Ukraine fights against one of its worst enemies: oblivion

The conflict in Gaza and Biden’s problems in the US complicate the defense of Kiev after 21 months of Russian invasion. Politicians, military and civil society call on the West to fight fatigue and disinterest.

Guerra Rusia Ucrania
An employee picks up some objects inside a kindergarten damaged during Russian drone strikes on Saturday in Kiev, Ukraine.VALENTYN OGIRENKO (REUTERS)
Luis Doncel

TThe meeting takes place in a warehouse in Kiev where medicines, emergency kits and other products are collected for Ukrainian soldiers fighting at the front. Taras, a 45-year-old volunteer who casts here all the free time his job leaves him, asks not to reveal the location so as not to give clues to the enemy. “Of course we are tired after almost two years of large-scale invasion,” he admits at one point in the conversation. “Many people ask me about war fatigue. And yes, of course there is. But in addition to fatigue, we are furious with the Russians and very proud of our resilience. To those who doubt, I ask only one thing: to step aside, not to stand in the way of our victory,” he concludes solemnly.

These words sum up quite well the mood of the dozen interviewees from the political, military and cultural world throughout this week, on a trip organized by the cultural NGO PEN Ukraine in the provinces of Kiev and Chernihiv attended by this newspaper. The certainty about the final victory - so common in the discourse of many Ukrainians since last February 24, 2022, when Russia launched all its fury against the southwestern neighbor - begins to show certain nuances in view of the problems detected on the horizon.

Taras, a volunteer with an NGO supplying medical supplies to the Ukrainian army, last Monday in Kiev.
Taras, a volunteer with an NGO supplying medical supplies to the Ukrainian army, last Monday in Kiev.Luis Doncel

The much-heralded counteroffensive has not borne the expected fruits and the arrival of winter - palpable already this week in Kiev, where the first snows have begun - anticipates a stalemate on the front. No major changes are expected at least until after the summer of 2024, according to Ukrainian and U.S. military analysts. The capital suffered the heaviest Shahed drone bombing of the entire war on Saturday, a move authorities interpret as the signal of a new Russian bombing campaign to disrupt essential energy services during the winter. But almost worse is the news coming from abroad.

The Gaza war has robbed Ukraine of the attention of governments and world public opinion. After 21 months of war - on a large scale, a tagline that the Ukrainians add automatically, as if they had a spring in their step, to remind that the Kremlin’s aggression did not begin last year, but in 2014, with the illegal annexation of Crimea - the risk of exhaustion in Western capitals is palpable. According to Bild newspaper on Friday, the United States and Germany want to force Ukrainian leader Volodymir Zelensky into negotiations with the Russians as soon as possible. To this end, they plan to supply only the weaponry strictly necessary to keep Ukrainian defenses from collapsing, according to the German tabloid.

The US, the major military and economic supporter of Ukraine in these two years, now appears to be one of the weakest links in the chain. The aid packages to Kiev face increasing difficulties in getting through Congress. But even more dangerous is the sinking popularity of President Joe Biden. The Republicans, who make no secret of their willingness to cut off the billion-dollar transfers to Ukraine, have enough ballots to return to the White House after next November’s elections. Now, Zelenski’s worst nightmare is not Vladimir Putin, but Donald Trump.

In the face of all this, in Ukraine they say that the support of the West for their cause is firm, as demonstrated this week by the visits of the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. And they vehemently deny that the time is approaching to face the harsh reality that it will be impossible to regain full control of their borders.

“When the time comes to negotiate a way out of this war, only Ukraine will be able to decide what peace it is willing to accept. I don’t think that neither the EU nor the US are thinking of forcing Zelenski to sign an agreement with painful concessions, peace for territories,” assures a European diplomatic source.

That possibility may not be on the table. But certain nuances are beginning to emerge in some conversations. Complete defeat of Russia is no longer the only option on the table for some in the military. “There is no one way to victory. The main thing is to save our culture and a significant part of our territory,” says Petro Yatsenko, a former writer and now a soldier, in a Tatar restaurant. He prefers not to put it that way, but when he speaks of saving “a significant part” of the territory, he opens the door to the possibility that it may not be its entirety.

Yatsenko is dealing with relations with Russian prisoners of war and the exchange between captives from one country and the other, programs that have been paralyzed since August. The writer and soldier warns of the terrible consequences of a Putin victory: “Europeans may be starting to forget us, but I would remind them that this fight matters because we are the gateway to Europe. If the Russians win here, the threat will continue to grow across the continent.”

Mikhail Savva, an expert who collects evidence on possible war crimes committed by Putin, assures that the allies are not going to forget Ukraine because this is a conflict “unprecedented” since World War II. “I cannot guess the future, but I do not rule out that we will have to make painful concessions. If this happens, it will not be because our allies forget us, but because their help will not have been enough,” he concludes.

Ten years of the Maidan

This week marked 10 years since the start of the pro-European protests that changed Ukraine’s history. The Maidan marches began with a simple Facebook post. “Come on, guys. Don’t just put a ‘like’. Say you are ready and let’s try to do something,” wrote journalist Mustafa Nayyem on November 21, 2013. This message now hangs framed on a wall of the restaurant The Last Barricade, located in a basement a few meters from the square in the capital where, months after that post was published, more than a hundred people were killed by the security forces of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Tamila Tasheva, representative of the Ukrainian president in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, on Tuesday, at her office in Kiev.
Tamila Tasheva, representative of the Ukrainian president in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, on Tuesday, at her office in Kiev.

These events led to Yanukovych’s flight in February 2014 and, a few days later, to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Tamila Tasheva is Zelenski’s representative in that Black Sea peninsula. This Tatar woman left Crimea when the Kremlin troops entered. Since then she has not seen her parents again. This is not the first time that Tatars have been exiled. Stalin already expelled more than 191,000 members of this Muslim community from the region - among others, his parents and grandparents - in 1944. And now the curse is being repeated.

“The international community was unable in 2014 to prevent the Russians from taking our territory,” he says in the building in the center of Kiev from which he tries to imagine what a future Crimea in Ukrainian hands will look like. At that time - which no one knows when it will come, if ever - she assures, the 800,000 Russian citizens who in the last decade have entered the peninsula, which in 2014 had 2.3 million inhabitants, would have to be expelled. Tasheva sees this repopulation as a Russian “neo-colonial” initiative, aimed at uprooting Tatar and Ukrainian traces from the territory. “We understand that there will be complicated cases, such as marriages between members of the two communities,” she explains. Language would be another conflicting element in a future liberated Crimea, where the dominance of Russian is absolute. “We would have to gradually introduce Ukrainian and Tatar,” he adds.

Tasheva has no doubts. She is convinced that Zelensky will never accept a peace agreement that involves giving up even an inch of territory: “We are talking not only about land, but about people. We Crimean Tatars can only survive in Ukraine. Russia is destroying our cultural heritage.

Culture war

The Gaza war has not only shifted the focus away from Ukraine. It has also slowed the pace of arms deliveries, as Zelenski himself has acknowledged. The Ukrainian leader - of Jewish origin - has shown unwavering support for Israel. The death of nearly 15,000 Palestinians threatens to alienate part of world public opinion. They are those who criticize the double standards of the West, which qualifies Russian attacks on the Ukrainian population as war crimes, but does not do the same when they come from Israel. A source in a cultural institution in Kiev admits that Biden did not do his country a favor by equating the Israeli and Ukrainian causes.

“This war will not be won with tanks alone. The Russian imperial project is impossible with a culturally powerful Ukraine. Victory will never be complete if it is not accompanied by a cultural victory,” says Volodymir Sheiko, director of the Ukrainian Institute.

Yuri Matsarskii and Max Kolesnikov, Ukrainian veterans of the war against Russia, on Thursday in Kiev.
Yuri Matsarskii and Max Kolesnikov, Ukrainian veterans of the war against Russia, on Thursday in Kiev.

Yuri Matsarskii, a former journalist and now a soldier in the reserve, also notices how the passage of time and the emergence of new conflicts fuels disinterest in Ukraine. “I used to receive constant messages from journalist friends from other countries asking me about the situation. Now, they are becoming rarer and rarer. For them, war has become normal,” confesses the 43-year-old, who replaced the radio microphones with a rifle. “Yes, the counteroffensive is proving more difficult than expected. But it was others who were relying on a lightning operation. We, the military, always knew that the advance was not going to be so fast,” he says.

At his side, Max Kolesnikov, 46, recalls the horrors of 10 months of captivity in a prison in the Russian province of Bryansk. After three weeks defending Kiev, his commander surrendered to the overwhelming superiority of the invaders. That day in March last year began an ordeal of beatings, starvation and humiliation. He lost 35 kilos. Some friends recognized his tattoo on his neck in some images of prisoners shown on television. That’s how his family found out he was alive. After months, his jailers let him send home a message of only four words. He wrote: “Alive”, “healthy” and “all well”. In prison, they memorized the phone numbers of fellow prisoners so they could contact the family if they were released.

He was released last February thanks to a prisoner exchange. He is now waiting for a court to assess whether he can return to war after the knee operation he underwent in May for muscle atrophy caused by beatings by prison guards.

Ivan Polhui on Wednesday in Yahidne, northern Ukraine. Polhui was a victim of the Russian occupation of his village in March 2022, which forced its more than 300 inhabitants to spend a month locked in a cellar.
Ivan Polhui on Wednesday in Yahidne, northern Ukraine. Polhui was a victim of the Russian occupation of his village in March 2022, which forced its more than 300 inhabitants to spend a month locked in a cellar.Artem Galkin (https://www.facebook.com/artem.g)

The wounds of Ivan Polhui, 63, are not physical, but they are no less obvious. This man spent a month locked in the basement of a kindergarten with the more than 300 inhabitants of Yahidne, a village near Chernihiv in northern Ukraine. They were all terrified of what was happening above their heads in those days of the Russian occupation in March 2022. More than a year later, a visit to the basement is awe-inspiring. In each room you can read the number of people who slept there, crammed together: 28 adults and five children for a room of 10 square meters. The youngest was a one-and-a-half-month-old baby; the oldest, a 93-year-old man. In another room are written the names of the ten people who died during that month of torture.

Polhui says that before the war he had good relations with the Russians, that many came to his village, a hundred kilometers from the border, to buy strawberries. But now he is convinced that the Russians are not like them. He says they came with envy, that they were furious because they saw that in Ukraine they lived better. And now, how does he hope all this will end? “The only thing I wish is that we can return to normal life. And that the Russians will rot in hell.”

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