The mood in wartime Ukraine: Weariness, resolve, and exasperation

We had the opportunity to visit Kyiv last week and met many Ukrainians, both inside and outside of government. We found them understandably war-weary but resolved to continue the fight, believing they can prevail and drive out the Russian aggressors. We also heard growing exasperation with their most important partner, the United States.

In February 2022, Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, transforming the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War into Europe’s largest and bloodiest since World War II. It should surprise no one that Ukrainians are tiring of sending their husbands, sons, wives, and daughters to spend months at a time on the front lines of the war.

Meanwhile, Russian missile and drone attacks bring the war to civilians in cities across the country. The March 20-21 overnight attack on Kyiv was the heaviest in months. We spent much of that night in a bomb shelter, getting a taste of an experience that is all-too-common for millions of Ukrainians.

At the same time, nothing suggested resolve is flagging. Ukrainians want to win and believe they can. Indeed, they see no alternative in a fight that they regard as existential; if they lose, Ukraine as they know it is gone. Most want full victory, meaning the complete recovery of their territory up to the border agreed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. That includes the return of Crimea.

We asked about proposals suggested by some in the West who say the United States should press for a negotiation to “save” Ukraine by ceding parts of the country to Russia in exchange for peace. Few Ukrainians expressed interest. They pointed to the war crimes Ukrainians have suffered under Russian occupation and asked how they could abandon anyone to such a fate. Most also felt it would only lead to a short respite, after which a rejuvenated Russian military would resume hostilities.

Stay updated

As the world watches the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfold, UkraineAlert delivers the best Atlantic Council expert insight and analysis on Ukraine twice a week directly to your inbox.

Ukrainian military officers understand they face a difficult year in 2024. They described Russian pressure along much of the front line, with a particular focus on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine. In September 2022, Putin claimed to annex these regions, even though the Russian military does not control all their territory.

The slowing of assistance, particularly from the United States, has hurt Ukrainian military operations. Ukrainian officers described situations in which their units can only fire one artillery shell for every ten the Russians fire. They lack the means to defend against devastating glide bomb attacks launched by Russian fighter aircraft, and worry that continuing Russian missile and drone attacks will exhaust their air defense capabilities.

Ukrainian Ministry of Defense officials are tracking Russian plans for new combat formations and monitoring a likely mobilization of manpower now that Putin has secured a further term in office. They believe the Kremlin retains broader ambitions in Ukraine including taking Kharkiv, Odesa, and Kyiv.

Despite this, Ukrainian officials are showing no signs of despair. They are fortifying their defensive positions and rushing to put innovative technologies such as advanced drones into action in the field. They question whether the Russians currently have the capacity to make a major breakthrough on the ground. Given enough weapons and ammunition, many Ukrainians remain confident they can reverse Russia’s gains of the past two years.

While expressing gratitude for US assistance, Ukrainian officials and others in Kyiv made clear their exasperation on three points.

First, with NATO scheduled to hold a summit in Washington in July 2024, Ukrainians want a definite message on their acceptance into the Alliance, and ideally an invitation. They are looking in particular to the United States, which has the most important voice within NATO. To be sure, Ukrainians are fighting for their country’s survival, but they see that fight as also defending NATO and Europe against a Russian threat that extends beyond Ukraine.

Second, Congress’s failure to pass a supplemental assistance bill for Ukraine has caused a gap in the flow of American assistance that has had an impact on the battlefield. This is reflected, among other things, in higher Ukrainian casualties. Ukrainians have become knowledgeable about how the House works, including the role of the speaker and discharge petitions, but their frustration is palpable.

Third, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Kyiv last week and left Ukrainians clearly unhappy with his request that Ukraine stop targeting oil refineries in Russia. Ukrainians accept, with some annoyance, restrictions limiting the use of US-provided weapons to targets within Ukraine. However, Ukraine uses domestically produced drones to attack Russian refineries, which are legitimate military targets. Thus far, they have struck facilities that produce seven to eight percent of Russia’s refined oil products, and many more are within range of Ukrainian drones.

There are questions about the rationale for the request to stop refinery attacks, which reportedly had to do with the price of oil. Russia mainly exports crude oil, not refined oil products; it is therefore unclear how reducing Russia’s refinery capacity would affect crude exports. As one senior Ukrainian official put it, “stop telling us not to hit targets in Russia.”

We left Kyiv inspired by Ukrainian resilience, courage, and their continued conviction that they can defeat one of the largest military powers on the planet. The United States has a vital national interest in Ukraine’s success. Were Putin and the Kremlin to become emboldened by a win in Ukraine, they would pose a far greater threat to the rest of Europe. The Biden administration and Congress should act without delay to help the Ukrainians prevail.

Steven Pifer and John Herbst served as the third and fifth US ambassadors to Ukraine.

Further reading

The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

Follow us on social media
and support our work

Image: People take shelter inside a metro station during a Russian missile strike, amid Russia's attacks on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine. March 21, 2024. (REUTERS/Alina Smutko)