‘The worst kind of peace is better than any war’: An exiled Ukrainian dissident appeals to Zelensky and his country’s elites
In Kolomyia, a small town in Ukraine’s Western Ivano-Frankovsk Region, a court is hearing the case against Ruslan Kotsaba, who is accused of treason and crimes against the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The defendant, however, is not present, having fled to the US in August 2022.
The details of the charges brought against the journalist are still unknown. An advisor to the Head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Markiyan Lubkivsky, has stated that documents which “may indicate” treason and espionage were seized during his arrest. However, they have not been made public.
Meanwhile, Kotsaba insists he’s being persecuted for his pacifist views. Since 2014, he has been a war correspondent working on both sides of the front in Donbass. During Pyotr Poroshenko’s presidency, the authorities persecuted him for issuing calls to boycott conscription. Meanwhile, Kotsaba was also often attacked by nationalists. Under Vladimir Zelensky, the crackdown has continued, and Amnesty International has recognized him as a prisoner of conscience. In a conversation with RT, Kotsaba discussed the internal conflicts tearing Ukrainian society apart, the possibilities for pacifism in the country, and its post-war future.
The link between the Maidan and the current war
RT: This year will mark the ten-year anniversary of the start of the Euromaidan [a series of violent Western-backed protests which overthrew the elected government]. You took an active part in those events as a journalist. How do you feel about them now?
Ruslan Kotsaba: The Ukrainian language has two different words for positive and negative kinds of anniversaries. We call the anniversary of a positive event 'rychnitsa', and the anniversary of a bad one 'rokovina'. The Euromaidan anniversary is doubtlessly a rokovina. As a result of this tragedy, Ukraine has lost the attributes needed for statehood.
The so-called Revolution of Dignity was just a political strategy. Millionaires wanted to become billionaires, and the rest of the people were just used as extras. In regard to the Maidan, we need to clearly separate the people on the stage from the people in front of the stage. The actors on the stage used political methods to spark mass hysteria. The crowd merely jumped up and down under the xenophobic slogans. The media empires of the oligarchs all worked to take down President Viktor Yanukovich.
At the time, people believed that they could elect someone who would make things better. But in Ukraine, the power vertical has progressively deteriorated – every new politician is worse than his predecessor. This whole political strategy was based on the belief that new people would come and things would get improve. But as we can see now, it's only getting worse. The strategy has exhausted itself. I hope we were its last guinea pigs.
At first, the Maidan looked like a festival, but it all ended with mass killings. To this day, no one knows who is responsible for the deaths, why no one has been punished, and why the authorities ordered to cut down the trees that proved that the shots were fired from the building where the deputies of the [Ukrainian far-right] ‘Svoboda’ party were positioned.
RT: Why do you think these events led to a full-scale armed conflict in Ukraine’s southeast?
RK: This was all part of the Maidan strategy. We can’t say that the representatives of the establishment didn’t know what they were doing. All the politicians on the Maidan stage knew perfectly well what their actions would lead to, they knew that some of Ukraine would break off. But they didn’t need these parts, because neither Crimea nor Donbass would have voted for them. They wanted to create a homogeneous Ukrainian state.
It all ended in a real civil war, where people holding Ukrainian passports killed other people with Ukrainian passports. Back in 2014, I was accredited as a war correspondent on both sides of the front. I give you my word of honor that 99% of the fighters were simple local workers.
I remember standing at a checkpoint in Peski [a village a few kilometers away from Donetsk city – RT], which was then under the control of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The people at this checkpoint were no different from the so-called 'separs' [an insulting nickname given to Donbass residents, derived from the word 'separatists' – RT].
On both sides, I saw the same weathered faces, the same alcohol abuse, the same DIY devices for smoking marijuana right by the machine guns. It's just that some wore St. George’s ribbons [a black and orange ribbon which is a World War Two symbol in Russia – RT], while others had blue and yellow ribbons. The people at both checkpoints listened to the same songs. All this caused a striking dissonance – it showed that people were ready to die just so that politicians could continue serving the oligarchs.
The hypocrisy of Ukrainian politics
RT: So federalization – which was widely discussed by politicians since the early 1990s and advocated by protesters in Kharkov, Odessa, Donetsk, and Lugansk in 2014 – was out of the question?
RK: Oh, definitely. All they wanted was a monolithic country with usurped power and authoritarianism. It was all cynically planned in advance.
Those who came to power deliberately provoked the conflict so that these regions would try to separate. They wanted to slam the doors with gusto,[leading to the] loss of territories and [the] creation of a politically homogeneous country.
RT: Yet Poroshenko was elected precisely as a politician who promised to stop the fighting and reconcile the country. Is it normal for Ukrainian politicians to deceive their voters?
RK: It has always been like this – every president radically changed course either right after the election or towards the end of his term. They all eventually spat in the face of their voters. They said one thing, did another, and went for the second term advocating the exact opposite of what they proposed in the first term.
Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, the former second secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR, came to power bearing slogans about maintaining ties with Russia and protecting the Russian language. But it was all a lie, since by calling Ukraine independent, the party elite just wanted to seize its share of the country without consulting the Kremlin.
The second president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, positioned himself as the antithesis of his predecessor. He often spoke about protecting the rights of Russian-speaking people in the southeast and supporting the region’s industry. But what did he do eventually? He published the book ‘Ukraine is not Russia’ and de facto birthed the oligarchy. He also betrayed his voters.
I don’t even have anything to say about the third president, Viktor Yushchenko. He was a very weak politician and a bad president, the result of a compromise between the oligarchs. The fourth president Yanukovich was elected with the same slogans. After a patriotic frenzy, he turned his attention to the country’s southeast, but then something happened and he betrayed everyone, including Russia and the oligarchs who were focused on the Russian market. He spoke all sorts of words about being “forever with Russia,” but in fact supported economic nationalism.
During his election campaign, Poroshenko said that he knew how to end the war “not just in a few days, but in a few hours.” All of us remember what happened next… Zelensky’s election slogans also focused on his willingness to negotiate “even with the bald devil,” but then his rhetoric changed completely, he became a 'war hawk' and likewise betrayed his voters who wanted peace.
Such is the tragedy of Ukraine, which historically never had real statehood. As a result, we’ve been killing not only our Russian brothers, but also each other. Just think of it – as we’re recording this interview, several dozen people are being killed. Not just Russians or Ukrainians, but people! A real genocide is going on.
How politicians attempted to build the nation
RT: But didn’t the ideologues of Ukrainian statehood support the idea of a war between Ukraine and Russia all the way back in the 1990s? For example, the vice president of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences and the First Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Vladimir Gorbulin, wrote that independence should be won with blood…
RK: These were just slogans shouted by the ultra-right to attract the radical electorate. No one seriously considered fighting with Russia, which is a nuclear superpower. Gorbulin uttered those words from the comfort of his office. That’s why he talked like that. But if his son or grandchildren were fighting in the war, I bet he wouldn't say things like that. Those who call on others to fight until the end usually never send their own children to fight. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about that.
RT: Do you think that the Ukrainian nation that the ideologues have dreamed of since the 1990s, is now a reality?
RK: What Ukrainian nation?... I now live in the US, and this is what may be called a nation. That’s because no one talks about the ethnic principles of building this nation.
A political nation cannot be built on ethnic principles in the 21st century. It’s actually absurd when ethnic Jews – President Zelensky and the Head of the Office of the President Andrey Ermak – talk about Ukrainian ethnicity. It’s dishonest and cynical.
It is absurd when Russian-speaking politicians force everyone to speak Ukrainian. After all, being bilingual is our civilizational advantage. But now, the language issue has divided the nation, and it’s easier to control people that way. They continue forcing the language issue even amidst an ongoing civil conflict. It’s just plain irresponsible. You have to really hate your people to do such things.
The impact of the war on Ukrainian society
RT: Has Ukrainian society changed a lot since the war?
RK: In modern Ukraine, everyone who thinks differently is an enemy of the people, and society is divided. The fighting will sooner or later end in peace or a truce, but the internal conflict will continue. I hope it doesn’t turn into an internecine strife because there are oligarchs and politicians who would definitely benefit from it.
I’ll give you an example. I have a friend, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. Now, this is absolutely normal – for example, as we are talking right now, you speak Russian and I speak Ukrainian but we understand each other perfectly. My friend is a good businessman, he honestly pays his taxes, he is a Ukrainian patriot. But he is afraid to speak Russian in his hometown, because he may get his jaw broken.
The authorities have released the genie of hatred out of the bottle, and no one knows how to push it back. Sooner or later, this genie will consume those who released it.
RT: After the outbreak of hostilities, many Ukrainians left the country, but a large Ukrainian diaspora existed in Western countries even before the war. Does its influence on Western governments contribute to the escalation of the conflict? And does it influence internal political processes in Ukraine?
RK: There are emigrants who strongly support the war. They walk the streets dressed in camouflage, adorn their cars with flags and coats of arms. But these are couch warriors who are mostly active on the internet, where they call for fighting until the last Ukrainian. I recently met a guy like that on the street – dressed in a camouflage jacket, with a Ukrainian coat of arms and yellow tape on the sleeves [blue, yellow, and green scotch tape is used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a tactical sign – RT]. So I asked him, ‘You’re from Brighton Beach Territorial Defense or what? You’re disgracing Ukraine and disgracing yourself.’ And he started making excuses that he is a volunteer and he is allowed to walk around like that because of the war.
In general, the further someone is from the front, the more aggressive their rhetoric about fighting until the last Ukrainian.
This aggressive rhetoric attracts a lot of attention, but most emigrants live quietly, sometimes sending small donations to the Armed Forces of Ukraine assistance funds. But they know that they will never return to Ukraine. This is also a cynical mindset, but at least it is not directly aggressive. Generally, people don’t have a place to return to. Post-war Ukraine won’t be any less terrifying than war-time Ukraine.
RT: Considering all that, is a pacifist mindset still popular in society?
RK: People don’t like pacifists anywhere. They always consider pacifists to be spies working for the other side. For some reason, all countries believe that war can solve political or economic problems, although war only aggravates these issues. I am against any army, either Ukrainian or Russian. I want people to live peacefully. Imagine how many problems we could solve if money wasn’t spent on war!
Regarding the pacifist mindset in Ukraine, we need to understand a simple truth: if 40 men die at the front, their 40 widows will be pacifists for life.
I talked with many widows and people who lost loved ones in the war. Even if they have a lot of aggression and desire for revenge at first, it soon fades away. Moreover, I have seen how people who lost loved ones on different sides of the front had more in common with each other than couch warriors, who grow increasingly more radical the further they are from the trenches. Pacifism is destined to become the mindset of the majority. Unfortunately, this will come at a very high price. I don’t know why people are so blind.
RT: Of all the things you’ve seen in war, what turned you into an active opponent of fighting?
RK: I can hardly say anything original in this respect. It’s the corpses, the intestines, the body parts sorted into black garbage bags. The summer of 2014 turned out to be quite hot, and the bodies were buried not far from the surface. Many of the bodies became swollen and protruded out of the dirt. At that point, the color of the ribbon on the grave didn’t matter – whether it was the St. George’s ribbon, the blue-yellow one, or the Russian tricolor. War is the point where civilization ends.
There are some cynics who say that they are masters of their own lives, that they will survive. I’m not like that, I’m a believer. God guides me. [In 2016], the prosecutor’s office demanded a 13-and-a-half-year imprisonment for me with the confiscation of my property. This was unprecedented in the history of Ukraine. The authorities attempted to make a scarecrow out of me for others, to force journalists to write what they wanted. But God saved me from prison – I was released at the appeal hearing.
The future of the conflict
RT: What opportunities for resolving the current conflict do you see?
RK: It will all end with negotiations. But the later Zelensky is ordered to sit down at the negotiating table, and I don’t see him as capable of independent action, the more bitter and humiliating the peace conditions will be for Ukraine. I don’t think we can seriously expect to have a victory over a nuclear power. This is impossible. Sooner or later, Ukraine will finish playing its role of the cudgel used for weakening Russia. It will run out of cannon fodder.
You see, the most feared word in Ukraine is now 'military commissar.' We call them “people catchers.” Military commissars are like gods now – they get to decide who lives and who dies. They send people to a place of no return – unless you count returning to a hospital with amputated limbs. I would recommend all the people who talk about 'fighting until the last Ukrainian' to visit a military hospital, at least for a few hours. Let them see those poor soldiers with no limbs. They are used to watching the war on Telegram, but in the hospital they would see the real war. They would understand why Ruslan Kotsaba is a pacifist. And why, even if others turn against me, I will not back off, because there’s no way back. Soon, the majority of people will be like me. The war will end anyway. And then they will say, “Hey, there was this guy Ruslan Kotsaba, he said the right things. Why didn’t we listen to him? Why didn’t we believe him?”
Inevitably, people will see that even the worst kind of peace is better than war. They will understand that ten years of negotiations are better than one day of war. And the later the negotiations begin, the worse the conditions will be for Zelensky. His own people will hang him – perhaps not literally, but definitely in a political sense, and his own associates will turn against him. They will betray him, and then they will say that they are not traitors, that they merely saw the wider picture at an opportune moment.
Just look at Bakhmut [Artyomovsk in Russian]. I believe that after so many months of fighting, about 100,000 people from both sides have already died there. And all those people who’re looking at the fate of Bakhmut with horror, just like they used to look at Mariupol – the residents of Slaviansk and Kramatorsk, whose roofs are strewn with weapons – do they really think that the army is protecting them?
The world has been sorting out its problems at our expense. The US military-industrial complex has earned a lot of money, [Western] Europe has solved its demographic problems. 220,000 Ukrainian children went to school in Poland in September 2022. But we’ve got this mess to handle. Let the US and Russia compete – this is geopolitics and they are the world empires. The problem for Ukraine is that all this is happening on its territory and at the cost of Ukrainian lives. It all looks simple, but many people still don’t get it. But eventually they will understand, because there is nothing more valuable than human life. For the most part, people just want to live in peace and they don’t really care whether they are paid in rubles or hryvnia. 99% of people are not extremely socially active. They naturally accepted that once there was a Soviet Union, and now there is Ukraine. Most people don’t care what will happen next, as long as there is work and no exploding bombs overhead.