War-hit Ukrainians fight against US fatigue, caution

KYIV, Ukraine — The streets here bear messages for the U.S. and western allies. A common one is a call for strength: “Be Brave like Ukraine.”

Others are more direct. “Kharkiv is drowning in the tears of the Red Union and in blood,” one sign reads, calling for the U.S. to close the skies over Ukraine.

But even after more than two years of war, there are no signs of despair in Ukraine’s capital. Ukrainians remain dead set on defeating Russian despot Vladimir Putin, and optimistic in their military’s ability to stand up to his invading forces.

That stands in stark contrast to the U.S., which has grown more divided over support for Ukraine as Russia has seized momentum in the war. And there’s growing frustration with U.S. caution and suggestions from some that Ukraine should seek a peace deal that cedes land to Putin.

“There is no political decision that leads Ukraine to victory,” said Andiriy, who did not give his last name. “The end of the war will be when Ukraine wins.”

Andiriy and his wife, Inna, lost neighbors in the beginning of the war, when Russia invaded the Kyiv suburb of Bucha where they lived.

Moscow has been accused of war crimes in Bucha, including deliberately killing civilians, many buried in mass graves found after Russian troops retreated.

Andiriy said the first week of the war was like a “nightmare.” His family lost one home in the war but has a second home to live in around Bucha.

Andiriy expressed confidence in Ukraine but said that Kyiv needs to be allowed to strike inside of Russia with U.S. weapons, a policy that President Biden partially lifted in recent days.

“The aggressor understands only force,” he said. “What we need is to use the weapons that you give us.”

Ukraine has fought off Russia for more than two years, far exceeding global expectations. But the hope spurred by two surprise counter-offensives that regained territory last year has now fizzled away into a struggling defense.

Russian forces are taking heavy losses for small gains, but they are advancing across the 600-mile front in eastern Ukraine, from the Donetsk region to the northeastern province of Kharkiv.

Ukraine desperately needs more weapons and fighters to turn the tide of the war. While Kyiv lowered the draft eligibility age from 27 to 25, it’s not clear how many soldiers that will add to its fighting force.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has so far refrained from issuing a likely unpopular mobilization decree to call up around 500,000 servicemembers, something the military has previously recommended doing.

Zhanna Savostianova, whose son is on the frontlines, said she supported mobilization but added it should be targeted toward those inspired to stand up for the country.

“We need mobilization of course because we need to protect our country,” she said, but “we need to mobilize those who are ready to fight. It would be the better choice.”

Savostianova has videos saved to her phone that her son sent her from the frontlines, including one for Mother’s Day where he sang with his fellow combatants.

Yet Savostianova is not weary of the war, even with her son still fighting. She said Ukraine must take back all its territory, including Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

“I wouldn’t give anything to the Moscow guys,” said Savostianova. “A lot of our guys died in action, so we can’t forget about it and give Russia what they want. So this would mean they die for nothing. It’s unacceptable.”

The U.S. finally sent fresh military aid to Ukraine after passing a $61 billion package in April, but that came after months of delays because of stalling in Congress from far-right Republicans.

Those Republicans may stymie more aid efforts, having already vowed to block more legislation after the April bill passed. And former President Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee who is leading Biden in polls, has talked about ending the war in 24 hours, reportedly with an effort that would involve ceding territory to Russia.

But the war fatigue in Washington seems to be avoiding most Ukrainians.

“If Ukraine is going to give those territories, Russia will not stop,” said Tatiania. “It’s like a huge business. [Russia] will go further and will want more.”

Tatiana’s husband died during the defense of the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which Russia obliterated in the early days of the war, when he was fighting to defend the Azovstal steel plant. She gave only her first name.

Tatiana stressed that without U.S. help, Ukraine could become entirely occupied. She shared her own harrowing story, which involved fleeing from Mariupol with her now 15-year-old son after her husband’s death.

She moved to her parent’s home outside of Mariupol, but then fled again after Russian authorities began cementing control over the region. She moved through Russia, Belarus and Poland before returning to Kyiv with her son. Tatiana said she was questioned by Russian authorities but never detained.

But even in Kyiv, she said life has not returned to normal amidst Russian shelling. “There’s no quiet place in Ukraine.”

Along with the frustration behind the delay in weapons from the U.S. Ukrainian officials have ramped up calls for Biden to let them strike inside Russia with those weapons.

Scrutiny intensified on the weapons policy following Russia’s May offensive in Kharkiv, which saw Moscow amass troops and fire rockets from the neighboring Russian Belgorod region, safe from any U.S. arms attacks.

The Biden administration announced Thursday that it would allow Ukraine to hit some Russian targets inside of Russia near Kharkiv with U.S. weapons, but the ban is still broadly applied.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made a call for allies to lift such restrictions in a speech this week, saying Ukraine “has the right to defend themselves.”

“If they cannot attack military targets on Russian territory, then it ties one hand of the Ukrainians on their back and makes it very hard for them to conduct defense,” he said. “Self-defense includes the right to also attack legitimate military targets inside Russia.”

NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly adopted a declaration at the end of May calling for the acceleration of weapons to Ukraine and the lifting of restrictions on weapons hitting inside of Russia.

Yehor Cherniev, a Ukrainian member of Parliament and deputy chair of the Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence, expressed frustration with the weapons restrictions as Russia gains ground in Kharkiv.

“We could prevent this using the U.S. weapons against their troops on the other side of the border,” he said.

Cherniev traveled to Washington after the Kharkiv offensive to push the Biden administration and Congress to lift the policy. He was also at the NATO parliamentary assembly vote.

Speaking in Kyiv late last month, Cherniev said they are making progress and the NATO declaration is likely to step up pressure on the Biden administration to reverse the policy.

But he expressed frustration with the U.S. on several other issues, including the slow training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16s, a critical step so the fighter jets can arrive on the battlefield, and unclear responses on Kyiv’s request to get more Patriot air defense systems to better cover Ukraine.

“It’s crucial to have everything in time and in sufficient amount,” he said, adding if Ukraine had “everything that we need I have no doubt that we would have won this war.”

Ukraine’s Museum of Civilian Voices is taking a novel approach to spreading the message of Ukrainian resilience, both online and through physical exhibits.

Its chambers in Kyiv feature more than 100,000 stories of Ukrainian civilians who have been impacted by the war since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists began fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“This war, it’s a war of free people, of the democratic world, and investing in this war is protecting future generations,” said Andrii Palatnyi, a line curator at the exhibition. “At what cost are we ready to pay today for our freedom?”

Palatnyi said the exhibition offers a constant reminder — to Ukrainians and their allies — of the horrifying price being paid to keep up the fight.

“Nowadays we pay not [with] money, not weapons, we pay [with] the lives of our people,” he said. “Each day we lose people and the price is higher.”

Disclosure: The Rinat Akhmetov Foundation funded this reporter’s trip to Ukraine. It also founded the Museum of Civilian Voices. 

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