“Time plays out in our favour”: Vitalii Rybak views on Russian war in Ukraine

Interview with Vitalii Rybak, journalist and analyst at Ukraine World and Internews Ukraine, who explained us some key concepts about Russian War in Ukraine.

On February 24th 2022, a few days after recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk as Independent Republics, Russia invaded Ukraine’s territory. Since then, the global geopolitical balance appears to be compromised. We have been constantly reading news and reports in order to decipher such a complicated context and discovered a very interesting source called Ukraine World.

Ukraine World is an English-language multimedia project run by the media agency Internews Ukraine. They have a team that produces reports, podcasts, analyses and books about the Ukrainian context and issues. They also own an Italian Twitter Channel.

ukraine war, vitalii rybak

Vitalii Rybak, Ukrainian journalist and media analyst

We contacted them and managed to have a Zoom Meeting with Vitalii Rybak, analyst and journalist both at UkraineWorld and Internews Ukraine. Vitalii lives in west Ukraine, he and his family are currently safe although he claimed to be fine “as far as you can be these days: nowadays in Ukraine you can’t feel really safe and you can’t be really out of harms”.

We talked to Vitalii for about half an hour, and he helped us understand some key concepts about the ongoing situation in Ukraine.

Hello, Vitalii. Thank you for accepting our invitation. On the 24th of February Russia invaded Ukraine. After that, everyone in the world have been probably reading news and analyses about your Country, trying to understand what’s going on. We know somehow the actors involved and understand this war hasn’t begun in 2022. Nevertheless, most of us could not imagine that Russian President would have gone that far. Therefore we want to be direct and ask you: why Vladimir Putin declared war to your Country? What are his real intentions?

I believe that no one except Putin himself knows exactly what his intentions are, but we definitely can make educated guesses. One of the pieces of information we can make such guesses is based on an article which was published in Kremlin controlled media outlet RIA Novosti the morning of February 26th.

It was called like “Russia and the beginning of the new world”. This article was published by mistake, so it was taken down pretty quickly. But it was too late, since it can be found on several other websites which reported this article. This article is about Russia having a decisive victory in Ukraine and taking control of Ukraine. It reports the historical narration of the United Russia, that involves Ukraine and Belarus: according to this view, Ukraine is not seen as a separate nation. Ukrainian people are rather “Malorosy” (малороси) which can be translated as “Small Russians”. They are seen as part of Russian Nation, not a separate nation and this has been Putin’s dream for years.

Everybody knows that Vladimir Putin is a former KGB officer. I believe that the destruction of Soviet Union was a huge personal tragedy for him and during the last 22 years he has been doing quite a lot to re-establish the Soviet Union. He had been working on measures like the Eurasian Economic Union or the ODKB, a Security Union similar to the NATO but conceived for countries in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Well, this project was really incomplete without Ukraine because Ukraine was one of the Key Republics in the Soviet Union and Putin sees Ukraine as part of this project for a new Russian Empire. I am not sure whether or not he would call it as Russian Empire, maybe the Second Soviet Union or something like that. But Ukraine is certainly integral part of his imperialistic ambitions: that’s why he attacked Ukraine.

But this war did not start on 21st of February: it started back in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, when he invaded Donbas. This war had been still for years, after the initial flare-up in 2014/2015. Now Putin decided to continue it and maybe end it once and for all.

What about your President, Volodymyr Zelensky? Do you believe he is acting correctly? Should he be doing something else to stop this conflict/claim Ukrainian rights?

I personally believe that Zelensky does everything correctly and does everything he can in this very difficult situation, but I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Let’s have a look at the approval figures: before the war Zelensky approval figures were around 25%-30%, so really not a lot. Now his approval figures are over 90%: Ukrainians approve what Zelensky is doing.

We also see that a lot of Western outlets write very fondly about him. For instance: these days he is on a Polish Newsweek’s cover and the headline claims that Zelensky is now the leader of the Free World. It looks like many western journalists are impressed by him and this is also the sentiment Ukrainians feel.

We believe that Zelensky and his team are doing a lot to fend off Russian aggression and so far as we can see they have been pretty much successful: even though Russians invaded us, they did not capture any major cities except for Kherson. They did not capture Kharkiv, they did not capture Kyiv: they were their strategic goals.

Russian Army did not issue any major strategic goals and I believe this is really a huge success for Zelensky and his team but also for the whole Ukrainian nation, for Ukrainian armed forces, for the volunteers. I see right now that every person is very motivated to help in any way he or she can and the whole Nation works together to fend off this aggression: this is clearly because of Zelensky position and actions. It also shows what kind of nation Ukrainians are: they really value their freedom very highly and they won’t go down easily without fighting.

We previously have been talking about Vladimir Putin. As we previously said he has been leading his Country for over 20 years, so we should be used to his political thought. Nevertheless, he had been able to shock us once more. What about Russian people instead? Do they really accept this war?

This question is really hard to answer. I think we have no 100% reliable clue about what’s really going on in Russia, but still there are some facts we can operate with. First of all: Russian state-owned polls say that around 70% of Russian population support Russia’s so-called military operation in Ukraine, but we clearly understand that we can’t trust data provided by the Russian state-owned pollsters.

Secondly: we understand that a lot of Russian people still do not really understand what’s going on in Ukraine. What Putin says is that Russia hits only military infrastructures, they spare civilians and he is very gentle. And that’s not the case: Russian army shells civilian infrastructures and kills civilians, innocent people who mean no harm for Russia or for no one else. Ukrainian people tried to bring this information to Russians with social networks like Telegram and other channels. But many Russian people only receive news from Russian television and Russian television does not tell what exactly is happening here.

A poll carried out in February 2022 by the independent pollster “Levada Center” shows that 71% of Russian people supported Vladimir Putin. In January his popularity rate was 69%. This means that nevertheless Russian people mostly trust Putin and support his actions, even though they might not be completely informed about the situation.

We also have seen however that protests in Russia against war are plentiful. But not as they were last year, when Aleksej Navalny was imprisoned. We believe that all those people who do not come out to protest support Putin somehow, either by not being informed enough or by supporting him. They support war either with direct action or inaction, which is just as bad.

Let’s talk about the future developments of this war. We know that is really hard to imagine right now, but what can we expect? How long can it last?

You’re right: It’s really hard to say what would happen next. But I would like to say that I don’t really believe in a diplomatic solution because Russian position is very strict. They say that Ukraine has to recognise Crimea as Russian, it has to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and then declaring its neutrality, abandoning any hope for entering NATO.

Ukraine might declare neutrality if given enough security guarantees by all sides, by NATO and Russia. But Ukraine would never recognise Crimea as Russian territory and it would never recognise the so-called Republic in Donbas. Ukrainian people support this, there is no way that President Zelensky and his team would surrender to Russia on these red lines about Crimea and Donbas.

Therefore, I really believe there is no diplomatic solution so far. Right now I would only see the military solution as possible. So far Ukrainian armed forces have been fending off Russian aggression really good. We have 95% of Russian forces in Ukraine already and still they can’t take Kyiv, they can’t take Kharkiv.

Meanwhile, Western sanctions cripple Russian economy and Russian forces suffer more losses than Ukrainian armed forces from what I see. Ukraine receives a lot of military assistance from the West and people in Ukraine are really motivated to join the Ukraine’s armed forces and I believe we still have quite a lot of reserves because right now only people who help military experience can join Ukraine armed forces.

So even though general mobilization was announced in Ukraine those who have no military experience can’t join the Army. For me this is a good sign showing that Ukraine’s army commanders are not desperate, we also see a lot of people coming from abroad to join Ukraine’s International legion. At the moment there are more than 16000 people who have already come to Ukraine to join this international legion, including 3000 US veterans. This is another good news for Ukraine.

I strongly believe that time plays out in Ukraine’s favour. So while we hold on we will receive more supplies, more help from our allies. The spirit of Ukraine Nation is strong and won’t be broken.

Russians are losing a lot of money because of this war. And there are increasing risks of internal instability: sooner or later Russian people would realize what’s really going on in Ukraine and would go out to protest. We really hope that Russian people would start doing something, doing more than they are doing now.

So, right now I believe that the best way for Ukraine to win this war is to continue defending, counterattacking where possible and, well, waiting while Russian Army stops and either goes back. And Russian leadership becomes more open for negotiations, which would not include recognising Crimea and Donbass. Maybe they would be more open to that, although I believe there is no much hope for that.

You partially replied to the question I was about to ask: you claimed you don’t believe that much in a diplomatic solution right now and see the conflict itself as the most effective solution at the moment. What about the economic sanctions? Would they work somehow? Is there something else the International Community can do to support Ukraine?

In Ukraine we’ve been talking a lot about it. The President, the Foreign Minister and also the Ukraine civil Society did. The best way to help Ukraine would be closing the sky over Ukraine, preventing Russian jets and missiles to destroy civilian infrastructures and kill Ukrainian people going unharmed.

We see that NATO is afraid to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine and somewhat NATO’s motivation is understandable. But maybe there is still hope for our diplomats to establish a no-fly zone. There is also some hope that NATO countries such as Poland would provide Ukraine with more fighter jets, so that Ukrainian could fight off Russian aircrafts more effectively. That would really be a huge help, in addition to the economic sanctions.

Right now we see that on land Ukrainian armed forces can stop Russians pretty effectively. But Russian jets and missiles hit Ukrainian cities, even those which are far from the Frontline. On 6 February, eight cruise missiles hit an Airport near Vinnytsia, which is almost 300 km away from the front line. Therefore, no town in Ukraine is really safe also considering that there are Russian missiles deployed in Belarus and they can hit the Western Ukraine just as well if Russia wanted to do that.

Closing the sky over Ukraine in any way or by providing Ukrainian military with more jets and more anti-air defence systems would really be the most important help we are counting on right now. Because it would… it would allow to save civilian lives.

Let’s talk about your job. The role of the social media in this conflict is proving to be crucial: Twitter, Telegram and also TikTok may be helpful to inform and fight the fake news. And that’s what you do with Ukraine World. What can you tell about it?

I believe that Russian disinformation is really a huge problem, it has been so for many years so far. Mostly, fake news and disinformation address the EU and the Western World. This can be very subtle and dangerous, because Russian press disinformation may not appear particularly pro-Russian but is more anti-western, anti-NATO, anti-EU.

If we have a look at what pro-Russian actors have been saying in Ukraine, they were rarely saying that Russia is great, let’s come back and be friends with Russia. That was very rarely the case. They mostly say that NATO abandoned Ukraine, that EU only wants to drain natural resources and money from Ukraine, and it does not care for Ukrainian people. They state no country in the world is Ukraine’s friend, everyone just wants to get rich on Ukraine and Ukraine has no allies. And this is Russian understanding of what’s happening in the world.

They see all international relations as “the” or “some” game where only one side wins everything and the other side loses everything. And that’s really a huge problem because Russians really do believe that the world works this way.

I strongly believe that it doesn’t and there is place for cooperation, there is place for win-win situations. We see a lot of that in the UN and so on. Well, that’s what we were fighting against for all these years.

But now, also Russia understands how important social networks are in this information war and I strongly believe that Ukraine has been winning this information war since Russia has already blocked Facebook and Twitter. Also, TikTok has blocked a possibility for Russian users to upload videos and do live-streams, and videos from other countries are not available to Russian users.

Although it is not confirmed, right now there are even rumours that on March 11th Russia might cut-off itself completely from the World Wide Web. Because since 2019 they have already been testing an Intranet, a World Wide Web for Russia, similar to the one in North Korea. I strongly believe that Russia might do that, because it has been losing information wars so far.

Very few people in the world believe Russian lies about the “denazification” of Ukraine special military operations and in my opinion Ukrainian media and civil Society organizations have done a really good job by delivering information to the International Community about what’s really happening in Ukraine. And that it’s a war, it’s an invasion and Russian army kills Ukrainian civilians, not only targets military infrastructure.

So, in this case I believe the Social Networks really helped Ukraine and that Russian actions in this regard by blocking them confirms that Russia is losing.

How can we support your work?

We have a website that puts together all the verified ways in which international community can help Ukrainians. It’s called Support Ukraine Now, where you can make donations and find any other way to support Ukraine. What you’re doing right now is important as well: spreading the word about what’s happening here is really a huge assistance for us.

Domenico Spampinato
Graziano Rossi
Arianna Acciarino

Cover via Unsplash

Interview in Italian

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