“Yes, it’s harder than usual”: Eleven thoughts after two years of war

The second anniversary of the Russians’ major attack on Ukraine falls in the worst phase of the war since April 2022. The mood in Ukraine is depressed, but what does the Ukrainian national anthem say? The glory and will of Ukraine are not dead yet, perseverance and hard work will prove their worth. Eleven thoughts on the second anniversary, even though Russia has actually been waging its war against Ukraine for ten years.

First: Yes, it’s harder than usual right now. But with very small, brief exceptions, the mood has never been really good over the past two years. However, there was of course more hope in the air in February 2023, despite the still catastrophic energy situation.

Secondly: This hope was mostly misinterpreted in the often black and white media world of the West. We do not waver between overflowing optimism and the urge to bury ourselves. Around a million people in this country serve in some capacity in the Ukrainian Defense Forces. Everyone knows someone who is struggling. For two years everyone has known that Ukraine has to defend itself against a strong army and that a quick end to the war is almost impossible.

The hope was to be able to estimate an end

Third: What I personally and many people around me still hoped for was something different. We would have and would have liked to have been able to at least begin to estimate when the war will end. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. This winter we had to come to terms with the idea that this war would probably last at least as long as before. The last few months have been characterized by this phase of acceptance. You had to accept it. It was accepted.

Fourth: Now it’s about repositioning yourself for a long war. Understanding this need has been one of the most painful aspects of the past winter months. Both the Ukrainian government and society secretly hoped to somehow get by with the pre-war structures, even if they were not always effective. Because reforms in the middle of a war against the largest country in the world are difficult. But here too you just have to get through it. One example is the debate about the new mobilization law, which is currently between readings in parliament. It is often presented primarily as a law to intensify mobilization, but that is not true. Primarily, it is simply about a more effective, digitalized system that also works in the long term. The truth is that the old, Soviet-style, corruption- and paper-heavy draft offices did not fulfill the mobilization plans of 2022, let alone those of 2023. This had nothing to do with the fact that there were no more men or volunteers. They are and remain simply ineffective.

The new army leadership needs break-in time

Fifth: The replacement of the entire leadership of the Ministry of Defense in September and now the complete change of the army leadership also go towards long-term optimization. At a time when every hryvnia (the name of the Ukrainian currency) counts, purchases for the army must become more transparent and efficient. This has been at least partially achieved in the Ministry of Defense. It remains to be seen whether it made sense to replace the popular army commander Valeryi Zalushnyj with Colonel General Olexandr Syrskyj. Beyond his personnel, the idea is that the comparatively young former brigade commanders with combat experience who are now deployed – alongside a number of Syrsky’s confidants – better understand the troops’ needs. And that, under conditions of constant scarcity, they can better ensure that available resources reach where they are needed most. Here, too, we have to wait and see whether the decisions prove to be sensible. But things actually went suboptimally here in the past. Similar to the Ministry of Defense, the top of the army probably needs a bit of time to get used to things.

Sixth: It is clear that there is currently no more important problem than the lack of ammunition. It is also clear that Ukraine would be in a very bad situation without Western help. But although I risk sounding like a stuck record here (the older ones remember): apart from that, economic aspects remain by far the biggest difficulty. Ukraine won’t be running out of men any time soon. The lowering of the mobilization age from 27 to 25 years has still not been formally adopted, which, to put it cynically, is a luxury. President Zelensky once said that the equivalent of more than 12 billion euros would be needed to mobilize 450,000 people. On the one hand, if you take a closer look, this number is at least more than 17 billion euros, at least that’s what the chairwoman of the budget committee in parliament from the Zelensky faction reports. On the other hand, it is still unclear where this money will come from. Actually, it can only be financed from tax revenue because financial aid from abroad can only be used for civil purposes and this will not change. But where do you conjure up billions when mobilization takes away taxpayers? The same applies to the financing of the country’s own defense industry, which is particularly important in order to compensate for the partial loss of Western aid.

The intensity of the political debate is almost at pre-war levels

Seventh: This insoluble dilemma gave rise to ideas that I do not consider feasible. For example, if you pay a certain amount of taxes you can be exempt from mobilization. From a purely economic and pragmatic point of view, this makes sense. But how should you explain this to society? How is the mother of a fallen soldier supposed to accept something like that? The demand for demobilization of those who have served since the first day of this war is already causing social explosiveness. Nevertheless, the government is required to look for solutions here, even if I have no idea what they might look like.

Eighth: The intensity of political discussions has almost reached pre-war levels in two years, which is rather good for the vibrant Ukrainian political culture. Fortunately, common sense still prevails: people are welcome to argue from time to time, but above all, the signs should be that we hold out together and, above all, that we preserve the Ukrainian nation and the Ukrainian state. The reactions to Saluzhny’s dismissal, for example, were primarily sober. Of course there were a lot of negative comments online. Overall, however, it was received rather calmly. There were hardly any protests against this, even if Russia of course tried to push this issue. There are no reliable survey results yet, but trust in Zelensky will inevitably decline, but not catastrophically. It is also clear to the large part of the opposition that Zelensky should remain president until the end of the war and that elections during war are unacceptable. What happens next is another matter. The fact that, for the first time since February 2022, more people think that Ukraine is fundamentally developing in a more negative direction than in a positive direction (a standard question in surveys in this country) is still worrying, even if that was the absolute absolute all the years and decades before the full invasion was normal.

Ninth: I found two incidents in the last few months very worrying, in which an investigative journalist was threatened and another investigative editorial team was bugged by an entire department of the domestic secret service SBU. The SBU is actually doing a very good job in the war against Russia; Apparently the department in question had nothing more important to do. Fortunately, the SBU leadership responded with numerous expulsions, and the entire department will probably be disbanded. President Zelensky also found clear words. Nevertheless, the incident is anything but pretty. It was good that the ambassadors of the G7 states, including the German ambassador Martin Jäger, quickly met with affected journalists; that was an important and clear signal.

Ukrainians are grateful to Germany

Tenth. At this point, briefly about Germany’s perception in Ukraine: After two turbulent years, this aspect of the turning point is probably over. In these uncertain times, people here are aware of how important and essential the help from Germany is. Of course, things could always be better and more might be possible, but the Ukrainians are really extremely grateful – including me.

Eleventh. Finally, one has to say the following: Yes, over time there could be more people in this country who have illusions about a “compromise” with Russia. This is natural. But I see no sign of this ever becoming a majority opinion. It is clear that Russia did not budget its gigantic war expenditures for a “peace solution.” There is no peace just because Ukraine says: We want peace. Musks and the Wagenknechts of this world are happy to sell such illusions. This doesn’t make them true. I don’t know how this war will end. However, I am confident that Ukraine will ultimately be able to clearly show Putin that this is no longer possible. To do this, she needs all the support and help she can get. But that is absolutely realistic, even if it could take a very long time, especially since Putin doesn’t care about the economic consequences for Russia and, above all, Russian human lives. Nobody is more tired and exhausted than us. But Putin doesn’t even begin to suspect who he’s messing with here.

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