Investigating sexual violence as war crimes — "He Came Back"
Our War Crimes Investigations Unit released its new documentary, “He Came Back”. The film is about two cases of sexual violence committed by Russian soldiers during the occupation of Kherson and Kyiv oblasts in 2022 — and the process of identifying the offenders. Watch it on our YouTube channel.
Skip to content
Edit post

Illia Ponomarenko: Ukraine has proved that hard choices pay off

October 28, 2022 9:38 PM 11 min read
Illia Ponomarenko
Illia Ponomarenko
Former Defense reporter
A soldier of Ukraine's 5th Regiment of Assault Infantry fires a US-made MK-19 automatic grenade launcher towards Russian positions in less than 800 meters away at a front line near Toretsk in Donetsk Oblast on Oct. 12, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)
This audio is created with AI assistance

Support independent journalism in Ukraine. Join us in this fight.

Become a member Support us just once

Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of the speech given by the Kyiv Independent’s defense reporter Illia Ponomarenko at the annual meeting organized by the Raam Op Rusland think tank, in Amsterdam, on Oct. 25. For republication, reach out to [email protected].


Hello, and thank you for having me tonight.

I've just arrived from Kyiv, and that was quite a ride lasting 30 hours, so I hope we'll have a sincere, intimate conversation about things we're all worried about.

I am here not to lecture anyone or say, "you must do this and that, you owe us!" or something like that.

I am here to talk about hope and good faith.

I'm glad I have a chance to talk to the Dutch people because we have a lot in common, even though we're on the opposite sides of the continent.

Once upon a time, I was a student in the city of Mariupol. I used to work at a cargo terminal. Once upon a time, I got back from work to my dorm room and opened my laptop to see what was in the news.

When I saw it, I said to myself a phrase in Russian: "Довоевались, уроды." Which can be roughly interpreted as, "Look at what you've done with your war, you freaks."

I was referring to the people who had downed the MH17 that day.

The downing of MH17 was a watershed moment for many people in Ukraine in 2014, as well as for me. It opened a new chapter in the war. It showed us that the barbarity of this may have no limits.

It's not a localized regional conflict anymore.

It's been more than eight years since that moment.

I'm not a student anymore.

Today I am a journalist representing my country in the world. Yet, we're still fighting the same war. Over the last eight years, and especially in the last eight months, unbelievable things have happened.

Mariupol was turned into heaps of ruins. My hometown of Volnovakha was just razed to the ground. The city I'm just about to move to, Bucha, has become an international symbol of mass graves and executions.

And MH17 criminals still haven't been brought to justice.

As a journalist, I have seen unbelievable things I will never forget.

I've seen Kyiv, the heart of the whole nation, standing just two steps away from its downfall before advancing Russian armies.

Soldiers of Ukraine's 72nd Mechanized Brigades were sacrificing themselves to stop the Russian advance into Kyiv near the town of Moschun, despite insane bloodshed.

In late February, in the first five days, we were so close to the downfall!

That would be the end of so many things so precious and dear to us, to my generation: the values of the EuroMaidan Revolution, all the democratic reforms, and the resurrection of modern Ukrainian culture.

The end of our world as we knew it.

As Russia digs in along Donbas front line, no end in sight for civilian suffering

And I've seen something unbelievable. Ukraine managed to defeat the Russian blitzkrieg, exhaust its power, and reverse the war's course.

Now we're not talking about whether Kyiv will fall within 72 hours. We're talking about whether we can retake Kherson in the next six weeks and what we should do next in this war.

Why are we where we are today, against all expectations?

The guys from my media outlet, the Kyiv Independent, suggested that I write a book about this war. I was thinking — what is this war's most essential thing, the most important conclusion?

There have been a lot of important things for the military and politics. But I realized that the most essential thing is the moral aspect.

This war has taught me one thing — always act according to the best consciousness in the darkest moment. No matter how hard and scary that would be. It will be hard, but at the end of the day, it will always be the only right solution.

The seemingly easiest way is always wrong. Deals with the devil made out of weakness and desire to sweep the trouble under the rug never end well.

Of course, I’m not discovering anything new. It's a very basic principle. But in the reality of a catastrophic war, where the normal life for millions of people is collapsing — it's easier said than done.

But this is the moral choice the Ukrainian nation had to make in this war.

The nation made its choice – and individual people did, too.

On the invasion's first day, I decided that I have to take care of my mother. I made her leave her city in eastern Ukraine on the eve of the invasion. I had to take her to a safe place in West Ukraine.

My flatmate Ivan has a car. So we managed to get out of Kyiv. The city was in mayhem — tanks, enormous traffic jams, sounds of fighting.

We made it to a small town just on the border with Moldova, 600 kilometers away from Kyiv.

When we arrived, I was so exhausted that I just touched the nearest sofa in the house and got knocked out.

But then in the morning, the question came — what's next? My friend Ivan was shocked and scared. He couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, he kept repeating: "Man, I'm not getting back, never, never."

I was scared, too. Things were not looking good at that point. At best, I could hope to get back to Kyiv only to see the battle for the city — and hopefully, try and flee alive as the city falls.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 25, in Kyiv, the military was giving out thousands of AK rifles. To very regular people, to everyone willing to fight until the bitter end, just in the streets.

You can easily find videos of that on the internet.

It was a desperate act. Everyone expected a major Russian breakthrough into Kyiv from the north.

Ordinary people in Kyiv, just untrained civilians, made a decision to take weapons and fight an invading regular army in their streets.

And me and my friend Ivan, seeing this, also made a decision.

We're not giving up and we don't care.

And that was the most correct decision in my life.

And we made it back to the city under attack.

We entered the empty dark streets. Ukrainian air defense systems were trying to intercept incoming Russian missiles – unsuccessfully.

We lived in a flat close to the battlefield of Bucha and Irpin, we shared food, and woke up and fell to the sound of artillery. I worked as a Kyiv Independent journalist, and my flatmate was my driver.

This was the Battle of Kyiv.

But it was not only about ordinary people like myself.

I've always been quite critical of Volodymyr Zelensky. Before the big invasion, he was rather messy and not serious enough about his job.

But when the darkest hour came, he also had to make a high-ground decision.

His own administration begged him to flee Kyiv before it was too late. Western leaders offered their assistance in evacuation.

But he said no. And he decided to stay in Kyiv, saying, "I need ammo, not a ride."

This phrase is most probably just a legend.

But nonetheless, you now know Zelensky as a prominent war leader of this century.

Not as yet another "president in exile" good for nothing and making meaningless statements and giving interviews abroad.

And thanks to the national unity in Ukraine, and the armed forces — we are where we are now. And there's no Russian flag flying over Maidan Square in Kyiv.

And now they are losing ground in Ukraine.

And Vladimir Putin is now thinking about how to stay in the Kremlin, how to avoid a catastrophic defeat in Ukraine. And right now, he's not thinking about what he wants to swallow next.

Why did this happen? How come they managed to be so wrong about Ukraine?

I often call this war one of the dumbest and most absurd wars in human history.

Indeed, in all seriousness, the leadership of the world's largest country thought Ukraine would just fall into their hands.

How Russia organized its torture chamber network in Kharkiv Oblast

They lied so much that they believed their lies.

They were delusional and they thought nothing will be there to stop them.

The whole system was built on the fact that you have to say what your superiors want to hear from you.

And your superiors also were supposed to be always telling their superiors what they want to hear. It's the whole way up to the corridors of the Kremlin.

They were blind. The lie blinded them.

They failed to see that Ukraine is not the same old Soviet republic anymore. Over the last 30 years, Ukraine has formed itself as an independent nation.

We have our own identity, our national myth, our tradition, our political system, our own internet memes. We have people ready to fight and die, to stand up and do what needs to be done to save what we love.

But they were also blind about themselves and their might.

They were delusional and they thought nothing would be there to stop them.

The Russian overconfidence was just beyond appalling.

They wanted to easily gain a foothold close in Kyiv at the Hostomel airfield, then get landed in downtown Kyiv. Then simply kill or arrest the Ukrainian leadership in Kyiv's government quarter.

Long advancing convoys were moving along our forests barely protected.

What we ended up seeing in the battlefields of Ukraine was a destitute army, absolutely neglectful about the life of their soldiers. Very primitive and straightforward.

Lacking sophisticated tactics, in many ways equipped worse than the Ukrainian military.

But still, this army is large. The Soviet legacy gave them thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, and munition rounds. They waste their manpower without a second thought.

Russian hordes entered Ukraine from nine directions, having just only 150,000 troops, which was definitely not enough.

The Kremlin repeatedly suggested that hostilities be halted — if Kyiv just surrenders unconditionally.

But General Zaluzhny, Ukraine's top military commander, also had a hope.

Defense minister: ‘The age of Ukraine-centrism has begun’

He knew that the Ukrainian military should let Russia enter deep in the Ukrainian territory, then get bogged down, with their poor logistics derailed, in hard combat.

Russian convoys moving along roads in Ukrainian forests were ambushed by highly-mobile Ukrainian units. In many cases, Ukrainian forces would let Russian tanks pass by, and then attack fuel trucks that followed the heavy armor.

Very soon, Russian tanks stripped of fuel had to stop — ready to be captured intact.

To deal with advancing Russian hordes, the Ukrainian military decentralized the command and control system, and gave more authority to leaders on the ground, who know the situation better.

Ukrainian formations were using the tactics of small and highly mobile units to avoid becoming easy and large targets for Russia.

Ukrainian combat units were much more motivated, flexible, and effective. Because they also had hope, and they knew that nothing is predestined, and that can and will give Russia a fight.

One step after another, this was the path to victory in the Battle of Kyiv.

At some point between May and June, the Ukrainian military had largely run out of old Soviet-standard artillery munition.

Without heavy weaponry, Ukraine wouldn't stand a chance in the long run. But our military, again, found a way out. Within a very short period of time, it managed to largely switch to using Western-provided 105-mm and 155-mm NATO systems, opening a new page in Ukraine's military history and drawing a new breath for war.

Right now, Ukraine is suffering from ongoing Russian strikes upon our critical civilian infrastructure. The Kremlin can't defeat our military on battlefields, so it wants to force us into surrender by stripping us of heating and electricity in winter.

There's an ongoing battle between Russian missiles, Iranian-made kamikaze drones, on one side, and Ukrainian workers repairing the electricity grid all the time. The Ukrainian public largely supports this campaign — it's fancy now to save electricity, and abstain from using washing machines during peak hours.

In Podil, the epicenter of fun and leisure in Kyiv, no street lights are on after dark. But Friday night continues. Street musicians play Oasis covers, people dance and hang out — in the dark of the street.

Do you know what our Kyiv Independent guys do during air alert time?

They leave the office and head for a craft beer pub that's located in a basement. So it's a shelter — and a bar.

Life and hope always find a way.

Western leaders also had to make this moral choice toward hope and overcoming hardship instead of sweeping it under the rug.

The West has made its way from attempts to "save Putin's face" and "find a compromise for peace" to this firm support that we're having now.

We have made our war from getting Javelins and NLAWs for guerrilla resistance under Russian occupation, then to artillery systems for a full-fledged war, now we're getting air defense facilities.

Over 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers had to die to prove that the Ukrainian cause is worthwhile, that defense aid works, and that Ukraine can and will win this war if the West supports it.

We need more aid, but our confidence in Western support is now as strong as never before.

Just like so many in Ukraine, Western leaders also had to make historic decisions for a historic time and choose the Ukrainian victory over the Russian appeasement.

But we keep hearing voices in the West – why no negotiations? We don't want to freeze to death in winter or die in a nuclear attack, as Putin threatens.

Why should we care about Ukraine?

These voices suggest we go the easiest way — to close one's eyes on Ukraine in exchange for what seems like forgetting the problem for a while.

Feeding a dictator's appetite will only encourage his expansion and show that nuclear blackmail and extortion work. And that's not only Vladimir Putin but also many other rogue regimes in the world.

It will take no time to issue new demands and an even bigger war.

Like I said in the beginning, deals with the devil never work out well.

If we let Putin devour Ukraine, he would get enormous resources of this land — such as even more control of the global food market —  and more confidence in his military expansion.

We're not dealing with reasonable leaders acting out of good faith.

We're dealing with a mafia that will go on as long as they meet no resistance. They're failing, and they are trying to discourage the West from helping us.

We don't have a choice between war and peace.

We have a choice between a shameful deal with the devil that will only make things worse — and helping Ukraine stop the Kremlin now.

Russia now bombs Ukrainian cities, provoking new waves of refugees. In this regard, there's also a choice. You can say we're tired and we want this to end — or you can help Ukraine acquire air defenses and protect its cities.

I hope we stay on this path. Helping Ukraine works. If it didn’t, right now I'd be in a mass grave with my hands tied behind my back.

The event's organizers asked me to have a word or two on if I believe reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia is possible in the future.

We in Ukraine all made our choice — and Russians will also have to, if they want to stay a nation.

They will also face this moral choice of whether they go the easy way, saying "I was just fulfilling orders," finding excuses, accusing the world of what's happened — or reassessing their history, their life, their guilt, and changing their country for the better.

If they make it right, in the distant future, maybe, there'll be a chance for them, too.

So let there be hope and good faith in what we do.


Note from the author:

Hello! My name is Illia Ponomarenko, the guy who wrote this piece for you.

I hope you found it useful and interesting. I work day and night to bring you quality stories from Ukraine, where Russia is waging the biggest war in Europe since WWII. My little homeland, Donbas, is now the site of the worst fighting. We are helping to keep the world informed about Russian aggression. But I also need help from every one of you — to support Ukrainian wartime journalism by donating to the Kyiv Independent and becoming our patron.

Together, we can help bring peace to Ukraine.

Before you skip this banner, we want to tell you something…

The Kyiv Independent doesn’t depend on a wealthy owner or an oligarch — in 2023, 80% of our revenue was from reader contributions . It’s thanks to them that we don’t have to rely on a single owner.

Support us now and help maintain our independent model and keep our articles free for everyone. Your contributions allow us to cover journalists’ salaries, report from the front lines, and fund projects like our War Crimes Investigations Unit.

visa masterCard americanExpress

Editors' Picks

Enter your email to subscribe
Please, enter correct email address
* indicates required
* indicates required
* indicates required
* indicates required
* indicates required


* indicates required
* indicates required


* indicates required
* indicates required


* indicates required
Successfuly subscribed
Thank you for signing up for this newsletter. We’ve sent you a confirmation email.