Last week, as the world marked one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk shared a message with Americans:

Michael McFaul moderates a discussion with Ukrainian leaders at Bechtel Conference Center on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. (Image credit: Kurt Hickman)

“It’s not a war for territories or resources. It’s not a regional conflict. It’s a war for freedom and democracy,” he said during a panel discussion Friday at the Bechtel Conference Center at Stanford University.

The public event was hosted by the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) and the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) to mark one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It took place before live and virtual audiences, including many wearing blue and yellow in support of the Ukrainian effort.

Honcharuk served as Ukraine’s 17th prime minister from 2019-2020, and in 2021, was the Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow at FSI. He was joined by Serhiy Leshchenko, a former journalist, member of Ukraine’s parliament (2014-2019), adviser to President Zelenksyy’s chief of staff, and a 2013 alumnus of the Draper Hills Summer Fellows program at the CDDRL; Oleksandra Matviichuk, founder of the Center for Civil Liberties and former visiting scholar with the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program at the CDDRL (2017-2018); and Oleksandra Ustinova, the People’s Deputy of Ukraine, a current member of Ukraine’s Parliament, and a former visiting scholar with the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program at the CDDRL (2018-2019).

Honcharuk, Leshchenko, and Ustinova attended virtually from Kyiv, while Matviichuk joined virtually from Paris, France. During the event, they discussed the impact of the war on daily life, the global democratic order, and Ukraine’s future. The discussion was moderated by Michael McFaul, director of FSI and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, and ended with a brief Q&A session with audience members.

A new reality

In his opening remarks, McFaul asked the panelists to share their mood as they enter the second year of the war. Ustinova said that just prior to the panel event, they’d been informed of an impending Russian attack.

Clockwise from top left: Oleksandra Ustinova, Oleksandra Matviichuk, Serhiy Leshchenko, and Oleksiy Honcharuk. (Image credit: Alex Kekauoha)

“There is a very high probability that today, Kyiv and other cities will be shelled pretty heavily,” she said, adding that despite the threat, they weren’t going anywhere and that the parliament was still in session.

“That’s the mood of Ukrainians,” she said. “We know we can be hit any day, we can die any day, but this is the reality we have to live in.”

Honcharuk said he’d heard the opinion that authoritarian regimes are better suited for war because they are more mobile and less distracted by politics, thus creating the impression that democracies are indecisive. But, he said, Ukraine’s war effort demonstrates the opposite.

“I feel proud that Ukraine now denied this and showed the power of democracy,” he said.

When an audience member asked how the war has impacted political life in Ukraine, Honcharuk said there are challenges. For example, there are some conflicts between the central and local governments, but they don’t appear to be systemic problems. He said the parliament is still working and all Ukrainian political parties are “more or less united.” He also noted that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has “huge support” from the Ukrainian people.

Aid and Allies

Since the start of the war, the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars on aid to Ukraine, including artillery, tanks, and rocket launchers. The support has not only helped Ukraine stave off defeat, but enabled their success in many battles against Putin’s army.

The panel takes questions from audience members, including Elbegdorj Tsakhia (center), former president and prime minister of Mongolia and the new Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow at FSI. Tsakhia led a revolution for democracy in Mongolia. (Image credit: Kurt Hickman)

In a recent interview with Stanford News, Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and an affiliate at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), said that Ukraine’s military had considerable success in the last four months of 2022, pushing Russian forces out of the Kharkiv region and back across the Dnipro River in Kherson.

On Friday, the panelists expressed gratitude for the support of the United States and other western allies in aiding their victories on the battlefield.

“Thank you,” Matviichuk said. “Ukraine and Ukrainians will always remember how American people support us in [these] dramatic times.”

Honcharuk agreed and said he viewed the U.S. as a partner in the war. “I want American people to understand that now we are together – Ukraine on the frontline, you on the back,” he said.

The panelists also urged for continued cooperation from Western allies.

“The prescription for war is three [items],” Leshchenko said. “First is weapons, second is sanctions [on Russia], third is financial support.”

Looking ahead

The group expressed hope that this year Ukraine will see a victorious end to the war. Leshchenko added that he would like to someday see Ukraine join the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) because it could make significant contributions to the alliance.

“I think the Ukrainian army [is] going to be the best army in Europe,” he said. “It would be a privilege for NATO to have the Ukrainian army’s support because it will defend Europe much better than Europe has [been] able to do with its own army.”

Ustinova said a common misunderstanding about the war is that it started last year with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the conflict, she said, dates back to 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, and she explained how Ukrainians define success.

“Our victory is the total liberalization of each kilometer of the captured territories since 2014. Not since 2022,” she said.

She added that what’s most important to understand about the war is that it has broad implications, including for the West.

“We all have to realize, this is not a Ukrainian war,” she said. “If the West loses in Ukraine, it will be a total collapse for the rest of the world.”