BERLIN – “The Russians are behaving like Nazis,” Volodymyr Groysman explained, exuding the cold fury of a man whose state faces an existential threat. The former Ukrainian prime minister was sitting in a nondescript room somewhere in Ukraine, with the blinds drawn, wearing a green puffer jacket somewhat reminiscent of the outfits his former boss, President Volodymyr Zelensky, has worn since the Russian invasion in late February.
“The Russians attacked a peaceful country which posed no threat to anyone. They are attacking peaceful citizens, destroying infrastructure. They are killing women and children in a spirit of total hatred towards Ukrainians,” he said. “That’s clearly fascism to me. They are trying to commit genocide against the Ukrainian people.”
I spoke to Groysman over Zoom, greeting him with what I thought was the standard greeting in Ukrainian: “dobryj den”. I must have pronounced the phrase the Russian way, though, because he immediately offered to conduct the interview in Russian, a language I speak more of than Ukrainian. Like most Ukrainians, Groysman is bilingual and accustomed to speaking both languages; there is no better rebuttal to Vladimir Putin’s absurd claims that Kyiv oppresses Russian speakers.
I asked where he was. “In Ukraine.” Which city? “I can’t say. It is still dangerous.”
Groysman served as his country’s prime minister from 2016 to 2019 under the then president Petro Poroshenko, who was defeated by Zelensky in 2019. He continued as prime minister for a few months under the country’s new leader, until his party lost to Zelensky’s in parliamentary elections. His premiership meant that Ukraine was briefly the only country in modern history apart from Israel to have both a Jewish head of state and head of government.
If he has political disagreements with the president, he was clear that this was not the time to air them. “He is our president. He is the supreme commander of our army. I will completely support him until the day of our victory.”
Vladislav Davidzon, an American writer and close observer of Ukrainian politics who has met Groysman, told me that, like Zelensky, “Groysman is a thoroughly assimilated Soviet Jew,” adding: “He doesn’t seem to think of himself as Jewish at all.”
When I asked Groysman a question hinting at whether his Jewish background affects his view of the war as a “genocide”, Groysman briefly referred to the Holocaust but immediately pivoted to a universalist analysis of the historical woes of all Ukrainians.
“Ukrainians remember the Holocaust, which was a tragedy for the world. But we also remember another tragedy for the world: the Holodomor, an artificial famine in Ukraine which was brought about by [Stalin’s] totalitarian regime in Moscow,” he told me. About three and a half million people are estimated to have died during the famine of 1932-33.
Groysman lost family members to the Holocaust. Vinnytsia, his home city in central Ukraine, was the site in 1942 of one of the worst massacres of Jews during the “Holocaust by bullets”. Another was Babi Yar, a ravine in Kyiv where an estimated 33,000 people were murdered by the Nazis and local collaborators in 1941. The area is now a park and memorial site for the tragedy, but a Russian strike on the Kyiv TV tower (which stands nearby) damaged the site on 1 March, causing worldwide outrage.
“[Babi Yar] is a holy place, where Hitler killed tens of thousands of Jews and people of other nationalities,” Groysman said, while Russia’s attack on the TV tower “killed five innocent civilians who were just walking by. So yes, I believe [Russia’s war] is genocide. It’s terrorism against Ukraine. Putin wants to destroy Ukrainians.”
[See also: Russia can’t afford Putin’s war in Ukraine]
Not long after we speak, reports emerge that Moscow’s forces have bombed a theatre in Mariupol, a Black Sea port which has been besieged by Russia for weeks. Up to 1,200 civilians were reported to have been sheltering in the theatre, which satellite imagery shows had been marked in giant letters with the Russian word for “children”.
Over 2,000 civilians have been confirmed killed in the Russian-speaking city, but the true number is likely much higher. An adviser to the city mayor this week estimated that deaths could be as high as 20,000, equivalent to about 5 per cent of the pre-war population. Russia’s assault on Mariupol is widely interpreted as a warning about what Kyiv and other cities that have so far remained relatively untouched can expect if they do not surrender.
Groysman spent much of his time in office trying and failing to convince Western countries of the threat Putin posed to the free world, with Ukraine on the front line. Some resentment clearly lingers at the sometimes limited support offered to his country by Western nations reluctant to be seen to provoke Russia. “You may remember that during the time when I was prime minister, [Western] partners were reluctant, for instance, to give us defensive weapons. Nonetheless, we managed to increase our defence capabilities considerably, which has allowed us to defend against this aggression.”
He has three demands of the West. The first is for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The second is for China to be dissuaded from supporting Russia through a threat of sanctions as severe as those imposed against Moscow. “The democratic world should send a strong signal that if China supports Russia and provides any kind of military or economic help to Russia, then it will react immediately and will introduce strong sanctions against China.” The third is for the West to explore ways to force Putin from office. “There is of course the question of how to achieve that. But world leaders need to begin thinking about it and need to do everything possible to achieve that as soon as possible.”
Of his three proposals, only the second is likely to be met. Nato has flatly rejected a no-fly zone, arguing it would escalate Russia’s war with Ukraine into a conflict between Russia and the Western alliance. As for regime change in Russia, it is probably safer for Ukraine if Putin feels that he is able to compromise in negotiations without a threat to his rule or personal safety.
Putin has been testing the West for 15 years, Groysman argues. First came the invasion of Georgia in 2008, then the 2014 annexation of Crimea, intervention in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria from 2015, and then the invasion. “What started with the invasion of Ukraine will not end with it,” Groysman said. “This is a battle between good and evil; democracy and authoritarianism. This evil must be stopped while it is in Ukraine, before it spreads further.”