Dispatch from Ukraine
Routines and Realities of a Long War in Ukraine
Walking through central Kyiv in Spring 2023 – at first glance everything can look pretty normal. There’s tacky art and souvenirs being sold at outdoor markets, cafés are open and busy, hipster neighbourhoods offer local craft beer and live music. But look closer and it becomes clear that this country is very much at war.
Integrated with the traffic lights are newly built concrete pillboxes, with firing positions. Hastily welded hedgehog tank traps sit beside crosswalks, ready to blockade the roads and arteries in and around this city of approximately three million. Many of the women and children have left as refugees to Europe, Canada and even as far as Brazil and Japan.
Soldiers in freshly supplied western uniforms patrol the city centre and pass patriotic billboards and recruitment posters – the army has grown to 500,000, but with estimated casualties of about 125,000, including roughly 15,0000 killed, more men and women are needed to fill the ranks for the inevitable offensive the Ukrainian Armed Forces will launch in an attempt to push out entrenched Russian occupiers.
But, incredibly, business seems almost to go on as usual – until, that is, the wail of sirens and the echoing sound of cell phone “Telegram” alert notifications fill the air.
Very similar to WhatsApp Messenger, the Telegram messaging tool has become a key mobile app for accessing news and discussions about Ukraine, and plays an integral part in this war. WhatsApp is well known for its end-to-end encryption, while Telegram has been criticized for its lack of security features. Nonetheless, the app has become an instrumental tool for governments and citizens on both sides of the ongoing war.
Although not state-sanctioned, users can “follow” individuals such as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or create their own groups. Some credit the app for becoming a “lifeline’ during the war. President Zelenskyy has used the app to call on the population to continue to resist Russia’s repeated attacks.
When air raid sirens sound in Kyiv, this public safety alert flashes across the phones of Telegram users: “ATTENTION! Air raid sirens in #Kyiv! Please proceed to the shelters!” in Ukranian and English.
This is the new routine. No one runs, no one screams, most stoically make their way into the deep Soviet-era metro stations. Unpaid café bills can be left hastily without question, an unspoken honour system says that the patron will return to pay after the all clear. The children who remain in the city follow their teachers down into the stations, each with a small foldable stool and the lessons simply resume right on the Metro platforms, while everyone waits out the possible airstrikes above (which are typically false alarms).
It has been reported that since Russia invaded Ukraine, there has not been a single day without an airstrike warning. Frontline regions such as Kharkiv and Donetsk have spent a total of over 1,000 hours on alert.
At night however, a sort of defiant decadence takes over, luxury meals and flowing drinks are served from brightly lit restaurants and pubs – the power grid is running despite Russia’s cruise missiles trying to knock it out.
As if raising a middle finger to the Kremlin, life is being lived.
But the bars close at 10pm sharp to allow patrons to get home by the 11pm curfew, when soldiers and police patrol the silent, echoing streets of a metropolis, on the lookout for Russian Special Forces who might make another attempt on the life of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.
This tense reality, coupled with mass mobilization, eight million refugees, and vast loss of life (officially 8500 civilians as of April 2023, according to the UN, but likely many times that), means that the real impact of this war is the invisible, psychological trauma that hovers over the entire country.
I am inside historical St. Michael’s Cathedral to meet with Alexandra Kruchenko. When the invasion began on 24 February 2022, she served in Mariupol with the Ukrainian Border Agency, a wing of the military. She was part of the Ukrainian forces who held out for one full month in the Azovstal steel factory. Despite fierce resistance to the Russian invaders, she and her unit were eventually forced to surrender – wounded, starved and surrounded.
She became a Russian POW for five months. Now returned from the ordeal, she struggles from the experience of her imprisonment.
“They would make us sing Russian songs,” she recounts. “We were cut off so they told us Ukraine had fallen, that the Zelenskyy had fled, tried to break our spirit. We were 17 women to a cell meant for 2 prisoners, we slept in shifts so some of us could lie down. It was psychological abuse, but the men got it worse, they got hit.”
Alexandra was released in a prisoner exchange (women often getting released before men) but her ordeal continues. “I can’t be alone now, I have to keep busy. In prison, they would keep the lights on even when we tried to sleep, and now I can’t sleep with the lights off. But the worst is when the nightmares come, there’s no fighting them.” In the perceived safety of this Orthodox Cathedral, she lights candles for the thousands of captured comrades who are still in Russian prisons. The war rages on in her mind just as much as it does on the front.
Directly outside the same cathedral, burned out Russian tanks and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) are displayed for the public. A 20-something local DJ peers inside a blackened interior where Russian soldiers presumably met a terrible, fiery end after a Ukrainian attack. I ask what he thinks about those young men and he motions with his thumb across his throat, “Fuck the Russian fascists, they’re all killers now, they know what they’re doing and go along with it. We need to defend our culture, even my music is at risk from their invasion.”
Russia’s actions have only galvanized and strengthened the popular sentiment of a Ukrainian nation and state, rather than undo it.
And this is very much a fight for the survival of the Ukrainian state. While some continue to debate whether the Russian invasion amounts to genocide under international law or not, the Kremlin has made clear that the goal of this war is to wipe out Ukraine’s government, its culture and its statehood, all of which, it contends, are fabrications or perversions of its historic place in Russia. The territory of “little Russia”, as Ukraine is referred to by Russian media, is to be brought back into the sphere of the “Russkiy Mir” (Russian world).
But destroyed Russian armour and the defiance of soldiers and artists alike, reveals the practical impossibility of Putin’s aims of wiping out a nation. The continuing perseverence also highlights the importance of Western support on all key fronts: military, economic and humanitarian.
The need for assistance is stark in the city of Borodyanka, a mere 50 km from Kyiv. The Russian military pummelled the city centre and then occupied it for five weeks, before withdrawing after their failed attempt to hold the capital.
The death and destruction left behind reveals the brutality that won Russia its initial successes – this level of violence was meant to bring Ukrainians under heel and then onboard to be ruled by Putin’s
Russia. An estimated 300-400 civilians were killed here.
Draped over shelled apartment blocks is a massive banner that reads, “Kick Russia out of the UN”. That cry for international action is part of a broader appeal to secure weapons in the short term and to secure Ukraine’s place in western alliances in the long term.
In the last year, Ukraine has been fast-tracked to candidate status to join the EU, and its eventual membership in NATO is basically seen as a “fait accompli.”
Ukraine’s membership in the alliance will be a big component of a Ukrainian victory that heralds the Kremlin’s failure in this war and, crucially, prevent it from starting another one in the future.
This was recently made clear when NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made the long journey to Kyiv, which can only be done by train and road now over two days, to meet with President Zelenskyy in person on April 20th.
The visit sent a message to the Kremlin that Ukraine is now fully and firmly in NATO’s orbit, if not quite in the club itself, receiving unprecedented weapons supplies and training of its soldiers in NATO countries themselves (there are 10,000 fresh Ukrainian troops training at UK bases alone).
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley has stated that at least nine new Ukrainian mechanized, assault and tank brigades have been created, fully staffed, and equipped with NATO kit and training. Combined, this would be: some 35000 personnel; 1200 Armoured Vehicles (including tanks, IFVs, MRAPs); 150 155mm howitzers; and approximately 300 mortars.
Ukraine’s goal with all this firepower is to end the war quickly and decisively, retaking the 17% of land currently occupied by Russia – a landmass greater than Portugal.
A troubling, growing number of Putin apologists in the West, have begun to suggest that supplying Ukraine with so much advanced weaponry, including the eight Leopard-2 tanks from Canada, is dangerous or simply too expensive. In other words, Ukraine and the loss of Russian trade isn’t worth it.
The danger they site is that an embarrassing defeat on the battlefield might destabilize Russia and risk nuclear retaliation from Putin’s shaky regime, or risk attacks on NATO itself, sparking WW3.
Some world leaders seem to be sowing the ground for a “land for peace” deal, like France’s Manuel Macron and Brazil’s President Lula da Silva.
With foreign expenses for the war rising, and supply and trade fallout continuing, it is clear that Russia’s violent claim to Ukraine has disturbed economic prosperity of many nations. Rather than siding against the aggressor, there seems to be a growing trend that would see some in the west willing to sacrifice Ukrainians, their land, their homes and their lives, to secure uninterrupted trade and prosperity for their own nations.
Their stated intent might to end the killing and global insecurely, but it would be ludicrous to imagine Macron or Lula abandoning large parcels of their own homelands if Russia decided it wanted a piece of those countries.
Be they “war weary” or Putin-apologists, it doesn’t sit well with Ukrainians who have suffered much and continue to sacrifice on the battlefield and in their daily lives.
This war began in 2013
It’s worth remembering that, while most of the world took note of Ukraine again in February 2022 (when Russia launched its full-scale invasion), for Ukrainians, this war has been going on for almost 10 years.
It began before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and conflict in the Donbas region. Its precursor, the EuroMaidan revolution or “Maidan Uprising,” began in November 2013. The Ukraine parliament had given overwhelming approval to finalize an agreement with the EU which would have more closely integrated political and economic ties between the EU and Ukraine.
Then-President Yanukovych allegedly bowed to intense pressure from the Kremlin against signing an agreement. Public frustration boiled over until a huge protest camp developed at Independence Square (a.k.a. Maidan) in Kyiv.
I was there, and reported in FrontLine about the uprising that has since come to be known as the “revolution of dignity”.
Occupied by thousands of protesters, there were deadly clashes with police, the worst of which came between 18-20 February 2014, when fighting between activists and police resulted in the deaths of 108 protesters and 13 police officers. Police abandoned the area and Viktor Yanukovych and other members of his party fled, opening the door for parliament to install an interim government on 22 February.
Peace was short-lived however, as Russia quickly moved to annex Crimea in March, and the conflict in the Donbas region began in April.
Back then, I saw the very same spirit for self-determination and desire for western values as is clear to see in the streets of Kyiv today. These very same streets where, eight years ago, the police of a pro-Russian regime murdered 108 of their own citizens, today stand Ukrainian troops, no longer a corrupt post-Soviet force, but well armed and trained, standing vigilant guard.
Their presence isn’t to intimidate or impede their citizens, as it would surely be under Russian rule. Rather, they are there to facilitate free democratic life. A military force protecting hard won freedoms, starting from burning tires and revolutionary protests in 2014.
The west needs to keep investing in that spirit and its future, which is intertwined with ours, because no invasion can defeat it – unless we abandon them.
Canadian-born Christopher Bobyn is a former BBC journalist and long-time contributor to FrontLine Magazine. He has covered Ukraine extensively since 2014 and is currently based in London.
Read Ukraine's War (March 2015): https://frontline.online/defence/featured/850-Ukraines-War