Ukrainians Are Determined to Persevere But Worry Their Allies Aren’t

From a Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria headlined “Ukrainians are determined to persevere, but they worry that their allies aren’t”:

The overnight train ride from Poland to Ukraine is a reminder of why this land has been so hotly contested over the last century: Ukraine’s soil is among the most fertile on the planet. We passed vast fields of wheat and other crops dotted with small farmhouses; in some places farmers were still using horses to plow the fields. As we approached Kyiv, the landscape quickly shifted to urban.

Despite the war, Ukraine’s railways continue to be clean, comfortable and efficient. My train rolled into Kyiv right on time. That says a lot about Ukraine. Despite the war, Kyiv feels almost normal. A year into the invasion, roughly half of Kyiv’s population had fled, but many people have since returned. The city had about 3.9 million residents in 2021, before the fighting started, and it’s back to around 3.6 million today (local sources tell me.)

The Yalta European Strategy annual meeting is also still being held as it has been for nearly 20 years (located originally in the Crimean city of Yalta and then, after the 2014 occupation of Crimea, in Kyiv). “The struggle for Ukraine is the most important struggle in the world right now, and we need to keep the world’s attention focused on it,” Viktor Pinchuk, the organizer, told me.

Stores and cafes in the city are bustling. Air raid sirens went off while I was having dinner at a friend’s place, and no one even stopped eating. But there are constant reminders of the conflict. Billboards scattered around the city mourn Ukraine’s lost “heroes,” as the fallen soldiers are often called. Sandbags and roadblocks are common.

Everyone is exhausted and sober. Ukraine’s losses have been terrible, measured both in cities destroyed and soldiers and civilians killed. As a German friend who has lived in Kyiv for years put it to me, “There is growing understanding of loss as part of normalcy. People are adjusting to the reality of knowing more and more people who have been killed or wounded. It’s a tough, sad condition.

But exhaustion does not equal surrender. No one I spoke with believed that Ukraine should stop fighting to get back its territories. They were disappointed that the counteroffensive is not going better, but its difficulties only remind them that this will be a long struggle. Were they to make a premature peace, many said to me, this would only be a temporary pause. The Russians would come back, and they would have simply pushed the burdens of war onto the next generation.

When you speak with people at greater length, their views are more nuanced. “No surrender” is the mantra, but some said it was possible to imagine a cease-fire — with Ukraine never legally endorsing the legitimacy of Russian rule over parts of Donbas and Crimea — in exchange for real security guarantees. As one Ukrainian politician (who wished to stay unnamed) told me, “It’s easy for all of us who have not been in the fighting to refuse to compromise. The real question is what are the attitudes of the soldiers in the field and those who have returned. They might have more nuanced positions. But they will have to articulate them.”

The dominant worry in Kyiv is not about Russia but the West. Ukrainians have reason to be worried. Support for their fight is waning in some European countries. An election in Slovakia later this month could bring into power a populist prime minister who is distinctly pro-Russian, which would give Hungary’s Viktor Orban a useful ally in trying to change Europe’s policies. Support for Ukraine is also slipping in the United States.

Many observers believe that the Russians are determined to stay the course until the 2024 elections in the hope that Donald Trump would be elected and that he would quickly hang the Ukrainians out to dry as he searched for a deal with Vladimir Putin. That would be a disaster, legitimizing naked aggression and emboldening dictators such as Putin and China’s Xi Jinping who want to disregard norms and rewrite the rules of the international system. “The jungle,” as Robert Kagan calls it, would return to international life.

The West has often fought wars alongside allies who were not deeply committed to their own cause, let alone the larger cause of freedom — from Afghans and Iraqis to the South Vietnamese and even the South Koreans (who were defending a nasty dictatorship during the Korean War). The Ukrainians are different — utterly committed to their independence but also to the values the West holds most deeply.

Ukrainians understand that they are in for a long war of attrition. They understand that they are up against a formidable foe — Russia’s population is almost four times that of Ukraine’s and its economy is about 15 times larger. Ukrainians are determined to persevere, but they worry that their allies are not.

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post.

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