War has the habit of democratizing fear and pain.
Irina Vereshchuk, 43, is one of the most prominent figures within Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government, serving as both a deputy prime minister and as minister for the Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territory.
Several times during her interview with EL PAÍS in Kyiv last Saturday, she had tears in her eyes. She explains that her husband and son are in the military.
Vereshchuk defends the “tough and necessary” presence of the Ukrainian army in the battle of Bakhmut, assuring this newspaper that Russian forces are bombarding the evacuation of civilians. She also notes that Ukraine doesn’t lack soldiers, but is in need of sufficient weapons and ammunition.
The deputy PM acknowledges that her government intends to rebuild the Ukrainian state “from scratch” in the Crimean peninsula, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014.
Russia “isn’t going to demoralize us,” she responded, after a video surfaced showing the brutal shooting of a Ukrainian soldier.
The head of the portfolio known as the Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories – appointed months before the large-scale invasion began – is in charge of maintaining Ukrainian momentum in seized areas. She is facing a new source of concern these days: misinformation stating that Russia has taken territory in Bakhmut, a disputed town in the eastern region of Donetsk. At least 70,000 people once lived there, including 12,000 minors. A week last Wednesday, according to Vereshchuk, there were only 4,000 adults and 34 children left – a figure that is no longer valid by the time of the interview.
“It could be that there are 1,000 adults left. We don’t know if there are children. I want to believe that there are none.”
She explains that they have managed to evacuate “almost all” residents in the most discreet way possible, although some remain “as if petrified” – fear prevents them from moving.
“We haven’t officially communicated it, because Russia – if it’s known that we’re evacuating people – closes all access. [Russian forces] don’t allow [humanitarian] corridors – as soon as they see the evacuation vehicles, they shoot at them.”
In the hours prior to the interview, the Ukrainian capital ground to a halt due to massive funerals held for three fighters who died on the Bakhmut front. They were a father and son – who died at the same time – and a 27-year-old commander, Dmitro Kotsiubailo, nicknamed Da Vinci.
Despite the high price in human lives, the minister underpins the announcement made by President Zelenskiy, to continue to stand up to the Kremlin troops in Bakhmut, so that they don’t have an easy advance in the event of a withdrawal by Ukrainian forces.
“Look how we mourn those who die. Do you see how all this hurts us? Imagine how it hurts the president and all those who make those kinds of tough but necessary decisions.”
Bakhmut is just one of the stones in the shoe of the Kyiv government. There are other areas and towns that have been freed from the presence of the enemy, but peace hasn’t arrived, due to proximity to the front. For this reason, the minister points out – in cities such as Kupiansk, in the Kharkiv region, officially liberated last September – “evacuation is mandatory and the state provides transportation, food and accommodation.”
The authorities have also approved the removal of minors from enclaves where there is fighting.
“Children shouldn’t be in the hostilities – they have to be evacuated and the state [must] take care of them,” says Vereshchuk, who is part of an administration in which there are four other deputy prime ministers: two women and two men.
The need for military material is the focus of a good part of her speech. “We appreciate every dollar and every euro that you send us,” but “we need more weapons and more ammunition,” she emphasizes, getting emotional for the first time.
Her knowledge of the terrain as a member of the Ukrainian government is bolstered by her family’s experience.
“My husband is at the front; I know to what extent we need more projectiles,” she recounts. And not just her husband, a 46-year-old colonel stationed in the east, the most troubled region. Also her eldest son: a 23-year-old lieutenant, who was caught up in the large-scale war a year ago, fresh out of university. His baptism by fire was in Zaporizhia, where 40% of his company was killed.
Vereshchuk tries to illustrate a tragedy without the use of statistics: “We’re a military family, I myself am [a soldier] too.”
She denies the idea that Ukraine lacks soldiers, despite the fact that the country has been at war for over a year, suffering tens of thousands of deaths. She defends both the generation of veterans and the new batch of recruits.
“These are fully motivated and prepared people with energy to fight. The enemy doesn’t have that motivation. You already know what kinds of garbage – excuse me – they throw into the trenches,” she scoffs, making an indirect allusion to the mercenaries used by the Kremlin-contracted Wagner Group – an essential pillar of Putin’s offensive. Many of these men are convicts released from jail, who have been thrown into enemy positions with little equipment and training.
“I’m not so concerned about the number of soldiers as the need for more weapons,” the deputy PM insists.
The minister doesn’t forget to mention Crimea: the Ukrainian peninsula where Moscow has held power since 2014. There, the war is experienced with less intensity. This allows Russia to put down roots as an authority more calmly, despite not having any recognition from the international community.
“In Crimea, the Ukrainian state must be restarted from scratch,” Vereshchuk acknowledges. For this reason, the Zelenskiy government – in addition to administering the war effort – is preparing a program to train a corps of reserve officials, including police officers, doctors and teachers. This group will be ready for the day when Kyiv regains control over the region.
This isn’t, in any case, something that’s going to happen easily or in the short-term. Ukraine’s allies – beyond the diplomatic dialectic – show much less enthusiasm when it comes to supporting the expulsion of Moscow from the Ukrainian peninsula.
Other winds are blowing, however, on the path of institutional rapprochement with Brussels. The Belgian capital has embraced Kyiv more than ever in its desire for integration into the European Union… although not immediately. The deputy PM of Ukraine reflects that this climate of optimism en route to the EU – and also to NATO, she adds – is matched by Kyiv’s ability to meet the demands that lie ahead.
Vereshchuk also expresses her gratitude to Spain – the country that will assume the rotating presidency of the EU in the second half of 2023.
“Spain has opened many houses and many hearts” to the Ukrainians,” she comments. “[The Spanish] people know what struggle and democracy are and our victory will be their victory.”
Beyond Europe, she doesn’t feel that Russia’s campaign to attract countries from the so-called “Global South” is hurting Ukraine.
“There aren’t many countries in the world that support Russia,” she says calmly, pointing to the support received by Ukraine in the resolutions voted on at the United Nations. The last one – on February 23 – had only seven countries vote against Kyiv’s proposal, including Russia and two of its allies and neighbors: Belarus and North Korea.
“Our political role is to teach all the countries – not only the Baltic countries, Poland, Romania or the Czech Republic, which are close to the epicenter of the war and know that the Russian boot can be on their land – but also those that are far away. [There is] a lack of justice in that a country that is a member of the UN Security Council – with nuclear weapons – can invade a neighboring country.”
Vereshchuk frowns a bit when referring to a video posted on social media last week, which shows the execution of a Ukrainian soldier. She has a forceful message to the Kremlin:
“If we can reach them through the courts, we will… and if not, by force of arms.”
“This type of video only increases our desire for victory. The Kremlin doesn’t understand anything about the Ukrainians and believes that, with videos like this, it will demoralize us.”
After the interview, a few minutes of informal conversation pass until Vereshchuk poses for a photo. She assures EL PAÍS that it was not her intention to talk about her family. She fixes her eyes on the camera and tries to smile.
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