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“We have never been stronger”: A first-hand report from Ukraine

Now faced with fighting a war through a brutal winter, Ukraine should appear exhausted, weary and ready to give in. However, such a pessimistic view remains far from the truth. Speaking to people on the ground, it is clear that such suffering has only made the Ukrainians more determined to win.

January 3, 2023 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and Commentary

For nearly a month now, the winter war in Ukraine has set in. Since the liberation of Kherson in mid-November, changes along the front line have only been modest. The war is slowly being fought out as Ukraine pushes to regain its territory. Russia, in response to Ukraine’s military successes in the south, continues to shell Ukrainian cities. Its bombs are an attempt to destroy civilian infrastructure and inhibit the Ukrainian war effort. Ukraine, for its part, refuses to give in.

The situation in Ukraine is critical. As the war heads into its tenth month, a full withdrawal of the Russian invaders seems to be an impossibility. Every day is a new fight, both on the front lines, but also in the everyday lives of Ukrainians. Shelled cities, energy and clean water issues, cold and damp air-raid shelters, sirens, and constant fear have become simple everyday realities. This, of course, does not even begin to describe the state of the economy, Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, or the thousands of young men fighting against a power seeking their country’s demise. Of course, many have already lost their lives fighting for the existence and future of Ukraine.

Ukraine is tense, but Ukrainians remain optimistic. This I was able to witness first hand. For eight days at the end of November, I visited Kyiv and the surrounding region (Kyivska Oblast’), as well as Lviv. As a student of the region, an analyst, and an author, visiting Ukraine and witnessing the war with my own eyes had become a personal matter of great importance. After a 36-hour bus ride from Western Germany, waiting for hours at the Polish-Ukrainian border following the rocket that had landed in Eastern Poland killing two locals, and for the first time in my life driving across a country at war, on the evening of November 16th I arrived in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

The purpose of my visit was twofold. Foremostly, I wanted to show solidarity. As the war drags on and other geopolitical topics capture the headlines, Ukrainians must know that Europe, the collective West, and the whole democratic world continue to stand behind them. Visiting Kyiv, meeting old friends and making new ones, my goal was to demonstrate that despite the danger and my own fear, I am here because I stand with Ukraine. Secondly, as a specialist of the region, I needed to understand how the situation is beyond the headlines, news articles and photographs. Through meeting with local politicians in Bucha, driving through the destroyed cities of Hostomel’ and Irpin, and working with NGOs to deliver warm clothing, Christmas gifts, and refurbished ambulances, I was able to gain a perspective that most of the world does not have; a viewpoint that few beyond the borders of Ukraine understand.

An everyday war

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is ubiquitous. The air-raid sirens, terrifying at first, have quickly become an aspect of everyday life. Anti-tank hedgehogs, military checkpoints, and soldiers roaming the streets have all become part of the country’s topography. When visiting a shopping centre, a restaurant, or really any public location, signs pointing to the next air-raid shelter are never far. Tension is in the air as collective fear and a newfound familiarity with the war combine. The country is no longer in a state of shock. Rather now, the war is a part of their everyday lives.

Anti-tank hedgehogs in Maidan Square, Kyiv

Most days in Kyiv and Lviv remain unspectacular. Despite the struggling, fear, loss, and collective trauma, for the time being the front is located far from the capital city. Grocery stores are stocked with local and European goods, government agencies operate at regular hours, and buskers play live music out on the streets. If one wants, it is possible to forget about the war for a second or two. The current state of the war in Kyiv is limited to tales of the front, coming from family, friends, or the news, the fresh memories of Russian soldiers at the gates of Kyiv, and of course, the frequent and horrific air raids in the capital and other cities. Reminders of the invasion are never far off.

War has meshed with everyday life. On three occasions during my week in Ukraine I was alerted by loud sirens announcing the immediate possibility of an air raid. In each case I quickly made my way to the nearest shelter, and on one occasion was actually able to hear Ukraine’s air defence missiles in action. There were sounds of explosions over Kyiv as Iranian Shahed drones were shot down before reaching their targets. For a Canadian living in Western Europe, this was an experience that I never imagined I would have. All the while, sitting in the shelter of my hotel, a local convention of medical professionals continued without question; the presenter brought his laptop down from the conference hall and continued his PowerPoint presentation in the shelter.

View over Kyiv during an air raid

Whilst Russia bombs Ukrainian cities, civilian life goes on. Though omnipresent, the war does not dictate the lives of Ukrainians. For many Ukrainians, they are trying to live their lives as normally as possible. Couples continue to walk down Khreshchatyk Street hand in hand. Old ladies, dressed warm for the winter, gossip in front of their apartment complexes. Families ride the bus in rush hour trying to get to work and school on time and hipsters sit at coffeeshop windows with their MacBooks. On days that started with morning air raids and explosions in the city centre, craft beer bars and Texan-Galician BBQ restaurants are frequented in the evening. The juxtaposition of these two events – almost daily – is extraordinarily surreal.

Nevertheless, for the time being a dimension of normality has returned for many Ukrainians. How this will develop throughout the cold winter months, however, remains unclear.

A harsh reality

Along most of the front line, temperatures have dropped below zero. Whilst soldiers sleep in dugouts and trenches, warming themselves with handmade ovens and candles supplied to them by Ukrainian NGOs, Ukrainian cities have begun to freeze. Heating is sporadic and centralised energy plans are forced to cut people off for hours at a time in order to stretch as much of the available energy as possible. Ukrainian cities have set up heating centres, allowing civilians to come, warm up, charge their phones and rest. These are usually located in air-raid shelters or tents.

In many regions, however, the situation is far more dire. Kyiv, for the most part, was spared the disastrous effects of open war. For Kyiv region (Kyivska Oblast’) it is a different story. During my visit I had the opportunity to visit the towns of Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel’. With the cruelty of winter, completely destroyed apartment blocks, houses and stores, as well as shelled and burnt schools, take on new dimensions. Many homes no longer have windows, and the cold quickly creeps in, even if electricity and heating happen to be working. Many families have been relocated to temporary shelters, dutifully constructed from shipping containers or simple building materials. Having spoken to a mother of two who is now residing in one of these temporary homes after her flat in Hostomel’ was completely destroyed, she lamented that there is only one hour of electricity per day. Her children, two and nine months, sat wrapped in blankets in the kitchen, the only light around coming from a candle on the table.

The remains of family homes shelled by the Russian invaders in Hostomel’, Ukraine

The winter months will not be easy for Ukrainians. Infrastructure supporting the power grid, heating and drinking water continues to be targeted by Russian shells and therefore remains unstable. Providing generators, warm clothing, heaters and water filters has never been more important. Whilst visiting Bucha in November, I met with members of the local council, including the mayor, and this fact was reaffirmed. Though there are great NGOs, such as UkraineFriends, with whom I had the opportunity to deliver warm clothing and ambulances to the Kyiv region, vast areas of Ukraine will struggle in the coming months. For communities closer to the front, the suffering will be magnified by the constant shelling and imminent danger caused by the Russian forces. Yet even the western parts of the country, such as Lviv or Mukachevo, face dark and cold nights ahead. The war, the Russian destruction of Ukraine’s civil infrastructure, and the winter leave Ukraine facing a very harsh, seemingly catastrophic reality – until you speak with locals first hand.

Hope always dies last

Ukrainians refuse to surrender. During my eight days in the country, talking to civilians, members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and different public officials, I was again and again reminded of that fact. In Kyiv, I had the opportunity to sit down with a group of youth, a colourful cross section of Ukrainian society. Together they represent the South (Odesa), West (Lviv), Centre (Kyiv and Cherkasy), and East (Dnipro and Donetsk). When discussing the war and their efforts to combat the invasion and help Ukrainian civil society, previously a difficult task in Ukraine’s complicated political landscape, all these young people sitting across from me were proud of their conviction that Ukraine is more united, is stronger than it has ever been. Much like nearly all the Ukrainians with whom I had the opportunity to meet throughout my short visit, they were optimistic and motivated.

A reminder of Ukrainian resistance, central Kyiv

One would expect, as did I, that after nine months of war, the Ukrainian nation would be exhausted, weary and ready to give in. This was by no means the case. Civil society initiatives, unprecedented for most countries, have been borne out of the war effort. Ukrainian youth, rather than having fled the country, work to deliver Christmas presents to children in regions close to the front line. Old women, having lived through decades of Soviet oppression and geopolitical change, knit socks and mittens for soldiers and small armbands to raise funds for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In Lviv’s main square, a small stand in between two buildings is manned day and night, as civilians collect donations in exchange for trinkets that look straight out of a flea market.

It may seem axiomatic now, but for Ukrainians, Russia will never be able to win this war. This is because they will never be able to win over the hearts and minds of Ukraine. Ultimately, this was the impression that I gained throughout my week in Ukraine. Ukrainians are fighting a war, fighting for their right to exist. At the same time, Ukraine as a nation, its culture, language, peoples, dreams and hopes, have been consolidated into one great effort: the fight for Ukraine’s future.

The rest of the world needs to double down on its efforts to support Ukraine in its fight, its resolution, and eventual European integration. This means providing generators for civilians in the winter months, air defence systems to protect Ukraine’s infrastructure, and increased weaponry to repel future Russian attacks. Similar to my trip to wartime Ukraine, the collective West has much to gain from demonstrating its persistent solidarity. For now, the lights may have gone out, but the spirit of Ukraine burns brighter than ever.

A Ukrainian soldier coming from the front waits for the train to Lviv, Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi train station

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics. @jrkroeker on Twitter

All the photos in this article were taken by the author, Joshua Kroeker. 


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