On the evening of Saturday 24 February we joined hundreds of people on King’s Parade in Cambridge to mark the  2nd anniversary of the brutal Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine

The candle-lit rally was organised by local Ukrainian support group Cambridge4Ukraine to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine who have resisted Russia’s aggression so courageously, and in doing so defended their democracy and our shared values.

At the rally, which was reported by the Cambridge Independent, Ukrainians living in the Cambridge area spoke, read poems, and sang traditional Ukrainian songs, including Cambridge4Ukraine co-founder Andrii Smytsniuk and mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych. They spoke of their grief and pain after two years of Russia’s full-scale war, but also of their determination to do all they could to help their country resist Russian aggression and to build a better future.

Several non-Ukrainians, including Cambridge City Councillor Cameron Holloway, campaigner Rend Platings, and Cambridge for Europe chair Paul Browne, also spoke.

Paul made the speech below.

2 years ago today we watched in shock and horror as Russian helicopters filled the skies of Ukraine and Russian tanks rolled across the border, and missiles and bombs rained down on Ukrainian towns and cities.

But as well as shock and horror I remember terrible anger, anger not only towards Putin and the Russian forces that invaded Ukraine, but also towards our own political leaders.

For more than a decade they had responded to Russia’s aggression – the invasion of Chechnya, the invasion of Georgia, the bombing of Syria, and the invasion of Crimea and Donbas – with weak sanctions and empty warnings, while continuing to do dirty deals for Russian gas, oil and money.

Their weakness was a direct provocation to Putin’s Russia, an open invitation to be more aggressive. Our political leaders forgot that dictators cannot be appeased, they won’t just be reasonable, their aggression can only be stopped by strength.

The people of Ukraine showed us what that strength looks like.

I’m not just talking about the courage of Ukraine’s defenders, or that of a President who said “I need ammunition, not a ride”, but of civil society, of the ordinary people who came together as the state was being overwhelmed to help refugees, to feed soldiers, to equip those fighting for their country’s freedom with everything from ambulances to attack drones.

Ukrainian resistance to a far larger and better armed invader has been humbling.

We’ve seen the defiance of Mariupol, Bakhmut and Avdiivka, where Ukrainians inflicted huge losses on far larger numbers of attackers, and we’ve also seen Ukraine take back occupied territory, in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson.

We’ve also seen a country without a real navy drive the Black Sea Fleet from its main port, and open up a vital shipping route for Ukrainian grain that helps feed the world.

Where does this strength come from?

I think for most it has a lot to do with a desire for freedom, for democracy, for the right to live free from corruption and persecution in an open Europe, for the right to simply be Ukrainian.

But it is also because Ukrainians know the reality of Russian occupation.

When the Russian forces fled from Bucha, Irpin, Kherson and elsewhere they left behind the shocking evidence of thousands of murders, rapes, abductions and torture.

The Ukrainian Centre of Civil Liberties has documented more than 120,000 individual Russian war crimes since February 24 2022, perhaps most chilling of which is the kidnapping to Russia of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children for indoctrination, a form of cultural genocide. And these are just the crimes they know about, most in Russian occupied zones are still unreported.

Remember this when anyone tells you Ukraine must cede territory to Russia for “peace”.

Last week there was widespread outrage at the murder of Alexei Navalny, with politicians around the world calling for justice.

But the truth is that there is only one way that Putin and his accomplices will face justice for their many terrible crimes, and that path leads through Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea.

There can be no justice without victory, Ukraine’s victory.

We have to ask why does Putin hate Ukraine so much? It’s partially his twisted understanding of history and belief in a new Russian empire with himself as some kind of Tsar. But there is more, there is also fear.

Putin fears Ukraine because Ukraine shows that there is another path available to the one of autocracy and corruption that he and his regime have chosen.

Why are the communist regime of North Korea and the theocratic regime of Iran providing Russia with millions of shells, missiles and drones? After all, their ideologies are on the surface very different to that of the fascist Russian regime.

The answer is they all fear their own people, and their own people’s desire to be free, so they will work together to crush it.

In a powerful speech to the Cambridge Union earlier this month Nobel Peace Prize winner Olexandra Matviichuk, who leads the Centre of Civil Liberties, said:

“Russia attempts to convince the world that democracy and human rights are false values”

If we fail Ukraine, if we allow Russia to win its war against Ukraine, it will not just be a catastrophe for Ukraine.

Nor will it just be a threat to Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Moldova or Poland.

There are groups and individuals in Europe, AfD in Germany, Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary, as well of course as Trumps MAGA cult in America, who already seek to undermine our open and democratic societies from within. A Russian victory or even a so-called “compromise” peace deal that hands Ukrainian lands and sovereignty to Russia would be a huge boost to them. It would send a clear message that democracy is weak, decadent, divided and that it’s day is over.

The stakes could not be higher, the threat to our open and democratic Europe is greater than at any point in my lifetime. 2024 will be a defining year for democracy.

So we must ask, are the democracies of Europe doing enough to help Ukraine?

No, of course not. We can see that every day in reports from Ukraine.

The financial and military support provided to Ukraine is without precedent, and it has been vital. Without it Ukraine might already have run out of weapons to fight with.

But it has also been too hesitant and in insufficient quantity, in part due to a self-defeating fear of escalation.

Well, Ukraine has paid a heavy price in lives lost and cities smashed for that excessive caution, and Russia always escalates anyway.

In the USA a crucial military aid package is held up in Congress. I don’t know if it’s political incompetence, self-interest or treason, or a combination of all three, but it is a warning.

I hope that it will be pushed through in the coming weeks, but even if it is, there is a real risk that this time next year Donald Trump, an admirer of Putin, will be President of the USA. If that happens, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t, he will probably seek to end support for Ukraine, and reduce US commitment to NATO.

What must Europe do? Above all else, Europe must re-arm!

The democracies of Europe – the UK and EU members – must invest much more in defence, and do it now. They must work together to make sure that they can provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defeat Russia and liberate all Ukraine.

If we do this we will send a clear sign to Russia that autocracy cannot out-last democracy.

The UK can start by increasing its military aid for Ukraine from £2.5 billion to £5 billion.

Doing this will cost money. Precious fiscal rules may need to be bent.

But I ask you:

Do you believe in Freedom?
Do you believe in Democracy?
Do you believe in Human Rights?
Do you believe in the Rule of Law?

Well, if we really believe in democracy, freedom, human rights, human dignity, the rule of law, we must be prepared to pay the price to defend them, and that defence starts in Ukraine.

So we must send a message to our MPs, our Prime Ministers and Presidents, by email, by phone, by post, that for democracy and for freedom we must Stand with Ukraine until victory!”

Images: Peter Nixon and Paul Browne

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