The fighting spirit of Ukraine

Ruslan Navshyrvanov talks the symbolic and literal power of sports during the conflict in Ukraine
Published on Jun 15, 2022, 9:57:59 AM
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“Every couple of days, we experience impacts from missiles in and around our city.” 

These are not the words of an army commander deep in the Donbass but of Odessa native, part time sports journalist and kickboxing enthusiast Ruslan Navshyrvanov.

It is a sobering experience to hear from Ruslan how he, in the present time of war, dedicates most of his time to the protection and preservation of his city. In particular against the backdrop of images from earlier this week of the beach in Odessa being cleared off landmines. It’s a reality we only know from tv or by reading the news but, for Ruslan, it has been part of everyday life since February 24th.

Ruslan, like many other Ukrainians, has directly and indirectly followed the brave example set by the likes of the Klitschko brothers and other well-known Ukrainian martial arts fighters to join the fight in protecting their country. Some by picking up arms, others, like Ruslan, by playing a key role in logistics. His ex-wife and kid are now safely based in Warsaw. Ruslan has stayed put in Odessa where he continues to live on the 17th floor of a building close to sea front. He looks out onto the port of Odessa, which would normally have formed one of the city’s main arteries and portal to the rest of the world but has been closed since the war broke out. Though Ruslan sees the people from Odessa continue to live their lives as normally as they can, any hope of a swift end to this conflict seems to have evaporated. 

Whilst Ruslan is heavily involved in the logistics when it comes to the protection of the city, he also considers one of his key responsibilities to make sure the international attention on Ukraine doesn’t fade. Apparently, the coverage on Ukraine has decreased by more than 20% since the war broke out and it’s essential that it remains front of mind with the international community. Vice versa, the war is covered in every section of Ukrainian news, including sports.

The Ukrainian spirit: keep your head cool. Ruslan in the harbour of Odessa.

fighting for your country

One of the earliest images that made it into Western publications, and we may all remember, was that of the Klitschko brothers taking up both figurative and literal arms for their country. What could be more powerful than seeing the former heavyweight world champions in boxing standing up to fight? It radiated an extremely strong sense of pride and gave an additional boost to getting the country mobilised.

Ruslan tells Warrior Code how this was perceived in Ukraine:

"Of course, they [the Klitschko brothers, ed.] are a very important part of the face of this country. They are in the public eye and have also declared publicly that they will defend the country. Wladimir Klitschko, whose older brother Vitaly is now the mayor of Kyiv, was the first one, even before the war and in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, to publicly declare his support for the national cause.

Even fighters like Vasyl Lamachanko and Oleksandr Usyk who may have held a slightly ambivalent opinion towards Russia before the war, because they had friends across the border and didn’t want to 'get involved in politics', were quick to express their support when the fighting broke out. They too joined one of the militias and called for all men to step forward and help protect the country."

Another high profile example is Yaroslav Amosov, the Ukrainian MMA fighter competing for Bellator. He maintains a house in Irpin, the city just outside of Kyiv where war crimes were committed. The Russians, it turned out, knowingly entered his abandoned house to look for his belt which he thankfully managed to hide in his mothers closet. It was reported that he too took part in the fighting on the ground. He later shared a video on instagram of himself entering the liberated town and recovering his belt from his mother’s place.

A belt with a lot of history

There is a broader trend here. Many Ukrainian athletes have either paused their careers to fight for their country or, in a way, come out of retirement to do so. 

Banning Russian sports athletes

Is it strange that some Russian athletes are still able to compete in their respective international competitions like nothing has happened? Should sports federations be banning Russian players at the moment? There isn’t yet a general consensus on this but Ruslan says this has led to some challenging moments. For example, Nikita Krylov, a mixed martial artist from Eastern Ukraine wanted to fight under the separatist flag of Donbass but was told that he could only do so under the Ukrainian considering he is originally from there. The Russians were quick to snap him up.

“Yes, on this point I completely agree with Wladimir Klitschko who has called for all Russian athletes to be banned from international sports competitions until the war has come to an end at the very least. There shouldn’t be any ambiguity. An exception would be if a Russian athlete would publicly declare his or her disagreement with the war so that the athlete cannot become a symbol of a strong victorious Russia should he or she win.

This is not about me wanting to have Russian athletes banned just because they are Russian. The problem lies in the fact that the Russian and Soviet governments have always used sports to craft this image of the Russian athlete who is stronger and victorious over others.

The only competition in my mind that still allows Russian athletes to compete is the UFC. Now would actually be a perfect time to ban all Russian athletes because there is no real Russian competing for the title whatsoever. They wouldn’t lose much if they banned them.”

When asked if Ruslan thinks if this has to do with a lack of engagement on the UFC’s part or that they simply do not care, Ruslan says: “I don’t know but one cannot be naive about some of the interests that are at play. Former UFC lightweight champion and Russian native Khabib Nurmagomeddov was known to be involved in business with Dana White, the president of the UFC. In turn, it’s also publicly known that Khabib maintained warm relationships with the Russian president. He was invited to the Kremlin on numerous occasions and congratulated personally by Mr. Putin on the victories he had achieved.”

Sports as a geopolitical tool

What is perhaps even more painful is that Ramzan Kadyrov, the appointed ruler of the Chechen republic by Mr. Putin and now also visibly involved in the war in Ukraine with his strongmen, also hosted numerous athletes in his palace in Grozny where they would be recognised for their achievements and dressed in traditional Chechen clothing to complete the PR exercise. 

Ruslan: “These moments of glorification by the president and Kadyrov cannot be seen separately from the decision of international sports organisations to ban Russian banners. They want to avoid at all cost that Russian athletes become a pawn in geopolitics.

What becomes clear is that whilst the physical battle is taking place on the ground in Ukraine and the country urges the European Union and Nato to set aside their at times ambiguous messaging and act as one front, sports have remained an incredible tool for governments to rally support for the national cause. Whether that is, like in Ukraine, an indeliberate yet very welcome outcome of the war breaking out, the Russian government still uses its international and Olympic athletes to fulfil a large part of the PR exercise.

Whilst Warrior Code would report from the sidelines and politically neutral, it is obvious that the present situation requires extraordinary measures. To play our part in helping Ruslan to keep Ukraine on the front pages of our news outlets and the city of Odessa operational, we are sharing details below on how you can support him in his work:

Name charity: Marine Corps at Mikolaiv frontier

Donations via Paypal:


Donaties via bank tranfer in EURO or USD:

IBAN: LT91 3250 0312 8779 0848 | BIC/SWIFT: REVOLT21

Referentie: #revtag

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