Volunteer Lisa Vedmedera: “It’s like a switch has been flipped, and then you realize you don’t want to be in Berlin or Paris, you want to be at the Golden Gate in Kyiv.”Foto: Alina Smutko / DER SPIEGEL
Recent battlefield victories have triggered euphoria in Ukraine. Even Vladimir Putin’s missile attacks have failed to break the fighting spirit. But how are Ukrainians coping with the constant emotional strain of war?
https://www.spiegel.de-By Christian Esch in Kyiv
If it were possible to measure anger in money, then Ukrainians are furious at the moment. This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to scare them with massive airstrikes on key cities in the country. His missiles have struck substations and playgrounds, while in Kyiv, people have fled into the safety of subway stations for the first time since March.
But they are not allowing themselves to be intimidated. Serhiy Prytula, 41, with the professional smile of his former TV presenter self, is standing in the attic of a historic building in Kyiv and taking stock of how his compatriots have responded to the attacks. In just 24 hours, they have donated 352 million hryvnia, the equivalent of just under 10 million euros, to buy new kamikaze drones for use against the Russian aggressors.
The response to the appeal for donations, branded the “People’s Revenge,” exceeded all expectations. “The Russians thought we were just going to go hide in our holes in the ground. But the Ukrainians still donated from the bomb shelters. They’ve learned to channel their anger into something constructive,” says Prytula.
Visitors to Ukraine right now find a country in a strange emotional state. It’s a cocktail of anger and confidence, of pain and euphoria. It’s a society under constant emotional duress: Moments of fear are followed by ones of exuberance. Ukrainian society has learned to cope and is showing a remarkable degree of resilience.
Now, with each success on the front lines, pride and optimism are growing. It seems almost self-evident to many that, after the military successes of recent weeks, Ukraine has the ability to recapture Crimea and deal a death blow to Putin’s regime. Society and the political leadership are so confident of victory that it almost makes one uneasy. Ukrainians have discovered their own strength, but are they still able to realistically assess the strength of their opponent?
Serhiy Prytula’s foundation is a good place to start in the search for answers. It embodies the very thing of which Ukrainians are most proud: their ability to organize. Prytula, who is the presenter for the national selection process for the Eurovision Song Contest and is thus a familiar face to Ukrainians, originally set up the foundation to provide relief during the coronavirus pandemic, but he has since retooled it for the war. He has used the donations to purchase Turkish Bayraktar combat drones for the army as well as a “People’s Sputnik,” a Finnish surveillance satellite. They celebrated the purchase in August with a photo of Putin’s bridge to Crimea.
Like everyone, Prytula expects his country to win the war. But what counts as a victory for the Ukrainians? “Society is divided,” he says. “For some, returning to the status quo before the invasion in February is enough. Others say: We will not have won until the 1991 borders have been restored. Still others say: Even then, we can only celebrate victory when Russia disappears from the map as a political entity. This monster has to fall apart.” Prytula says that, for his part, he would be content with reconquering all the lost territories, because “Russia will disintegrate anyway, like the Soviet Union before, I’m not worried about that.”
If Prytula has worries about the future, they are focused on other issues. How will families torn apart by the war find their way back to each other? Will women and children who found refuge in European Union countries return to a broken country, or will the men follow them abroad to countries that have been unscathed by the conflict.
Lisa Vedmedera, 24, is sweeping up broken glass in a courtyard. The windows above here have been shattered, as have the windows of the cars in the courtyard, not to mention the glass facade of the high-rise office building just across the street. A Russian missile slammed into an old brick building next door early on Monday morning, wreaking havoc in the immediate area. Miraculously, there were only injuries, no deaths. Presumably, the target was the neighboring district heating plant. Putin had said that Ukraine’s energy sector was an objective.
Normally, Vedmedera would be waiting tables, but her café remains closed because of the air raid sirens, and she is instead working with other volunteers to care for the wounded rather than sitting out the alarm at home. “We’re not afraid here anymore,” she says, “otherwise, I could have left the country.” Vedmedera is from Dnipro in the east, Russian is her mother tongue, and she has an inscription tattooed in Russian on her neck: “I am freedom.”
She’s speaking Ukrainian now, quickly and downright enthusiastically, as if there could be no better time than now to be young, a euphoric woman amid the rubble who talks about drum ‘n’ base festivals for the army and how, suddenly, everyone is helping each other. “It’s like a switch has been flipped, and then you realize you don’t want to be in Berlin or Paris, you want to be at the Golden Gate in Kyiv.”
Building residents seem less enthusiastic, but they also don’t seem to be intimidated. Julia Dazenko, who is petting the cat in her parent’s destroyed apartment – she initially fled when the blast wave blew all the doors open – is furious at the Russians. Her mother had to go to the hospital with a head injury. Their neighbor Roman Kolyada, a radio journalist who sometimes issues the airstrike warnings himself, is full of cold scorn. “This is terrorism, carried out by idiots,” he says of the Russian airstrikes. “But the next time there’s an air raid alert, I want to be farther away from the district heating plant, that’s for sure.”
Although Ukrainians are worse off, their mood has brightened since the war began, “there’s no doubt about it,” says Yevhen Holovacha, 72. The prominent sociologist has spent years studying the emotional state of his fellow compatriots. Statistically speaking, Ukrainians aren’t a particularly happy lot. In October 2021, one-third of respondents cited “sadness” as their predominant emotion, Holovacha says, with “hope” coming in second. When they answered the question again after a half a year of war, suddenly “hope” had become the predominant sentiment, at 70 percent, and “sadness” had dropped. And this despite the fact that people are suffering from displacement and separation and are having more frequent nightmares.
According to surveys, few things have improved as much as the relationship Ukrainians have with their own government. “For the first time since independence, people realized what a good country they have built – at precisely the moment they were confronted with the horror visited upon them by a barbarian neighbor. They’ve begun valuing their country and no longer want to leave it as they used to.”
The dream of many Ukrainians have of the end of the war is one of justice, of a war crimes tribunal against Russia, Holovacha says, a rapid collapse of their neighboring country. “Of course, that’s naive. But that’s what they are constantly told by opinion leaders and experts on TV.”
Many of the brash tones are coming directly from the country’s leaders. The war must end with a Russian “surrender,” just as World War II did for Germany in 1945, including reparations and a war crimes tribunal, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said recently. In response to the question of whether Ukrainian troops would stop their advance in Crimea or only when they reached Moscow, Ukrainian Security Council head Oleksiy Danilov said, “The Army will stop where our interests end. And those interests end where the end of the would-be Russian empire begins. ”
A Ban on Negotiations
It’s not always clear the extent to which such statements are meant seriously and how much is just posturing. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself hasn’t specified how much territory he hopes to regain by military means. At the same time, however, he has issued a decree that his government is prohibited from negotiating with Russia at all as long as Putin is still in office. The move came in response to Putin’s announcement that he would annex four Ukrainian territories.
Actions speak even louder than words in expressing the confidence of the Ukrainian leadership. Missile attacks on military targets in Crimea, the expulsion of the Russian army from the Kharkiv region, and the simultaneous advance in the Luhansk region in the east and in the Kherson region in the south show that they are setting big goals. And then there have been the spectacular explosive attacks on Russian targets.
In August, a car bomb killed journalist Daria Dugina near Moscow. Her father, Alexander Dugin, the philosopher and mastermind behind Russia’s expansion strategy, was presumably the true target of the attack. The New York Times learned from intelligence sources in Washington that the act had been authorized by “parts of the Ukrainian government,” which prompted U.S. government officials to complain to Kyiv.
In October, a truck loaded with explosives detonated on the enormous bridge that Putin built across the Kerch Strait following the annexation of Crimea. The attack sparked enthusiasm in Kyiv – showing that not even Putin’s prestige object is safe any longer. A picture of the burning bridge was even set up in front of City Hall, with passersby taking selfies in front of it. Clothing stores and sushi restaurants offered special discounts in celebration.
Mykhailo Podolyak describes the attack as an “excess.” He claims that the Ukrainian government had nothing to do with the explosion, nor with the one on Dugin’s car. Podolyak says this during an interview in Zelenskyy’s presidential office, where he serves as adviser in the president’s inner circle. He looks surprisingly fresh and in good spirits despite eight months of war. His office is brightly lit, but the hallways are pitch black, the windows secured with sandbags and the surrounding streets are cordoned off. There could be a Russian missile attack on the government quarter at any time.
On the morning of the attack on the Crimean bridge, Podolyak was enthusiastic: “Crimea, bridge, the beginning. All that is illegal must be destroyed,” he wrote on Twitter. Podolyak’s denial that Ukraine had anything to do with the detonation, some in Kyiv believe, could be a product of signals coming out of Washington that officials should be more careful with their claims of responsibility.
Either way, Podolyak is an optimist, and if there’s one thing that Zelenskyy’s polished media team knows how to do, it’s create moods. “War is psychology,” says Podolyak.
There are “good reasons why we Ukrainians are extraordinarily optimistic,” he says, before listing them: the failure of the Russian army, the professionalism of their own, the help from the Europeans, the conflicts within the Russian leadership, Zelenskyy’s unwillingness to budge. “Putin isn’t sane. Negotiations on any kind of compromise aren’t possible,” Podolyak says.
“How quickly the war comes to an end will depend on just a small amount of additional weapons technologies, but it is not a matter of years, but of months,” he says. “We will be able to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk and Kherson in the near future.” Then, Podolyak says, the Russian elite will be in full panic. “This will be the last autumn of the Russian autocrats.”
“All or Nothing”
Podolyak isn’t even frightened by Putin’s deliberately vague warnings of nuclear war, and he’s not alone on that front either. “For us, this is an all-or-nothing war, anyway,” says political scientist Volodymyr Fessenko. “That’s why Ukrainians are thinking strictly in pragmatic terms – like how big an area a tactical nuclear weapon would contaminate? How do you protect yourself?”
But the fear hasn’t dissipated entirely, even if it is masked by the at-times euphoric expressions. This is especially true of those who are seeing the war more close-up than the civilians in Kyiv. Ivan Siyak, a 41-year-old medic with an artillery unit in eastern Ukraine, says: “No one here popped open a bottle of champagne when the Crimea Bridge was burning. At the front, you are very busy with yourself and your immediate surroundings.” The Kyiv native certainly understands the joy civilians are experiencing and their great pride in the Ukrainian army. “But things look different from the inside than they do from the outside.”
Speaking by phone during a break from his deployment, Siyak soberly describes how his own mood has changed over the long months of the war. In February, when everyone thought there would be street fighting in Kyiv, Siyak volunteered for the Territorial Defense Forces. “This is going to sound pathetic,” he says, “but I wanted to die in a Ukrainian uniform. Or be captured in a Ukrainian uniform.”
The Russian withdrawal from the Kyiv region felt like a miracle to him. In May, Siyak says, pessimism returned because it appeared that the Russian army had learned from its mistakes and was doing a better job of commanding its forces. But then, he says, the mood improved again in the summer “and since the Kharkiv counteroffensive in September, it seems that victory is practically inevitable. No amount of missile attacks on major cities can destroy this optimism.”
The fears from February – of Putin and an omnipotent Russian neighbor – have since faded. Siyak now has other fears. That he might have to serve for years to come. That he can’t see his young son. That the military will be too powerful in the country after the war.
The Ukrainians now have eight months of war behind them. It’s an emotional roller coaster, and who knows how long it will last or what is yet to come? But even the skeptics are certain about this: The worst is behind them.
With additional reporting by Katja Lutska