Kyiv Dispatch: Ukraine Remembers 2014, and Is Determined Not to Repeat It

Civilians in Ukraine's capital are prepared to make huge sacrifices to prevent another defeat like the loss of Crimea to Russia in 2014, and they see Israel as a good example to follow

A car that was hit by Russian shelling in Kyiv
A car that was hit by Russian shelling in Kyiv, with the remnants of Ukraine's national flag in the window. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

KYIV – Humans are optimistic by nature, even in the depths of a war that has already killed thousands, caused immense damage to dozens of cities and hundreds of villages, and uprooted millions of people – at least 3 million refugees abroad and millions internally displaced.

Refugees tend to be optimistic, at least in their first days in a strange country, as they cling to the belief that they will soon be back home.

We have been confronted by this optimism this week in so many places in Ukraine, and outside it. It started with an Odessan grandmother who is now sheltering in Chisinau, Moldova, and prefers to remain there despite her eligibility to emigrate to Israel. She has Jewish ancestry but wants to remain close to the city of her birth in the hope of a speedy return.

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We noticed this outlook in Mykolaiv in a young reserve officer who sent her baby, along with her mother, to Romania but remained at the front in the city to help organize supplies for the half million residents.

And we saw it in the 51-year-old businessman who flew to Italy with his wife and three children to make sure they were comfortable in a rental on the sea, before he flew back to volunteer as an ambulance driver.

It’s a natural kind of optimism, but it also stems from unique factors of this war that could end up being temporary. One is the fact that while Russia’s missile attacks have hit nearly all regions of Ukraine, this is still a very large country that continues to function in most places.

All Ukrainian citizens feel the war because of the nightly curfew, the ban on the sale of alcohol, and the closure of schools and public offices. But only a minority of Ukrainians have seen the war close up. The supply chains have been disrupted and there are shortages, but with the exception of a few towns under total siege, food is available nearly everywhere, as well as electricity, water, fuel and communications.

All Ukrainian citizens feel the war, but only a minority have seen it this close. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

On Thursday, day 22 of the fighting, it was still possible to drive for two hours up the southern stretch of the Kyiv-Odessa highway that connects the Black Sea coast to the capital without noticing that a war was on. There was no pressure on the gas stations, which had ample supplies – and the adjacent convenience stores were well-stocked.

Outside the cities we encountered no military roadblocks, and the only sign of the war was the absence of road signs, which had been removed by the army in the hope of confusing the Russian armored columns, if they come.

Most Ukrainians can still cling to an illusion of almost normal life. The optimism may not hold if and when the war touches them in the form of Russian bombs and tank shells.

Another factor that will certainly change very soon is the paucity of bad news from the Ukrainian side of the battlefield. For the last three weeks, both the local and international media have focused on Russia’s military failures – the flawed war plans, the armored vehicles stuck in the mud with empty gas tanks becoming easy targets for Ukrainian anti-tank teams. Very little is being reported about the significant losses on the Ukrainians’ side in their attempts to block the Russian advance.

The government in Kyiv is closely controlling the message in the local media and preventing foreign journalists from reaching the front. The dominant images are of civilian casualties, which boost international support for Ukraine and the determination to carry on fighting. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Ukrainian soldiers have died on the battlefield, their bodies either yet to be collected or in frontline morgues.

Destruction in a residential area in Kyiv following a Russian attack on the city. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Only a few military funerals have taken place so far, and a relatively small proportion of the 42 million Ukrainians actually know someone killed in this war. When more accurate numbers and details on Ukrainian casualties, both civilian and military, begin to arrive, it will be harder to maintain the optimism.

But the Ukrainians have few illusions. They are extremely aware that military downfalls happen as well. In conversations with Ukrainians the words “what happened in 2014” recur. They still find it difficult to talk about the humiliation when Russia occupied and annexed Crimea, with barely any opposition, and then invaded eastern Ukraine, pushing back poorly equipped, badly trained and undermotivated Ukrainian units.

Over the past eight years, the resolve to cleanse the stain of 2014 pushed the Ukrainian army to modernize its weapons systems, adopt new military doctrines and overhaul its communications and surveillance infrastructure. Memories of 2014 are also a key motivator for the civilians who are prepared to make huge sacrifices to prevent a recurrence of that defeat.

Anyone (including would-be mediators Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his team) who expects the Ukrainians to sign a humiliating peace agreement – which Russian President Vladimir Putin would be unlikely to abide by for long – should consider the Ukrainians’ determination not to allow a repeat of 2014.

Exaggerated fears of Russia

Recent days have seen reports of significant movements of Russian troops from their bases in South Ossetia, captured from Georgia in the 2008 war. The reports are backed by footage of military convoys heading west, and social media posts by soldiers confirming they are being sent to join their comrades fighting in Ukraine.

A Ukrainian soldier next to a Kyiv apartment building that was destroyed by Russian shelling. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

It’s yet another sign of the increasing difficulties facing the Russian military at the front: its shortage of professional soldiers who, unlike young temporary conscripts, can be deployed under Russian law outside the country’s borders. The low-morale conscripts wouldn’t be of much military use anyway and would only further strain the logistics troops who are struggling to supply the frontline units with food, fuel and ammunition.

At the same time, unconfirmed reports point to a drastic drawing-down of part of the air crew and technical teams at Russia’s airbase near Latakia in Syria. These experienced pilots and mechanics who have been helping the Assad regime bomb civilians since 2015 are now needed for the war against Ukraine. Russia’s current failure to successfully fight on multiple fronts or maintain significant deployments abroad should also trigger a reassessment of the “Russian threat” in Israeli strategic thinking.

The Israeli fear of Russia preventing the Israel Air Force from striking Iranian targets in Syria was exaggerated already back in 2015 when the Russian deployment began. The Kremlin strategists were just as concerned that Israel, which has far more firepower in the region, would disrupt their plans to save President Bashar Assad.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately flew to Moscow to get Putin’s “permission” for Israel to continue operating in Syrian airspace. Netanyahu, in his strategic blindness and desire to portray himself as having a “special relationship with my friend,” contributed more than anyone to Israelis’ image of Putin: someone who is not be crossed under any circumstances.

Sadly, it seems that Bennett has inherited this fear from his predecessor. Hopefully he’s beginning to grow out of it.

At a roadblock on the main road to Kyiv. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israeli rescuers – and misfits

Anyone who has ever visited the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav in the small town of Uman in central Ukraine knows that it’s an extreme religious and anthropological experience. This is especially the case on Purim, and now, at the height of war.

The “holy gathering” around the tomb usually numbers a few hundred Israelis who live there semi-permanently, and tens of thousands coming through on pilgrimages. But no pilgrims are arriving now, and most of the Israeli residents have left for Kyiv or Israel.

Around 20 Israelis remain there, nearly all of them poor bewildered souls who live off charity and have nothing to lose. A few are teenagers running around without any regular framework.

You don’t have to be a Breslav Hasid or even particularly religious to be shocked and disgusted at the sights of drunkenness and wild dancing to trance music in the tomb’s inner sanctum, next to the gray marble slab of Rabbi Nachman’s grave. It’s a place of prayer and devotion for many Jews. Even when allowing for the tradition of drinking on Purim and the wartime conditions, some of the darker aspects of the Uman pilgrimage that have been reported in the past were on full display this week.

Jewish worshippers praying in the town of Uman during Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In previous years, the Israeli government spent a lot on security for the main annual pilgrimage on Rosh Hashanah, not to mention the diplomatic efforts in ensuring that the event took place even during the pandemic. It also has a duty of care toward its abandoned citizens still in Uman, even if they’re there on their own accord, especially the minors among them.

You meet many Israelis in Ukraine, often in unexpected places and even during wartime. Many are dual citizens who emigrated to Israel and after a few years, for various reasons, returned to their country of birth. Some are legitimate businesspeople and some are employees of Jewish organizations or freelance operators rescuing people from the war zones.

But there are also crooks, adventurers and misfits cruising the front lines who at any moment could cause a national embarrassment or even a dangerous diplomatic crisis. There are the “fixers” who pledge to organize, for a fee, safe passage to Israel. And if you’re a man of military age prohibited from leaving the country, these middlemen promise to pass on a bribe that will get you smuggled across the border.

The popularity among ordinary Ukrainians, even admiration, of Israel is hard to exaggerate. It crops up in every interview and chance encounter. Israel is seen as an independent country that has prospered in a hostile environment, just as the Ukrainians aspire to do alongside their Russian neighbor.

Their criticism of the Israeli government’s neutral stance on the war, amid the reluctance to take in refugees, seems to have barely eroded these feelings, at least so far. But actual contact with some of the Israelis trying to make money on the backs of suffering Ukrainians almost certainly will.

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