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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #401

It’s been over six months that I’ve been in Ukraine and I thought I might leave the reader with a few reflections on some of the things I like the most and the least about being in the country. Firstly I want to observe that I can’t pretend I feel in particular fear, living in Ukraine. Many people do, including many Ukrainian civilians who are exposed to a daily routine of air raids, explosions, sirens, alarmist news stories and a series of horrors unimaginable in peacetime. Those things haven’t affected me at all. Nor has it affected me to travel up and down the front line and see one town and city after the next destroyed or bombed out. I’ve seen those sorts of thing before. What has affected me, however, is the relentless desperation of a majority of the people who are living here and who are struggling to get through from one day to the next with nowhere really to go, no way out, no end in sight. There is an elite of young people that it is easy to hang around with in Lviv - the frozen Saigon as I have come to call it - who don’t travel east and who have access to money and they almost live as though there is no war going on at all. If you visit Ukraine as a visitor then it is more likely than not that you will confine your time to Lviv and perhaps to central Kyiv and you will have the experience that things are plodding on just fine. But it isn’t really like that, not really, not for the vast majority of the country.

What’s happened in Ukraine is that the country’s development was put in hold, it was frozen, since the end of the Soviet Union and none of the infrastructure was renewed and everything just decayed, particularly in the suburbs, particularly outside the main tourist cities. Ukraine has never been a very wealthy place, neglected by the Russian Empire and save for a period under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who was himself Ukrainian neglected under the Soviet Union too. Consistently after the end of the Cold War and the independence of Ukraine, the country remained the poorest in Europe on GDP per capita scales and probably the most corrupt as well. Ukraine’s GDP per capital before the 2022 war was approximately one-third of that of Russia’s and we must never neglect that the starting point for dealing with wartime Ukraine is an extremely poor European country that sank as far as developing world standards of deprivation outside the major cities. Ukraine has a long and tragic history of poverty and abject neglect of her population by the authorities of the day; and this is something that has to be reversed irrespective of war. The fact that most Ukrainians lived in abysmal poverty was the principal explanation why there were so many emigres and those emigres will not return until some level of economic prosperity returns to Ukraine which will require huge institutional investment, because Ukraine has some of the worst institutions in Europe and the model European Union model of economic growth is premised upon robust institutional quality.

Then there is the war itself. It’s an extremely strange war in a way because it is not driven by logic in the sense that a state might have a foreign policy strategy that has some objective rationale to it and this war pursues that strategy. Russia’s (second) invasion of Ukraine is not obviously in the interests of Russia in any way whatsoever. The country is being militarised which must in the medium to long term entail a reduction in consumer living standards in Russia. Even as Russian GDP increases, if the increased GDP is spent on weapons rather than things that make Russian citizens happy then it is GDP wasted. Money spent on body bags to transport home the interminable numbers of dead Russian soldiers is surely not money well spent. Objectively Russia has no interest in Ukraine, very few of whose people want to be part of Russia and which massive impoverished land mass represents a huge drain on the resources of the Russian central government in supporting it. The imagined coal and steel reserves of the Donbas region are barely worth fighting over because they have been inert and unproductive for at least ten years now and in reality even longer: ever since the Ukrainian Oligarchs chopped up the Soviet industrial assets in Ukraine between them those assets have been operating at far under capacity and it is not clear why Russia wants to spill blood and treasure over them.

Therefore this war is profoundly irrational, and that is why it is ascribed by me (and others) to inchoate forces such as Russian imperialism which is an irrational desire to seize as much territory as possible in the interests of a vision of an enhanced Russian superstate unconnected to contemporary concepts of economic or ideological supremacy. Russia will not get richer, even if she wins this war; she will just become more avaricious. So from the Russian point of view it all seems rather pointless.

The West’s inertia in engaging with what is obviously World War III is likewise surprising even if it ought not to be; the same reactions of inertia were observed in the prequels to both World War I and World War II. Some European leaders are now speaking out and talking about NATO insertions into Ukraine but it all seems very tenuous and potentially too little, too late. There is is a profound misunderstanding, I have discovered, about the nature of the conflict in Ukraine and while the massive Ukrainian Armed Forces are holding their positions on a constant front line they do so increasingly tenuously because they simply don’t have enough fire power in terms of ammunition and equipment and the West doesn’t seem to understand how quickly the Russian Armed Forces could simply push through and cause a rout.

There is seldom any good to come of wars but one positive point I spot amidst all this gloom is an increasing maturity of the Ukrainian people. Now they understand what it really means to be an independent nation state. They must treat their allies with respect, lobby and educate the West, reform their institutions, clamp down on the rampant corruption and change as a people and as a nation if they are to survive. Doing all these things in the middle of a cruel war is quite a tall order; but I think that Ukrainians now understand what nationhood really is and this is their best hope at seizing it in centuries.


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