We’re All Tired. But We’ve Adapted – How Ukrainians Keep Their Spirit

Ukrainians might be losing their best in this war, but it doesn’t mean they’re ready to stop fighting

19 December 2023

After almost two years of Russian full-scale invasion, Ukrainians face a bitter perspective: the war will not end anytime soon. Western military and financial aid may be slowing down because of internal political issues, which means Putin will get what he needs – time. For Ukraine and its best people on the battlefield, this is a tragedy.

I meet Lisa Zharikova during her short stay in Kyiv. She’s got just a few hours in the city as her unit is getting prepared for a combat mission in Donbas. We speak shortly before the 10th anniversary of Euromaydan, Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity on 29 November 2013.  

Lisa was a student at that time, getting her MA in Ukrainian literature and protesting peacefully at the Kyiv central square, when riot police violently dispersed the crowd, brutally beating up young girls and boys. 

The European dream turns Ukraine’s brightest into citizen-soldiers 

The protest started as a reaction against the decision of President Viktor Yanukovych to cancel Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU, but turned into a movement against police brutality, corruption and essentially closer ties with Russia – something Vladimir Putin has sought instead of Ukraine’s European integration. 

Lisa kept on protesting despite being injured with a piece of flashbang grenade later in February. She later successfully graduated, became a musician and author and also got married. She’s 34 now and serves in Ukraine’s Armed Forces. So does her husband Mykola, an IT specialist. 

Being a soldier and providing medical help – she’s a combat medic, are the two things she had to learn since the Russian full-scale invasion in February 2022. Lisa has lost some of her comrades and friends in this war. She looks tired, but she doesn’t complain.

 “I knew at the beginning this war was going to take years. My husband said, around 8. I was more optimistic – 2-3, maybe”. It’s already been almost two years, and there’s no clarity on how long it’s going to take. “Many set themselves up for a sprint, but didn’t expect it to become a marathon”, – she says.

 “Some, maybe, expected to end their service by this time. Or at least to have a clear perspective about their future”. 

Lisa sustained a leg injury while on the battlefield in the summer. She jokes that she wouldn’t probably wear a swimming suit anytime soon. But she says she’s fine now. “We’re all tired. But we’ve adapted”. 

Life goes on, but the war takes a toll 

Lisa’s words resonate well. I don’t feel it’s right to compare my life in Kyiv the well-defended and frequently attacked city to hers in the trenches. But fatigue is something me and my family have to deal with as well, when the sirens go off and we take our kids and pets to a safe place. For those like me, who don’t have a bomb shelter or a basement –  it’s a bathroom.

It’s winter already and apart from drone and rocket attacks we get ourselves prepared for long-time blackouts. No electricity often means no running water. So, saving and planning is something you critically need to do, no matter how tired you are. During the last massive drone attack on 25 November, with over 70 Shaheds headed to Kyiv and the region, almost 29,000 people were left without electricity. 

“Are there many people in the bars now?”, – she asks me with no judgment, but sincere interest, as I walk her to the metro station after our interview. Kyiv streets are well lit up, restaurants, bars and shops are getting prepared for the Christmas season. They all are quite crowded. Life seems to be running normally, at least until the air sirens go off. The school and kindergartens are open, shopping malls run new collections, you can also watch Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” at the cinema. 

The parliament runs its sessions, so does the city council. The courts rule even in long-term and politically complicated trials: two months ago a verdict in a case of the massive killing of protesters on Maidan in February 2014 was announced –  four riot police officers were found guilty. Some of the victims – young people like Lisa, couldn’t hear the verdict because they were mobilised.

 Some were killed on the battlefield. The war hasn’t stopped justice from being done. It also hasn’t stopped the need for reforms and a fight against corruption, including in the army, as Ukraine is holding talks on EU accession. 

Reforms pursued despite growing Western indifference   

Keeping things running well, being a democracy with a rule of law has also become one of our national resilience scenarios. But no matter how good things are running, the war is still there. We’ve adapted to live with it. And the world seems to do so too.

Ukraine news is fading from the breaking stories and politics seem to be taking over solidarity. A $60 billion U.S. aid to Ukraine has become a hostage to American internal political rivalry in the face of the coming elections. A 50 billion euro package from the EU is threatened to be held up by Hungary. Polish truckers have been blocking Ukraine’s border crossings for over a month now, demanding to revise the EU deal, which allows Ukrainian drivers to work in the bloc. 

Transport, humanitarian aid and goods, including military trucks and equipment, are stuck at the border for weeks. One of the major Ukrainian military foundations, “Come Back Alive”, says there are over 50 military trucks stuck at the border crossing, as well as night vision devices and other equipment much expected by Ukrainian armed forces. 

Some feel irritation not only with the Polish truckers but also with the Ukrainian government – for not being able to handle it. Trust towards central government institutions has dropped somewhat compared to the last year: from 91% to 76% towards the president, from 74% to 39% – towards the government and from 58% to 21% towards the parliament, recent polls from Kyiv International Institute of Sociology say. 

Polls show victory, not elections remains a priority 

However, this criticism doesn’t translate into a demand to hold elections and change power – 81% of Ukrainians believe that elections should take place after the war. This means that even if the feeling of total unity from 2022 is gone, victory remains an absolute national priority. But victory is something Ukraine can’t afford to wait for too long. 

Russia can take as much time as it needs. Russia doesn’t count its people and doesn’t care about their welfare. But not Ukraine. Each day of Putin’s army in Ukraine means more war crimes, more deaths of citizen-soldiers and civilians.

“Because of the war, we will be lagging behind economically, but also as a civil society. Our civil society is literally getting killed on the battlefield. The rest of us are getting health problems while non-stop volunteering. We can’t pay attention to other things. We’re not enough to fill in all the necessary gaps in the country”, Lisa says. She’s been deployed to the frontline since we last spoke. I’m not sure where exactly she is. 

 

Angelina Kariakina

Angelina Kariakina is a journalist and editor based in Kyiv. She has reported on Ukrainian political and social affairs, including the Maidan demonstrations and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, for Euronews' Kyiv bureau, and has also worked as a journalist and presenter for Hromadske, Ukraine's major independent media outlet, where she covered the cases of Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko, and conducted award-winning investigative reporting. From 2017-2020 she was editor-in-chief at Hromadske. In March 2020 she co-founded the Public Interest Journalism Lab, which seeks to popularize best practices for public interest journalism in the digital age. She used to run news at Ukrainian Public Broadcaster “Suspilne” (2021-2023). Currently works as the advisor to the head of board.

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