US aid delays leave Ukrainians at low ebb

“Death. Death. Another death. Old. Young. Old. Young. Young. Killed in action while defending Ukraine. This is what my feed looks like,” Julia Tymoshenko said of the posts filling her social media timelines this week.

“Somehow we [Ukrainians] are expected to keep it together,” the Kyiv-based marketing specialist said. “To be professional. To be grateful. Not too emotional. Not too pushy. Humble. And grateful again.”

Like countless Ukrainians, Tymoshenko (no relation to former premier Yulia Tymoshenko) has been trying to process the relentless flow of grim news from the front, where Ukraine’s army is running low on western-supplied ammunition and increasingly outgunned by Russian forces.

In Washington, hope is growing among Kyiv’s supporters that the US House of Representatives may pass a bill on Saturday evening to send $60bn of additional aid to Ukraine and more funding to Israel, ending months of deadlock caused by resistance among pro-Trump Republicans.

But the mood within war-weary Ukraine is sharply different. As the toll of Russia’s all-out war grows heavier and the fighting grinds into a third year, Ukrainians are scared to get their hopes up about the arrival of desperately needed US-funded weapons and munitions.

Vasyl Romaniuk, an employee at a European embassy in Kyiv, said he and his wife “have been keeping our hopes and expectations high, but not many share that view, unfortunately”. The US House Speaker, Mike Johnson, who tabled the vote after months of delay, was “a politician whose seat is at stake”, he noted.

US Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson © Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The ups and downs of the war had taken their toll, said Romaniuk. “Emotionally and psychologically, it’s a rollercoaster and since autumn last year it has been more of a downwards trend, rather than up,” he added.

Ukrainians’ spirits have been periodically lifted by their country’s military achievements since Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 — repelling its attempt to capture Kyiv, liberating Kharkiv province and the city of Kherson and the destruction of a third of Russia’s Black Sea fleet with spectacular drone and missile strikes.

These moments have helped to carry a tired populace through tough times, including waves of Russian air strikes on civilian infrastructure that at times plunged cities into darkness, and the loss last year of the city of Bakhmut, Russia’s first significant gain since the first year of the war.

Now Russia’s air campaign is back with a vengeance, pounding cities and critical infrastructure as it exploits Ukraine’s desperate shortage of air defence systems and munitions. Moscow’s forces are also closing in on Chasiv Yar, a strategically important town 15km from Bakhmut.

Romaniuk said: “Every now and then you get flash updates about successful campaigns . . . It revives your optimism for a short while. Then it goes down again when you hear the overall reports of our military not doing very well because of the lack of resources.”

A Ukrainian soldier in Chasiv Yar, a hillside town west of Bakhmut that Russia is aiming to capture © Inna Varenytsia/Reuters

The tone of Ukraine’s leadership has changed markedly. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s dogged optimism has given way to doom-laden warnings about Ukraine’s fate, tinged with bitterness at the lack of allied support.

“I can tell you, frankly, without this [US] support, we will have no chance of winning,” Zelenskyy said in an interview with PBS NewsHour this week.

“You need to be much stronger than your enemy. Today, our artillery shell ratio is 1-10. Can we hold our ground? No,” he said. “With these statistics, they will be pushing us back every day.”

Opinion polls conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology suggest pessimism is rising. In December nearly one-fifth of respondents thought Ukraine would be a “country with a destroyed economy and a large outflow of people” in 10 years, up from just 5 per cent in October 2022.

At the start of the war, “there was a feeling that finally the west has seen the imperialist nature of Russia, and Ukraine will soon have all the weapons it needs”, said Anton Hrushetskyi, director of the institute. “But now that seems not to be the case.”

While two-thirds of Ukrainians still think the war should end with Ukraine regaining control of Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea, the number who believe Kyiv will be forced to make territorial concessions has risen to 19 per cent, up from 6 per cent in May 2022.

Ukrainians continue to resist because the war is seen as an existential one for them, said Evgeniya Blyznyuk, director of Gradus Research, which conducted a survey into public sentiment around the conflict’s two-year anniversary.

“Russia is perceived by most of the population as a murderer — the only way to interact with such a person is to fight,” said Blyznyuk.

But Ukrainians are tired and depressed about what will happen next and how long the war will last, she said. “The main source of depression is not even bad news from the front lines but the inability for the state to describe [where the war is headed] because nobody knows.”

The souring mood has affected Zelenskyy’s standing: three polls show trust in the president has fallen from nearly 90 per cent in February 2023 to just over 60 per cent a year later.

While Ukrainians were experiencing the war in very different ways, the nation as a whole was stressed and fatigued, said Volodymyr Stanchyshyn, psychologist and author of The Emotional Swings of War.

“For some people, the fatigue is a constraint that causes them to retreat into themselves. Others look for a way to relieve it,” said Stanchyshyn.

Those who seek to overcome the stress try to live a “very civilian” life of working, socialising and shopping, said Stanchyshyn. “A normal life is an opportunity to survive in this war [psychologically] because we have to move away from the constant contemplation of war and contemplate [things] that are understandable to the brain.”

Though emotional swings from guilt and anger to joy and apathy are the new norm, for the majority of Ukrainians this does not extend to a readiness to surrender, said Stanchyshyn: “Surrender means losing one’s identity, losing the ability to be oneself.”

When Ukrainian forces first reported weapons shortages in the autumn, citizens started donating more money to the army, according to Monobank, the country’s largest digital bank and popular fundraising platform.

In the six months to March this year, Ukrainians gave the military the equivalent of $617mn, more than the $432mn raised in the year from October 2022 to September 2023.

Passage of the US bill would enable much-needed artillery munitions to be sent to the frontline and would be likely to alleviate Ukraine’s shell hunger. Zelenskyy and commanders on the battlefield have said that Russia is currently firing more than 10 shells for every one Ukrainian shell.

But Kyiv would still face a significant manpower shortage, although it has sought to address the issue by passing new legislation and lowering the conscription age. 

Artur — who is stationed on the front lines in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, where Russia is making territorial gains — said the mood among soldiers was one of “moral and physical exhaustion”. What kept them going were the volunteers and civilians doing “everything for Ukraine’s victory”, he said.

But he added: “There is nothing in this world that will demotivate us soldiers, when we see and remember how much grief our neighbours [the Russians] are bringing and have brought.”

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