What I learned in Ukraine
People walk amid the tanks and vehicles left as a memorial to the war outside St Mykhalo’s Monastery in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 19, 2023.
By BRET STEPHENS
Last week, a friend asked me what I could learn from a four-day trip to Ukraine I was planning that I couldn’t glean just by reading the news. It was a fair question. With the trip now behind me, I can answer.
I learned how strange it is to visit a country to which no plane flies and, as of last Monday, no ship sails — thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cruel and cynical withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative through which Ukrainian farm products reached hungry countries like Kenya, Lebanon and Somalia. The only feasible way for a visitor to get from the Polish border to Kyiv, Ukraine, is a nine-hour train ride, where the sign inside the carriage door urges, “Be Brave Like Ukraine.”
I learned that you need to download the Air Alert! app to your smartphone as soon as you enter the country. It sounds an alarm every time the system detects drones, missiles or other incoming aerial threats in your vicinity, something that happened time and again during my short stay. Following the alarm, a recording — in English by “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill — intones: “Proceed to the nearest shelter. Don’t be careless. Your overconfidence is your weakness.”
I learned that Kyiv is hopping. Despite what the U.S. Embassy says have been 1,620 missile and drone attacks on the city — and despite an economy that contracted 29% in the first year of the war — cars jam the roads, people dine in outdoor cafes on well-swept sidewalks and activists, civil servants and elected officials freely share divergent views with visiting columnists. To adapt a phrase attributed to Yitzhak Rabin, Ukrainians are going about their everyday lives as if there is no war, while waging war as if there is no everyday life.
I learned that every member of the U.S. Embassy staff in Kyiv, led by our courageous and cleareyed ambassador, Bridget Brink, volunteered for the duty. They have been separated from their families and living for months on end in hotel rooms. They have the job of overseeing one of the largest U.S. assistance efforts since the Marshall Plan, ensuring that tens of thousands of individual pieces of American military hardware in Ukrainian hands are properly accounted for, reconstituting an embassy that was gutted on the eve of Russia’s invasion and keeping tabs on Russian war crimes — some 95,000 of which have been documented so far by the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office.
I learned what it was like to sit in conference rooms and walk along corridors that would soon be shattered by Russian ordnance. On Tuesday, I joined a diplomatic group led by United States Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power on a visit to the port of Odesa. Power met first with Ukrainian officials to discuss logistical options for their exports after Putin’s withdrawal from the grain agreement, then with farmers to discuss issues such as de-mining their fields and de-risking their finances. The stately Port Authority building in which the meetings took place, a purely civilian target, was struck barely a day after our departure.
I learned that Ukrainians have no interest in turning their victimization into an identity. Years ago, in Belgrade, I saw how the Serbian government had preserved the wreck of its old defense ministry, hit by NATO bombs in the 1999 Kosovo war, in keeping with its self-pitying perceptions of that war. By contrast, in Bucha, the Kyiv suburb that suffered some of the worst atrocities during Russia’s brief occupation in the early days of the war, I witnessed the transformation of apartment buildings dotted with patched-up bullet holes into trendy coworking spaces. As Anatoliy Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha, told Power, “Memory will stay in memoirs but residents want to rebuild without reminders.”
I learned that Ukrainians aren’t likely to trade sovereign territory for Western security assurances, much less for some kind of armistice deal with Moscow. They tried the former in the 1990s with the Budapest Memorandum, in which they surrendered the nuclear arsenal on their soil to Russia for the sake of toothless guarantees of territorial integrity. They tried the latter with the equally toothless Minsk agreements after Russia’s first invasion in 2014. The goal of Western policy should be to provide Ukraine with the military means they need to win, rather than to pressure Ukraine into again bargaining away its rights to sovereignty and security for the sake of assuaging our anxieties about Russian escalation.
I learned that, for all the aid we’ve given Ukraine, we are the true beneficiaries in the relationship, and they the true benefactors. Ben Wallace, Britain’s usually thoughtful defense minister, suggested after this month’s NATO summit that Ukrainians should show more gratitude to their arms suppliers. That gets the relationship backward. NATO countries are paying for their long-term security in money, which is cheap, and munitions, which are replaceable. Ukrainians are counting their costs in lives and limbs lost.
I am writing this column from Warsaw Chopin Airport. Parked outside the terminal are jetliners destined for Doha, Qatar; Istanbul; Rome; Toronto; New York. The sight of them here could scarcely have been imagined 40 years ago. It came true because the Polish people remained, in Ronald Reagan’s apt words, “magnificently unreconciled to oppression.”
Today, it is Poland’s neighbors in Ukraine who are magnificently unreconciled to invasion. What I learned from four days under closed skies is never to take a bustling airport scene like this for granted.