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‘I dreamed it would stop’: A stalemate war tests Ukraine’s morale

A school principal in southern Ukraine, who hears the daily roar of shells hitting nearby towns, is calling on parents to donate money for new bomb shelters.

A soldier and his girlfriend have given up hope that the war in Russia will end soon and decide to get engaged despite not knowing when he will be able to return home.

One woman, depressed for months by the instability, decided not to worry and just imagined that peace would arrive next spring, perhaps with flowers blooming.

“I feel so helpless,” said Tetyana Kuksa, a woman working at a market in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. “I dream that this will stop.”

Polls and interviews show Ukrainians are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of a quick victory, as their troops languish in frontline trenches and realize that weapons from allies have arrived too late and will now begin to dwindle. Hope, the key to Ukraine’s fight in the face of a more powerful enemy, has been weakened.

The result is a nation prepared with a sober resignation for a life of constant war with no end in sight.

This is a trend, not a white flag waving. The vast majority of Ukrainians remain defiant, support President Volodymyr Zelensky and trust their military. It was this spirit that drove Ukrainian bartenders, truck drivers and university professors to join the army after the Russian invasion. The situation in February 2022 is still evident every day.

But recent polls show that trend has weakened by several indicators.

Polls and focus group research show that for the first time since the invasion began, the number of people willing to negotiate a settlement with Russia has increased slightly but still significantly, from 10% to 14%, although the vast majority of Ukrainians still firmly reject trade Territorial peace.

Polls showed Ukrainians were the most hopeful last winter, before the southern counteroffensive. Since then, trust in all institutions other than the military has declined, according to a survey The International Institute of Sociology in Kyiv, one of the country’s leading pollsters, found that trust in the government fell from 74% in May to 39% in October, and it was during this period that Ukraine’s The offensive began, then petered out.

Ukraine’s last major military victory was the recapture of the city of Kherson a year ago. Despite months of bloody trench fighting and tens of thousands of casualties, little land has changed hands since.

Last week, Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, gave a blunt assessment of the country’s near-term prospects, saying economist He wrote that the fighting had reached a “stalemate.” Mechanized attacks are failing, and without more advanced technological weapons, a new, lengthy phase of warfare will come.

This is the conclusion Andriy Tkachyk, the head of the village of Tuhelya in western Ukraine, came to after volunteering to transport the remains of frontline soldiers back to his hometown and organize a funeral. During the conversation, he said, he heard about the difficult and bloody battles fought to hold the ground and complaints from war-weary soldiers about their lack of ammunition.

“The guys on the front lines are exhausted physically and mentally. Very exhausted. This war is going to go on for a long time,” Tkachik said.

“People’s frustrations are rising,” he said. Among them is the feeling that poor country boys are dying while civilians from wealthy urban families are finding ways to avoid military service. Draft evasion is on the rise as men hide to avoid notification or try to pay bribes. Officials from local recruitment centers.

“There are graves in every village,” he said. “The situation is terrible.”

When all-out war began, Ukrainians, once quick to express healthy skepticism of the government, rallied around the flag and increased their trust in Zelensky, the military and virtually every state institution under threat.

That, too, is disappearing as military advances grind to a halt, with daily bombardments and mounting casualties.

A survey by the International Institute of Sociology in Kyiv showed that while most Ukrainians still have trust in Mr Zelensky, trust has dropped significantly, from 91% in May to 76% in October. Other polls show Mr Zelensky’s job approval rating at 72%.

The institute’s survey found that only 48% of Ukrainians said they trust the government-controlled television news channel Telemarafon, which has aired upbeat reports about military operations in the south. The show was intended to boost Ukrainian morale as the military tried to push Russian troops off the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov, but its disagreements with events on the ground ultimately raised suspicion among Ukrainians.

“We should be honest. People are becoming pessimistic,” Anton Hrushetsky, director of the Kyiv Institute, said in an interview.

He said pressure was rising as Ukrainians wanted to continue living in safety but saw no promising prospects.

Mr. Hrusetsky said widespread insecurity in Ukraine was leading Ukrainians to search for the culprits.

“People will not describe it as a defeat, nor will they blame the army,” Hrusetsky said of the stalled efforts to regain territory, or, in General Zaluzhny’s words, the war’s “stalemate.” .

But anger is rising over domestic government corruption and the country’s Western allies, which Ukrainians view as slow to make progress on arms deliveries.

A survey commissioned by the European Union found that the number of Ukrainians who say the West does not want Ukraine to win the war has doubled in the past year, from 15% to 30%.

There are also fault lines in the country’s domestic politics. Zelensky’s supporters are more likely to blame allies, while Zelensky’s political opponents have directed attention to domestic corruption.

Small protests erupted in October, exposing pressure points. Families of Ukrainian soldiers missing in action staged street demonstrations in Kiev to pressure the government for answers. In the capital and other cities, some families of soldiers who served during the war have protested, demanding that the government rotate them away from the front lines. “It’s time for others to step up,” they chanted in Kiev’s Maidan Square.

Opinion polls show that dashed expectations for a summer military victory are largely behind the pessimistic trend.

After a dark winter last year after Russian attacks on power plants and substations caused blackouts, Ukrainians are feeling hopeful as power is restored in the spring.

“We said, ‘Okay, we succeeded, it’s over, now there will be a counterattack,'” said Andriy Liubka, a Ukrainian novelist. “We were full of optimism.”

Now, Lyubka said, the family hears the voices of soldiers in the trenches, the autumn rain is soaking them, and “life is like past historical eras,” full of suffering and violence.

The trenches continued to take their toll. According to their most recent estimates, U.S. officials said in August According to reports, about 70,000 Ukrainians were killed in the war and more than 100,000 were injured. The Ukrainian government did not provide casualty figures.

Many Ukrainians are alarmed by the politicization of military aid from the United States, Slovakia, Poland and other countries.

Mr Lyubka said a “phase of extreme anxiety” had begun.

However, any concessions to Russia could lead to the capture of millions of Ukrainians, facing potential repression, arrests and executions.

In the village of Brahodatny in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, school principal Halyna Bolokan believes it is safe enough to reopen her primary school despite daily explosions nearby. But she painstakingly renovated the basement into a bomb shelter. Donations from the community.

“I’m using my strength to put a smile on my face. People are now dreaming about our new bomb shelters,” she said.

On a recent blustery autumn day, air defense soldier Serhiy Mykhailyuk took a walk with his fiancée Yekateina Bordyuk in Kiev. “Of course every day he’s not home is sad,” Ms. Bolduc said. “Wars take a long time, not one, two, three years. We’re used to it.”

Maria Valennikova Contributed reporting.

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