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Zelensky May Have to Make “Painful Compromises” to End the War, Says Ukrainian Scholar Volodymyr Ishchenko

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As the U.S. and its allies ramp up punitive sanctions on Russia and military support for Ukraine, they must be combined with active peace talks, says Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko. This comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to rule out the possibility of using nuclear weapons in what has turned into a long, costly war. We also speak with Ishchenko about the rise of pro-Russian political parties in Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to suppress these parties and consolidate Ukrainian media.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We turn now to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin refusing to rule out using nuclear weapons on the battlefield if it faces what it determines to be an existential threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, made the remark during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Tuesday.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: I want to ask you again: Is President Putin — because, again, the Finnish president said to me that when he asked Putin directly about this, because President Putin has laid that card on the table, President Putin said that if anybody tries to stop him, very bad things will happen. And I want to know whether you are convinced or confident that your boss will not use that option.

DMITRY PESKOV: Well, we have a concept of domestic security. And, well, it’s public. You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used. So, if it is an existential threat for our country, then it can be used in accordance with our concept.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, speaking on CNN. Remember, his daughter, at the beginning of the war, posted on her Instagram Telegram account, “No to war.” That’s Peskov. This comes as the Pentagon claims Ukrainian forces have launched a counteroffensive in an attempt to regain land seized by Russia. Meanwhile, Ukraine said 100,000 people remain trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol with little food or water.

We’re joined now by Volodymyr Ishchenko. He is a Ukrainian sociologist, research associate at the Institute for East European Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

Thanks so much for being with us. It’s great to have you with us. If you can start, Volodymyr, by talking about what you think we are misunderstanding about this war, and particularly with all of the close to billion dollars’ worth of weapons that the U.S. is sending to Ukraine? What about focusing on pushing peace negotiations? If U.S. and NATO demanded that, would that happen?

VOLODYMYR ISHCHENKO: I think that weapons and sanctions are good at the initial stage of the war, because they help to scale down the maximalist demands that Putin had on Ukraine, perhaps up to the regime change in Ukraine. And now meeting strong resistance and very strong sanctions, he would be ready to negotiate and to agree on some more acceptable conditions of the peace settlement. But if the U.S. strategy would be only about weapons and sanctions, that means that they would only prolong the war. And that would mean only more Ukrainians would be dead, killed by Russian army. Only more cities in Ukraine would be destroyed, and the less of Ukrainian economy would survive. And so, the weapons and sanctions should be absolutely necessarily combined with a very active brokerage of a peace settlement between Ukraine and Russia.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about your perspective about how this enormous worldwide tragedy, really, that’s occurring there could end and should end?

VOLODYMYR ISHCHENKO: Like, it can end in various scenarios. The nuclear war is also possible. It’s probably the — we are now living in the moment when a nuclear war is the most probable since perhaps the 1960s, since the Caribbean crisis. And the turning Ukraine into a kind of like Afghanistan, into a failed state for many years, is also possible and also a very horrible scenario. And if some people in two years may speak about Afghanistan for Russia as something good, that’s certainly not good for Ukraine. And more, like — there could be a partition of Ukraine, if Russia would take some more territories and then stop and then try to install a puppet government for kind of like a pro-Russian part of Ukraine, and that would be something like Western and Eastern Germany during the Cold War. And the regime in a pro-Russian part of Ukraine would be very repressive, because it would be not seen as legitimate by most of the Ukrainians who would live there.

And, like, the best option for Ukraine now, I believe, if a peace settlement would be reached as soon as possible. And probably it would require some very painful compromises to be made by Ukrainian government. And what the Western countries, the United States and the EU, could help at this moment is, for example, giving Ukraine a very clear prospect of EU membership, because that would allow Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian president, to claim basically any result of the peace negotiations as the victory of Ukraine, because he could say that Ukraine not only conceded to the overwhelming force from Russia, but also won something: the EU membership that quite many Ukrainians were protesting for since 2014. And that would also mean more resources for Ukraine; standing in all the state institutions, that would be very important after the war; improving the human rights situation. So, that would be a big improvement, and it would also be supported by the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian population, perhaps besides some hardcore nationalists who would not agree on any compromise with Russia. And that would mean that the peace settlement would be stable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — there’s been a lot of attention in the U.S. press, obviously, to the repression of the press in Russia and its reporting on the war and the repression of dissent. But in recent days the Ukrainian government has also been involved in some questionable moves: one, suspending of various political parties, opposition parties within Ukraine, including the Opposition Platform — For Life, which I think has about 10% of the membership of their parliament, and also the merging of all the national TV channels into one channel, a decree by President Zelensky in recent days, supposedly for creating what the government calls a “unified information policy.” What’s your sense of these moves and how it squares with the democratic nature of Ukraine?

VOLODYMYR ISHCHENKO: It’s not exactly merging. They obliged the TV stations to broadcast one specific streaming that gives like a pro-governmental position. And that was made in order to marginalize the criticism coming from — actually, from the nationalist opposition to the government, that started to criticize Zelensky for probably accepting some concessions with Russia during the negotiations, particularly about abandoning NATO membership for Ukraine.

Speaking about the suspension of the opposition parties, that’s actually — it’s not even speaking about democracy, because, of course, it’s not in a democratic move, but some people would say that during the time of war you cannot have democracy, so you just need to accept this. The problem is that even from a security point of view, suspension of these parties is simply meaningless. First, not all of those parties are actually in any sense pro-Russian. The irony is that the leaders and the sponsors of the most relevant parties in those list have actually condemned the war. They are contributing to Ukrainian defense. And specifically the Opposition Platform — For Life recently called all the members to join Ukrainian forces that defend the country. So the label of pro-Russian in Ukraine since 2014 became almost meaningless, because it does not mean that the politician or person is actually speaking for any closer relation between Russia, but you could be called pro-Russian simply, for example, for arguing for Ukraine’s nonalignment or neutrality, and for a variety of positions that are simply beyond the pro-Western nationalist or neoliberal positions that dominate Ukrainian civil society, but that are not actually represented you for Ukrainian society at large.

And to understand how meaningless this label is, you should recall how Zelensky, the president himself, was widely attacked as pro-Russian, although during the election campaign he spoke for joining EU, for joining NATO, and called Stepan Bandera, the very infamous leader of Ukrainian nationalists, a hero of Ukraine — some completely anti-Russian positions. Nevertheless, as he was seen as a little bit alternative to Poroshenko, he was attacked as pro-Russian. Now, that means that this label is meaningless.

And suspension of these parties does not increase Ukraine’s security, because even those people within those parties who would — may think about collaborating with Russia or helping the Russian propaganda, they would do this outside of the party structures. And they would never, ever move the Russian money through the official party accounts. And what it actually leads to, that some of the local organizations of those suspended parties, the members of the local councils, mayors elected with support of those parties, active supporters in the occupied by Russian army areas now would start thinking, if they are banned in Ukraine and probably won’t be allowed to continue their political activities, and probably they would even face persecution for their positions and being members of those parties, so they may start looking towards Russia. And that would actually increase chances of collaborationism, that by this moment remains quite minimal. But now any move that actually alienates any significant part of Ukrainian public — and we should recall that 18% of voters voted for those parties at the recent elections. It’s not some marginal group; it’s a quite significant part of Ukrainian electorate. So, if you alienate them, you’re actually not strengthening the country, you’re weakening the country, and you help the enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: Volodymyr Ishchenko, I wanted to ask you about the Azov Battalion, a part of the Ukrainian National Guard, and if you fear that the massive number of weapons going in, that what’s going on right now, is actually strengthening them. You have the first battalion commander — I mean, it’s outwardly, you know, racist, antisemitic. You have first battalion commander, Andriy Biletsky, saying Ukraine’s national purpose was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].” And I’m wondering — you have Facebook allowing praise of neo-Nazi Ukrainian battalion leading into the war, but not allowing its coat of arms and other things to be shown or them to recruit, but because they’ve been so successful on the battlefield. So I wanted to ask if you could explain who they are and also their role in Mariupol.

VOLODYMYR ISHCHENKO: Biletsky actually moderated some of his positions since the moment he entered big politics. And so, what you’re quoting is coming even before the Euromaidan revolution, before 2014, when he led actually, indeed, an extreme-right group. Although was definitely a very important part of a far-right movement, which is not just military units but also a political party, National Corps, of the explicitly far-right orientation, a paramilitary —

AMY GOODMAN: I have to warn you: We only have a minute and a half.

VOLODYMYR ISHCHENKO: Oh, sorry. Yeah, paramilitary institution, as well. And now, I mean, if you’re sending weapons to Ukraine, I’m not sure if there is any possibility to discriminate who are these weapons getting to. And the problem with this, with Russia invasion, is that one of the results would be that the people like Azov would get probably even more power and even more notoriety for playing some role in this war, specifically in the defense of Mariupol. And yeah, the result would be not great.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about this?

VOLODYMYR ISHCHENKO: I mean, there are many things that you should be concerned right now, and not — I mean, as always, just one of the many, many, many other things that — I mean, most of Ukrainians are primarily concerned now about the shellings and bombings and rockets that may strike their homes and kill them.

AMY GOODMAN: Volodymyr Ishchenko, we want to thank you for being with us. We want to ask you to stay with us so we can do a post-show and post it online at Volodymyr is a Ukrainian sociologist, research associate at the Institute for East European Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

Democracy Now! has an immediate opening for a news writer/producer. Visit to find out more. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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