Fragments from a War Diary, Part #58
Last night I met some young Ukrainians in downtown Kharkiv who expressed to me all their hopes, fears, concerns and frustrations about living through Europe’s most brutish and lethal war in a generation or more. They had approached me because they had seen me wearing a camouflage jacket and they wanted to know whether I was a member of the Volunteers’ International Legion and how life was on the front line. I am not a member of the International Legion but I could tell them a few of my experiences of life on the front line. In fact it turned out that these young men wanted to talk to me because they were afraid of themselves being conscripted and they wanted to know more about what life would be like for them if they were conscripted into the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It is a reasonable concern for any man in his early 20’s to have, so I tried to calmly and rationally explain to them what life is like for a soldier and the work and the risks involved. Then I ended up discussing with them, in their fluent English, all of their feelings about the war.
They felt they had been robbed of their youth and their education by this atrocious Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the early days of the war, their lives were nothing but terror as Kharkiv was shelled and subjected to missile and bomb attacks, all for no apparent reason. Then in time, the period of terror subsided and now they live through the period of stalemate and anxiety, in which they feel that their lives are placed on hold indefinitely. They struggle through every day, not just to survive and for subsistence but in search of something meaningful to do. There are very few jobs of any kind for the young people of Ukraine at this time. They are lucky if they can even find a meaningful volunteering opportunity. Most volunteering organisations are overflowing with offers of assistance from local Ukrainian patriots keen to contribute to their country’s war effort but unsure how to do it and, in the case of many young men, afraid of the prospect of going to the front line to fight because they are not naturally military people. I respect that and this is one of the downsides of nationwide conscription: a lot of the people conscripted into the army feel that it does not fit them. We are not all of us cut out to be military men.
Then they turned to a discussion of their politicians and of their relationships with Russia and the West and their hopes for the future. I was impressed by their subtle understanding of the ways in which Ukrainian culture and politics must change in order for Ukraine to assimilate itself with western values and for the institutional and almost philosophical separation from Moscow and from Russian political and social thinking more generally, with all its ingrained paranoia and Byzantine obscurity, if Ukraine is to progress. Having initially approached me with some degree of hostility, because they had a negative impression of some International Legion volunteers, as the conversation progressed they came to pour out a torrent of emotions to me about how they felt about the war and the sense of helplessness within them as they see events unfold over which they can have no control. The recent explosion of an Iskander hypersonic Russian missile in the settlement of Hroza an hour southeast of Kharkiv near the road to Izyum and Sloviansk where I had passed just the other day, killing some 51 people at the last count, compounded their sense of grief, misery and helplessness.
I tried to life up these young men’s spirits. I reminded them of how much better the situation seems now than just 16 months ago. Sixteen months previously they had been cowering in air raid shelters and the Russian occupation of Kharkiv seemed imminent. There was shells and missiles in the air every day, and it seemed that Kharkiv would be completely destroyed. Now they were able to walk the streets freely, in relative safety, and enjoy a drink or pass time with their friends. Kharkiv’s young peoples’ nightlife has resumed, albeit in a fairly informal way as people congregate outside on the streets in central Constitution Square and drink cheap liquor from paper cups. Nevertheless young people can go out again and enjoy one another’s company in a sociable atmosphere. That struck me as huge progress, and I told them so. Slowly but surely, the ordinary incidents of life are returning.
Moreover Ukraine now has a future. Whereas since 2014 and possibly even before, the country and been engaged in a political and economic down spiral of rot, now there is a clear direction ahead for the country. Yes corruption still exists, and these young men asked me pointed questions such as how I would address the problem of corruption. I expressed my frank and not straightforward answer: conditionality of EU and NATO assistance upon institutional reform. They understood the logic of this and they acknowledged that this was the proper approach for the future. I was pleased that they understood a relatively complex idea in political science. These young men were no fools. I explained that while there might be civilian misery, cultural damage and wanton loss of life, the inevitable consequences of an extended war in any country, Ukraine had managed to pull herself firmly and irreversibly out of a Russian orbit and the country is on a clear if inevitably bumpy path to Euro-Atlantic integration. One day soon, more formal accession procedures for Ukraine to join the EU and NATO will begin and then the more significant investment funds for civilian and infrastructure reconstruction and development will begin to flow. The hesitancy on the part of the West, I explained, is that Ukraine’s political institutions are not yet ready to receive funds in such quantities. However that is gradually changing and it will change further.
In a few years, I suggested, irrespective of the outcome of the war in Ukraine which the West is determined, one way or another, to ensure that Russia cannot win - and in that goal the West is succeeding - Ukraine’s future will be rosy and her economy far brighter than it has been in the past. Instead of Ukraine remaining as a Russian satellite, with all the dingy economic prospects involved in the institutional immersion in Russian Sovietism, Ukraine should develop as an open, free economy just as we are seeing now that the country is developing as a politically free society in which I am free to express my political views in essays such as this without fear of repercussion - whereas I would never dare publish text of this kind if I were currently present in Russia. Ukrainians have a taste of freedom, and now they have tasted that there is no going back.
I hope I left my interlocutors inspired, that the West supports Ukraine and is determined to see this conflict through to the end - but more than that; the West is committed to the sort of comprehensive institutional and cultural reforms in Ukraine that will allow the country to develop as a healthy free and democratic market economy, making her people as a whole, and not just a handful of elites, ever wealthier. Moreover Ukrainians have shown real resilience in their struggle, and they have opened their minds to western people such as me coming here and trying to support and assist them in their struggle in whatever little ways I can.
These Ukrainian people I met and spoke to left, I hope, with a renewed sense of inspiration and commitment. And they inspired me. I headed home after our conversation, determined to do still more to help the people of Ukraine both while I remain in here during my tour of duty and after, as inevitably will come to pass, I must leave for other duties elsewhere. Slava Ukraini.