Our soldiers die. And they also fight, rush forward, and survive. To exhale . . . and then to hear from a passer-by: “When will you finally drive the Russians away, boys?” To read that a Harvard professor divided the distance to Sevastopol by the distance liberated by Ukrainians during a day chosen at random, and decided it would take 16 years to liberate Crimea.
War isn’t about linear distances, military people say. Sometimes it moves fast, and sometimes not. Ukraine has achieved miracles in a year and a half of all-out war, but magic wands remain in short supply. It cannot cleanse its skies of the invader’s aircraft, or move rapidly through extraordinarily dense minefields.
“The enemy controls the sky, and its advantage in aviation is more than tenfold,” says Dr. Evgen Dykyj, a Ukrainian military commentator, scientist, and 2014-15 company commander decorated for his frontline service. “We try to use ammunition effectively; the enemy expends much more. Our allies gave us armored vehicles equivalent to two American divisions. Our front line is 1,500km (930 miles) long, with hundreds of square kilometers of minefields and three powerful and well-organized lines of interlocking defensive fortifications. This is the reality of the Ukrainian offensive of 2023.
“No Western military has achieved this kind of offensive operation, and have not been asked to. According to Western military theory. The theory is wise but we just do not have a choice.“
According to Dykyi, who co-hosts a well-followed YouTube military analysis program, while the minefields created by Russians are shocking, the demining equipment in the military’s hands is inadequate for the current frontline. And each item has to be treated as an extremely valuable asset, not a consumable.
Yet soldiers admit to feeling public pressure to speed up even as they creep forward.
Maxim Kryvtsov, callsign Dali, never dreamed of joining the army. He studied at university, created designer shoes, was fond of photography, wrote poems, and then volunteered for frontline service in 2014. Four years later, he tried to return to normal life. “My plans are to live a little bit more. For now, I have no idea what I will do next, unfortunately. But I will live, right . . . ?” he said in an interview.
Dali is still alive, even after rejoining the army in 2022, following the full-scale invasion. At the moment, he’s involved in the counteroffensive, and it hurts him when people are unhappy with the results.
“The expectations are both imposed and dictated by the autumn’s successes [in Kharkiv and Kherson districts.] But the enemy is also awake and learning,” Dali says. “This often happens — that a battle for 200 meters that lasts a month and kills hundreds can change the course of a war,” he says. “We have become the hostages of loud statements.”
He still photographs. And still writes poems. Now, without rhymes, these are dialogues in an imaginary talk show about the counteroffensive:
“- Andrew, tell me about yourself.
– I am nobody and my house is destroyed.
– Sergey, how do you feel?
– It’s a dream, it’s just a dream, how do I get out of here, where is the damn door?
– Kolya, where would you like to travel?
– I would go to the past, I would stop the boys from going to that forest”.
A friend of mine, a female sniper, once sharply responded to someone saying that war is not for women. “It’s not for women. Not for men. Not for humans”, she said.
The problem is that everything at the front must be done by humans, who are — after all — human. Not superhuman. Even if all the world wants them to be.
Dykyj notes that the supply of critical resources directly depends on public opinion, and soon we could be forced into an armistice that would mean — whatever the language used — defeat for Ukraine. He also emphasizes that we can’t blame Biden, Trump, Sullivan, or anyone else since we reached today’s state, in particular total dependence on foreign aid, mainly because of our own mistakes.
“And only then were these strange ‘red lines’ of our allies added to our problems. Currently, we are doing everything that’s possible and impossible, and now it is these ‘red lines’ in allied minds that are the biggest obstacles on the way to our victory,” Dykyj explains.
He gives the example of a New York Times piece about the Wagner mutiny. This included the line: ”If he (Putin) wins, the Russian people lose. But if he loses and his successor is disorder, the whole world loses”.
It is exactly this fear that the Ukrainian scientist believes determines the limits of support for the country.
For Ukraine, it’s therefore useless to appeal to the West’s moral purity and values at this stage. All of Russia’s wars of the last two decades show that the Western democracies’ commitment to the rule of law and human rights is relative and flexible. They sort of exist, but they’re not strong enough to save you.
Dykyj is harder-edged about how to appeal to the West. Rather than argue that Ukraine risks becoming another Belarus, it should be argued that it may become another Afghanistan, right in the heart of Europe. Even if Russia can achieve an armistice acknowledging its occupation of large areas of the country, there are numerous Ukrainians who would reject this. A bloody guerilla war would follow. A million military veterans with frontline experience would create a vast pool of angry people willing to fight on, using techniques and tactics that might shock Europe. Russians would occupy areas of Ukraine, but they would not enjoy them in peace. They would continue to die. Fight too long against dragons, and you too, become a dragon, as the old saying goes.
This is a fair summary of how Ukrainians feel. It’s not that we want that future. In fact, we want that less than anybody else on the planet.
So here is the message to those New York Times writers and others who fear what happens if Russia loses — you should also fear what happens if Ukraine loses. It will not bring the peace and stability you hope for. Quite the opposite.
And the current Russian regime will fall regardless. The world can try to postpone that moment, but no one can cancel the future.
In the intervening period, however, it may very well cancel the futures of those who die daily and will keep dying in this environment of “controlled” inhumanity. Where human rights exist, but don’t work. Where the ideas of peace and freedom are applauded by the leaders of the great democracies, but not enough is done to bring them closer.
On the day that you read this, the lives of Ukrainian men and women will end through the actions of a bloody regime. Because keeping them alive might have risked the future of a dictator.
Lera Burlakova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is a journalist and former soldier from Ukraine. She served in combat from 2014-2017 after joining the Ukrainian army following the Russian invasion of Crimea. Her war diary “Life P.S.” received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.