Oleksandra Matviichuk is the head of Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. This article is adapted from her Feb. 9 speech at the Rebuilding Ukraine, Rebuilding the World conference at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.
In this regard, this is not just a war between two states. It’s a war between two systems: authoritarianism and democracy.
Let me be clear about one thing: Ukraine desires peace more than anyone else. But I must also be clear on this: Once the fighting with an invaded country stops, that is not peace — it’s occupation. Lasting peace requires justice, and justice requires accountability — even before the war comes to an end.
Under occupation, people have no chance to protect their freedom, their property, their life, their loved ones. In Izyum, Russians killed children’s writer Volodymyr Vakulenko for his pro-Ukrainian position. In Kherson, Russians killed musician and conductor Yuriy Kerpatenko for refusing to perform at a concert. In Bucha, Russians killed Ruslan Nechyporenko and injured his son, who was searching for medicine and food, just because they could.
Opinions on the war in Ukraine after one year
For this reason, those who decline to provide Ukraine with weapons for its defense because this allegedly contributes to escalation of the conflict are not just wrong. They are immoral. The world largely ignored the suffering of people in the territories that were occupied by Russia in 2014. It is harder, it would seem, to ignore the struggle of people against a full-blown invasion.
If you don’t help Ukraine defend itself from Russia’s attack, this means that you are helping Russia to occupy Ukraine.
In this war, Ukraine is fighting for freedom in all its senses: for the freedom to be an independent country, not a Russian colony; for the freedom to have its own identity; for the freedom to have a democratic choice and to live in a society where the government does not determine what you believe, whom you love, what you say, where you go and what you die for.
This war is genocidal in nature. It’s about the possibility of our existence. If we stop fighting, there will be no more us. Therefore, we have no other choice but to resist the Russian occupation and destruction of Ukrainian identity.
People who suffered Russian captivity told me that Russians who were beating, raping and electrocuting them were convinced of their impunity. The democratic world must act to prevent impunity and to ensure that those who are guilty will be brought to account.
Modern technologies allow us to document war crimes in ways we couldn’t have dreamed of 15 years ago. Ordinary people have access to digital tools that help to determine locations or identify people in photos. We can re-create a picture of events and identify war criminals without even being on the spot, as Bellingcat and other organizations do.
Unlike digital technologies, however, international law remains constrained by politics and prejudice. We still look at the world through the lens of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazi war criminals were convicted only after the Nazi regime collapsed.
Today we should not wait for the war to end before demanding accountability. Justice should be independent from the strength of an authoritarian regime.
We must establish a special tribunal on aggression and bring Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and others guilty of this crime to account. But the struggle for justice should not be limited to this. To properly investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, Ukraine requires the support of international specialists, judges and prosecutors who can help us to pursue criminal proceedings — thousands of them have already been opened — in accordance with the standards of justice.
Allowing impunity for war crimes in one place allows those crimes to be repeated in other parts of the world. There will be no lasting peace without justice, especially when Russia, in our part of the world, can get away with using war to achieve its geopolitical goals.
I’m sometimes asked why the Russians shot civilians in Bucha and left their bodies lying in the street until the area was liberated. My answer is simple: This cruelty is a direct result of the impunity that Russia has enjoyed for decades. The Russian military has committed horrible war crimes in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Moldova, in Mali, in Syria and in Libya and has never been punished for it.
That’s why the democratic world’s actions must demonstrate that the guilty in Ukraine cannot be allowed to hide behind Putin. Sooner or later, those who have committed crimes must be held accountable for what they have done with their own hands.
The guarantee of accountability could help to reduce the brutality of the violations that the Russians continue to commit in Ukraine every day; indeed, it can even save lives.
A war turns people into numbers. Only justice can give names back to the victims. Only justice can restore their human dignity.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.