War crystalizes young Ukrainian leaders’ calls for a future aligned with Europe

Franco Ordoñez , NPR

Alyona Shkrum, a 34-year-old member of parliament, is among a new class of Ukrainian leaders who are pushing their country to a more Europe-focused future.

KYIV, UKRAINE — Along with the election of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a new generation of young leaders entered Ukraine’s politics following the mass protests that toppled a pro-Russian president in 2014.

These young politicians have few memories of life under Soviet rule — and they say the war has accelerated their efforts to push for a more Europe-focused future.

“As a country, we are actually very prepared for this kind of war in terms of psychologically,” said Alyona Shkrum, after ducking under a barbed wire-covered checkpoint in the government quarter. “Because we know very well why we are doing it and why we are protecting our country.”

Walking past sand bags and anti-tank barricades, the 34-year-old member of parliament explains this moment is a continuation of what young people like her have been fighting for since the Maidan revolution eight years ago that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russia leader, Viktor Yanukovych.

Like Zelenskyy, Shkrum was elected without much political experience. But she had international experience.

She went to grad school in France and worked in international law in Paris and London. She speaks French and English with ease.

Yarema Dukh, a veteran political adviser of past Ukrainian administrations, called Shkrum “one of the representatives of the new Ukrainian politics.”

He says new leaders like Shkrum can not only interact with Western heads of state in their own languages, but understand their culture, their idiosyncrasies.

“They’ve seen the world and they understand what we need to fix here in Ukraine,” Dukh said.

Yevheniia Kravchuk, 36, a member of Zelenskyy’s party, says the hunger for new ideas in Ukraine was so great that it led her party, in 2019, to block anyone from joining who had been in the parliament before.

“New people, new thinking,” she said. “It was like a big elevator for people to become politicians, to become leaders.”

And she says the war has focused Ukrainians, young and old, on this vision for a more democratic Ukraine that is being championed by young leaders.

A recent poll shows that since the start of the war a record 91% of Ukrainians now want their country to join the European Union.

It’s not that we’re happy that the war sort of fastened our way to European Union, but it actually made everything black and white,” Kravchuk said.

Charles Kupchan, who worked on European issues in the Obama White House, said Putin miscalculated. He thought Ukraine was a country of “wannabe Russians,” Kupchan said.

“It couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Kupchan, who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And it is this younger generation that has really pulled Ukraine in a Westward direction and made it so impossible for Ukraine to go back to mother Russia.”

Back in Kyiv, Alyona Shkrum stops in front of a restaurant that was one of the very few that remained open during the early days of the war.

She says the scene inside was straight out of the movie Casablanca.

You will see a table of soldiers who needed to eat somewhere,” she said, “a table of local defenders of Kyiv, like territorial defense units, everybody armed, everybody with weapons, a table of members of parliament who are here.”

Almost two months later, half of the restaurant is filled with soldiers, their machine guns and sniper rifles resting on their legs or tucked in corners.

It was here, over bowls of traditional chicken soup and eggs that these young leaders would strategize — and divvy up roles to play.

And so we created this kind of woman battalion for members of parliament who are women, who speak foreign languages, who have the connections, who has this international audience,” Shkrum said.

She and three other battalion members met with European ministers. They met with French President Emmanuel Macron. They met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who soon after sitting down with the members made a surprise visit to Kyiv.

We would have a list of what we need to be done in terms of weapon supply, in terms of medical supply, in terms of humanitarian aid,” she said.

Yevheniia Kravchuk went with another group to the United States to meet with leading members of Congress and top officials at the State Department and the Pentagon last month.

Shkrum says everyone has a role to play.

This is a fight for our lives. Like I, as a member of parliament, is on the red list either to be killed or to be captured,” she said. “So obviously it’s a fight for existence, but it’s also a fight to choose our own future. It’s that simple.”

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Transcript :

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A new generation of young leaders entered Ukrainian politics after the mass protests that toppled a pro-Russian president in 2014. Current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is one, and there are many more. They have few memories of life under Soviet rule, and they say this war has hardened their resolve to align Ukraine with the West. NPR’s Franco Ordoñez spent time with some of some of them. He begins with a member of a woman’s battalion who wants Western leaders to do more.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: On a windy afternoon, Alyona Shkrum is running late. She’s struggling to find a way out of the heavily guarded government corridor in Central Kyiv.

ALYONA SHKRUM: (Inaudible).

ORDOÑEZ: She holds down her hair as she carefully crawls under thick barbed wire fencing at a military checkpoint.

SHKRUM: Unfortunately, today, it’s very tough. Sorry about that.

ORDOÑEZ: No, no.

SHKRUM: But this is what you get for…

ORDOÑEZ: No, no.

SHKRUM: …A country in a war.

ORDOÑEZ: As we move past piles of sandbags and anti-tank barricades, the 34-year-old member of parliament explains how she sees this war. For her, this moment is a continuation of what young people have been fighting for since the Maidan Revolution eight years ago that ousted the pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych.

SHKRUM: You know, as a country, we actually are very prepared for this kind of war in terms of – psychologically because we know very well why we are doing it and why we are protecting our country.

ORDOÑEZ: Like President Zelenskyy, Shkrum was elected without much political experience, but she had international experience. She went to grad school in France and worked in international law in Paris and London. She speaks French and English with ease.

YAREMA DUKH: Well, Alyona is even younger than me, and I’m 35. That’s quite a young age to be involved into the politics at all.

ORDOÑEZ: That’s Yarema Dukh, a veteran political adviser of past Ukrainian administrations. He says new leaders like Shkrum not only can speak with Western heads of state without an interpreter, but they understand their culture, their idiosyncrasies. They know how things work.

DUKH: They’ve seen the world, and they understand what we need to fix here in Ukraine.

ORDOÑEZ: Yevheniia Kravchuk is another example. She’s 36 and a member of Zelenskyy’s party. She says the hunger for new ideas was so great that it led her party in 2019 to ban anyone from joining who had been in the parliament before.

YEVHENIIA KRAVCHUK: It’s new people, new thinking. It was like a big, you know, elevator for people to become politicians, to become leaders – new leaders.

ORDOÑEZ: And she says the war has focused Ukrainians, young and old, on this vision for a more democratic Ukraine that is being championed by young leaders. A recent poll shows that, since the start of the war, a record 91% of Ukrainians now want their country to join the European Union.

KRAVCHUK: It’s not that we’re happy that the war sort of fastened our way to European Union, but it actually made everything black and white.

ORDOÑEZ: Back on the streets in Kyiv, Alyona Shkrum stops in front of a restaurant that was one of the very few that remained open during the early days of the war. She says the scene inside was straight out of the movie “Casablanca.”

SHKRUM: We’ll see a table of, you know, soldiers who needed to eat somewhere, a table of local defenders of Kyiv – like, territorial defense units, everybody armed, everybody with weapons, a table of members of parliament who are here.

ORDOÑEZ: Even now, as we walk inside, half of the restaurant is filled with soldiers, their machine guns and sniper rifles resting on their legs or tucked in corners. It was here over bowls of traditional chicken soup and eggs that these young leaders would strategize and divvy up roles to play.

SHKRUM: And so we created this kind of woman battalion for members of parliament who are women, who speak foreign languages, who have the connections, who has this international, you know, audience.

ORDOÑEZ: Shkrum says the women’s battalions were not about excluding men but recognizing this was something women had to lead because men were not allowed to leave the country.

SHKRUM: So for us, it made sense that if men cannot do it, then we will go abroad, and we will talk to politicians, and we will tell them what is going on here.

ORDOÑEZ: She and three other battalion members met with Western leaders, with ministers of defense, ministers of the economy. They met with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who, soon after sitting down with the members, made a surprise visit to Kyiv.

SHKRUM: We would have a list of what we need to be done in terms of weapons supply, in terms of medical supply, in terms of humanitarian aid.

ORDOÑEZ: Yevheniia Kravchuk from Zelenskyy’s party went with another group to the United States to meet with leading members of Congress and top officials at the State Department and Pentagon. Alyona Shkrum says everyone has a role to play. The country’s existence is at stake.

SHKRUM: This is a fight for our lives. Like, I, as a member of Parliament, is on the red list either to be killed or to be captured. So obviously, it’s a fight for existence, but it’s also a fight to choose our own future.

ORDOÑEZ: And she says it’s really just that simple. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Kyiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.