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Under siege

A Ukrainian lawyer describes his life in the war zone.

Taras Tertychnyi, partner at Marushko Law Office, Kyiv, Ukraine
Taras Tertychnyi, partner at Marushko Law Office, Kyiv, Ukraine

Taras Tertychnyi, an international business partner at Marushko Law Office in Kyiv, and his fellow Ukrainians have lived in the shadow of war since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. “Even after the fighting was reduced in early 2015 to limited clashes on the frontline with a small number of casualties, it was obvious that the war could escalate at any given moment,” he writes in an email.

While preparing for a potential war in Ukraine, Tertychnyi spent time with his family examining potential risks and the preparation needed for each. Possibilities included an escalation in the far east of the country, an attack from Crimea in the south, or a full-scale invasion involving the bombing of the whole country.

His family did not have the resources to relocate abroad comfortably, so they focused on how to survive the war in Ukraine. They thought about moving to their summer house 60 kilometres to the south of Kyiv. “It was not very comfortable for winter living, but at least there was a choice. I also spoke with my friends living in the west of Ukraine so that we could spend a few days in their home in case we were going to flee Kyiv. 

“We bought the most necessary food and medicines for a couple of weeks ahead, as well as drinking water. We expected that, after the initial fighting, the front line would stabilize somewhere, and then we will be able to assess the situation and decide on what to do next.”

Realizing the need for international support, a few weeks before the invasion he started a small personal campaign on his LinkedIn page, explaining the attack on Ukraine and the history of Ukraine-Russian relations in general.

Once the war began, he called his family and closest friends to inform them the conflict had started, made sure they were safe, and coordinated further actions – in particular what would happen if they lost their cell phone connection. Everyone decided to stay in their homes, at least for the time being.

“After that, I sat at my home desk and wrote a LinkedIn post informing my connections of the beginning of the war and calling for their help to Ukraine. I did not expect much effect, but at least I knew I did something to help my country in the first critical hours of the war.”

Frightening night incursions 

Tertychnyi checked the news regularly, trying to find out what was happening, updated his family’s evacuation plan, and continued to check up on friends and colleagues. “During the next few days, there were frightening night incursions of the Russian military inside the Kyiv city centre and clashes in various parts of the city. All were stopped and secured by the Ukrainian army and the territorial defence. There were missile hits at residential buildings. The highway from Kyiv to the west had been cut by the advancing Russians, and there was heavy fighting in the area. There were Russian missile attacks and attempts to land troops to the south of Kyiv, which made moving to our summer house more dangerous than staying in our apartment building in Kyiv.”

Tertychnyi is staying with his family in a 16-storey apartment building in a residential district in southwest Kyiv. Running water, central heating, electricity, and the internet are still working. “There is basic food in the shops and some medicines in the pharmacies, although with long queues. Almost all private businesses have closed, as well as a large part of hospitals – except for emergency services,” he says. 

Tertychnyi spent a couple of nights in the basement of his home. “The air alerts are announced approximately every two hours. The heaviest – and deadliest – missile strikes are normally between four and five in the morning. Kyiv’s air defence and anti-missile defence work well and we have seen a very small number of the strikes reaching the ground. So, within several days, everyone just stopped paying much attention to it. More fearsome was the Russian artillery, but the Ukrainian army was able to keep them at a distance.”

Thousands of Ukrainians immediately shifted to war mode in response to the invasion. Some joined territorial defence units and others, including Tertychnyi, began helping with military and civilian supplies and logistics. 

Lawyers are among the Ukrainians killed and wounded during this war. Many lawyers have volunteered to do civilian work, such as logistics or procurement, or have become members of the army or the territorial defence units. Their stories are recounted in the legal community blog Dead Lawyers Society. “As lawyers, we all understand that Russia has violated – and keeps violating – the basic principles of international law, as well as the laws of war. We all know that there are no international courts or international police to stop this violation now, except for the members of the international community – other countries and their governments.” 

Unprecedented logistical effort

With millions leaving Ukraine or relocating to other parts of the country, an unprecedented logistical effort unfolded. “Many law firms either formed their own volunteer units or delegated people to bigger initiatives,” according to Tertychnyi. “I did my part leveraging my local and international network connecting people who needed gear, who had the money, and who had the necessary gear.”

Tertychnyi’s co-workers safely left Kyiv during the first week of the invasion, and after some days of interruption, his firm was back in operation. “Unfortunately, we have lost most of our business for an indefinite period of time and it is very likely that we will have to make some tough administrative decisions soon. I do hope that after our victory we are going to have an investment boom in Ukraine, and, accordingly, more work to investment lawyers.”

Worryingly, a good friend of Tertychnyi’s, who is a lawyer and also a senior, was trapped in Mariupol and he lost connection with her. At the end of March, the woman’s son drove through the Russian occupation zone and found her at home, stressed but alive. “He managed to drive back safely into the Ukraine-controlled zone, taking several people in his car,” says Tertychnyi, who considers it “no less than a miracle.”

Thunder in the skies

“We have a curfew at night and checkpoints on the roads. About half of the residents left. Much less people and cars in the streets and a sound of thunder in the clear skies above us from time to time. Public transportation has almost ceased. Otherwise, the situation looks strangely calm and normal. When there is no thunder, you can see children playing at the playgrounds and residents walking their dogs.” 

Tertychnyi has provided emergency legal advice to his clients (and some complete strangers) on conscription, immigration and employment law. “Of course, there were questions about the ways to hold Russia liable for the loss of business and property destroyed in the fighting.”   

He expects to return to legal work gradually. “We expect more requests dealing with the loss of business, or its interruption, reorganization, or relocation caused by the war. Financially, of course, our goal is just to get by and keep what we have to the extent possible. We understand that our clients may not be able to pay our pre-war rates or maybe not be able to pay at all, and we are trying to help them and support them in every way we can.” 

In general, he feels relatively safe and has been able to stay connected to most of his relatives, friends, clients, and others. “I can also effectively provide legal services from where I am. A separate problem was that many state services had been interrupted or suspended for security reasons – like the companies’ registry – but now they are getting back online.” 

Tertychnyi constantly monitors his neighbourhood’s security situation and is prepared to move to a safer place. He remains stoic. “Of course, the overall risk to my life has increased, but I just accept this fact and keep working.”

He continues to blog on his LinkedIn page to provide an international audience with information from someone on the ground and promote international solidarity with Ukraine. He raises funds for necessary deliveries for the army and civilians and advocates for important decisions such as providing Ukraine with air defence systems. He describes it as “my way of taking up arms.”

“Contrary to Russia’s stance, Ukraine is fighting a just war, trying to realize its right to self-defence,” says Tertychnyi. “But Ukraine cannot do it alone. We call on each and every government of the world to take a tangible action to help us restore the international law order and to provide Ukraine with as much means of self-defence as possible.”