KYIV—This doesn’t feel like a city at war, or a city under martial law. Not at first, anyway.
Kyiv is a city with packed restaurants—reservations are hard to come by—packed bars, packed cafes, busy streets. Our hotel is bustling, the traffic is substantial, and, overall, Kyiv has the look and feel of an ordinary European capital.
In the hotel lobby, we are met by the security guys, two serious young British veterans who give us our body armor, our helmets, and our emergency medical kits, with the advice that if we don’t know how to use deep-wound dressing, it’s probably best just to leave it in the package until somebody competent comes along to do it for us. Later in the day, I’ll meet a guy who helped amputate his own arm with a field knife after the limb was mostly blown off his body, hanging on by only a few tendons. We take the protective gear and stow it in our rooms, where it stays, while we go off to have our meetings and our conversations and our meals and to do our sightseeing. It can get a little strange: Go up to a high enough floor in the hotel and you’ll encounter GPS jamming, and it is difficult to call an Uber when the app thinks you are somewhere off the coast of Africa. Better to do it from the lobby.
The missile attacks come that night.
But not to Kyiv. The Russians pounded Kyiv a few nights ago, but the American-supplied Patriot anti-missile system worked as advertised, and the main danger has been to cars and passersby in the gravitational path of falling missile debris. We get a launch warning overnight, which most of us sleep through, but the missiles were not headed to the Hilton in Kyiv—they were headed to Dnipro, 300 miles away, where they were aimed at a hospital, which they destroyed. The Russians are big on blowing up hospitals, because they are cruel and cowardly and wrong, with an almost comical commitment to practically melodramatic villainy—murdering and torturing and such, and kidnapping, according to rough estimate, almost one-tenth of the children in Ukraine, deporting them to Russia as part of their program of utterly obliterating every aspect of Ukrainian national identity. This isn’t the first Russification campaign in Russian history—the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union tried the same thing, with peoples ranging from the Ukrainians to the Finns to the Azeris. The Russian goals stay the same, but the techniques evolve.
The Russians will stage another large attack, this one with drones, the night we depart.
Kyiv has been effectively defended in recent weeks, but there are signs everywhere of earlier, more successful attacks. The first thing you see getting off the train (from Lublin, Poland, in our case) is a tall office building with a “Samsung” sign at the top and windows blown out, high and low and side to side. The attacks on Kyiv are an economic game and a strategic one: The Russians can fire a couple million dollars’ worth of rockets at Kyiv, and the Ukrainians can stop them with $100 million worth of Patriots. The regular nightly attacks may not do much damage to Kyiv, but they do ensure that the Patriots cannot be redeployed elsewhere. Russia’s GDP is about $1.5 trillion, and Ukraine’s, battered by the war, is probably around one-tenth of that.
So, the missile attacks continue.
Here, there’s a bombed-out shopping mall; there, you see charred gaps where there were apartment buildings, houses, churches. It is weird, the juxtaposition of old threats with modern comforts, 20th-century missile-inflicted destruction vs. 21st-century trendy restaurant food (“edible bees with acacia honey and berry sauce,” with the word edible really contributing a great deal there), blast shelters outfitted with everything you need: charging stations for your laptop, coffee service, Wi-Fi. The public monuments are buried under piles of sandbags, as many were in London during the Blitz, and people walk by them with their faces in their iPhones, apparently oblivious.
But they aren’t oblivious. They are exhausted.
The restaurants and bars close early—this isn’t Ibiza, and Kyiv is under martial law, with a midnight curfew in effect. The media is censored and full of propaganda—nationalist, chest-thumping, martial, and, of course, not at all unfriendly to President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is inescapable at home and the face of the war in the West. Zelensky is an unlikely hero—he played the president in a television comedy before becoming the actual president—and it probably is unfortunate that he has come to so thoroughly personify the admirable fighting spirit of his nation in the American mind and the Western European mind. Ukraine is, still, a wildly corrupt country, one with a very weak—indeed, barely functional—state. And while there isn’t any great reason to think ill of Zelensky at the moment, he is a politician, and politicians always disappoint you. That’s what politicians do. What Ukraine desperately needs is basic governance—not one man, even as impressive a man as Zelensky, but a functioning state that can do such ordinary things as collect taxes and make sure that soldiers have rifles.
Ukrainians, including high-level government officials, are mostly quite frank about their country’s governance challenges. The capital even maintains a “Museum of Corruption,” which is simply the palatial estate of exiled ex-president Viktor Yanukovych preserved in much the state his former subjects found it, full of hideously tacky gangster extravagances ranging from Lalique-and-Swarovski side tables valued at about $150,000 each to a salt cave for meditation and a private chapel that looks like it was designed for the United Orthodox Church of the Las Vegas Strip. (There are also spacious mistresses’ quarters and a secret tunnel linking the main residence to a kind of vast massage parlor. Yanukovych was that kind of autocrat. He fled to Russia, naturally.) To enter the Museum of Corruption, or “Palace of Corruption,” as it is alternatively known, you are required to put little plastic booties over your shoes—it simply would not do to sully the Museum of Corruption.
(Strange that so few of Ukraine’s American critics ask: Is there no corruption in Putin’s Russia? Or, the more apt question: Is there anything else in Putin’s Russia?)
The problem with the gangster-oligarch stuff isn’t just the diverted funds and the subsidy for bad taste: It is the fact that corruption diminishes the effectiveness of practically every institution in Ukrainian life, public and private, including—critically—the armed forces, which are arguably the most robust institution in Ukrainian public life.
One senior military official describes an effort, currently under way, to buttonhole the country’s most successful businessmen (he does not use the word oligarchs) to lean on them to directly outfit military units with the weapons and other equipment they need. He won’t ask them for money directly, because they’ll just assume that it is some kind of a scam—he is just trying to find a way to get around the defense ministry’s procurement process, which is a morass of corruption and incompetence, to equip the army. The army cannot rely on the defense ministry to outfit it, and the defense ministry cannot rely on the central government to simply levy taxes (there is a 2 percent war tax in place) and buy the troops what they need. In fact, individual soldiers serving at the front, where they earn much larger paychecks, typically outfit themselves, with units pooling their money to buy drones and Starlink receivers and materiél of that nature. One official estimates that frontline soldiers spend about 20 percent of their pay on equipment. Sophisticated military operations are run out of ordinary office space (in some cases, side-by-side with civilian businesses) on shoestring budgets.
We visit a signal-intelligence operation that could pass for an underfunded college-newspaper office—just a few laptops, a beat-up printer, and smart young men sitting at shabby desks, fighting the electronic war. Sophisticated spy gear is kept in barely secured closets. This is how Ukrainians fight the war, because this is how Ukrainians have to fight the war. Ukraine isn’t a country with an army but, in effect, a country with three of them (the regular armed forces, the national police, and an intelligence branch that operates more like a full-fledged special-forces division), with scores of subdivisions and uncoordinated units hopscotching haphazardly around the battlespace—and, somehow, apparently, winning.
Outside observers have pronounced themselves surprised and impressed by how effective Ukrainians have been in resisting the Russian onslaught. But most of them don’t know the half of it. This isn’t just a brave effort—it’s a certifiable miracle.
The miracle started at Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, where suicidally cocky Russians got themselves good and properly whipped by Ukrainian forces—mostly volunteers armed with household weapons and rifles distributed by the police department—who stopped the Russian advance, sacrificing their own city to save Kyiv, successfully evacuating thousands of women, children, and elderly people, and blowing up the bridge that the Russians would have used to sweep into the capital. The efficacy of the resistance was, says one veteran of the campaign, “unexpected” from the Russian point of view. Irpin suffered terribly, and most of its housing stock is rubble. According to a municipal official, about 70 percent of the buildings are damaged or entirely destroyed, including all of the schools and kindergartens. Burnt-out cars are heaped up in a kind of makeshift memorial, many of them painted with sunflowers (a national symbol) or anti-Putin caricatures.
In a show of astounding confidence, Irpin already is rebuilding, with construction cranes dotting its skyline. A local official insists that, difficult as it is to believe, the area’s population today is slightly higher than it was before the war, its numbers swollen by those fleeing even harder-hit areas of the country. Businesses are rebuilding and, in some cases, even expanding.
In the middle of all the rubble, there are half a dozen new Banksy murals. (The British street artist has been made an honorary resident of Irpin.) There are also whole villages of new, quickly deployed refugee housing—adequate for the moment, though by no means a comfortable situation or a long-term solution. Modular houses snapped together like Lego bricks surround a weedy courtyard where children play on swings. Inside, the rooms are about the size of a large-ish American kitchen, most of the floor space taken up by bunks and flimsy cupboards. There is a group kitchen and a little bit of social space. Residents can avail themselves of mental-health services, which are no doubt direly needed by the shellshocked refugees.
On the side of the structure is emblazoned: “#POLSKAPOMOC,” and, in English for the benefit of us international observers, “#POLANDFIRSTTOHELP.” You cannot fault the Poles for wanting a little credit—their efforts have been generous and, as important, fast. Though generous, the Polish response is not exactly selfless—while NATO offers Poland a protective umbrella, that protection never has been tested in an urgent and rigorous way. Poland is not very far away, and the Poles have tragic—and recent—experience with domination by Moscow.
The stand at Irpin was carried out by volunteers, veterans, and reservists who added up to the classically evocative number of 300. (Or so.) But there are 500 displaced residents in the modular village, and 500 in another, and 500 in another …
Irpin was a fiasco for the Russians. I ask a local how many invaders died there. “We don’t know how many Russians died here,” she says. “We know how many Ukrainians died.”
How many died at Bucha may be a little more difficult to say. Mass graves do not lend themselves to scrupulous record-keeping.
Dr. Anton Dovgopolon knew it was time to get out when the Russian occupiers threatened to make him the acting mayor. Life is hard for municipal officials under Russian occupation—they figure prominently on the kill lists—and, as head of the local hospital, Dovgopolon already was on the Russian radar. It was he who negotiated the “green corridors” for the evacuation of residents—zones of safety that the Russians at times disregarded—and who worked to procure diesel to keep the hospital generators going. As Dovgopolon explains, the hospital had about 50 patients on respirators, so losing power would mean 50 more bodies in a place that didn’t have room for any more corpses. At one point, the Russians subjected him to a mock execution, but, in the end, he got away with his life. He learned the basics of operating a military rifle by watching YouTube videos—because that’s the kind of war this is—and joined the infantry before deciding that he was of more use to his country as a physician. Asked if he hates the Russians, he shrugs.
“I don’t get them.”
But there isn’t that much to get. The Russians are doing what generations of mediocre powers have done before them: substituting brutality for skill, cruelty for competence. Bucha was the site of grotesque atrocities—the mass murder of civilians, torture, the usual Russian stuff that you’d expect, but also simply shooting civilians for sport. The bodies of the dead were buried en masse on the property of the local church because Russian snipers perched on tall buildings a few hundred yards away had taken to shooting those trying to transport the dead to the nearby graveyard. The mass grave has since been exhumed and the bodies reburied with as much dignity as is possible in the situation, with a small memorial marking the spot of the mass interment, where signs of digging remain visible. Because of the danger of the situation, those burying the dead had been obliged to use a bulldozer.
A local who lived through it recounts bodies left to rot in public places and, eventually, animals feeding on the dead.
Why shoot civilians trying to bury the other civilians you’ve already shot? Just a predictable, rational response to NATO expansion a quarter of a century ago? Which part of George Kennan’s literary output explains that kind of savagery, exactly?
The randomness, stupidity, and cruelty of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine doesn’t suggest a superpower at all, or even an expired superpower, or an aspiring once-and-future superpower. What it most suggests is a stagnant psychotic state, not a new empire or khanate or emergent post-postmodern techno-autocracy but something a lot more like North Korea. One of the few eternal laws of history is that it absolutely sucks to share a border with Russia, but the European Union quietists who think that between Ukraine and the United States they have a buffer and a backstop against whatever it is that Putinism is—or is becoming—are maybe not the cold-eyed calculating Machiavellians they take themselves for. Sometimes, the tendency that tries to pass itself off as realism is, in reality, only wishful thinking.
The mood in Kyiv is martial and nationalistic, as one would expect, and, rhetorically, it pushes all sorts of liberal-democratic buttons in the American visitor. And not only in the American visitor: A Ukrainian confesses that, until recently, he was uncomfortable with the formulaic call-and-response of “GLORY TO UKRAINE!” “GLORY TO THE HEROES!” that you see and hear all around town, words that once were part of a ritual greeting used by rightist groups.
The Azov Regiment knows a little something about that. Formerly the Azov Brigade, a nationalist militia with an infamous taste for ultra-rightist rhetoric and imagery, the group is excluded—by name—from receiving U.S. aid. (Or, rather, that seems to be the intent; U.S. legislation forbids aid to the Azov Brigade, which, as a formal matter, no longer exists.) It was Azov troops who held out in the steelworks in the brutal campaign at Mariupol. The Azov veterans I speak to would like to put the regiment’s controversial reputation behind it—how could Azov be anti-Semitic, they ask, when it has Jewish troops? “Russian propaganda,” says one, disdainfully. Of course, much is made of the regiment’s history for pro-Kremlin propaganda purposes, but the reputation doesn’t come out of nowhere. The Foreign Legion, set up by Zelensky immediately after the war began to accommodate foreigners looking to come to Ukraine to fight for various reasons—not all of them entirely inspiring—has some reputational problems, too, albeit more of the quotidian corruption-and-inefficacy variety rather than the neo-fascist stuff.
But it is easy to make too much of all that. The U.S. Marine Corps has the occasional neo-Nazi flareup (as recently as January), and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has a problem with gangster deputies. The Azov veterans and associates I speak to talk about precisely one political agenda: Expelling Russians from the whole of Ukraine, not just the most recent borders but from Crimea as well. They do not seem very much inclined to accept anything less.
“If the West stops giving us support, then maybe we will fail,” says Yuliya, the wife of an Azov soldier captured by the Russians and still unable to return home. “But then it will be a partisan war, not the end.” One hears a similar sentiment from many different quarters of Ukrainian life: Our grandparents fought the Russians, and maybe our grandchildren will have to fight them, too, until they are finally defeated.” Mortie, who spent months in Russian captivity after losing an arm in combat, does not think much of the Russians as fighters, but notes that there are a lot of them, and that they have a lot of money behind them. His colleague, Serhiy, who was held for a year, reports systematic torture of prisoners by means ranging from ordinary beatings to needles under the fingernails to electric shock. “Sometimes, it was—” he stumbles searching for the word interrogation—“but, sometimes, it was just for fun. They get bored.” Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties is working to document Russian atrocities carried out during the war, from torture and abuse of prisoners to massacres of civilians.
The atrocities and the torture are part of an effort to defeat the Ukrainians with terror and despair rather than through military superiority per se. But these dramatic means are not the only such weapons in Moscow’s arsenal. In Crimea, Ukrainians living under Russian occupation were made to abandon their Ukrainian passports for Russian documents and punished for speaking the Ukrainian language, while their children are indoctrinated in Russian-run kindergartens. Russian-speaking Crimeans do not have it easy, but the burden falls even more heavily upon minority groups that seem to Moscow to be less likely to adopt a thoroughgoing new Russian identity, particularly Crimean Tatars.
Again, past is prologue: A century ago, Russians occupying Ukraine under the banner of socialism blew up churches and public monuments in Kyiv—and then claimed that the acts had been carried out by Nazis, who were, in fact, nowhere on the scene at the time. There is an eerily prescient foretaste of the social-media age in the Russian approach to Ukrainian history: Every fact is contested, every source targeted for discrediting, every historical account submerged in a muck of invented counternarrative.
Of course, the Russians deny that there is any torture or abuse or massacre of civilians. But the burnt husks of hospitals and cultural centers and homes are there for public inspection. And Mortie, cool and stoic as he may be about the fact, really is missing an arm, and he winces when telling the story of losing it. Some things are hard to fake.
But if I were the Russians, I wouldn’t fear either of these two veterans as much as I would fear Yuliya, here speaking for herself and for her missing husband. Her anger hums in the room like an electrified fence, and only a fool would fail to give it due respect.
The Ukrainians do not want for fighting spirit. But they are outgunned. An entertainer at the Ukrainian version of a USO show jokingly apologizes to the visiting Americans for his sparse vocabulary. “I am sorry, I know only a few words of English: ‘F-16s!’”
If a war for national survival cries out for heroes, it cries out as plainly for a very specific kind of hero: nerds. Every third or fourth person I talk to, from senior military figures to civilians helping to mobilize the Ukrainian economy for the war, is a coder, an IT guy, a crypto guy, an engineer. The commander in chief may be a retired television star, but the war is being prosecuted by the chess club. They are tracking drones, documenting and responding to cyber attacks, and managing complex logistical problems for military and intelligence units. Ukraine’s technologically sophisticated business community is in the fight.
“There was no cost-benefit analysis” says the CEO of one of the country’s most prominent international businesses. “This is the only country we have.”
Corporate resources ranging from simple things such as generator power and unusable inventory to powerful technology tools are quietly redeployed, or deployed in parallel, for military and humanitarian purposes.
Obviously, they are not sending out a lot of press releases about what they do—nobody wants a target on him. But they do a lot. In fact, the tech industry here does many of the things that would be done for U.S. forces by the NSA, the CIA, the DIA, and other agencies of our trillion-dollar-ish military-industrial bombs-and-spookery complex. Some of them are in the military, some of them are kinda-sorta in the military, and some of them are just doing what they can do, where they can do it. One gets the impression that the duplication of effort and inefficiency must be considerable, but that the distributed, seat-of-the-pants model of warfighting is, for the moment, the best the Ukrainians can do. Western aid can provide them with bullets and drones and much else, but it cannot provide Ukraine with a state that has the capacity to do the things that a modern state is supposed to do. The weak state and the stupendous corruption are part of a vicious cycle: The weak state enables the corruption, and the corruption impedes the formation of effective institutions. “The biggest problem in Ukraine is Russian invasion,” one official says. “Second-biggest is corruption.” Everybody knows this. Everybody talks about it.
And, to its credit, the Zelensky government has taken some real steps to address it: People with real power and real status have lost their positions and, in some cases, their freedom. But the extent of the problem is skull-clutchingly broad and deep: The supreme court recently has been implicated in a bribery scheme. I speak with an anti-corruption official who is excited—earnestly and honestly so, I think—about recent progress on the corruption front. Later in the day, a much more senior official pours cold water on that excitement, dismissing it as “theater.” I am disinclined to look for a silver lining in such a bloodbath as this, but, if Ukraine is able to form an effective modern state, it is likely that its roots are being put down right now in the form of organically evolving counterinstitutions that will, if things go right, supplant and supersede the ones that are not good for much beyond making powerful men richer and rich men more powerful.
What, exactly, is the American interest here? Kyiv is a charming and lively city, but it is not an American city. The Ukrainians who gave their lives at the bridge are heroes, but they are not American heroes.
It would be wrong to dismiss the American moral interest here as mere sentimentality. Americans want to live in a certain kind of world, one in which certain rules apply, however incompletely, and in which certain values are honored, however imperfectly. That is not a notional thing—that is a real thing, a thing of great value if it can be achieved. Whatever it is the Russians are doing in Ukraine—old-fashioned imperialism or neo-fascist psycho-drama—it is incompatible with that. The Little Americans may dream of a Little America that does not have worldwide interests and, hence, worldwide vulnerabilities, but that is not the world in which we actually live.
Or, if you want to take a Machiavellian view of it: You may not think that the United States has any great interest in seeing Ukraine win, but the United States does have an abiding and critical interest in seeing Russia lose. Russia is a bad actor on the world stage, one that makes other problems—notably Iran and, especially, China—worse than they have to be. The more Russia bleeds in Ukraine, the more defeat and humiliation the Putin regime inflicts on the Russian people, the less capacity Moscow has to make trouble in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America, or anywhere else. Indeed, while the Ukrainians worry that the Biden administration will pressure Kyiv to accept concessions to bring about a ceasefire, it might as easily be the case that Washington is tempted to let the war rage longer than it has to, giving the Ukrainians just enough assistance to keep them in the fight and the Russians tied up in a bloody and expensive conflict. In either case, it suits U.S. interests to make this war economically and militarily as painful as possible for Moscow. If things continue to go poorly for the Russians, the intelligent response would be not to let up on sanctions in the hopes of luring Moscow into a settlement but ramping up sanctions until Moscow howls for one. This is an opportunity for the United States to subject Russia to a painful and debilitating defeat without firing a shot. Washington’s policymakers are, uncharacteristically, far too timid in their estimate of the opportunity before us.
Beyond that, the United States may not want to have soldiers on the frontlines, but it should have eyeballs there. What is happening right now in Ukraine is an important field test for dozens and dozens of military technologies. For example, the United States has long relied on GPS-guided weapons, which have proved surprisingly easy to jam and effectively disable. Other technologies, such as on-board terrain-reading and object recognition, are more difficult to interfere with, because they do not require communication with a satellite or a control center, but whether that advantage is durable remains unknown. Given a choice, the United States surely would prefer that there not be a war on—but there is a war on, one that is not of our choosing but that provides us with critical opportunities for refining our technologies and strategies in preparation for those conflicts in which we are direct combatants. Ukraine has a will to fight but scanty resources; the European Union has considerable resources but not much demonstrated will to fight. If you want an “integrated” European defense strategy, try integrating German resources with Ukrainian determination. And the Ukrainians are not the only people in Europe who understand the stakes in play. The United States needs a strong and engaged Europe—including, but not limited to, the European Union—as a partner against its autocratic competitors on the world stage. A weak, dysfunctional, non-EU and non-NATO state such as Ukraine might not be our first choice of a fight if we were the ones choosing, but Russia has chosen. That is the situation, and it isn’t the worst one from the point of view of American interests.
Ukraine will suffer setbacks, surely. And maybe Zelensky will disappoint us. A very careful audit of aid to Ukraine is going to turn up things we do not like. But we do not have to be romantics about this. There are people who broadly share our values and who want to live in the kind of world we want to live in, however imperfect their government and however urgently in need of reform their institutions may be. And then there are the people who fire rockets into maternity hospitals, who train sniper fire on those attempting simply to bury the dead. There are imperfect liberal-democratic regimes and regimes whose interest is conquest and terror and subjugation—and whose appetite for these things is without a known or demonstrable limit. There are some Americans, many of them Republicans, who believe that we can more or less ignore the choice in front of us, or else that we can finesse it politically with craven talk about “blank checks” and such. Go stand at that bridge in Irpin or at the site of the mass grave in Bucha. If you know where to look, you can see the American interests from such vantage points.
Now, what are we prepared to do about it?