Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 16 September 2022

 A visit to Kyiv reveals the secret of Ukrainian success

Opinion by Fareed Zakaria

September 16, 2022 at 7:57 Sydney Time

KYIV, Ukraine — At first glance, Kyiv looked strangely normal. There were a few barricades here and there, but mostly the streets were busy, traffic was moving, shops were open and restaurants were full. You could buy French wines, American energy drinks and Swiss chocolates at the local grocery store. The city looked much as it had on my last visit a year ago, though getting there this time was far more complicated. I flew to Poland, drove to the Polish-Ukrainian border and then took a 12-hour overnight train to Kyiv.

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and find a society profoundly scarred by the Russian invasion. Every Ukrainian I spoke to had a friend or relative who had been killed or wounded or displaced. (At least 14 million Ukrainians have moved from their homes, more than half of them refugees abroad.) Millions of able-bodied men are fighting or in some way assisting the war effort. Millions of children are in foreign countries. People are experiencing fear, loss, sadness and anxiety, all at the same time.

But they are determined to carry on. Air raid sirens sounded off once or twice a day, but people paid little attention to them since they were precautionary. In contrast to the war’s early days, Kyiv is now well removed from the fighting. Ukrainians seemed determined to show that life will go on, that the Russian invasion has not brought their lives to a halt.

That is why the Victor Pinchuk Foundation decided to hold its annual Yalta European Strategy meeting on schedule as it has for 17 years. (The meeting used to be held at Yalta, but after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, the venue moved to Kyiv, though the name defiantly remains the same.) Among those who attended in a show of support were Poland’s prime minister, Latvia’s president, Germany’s foreign minister and a delegation of British members of Parliament from all major parties. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke via videoconference.

More impressive than any of the distinguished visitors, however, were the “Ukrainian heroes” who were highlighted throughout the conference. For example, a 15-year-old boy by the name of Andriy Pokrasa explained that he used his own drone to provide the Ukrainian army with the coordinates of Russian armored vehicles and tanks — thus reportedly helping to destroy 100 of them. Or Ukraine’s rock legend, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who talked about going around the country and performing for free, even in the trenches, even when just a dozen soldiers were his audience.

The war in Ukraine pits a top-down attack against a bottom-up response. Russia’s invasion is largely one man’s decision. Russian society might approve but it does not appear enthusiastic. To get recruits, Russia is apparently recruiting from prisons, offering large cash bounties and employing mercenaries like the Wagner Group.

Ukraine’s response is society-wide, starting with its elected government but involving almost all the country’s citizens. One key aspect of the astonishing advance of Ukraine’s army in the east — and the astonishing collapse of Russian forces — is the gap in morale. Ukraine’s soldiers are fighting for their country and freedom. Russians are fighting out of fear and for money.

This divergence between a top-down invasion and a bottom-up defense may also apply to the wider response to the war. Vladimir Putin’s strategy is clearly to bet on the weakness of Western voters. As winter comes, he has warned that people in the European Union will freeze if he cuts off all energy supplies. He believes that at that point, Western governments will start to sue for peace.

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