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‘That was frightening as hell’: Ukrainian MP on working in a war zone

This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: ‘That was frightening as hell’: Ukrainian MP on working in a war zone

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week we’re hearing from inside Ukraine. I’m joined from Kyiv by Dr Dmytro Natalukha, who’s head of the economic affairs committee of the Ukrainian parliament. I met Dmytro at a dinner in Munich the weekend before the war broke out. He was an impressive man, chatting to me in fluent English and to others around the table in French and Italian. I even remember how he looked, dressed in a tweed jacket with a pocket handkerchief and a neatly trimmed beard. It was a very pleasant evening, but the subject matter was dark. I was pretty sure, based on other conversations at the Munich security forum, that Russia was poised to attack Ukraine. As I recall, Dmytro was far from convinced that a full-scale war was imminent. Either way, he was determined to get back to Kyiv. In the six weeks since then, as wars raged in Ukraine, I’ve often wondered how Dmytro Natalukha was doing. So I was delighted to talk to him this week and to discover first-hand what’s the current mood in Kyiv.

[MUSIC FADES]

News report
All Russian forces have pulled back from the capital, and as they receded, (music plays in the background) life here today returned. People out, listening to music, soldiers taking a break. Ukrainians doing what’s been so rare these days, smiling.

Gideon Rachman
Russia’s troops are no longer directly threatening the Ukrainian capital, but the war in the east of the country looks set to intensify. And horrifying evidence of Russian war crimes keeps emerging, with many eyewitness accounts of the deliberate mass killing of civilians in towns like Bucha. And just to warn, this episode contains descriptions that some listeners may find disturbing.

News report
As Ukrainian forces have re-entered areas close to the capital Kyiv after the Russians retreated, they have reported finding hundreds of bodies and mass graves.

News report
The town of Bucha is the scene of what some here are describing as a massacre. Dozens of bodies lie on the road. Residents say the retreating Russians shot anyone they found.

News report
Bodies of civilians in the streets, some with their hands and feet bound who had been shot.

Gideon Rachman
However, the Ukrainian government has been buoyed by military victories and international support. It also faces the prospect of more brutal fighting.

News report
. . . Luhansk as Russia shifts its offensive to east Ukraine. A Chechen leader is promising that Russian troops will seize Kyiv. The president, Mr Zelensky, says that Moscow is preparing for an even larger assault.

Volodymyr Zelensky
(Speaking in foreign language)

Gideon Rachman
Before I got on to the prospects of the war and the Ukrainian economy, I started my conversation with Dmytro Natalukha by asking about his experiences as a Ukrainian and a politician. What’s happened to him in the six weeks since the two of us met up in Munich?

Dmytro Natalukha
So, of course, I went back to Kyiv. On the night of the 24th, it all started.

Gideon Rachman
And you’ve been in Kyiv for the six weeks since then? Is the atmosphere now, at least in Kyiv, a little bit more relaxed because there’s a sense that the Russians for now have given up on trying to take the capital city?

Dmytro Natalukha
Yes, it’s very much different from the first couple of weeks because the first couple of weeks, it was crazy, literally. I mean, Kyiv is a rather big city. It’s a metropolis in a way. And just imagine opening the window in the middle of the day or then in the middle of the night in the first and the second week of the war. And if there are no gunshots and no explosions, you literally hear nothing. Meaning that all the cars, all the pedestrians, everything that was producing this noise of the city, you know, the sound of the city, was gone. So it was a crazy feeling. Absolutely. It gave me shivers because I couldn’t have even imagined, never ever, that I might hear this void of Kyiv. Now it’s totally different. People are still returning to Kyiv. A lot of cars now, a lot of people on the streets, cafés, restaurants being reopened. So we see that life is back, and we don’t hear that void any more. But the situation is drastically different from what it was.

Gideon Rachman
And did you, to be honest, fear that, you know, any day the Russians would break through and be in the centre of the city?

Dmytro Natalukha
Oh, very much, of course, of course. I mean, I suppose only a madman wouldn’t fear during wartime. And I mean, in the first couple of weeks, it was very intense in terms of air raids, sirens, you hear shots all the time. And yeah, I mean, it was constantly troubling and very, very frightening, to be honest. I mean, I’m not ashamed to say because, you know, it’s not that we were prepared for such a situation. No. (Laughter) We were prepared for something different. But in the end, were we? Of course, you are getting used to that in a way. After some time, you start to recognise whether one sound is a bombardment or air defence missile has hit something. Then you recognise whether this was a shot from an automatic gun or from a short gun. So I mean, this is crazy. The skills you get. I’m not sure I would need them any more. I hope I wouldn’t. But still, I mean, as time passes and you’re in the middle of this and the epicentre of these events, you start to discover absolutely new skills and new kind of feelings.

Gideon Rachman
So that was a fascinating description of the atmosphere in the city. But in normal times, you have a very responsible job. You’re ahead of the economic committee of the parliament. Has there been any politics as usual, any parliamentary activity or is that all just been suspended?

Dmytro Natalukha
No, no. We kept the parliament going. This was critically important to send the proper signal to the population that Kyiv is working, that the MPs have not left the cities, I mean, not all of them (laughter), and that the state institutions are in place and they’re working. Because, as you might remember, from the very beginning the main objective was to take down the government. And obviously, it was crucially important for us to show to the Ukrainians that we, as government, are still in place, are still working. And we have not left the city. We have not left Ukraine. We have not left our duties, and we are willing to fight with our fellow citizens as much as they are ready to do it. So we held a number of hearings in the House, I mean in the parliament, in the first couple of weeks of war. And that was frightening as hell, I might tell you, because when you gather 380 MPs in one place, which is not even, you know, it’s not a bunker, it’s the same building where we usually sit in and everybody knows the address and everybody knows this place. I mean . . . 

Gideon Rachman
So you must have been thinking that at any moment the Russians could hit you with a cruise missile, basically.

Dmytro Natalukha
Oh, by all means, of course. I mean, especially the first time. I think this was the second week of war when it was still unclear what is happening and what will happen. It’s not that it’s clear right now, but (laughter) back then it was even worse. And I would like to remind you that the second week of war Kyiv was near to be encircled, and they were shelling hard on the suburbs and even in the centre of Kyiv. So, yeah. For us showing up there in the parliament and spending there an hour literally, and I think like the whole world knew about this. I mean, by all means, the Russian intelligence knew about this because you can’t hide this when at least half of a thousand of people know about this. Yeah, this was crazy. But still we kept going on. We were decided to do it, and we showed up in the parliament. We voted for the legislation, and I think for the population, it was incredibly important.

Gideon Rachman
Now, as you say, the immediate threat of Kyiv being taken has gone, but you’ve discovered a kind of new horror, which is the massacres that were taking place in the small towns around Kyiv. How are people coping with that, and how has it affected their view of the war?

Dmytro Natalukha
I might say that this was a game changer, a major game changer. Bucha especially, because until then we had this negotiations, not even negotiations, I would say consultations, with the Russian side. And some part of the population was relieved in a way to hear that, you know, some kind of consensus is being searched for. But after Bucha, even the most antiwar people have changed their mind completely because what we have seen there and what the whole world has seen there is total massacre. I mean, this is something beyond human comprehension of violence and brutality. So people have been literally executed for merely having a tattoo with some Ukrainian insignia. Another thing is how badly they raped and they butchered the women. And then they realised that was a crime, and it was a military crime, and they tried to burn the bodies. And we have found numerous parts of bodies of young women that were put on fire. So I mean, it is the level of brutality and of this bloodthirst and of this violence, it was so crazy that it changed the whole perception of war and of the enemy. So now a lot of my friends who are fighting there on the frontline and they say, like, how can we perceive Russians now to be our like proper adversary? We perceive them as barbarians, and we perceive them as something we need to get rid of because then we will help the planet, not only Ukraine, because people like this should not exist. Because, I mean, those, those are not even humans.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. So now the war has moved away largely to the east. What is your feeling and the feeling of Ukrainian politicians, people in the government about what lies ahead in the conflict?

Dmytro Natalukha
I think that it’s far from over. So you see, Putin is a symbolist. And for him, the 9th of May is a very symbolic date, and it’s approaching. And I think this is the biggest holiday in Russia. So what we are expecting is some major offensive by that date. And he needs, he badly needs something to demonstrate that he has achieved at least something in Ukraine because as of today, there is not that much to show to the population and the population is getting worried. I mean, the Russian population.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, we’ve heard a lot about losses on the Russian side. What’s the situation on the Ukrainian side, though? I mean, you must have been taking heavy losses, too. Do you feel that there’s any risk to your ability to keep fighting on?

Dmytro Natalukha
I would say that what we have on our side is a very strong morale, and that is a crucial and the most critical difference because in Ukraine everybody understands what we are fighting for. In terms of the Russians, it’s very interesting because, I think, that this is probably the last European country, if not a world country, that openly wages an imperialistic war.

Gideon Rachman
So Russia, as you say, is kind of an anachronism in its willingness to wage an imperial war against Ukraine and that you have higher morale on your side. But can you keep the fight up? I understand the morale point. But do you have enough in terms of weaponry, men? And what is the state of the economy, which I know is your particular preoccupation as head of the economic committee?

Dmytro Natalukha
I would say that we have enough to keep the defence and to launch limited counteroffensives. But we would definitely need more support, more weaponry and more offensive weaponry specifically to launch an efficient liberation attack and to quickly liberate the now temporarily occupied territories.

Gideon Rachman
And do those territories in your mind include Crimea, which of course, Russia occupied in 2014?

Dmytro Natalukha
Of course. By all means.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I can see if you’re sitting in Kyiv, that’s, as you say, a question of, of course. But do you think you’ll get support from the west if you not only take the fight from the Donbas but into Crimea?

Dmytro Natalukha
No, but I mean, look at it from a different perspective. So, for instance, the so-called Luhansk National People’s Republic or whatever, has recently declared that they are considering to hold the referendum like Crimea-style, to enter and to become a part of Russian Federation. And if that takes place, what will happen then is that formally they’re changing the legal status of the territory. And formally again, Russia might be entitled to say, now from this moment, this is Russian territory. And the thing is, that there’s not a single state, western-values state, that has recognised Crimea to be a Russian territory. And I think you will have the same situation hypothetically with the Luhansk territories. So does that mean that we are not supposed to liberate the Luhansk territories that a couple of weeks ago still was officially Ukrainian territory that is temporary controlled by some terrorists? I don’t think so.

Gideon Rachman
And tell me about the economy as well, because again, thinking back to Munich, you were already worried even before the invasion about the pressure that was being put on the economy by the fear of invasion. The destruction has been absolutely enormous. Is the economy still functioning and how much would it take to put it back together again?

Dmytro Natalukha
The economy is still functioning in a way, of course, even though the numbers are very troubling. The economy has shortened to, I think, at least 45 per cent by now. And I would expect us to lose, I think, at least 50 per cent of the GDP. We have different sectors that have literally ceased to exist, and the situation is really bad because also they have blocked maritime routes and all the ports. And this means that they blocked basically the main routes for export. Now we’re trying to replace it with railway and roads, but it’s not an easy task. So yeah. The good news, though, is that we were able to relocate a rather impressive numbers of critical industries and critical companies and infrastructure to different regions of Ukraine that are not being attacked at the moment. But still, given the fact that we have, at least four million people left Ukraine and another, I think, up to six million people who are internally displaced, this means that the workforce is also wandering somewhere. It will be really, really a hard challenge to rebuild it. And I see, I have no illusions that we would need some external help with this.

Gideon Rachman
I can see, I mean, in a situation as dramatic as this, it must be hard to live beyond, you know, the day-to-day survival. But do you imagine this going on for many more months and years? Do you have a vision of when you might be able to get back to something that was more like prewar Ukraine? Or is that impossible to imagine right now?

Dmytro Natalukha
I personally think that this war might keep on going for months, unfortunately, because Russia doesn’t care about its human resources at all. They are ready to send to Ukraine as much people as they need, regardless their age, their skills and even their willingness to come here. This is the first factor. Another thing is that the weaponry is not coming as fast as we want it to arrive to Ukraine. And for this reason, it takes time to liberate specific cities, and some cities, we’re losing them simply because we are waiting for some arms and for some equipment to arrive that might have been instrumental in keeping those cities Ukrainian. Another thing is that Russia somehow adapted to the sanctions that have been imposed by the partners. And the fourth factor, of course, is that Russian economy is under pressure by the sanctions, but it’s still not destroyed as the Ukrainian economy is. This is like critically different because one thing is that you cannot trade with some of your ex-partners and some of the former markets you used to trade with. Another thing, you cannot literally physically trade because you have nothing to trade with. You know what I’m trying to say? So these four factors are crucial in understanding that the war is far from over, as I said. So we are expecting, of course, optimistically, some kind of a black swan. But I think this is just in a way, some kind of wishful thinking.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
That was Dmytro Natalukha of the Ukrainian parliament, speaking from Kyiv and ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining us, and please join me again next week.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

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