The extent of the cruelty displayed by Russia’s invaders has shocked the people of Ukraine and deepened their determination to fight for their nation’s survival.
Galyna Mykhailiuk, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and a highly qualified lawyer, tells The Strategist the Russians have used rape of civilians and prisoners, and other forms of unlawful violence, as weapons in a process of dehumanisation.
While war is always terrible, the Russian crimes are beyond belief, she says.
Mykhailiuk is heading a delegation of MPs who have come to Canberra to deliver a message of thanks to the government and people of Australia for the help they’ve provided to the Ukrainian forces fighting a much more powerful adversary. ‘Our Ukrainian armed forces do count on Australian support. For us, it’s very important to express our gratitude to Australia citizens, to the parliament, the government of Australia personally, face to face, for all the support that was provided to Ukraine, military, financial and humanitarian.
‘We survived, thanks to not only the bravery of Ukrainian soldiers, but also the support provided by our international allies. Australia proved to be a very reliable ally in a dark period of Ukrainian history. You helped us to preserve our freedom, independence and democracy. Hopefully this year will be victorious for Ukraine.’
Mykhailiuk says her country’s forces will soon take the offensive against the Russians. Her delegation wants Australia to send some of its Abrams tanks to Ukraine. ‘If Australia can join the tank coalition, it will be highly important for us.’
She says that despite civilian and military casualties, morale remains high. ‘We realise that we don’t have any other choice except to win this war.’
Mykhailiuk says Ukrainians have been appalled by the Russian military’s tactics. ‘It’s beyond belief that they can be so cruel,’ she says. ‘We did not expect that they could do such things. They use everything as a weapon—rape as a weapon, energy as a weapon, cold as a weapon.’ It’s impossible, she says to understand how this can be done by a country in 21st-century Europe.
In one of many episodes Mykhailiuk recounts, a four-year-old girl and her mother were raped in front of the father.
‘They’ve raped men, and even women aged over 80. They want Ukrainian women to feel such fear that they’ll never again give birth to a child, that they’d rather commit suicide than carry this burden.’ Many women in the Ukrainian army would rather be killed in battle than surrender to the Russians because they know they’re likely to be tortured, Mykhailiuk says.
Areas liberated from Russian forces have been heavily mined and hundreds of Ukrainian civilians have been killed by exploding mines, Mykhailiuk says. ‘They put mines everywhere, even into kids’ toys. When people go back to their apartments and open the door there might be explosion, or they open the door of their fridge, there might be an explosion, or when they start their car.’ The same applies to farmers’ fields, she says. Everything must be screened.
It’s estimated that about 1,000 children have been killed in the war, many hit by Russian missile strikes and gunfire. A further 16,000 Ukrainian children are believed to have been kidnapped and taken to Russia. Mykhailiuk says the Russian Federation has enacted a law allowing Russians to adopt such children even if they have parents alive in Ukraine. ‘We don’t know how they are being treated,’ she says.
Ukraine is pleading with the European Parliament and the governments of European and other nations for help to set up a specialised international organisation to help it get the children back.
‘For an occupier and invader to kidnap children is against any international law.’
If Russia wins and occupies Ukraine, it will quickly round up members of the government, she says. ‘As an MP, my home addresses and the addresses of my parents and my family are out there. They know where to find us. If Russia occupies my homeland, they will come for my parents, for my family and they will torture, rape and blackmail. That’s why we don’t have any other option than to have a free Ukraine. It’s win or die. That’s it.’
Some of the language emerging in this war has morphed from Ukraine’s past. Mykhailiuk talks of the front lines as ‘point zero’. That’s where hell is happening, she says. People ask their loved ones in the forces, ‘How many kilometres are you from point zero?’
The Bayraktar TB2 is a Turkish-manufactured armed drone used to great effect by Ukrainian forces to destroy Russian tanks and vehicles. Bayraktar, says Mykhailiuk, has become a common name for boys born in Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
The American-made Javelin shoulder-launched anti-tank missile has been dubbed by many of those fighting the Russians ‘Saint Javelin, protector of Ukraine’. Since the Russian invasion, many girls have been christened Javelina.
She says Russia has failed in its threats to carry out a major military offensive to capture Ukraine. Its troops targeted the small city of Bakhmut in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk but had not been able to take it. ‘There’s a myth,’ says Mykhailiuk, ‘that Russia has the world’s second most powerful army. But we’ve cracked this myth.’
At the same time, Iranian drones provided to Russia have done a lot of damage, and it’s of concern that some Chinese spare parts have been found in Russian weapons, she says.
The cost on Ukraine has been high. In one terrible week in January, Mykhailiuk lost seven of her friends to the conflict. She says some of Ukraine’s bravest soldiers ‘are already in heaven’, but the nation will fight until the Russians are driven out of all of the country including Crimea. There will be no peace in Ukraine as long as Russia holds the strategically positioned peninsula.
If Ukraine surrenders, then Russia will invade Poland and the Baltic countries, Mykhailiuk says. ‘We don’t have any choice: we have to win.’