Burnley MP Antony Higginbotham speaks about his visit to Ukraine to coincide with one-year anniversary of Russian invasion
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Antony, who sits on the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Ukraine, made the journey to the war-torn county last week with a small group of cross party MPs. Travelling for over 24 hours, the visit was only confirmed at the last minute, and saw half the group travel by train and the other half travel as part of an aid convoy taking essential supplies.
The delegation began by visiting Ukrainian Parliamentarians in the Verkhovna Rada, including Speaker of the Rada Ruslan Stefanchuk who is close to President Volodmyr Zelensky. Meetings also took place with members of Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs, Economic and Agriculture Committees of the Rada; with topics of discussion including military support, the Ukrainian economy, an the grain export agreement which is allowing grain to be shipped out of Odessa.
Following this the delegation met with the Crimea Platform, an organisation established by the Ukrainian President to respond to the long-term occupation of Crimea and the atrocities being committed there. This includes a crack down on dissent, with Russian police monitoring all social media activities; re-education in schools; and abduction of children who are then sent to Russia to be ‘rehoused’. One such child was shown on Russian TV last week, during an address by President Putin.
Mr Higginbotham said: “Since Russia first invaded parts of Ukraine in 2014 the country has been fighting for its survival. But that fight intensified beyond all measure last February when the Russians launched an all-out-assault.
"On the anniversary of that event it was vital that the Ukrainian people knew and saw that we in the UK stood with them, and that was a key aim of the visit. But it was also a vital opportunity for me and other MPs to hear about what was happening on the ground, what impact our support is having, and what more can be done.
“Because whilst the fighting is being done in Ukraine, the impact is being felt all around the world – including by families and businesses in Burnley and Padiham. And that would only get worse if Putin was emboldened and successful in his desire to destroy Ukraine and reshape the world in his image.”
On the day of the one-year anniversary, the delegation visited the city of Irpin, 15 miles from central Kyiv, to see how close the Russian’s got to the capital and the damage inflicted on the local civilian population. Over 290 civilians were killed in the city as Russian forces destroyed apartment buildings, houses and cars – killing all in their path.
Dubbed the “Hero City of Ukraine”, Russian forces were eventually halted, and the city was fully retaken last March. This was then followed by a service to commemorate the fallen at the Wall of Remembrance in Kyiv.
Speaking of the devastation he saw, Mr Higginbotham said: “It’s difficult to put into words the horror and devastation inflicted by the Russian forces. As they advanced across Ukraine they showed not only a disregard for human life, but actively sought out opportunities to destroy it. Why else would they target a block of flats with a pharmacy at the bottom, or the cars full of families fleeing the fighting?
“When this war is over, they must be held to account. I spoke to a number of NGOs and officials about this and we must continue to offer support to Ukraine in the International Criminal Court as they pursue prosecutions, as well as looking at a special tribunal to document and prosecute those responsible.”
Speaking about the feeling on the ground, he said: “The message I heard loud and clear when I was there, was not just of resilience, bravery, determination and fortitude – which the Ukrainian’s have by the bucket load – but one of incredible thanks to all of us here in the United Kingdom and optimism for the future.”
Speaking on his return to the UK, Antony said: “Despite the victories, and the clean-up operation, you were never far from the feeling that war is still raging. And the news coming out of Eastern Ukraine now, where the fighting is more intense than we can imagine, is heart-breaking.
This war cannot end in a Russian victory. If that were to happen Putin would be emboldened and we would be surrendering all our values to him and his regime. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine and support them in their fight for survival, and on their journey of growth and democracy.”