In brilliant sunny weather, outdoor cafes are open, couples stroll and kiss, skateboard culture is alive and well. We went to the Crimean Tatar restaurant Musafir and it was full. On another evening, we met a journalist at the outdoor patio of Pantagruel next to the Golden Gate, the ancient entrance to the city. This is in a part of Kyiv so vibrant—filled with restaurants, lovely landscaping, and manicured greenery—that you could imagine yourself anywhere in Europe.
At the same time, here in Kyiv there are air raid sirens every day. We had three to greet us on arrival. In the hotel, one scurries down the stairs to the bomb shelter, a corner of the parking garage set up with chairs, mattresses, and a television. Most people we speak with here have grown accustomed and resigned to the interruptions. Some ignore the alarms. After all, in the last weeks there’s been a lull in attacks.
Still: Two weeks ago, a missile fired from a Russian ship in the Caspian Sea struck a railway facility on Kyiv’s left bank. Seven weeks ago, the day the UN Secretary General visited Kyiv, a missile struck an apartment building in the city’s center. The body of a young journalist from my former company Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Vira Hyrych, was found in the rubble the next day.
On our second day, a siren took us to the shelter. Just before 8 am local time on June 19, Ukrainian air defenses shot down an enemy missile in the Vyshhorod district of Kyiv. No one was injured, and there were no fires. Missile terrorism is part of the new normal in Kyiv.
There’s fierce fighting a few hours to the east. Over the weekend, the Russians used aircraft, artillery, and missiles to fire on towns and villages in the Luhansk region. Thirty-one infrastructure facilities were damaged or destroyed in a twenty-four-hour period. Civilian injuries and deaths were reported. This was the same weekend Russia media outlets reported that Russian forces have deported by now more than 307,000 children to the Russian Federation. It’s unclear whether these children are to be used as bargaining chips in peace talks. It’s likely that Vladimir Putin will eventually offer peace for land, once he’s taken enough land by force.
Everyone we’ve met—parliamentarians, defense officials, civil society leaders, journalists, human rights activists—insists on one goal: The restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. “No deals” is the mantra. It’s true that a few view Crimea as lost. Others, though, think that Ukrainian victory in the east can lay the groundwork for getting back all of what Russia stole during its 2014 invasion and occupation.
To achieve any of this, the country needs weapons. There’s gratitude for Western and American support. There’s frustration over tempo and limits. Ukraine is being provided howitzers, armored personnel carriers, and old Soviet tanks. The Ukrainians are being denied fighter jets, NATO tanks, and sophisticated air defense. It’s hard to imagine that we’re still worried about provoking Putin.
I worry about the asymmetry in stakes. By declaring that we’ll allow no pilots in the sky, no troops on the ground, and no military assistance that might risk direct confrontation with Russia, we’ve made clear—high-flying rhetoric notwithstanding—that for the United States Ukraine is only of peripheral interest. For Putin, on the other hand, it’s the opposite. Russia has made clear that its stakes are political, strategic, and civilizational. There are encouraging signs from the battlefield, to be sure. The Russians used up some of their best troops and equipment in the early weeks of the war in their failed attempt to take Kyiv. Nevertheless, “Don’t count Putin out just yet” is a message we keep getting here.
We visited Irpin and Bucha, the towns sitting side by side fifteen miles northwest of Kyiv, where you can see the intensity of Russian efforts. Bucha fell almost immediately. Irpin was the scene of ferocious fighting for a month. The Russians left behind as many bombed out homes and apartment buildings as they could. It’s sickening to see the remnants. One Ukrainian colleague with us broke off to return to Kyiv. Another left us to take a look at the remains of his brother’s home in Bucha, a visit he had avoided up until now.
Russian looting has been widely reported. Soldiers like to leave excrement in living rooms. A Naval officer we spoke with told us the Russians stole all his and his son’s shoes. They left one pair emblazoned with the letter “Z.” Reports today from the east keep the mind focused. A human rights advocate explains to us how in Donetsk torture is by beating, whereas in Kherson the Russians like to use electricity. There are no watermelons in Kyiv supermarkets this summer, she adds—“they normally come from Kherson.”
In Irpin, our team was standing speechless in front of a bombed, burnt-out apartment building, when to our surprise we saw a man walking down the stairs. In a minute he was out the front door, with two large water bottles in his hands, asking if we needed help. His old place was unlivable, he explained, but he goes back to water the plants.
There’s this duality here. How could it be otherwise? What’s destroyed must be rebuilt. Life continues. Nothing is normal.
In the hotel breakfast room, I overhear from a neighboring table a young woman explaining to three men in her excellent but non-native English how volunteers are trained as medics. They learn the basics in a week and are shipped off to the front. She’s also briefing on tourniquets. Lots of companies, plenty of competition, apparently.
At another table at breakfast, there are five English-speaking men, possibly from the United States. They look weathered and a bit grisly. One has long hair and a beard and a bad face from acne. One has a bad leg—a prosthetic limb. They look to be in their forties or fifties. They look like military. The first thing we noticed when we walked across the border from Poland into Ukraine was Ukrainians returning home with plenty of Pampers and paper towels. The second thing we saw was a tent with a sign, “Foreign Fighters Assistance.” Here’s a video on foreign fighters, on the ground work by RFE/RL.
On the way back to Kyiv from the suburbs of Irpin and Bucha, we pass through a military checkpoint and see fortifications on the sides of the road. That long column of Russian forces on the road to Kyiv early in the war comes to mind. Ukrainians are still building up their outposts and defenses around the city. While no one expects a new Russian death march to Kyiv anytime soon, we’ve heard more than once on this trip that the Kremlin thinks in terms of years, not mere months. There’s no reason to believe that Russian revanchism and imperialism have yet been laid to rest.
Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
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