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Nobel laureates from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine unite to get Ukraine more weapons


Last year, human rights activists from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now they are in Washington and united in one goal - getting Ukraine more weapons to win the war against Russia. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Oleksandra Matviichuk runs the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine.

OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: And for years, I used the law to defend people and human dignity. And now in this Russian war against Ukraine, I found myself in the circumstances when the law doesn't work.

KELEMEN: International law doesn't work, she says, and the United Nations has not been able to stop Russia's aggression. So she's now found herself advocating for more advanced weapon systems for her country, an unusual position for a human rights activist from a Nobel Peace Prize-winning group.

MATVIICHUK: Sad but truth is that, yes, we need weapons. This is not just a war between two states. This is a war between two systems - authoritarianism and democracy.

KELEMEN: She's here in Washington, along with a Russian activist now living in exile because his organization, Memorial, was banned and with Konstantin Staradubets, an activist from Belarus.

KONSTANTIN STARADUBETS: I'm here to represent Ales Bialiatski, a co-laureate of last year's Nobel Peace Prize. So I'm kind of his voice because he is in prison and cannot travel to be here.

KELEMEN: The longtime leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has jailed many of his opponents and has supported Russia's war against Ukraine, recently giving safe haven to Russian mercenaries from the notorious Wagner Group. So Staradubets thinks the outcome of the war will have an impact on his country.

STARADUBETS: If Ukraine wins and Lukashenko falls because he is so dependent on Russia as an ally in this war, that this transition to democracy will be quick and free of violence, which is very important to us.

KELEMEN: Those are all big ifs, and it's not at all certain that Russia will be held to account for its actions in Ukraine. Alexander Cherkasov, who's with the Russian organization Memorial, says so far, Russia hasn't faced any consequences for atrocities in recent wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and now Ukraine.

ALEXANDER CHERKASOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KELEMEN: "I have worked on documenting all of these wars," he says, adding that he saw officers who perpetrated crimes receive new stars on their epaulettes and move up. The criminal playbook, as he calls it, went unpunished and was reused in other wars. Those who have spoken out against the war have been jailed. But Cherkasov also worries that Russians have turned a blind eye to the atrocities, supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

CHERKASOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KELEMEN: "The problem is many of my compatriots still don't see the evil in this, and they don't see their own responsibility," he says. He says it will take time or a Russian defeat in Ukraine to really turn public opinion in the country. He and his fellow Nobel laureates are meeting with U.S. government officials and speaking Wednesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ukraine's Oleksandra Matviichuk says peace will not come to her country if it stops fighting. That, she says, would only reinforce the occupation.

MATVIICHUK: Occupation is not just change one state flag to another. Occupation means filtration camps, mass graves, torture chambers, denial of identity, forcible adoption of Ukrainian children, deportation, murder and a lot of other things.

KELEMEN: She says she's been documenting all of that since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.