On Tuesday Daria Kaleniuk stood up at a press conference with Boris Johnson in Poland and demanded to know why he did not support a no-fly zone over her native Ukraine. Her day job is to run the Anti-corruption Action Centre, a non-governmental organisation based in Kyiv that she now leads from an apartment in Warsaw.
She fled here last week with her two young children, and told me why: “I understood that I’m most likely on an assassination list and I simply could not stay,” she said. “We immediately started to look for helmets, vests and medication in order to send to Ukraine because we have team members who are in Kyiv and under bombardment.”
One of her colleagues messaged as we were speaking. She told Kaleniuk she had just endured 20 minutes of Russian shelling during which she was afraid even to breathe.
Even for Kaleniuk, who has spoken out for years against Kremlin disinformation and aggression in her country, the war came as a shock. “I didn’t expect a real war with murder of innocent people,” she said. “What I expected was attacks on infrastructure. But not such violence and insanity.”
She seemed exhausted, but driven on by anger. Most of it is directed at the Kremlin – “they have no humanity” – and much of it at the West. She is campaigning for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would mean Nato forces would destroy any Russian aircraft that enter the country’s airspace. Western leaders like Johnson are resisting, fearing the policy would start World War III.
“But World War III is already here,” Kaleniuk said. Referring to the Tuesday press conference, she added: “I asked the prime minister, ‘What is the alternative to the no-fly zone?’”
For Kaleniuk, the alternative is plain to see. Vladimir Putin will kill millions of innocent people. “He wants to eliminate Ukrainians as an idea, that’s why he’s bombing women and children.”
But for her, this is not just about Ukraine. Nato and the European Union were created to protect certain values – those of human rights, liberal democracy, and human life. Values that Kaleniuk said are being “bluntly violated in Ukraine, and no one is reacting”.
The assault on those values has started at Ukraine, but will not end there. Putin – “an international terrorist who runs his country as a terrorist organisaiton” – will keep pushing his war farther west. His oligarchs, whom she calls “members of his organised terrorism group”, are already spread across western capitals, sowing their dirty money and buying their hosts’ passports – “including Malta where you are from”.
It is impossible to leave Kaleniuk and not feel a sense of shame; a sense that we have let this happen and that we are now doing nothing to stop it. For most of us, life will continue as it always has. For Kaleniuk and her fellow Ukrainians, it will have to be salvaged from what Putin leaves behind. At the end of our interview, she stood up, yawned, and apologised that she now had to see her children because she hadn’t seen them all day.