The Voices of the East: Perspectives in a Divided Europe? Series Part #6
Interview with Her Excellency Natalia Galibarenko
Ukraine has entered the third year of a conflict that unravelled on its Eastern border in front of the eyes of the shocked world. The ongoing tension with its Eastern neighbour and former partner, Russia, escalated in Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Yet, the seeds of the on-going war in Donbass, the much-contested border zone, were sown much earlier.
The country has a painful history of being divided among the continent’s super-powers for centuries. It was only in 1991 that the Ukrainians began building their own independent state. It proved challenging as the past divides and former alliances are hard to shake off. This legacy is still alive today. A sober analysis reveals that no easy miraculous solution is in sight. Ukraine struggles to contain the Russian appetite for land and influence in Europe as it steps up its courtship with the EU. The only tool at their disposal are international sanctions on Russia.
Meanwhile, as the death toll of the conflict in the East continues to rise, the threat of the Eastern neighbour becomes ever more pressing. According to Ukrainians, there is no appeasing the Kremlin. They believe Putin has a mission to divide and once again rule over the Ukrainian territory. The current situation revives the memories of the expansive reach of the communist empire.
Her Excellency Natalia Galibarenko draws surprising and little-known parallels between the present and the past, while also sharing the unwavering determination of her country and its people. She believes that Ukraine has a right to choose its own destiny and, according to her, the choice is clear. Membership in the European Union is the only alternative.
The tragedy of my country was that it was divided for centuries
Our land was split between several countries. The Western part of Ukraine was under Polish influence. Another part was governed by Romania. The Carpathian region fell under the Kingdom of Hungary and later the monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Further still, the Eastern part of Ukraine, was embedded into tsarist Russia and later the communist empire and the Soviet Union. Even though we tried to unite ourselves as a nation-state many times, our attempts failed. This was because the foreign interests were just too powerful to overcome at the time. They all wanted their piece of the cake, at the cost of Ukraine and her sovereignty.
Then came the devastating Second World War
Every fifth Ukrainian was killed. They left behind, many empty regions and homes that were very quickly filled by ethnic Russians. These people relocated into the Ukrainian territory to repopulate the region with Russian blood. This was done to prevent resistance and stop Ukrainians from forming a unified nation. Although it was effective, it did not work everywhere in Ukraine. In the West, it was made difficult by the fact that the society was very integrated and pro-Ukrainian. The East and the Crimea were more open to influx of Russians.
These are the historical precursors to present challenges in Ukraine.
It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that a natural opportunity arose in 1991. For the first time, Ukrainians could claim sovereignty and start building their country. Astonishingly, it was Russian aggression that promoted the rise of the Ukrainian identity and pride in it.
Ukraine was described as a bridge between the East and the West
In the past, some politicians advocated that Ukraine should never join the European Union. The argument was that Ukraine should remain neutral and become a bridge between East and West. I think that the war with Russia shows that this was a mistake and a rosy glasses approach to the reality. Staying in-between is a no-win policy for us.
The war in Eastern Ukraine has taken over 10,000 Ukrainian lives over the past 3 years
Every few days, we hear of yet another unfortunate incident. The latest sad news arrived while we were watching the Eurovision final in Kyiv (May 2017). Sadly, four civilians were killed as a result of a Russian-led terrorist attack, among them three women. This was devastating to hear. But unfortunately, it has becomes a sad tradition in my country.
We cannot make Russia behave in a more European civil way
Russians are not willing to observe ceasefire agreed during talks in Minsk in 2014. All we have at our disposal are international sanctions against our aggressor. The war demonstrates that Russia is not seeking to build any peaceful bridges with its neighbours. What Russia is doing is trying to restore the Soviet Union in some shape. I think that this is the dream of Mr Putin.
Putin only wants one thing from us, and that is our entire country
The main goal of Kremlin in this war is to control my country. At the start of the war, Putin was counting on the Russian-speaking population to support him. But he soon realised that he can only rely on his troops and individuals like former criminals whom he released from the prisons in Crimea and occupied territories. There are no illusions among Ukrainians about Russia’s true intentions.
It is black and white for us
Ukrainians are tired of war. People would like to go on with their own lives. They do not want to send their husbands and sons to Eastern Ukraine to be killed. Yet, we stand firm to defend our country.
To unleash another war in Europe is unimaginable
Putin understands this all too well. He knows that he can easily go forward. At the same time, he is aware of the cost. Both financial and human. For now, he is trying to maintain political and military instability in Ukraine by keeping the state a ‘frozen’ conflict.
People want to live and raise their children in Ukraine, not in the Russian Federation
Visa-free travel to Europe could be a game changer for my country. Following its announcement, we could immediately observe the enthusiasm. People started applying for biometric passports. It is important to show the value of having a Ukrainian passport in comparison with a Russian one. The EU is sending a strong message that Ukrainians are welcome.
Ukraine’s future is in the European family despite Brexit and its other problems
European integration remains an engine of our internal transformation and reforms. In turn we can bring into EU our human capital and a strong industrial basis. Let’s not forget that during the Soviet era, Ukraine was the most industrialised out of all Soviet republics. Above all, Ukraine has very fertile soil and a developed agricultural sector. My country is one of the main exporters of grain and wheat in the world. That makes us a real asset to Europe. Ukrainians are highly educated. It is not a surprise that Ukraine is the land of start-ups. Our young people are eager to make an international impact.
Her Excellency Mrs Natalia Galibarenko
Mrs Natalia Galibarenko entered the world of international politics shortly after completing her studies at the Institute of International Relations of the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. Since the dawn of her career, she has been involved in the strive to integrate Ukraine into the Western structures, most notably the EU.
Mrs Galibarenko participated in negotiations with many international organisations on behalf of Ukraine both at home and abroad. She held an array of positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ukraine ranging from the head of Mission to the International Organisation in Vienna, to First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, before coming to London. It was in 2015, a year after the onset of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, that she was tasked with representing and protecting the best interests of her country in the United Kingdom.