On Friday we had the chance to speak with diplomats from the US and Ukraine. These conversations were off the record so I can’t offer any specifics, but I’ll try to give a general sense of what we discussed. In the morning we traveled to the US embassy to meet with a US Foreign Service Officer (FSO). Security, as you would expect, was tight; reportedly the fighting during the Battle of Hostomel reached about 200 meters from the embassy grounds. The foreign service office (FSO) was a credit to their profession, and an indicator of why the foreign service exam is so difficult; they effortlessly walked us through the political and military challenges facing the United States and Ukraine. They had an absolute command of the details and an immediate capacity to answer even the most obscure questions about the situation at the front and the domestic conditions in Ukraine.
Later we met with a Ukrainian diplomat. Our discussion outlined Ukraine’s general diplomatic strategy, and especially the complexity of trying to engage with Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. From the Ukrainian point of view, the conflict between Russia and Ukrainian was quite obviously a post-colonial war in which the metropol was trying to reassert its control over the periphery. To discuss it in such terms around Africans, however, was liable to generate resentment because most Africans identified Ukraine’s allies (the US and Europe) as imperialist, and the Russians as anti-imperialist. Invoking imperialism in conversations with developing world audiences generated resistance rather than solidarity, in other words.
We finished with a dinner with young Ukrainians who identified with the socialist left. One was from Belarus, and had moved to Ukraine when the political situation in Minsk became too difficult. They again had a great many thoughts about Ukraine’s future, as well as questions about the US election and the extent of US support. I spoke with two of the young men about their educational futures, and was reminded that men were unable to leave Ukraine because of the law barring men of military age from exiting the country. A woman explained her decision to leave Kyiv as fundamentally about her dog; he was quite old, and struggled with the steps when she needed to take him down to the bomb shelter. His discomfort led her to relocate to Lviv; when he passed, she moved back to Kyiv. Something touched me about this story; it seemed to describe a desperately human reaction to the unfortunate realities of a war that was imposed upon this country. For what it’s worth Ukrainians seem to keep a great many dogs, although in general they are of smaller breeds than one would find in an American city. I don’t know for sure but it seems possible this is a consequence of needing to be ready to evacuate on short notice.
Later that evening we left for Odesa. The trip was altogether more pleasant than the train from Warsaw, and not simply because it was seven hours shorter. The cars were far more modern, making for a more tolerable experience. We also had a bit more space, allowing us each a bit of time apart (necessary on a trip like this).
Because this day was relatively short of material, some general observations on Ukrainian civil society and the Ukrainian economy… It is difficult to come to any concrete conclusions about the state of the Ukrainian economy without statistical evidence. The available evidence suggests a sharp economic contraction, as one would expect from a country that has suffered direct attacks upon its infrastructure, the occupation of wide swaths of its territory, the conscription of a significant portion of the workforce, and the internal and external displacement of a considerable portion of its population. Nothing that we saw quite contradicted this story, and since this was my first visit to Ukraine it was difficult for me to compare in any useful way. Moreover, we only visited Kyiv and Odesa, which obviously are not representative of the rest of the country.
That said… this did not feel like an impoverished country. Shops and restaurants did not seem to be suffering from any shortages at all. There were a few homeless people about (I don’t know if they were actually without homes or simply folks who were making their way by panhandling), but nothing compared to a typical American city. In both Kyiv and Odesa new construction was visible (more so in the former than in the latter). The train stations were well-trafficked in both locations, suggesting that internal travel remained brisk. Long story short, Ukraine today does not feel like a society at risk of immediate economic collapse.
It’s similarly difficult to evaluate the commitment of Ukrainian society to the war. Recruitment advertisements are everywhere, as are a wide variety of leaflets and posters about different aspects of the conflict. Ukrainian flags and national symbols are also everywhere, although somewhat more sparse on clothing than you might expect. In Kyiv, the signs of an ongoing war are clear; there are many men in combat fatigues with guns in the street, sometimes guarding something important and sometimes just moving from place to place. Men with guns were somewhat less frequent in Odesa. It’s also notable that there are plenty of men visible in the streets. Men of military age are vulnerable to conscription, and yet there were plenty of men walking about, doing work, and generally living what seemed to be normal lives. Of course, you don’t know from looking whether a man (or woman) is a civilian, a soldier on leave, a father of three (one of a few draft exemptions), or a former soldier injured in some non-obvious way.
But I can say that at least in terms of manpower and visible economic capacity, it feels like Ukraine still has plenty in the tank. Latent economic capacity remains to be mobilized, as does manpower. That this capacity hasn’t yet been mobilized can be ascribed to a few different reasons; the health of the economy is important even in wartime, manpower needs aren’t absolute but rather depend on the specific requirements of the Army at any given time, and corruption and lack of state capacity remain obstacles to full mobilization (the former is certainly true, and has resulted in many recent sackings in the Ministry of Defence). But this does not feel like an exhausted people. Moreover, although our experience with Ukrainians was both limited and curated, people here seem to have high confidence that they will win. Or, as several said without hesitation, they will die. Long story short, the Ukrainian response to the jibe “Biden is willing to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian” is “Ok, sounds good.”