The war in Ukraine has entered its fourth week. During this time, millions of lives were upended, and Ukraine has become a symbol of resistance and resilience. Nonetheless, despite the war being broadcast live 24/7 and the human tragedy and humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in front of our eyes, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what is happening in Ukraine. Based on many conversations with Ukrainian friends and immersion into Ukrainian social media in the last three weeks, I would like to outline five things in this short blog that many Ukrainians, including myself, want the international audience to know about the war.
1. This is not a Ukrainian crisis. This kind of characterisation represents one of the biggest triggers for Ukrainians. Why exactly? Because on the one hand, the word "crisis" is too abstract and does not explain the gravity of the situation in the country. On the other, "Ukrainian crisis" suggests that it is an internal matter (without any reference to the external aggressor) and can even be seen as placing the blame on Ukraine. In reality, it is a full-scale war, waged by Russia against Ukraine. Russia's war against Ukraine or the Russian invasion of Ukraine are therefore preferred terms. The term "occupation" is also dubious unless it is preceded by "temporary". What is more, there is no such thing as Ukraine's borders as of 24th February 2022. The borders of Ukraine were recognised internationally when it declared its independence on 24th August 1991. The annexed Crimea and temporarily occupied territories of Donbas are parts of Ukraine, according to international law.
2. This is Russia's war, and not simply Putin’s war. It is often noted in Ukraine that in the international media, the war is framed as Putin's. This is done to shield the citizens of Russia from responsibility for the senseless invasion and bloodshed. Unfortunately, such a view is a gross simplification. According to recent polling, the majority of Russians support what they understand to be Russia’s “special military operations” in Ukraine, while Putin's approval rating has risen from 60 to 71%. Of course, it is possible these polls do not accurately represent the public opinion in Russia, yet the weight of anecdotal conversations between Ukrainians and their family or friends in Russia, suggest that there really is widespread support for Russia’s war. Millions of Ukrainians are repeatedly told by Russian relatives or friends that there is no war in Ukraine and that they needed to be liberated from their “neo-Nazi government”. Just to put this in context: the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was elected in free and fair elections, and he is Jewish. Another example comes from a pensioner from Kharkiv, who called her Russian cousin in Belgorod, less than 60 km away from the Ukrainian border, half a dozen times to tell her about Russia bombing the city and destroying residential quarters, just to be told this was a lie and simply could not be happening. Eventually, the Russian cousin invited the Ukrainian to Belgorod “until Kharkiv was liberated". The latter refused and vowed never to speak to her cousin again (author's interview). Stories like this abound. There are also hundreds of intercepted phone calls between Russian soldiers and their mothers and wives, in which the former group boasts about looting, rape and murder of civilians, while the latter praise their actions. Russian soldiers therefore do not simply follow orders of their superiors (who, according to the data, released by the Ukrainian State Security Service, gave them carte blanche for shooting civilians), they are also seen as heroes at home.
Of course, there are Russians who oppose the war: many of them protest, even when faced with the prospect of being arrested, and upwards of 200,000 have fled the country. Nonetheless, the anti-war movement is very timid within Russia, though Russian’s outside of Russia have started a fundraising movement for Ukraine. But inside Russia, protests need to be in the hundreds of thousands to carry any weight. Until then, this will remains Russia's, and not simply Putin’s, war.
3. It is not a winning war for Russia. Ukraine has managed to turn the Kremlin’s plan for blitzkrieg into “blitzfail” not only thanks to its leadership, but also due to the self-organisation of Ukrainian society. President Zelensky has surprised many abroad when he decided to stay in Kyiv and fight for his country. This led to numerous features about his bravery in the world media. Zelensky’s leadership, while important, would not have been enough by itself to withstand a full-blown attack of the second largest army in the world. The Ukrainian society is heterarchical, which means that Ukrainians cooperate horizontally with ease and without much input from above. We do not trust state institutions or strongmen, which are so celebrated in Russia. Mychailo Wynnyckyi, a Ukrainian scholar from Kyiv Mohyla Academy, likens Ukrainians to bees, who are ready to defend their hives without any instructions or formal leadership. Like bees, Ukrainians organise themselves and are ready to die defending their home. It is this self-organisation and readiness for self-sacrifice for a greater good that makes us resilient and helps us resist the Russian aggression.
4. Ukraine is fighting for its existence, nothing less. The Russian strategy of targeting civilians and crucial infrastructure has been tested in Chechnya and Syria. It is not a ‘misfire’ or a coincidence when a Russian rocket hits a maternity unit or a huge bomb destroys a theatre, where thousands of women and children are seeking shelter. These are deliberate and illegal acts of war. The Russian Army has been especially cruel and inhumane in predominantly Russian-speaking territories, such as Kharkiv or Mariupol. They thought these places would greet them with flowers, but instead they are met with heroic resistance. Indeed, Ukrainians – in all territories – will fight till the very end as we defend our freedom and independence. As a famous Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov has recently said, “Ukraine will either be free, independent and European, or it will not exist at all”.
5. This war and its consequences are here for a long time. While Ukrainians continue to count every day since the invasion, and often this number substitutes the date or a day of the week, there is an understanding that the war is not going to finish within days or even weeks. For that reason, Ukraine needs your continuous support: whether through activism, offering a helping hand to refugees or financial aid. This fight is not only for our existence, but also for the values of democracy and freedom. For ideas on how to help, please check either my previous post here or consult this source.
Dr Anastasiia Kudlenko
Post-Doctoral Research Associate, University of Kent
Research Fellow, Oxford Belarus Observatory, University of Oxford.