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Ukraine's past strengthens its resolve against Russia's threats


There are a lot of chapters to the story of this country, but one of them begins here in this very strange place.

Wow. I mean, how do you even describe this? Wow. The lights just turned on. I'm looking up at a gigantic gold chandelier and this massive spiral staircase. Are those birds? Like, what is that? A knight in armor?

This is the mansion of the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. He was forced out of office after the protests in late 2013 and early 2014. The message from Ukrainians then was clear - Yanukovych was corrupt, he was too close to Vladimir Putin and he had to go. He did. And when thousands of Ukrainians showed up at the palace grounds, they were overwhelmed by what they saw - lavish yards complete with a private zoo. Inside the mansion - golden staircases, each step worth tens of thousands of dollars. And there's this long table with a bizarre centerpiece - an alligator skin preserved in black lacquer. And in one corner of a sitting room, an exquisite music box.


MARTIN: Denis Tarakhkotelyk has been working here as a volunteer since 2014. I ask him why the Ukrainian government doesn't just sell some of this expensive stuff off to pay for roads or better schools. He says, first, rich people don't want to buy home furnishings that belonged to Viktor Yanukovych. And second, he says there's no guarantee the money would actually go where the politicians promised. In other words, corruption still hangs over a lot of life here.

OKSANA SYROYID: In Ukrainian politics, you cannot be good politicians. All politicians are crook, and all of them are bad.

MARTIN: We're going to spend some time with someone who went into politics despite that public perception. Her name is Oksana Syroyid, and she was going to change what it meant to be a leader in her country. Syroyid was elected to parliament just months after the public protests that forced President Yanukovych out of office and out of the country. She served as the deputy speaker of parliament till 2019.

SYROYID: I'm currently vice president of Kyiv School of Economics.

MARTIN: We should say, COVID is bad here right now, so she's teaching virtually. I met up with Syroyid in an empty workspace at the school to talk about corruption, politics and the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine's border.

How do you see the current threat from Russia?

SYROYID: I'm asking myself every day this question. And one day I realized that actually, I feel the same as all my life, because my parents and grandparents, they were teaching me that Russia is a threat - that we are occupied, that it will not last long, that we will eventually get our independence, we should be prepared for this. But actually, Russia will never give up. It means that we will have to be prepared to protect and to fight for the country. That's why I actually don't feel any different. So I had the same feeling during my whole life. The most humiliating moment, of course, it was Russian invasion - first occupation and annexation - legal annexation of Crimea, and then invasion and occupation part of Donetsk and Luhansk region.

MARTIN: Explain that feeling. You say it was humiliation.

SYROYID: You know, I have one similarity. When I was 19, I was almost raped by the guy in front of my student residence. And when he was trying to take advantage on me, the lady - the concierge lady, the lady who was sitting in the lobby of the residence, she actually locked the door, and she was looking through the window on the process. And I had this feeling of helplessness because I was looking in her eyes, like, looking for protection, and it was nothing. She was just observing. And I - fortunately, I was quite strong. I was tall. So it took me just a couple of bruises, and I was OK. But I had the same feeling in 2014 when Russia was invading Ukraine, and all the rest took the position of this concierge, you know, looking through the window.

MARTIN: You describe a very harrowing scene. You describe how you felt that the West really turned its back on Ukraine when Russia took over Crimea. How do you think the West is responding to this moment now?

SYROYID: Of course, today the reaction is different. And I think that even the fact that U.S. government is reiterating to Ukrainian government the threat, that the troops are around the border and they are emphasizes the threat and the probability of further invasion of Ukraine - I think that they are doing this to the big extent exactly to show that it's not like it was in 2014. So because, at that moment, everybody was silent. So now they are trying - like, they are compensating this to the big extent.

MARTIN: Overcompensating even, perhaps.

SYROYID: Sometimes yes, because, you know, that the leverage of such words is huge. Because, of course, if the president of the United States says that it's almost clear - so it's almost a deal that Russian will invade and they - the State Department commands to withdraw the diplomats from Ukraine, of course, Ukraine markets fall, you know? So...

MARTIN: And then there's economic instability. Then is it unhelpful, what American leaders are saying right now?

SYROYID: I think that this battle over the, whose estimation is more correct? - is nonsense, is just useless. The probability is always high because Russia has been invading Ukraine for 350 years. So the probability is always, like we say, 50-50. It may or may not, you know? The reason why Russia and Putin - they feel so comfortable gathering troops around the border, because he was never punished. And...

MARTIN: For Crimea.

SYROYID: For anything - for Crimea, for Donbas, for Belarus, for Syria, for anything. And impugn evil always returns. And that's why - even for Georgia, he was not punished. So that's why he can try. Why not? And, you know, this is also the tricky thing that the - like, if you promise the punishment in the future, it works only partially because it can, like...

MARTIN: You're talking about sanctions, perhaps.

SYROYID: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it - to contain to some extent, but it doesn't mean that will been - will be - will not be a second try. So it will - definitely will be a second try.

MARTIN: Do you think the punishment should come now? Do you think the U.S. and EU countries should impose preemptive sanctions against Vladimir Putin?

SYROYID: I think that, at least, we have to agree to the real threat that is coming from Russia, because Russian real intent is actually to control two seas, Baltic and Black Sea, and Ukrainian territory. It's all about money, you know? It's about global trades. It's about global trade routes, about access to resources. So this is his objective - to control two seas and the territories between them.

Instead, he is creating projection. So he is creating the messages, the narratives, that absolutely false. Like, Ukraine is a failed state. And we say, no, no, no, we are not failed state. We are very successful. Ukraine and Russians are the same nation, the same people. No, no, no, we are different. He is permanently creating projections to distract our attention from real problem.

MARTIN: What is the problem as you see it?

SYROYID: The problem is that Russia now wants to play in the high league. For this, they need to control two seas and the territory in between them. Without those seas and the territory, they will be incapable to become or to be real big geopolitical leader.

MARTIN: Do you think Ukraine has the ability to defend itself?

SYROYID: Well, it's always the question. If you compare the military - like, the military power, the weapon power, of course we are smaller army than Russian. But if you look at the motivation, what those Russian guy would be fighting for - for, like, doch (ph) of Putin or what? So what would be the reason for them to fight? For the mistresses of their oligarchs. No reason, yeah? It's would not be a glory for them.

MARTIN: And the Ukrainians?

SYROYID: And Ukrainians - they would be fighting for their land, because we don't have other land to go. So I cannot sit on the plane and just go somewhere. I have a lot of friends now calling me from different countries. You know, please come to us to stay for a few months. For what reason? And I tell them, you no understand. Because they say, what if Kyiv is threatened? And I tell them, don't you understand that if I lose Kyiv, I will have no place to return because there will be no country.

MARTIN: And that is just not a reality she's willing to consider. Syroyid isn't in parliament anymore, but she's still the leader of a small political party called Self Reliance, an ideal that stands in such sharp contrast to some of Ukraine's past leaders.


MARTIN: Viktor Yanukovych was pushed out because Ukrainians demanded better. The palace he built for himself by cheating his people is now vacant. He has fled to Russia. Meanwhile, Oksana Syroyid and others committed to an independent, free Ukraine - they are staying put. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Lisa Weiner
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.