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After two years of war, Ukraine is discouraged

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After two years of war, Ukraine is discouraged

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Two years after the start of the Russian invasion, on February 24, 2024, the population in Ukraine appears increasingly discouraged. This mood is a consequence of the disappointing results of the summer counteroffensive, of the victories obtained by the Russians during the winter, of the growing hesitation of the allies in providing the aid necessary to continue and of the simple tiredness of a war whose end is not in sight.

Much seems to have changed during the second year of the war that has just ended. Last February more than a quarter of Ukrainians were convinced that the war would be over within a year and 66 percent of them rejected any possibility of negotiation with Russia. Today, almost half of Ukrainians think they still have more than a year of fighting ahead of them and the percentage of those who think the time has come to negotiate has risen to 42 percent. “A year ago we were without electricity, but full of hope,” says Oksana, an employee of a German NGO, referring to the Russian bombings that last winter left large Ukrainian cities without electricity for days. Today, however, he continues, it is the opposite. The Russian bombs failed to cause blackouts, but there is little trace of the optimism of a year ago.

This increasingly discouraged climate, which can be seen in the polls, is the reverse of the optimism of about a year ago, when the victories of the Ukrainian army in Kiev, Kharkiv and Kherson had raised hopes for a rapid conclusion to the war. As he noted the French journalist Fabrice Deprez, who has lived in Kiev for years, in a period of war these violent mood swings, in one direction or another, are inevitable and must be taken with caution.

Even today, the vast majority of Ukrainians remain opposed to making territorial concessions to Russia in exchange for peace and trust in President Volodymyr Zelensky, although declining, remains above 60 percent, a level that is the envy of most Western leaders. Meanwhile, the military remains the country’s most popular institution, with popularity ratings above 80 percent.

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Invitations to donate to the army can be found everywhere in the city: in clubs, at the supermarket, on the streets, in bookstores. At the end of a theater show it is normal for the director to go on stage to invite the spectators to donate to the unit in which he has volunteered.

It can be donated directly to the armed forces, but also to individual battalions, who use the proceeds to procure equipment they are constantly short of. Off-road cars and spare parts are among the most requested items. The government often does not have the resources or organizational capacity to provide troops with everything they need. This winter, on the Kupiansk front, in north-eastern Ukraine, an officer explained that out of ten drones used by his unit, nine come from civilian donations.

The Ukrainian government, and its allies, will have to do better than rely on the good will of the population if they want to reverse the trend that has seen Russian troops ahead on the entire front for months. In an article published on the site War on the Rocks analysts Michael Kofman, Rob Lee and Dara Massicot, who regularly visit the front, wrote that Ukraine needs to spend 2024 on the defensive, ceding ground to the Russians in exchange for time, accumulating reserves and preparing a new counteroffensive for the spring 2025.

Their ideas are essentially in line with those of the former commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, the popular general Valery Zaluzhny, who was fired by Zelensky in early February. But to put them into practice at a time when the resources provided by allies appear increasingly in doubt, Ukraine will have to mobilize an even higher percentage of its population and economy. This is what Zaluzhny asked for and what many Ukrainians are still asking for today. In December, during the approval of the Kiev municipal budget, several hundred people protested in front of the city hall, demanding that the municipality spend less on public works and allocate more funds to the army. “We want bullets, not parks,” was written on one of the signs.

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Some Ukrainians use an expression of Soviet origin to define the total commitment of the entire nation that they believe is necessary for victory: voyenni reyky, literally “military tracks”. It means reducing to a minimum all economic activities not directly connected to the war effort: sending the petrol used for taxis, and the taxis themselves, to the front, converting factories into munitions factories, importing weapons with the international currency normally used to import luxury products .

This is in direct contrast to the apparent normality that is seen in large Ukrainian cities and which so affects visitors, be they foreign journalists, international NGO workers or Ukrainian soldiers on leave from the front. Places full of young people, busy streets, supermarkets, like the exclusive Le Silpo in the center of Kiev, full of fresh mozzarella and Spanish ham.

To date, the Ukrainian government has preferred to avoid putting the country’s economy on “military tracks”, fearing that further sacrifices will make the conflict even less popular. And on the other hand, several economists doubt that a modern economy like the Ukrainian one can follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union in World War II without generating counterproductive results. But something is starting to change and the government has come up with the first hypotheses of increasing taxes, which even during the war remained among the lowest in Europe, and salaries in the defense sector.

An even more urgent matter is the mobilization of the population. Ukraine has around a million soldiers under arms – many of whom have now spent two years at the front: the current law does not provide for an end to military service until the end of the conflict. At least another ten million eligible men and the same number of women live in the country. According to the armed forces, a new mobilization to strengthen the army and give respite to those who have been fighting non-stop for months can no longer be postponed.

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At the end of last year, the previous commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Zaluzhny, had already asked for 500,000 new soldiers and stricter measures for those who avoid recruitment. The government has prepared a new law which has been stuck in a back-and-forth between government and parliament for months. The government is hesitant to implement a measure it deems extremely unpopular. Zelensky himself said he was not convinced by the numbers of necessary new recruits circulated by military commands.

As in managing the economy, the government seeks to wage war without fundamentally altering Ukrainian society. Young people, the most educated age group and considered the future of the country, are largely spared from the mobilization. The minimum age to be recruited is 27 and, unless you volunteer, your chances of ending up at the front if you have a high school education and a good job are slim. The result is that today in the Ukrainian Armed Forces the average age is 42 years.

This second anniversary of the war will pass marked by contradictions. The increasingly strident ones between the front and the apparent normality of life in big cities. Those between the promises of the allies and the aid actually delivered to the country. And finally, that between a population that seems to express in the majority its will to continue the conflict until victory and a government that hesitates to ask for the sacrifices necessary to try to achieve it.

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