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“This war has no borders” – An Interview with Ukrainian Human Rights Lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Oleksandra Matviichuk

Two years after the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sofia Johanson speaks to Oleksandra Matviichuk about her organisation’s efforts to document war crimes, the dysfunctionality of the international security system, and how Ukraine’s victory could actually mean hope for Russia.

Two years after the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sofia Johanson speaks to Oleksandra Matviichuk about her organisation’s efforts to document war crimes, the dysfunctionality of the international security system, and how Ukraine’s victory could actually mean hope for Russia.

In December 2022, Oleksandra Matviichuk was delivering the Nobel Peace Prize Lecture in Oslo City Hall; in April 2023, Hillary Clinton wrote an entry about her in Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ segment, and last October, she gave her Ted Talk at the TEDWomen Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.  

Now, sitting across the table from me in one of Rewley House’s more sterile classrooms, she is explaining that it is her direct contact with victims that propels her forwards on her mission to document the war crimes perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine. Having already collected evidence of 62,000 violations of international law, she feels an enormous responsibility to help these people, “to restore not just their broken life, broken house, broken family, broken vision of the future, but their broken belief that justice is possible in their lifetime”.

Restoring faith in the idea that truth will always prevail is a task made seemingly insurmountable by the sheer scale of unpunished crimes, and a traumatised population who cannot imagine their suffering ever being answered. Yet Matviichuk, and her organisation – The Civil Liberties Centre – have been interviewing victims and collecting evidence from sites of crimes with the view that one day the perpetrators can be held to account by the international community.

She is insistent that this is not a process that can begin after the end of the war, describing the post-World War Two proceedings at Nuremberg as an inappropriate model because of the need to show Russia, and the world, that those who break international law will be punished regardless as to the course that hostilities take. In fact, she argues that the precedent of impunity was a significant contributing factor to Putin’s initiation of the war in the first place; “they have never been punished”, she explains, and so “they start to believe they can do whatever they want”. Matviichuk cites claims of war crimes perpetrated in Chechnya and Georgia, where Putin prosecuted wars in the early 2000s, as well as atrocities committed in Syria, Libya, and Mali, as examples where violations have gone unanswered.

But considerable barriers stand in the way of this mission to deliver justice prior to a peace settlement. They are numerous and too technical for her to explain to me in great detail, but she highlights the paralysis of the UN Security Council, which has seen its attempts to influence events in Ukraine blocked by Russia, who is a permanent member. Indeed, Russia was chairing the council’s session the very moment that the invasion began on the 24th February 2022. Matviichuk says the architecture must change as the body is clearly not designed to deal with a situation in which a member who has started an aggressive war may block decisions on that war and laments that Article 7 – a chapter that would withdraw Russia’s veto power – has not been taken.

She also opposes the tabled ‘hybrid court’ as a format under which to try the Russian President, which would essentially ‘share’ control between Ukraine and partner states, because it would not have the power to prosecute Putin. Only an international court can really hold him to account, she explains, labelling the prospect of diverting money and time towards building a hybrid institution an “absurd discussion”.

Despite the understanding that the provision of justice cannot depend on the outcome of the war, our conversation moves towards the conflict’s course. Cognisant of waning Western interest and the particular concerns provoked by Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s claim that he would ‘end the war in a day’, Matviichuk assures me that no one wants peace more than the Ukrainians. She tempers this statement with the qualification that peace is not the same as occupation, the conditions under which the oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson would fall if the current battle-lines were frozen. Occupation, she explains, is a “grey zone” in which “forced disappearances, tortures, denial of your identity, forcible adoption of your children, filtration camps and mass graves” are all likely components. Faced with this threat against their very existence Ukrainians have no choice; “if we stop fighting, there will be no more ‘us’”.

I ask her how she copes with the weight of her work and the darkness ahead. She is frank, admitting that it isn’t easy, even for a professional lawyer accustomed to the barbarity evident in the materials and experiences which she deals with. Alongside the inspiration she derives from the displays of bravery and solidarity by ordinary Ukrainians, Matviichuk mentions the ‘60ers’ or ‘shistidesiatniki’, a generation of Ukrainian Soviet creatives who held distinctly anti-totalitarian views and made defense of the national language and culture of their country a central tenet of their ideology. “We stand on their shoulders”, she says, explaining that Ukraine’s gaining of independence in 1991 was possible because of the foundations laid by this generation in the 1960s, giving her reason to believe that even if her work seems meaningless in the short-term, its value will eventually become evident.

Nonetheless, she is insistent that there are things that can be achieved more imminently. Chief among them is the question of goal setting; the idea that the UK and other Western nations must change their objective from helping Ukraine ‘not to fail’, to helping it ‘to win’. According to Matviichuk, this isn’t just a case of committing to larger weapons shipments, but a cognitive shift that accepts the logical yet uncomfortable truth that a victorious Ukraine means a defeated Russia – a prospect the West is currently unwilling to confront.

Whilst governments and individuals in the UK and West have long been engaging in how Ukraine will be rebuilt after the conflict’s end, Matviichuk emphasises that the international community has no strategy for dealing with a post-war Russia. She points to historical experience as she warns of the dangers of being ill-prepared; “the Soviet Union collapsed regardless of whether or not the West was prepared”, highlighting the need to avoid a Russian descent into the economic and political chaos which was witnessed in the 1990s, and now forms part of Putin’s narrative about the need for Russia to ‘rise again’.

Matviichuk’s calculations about post-war Russia are nuanced. On the one hand, she believes that military defeat is required to impress upon the population that restoring the Russian empire is not possible, even smiling when she says that perhaps they will then realise that overrunning sovereign territories is not “civilised”. She rejects the idea that this is “Putin’s war” and says that responsibility lies with Russian society more broadly, but is unequivocal about whether the end of the war means the end of Putin: “Russian people can tolerate a war criminal as a president, but they will not tolerate a loser war criminal”.

Against this ominous and uncertain Russian future, she identifies how a Ukrainian victory might actually be an antidote, as it would demonstrate that democracy can win wars. Indeed, she emphasises this sentiment in her diagnosis for the future: when it comes to the post-war “democratic success of Ukraine, it’s the chance for the democratic future of Russia itself”.

Interested to know how long she thought it would take for Russo-Ukrainian relations to normalise, I put to her the now commonly used Ukrainian axiom ‘there’s no such thing as a good Russian’. She expressed her distaste for the phrase and described how her work brings her into close collaboration with Russian human rights organisations, but did admit that some Ukrainians who had suffered brutality at the hands of Russian invaders now have “no internal resources for dialogue” and thus the prospect of rapprochement was uncertain.

Matviichuk zeroed in on one particular group of Russians who may be able to create solid foundations for the future course of relations between the two nations – the hundreds of thousands of young émigrés who have fled the country for places like Georgia, Turkey and Finland. “We need their voice now, not when the war will end (…) we need their active work to help Ukraine to win”, she explains, thus apportioning significant responsibility to those who she says claim to be “honest people” opposed to Putin’s invasion.

Helping Ukraine ‘to win’ won’t end with the hostilities but will continue as the country seeks to regenerate after the war and Matviichuk impresses on me that this is not just a question of expelling Russian soldiers and clearing rubble, but a broader mission of restoring peoples’ faith in justice, and modernising and democratising the entire country. Moreover, she is clear that failing to hold the war’s perpetrators to account means that “we will find ourselves in the world which will be dangerous for everyone without exception”, as confidence in impunity will allow them to return, or even take their destruction elsewhere.

Indeed, Matviichuk perceives Ukraine’s victory as a safeguarding measure for the entire democratic world; “this war has no borders” she says, explaining that her country is only the first stage upon which the conflict will play out. She paints the conflict in civilisational terms, asserting that “this is not just a war between two states, this is a war between two systems: authoritarianism and democracy”, and warns that it is not only the Kremlin, but other authoritarian leaders who will read the international community’s inaction as weakness and will be emboldened to commit further attacks on democratic nations, whom they necessarily perceive as a threat.

Matviichuk explains that we should have awoken to this “new era of turbulence” long ago, citing the long-voiced claims by human rights lawyers that a country which attacks its own civil society is bound to look abroad for its next target. She chillingly points out the example of ‘Memorial’, the Russian human rights organisation with whom she shares the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, which was ordered to dissolve on the grounds that it had violated the ‘Foreign Agents’ law a few months before the full-scale invasion.

Consequently, the war – its weight, its inevitability, and its intensity – consumes Matviichuk, but she understands the world’s declining interest as part of a “natural process”, admitting that being removed from the battleground makes the rest of us ill-equipped to understand the immediacy of the threat as the Ukrainians do.

This proximity she alludes to was brutally evident when we finished our conversation by talking about Viktoria Amalina, a Ukrainian author who was killed this summer in Russian missile attacks on Kramatorsk.  

“She is my friend; she was my friend? No, probably she still is my friend”, she pronounces slowly and uncertainly.  

Countless Ukrainians have been faced with the type of tragedy which Matviichuk’s words contain, and they have all had to support one another in ways that we cannot imagine. Such unity will have to continue as the country enters its third year since the full-scale invasion, and its eleventh since the annexation of Crimea.

Meditating on the compassion, solidarity and bravery exhibited by Ukrainians over the past two years, Matviichuk explains that it’s “very natural for people under attack (…) to unite”, but, to both of us, what is less clear is whether the rest of the world will unify to secure justice for victims past and present, and peace for our collective future.

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