Kiev’s dark moment and America’s fateful choice

(Bram Janssen/Associated Press)

Kiev’s dark moment and America’s fateful choice

Op-ed, Israel-Hamas, Ukraine

Tamar Jacoby

November 13, 2023

What a difference a few weeks makes. When I left Kiev in September for a short trip to the US, the late summer weather was perfect and the mood in Ukraine was cheerful and determined. There had been heavy fighting on the southern and eastern fronts. The long-awaited counter-offensive proceeded more slowly than many had hoped.

But overall, the country I left was the Ukraine that the world has been longing for since February 2022: the little David who stood up to the Russian Goliath, a courageous, resourceful, resilient and still surprising us with successes on the battlefield.

By the time I returned to Kiev,

four weeks later,

the world was turned upside down. Hamas terrorists had launched a 21st century pogrom in southern Israel. The Israelis retaliated with overwhelming forces in Gaza. Worst of all for Ukraine, the US aid Kiev relies on to prosecute the war was in jeopardy, with a largely friendly Senate and a much less supportive House on a collision course as they debated President Biden’s request for another $61.4 billion in military and humanitarian aid.

The mood in the city was subdued, as one of my friends put it: this is a dark moment. An early outburst of support for Israel, the huge blue-and-white flags projected on landmarks and billboards across Ukraine, had turned into concern. Would the fighting in the Middle East steal the world’s attention? With winter approaching and more of last year’s brutal power outages looming, stores were filled with customers buying bottled water and canned goods. The residents of my apartment building donated for an industrial generator.

Perhaps most strikingly, after almost two years of inspiring leadership from President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government, the official tone had changed dramatically. The respected commander of the armed forces, General Valerii Zaluzhny, admitted in an interview that the counter-offensive had reached a stalemate. Zelensky objected to the use of that word, but he spoke solemnly of the gloomy mood. It is important that people understand that what weighs on their hearts is seen, he noted, giving many people the freedom to open up about their doubts and fears.

And they did. I’m having a hard time dealing with it emotionally, one professional woman in her thirties admitted. (Like many of those I spoke with, she did not want her name used.)

But others seemed to welcome the breakthrough: the situation has changed and it’s time for society to wake up, civil society activist Mychailo Zhernakov explained. We would not take Crimea in a few weeks, as some people claimed, and it is time we realized that.

The pressing question, for Ukrainians and Americans: how to respond to the new reality.

Every Ukrainian reckoning starts with the situation on the ground. Not everyone is gloomy. There have been no flashy victories like in recent years in Kharkov and Kherson, but many understand that expectations were unrealistic. Moreover, Russia has also failed to make progress.

Stalemate is not the same as failure, said a young civil servant. It is Russia that has failed. Remember, their goal is to wipe us off the map.

Still, many people wonder what needs to change.

Some want Kiev to do a better job of setting a goal: what exactly does victory look like? Others are looking for more honesty from the government. They should publish the victim figures, a neighbor discusses. People need to know the full price.

Still others want Ukraine to increase domestic arms production. We should be able to do more ourselves, argued one soldier. A mid-career professional told me he was considering a stock market listing. We were almost out of infantry, he explained. Sooner or later they all have a fight.

Most Ukrainians understand that time is not on their side. Russia has more resources and more manpower, and Putin faces no significant domestic opposition. He is free to wage eternal war.

Many people I spoke with wondered what military objectives were feasible and pondered possible endgame scenarios. But even now, even as options diminish, no one I encounter supports a ceasefire.

Only when it is the only refuge, a man of fighting age declared, and we weren’t there yet.

The biggest unknown and biggest concern for Ukrainians arises in Washington: Will the US continue to help, and with what level of support?

The worse the prospects on the ground, the more help people hope for. We cannot win the war as it is, with the help from the US and Europe, said one young man bluntly. Just enough aid so that Moscow doesn’t win, but not enough so that we win.

For many Ukrainians, the fighting in Gaza only strengthens their cause. It’s all connected, argues financial analyst Valera Kondratenko (33). Iran, Russia, China: every victory for any of them, no matter how local, gives them all greater confidence that they can achieve their goals through lawless aggression.

But few of the people I spoke to see these arguments gaining traction in Washington, and many are wondering what went wrong, how did they get it so wrong when Biden promised as long as it lasts?

See no Americans, asked the official, that this is a bargain? No American fights or dies. We are and were weakening our common enemy, the Russians.

Ultimately, it comes down to a fundamental asymmetry between Ukraine and the US. Ukrainians feel like they have no choice: either we fight or we cease to exist, as one woman puts it.

America faces a fateful choice. As things get tougher in Ukraine this winter, the US may pull back, cut aid and withdraw into itself. Or the bitter news from the battlefield could clarify the stakes and simplify the stark choices we face.

Are we really willing to walk away and let Russia win?

Tamar Jacoby is the Kiev-based director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s New Ukraine Project and most recently author of Displaced: The Ukrainian Refugee Experience.


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