Mar 2, 2023
Growing up as a Ukrainian means being acquainted with death when you are too young to know much about life. When I was a teenager, I saw dozens of coffins being brought to my hometown from Vladimir Putin’s war in the Donbas. Now, I am seeing my friends go to war – and, like so many thousands of Ukrainians, die. One was buried last month: Maksym Burda, a 25-year-old wedding photographer. Another friend went to war this week. This friend, an artist, had just five weeks of accelerated training: now he’s an infantry soldier in one of the hottest spots on the Dobas front. He has been provided with a weapon, bulletproof vest, a helmet and a second-hand first-aid kit – far more than soldiers were given after the 2014 invasion. I doubt that the first owner of that kit is still alive. My friends and I will send him a new one, and we hope that the tourniquets we have chosen will work, if needed. Those meeting the Nato standard are expensive and vanishingly rare. Most Ukrainian families end up buying domestic tourniquets or those made in China. But low-quality ones not only do not help – they kill.
Ukrainians can now tell the difference as we have unwillingly become war experts. Our kids can distinguish the sound of Russian Iskander and Kinzhal missiles or Ukraine air defence rockets shooting down the target. Our volunteers know where and how to buy drones, thermal imaging optics and even helicopters. Our engineers can repair missile-hit power stations under Russian shelling. Our doctors can perform surgery in complete darkness. Our soldiers, our brave heroes, spend months in fierce battles without rotation, resisting Russian attacks along a 600-mile frontline.
Kyiv begs for weapons, and while they arrive, Ukrainian blood is flowing, flowing, flowing. The war must be fought today, but Leopard tanks will not get to the frontline for weeks or even months, Abrams will take, at best, a year to arrive – and fighter jets may not be approved at all. Ukraine is receiving enough weapons to hold Russian forces where they are, but not to cast them out. When Russian tanks advanced north of the Kyiv region one year ago, civilians tried to stop these war machines with their bare hands. Sometimes I fear our soldiers in some frontline areas have no choice but to do the same.
I am often asked about Ukrainian morale. A year on, it stays steadfast. The polls speak for themselves: in January last year, 58 per cent of Ukrainians believed the country had the strength to repel the Russian army. In the first three days of full-scale war, this increased to 88 per cent, and now stands at 95 per cent. The world thought Kyiv would fall during the first week of the invasion, but still it stands. All winter, Putin shelled Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, hoping to break the Ukrainians’ spirit – or freeze us to death. We survived.
In my country, we talk about victory rather than peace because, in the past, ‘peace’ with Russia has meant deferred war: nothing other than death and destruction, guaranteed for the future. And why does Europe help us? There’s a cartoon in this week’s Spectator that sums it up beautifully. It shows Ukraine as a domino about to fall, with other small democracies bordering Russia being next. So Europe has rushed to help Ukraine keep its domino standing.
We have a saying in Ukraine: ‘When a nation chooses bread out of bread and freedom, they ultimately lose everything – and bread, and freedom.’ This precisely describes why Ukrainians won’t settle for a ceasefire: they will keep on until the last Russian soldier leaves our land. Only then will we have peace and freedom – and bread. When the day of victory comes, only then will Ukrainians properly mourn.
The war memorials I see all over London in churches and public squares, naming all of those who died defending freedom in Europe, rightly immortalise these defenders. ‘Their name liveth for evermore,’ the memorials proclaim. That’s precisely how we feel. And I will come to your grave, Maksym, hoping God is looking after you somewhere up there. Because here, when you voluntarily stood up against Russian hell, He did not protect you.