How do Ukrainians experience the confrontation between Russia and the West for their country?

Ukrainians taking a selfie with Kiev's main Christmas tree.


Christmas in Kiev unfolded normally, with few signs of anxiety or alertness.

In Geneva and Brussels, Western diplomats confront their Russian peers and discuss, among other things, Ukraine’s ability as a sovereign and independent state to shape its own destiny.

But Ukraine is not there.

It doesn’t matter how many times top US officials repeat the mantra “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” And they repeat it at every opportunity. It’s hard for Ukrainians to avoid wondering what is being discussed behind their back.

With an estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers concentrated on the country’s northern and eastern borders, one might think that this would be cause for grave alarm.

But Orthodox Christmas was celebrated here last Friday, and if you wander through Kiev’s busy Christmas markets, you’re not particularly struck by a feeling of increased alertness and anxiety.

“People are used to hard times,” says Petro Burkovsky, who is part of one of Kiev’s oldest independent think tanks, the Ilko Kucheriv Foundation for Democratic Initiatives. “In the 20th century we had many occasions when people lived in daily horror. It is part of its historical memory“.

No place for Ukraine

January 10: Senior Russian and American diplomats met in the Swiss city of Geneva

12th of January: the NATO-Russia Council met in Brussels for the first time since 2019

January 13th: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meets in Vienna. The United States, Russia and Ukraine are members of the OSCE

Ukraine’s current horror has been going on for almost eight years, since Russian troops first appeared on the streets of Crimea.

Fighting broke out in the eastern Dombás region in April 2014. Since then, 14,000 soldiers and civilians have been killed in what the Kiev government calls the “Russo-Ukrainian War“Russia insists to this day that it is not a party to the conflict.

“Free our land from those Russians”

Every morning, a short and grim ceremony outside the Defense Ministry in Kiev commemorates the Ukrainian soldiers who have died since independence in 1991. The vast majority have died since 2014.

On the morning we attend, four names of the deceased are read on January 11th. The last of them, Oleh Andriyenko, died a year ago.

Each name is accompanied by a barrage of gunfire and the sound of a bell.

On the other side of the city, the faces of the dead soldiers watch from the walls of the Cathedral of San Miguel in a monument that extends for almost 100 meters.

Passersby stop and reflect, unfazed by the snow and cold temperatures.

Viktor Moroshan, 63, was wounded during the fierce Battle of Ilovaisk in August and September 2014. He points to the faces of the fallen comrades of the Dombás volunteer battalion, which suffered heavy losses.

“They all had a goal,” he finally says. “Free our land from those Russians.”

Viktor met his wife, Tetyana, while recovering at the hospital where she was a volunteer.

“Maybe the war will be big next time,” she says. “He [Putin] he has many plans to start a new war. It is not a fairy tale. “

Viktor describes himself as ethnically Russian, from one of the areas now under rebel control. But his hatred for Russian leader Vladimir Putin runs deep. “He’s a maniac. A murderer,” he says.

Retired now, says that he still has a bulletproof vest and an emergency helmet ready.

“My wife says, ‘Vitya, maybe you shouldn’t.’ But I say we must be prepared. No one can defend our homeland except us.”

It is the kind of challenging discourse that one would expect in a country facing potentially overwhelming luck and knowing that if it reaches the point of an armed confrontation, external support will be limited.

Be part of NATO

Ukraine’s western allies speak of “huge” consequences if Russia organizes an incursion. But while they might well include increased military assistance, it would be the Ukrainians who would fight and die.

Hence the growing support for NATO membership.

“Every time Russia begins an escalation on the border, support for NATO membership grows,” says Petro Burkovsky, “and the willingness to make concessions to Russia falls.”

Publicly, NATO leaders say the door to membership, opened to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, is still open.

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, visiting NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday, repeated her government’s refrain.

“We have the inherent and sovereign right to choose our own security arrangements,” Olga Stefanishyna told reporters, – “including treaties and alliances.”

But it is not a secret that NATO membership is not inthree letters to play at this time. Western officials know that this is precisely what is likely to provoke the military confrontation they are so eager to avoid.

Burkovsky says Ukraine has no choice but wait for a long-term, slow-onset crisis to pass.

“Right now we have to accept the reality of confrontation and conflict with Russia,” he says.

“Perhaps over time, the situation in Russia will change. Russia will not be as formidable as it is now, Ukraine will be stronger and the West will be more decisive towards Ukraine and towards Russia,” he adds.

For now, he believes, Ukraine should focus on avoiding the fate of Russia’s two other neighbors: Belarus and Kazakhstan.

“They show the fate of people in countries that are Russian satellites,” he says. “Most of the people in Ukraine do not want this destination for themselves and, of course, for their children.”

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