be better than enduring such slaughter.

But we don’t see airstrikes on maternity hospitals and bomb shelters where kids and women hide as invitations to negotiate. We see them as demonstrations of what the Kremlin will do to Ukrainians if it can. It’s not about pride. It’s about survival. We have no choice but to win. If we lose, we know what awaits us.

In a recent interview, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky answered similar questions in the same way. He explained that he doesn’t want Ukrainians to perish heroically, and that genuine talks with Putin are needed. But he also stressed that Russian ultimatums can’t be seen as dialogue. Zelensky said it’s not just up to him, but the residents of Kyiv, Kharkiv and even Mariupol won’t accept Russian offers of “talks” as long as they continue trying to bomb our population into submission. And I confirm this talking to people on the ground.

Please understand me properly: I believe in the value of negotiations. Over the years I’ve taken part in many dialogue forums on the conflict in the Donbas. Even now I would say that, before the 2022 invasion, there was no military solution to the Donbas and Crimea.

But there’s something different about this war. Over the years I’ve talked to countless mothers of soldiers, and they’ve almost always told me they wished their sons didn’t have to put their lives on the line. Now, in Odessa and Mykolaiv, I’ve met more of those same warmhearted Ukrainian mothers. They hate the war, they want peace, and they even feel compassion for the young Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine. But they also say they have no doubt that their sons have to fight. They’ve made their choice. They can see what the alternative looks like. Surrender means that their communities will be destroyed.

Either you have a Javelin missile to destroy a Russian tank, or you don’t. The difference could determine whether the Russians occupy a Ukrainian village or a town. Everyone can now see what the consequences can be. My colleagues and I have been interviewing the people in cities and villages under occupation, and documenting abductions and targeted searches for Ukrainian “activists” carried out by Russian troops. Any Ukrainian can become a target: In almost every family, there is someone who served in the army, worked in the local government or has some connection to a local newspaper or initiative.

I reported from occupied Crimea for eight years, a place where speaking Ukrainian was considered a threat to Russia. Now Putin claims that Ukraine doesn’t exist, so being Ukrainian has become a political choice. In these circumstances, the decision to fight or surrender is a choice between the hope for a normal existence where rules apply and human life has value — or the risk of imprisonment and even death for the slightest expression of dissent.

And there’s something important that has to be said: Ukrainians believe they can win — 93 percent of us, according to one recent poll. That’s because we don’t think Russia is an irresistible force. Putin’s power is not unlimited. He is already using up much of his available resources.

We don’t expect foreign countries to join the battle. Ukrainians are extremely grateful for the aid that our allies around the world have been giving us. But Ukraine still needs additional air defenses to help the country to erode Russia’s advantages and save lives in Mariupol and other towns where similar tactics might be used.

And yes, we should keep our lines of communication to the Russians open — even if there is little cause for hope right now. And we do. But so far, we are told that Putin seems to believe that he can still force Ukraine to succumb by creating more victims among Ukrainian civilians, and that he is ready to sacrifice more Russian soldiers’ lives. Talks have their place — but not when your opponent is simply trying to destroy you.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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