At home in L.A.’s Studio City, filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky carefully unfolds a blue-and-white Ukrainian flag. The once-bright hues are darkened with soot, the fabric frayed at the edges.
The banner sustained those battle scars in 2014 as it flew over Maidan Square in Kyiv, in the midst of a revolution to oust a pro-Russian leader and to re-establish Ukraine as a true democratic republic. Afineevsky was on hand as the drama unfolded, documenting it for his Oscar-nominated film Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. As Ukraine attempts to stave off a Russian attack on the country, he says the invaders will learn how attached Ukrainians have become to liberty in the past eight years.
“These people will not be slaves. They will not go back into the former Soviet Union,” Afineevsky insists. “They have a taste of freedom. They became a part of the European society, and they wanted to go a completely different direction [than Moscow]. That’s the direction that they are fighting toward since Maidan. … Believing in their freedom, believing in the freedom for the future of their own kids, it just proves that these people will not put their weapons down. They will be fighting until the last drop of blood.”
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The Ukrainian Revolution prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to seize Crimea in 2014 and then to foment revolt in Ukraine’s eastern provinces next to the Russian border. Putin declared those provinces part of Russia shortly before he ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last week. Western intelligence assessments say the assault on Ukraine, which has seen Russia attack from multiple directions, hasn’t gone as smoothly as the Kremlin expected.
“It is obvious that Putin will not able to take over Ukraine in the easy way,” Afineevsky tells Deadline. “What I witnessed during the Maidan situation is how people were determined, united in one cause to reach the victory, to achieve their freedom, to achieve their goal. I think the same determination is there, same kind of ability to fight for their own land. I think this is something Putin didn’t take into consideration.”
Afineevsky, who was born in Russia and emigrated in 1991, has been staying in touch with Ukrainians he met during the making of Winter on Fire (his documentary can be seen on Netflix). And he has been monitoring the news constantly and getting updates on fighting through social media platforms including Telegram, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Ukrainian officials have used a Telegram channel to disseminate videos of men they identify as captured Russian soldiers. In one of them, a purported Russian POW says: “Mama and Papa, I didn’t want to come here. They forced me to.”
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“I would like to see more interviews where soldiers are asked about that, because I’m sure they don’t 100 percent know what they’re doing in this land,” Afineevsky says. “Are they fighting for their own land? No. Because it was Ukrainian lands for all these ages.”
The filmmaker says Putin was emboldened by paying no price for sending Russian bomber aircraft to Syria to aid in dictator Bashar al-Assad’s war on his own people, nor for annexing Crimea nor for sowing rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
“It’s like [he’s thinking], ‘OK, I can do whatever I want, and nobody will punish me because I’m in a strong position,’” Afineevsky observes. “So it’s like a big baby who’s crying, ‘I want it because it’s my land,’ despite that it’s not his. It feels like a big baby crying who needs to be put in his place by the other leaders of the world, by all the ‘big boys.’ That’s what I feel.”
Afineevsky identifies another motivation for Putin’s actions.
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“Ukraine wants to be in NATO, Ukraine wants to be part of the European Union. … And it’s the opposite of what Putin wants to have happen,” he notes, adding that Putin sees that as a bad precedent for other former Soviet republics. “[Ukrainians] revolted, and they have not been punished. And they are continuing to progress — it’s a bad thing [from Putin’s point of view]… At the end of the day, it’s a bad example for dictators to have Ukraine not being punished because they achieved what they wanted. They took their president [Viktor Yanukovych], who was kind of playing on the side of Putin, they took him down. They achieved their victory.”
Afineevsky has been fielding calls from famous friends to discuss the situation in Ukraine, including Cher and Lainie Kazan (the latter starred in Afineevsky’s 2009 scripted comedy Oy, Vey! My Son Is Gay!!). He’s also been responding to interview requests from news outlets including CNN; he appeared on the cable channel on Saturday, speaking with anchor Pamela Brown.
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Speaking with Deadline, he described the Biden administration’s response to the Ukraine crisis invasion as “slow.” And he criticized former President Trump for praising Putin after the Russian leader launched his invasion.
“How can you praise someone for killing innocent people? Why?” Afineevsky asked. (Trump since has said he opposes the invasion, but he continues to laud Putin as “smart.”)
Putin has justified the attack in part by claiming he wanted to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, though many, including Afineevsky, point out that the democratically elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. Afineevsky expresses admiration for the Ukrainian president’s courage under pressure and his refusal to seek refuge outside Ukraine.
“He’s proving his real leadership, his loyalty to his people.” Afineesvky says. “Words are words, but actions are actions. He’s not abandoning Ukraine. When the U.S. offered him a way out of Kyiv, he said, ‘I need ammunition. I don’t need a lift.’”
He adds, “Ukrainians stood against Nazis during the Second World War, and they will be standing against the aggression today. And I’m 100 percent sure that it’s not going to be a short-term war.”
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