‘A battle for democracy’: Ukraine bishop urges UK and US to keep supporting fight against Russia

Ukraine is ‘fighting for rule of law’, warns senior cleric in an interview with Bel Trew as David Cameron urges US to push through stalled aid package

Wednesday 10 April 2024 21:26 BST
Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski with King Charles outside of his cathedral in London on Wednesday
Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski with King Charles outside of his cathedral in London on Wednesday (Marcin Mazur)

The bishop for Ukraine in London has urged the UK and the US to “honour their pledges” and not forget that Ukraine is fighting Russia to save the “rule of law and democracy”.

In a major intervention, Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski said Ukraine was not asking for soldiers on the ground but for funding to continue fighting Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Two years ago, Russia launched a devastating full-scale invasion of Ukraine, capturing nearly a quarter of the country and displacing more than 10 million people. There are now at least six million Ukrainian refugees in Europe, including around 250,000 in the UK.

“This is not just a battle for Ukraine,” the Catholic bishop told The Independent. “It is the battle for rule of law, democracy and freedoms that we have all taken advantage of. That we stand to lose.

“The challenge for us moving forward is to ensure that those in the US, here and the West continue to encourage politicians to honour their pledges.

“Ukraine has not asked for foreign boots to be put on the ground, they are asking for the instruments to be able to win this battle. But I am optimistic. I look at the brave men and women who are fighting – and I need to be optimistic for them.”

Bishop Nowakowski in the destroyed Kyiv region in Ukraine (Bishop Nowakowski )

His plea came after David Cameron spent the final day of his US trip calling for an escalation of financial support from the US. The foreign secretary met secretary of state Antony Blinken and called for the unlocking of a $60 million military aid package which is currently stalled in Congress.

In a thinly veiled rebuke of Donald Trump’s reported idea that Ukraine cede swathes of ground to Russia to enable peace, the foreign secretary warned of the danger of “appeasing” Putin.

Speaking from his parish in central London, Bishop Nowakowski, who has helped thousands of Ukrainians refugees in the capital, said Ukraine’s battle is a fight for the UK and the West, which has an obligation to help.

The 65-year-old Canadian of Ukrainian origin, who has spent decades living and working in Ukraine, has spearheaded efforts to welcome thousands of Ukrainian refugees to London and has been called on during the crisis by the likes of King Charles.

I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t have someone who has been lost

Bishop Nowakowski

He warned that Ukrainians were exhausted by the two-year brutal war – which if the country loses will mean it “will cease to exist”.

He said that every family in Ukraine had been impacted in some way and that he had lost 30 friends and colleagues, many of them killed in action while defending their country.

“There cannot be anyone who is of Ukrainian background or who has an association with Ukraine who doesn’t know someone who has been killed or impacted,” he told The Independent.

“I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t have someone who has been lost.”

Ukraine, which made surprise gains in the first year and half of the war, has in recent months struggled to hold the 1,200km front line, beset by dangerously low ammunition stockpiles often due to crippling delays in delivery of promised aid.

President Volodymyr Zelensky admitted in February that every day, Russian forces fire on average seven times more munitions at Ukrainian forces than they are able to fire back. There are reports that Ukraine has had to ration its forces to firing just 2,000 artillery rounds a day.

Crowds gather at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in central London for Easter (Courtesy of Holy Family Cathedral)

Russia, meanwhile, has nearly half a million personnel fighting in Ukraine right now, and has ramped up its domestic production, moving into a “war economy”, one Ukrainian diplomat told The Independent.

The bishop said families were at breaking point after suffering so much. Many of them are split up as under martial law, men of fighting are not permitted to leave the country in case they need to be called up. That has left it mostly up to women to travel abroad to sustain their families financially.

“The millions of women who have left Ukraine, some with their children, some without, are feeling those wounds of war,” the bishop added.

Those who stay in Ukraine are exhausted, he said: “How can you not be tired or exhausted when every night you get woken up by bombs and sirens?”

Many who have fled Ukraine seek solace in the Cathedral of the Holy Family, a first port of call for many desperate Ukrainian refugees on arrival. There, they can get directly connected to British government officials for help with their papers, as well as access to English language lessons, Ukrainian lessons, and therapeutic arts and crafts sessions.

Boris Johnson called on the bishop for advice at the start of the full-scale invasion (Courtesy of Holy Family Cathedral)

In London, their weekly congregation is now 3,000 strong and they have opened three new parishes in London, as well as 20 additional parishes across England to accommodate the growing numbers. At Easter, they had so many visitors the crowds spilt into the streets outside.

Some of the most powerful people in the UK have come to Bishop Nowakowski to help. He said the then Prince Charles visited just six days after the full-scale invasion erupted, bringing humanitarian aid organisations he was patron of in a show of support to the most vulnerable.

After the coronation, one of King Charles’s first visits as monarch was to return to the church to again offer help – alongside his godson the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor, who helped renovate the welcome centre.

“King Charles told me, ‘I’m glad to hear my godson has done something wonderful,’” the bishop added.

Also early in the war, the then prime minister Boris Johnson called on him for advice and visited his parish.

“Boris Johnson rolled up his sleeves and said, ‘You have 15 minutes to tell me what you think I don’t know that I should know,’” he said.

Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenka, visits the Holy Family Cathedral in London (Courtesy of Holy Family Cathedral)

Later, Michael Gove, tasked with managing the UK’s response to the crisis, invited him for weekly meetings. The Ukrainian first lady, Olena Zelenska, has also visited him.

The bishop thanked the UK for all its work in supporting Ukrainian refugees, imposing sanctions and helping with aid to Ukraine, adding it was essential the story of Ukraine was kept alive.

In a comparatively recent trip to Ukraine where he went to liberated Irpin, a town in the Kyiv region which experienced a terrifying occupation by Russian soldiers for several weeks earlier in the war, the bishop celebrated Mass.

“It was a beautiful autumn day but very much positioned next to the buildings that were bombed out,” he said.

“This one woman came up to me and asked what King Charles was like. She said to me, ‘When you go back to England please tell people to remember us, even when the story gets a bit old.’”

He said this was his message from the UK. It started with “hope for a better future” so people can start rebuilding their lives. Then he said there was “continued solidarity”.

“We have not forgotten, and we shouldn’t and can’t forget what Ukraine is contributing to our global society,” he concluded.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in