Oleksandra Matviychuk is the director of the Center for Civil Liberties, the Ukrainian NGO that shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for its work documenting alleged Russian war crimes.
In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL Georgian Service's Vazha Tavberidze, Matviychuk, a lawyer and rights activist, said Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine was the result of decades of impunity for the Kremlin. She said Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking officials must ultimately be brought to justice, while acknowledging that process is likely to be lengthy.
The interview with Matviychuk was conducted on January 26 in Strasbourg, France, on the sidelines of the winter session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
RFE/RL: In less than a month, on February 24, there will an anniversary -- if one can call it that -- of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Just how much has your life changed?
Oleksandra Matviychuk: I will remind that this war did not start in February 2022 but in February 2015 when Ukraine obtained a chance for a quick democratic transformation after the collapse of the authoritarian regime [of former President Viktor Yanukovych] due to the Revolution of Dignity (the mass street protests that ousted Yanukovych in February 2014). In order to stop us [on] this [path], Russia started this war, occupied Crimea, part of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is not afraid of NATO, [but] Putin is afraid of the idea of freedom.
The Tavberidze Interviews
Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.
But what happened last year, it was called a large-scale invasion, and it changed our lives completely, from the personal perspective and the professional perspective. From the personal perspective, every single aspect of what we call normal life was ruined. Now we live not only in danger -- because there is no safe place in Ukraine at the current moment where you can save yourself from Russian rockets -- but we live in total uncertainty, when you can't plan your day, even [your] next hours, because you never know when the alarm will start, or the electricity will disappear.
And second, from the professional point of view, I have been documenting Russian war crimes for eight years before [this] large-scale invasion started -- with a special focus on the practice of illegal detentions, abductions, sexual violence, torture, killing of civilians in occupied territories, as well as politically motivated persecution -- but, even for me, I wasn't prepared for such a level of atrocities.
I don't think that you can be prepared for war. Because everything which we faced, with the enormous cruelty and the enormous amount of war crimes, means we're faced with an enormous scope of human pain. Because we do not just document violations of the Geneva Conventions, we document human suffering.
RFE/RL: What are the numbers you have for the number of documented war crimes committed by invading Russian forces?
Matviychuk: After the large-scale invasion started, we united our efforts with dozens of regional organizations into one tribunal for Putin. We built an all-Ukraine network of local organizations and, [after] working together for only 10 months of the large-scale invasion, we jointly documented 31,000 [incidents] of war crimes. And this sounds like a huge amount, but it is still just the tip of the iceberg. Just to understand the scope: The office of the prosecutor-general of Ukraine has officially registered more than 70,000 criminal proceedings.
RFE/RL: How has documenting these alleged Russian war crimes impacted you personally? What is it like for you and your team to daily collect this grim data?
All this hell that we face in Ukraine is the result of total impunity, which Russia has enjoyed for decades because Russian troops committed horrible atrocities in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Moldova, in Libya, in Syria, in other countries of the world."
Matviychuk: It's difficult because, OK, I'm a human rights lawyer, but first and foremost, I'm a human being. And we now are working with something inhuman. And it's very difficult to get used to it from all perspectives.
RFE/RL: Is there one especially harrowing memory that you'd like to erase from your mind, something that you'd rather not have seen or heard?
Matviychuk: When your old perception of life is ruined, you get an impression that there are thousands of things that you [used to think] were essential, but they aren't essential at all. And there are only a few things that are important in our lives: things like values for which you can live and even die. And I told myself that, in the future, I want to forget a lot of things which I saw or heard about or felt during this war.
I don't want to bring the war inside me for the rest of my life. But I want for me to remember what is essential in our lives. It is a very important lesson that I've learned.
RFE/RL: What do you think is essential?
Matviychuk: I will never wish for any nation to go through this experience, but these dramatic times provide us Ukrainians a chance to demonstrate our best features: to fight for freedom, to be courageous, to make tough but right choices, and to help each other.
And when the large-scale invasion started and international organizations relocated their staff, but ordinary people remained and ordinary people started to do extraordinary things, they started to risk their lives to defend and help others [whom] they had never met before. This is very important because now, maybe like never before, we are acutely aware of what it means to be human beings.
RFE/RL: Do you see a similarity in the tactics Russia employs in Ukraine and elsewhere that Russia has operated militarily?
Matviychuk: All this hell that we face in Ukraine is the result of total impunity, which Russia has enjoyed for decades because Russian troops committed horrible atrocities in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Moldova, in Libya, in Syria, in other countries of the world. And they have never been punished for this. This violence, because of this impunity, and this brutality and this cruelty, this ignoring of international law and basic human rights and rejection of human dignity, have become a part of Russian culture.
That's why we have a lot of similarities. When this large-scale invasion started, I got a message from a colleague in Syria and he told me, "Please, tell your authorities [not to mark] medical workers as medical workers and hospitals as hospitals" because Russia will deliberately hit [these targets]. And it has happened.
I mentioned in my Nobel Peace Prize lecture the story of the mother who lost her newborn child, and it was a story from the Mariupol maternity hospital, which is very famous. And we have lots of similar stories where Russia shelled hospitals and medical workers. Also, the colleague from Syria told us: "Don't mark evacuation cars with the label, 'Children,' because the Russians will deliberately hit these evacuation cars." And I remembered these words when this pilot [bombed] the Mariupol theater, where in big letters [the word] "Children" was written, and hundreds of people with children tried to find [sanctuary] in the theater and failed because Russia destroyed [it].
RFE/RL: You've often said in interviews that you sent reports to the UN, the Council of Europe, the European parliament for eight years, and you say that "they didn't listen to us." Now they are listening, but do you feel it will be followed by action?
Matviychuk: It shows another problem: that even when you are heard, the international system is incapable of doing something. It is an illusion that an international system of peace and security exists. It doesn't exist. The whole UN system could not stop Russia's atrocities.
When the UN Secretary-General [Antonio Guterres] came to Kyiv to meet President [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, that same day (April 28, 2022) Russian rockets hit residential buildings and killed in her flat…the journalist Vira Hyrych from Radio Liberty (RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service).
It's a very dangerous world to live in. It means that our security, our human rights guarantees, depend not on the international order and international law and the architecture of [an] international organization which has to fulfill its mandate, but only whether you live in a country with strong military protection. And this is a very dangerous development in thinking because it will lead to governments to invest money not in education, development projects, solving complex problems like climate change or poverty, or some new technologies…but into weapons.
I'm not naive. I'm a human rights lawyer, and I know this legal system is not conservative. It can be developed, adapted to the appropriate need. And the main barrier is our mind."
And, in today's world, when we have so much technology, we can create such weapons that can kill us much more quickly, including nuclear weapons. So, it's a much more dangerous world, and that's why we need to restore international order, which means that we need to start a cardinal reform of this international system of peace and security in order to provide human rights guarantees and security to each person, regardless of what country they live in. We have to provide people with active protection from authoritarian regimes and worse. And we have to start with a small and symbolic step: We have to exclude Russia from the UN Security Council.
RFE/RL: That's a huge step, not a small, symbolic one. Do you see that happening?
Matviychuk: I believe that we have to do everything to make it happen. We have to obtain two-thirds of the vote in the UN General Assembly, which means that we need to call for historical responsibility of the political leadership of these countries. (The UN charter does not include a mechanism for expelling a permanent UN Security Council member.) And I'm not naive. I know that countries and politicians can have different goals, and there are governments which do not represent their people.
But why do I look to the future with optimism? Because, based on my experience, I know that if you can't rely upon a legal instrument, you can always rely upon people and all our huge initiatives, which provided a…change of reality, were based on the involvement of ordinary people, [for example] during the Revolution of Dignity, when they coordinated the civil initiative Euromaidan SOS and we provided assistance to prosecuted protesters throughout the country 24 hours a day.
And then we established an international network and launched a global [campaign] to release the political prisoner [film director] Oleh Sentsov, and other Ukrainian political prisoners [who] were jailed by Russia; and then we united people in 35 countries of the world. And we succeeded. It was a huge input of hundreds and hundreds of people all over the world who joined this global campaign.
This peace won't be sustainable without justice, because in our region, Russia [has used] war as a tool to achieve their geopolitical interests for decades. And Russia uses war crimes as a method to win this war, [and has] for decades."
So yes, it's not an easy task, but justice is a very understandable value for millions of people around the globe. And in this regard, there are no national borders. In this regard, there is not just a war between two states, it's a war between two systems: authoritarianism and democracy.
RFE/RL: You just told me that you're not naive. And yet, what you propose would be described by the majority of so-called realpolitik experts as exactly that -- naive. What would be your counterargument?
Matviychuk: They have to study the long history of humankind which convincingly proves that some ideas, which were perceived as naive, even marginal, too radical, become our reality. Last century, it was naive to think that international organizations can interfere into the internal affairs of a sovereign state, when the state violates human rights. Now it is the basic principle of international law.
I'm not naive. I'm a human rights lawyer, and I know this legal system is not conservative. It can be developed, adapted to the appropriate need. And the main barrier is our mind. It's a mental barrier when we think, "OK, it's not possible. We always lived like this. Why do we have to change?" It is too difficult. We have to change.
RFE/RL: Is there also a mental barrier that has to be overcome of, "What will happen if we oppose Russia, if we drag Russia from one tribunal to another?"
Matviychuk: I think that it's also another problem of misperception of reality because some people in informal conversation tell me: "Justice is important, but we need peace, stability." But we will never have peace in our region without justice, which means stable peace, not just temporal political compromise, which provides Russia the chance to regroup and then go further. But [we need] a sustainable, stable peace, which provides people opportunity to live without fear of violence and have a long perspective.
And, in this regard, this peace won't be sustainable without justice, because in our region, Russia [has used] war as a tool to achieve their geopolitical interests for decades. And Russia uses war crimes as a method to win this war, [and has] for decades. So, it will not break the circle of impunity; we'll have another war, and maybe not against the Ukrainian nation but against another nation, and I want to prevent it.
RFE/RL: You also argue that the international community should not wait to bring Putin to justice. But how do you propose that be done in the less-than-ideal world that you've just described?
Matviychuk: We have to establish a special tribunal on aggression, to hold Putin, [Belarusian leader Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, and other top military commanders and the senior political leadership of the Russian Federation accountable. And even that is not enough because when we speak about crimes of oppression, it's only one type of international crimes. We have war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide. And when the International Criminal Court is limited to investigating only several select cases….
People have much greater impact than they can even imagine. And massive mobilization of ordinary people in different countries of the world can change world history quicker than a UN intervention."
I have a very simple question: Who will provide justice for the hundreds of thousands of victims of this war? Who will not be lucky [enough] to be selected by the International Criminal Court? And the answer is a national system. But once again, 70,000 criminal proceedings are impossible to investigate even by the best national system in the world. And that's why we need to find a hybrid model [in which] national investigators work together with international investigators; national judges work together with international [judges] and so on.
RFE/RL: Putin, Lukashenka, top military commanders. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that does sound awfully familiar. Sounds like some sort of Nuremberg trials 2.0. And the caveat here is that the Nuremberg trials happened after the Nazi regime collapsed.
Matviychuk: We have to stop [looking] at the world through the prism of the Nuremberg trials. Because it was a great step to establish law and justice in the 20th century, but you're totally right -- the Nazi war criminals were tried after that regime had collapsed. But we live in the 21st century.
RFE/RL: But it was only possible because the Nazi regime had collapsed. Do you think it would be possible with Hitler and the Nazi regime still in charge?
Matviychuk: We live in the 21st century -- there is no necessity to [make] justice [dependent on]…the magnitude of the Putin regime's power. We have to provide justice, regardless of the politics, because there is a difference between political decisions and [legal] decisions. And I'm in favor of [legal] decisions.
RFE/RL: But is it possible realistically to separate the two and pursue justice?
Matviychuk: It's not a perfect world, but it's a hyper-complex, very interconnected world. And now we have a tool [for] how to influence the political decisions [by] creating horizontal movements, which have no national borders. And this, like I mentioned, [with the] example of the Oleh Sentsov global campaign, when people around the globe campaigned to release the Ukrainian political prisoner, because there are many issues which aren't limited by international borders, and human solidarity and human pain are such things.
People have much greater impact than they can even imagine. And massive mobilization of ordinary people in different countries of the world can change world history quicker than a UN intervention.
Ukrainians want justice; they don't want to be asked to forgive. We're not waiting for "forgive us" from the Russian people. We need justice, and once this justice is served, then they, as a result, may ask for forgiveness."
RFE/RL: Mass protests on a global scale may be possible, but would that bring Putin any closer to justice?
Matviychuk: When we [organized] the Save Sentsov campaign, it wasn't just protesting with an abstract demand [addressed] to Putin. We [created] a strategy. And people in 35 countries of the world, on one day, appeared in their central [town] squares with the demand to their own national governments. And we wrote what their national governments have to do in order to push Russia to release Ukrainian political prisoners. And people demanded it. And this is a combination that we need -- we need [the] energy of the people, and we need a strategy to push this energy in the right way…. We have no other option; we should try.
RFE/RL: Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize, has anything changed for your organization?
Matviychuk: Yes. For decades, the voice of human rights defenders wasn't heard. It was invisible, on the international level, on the national level, as well; it was like a blind spot. And the Nobel Peace Prize provided us an opportunity to make our voice [heard] and once again put [the issues] on the table, in the rooms where political decisions are [made].
RFE/RL: That Ukrainian voices should be heard is the reason you gave for refusing to be interviewed together with your Russian Nobel Peace Prize co-winner. Had there been Belarusian rights activist Ales Byalyatski (the other Nobel Peace Prize co-winner) instead of Memorial International chairman Yan Rachinsky, would you still have refused?
Matviychuk: I want to explain this more widely, because the international community didn't understand the criticism from part of Ukrainian society when this information about the Nobel Peace Prize emerged. [Some Ukrainians] heard that someone from Russia, from Ukraine, from Belarus would share this prize, and it reminded them of the Soviet narrative about sister nations, and people know that it was a huge lie because during Soviet times there weren't sister nations, it was only one nation which dominated, one language which dominated, one culture that dominated.
When I was asked, 'Why do you refuse to speak together with Russians?' I said I'm totally sure that we will speak about the same things, but please hear us separately."
And I said that this award isn't awarded to countries, it's awarded to people. And I have known these people for decades; we've worked together for years. During the war, Memorial helped us to collect evidence in the occupied territories, where we as Ukrainian human rights defenders had no reach. I can only refer to the slogan among dissidents from different countries: for your and our freedom.
So, I have no ethical or other barriers to avoid our human rights colleagues from Memorial or from Vyasna (the Belarusian human rights organization where Byalyatski works). I was at the first court [appearance] of Ales [Byalyatski]. I came there to support him. I was at the court hearing when the judges announced this verdict and sentenced him.
But now I think that it's very important to hear Ukrainian human rights defenders give the Ukrainian perspective. When I was asked, "Why do you refuse to speak together with Russians?" I said I'm totally sure that we will speak about the same things, but please hear us separately.
RFE/RL: Given the nature of the Russian regime, it is difficult to accurately gauge the public support for Putin's full-scale invasion, although some believe he does have legitimate public backing to reconstitute the Russian Empire. Does that mean links between Ukrainians and Russians are irreversibly severed?
Matviychuk: Recently, there was research by a Ukrainian psychotherapist. Several focus groups were created, and she asked people from whom they are waiting to be asked for forgiveness on the Russian side: from Putin, from the Russian government, parliament, from Russian intellectual elites, from ordinary people. In first place was: from nobody.
That means that Ukrainians want justice; they don't want to be asked to forgive. We're not waiting for "forgive us" from the Russian people. We need justice, and once this justice is served, then they, as a result, may ask for forgiveness. The concept of forgiveness means that you're ready to forget what happened. Ukrainians are not going to forget. We need justice.
RFE/RL: Are they going to forgive?
Matviychuk: It can be possible only as a result of justice. Because you can forgive when you feel satisfied. And this is very essential, because if the demand for justice won't be [satisfied], [then] it can turn into demands for revenge.