May 3, 2024

The Kyiv Independent

Daryna Shevchenko


“Do you cooperate with independent Russian journalists to reach a Russian audience?” We at the Kyiv Independent hear variations of this question at every event we attend, and the audience rarely likes our answer: “No, we don’t; we don’t see the point.”

A beautiful room in the old building of New York’s Ukrainian Institute of America is full of friendly faces. People are wearing vyshyvankas, traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts, and Ukrainian flag pins.

It’s Feb. 24, 2024 – the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. My colleagues at the Kyiv Independent’s War Crimes Investigations Unit and I are on a speaking tour around the U.S. to answer questions about the war. And then, like clockwork, someone asks that question.

While the question may appear innocent and constructive at first glance, it showcases one of the most widespread and harmful delusions about Russia: that the solution to Russia’s war of aggression lies in Russia, in the hands of the Russian people.

This question has popped up during conferences, award ceremonies, round tables, working groups, and one-on-ones I have attended from the United States to South Korea. It turns every conversation about helping Ukraine into a conversation about supporting Russian civil society, finding the “right words” to turn Russians against Vladimir Putin’s regime, and the latest lies shared by the Kremlin.

These conversations try to piece together the reasons for Russia’s aggression and inevitably embark on the endless quest to uncover the “mysterious Russian soul.” The truth is that this quest only benefits Putin’s regime and takes resources away from Ukraine.

Is Russia the solution to its own problem? For decades, the world has focused on what Russia wanted it to see, from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Russia was an authoritarian empire for a long time, and living in the center of an empire comes with certain privileges. Over 30 years ago, Russians, like all peoples from countries formerly part of the Soviet Union, had a window of opportunity to build a democracy. They didn’t take it.

The Russian people have continued to enjoy the privileges of their empire without asking too many questions.

For decades, Russians watched as the shreds of their new democracy were taken away from them, and they did not fight back. The biggest civil uprising in Russia took place in 2012 at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square when somewhere between 25,000 to 150,000 people gathered to

protest the country’s parliamentary elections. Russia has a population of over 140 million – do the math. There was no violent crackdown on protesters, and it was largely safe for people to show up, but no protests of even that magnitude ever happened in Russia again.

Russian civil society didn’t rise up against Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, its initial invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, or its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The largest anti-war protest since the start of the full-scale invasion likely only had a couple thousand people gathered in Moscow on Feb. 24, 2022.

A common excuse is that Russians have been fed state propaganda and deprived of objective information for too long. While there’s no doubt that the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is strong, the Russian people had, and still have, access to facts. While increased restrictions make it more difficult now, all it takes is the installation of a VPN.

While the Kremlin has cracked down on freedom of speech for quite some time now, many independent Russian journalists continued to work in Russia until 2022. Russian independent media operating in exile claim to reach millions living in Russia.

In brief, the Russian people have never existed in an informational vacuum. They have traveled the world, enjoyed the perks of liberal democracies, and connected with people around the world (including Ukrainians).

Believe it or not, Ukrainians weren’t quick to give up on Russians. In the first days of the full-scale invasion, a massive campaign circulated on social media calling on Ukrainians to talk to their friends and family in Russia – to inform them of what was really going on and to urge them to stand up for Ukraine.

“But what can we do?” an independent Russian journalist and a close friend of mine at the time said in response to a story I posted on Instagram. I read her message as I sat on the floor in the corridor of my apartment with my elderly parents and my dog, sheltering as Russian forces bombarded Kyiv.

“They would just arrest us,” my friend continued. I asked sarcastically whether she was writing to me from a jail cell. She wasn’t. I responded that, in that case, she didn’t try. A few weeks later, she posted a photo of herself having drinks with friends at a cosy outdoor cafe in Russia. She had simply moved on.

We, of all people, know what it means when they say that “power belongs to the people.” Ukrainians have determined their nation’s path through free and fair elections and, if necessary, revolutions. Many of us thought that the people of Russia would do the same. We don’t have any hope for that anymore.

A poll by the independent Russian polling organization Levada Center from February 2023 found that 77% of Russians support the invasion of Ukraine. And yet, somehow, the world believes that the only way to end this war is to help the Russian people overthrow Putin. These “believers” argue that many Russians are against the war but are just afraid to speak up.

The late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, made a comment recently that Ukrainians “just don’t want to look for these anti-war Russians” and that Russians who oppose the war are afraid to speak up because “not everyone is ready to be a hero.”

Even if there are more anti-war Russians than the polls show, what does this change if they’re “not ready to be a hero?” How do more people who silently oppose Russia’s war help Ukraine win?

As Ukraine fights a war to protect the future of the world’s liberal democratic values, it is often treated as collateral damage. Ukraine has only been given enough support to sustain the front line, not to win the war. Believing that Russians are the answer to winning this war doesn’t help Ukraine.

The West’s fascination with Russia will have to end eventually, but every moment spent fixated on the concept of the “good Russian” buys the Kremlin time to rearm, regroup, kill more Ukrainians, and move further into Europe.

Let’s be clear: If Ukraine falls, Russia will move further into Europe. I and other Ukrainians have repeated this countless times, only to be dismissed as “melodramatic” and “traumatized.” We have the most experience in dealing with an aggressor that the rest of the world is just starting to discover.

Russia is not the solution to Russia; Ukraine is. If Ukraine falls on your watch, there will no longer be a solution.


Daryna Shevchenko is the CEO of the Kyiv Independent. Daryna has 10 years experience as a media manager, trainer and media consultant. After working at Kyiv Post, she became the executive director of Media Development Foundation, ran the investigative journalism department at TV channel ZIK and worked as executive producer of award-winning investigative media Slidstvo.Info before joining Jnomics Media consultancy as Partner.