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No white flags: Why these Ukrainian women won’t stop dreaming of victory against Russia

Pope Francis may have called for a settlement, but those who have lived through the invasion are standing firm

Ukrainian citizens and supporters attend the march ' Together For Victory ' to show solidarity with Ukraine and commemorate two year anniversary of Russian invasion on Ukraine. Photo: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pope Francis wants Ukraine to surrender. “The strongest one is the one who looks at the situation, thinks about the people and has the courage of the white flag, and negotiates,” the Pope was quoted saying over the weekend. 

But ask actual Ukranians about this and you’ll get a different answer. Daria Mustafina, for one, believes the notion of peace with Putin is inconceivable. 

“We cannot go back. A lot of politicians believe that we can sign some peace memorandum but then there is no guarantee. Putin is openly saying that Russia will use this time to prepare more equipment. It is exactly what happened after 2014 and this is why this full-scale war happened,” says Mustafina, who is a director of a non-governmental organisation called the Institute of Partnership and Sustainable Development (IPSD).

Instead, and despite a frustrating winter of battlefield stalemate and setbacks, Mustafina says, “We’re now all dreaming of victory.” The question of what that victory would look like reaches back three decades.

Mustafina says, “For patriotic Ukrainians, it looks like where we were in 1991 (when the country gained independence from Russia) with Ukrainian Crimea and Ukrainian Donbas. Now we consider freedom in terms of total independence for the country.”

She looks back to three decades ago, when the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the newly independent Ukraine become briefly the third-largest nuclear power in the world, with thousands of nuclear arms left on its soil by Moscow. In a 1994 agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum, the country denuclearised and, in return, the US, the UK and Russia would ensure the country’s safety. 

“When we talk about victory, we remember 1994 and the Budapest Memorandum,” she says. “We were the country with the third biggest nuclear potential but because of international guarantees, belief in the rule of law and global peace, we relinquished this.” In Mustafina’s mind, therefore, resolving the situation today is a “global responsibility”.

“It will require a ton of resources to rebuild what has been destroyed,” says Ulyana Shtbel, co-founder of Enkiduglobal, a Ukrainian logistics start-up which connects donors and civic organisations in sourcing goods. In 2019, Shtbel opted to relocate to the UK to run her business but returned to Ukraine to visit family in the beginning of February 2022. 

When the war broke out, it took her three days to leave her home country and over the last two years, she has assisted with the procurement of medical supplies, bulletproof vests and helmets for soldiers. 

“Ukraine’s growth as a democratic country was really significant, especially between 2014 and 2022,” she says. “I don’t think (rebuilding) is possible without the money frozen from Russian assets and there is still not full focus on transferring this money to Ukraine.”

On February 12, the EU Council adopted a decision which paved the way toward using the profits generated by confiscated Russian assets to finance Ukraine’s reconstruction but this is not as much progress as Shtbel would like. Attracting future investment, she explains, is crucial to rebuilding Ukraine and this will be impossible if the conflict ends as a frozen war with the country left in limbo.

“If the war is going to be frozen, it’s very unlikely that the investors are going to be willing to invest in manufacturing or real estate. In this scenario, Putin would still be in power and Russia would still have its imperialism so there is no guarantee that they will not attack again. This is the biggest threat to any peace. It’s why Ukrainians would strongly believe that you cannot make any such agreement with Russia,” she adds. 

“It’s very comparable to the situation with Hitler. The only thing which helped to clear out the regime was the Nuremberg trials, right?” she asks rhetorically.

Mustafina was in her home town, Uman, visiting her parents when the invasion began on 24th February 2022. “The bombing began even earlier than in Kyiv. A military unit and weapons stocks are located in the city and Russians blew up the weapons warehouse and the shells began to fly across the city,” recalls Mustafina. 

She remembers scooping up her two-year-old son who was sleeping next to a window and covering him on a sofa in the middle of the room. “I had to keep him safe. There was no warning,” she tells me, “it was just so shocking.” 

With her son and mother, Mustafina however fled to Western Ukraine while her husband, trained as an engineer, registered to fight in Ukraine’s army. “I think my story is similar to a lot of Ukrainian women,” she tells me. Mustafina would know – she stayed in the country and supported their efforts over the last two years. 

In addition to her NGO, Mustafina also heads up WMNpower ecosystem, an educational grant program to support women’s humanitarian initiatives. In 2022, with the assistance of UN Women, they won US embassy support in their efforts in helping local women’s initiatives to address humanitarian aid needs of the civilian population and the effective recovery of Ukraine. 

Natural cosmetics company VESNA was one example. Based in Bucha, Victoria Maslova and her mother Inna Skarzhynska started their skincare business in 2015. When the war came to their home, they were forced to abandon their gardens, labs and manufacturing plants, losing everything they had been working on for seven years.

“We lost the lab, the shops, the partnership contracts, the supply chain, and our homes,” Maslova said. “After the occupation, everything was stolen. All the equipment was destroyed.”

However, the company managed to distribute all its goods to families hiding in nearby bomb shelters just one day before Russian forces destroyed their store, offices and production facilities. The business has now relocated to Lviv and while the rebuilding process has been difficult, it has allowed Maslova to commit to an idea she had before the war; a men’s skincare line. 

Designed especially for those in the military, a new moisturiser targeting frostbite and callouses has become a favourite of those on Ukraine’s frontline. Maslova has also had enquiries from consumers who fled the country with VENSA products in their luggage, asking where they can get more. 

The stories of the women she has worked with are ones of innovation and resilience. Or, as she likes to call them, ones of “passion and power.” 

They’re words that spring to mind when I speak to Zoya Miari, who fled Ukraine with her family on the war’s fifth day. Born in Lebanon as a Palestinian refugee to a family of seven, her Ukrainian mother, Palestinian father and her four siblings, Miari was raised in a refugee camp in a community filled with “child abuse, mental illnesses and ongoing clashes” in the country. 

“As children, we got used to hearing bombings and shootings,” she tells me. Then, when the war broke out in 2006, they fled to her mother’s home country. In Ukraine, Miari remembers, she felt safe. “I thought: ‘nothing could happen to us here’”. 

When the war ended, the family repatriated to Lebanon where Miari completed school and earned her degree. “Although my reality of being a Palestinian refugee was that I was never allowed to work,” she explains. 

But after the catastrophic explosion on August 4, 2020, in Beirut, her parents decided that it was time to move to Ukraine permanently and in 2021 they made the journey back to their safe haven. Their peace barely lasted a year.

“When Russia’s invasion began, my mother rushed into her bedroom telling me to wake up and that the war had started. We were so shocked, everyone had been talking about it but because of our background, I just didn’t want to believe it,” Miari recalls. 

At the same time, there wasn’t time to think as a difficult decision had to be made. Miari’s grandfather was too elderly to travel, and Miari had younger siblings her parents wanted out of a country quickly becoming a war zone. In the end, her grandfather remained behind with her aunt while the rest of her family fled on the fifth day of Russian aggression. Pulling her to one side, her grandfather explained that he was born in a war, and now he will die in one. 

“Leaving Ukraine was very challenging and the train was very emotional. Ukrainian soldiers were waving goodbye to us. It felt like they were giving the women and children and safe space while they protected the country. 

“Everyone was afraid – we were in a four-person cabin with 12 people with eight children and four adults. We were all strangers and all terrified that the train wouldn’t make it out before being bombed.” 

It was at this moment that Miari’s mother told the children in the cabin to sing Ukrainian songs. “I remember every song we sang,” she says. The train set off and for the second time in her life, aged 22, Miari became a refugee. 

Today, Miari fears focussing on anniversaries distracts from the subject of victory. “This time last year I also had this interview. I told the journalist that my hopes for the next year were that we would be celebrating Ukraine’s victory, but here we are. We continue to talk about the same things and it’s really sad,” she says. For Miari, the war is now far more than statistics, but the global rhetoric remains focused on numbers. 

On the war’s second anniversary, in a rare and candid confession, president Zelensky revealed that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the invasion began. “Not 300,000 or 150,000, or whatever Putin and his lying circle are saying. But each of these losses is a great loss for us,” he said. 

As of February 2024, according to the UNHCR, the war has seen 3.7 million Ukrainians had been displaced internally in the country and 6.5 million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded globally.

“This cycle of violence has to end,” sighs Miari. For Mustafina, Shtbel and Miari, anything less than a victory for Ukraine would only be the beginning for Putin – and for the world. 

Daria Mustafina, Ulyana Shtbel and Zoya Miari are all youth ambassadors for One Young World, the platform for young leaders that brings together activists from around the globe.

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