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The Unseen Toll of Ukraine's Decade-Long Conflict: A Personal Insight


Personally, after a decade spent advancing Ukraine’s democratization and now advocating for Western support to Ukraine, I often feel akin to a musician aboard the Titanic, still playing as the ship sinks. Yet, I cannot shake the nagging question: are Ukrainians the sole torchbearers of true values? And are we the only ones courageous enough to fight for them, regardless of the cost?

by Elena Davlikanova      

The war that is always with us - No matter where Ukrainians are—the frontline, home, or overseas—they live through the war. After two years of full-scale invasion and valiant resistance, the future appears bleak and uncertain.

Between Hope and Despair: Understanding Ukraine's Struggle for Freedom

Recently, here in Washington, DC, I met Peter Pomerantsev, a Kyiv-born journalist, who voiced what many Ukrainians feel: “Don’t ask me how I am. Ask me what the situation on the frontline is. It is an easier question to answer.” 

What makes the answer so hard? The bottom-line results of the last two years of this ten-year-long war.

78 percent of Ukrainians have close relatives or friends who have been killed or wounded. Some have the opportunity to bury their deceased loved ones, while others must settle for only a few body parts or simply an official notification. In villages heavily impacted by conscription, certain streets consist of abandoned houses, their occupants having perished.

Numerous captured soldiers continue to be held as hostages by the regime in Moscow, including Ukrainian human rights advocate and anti-fascist Maxim Butkevych, who has been sentenced to thirteen years in prison.

Many have lost touch with friends and family in Russia after unsuccessful attempts to convey the truth to the heavily zombified Russian population. There are more than 6 million refugees and 3.7 million internally displaced people, who have to start their life from scratch.

Children of a certain age find themselves becoming parents to their younger siblings following the tragic loss of their parents. Raped by the Russian army, underaged girls end up pregnant. According to Russian officials, 700,000 kidswere kidnapped and are being kept as hostages in Russia. While some of these children, who have managed to return, come to Washington to share their stories, crucial aid packages for Ukraine remain entangled in domestic political conflicts.

20 percent of Ukrainian territory is occupied. Ukrainian reconstruction requires nearly half a trillion dollars.

Of course, Ukraine still stands independent and strong. But its people are disillusioned and wondering what lies ahead.

The perplexing failure of all thirty-one NATO member states and twenty-four other allies to effectively respond to aggression from Russia, the world’s most heavily sanctioned country, aided by another sanctioned country, Iran, is stunning. The Ukrainian army suffers from a “severe deficit” of weapons with just 2,000 shells allocated daily for a front line spanning 1,500 kilometers.

The world’s most developed countries seem unable to boost defense sector production to meet the demands of a full-scale war led by a country whose economy is smaller than Texas’s.

After two years of courageous effort, Ukraine is ensnared in a relentless cycle: inadequate weaponry results in modest victories on the frontlines, further reducing aid. Doubts about Ukraine’s ability to achieve full victory are on the rise.

Some on the Hill believe that more aid won’t help Ukraine win the war against Russia. Inspired by Vladimir Putin’s recent interview, discussions about a negotiated settlement between Russia and Ukraine are on the agenda again, though this tested strategy has not worked since 2014.

Lacking essential weaponry, Ukraine may have no choice but to pursue a ceasefire or enter peace talks, potentially allowing Russia to regroup and renew its aggression. During a ceasefire, Russia will employ its well-established non-military but nevertheless lethal tactics to further undermine Ukraine’s development.

Ukraine’s aspirations for NATO membership remain a distant dream, and the West’s reluctance in this regard threatens the country’s very survival. Additionally, despite ongoing talks about integration with the European Union, progress appears to be slower than politically prudent.

Accession is not solely contingent on Ukraine meeting criteria but also on the EU’s capacity to integrate a country of Ukraine’s size and potential. Presently, the situation on the Polish border exacerbates matters, with Polish farmers not only impeding the transfer of Ukrainian goods, thereby harming Ukraine’s economy, but also dispersing grain. Not to mention some European leaders’ anti-Ukraine rhetoric.

Despite the West and Russia’s remarkable decoupling through unprecedented sanctions, asset seizures, and reduced European reliance on Russian energy resources, over 1,500 Western companies still operate in the Russian market.

We find ourselves in this situation due to a mistaken belief that the calculation of economic losses and short-term political benefits should be the primary basis for decisionmaking. The Russian invasion in 2014 was a response not to NATO enlargement but to the protests against the Ukrainian pro-Russian president’s refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. The agreement was a symbol of a new life in a rule-based country.

The Heavenly Hundred’s sacrifice on the main square in Kyiv was not for the right to trade with Europe or the United States. Ukrainians viewed the West as a bastion of value-based governance and everyday life. Like Prometheus, the West guided Ukraine through decades of transition from its Soviet past. The principles of democracy and human rights have become fundamental to Ukrainians’ new country and social contract.

At the same time, it was the West’s decision to press for Ukraine’s denuclearization and broader disarmament, which encompassed the decommissioning of bombers.

Two years ago, former IT specialists, bankers, historians, and teachers took up arms not to retain control over natural resources, ports, and railways. They are fighting for freedom and against a totalitarian oppressive regime. Ukrainians understand deeply that the concept of humanism only holds meaning when applied in practice, not merely discussed.

This war is a genocidal assault on freedom-lovers. It is an existential threat, leaving Ukrainians feeling unsafe regardless of their location, as they recognize the grave peril facing their homeland and people.

So, how are Ukrainians doing? It depends. Some are grieving, others are hoping for the better. Some are fighting, others are supporting their needs. Some are building new lives, others lost theirs.

Personally, after a decade spent advancing Ukraine’s democratization and now advocating for Western support to Ukraine, I often feel akin to a musician aboard the Titanic, still playing as the ship sinks. Yet, I cannot shake the nagging question: are Ukrainians the sole torchbearers of true values? And are we the only ones courageous enough to fight for them, regardless of the cost?

About the Author

Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis. Davlikanova’s work is focused on analyzing opportunities for Ukraine-Russia reconciliation with regard to fascism and totalitarianism in Russia and their effects on Russia, Ukraine, and global peace. She also studies historical, social, economic, and cultural narratives about Ukraine and Russia, their connection to on-the-ground situations, and their influence on decision-making practices and processes. She is an experienced researcher, who in 2022 conducted the studies “The Work of Ukrainian Parliament at Wartime” and “Understanding Ukraine: The Battle of Narratives.”       

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