Bitter but resilient: Ukraine fights on, two years into Russia’s war

Short of ammunition though not determination, Ukraine faces an uncertain future. What is clear is that it won’t buckle to Russia.

Ukraine flag
A Ukrainian flag has replaced the statue of Russian empress Catherine the Great in central Odesa, Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Kharkiv, Ukraine – Andriy’s undermanned squad can only shoot 10 shells a day at encroaching Russian troops because of a dire shortage of ammunition.

The 45-year-old suffers from stomach pains, deteriorating eyesight and other consequences of multiple contusions that landed him in hospital several times.

Two years ago, Andriy defended Kyiv in the full-scale war’s first weeks until Russian troops withdrew after heavy losses, and fought in the eastern town of Bakhmut that fell to the Wagner private army last May.

The timing and duration of tours to “zero” positions, or the front lines of the eastern Donbas region, are unpredictable, and his commanding officers deliberately report less “zero” time for him to decrease his pay, he said.

But when it comes to Andriy’s determination to stand his ground, he has no doubts or qualms.

“This is my land, understand? I grew up here. I eat bread grown on this land. That’s what keeps me going,” he told Al Jazeera while on a break in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

He withheld his last name and his unit’s location in accordance with wartime regulations.

Ukrainian civilians during a military drill
Ukrainian civilians take part in a military drill in Kyiv a month before the war began [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

The absolute majority of Ukrainians – 85 percent – are confident of victory in the war that began two years ago today, according to a survey by the Rating Group, a Kyiv-based pollster, released on Monday.

Most of the remaining 15 percent hail from eastern or southern regions next to the front lines and occupied areas that witness the worst consequences of the war firsthand, it said.

“I’d agree for peace if they want to keep the occupied lands,” Konstantin, a resident of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city that sits near the Russian border, told Al Jazeera.

Last spring, the shockwave from an explosion right next to his apartment building shattered his windows and blew open his solid metal front door.

He stayed on, but almost daily bombardments and the failure of last year’s counteroffensive have worn him out.

“I don’t want to grow old hearing the incoming [shelling] every day and night, because one day it’ll hit my home,” he said.

Western aid is crucial to Ukraine’s victory, say 79 percent of Ukrainians, according to the Rating Group’s poll.

But the aid is dwindling, while Western governments tacitly urge Kyiv to sign a truce with Moscow by recognising the loss of occupied areas that amount to one-fifth of Ukraine’s territory.

Children's toy
A child’s toy lies in a Kyiv cafe following Russian bombing in June 2023 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Peace talks – but on whose terms?

Yet, the public mantra of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and every Ukrainian politician is: Moscow has to withdraw from all occupied areas before peace talks can begin.

“The political acknowledgment of the occupation is impossible, no politician will go for it, and the public won’t accept it, ” Kyiv-based analyst Alexey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

“There are unofficial talks about freezing the conflict according to the Korean scenario,” he said, referring to the Korean Armistice of 1953, under which North and South Korea agreed to an end to fighting without formally ending the war. But until the war is over, Ukraine will “officially announce maximal goals” to mobilise the public and Western allies, Kushch said.

The war has cost Ukraine 30 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) and 3.5 million jobs, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Wednesday.

But the biggest loss is to its people.

At least 6.5 million people have fled abroad, and the population in Kyiv-controlled areas is below 30 million, analysts say – a far cry from the 52 million at the dawn of Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

Many refugees have nothing to go back to.

Rescue teams work in Kharkiv after Russian bombing on January 24. Many people fleeing will have no homes to return to [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Last June, Halyna, a 28-year-old woman from the southern city of Mariupol, where tens of thousands of civilians died during a months-long siege, told Al Jazeera about the horrors her two young children went through during Russian air raids and shelling.

“When things got real tense, they just convulsed with hysteria in those basements. And they asked questions: ‘Does it hurt to die?’ she said.

After moving to the Czech Republic, her children are safe – but still scarred.

“Only recently, my son stopped being frightened by the sound of planes. The daughter sometimes weeps at night, wants to go back to her past life, to her pillow with [the images of] cats,” she said.

“There’s a new life looming for us, but it’s not in Ukraine, unfortunately,” she said.

Last week, Russia scored a rare victory after Ukrainian forces pulled out of the town of Avdiivka in the Donbas region held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

But the Kremlin-funded propaganda blew it out of proportion.

“The Kyiv regime and its protectors have missed a blow they will possibly not recover from,” publicist Kirill Strelnikov wrote on Tuesday.

The news coincided with the death of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and Russian President Vladimir Putin gloated.

“The objectives our ill-wishers had in terms of limiting, isolating Russia, obviously fell apart,” he said on Wednesday.

Child hides in basement
Nadia Tymoshchuk, 14, hides from Russian bombing in the basement of a Kyiv hospital in March 2022 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

‘Russia’s isolation not total’

While independent observers reject Putin’s assessment, they admit that Russia’s economy has shown unexpected resilience to Western sanctions designed to crush it. On Friday, the US imposed its latest round of sanctions against Russia, in response to Navalny’s death in an Arctic prison.

“The sanctions didn’t affect Russia’s economy the way they had been expected to, Russia’s isolation didn’t become total,” Temur Umarov of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, a think tank in Berlin, told Al Jazeera.

With all walks of life around them militarised, many Ukrainians tilted to the political right largely accepting fiercely anti-Russian slogans spawned by fringe nationalist groups, said Kyiv-based human rights advocate Vyacheslav Likhachev.

These groups stood for banning all things Russian, including the language, the literature and the Orthodox Church that reported to Moscow Patriarch Kirill.

Ukrainian couple
A Ukrainian couple light candles on Holy Saturday in St Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv in April 2023 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

These days, millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians voluntarily switch to Ukrainian in daily life, while Zelenskyy’s government is pondering a ban on the Russia-affiliated church.

“Radical ideas that used to be marginal are now shared by a sizable part of the public and are to some extent implemented by the government,” Likhachev told Al Jazeera.

What the war made clear is the sense of identity, unity and true political independence.

“The war showed us that a sovereign state can’t exist simply by default. That sovereignty demands constant work on self-determination, self-understanding, self-respect,” Svetlana Chunikhina, vice president of the Association of Political Psychologists, a group in Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.

Ukrainians “acquired the sense of volumetric political optics that lets them see themselves as full-fledged participants of the historical process within the [European] continent and the world,” she said.

And they didn’t forget about their trademark sense of humour that helped them survive the war’s first months.

After Poland objected to the import of Ukrainian grain citing concerns from its farmers, Ukrainians retorted: “Wonder whether Polish farmers can stop Russian tanks?”

Source: Al Jazeera