Ukrainian medic-turned-MP Oleksii Goncharenko is determined to catalogue and share his growing dossier of Russian atrocities
ByCamilla Tominey, ASSOCIATE EDITOR. 21 May 2022
Having worked as an ambulance medic dealing with front-line emergencies, Oleksii Goncharenko thought he had seen it all. Then the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.
But everything changed when the doctor-turned-MP embarked on a quest to document the war crimes that have occurred in his beloved country since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion on February 24.
It is the image of the scarred remains of a child, who could only have been six years old, that continues to haunt his everyday thoughts as he tells me why he is determined to bring Putin before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
With his youthful good looks and sharp tailoring, the 41-year-old businessman-like father-of-two does not seem the type to singlehandedly take on the evils of the Kremlin.
Yet he has form – having been on Russia’s sanctions list since Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury in 2018, when he spoke at a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in large rubber gloves, arguing that without them, it would be “unsafe to shake hands and touch door handles”.
In 2014 – the year Russia annexed Crimea – he was elected as the MP for Podilsk, which is near his home city of Odesa.
And having campaigned against the Kremlin ever since, he is determined to tell the world of the atrocities carried out by the man he describes as “the Hitler of the 21st century”.
So far, his assault on social media seems to be working, with hundreds of thousands having watched and shared his various YouTube updates, Twitter posts and TikTok videos.
“The information front line is no less important than the front line itself,” he insists. “I’ve visited places that have been cut off for days and days – and when we got there, the people wanted three things: food, water and solar batteries to charge their mobile phones.”
There is no mistaking that the past three months of bloodshed have taken their toll.
When we meet in Westminster, he is at the end of a three-day trip to London with his wife and youngest son, lobbying the British Government for more arms for his war-torn country. Tears fill his eyes as he recounts the horrific evidence he gathered on “Highway Kyiv” – the road from the capital to Zhytomyr, 85 miles west, that shows how innocent civilians were ambushed as they tried to escape the missile fire.
“I worked as a doctor so I’ve seen much more than most people, but even for me it was very difficult,” he admits. “On the road out of Kyiv, I saw the body of a child, probably around six years old, in a car shot down and burned. Just a charred little body. Being a father of two boys, it was awful.
“We found women’s naked bodies laying across tyres that had been set fire to. We could only imagine what happened before. It’s unbelievable. In the moment, you’re just thinking, ‘How it could be? It’s the 21st century. It’s something so inhuman, so barbaric’.
“These are civilians. They had absolutely no weapons, nothing, they were simply trying to leave Kyiv. It was a completely unjustified attack.”
The images form part of his growing dossier, gathered as he has travelled to the worst-affected areas in the outskirts of Kyiv – Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel – in a bid to find out exactly what happened.
In Bucha, once a thriving city and now a symbol of death and atrocity, he heard stories of Russian soldiers shooting elderly victims in the back – and the rape of mothers and their teenage daughters.
The once beautiful metropolis was recaptured by Ukrainian forces on March 31, after drone videos emerged showing the streets strewn with the bodies of men in civilian clothes, with their hands tied behind their backs. There was also evidence that Russian soldiers had systemically tortured, mutilated and executed many Ukrainians in the basement of a summer camp. On April 7, the mayor of Bucha, Anatoly Fedoruk, reported that almost 90 per cent of the dead residents had bullet wounds, not shrapnel wounds.
Goncharenko says there were so many dead bodies, survivors took to burying them in their backyards.
“I stumbled on one house and in the garden there were flowers, vegetables and two graves,” he reveals. “The owners, who were in their 70s, had dug them themselves. They didn’t even know the victims, they just wanted to give them some dignity.”
Even though he had long been an outspoken critic of Russia – warning parliamentary colleagues including President Vlodymyr Zelensky that Ukraine needed to better prepare its army for war – he was still surprised when the invasion happened.
“I was waiting for some escalation and attack in the eastern part of Ukraine, not a full-scale war.
“When Russian armoured vehicles entered here…I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. I was horrified. I was in Kyiv and my wife and children were still in Odesa. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.” Determined to remain in Kyiv after martial law was declared, he took up arms while his wife Orha, 43, who he met at university, and their sons Oleksii Jr, 16 and Kyryla, three, travelled west to stay with relatives. Despite never having handled a gun in his life, he took to the streets on secondary missions, manning checkpoints, escorting convoys, and helping to evacuate bombed-out cities such as Bucha, as his wife sent him phone messages every two hours, checking if he was still alive.
“My three-year-old was too young to understand but my 16-year-old initially refused to leave Odesa,” he says. “I had to say to him, ‘You are the man now, you need to protect your mother and your little brother’. It was a hard conversation. He’s still finding it hard to accept what’s happened.”
His constituency was one of the first to be bombed, with 22 people killed. “Someone later showed me a photo and pointed to the people next to me. They said, ‘He is dead. So is he…’”
Although some MPs did flee Kyiv, Goncharenko felt that ordinary Ukrainians needed to see their elected representatives stay and fight.
“I couldn’t leave people there. I thought it would be bad for people to see politicians leaving Kyiv. If the president left Kyiv, then the country would have collapsed,” he concludes. “He has been very courageous. I only started doing the live streams initially because Russian propaganda was saying that Zelensky had fled for Poland and that there had been some sort of surrender. I wanted everyone to know we were still there and that we weren’t ever going to leave.”
When Zelensky, 44, was elected in 2019, Goncharenko was a thorn in his side. Precocious enough to have entered medical school without taking exams at the age of 15 (“I got the best biology marks in the whole country”), he worked in the Odesa emergency medical station for three years before deciding to become a politician. His estranged father, Oleksiy Kostusyev, was a former mayor of the city but as an only child raised by his mother following his parents’ divorce, father and son were not in regular contact. “My father has three more children, but two of them I don’t even know,” he explains.
Describing his politics as “centre Right”, as an opposition MP, he used to have a fractious relationship with Zelensky, often criticising the former comic actor for failing to deal with state corruption and arguing he wasn’t taking the threat from Russia seriously enough. But war has proved a great political leveller. “I was one of the most prominent critics of Zelensky. But that was before February 24. Because from that date, for me, there is no President Zelensky, there is just Commander in Chief Zelensky and I can only support the Commander in Chief – no matter what is the surname. I think he’s doing a very good job.”
Hailing Zelensky’s charisma and communications skills, he adds: “The whole nation is working for him. And he is working for the whole nation.”
Yet, like his former adversary, Goncharenko wants the West to do more. Despite being a committed Europhile who has been a member of the European Conservatives in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg since 2015, he is highly critical of France and Germany’s response to the crisis.
“We feel much more support from French society, from German society than from French and German politicians, which is strange,” he says. Referring to Emmanuel Macron’s speech in Strasbourg on Europe Day earlier this month, when he called for Ukraine to join a new “European political community,” without full EU membership, he adds: “What is that? I mean, there is hell, there is a paradise – what is it in between? We don’t want to be in-between.”
As well as wanting Ukraine to join both the EU and Nato, Goncharenko has spent recent days in London campaigning for more weaponry. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister set out a fresh £300 million package of support for Kyiv’s military, including electronic warfare equipment, having already delivered more than 5,000 NLAWs and other anti-tank missiles, 1,360 anti-structure munitions, five air-defence systems with more than 100 missiles, and 4.5 tons of plastic explosives, according to the Ministry of Defence.
Ukrainian ground troops have also been using Starstreak surface-to-air missiles supplied by Britain to defend themselves against aerial assaults for several weeks.
The US has provided more than $3 billion (£2.4 billion) of military aid since Russia invaded, including 72 howitzers and tactical vehicles to tow the artillery guns, 144,000 artillery rounds and 121 recently-developed Phoenix Ghost tactical drones. The White House has also supplied or promised Mi-17 helicopters, 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, more than 5,000 Javelin missile launchers capable of piercing the most sophisticated armour, thousands of rifles with ammunition and a range of other equipment.
The EU has signed off on a Euros €500 million (£419 million) package to fund weapons, marking the first time in the bloc’s history it has helped provide arms for a warzone. But more is still needed.
Meetings with a number of MPs, peers and ministers including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss appear to have been fruitful, although Goncharenko stresses: “I am not allowed to go into the details.”
Praising Boris Johnson as “one of the most respected international politicians, for Ukrainian people”, he adds: “Now we have a full-scale conventional war, what we need are long-range artillery and aircraft to shoot down missiles. These are coming in slowly but we need it in much bigger numbers. The skies are the last place where the Russians have the advantage.”
But what of the dangers of escalating the nuclear threat?
“I think it is hypocrisy to be saying, ‘Oh, let’s not have a World War Three’ – in reality, it has started. In 1939, Poland failed. Ukraine has not failed. And that is a unique chance to stop. Because if Ukraine would fail, then we’ll be 1914, then we’ll be 1941 and everything will go this way. It’s a full-scale war.”
Pointing out that “Ukraine doesn’t want any inch of Russian territory”, he argues: “This isn’t just for Ukraine but the future of the free world. Putin is the Hitler of the 21st century and he is not the last dictator on the planet.
“It’s so cynical because nobody in the world has killed more Russian speakers than Putin. Mariupol has a half million population and 90 per cent are Russian. He’s killing thousands of his own people so he’s definitely insane. What’s the Z all about? It’s like half a swastika.”
Warning that the West underestimates Russia’s imperial aims at its peril, he adds: “I think it is very important for people to understand the strategy of the Russian empire. In 2000, they suppressed Chechnya, which was a rebel region in the Caucasus and now Chechnyan boys, who hadn’t even been born in 2000, are fighting in Ukraine. The propaganda machine worked on them and now they are conscripted.
“In 2008, they took parts of Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia and now they are in Ukraine fighting against us.
“Then they took Crimea in 2014 and part of Donbas. Now they’ve taken all males from the Donbas area, including professors, musicians, to fight against Ukrainians. That’s why he needs so much Ukraine because Ukraine is not Chechnya, it’s not Georgian parts, it’s a 40‑million [population] nation. So the idea was to take Ukraine and in several years, to take Ukrainian men to fight in the Baltic states against Poland, against other countries and to go forward.”
Yet with no peace settlement anywhere in sight, can Ukraine win this war? Russia may be losing manpower at an unsustainable rate, has cut its own gas sales to Europe, and could do nothing to stop Finland and Sweden joining Nato – but Putin doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
“Putin already lost the war because the objectives he had, he has not achieved and he will not achieve – that’s for sure,” he says.
“The end of Putin could be Hitler’s style of committing suicide in his bunker. Nobody knows. But we’re not going to execute Putin in Red Square. We’re not going to take Moscow. We don’t want anything from Russia except for him to stop. People say we have to make concessions but if there are concessions, this will go on for decades. We need to go back to where we were before February 24 and then we can have political negotiations about Crimea, about Donbas. We need to liberate our own lands.”
Despite the untold devastation, Goncharenko is optimistic for Ukraine’s future.
“I feel very positive,” he says. “Maybe it sounds strange. The country is devastated. Thousands of people are killed, millions are now refugees. But I feel that that was a crucial moment when the whole world accepted that this nation is European, and that this nation is courageous enough to fight for its land, and to stop this awful war machine of Putin, who everybody was afraid of. Ukraine has a unique chance to rebuild now – not like a post-Soviet style but in a real 21st-century style, with modern architecture with the modern technical solutions, smart cities, everything. We can be the polygon for the world now.”