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Ukrainians war weary but determined to fight Russia

January 12, 2024

The majority of Ukrainians are determined to continue their defense against Russian aggression. But many feel it's time to replace long-serving forces at the front.

Ukrainian soldiers on the front line, walking along a snowy path in the woods, seen from the back
Many Ukrainian soldiers have been on the front line since the war beganImage: Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu/picture alliance

For many people in Ukraine, 2024 started just like 2023 ended — with Russian air assaults and rocket and drone attacks on infrastructure and homes. What's new is the scale of the bombardment: the Russian military is trying to get past Ukraine's air defenses by beefing up its firepower.

"The recent attacks and relentless hostilities have left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity and water supplies, at a time when forecasts indicate that temperatures might drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius [minus 4 Fahrenheit] in the coming days," said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

A young woman looks at debris of her grandmother's apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine
Russian missile attacks on residential areas Kyiv have increased in recent weeksImage: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/picture alliance

Russia is trying to break the Ukrainian spirit of resistance. But as the second anniversary of the invasion on February 22, 2022, draws closer, war appears to have become normality for many. Some people no longer rush to take shelter in the depths of the Kyiv subway when the air sirens go off. Instead, they squat in their apartment hallways away from the windows and external walls to shield themselves from the force of any blast.

Majority of Ukrainians willing to fight on alone

A survey by the prestigious Kyiv International Institute of Sociology also indicates that many have hunkered down for the long haul. Of the Ukrainians polled, 58% said they thought Ukraine should carry on fighting even if the United States, along with some 50 other countries, were to withdraw their support.

Almost one in three said they believed it would be better to cease hostilities if the West gave firm security guarantees, even if the liberation of the occupied regions were to be postponed indefinitely.

In a previous KIIS survey, some 80% said they would not be prepared to accept the permanent surrender of any Ukrainian territory —  although forces had already been rationing munition, in particular artillery ammunition, for months because Western powers had supplied far less than promised. Yet for a majority of Ukrainians, losing to Russia still does not appear to be an option.

Ukrainian soldiers face second winter on front lines

"The reduction of Western aid is quite natural and expected. This is a long war," said Oleh, 38, who did not want to be identified by his surname like most soldiers. The combat medic, who has been serving in the army for almost two years now, told DW that Ukraine had to produce a lot more munition and weapons by itself.

Calls for more help for front-line forces

In December, protesters in Kyiv called for more money for the armed forces. Dozens of people had gathered near city hall, where local politicians were discussing the 2024 budget.

The demonstrators demanded that money should be used to support the soldiers at the front, rather than being spent on infrastructure projects. Ilya, 26, took part in the protest. He criticized the political dispute in the capital as missing the point.

Ilya holding up a banner reading "Hallo? We are at war!"
Ilya (left) and other demonstrators demanded that money should be spent on soldiers at the front rather than on infrastructure projectsImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

At another rally, soldiers' families called for the demobilization of troops who had been fighting for over a year. "My husband went to serve at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Like everyone else, he thought he would be replaced after a while. But the war has been going on for almost two years now," said Alina.

"A vacation is not enough to recover from everything they have experienced at the front."

Demands to bring in recruits

The Ukrainian military has asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to mobilize 500,000 recruits. Parliament is currently mulling draft conscription laws. According to lawmakers involved, there are no plans to conscript women or introduce a lottery. Many women are already fighting as army volunteers, but the number of people stepping forward is declining.

Ukrainian women prepare for combat roles

Zelenskyy is under considerable pressure to relieve those who have been at the front for a long time, said Vasylyna Duman. Like so many others, the 37-year-old has been collecting donations for front-line units in her free time since 2014 when Russia attempted to seize the Donbas region. Volunteers like her often transport everything from drones right down to warm clothing and even food to the front — all paid for with these donations.

"People who have been fighting for two years deserve to be demobilized," she told DW. "They need to know that the terrible conditions they are living in will end one day."

Vasylyna Duman during her DW interview in December 2023
Vasylyna Duman has been collecting donations as a volunteer since 2014Image: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

Oleh, the combat medic, told DW a similar story. He said he didn't feel demotivated, but that he was tired and would like to be demobilized. At the same time, he said he knew this wasn't going to happen anytime soon because there was no one to replace him and his fellow soldiers.

Nevertheless, Oleh and Vasylyna Duman both believe Ukraine will continue fighting even if international aid decreases. They also think Russia will not change, even if Ukraine's leadership were to be persuaded to negotiate with the Kremlin.

"Unpunished evil grows, Duman added resolutely." She is convinced that Russia needs to lose this war if it is to change. "Otherwise, it will be a constant source of problems for the whole world."

The debate about how Ukraine can spread the burden of fighting more fairly among its citizens is, nonetheless, gaining steam.

This article was originally written in German.