“Europe has been repeatedly warned that Russia’s aggressive actions in the gray zone between war and peace will only increase until Vladimir Putin is decisively confronted," Honcharenko wrote in an analysis for the Atlantic Council. “From the rostrum at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and other international platforms, I have often attempted to alert my European colleagues to the looming danger.”
“These advocates of engagement are prone to downplaying the significance of Putin’s war in Ukraine, while opting to treat the many cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, and political assassinations taking place across Europe as isolated incidents rather than evidence of Russia’s hostile intentions,” he wrote.
“This appeasement of Putin has brought us to the current situation, with rival troops now massing within meters of each other on opposing sides of the EU’s eastern border and the entire continent one stray bullet away from potential disaster.”
Three months later, of course, Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine, just the disaster that Honcharenko foresaw. The 40-year-old politician hails from the port city of Odesa, where his father was mayor. He has been one of Russian President Putin’s most observant and defiant critics since withdrawing from the pro-Russian Party of Regions during the Euromaidan protests of 2014. He is the founder of a network of educational centers in Ukraine teaching language and other skills.
This week, Honcharenko visited Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. officials. On November 29, he sat for a brief interview with Polygraph.info’s Fatima Tlis and Leonid Martynuk. The following Q&A was edited for brevity, clarity, grammar and readability.
Q: Vladimir Putin often makes ridiculous statements about the history of Ukraine. Has Ukraine done enough to tell the world about its real history? What books on the history of Ukraine would you recommend?
Honcharenko: First of all, the Ukrainian nation's main history book is now written on the battlefield. This is the best answer to all these ridiculous statements of Putin because we show to the whole world that we have a very strong identity, we are fighting for our land, and we are not going to give up any inch of it.
Our people were not running from Ukraine. They were not greeting Putin with flowers in their hands, as he was saying to the world, but they are fighting against him. We are meeting them with the Stingers, Javelins. God bless America for your support for weapons in our hands.
Speaking about books, there are a lot of Ukrainian books about our history. But today, you can even go to Wikipedia and find so much information. Great lectures of Timothy Snyder about Ukrainian history. He is a famous American professor doing a great job, and I encourage everybody to watch these videos.
Q: There is a common understanding that in the West, Ukraine is winning in the propaganda war against Russia disinformation, hybrid war, but we don't see the same happening in East Asia, especially in China and in India. Why do you think this is happening? And what could be done to change this situation?
Honcharenko: I think that the truth always wins, and Ukraine is speaking truth to the world. And that's why all these billions of dollars which Russia invests into their propaganda, they failed because that is just not true. But certainly, also we need to work harder.
We are more effective in the West, in the free world, because Japan, Australia, New Zealand, they are completely on our side, because they feel that we have absolute same values, democracy, rule of law, human rights.
Unfortunately, it’s not the same in all the countries that you mentioned. This is the case. That's why they're more far away from us. But that is our responsibility, I think, to expand the free world. Like I told you, I think that we all should do everything we can to make the free world bigger and to involve these countries that you mentioned to this free world society.
But also, certainly we should work. I can tell you I talk quite often on Indian TV. I'm quite often invited there. And India is [a] democracy. That is important. For example, I've never been and, as [far] as I know, no one from my colleagues was invited to Chinese TV.
So, we have very limited opportunities to reach them. But we try. For example, my Twitter. I have more than 100,000 followers and one of my followers, she's from Taiwan, and she's translating almost all my tweets to Chinese, to Mandarin. And so those who are interested, they can find information, but for sure it's more difficult.
Q: One of the central myths of Russian propaganda about Ukraine: ‘There was ancient Rus with its capital in Kyiv, and Russians lived there. We are also Russians, so Ukraine is our land, and we can seize it.’ What is the correct response from Ukraine to these claims?
Honcharenko: The easy answer to the question: What is the difference, and why we're not the same nation? Just take a look at what Russians did with Mariupol and Bucha. I think that's the answer.
For sure, our nations have the same roots. All Eastern [Slavic] people have. Belarusian people, Ukrainian people and Russian people. But to have the same roots doesn't mean anything; the roots [are] from Kyiv. So, if we go this way, we can say that we can take the territory of Russians because everything came from Kyiv.
Christianity came to Moscow from Kyiv. If all civilization came from Kyiv, when Kyiv was one of the biggest cities in Europe, Moscow did not exist. There were just frogs in these marshes, nothing else. And Moscow appeared in just 150 years or more after Kyiv received Christianity.
So that is the historical truth. That's why Ukraine is so important to Russia, because without Kyiv, without Ukraine, they can't be [an] empire because they don't have any roots.
But I don't want to fight [over historical] things because there is no difference for me who was where 1,000 years ago. We have our nation, internationally established and [with] recognized borders, and Russia itself recognized our borders. That's why their war against us is so brutal, barbaric and illegal, because they themselves recognized our borders.
All these conspiracy theories, all these stories about history. We don't need it; we just want to live peacefully on our land. That's all.
Q: About living peacefully on our land. You told me that Ukraine is winning; there is no doubt about it. But the question is, what comes next? We see media reports here in the West that say the United States and other governments are pushing the Ukrainian government leadership into making some kind of concessions to Russia, into negotiating peace with Russia. How much in those reports is accurate, and how much is just rumor and disinformation?
Honcharenko: A lot is rumor and mostly disinformation. For sure, the whole world wants peace. And I can assure you that there is no other nation in the world than Ukrainians who wants peace today, because we are suffering enormously. We have thousands, tens of thousands of victims, and we want peace. But we want real peace and not some kind of so-called peace.
Because if Putin would be successful [in taking] even one inch of Ukrainian territory, inside our internationally recognized borders, that will mean that this kind of policy, and this kind of behavior, like he showed, and Russia showed here, is acceptable – that it is possible that big countries can attack smaller ones, that big nations can suppress smaller nations. And that will be a disaster [for] the world.
So, that's why we need to restore international order, which means complete, full restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity, including Crimea, including Donbas, including all our territories. That's why I don't think that there is ... real pressure from the Western governments.
Putin doesn't want any peace because, who started the war? If he wanted peace, he would never have started the war. But he wants to pause. He wants time to replenish, refresh, because he's losing the war. So now he needs some time, and he tries to win it by all [this] blah, blah, blah about negotiations. But, in reality, he doesn't want any.
I just want to assure if Russia is ready to leave Ukrainian territories, we're ready to [have] negotiations today. But our [terms are] very simple: Just get out of our country. That's all.
Q: Disguising the abduction of Ukrainian children under the pretense that this is an evacuation and taking them to Russia and giving them to Russian families: Does Ukraine have a database of the abducted children? Is there any way for you to rescue those kids?
Honcharenko: That is an especially important question. First of all, we need to call its right name – it’s ... genocide. Because one of the definitions of genocide, and one of [the] criteria that shows us that it is genocide, is the attempt to change identity of children, and forceful migration, deportation of children. Because the idea is to make Russians from Ukrainians, and this is genocide.
For sure, Ukraine is doing our best to follow what's going on to make a database. We are going to find all our children, every Ukrainian who was forcibly deported from our country. And we will never stop before we finish this job. This is our responsibility.
And nobody else will do this except of us. So, we understand it. And that is a task for us; even if it takes years, we will do it.
Q: One of the trump cards of Kremlin propaganda is the millions of Russian speakers in Ukraine. Any Russian speaker, even here in the U.S., is a potential victim of Russian propaganda, because their TV shows and films are often the highest quality media product in the Russian language. How can Ukraine solve this problem? What do you think about making the second language of Ukrainians not Russian but English?
Oleksiy Honcharenko: That's a very good idea. And by the way, I have a network of Honcharenko centers in Ukraine that are free of charge where we teach English to adults and children. And we will continue to do this.
But in general, I can tell you that Russia tries to reach not only Russian speaking [people], but also, we know that their Russia Today works in English, Spanish, and other languages. So, they are trying to get many, many others.
And in general, I don't think that the Russian language is the property of Putin. It's like [the] German language was not [the] property of Hitler. The problem is not in the language itself. The problem is in the Russian state. Because Russia is still an empire. And before Russia will be de-imperialized, they will keep using any ground[s], like language.
Q. I was watching Russian TV and as usual, the Russian propaganda pundits and Margarita Simonyan were justifying Russia’s bombing of Ukraine's energy sector in the middle of the winter, freezing the cities. Can you share with us what the situation is right now?
Honcharenko: The situation is very simple. What Russia is doing in Ukraine, all this war, is a huge war crime. Because all these attacks on energy infrastructure from [the] military point of view give nothing to Russia, but they try just to make people suffer in Ukraine. And unfortunately, they succeed.
You are asking what the situation is now in Ukraine. My family is in Odesa, my wife, and my kids. They don't have electricity now and already for several days. It means that millions of Ukrainians are without electricity, many of them are without heating. Some of them are without drinking water. Without centralized water supply, and things like this.
So, the situation is very difficult. It is a humanitarian catastrophe, which is caused by what Russia is doing. And that's why I think we should say that Russia is a state terrorist, and that is why I think we should name it how it is.
How it was done by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly of NATO, European Parliament, many of national parliaments. Because what Russia is doing is clearly terror against civilians. And that is something we should stop.
I can [say] just big thanks to all people who support Ukraine. And I know there are billions of people now throughout the whole planet who support us. It's very important for us. So, thank you very much. We will win this war, and that will be not only [a] victory for Ukraine, but this will be a victory of every human being on the planet who wants to live [according to] basic values: democracy, human rights, rule of law. That will be the victory of the free world.