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Vitali And Wladimir Klitschko On Ukraine: 'It's A Mistake To Think The War's Far Away'

Wladimir Klitschko (left) and Vitali Klitschko
Wladimir Klitschko (left) and Vitali Klitschko

Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, the brothers who together dominated international heavyweight boxing for a decade, are much more than Ukrainian ambassadors to the world.

Vitali, 51, launched his political career in 2005 and became mayor of Kyiv within months of Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea and its support for armed Ukrainian separatists early in 2014. Nearly a decade into that conflict and almost a year after Russia’s wider invasion of Ukraine, he remains mayor and head of the capital’s state administration.

Wladimir, 46, addressed crowds during the tumult of 2014 but remained outside of formal politics, instead using his influence where possible before joining the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a reservist in the Territorial Defense Brigade shortly after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Both men talked to RFE/RL’s Georgian Service on the sidelines of last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, the world’s largest gathering of its kind, where Russian President Vladimir Putin once famously rejected the post-Cold War international order and many of this year’s conversations were focused on Putin’s war in Ukraine.

They credited Ukrainians with “growing through these battles and through our resistance” -- and exposing Russian weaknesses -- since all-out war was forced upon their country when tens of thousands of Russian troops rolled across their borders one year ago. They also talked about being on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s purported “hit list,” life in the crosshairs of constant Russian air barrages, and cowardice in the face of an authoritarian in the Kremlin.

RFE/RL: As sportsmen, in your previous lives, you've both been hugely successful champions, always considered to be favorites. How does it feel personally when probably for the first time in your life, you are an underdog, you're not considered a favorite, you have to fight against seemingly much stronger opponent. When you're outmatched, outnumbered?

Vitali Klitschko: It's not a fair question, comparing war and sport. Sport has clear rules; if you break the rules, you get disqualified. This war, it has no rules. It's not a war, it’s terrorism. Civilians, women, children, old people are killed without reason. Its [aim is] to destroy the normal lives of civilians, to destroy apartments and other [civilian] buildings. Russians are told it’s a “special operation.” At the same time, they destroy cities, villages, they destroy the lives of millions. And that’s why it's not right to compare war and sport.

I would say now we have probably one of the best armies in the world, because we've been growing through these battles and through our resistance.
Wladimir Klitschko

But one thing is the same in sport and in this war, and it’s very important: spirit, a will to win. And we see how the Ukrainian people show the will to win and spirit. We see how motivated Ukrainian people are, because a lot of experts around the world gave us a couple of days or maybe a couple of weeks to [withstand the battle] against the second strongest army in the world, the Russian Army. But soon it will have been one year that we are successfully defending our homeland. And if we Ukrainians, in addition to spirit and will, have modern weapons, we’ll be much more successful and it will save a lot of lives of our patriots.

RFE/RL: Wladimir, on the battle for Kyiv, as the mayor rightly said, nobody gave you a chance, right? Everybody said three days, four days; everybody was very skeptical. What do you think was the one thing in those three days that turned the tide, that allowed you to stay in the fight? Back then you didn't have as many weapons as you now do.

Wladimir Klitschko: Honestly speaking, the free world gave us three days. You were asking us about our previous careers as athletes -- and it’s important in the sport of boxing to be in the fight, firstly. Once you’re in the fight, you're going to figure out your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of your opponent. That's actually what happened. We were standing up for our right to live and not just exist on our knees like slaves, due to the regime and dictatorship that was approaching us and attacking us from the Russian side. We simply didn’t have any choice other than to show resistance.

And, while we were resisting, we figured out that actually we're not just withstanding it, we're actually pushing them back. And I believe the world was wondering as well: “Well, they didn't fall in three days or even in five days. And actually they're fighting back, and actually they're winning.” And I believe in a certain way, and not just our allies, naturally now, but also back then -- that gives us more confidence, just realizing that we can actually fight back.

And it's very personal. This is your home; it’s not just anywhere. You're fighting for your life. You fight for your life, the lives of your family, your friends, your children, for your country, more generally. But that all starts in you and your own environment, and of course, people just growing.

And that's how it also compares with athletic life: You're growing when your opposition is strong; when your opposition is weak, you’re not growing. So that's basically what is happening with us. I would say now we have probably one of the best armies in the world, because we've been growing through these battles and through our resistance.

RFE/RL: When the war started, German policy and thinking changed. We’re in Munich right now, in Germany, a country that you consider your second homeland. What would be your message to Germans?

Vitali: My message to Germans is that unity around Ukraine is key to peace and freedom in Ukraine. We are defending right now not just our homes, our families, and our children; we're defending every one of you. It would be the biggest mistake to see the war as far away, as if it doesn't touch you personally. This war touched everyone in Ukraine, this war touched millions of people in Europe, and this war can touch everyone if Russians are allowed to go that far. They only respect strength.

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.

Ukraine is strong. Putin presents himself as a collector of former Russian property. They talk about independent Ukraine not existing; they’re talking right now about Poland as part of Russian property; they are talking right now about Baltic countries. And Germans, please don't forget that a big part of Germany was also part of the Soviet empire and where Putin worked for years as a KGB agent. If we’re [weak], they will go so far as to rebuild the Soviet empire; it’s their main goal. And that’s why we have to be strong. So please support Ukraine. We’re not just defending our homes, we’re also defending you, Germans, if we have the same values.

RFE/RL: It’s almost one year into the full-scale war. What’s one memory that doesn’t leave you?

Wladimir: Probably near the beginning of the war, seeing basically very young men [who’d] had their hands tied behind their back and shot in the head, executed. Being in Bucha. And this massacre that took place -- dead bodies everywhere: between the houses, on the streets -- of Ukrainian civilians. Those were very disturbing images near the beginning of the invasion.

RFE/RL: Mister Mayor, Putin barely hides that his strategy is to target Ukrainian infrastructure. Your city is also suffering -- people are denied the most basic comforts. He probably thinks that at some point ordinary Ukrainians will say, “We can no longer live like this.” What would be your answer to that?

Vitali: To the question of “why destroy the civilian infrastructure, the normal life of the people, these buildings?” the clear answer is: Russia is trying to bring depression to our society. The people have to live without depression. [The Russian thinking is that Ukrainian] people have to give up, or in the best case emigrate to another country to open up our country to Russians.

Instead, they received a totally different answer. People are very angry. And they say it’s better to live without electricity and water than with Russian soldiers. [Editor’s note: This echoes President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s defiant message to Moscow from September: “Read my lips: Without gas or without you? Without you. Without light or without you? Without you. Without water or without you? Without you. Without food or without you? Without you.”]

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko keeps back onlookers from a residential building that partially collapsed after Russian strikes on the Ukrainian capital in March last year.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko keeps back onlookers from a residential building that partially collapsed after Russian strikes on the Ukrainian capital in March last year.

And that’s why Russia’s attack hasn’t had [its intended] impact. Yes, of course, life is much more difficult. Yes, of course, we don't have as many services as before. But it has made us much stronger and much angrier. And the whole world sees this war and sees it not as a war but as terrorism, what the Russians are doing right now. It’s terrorism, destroying the lives of innocent people, killing civilians, women. It’s terrorism, genocide. There is no other word for it.

RFE/RL: If reports are to be believed, you are both on a personal hit list of Putin’s that includes about 24 people. Does that bother you?

Wladimir: I believe any Ukrainian can be on that list because Putin's Russia wants to own or possess Ukraine but not Ukrainians. And that's exactly what their propaganda is saying: that the Ukrainian nation was created, it did not exist before, and that we Ukrainians are a mistake of history. And we’ve heard about in the 1930s, [Adolf Hitler and the leadership of] the Third Reich [asserted] that if you want to destroy a nation, you have to erase its history.

And that’s exactly what Russia is doing -- trying to erase our history, our museums, our language. By the way, I'm using more Ukrainian [now]; I’m not a native Ukrainian speaker. But language is one of the nation's important tools. And Russia is trying to completely rewrite history.

Wladimir Klitschko visits a checkpoint in Kyiv in March last year.
Wladimir Klitschko visits a checkpoint in Kyiv in March last year.

If you are in Ukraine and you're standing up for your right to live, you are already on that list. How does it make me feel? I'm proud. That means I am standing on the right side of history. It’s more complimentary than anything else.

RFE/RL: Mr. Mayor, there have been reports that Russians maybe will try again to capture Kyiv. How realistic do you think that is? At this point, Russians won't have the element of surprise on their side.

Vitali: I disagree with your question phrasing it as “maybe” target. Kyiv is a target, was a target, and is still a target for Russians. Kyiv has symbolic status. Kyiv is the heart of the country, is the capital, and it is a dream of Putin’s to occupy Kyiv. Can he do that? My clear answer is no. We are prepared. And if Russians try to do that, well, I can’t say a lot. But we have prepared a lot of surprises, and it would be a very painful attack for Russia, I promise you that.

RFE/RL: Wladimir, I asked your brother what his message to Germans would be. And there’s no correlation, but what would your message be to ordinary Russians?

Wladimir: Oh, there've been plenty of messages. There is a saying in German that “a lie has short legs.” It cannot run far. But unfortunately, I have to realize that with the lies, the Russian regime and what they tell Russia’s people -- blaming Ukrainians and the free world and NATO and pretending that someone wants to attack them, and so on -- those lies have created evil in the minds of people in Russia.

Basically, if you're limited in the information that you are able to receive, you're going to believe in something that doesn't exist. And it's massive. It's media generally speaking -- print, radio, television -- but it's also priests [and] religion. So, I believe that access to free media, access to the Internet, [give you] an understanding of the world… In chess, it’s seeing what they see, sitting where they sit. And if I’m putting myself in the minds of Russians, that probably is what is happening. And having already known Russian friends, that propaganda went so far that people were incapable of thinking clearly.

And fear also makes them just zip their mouth. Or it’s not fear; fear is healthy. It’s the cowardice of its own people to stand up to the regime or to something that they are supposed to do, or to not go to Ukraine and kill Ukrainians and to just stand up to this. And I believe that’s cowardice. Cowardice is the worst trait that a human can have; and that’s one aspect of it, not the fear.

RFE/RL: Have you given any thought to what would be the first thing you do if Ukraine wins?

Wladimir: I would put it a different way. A famous request expressed in Buddhist philosophy and stated by [the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy] was made on February 24 of last year: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Obviously, we all wish for peace, sooner or later, and we scream for help and support, and we do a lot as well. But the mindset is not going to change. So, you need to rebuild the country, you need to provide more and ask yourself what you can do instead of receiving something or wondering what the country can do for you. That’s not going to change.

It’s not easy right now, but it’s not going to be easier later on. Now is more surviving. Later, there is going to be more creating -- of new life, new chances for life, new defense, new government, in a certain way a new democracy, I believe, as well.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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