KYIV – It is the sixth time I have been in Ukraine in the last 18 months and it doesn’t get any easier. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
As we drove into Kyiv this time there was an eerie sense of normalcy to the place. More traffic. More people on the streets. Busy restaurants. Later curfews.
One might not know a horrendous war was happening a few hundred miles away – a war that was still trying to hit the heart of this country with Russian missile strikes. You’d think this was a place at peace.
But when we looked a bit below the surface here you can tell that this months-long tragedy continues to touch all.
Many fewer fighting age men around. They are either at the front or pitching in – or laying low.
Our interview with a member of parliament interrupted by a funeral at the beautiful St. Michael’s basilica. We asked the family if we could take a few pictures. They said no. We completely understood.
The member of parliament underscored the feeling of loss capturing the whole country. She said when officials talk about a new counteroffensive against the Russians what they’re really hoping is that the generals will be “smart.” And the “losses will be minimal.”
The long war is touching and harming this country in all sorts of ways. We were at a gathering of families whose loved ones had been missing for a year or more, held by the Russians. Not because they were soldiers, but they happened to be in way of the occupation.
We visited “off-duty” soldiers trying to work their way back to health after devastating injuries on the front line. One was a former actor. Another a contractor in his civilian life. Bodies wracked by enemy blasts, shelling and gunfire. At a rehab clinic outside of Kyiv backed by U.S. private funding.
We spent time with a lady whose home outside of Kyiv had been nearly flattened by debris falling from a Russian missile shot down on its way to the capital. She introduced us to her 12-year-old grandson who, on his own, was smart enough to hide in the house’s cellar. It saved his young life.
We heard and saw how the sharp and smart Ukrainians are applying themselves to this war. A 31 year-old has been named a deputy prime minister because he’s so good with technology. On the day we talked outside of Kyiv, he was surrounded by all sorts of drones: reconnaissance, supply-carrying and destructive.
And we have, via Zoom and other means, talked to soldiers on the frontline. One official, for example, with the unit scoring some early gains re-taking occupied territory around the battered town of Bakhmut. He was happy to tell us of their modest success. But was careful to say that no major moves would be made until the lives of their men and women were secure.
Because – as it has from the beginning of this war in February 2022 – it always comes down to the people.
You can talk about offensives and counteroffensives; strategies and maneuvers; weapons and defensive systems; coalitions and alliances; politics and borderlines.
But it circles back to the men and women fighting and the huge, and often ultimate, sacrifices they’ve made.
In skirmishes through woodlands that look like Normandy in 1944.
Or grinding warfare more similar to the horrible trenches of Verdun in 1916.
Or wars going back centuries and centuries.
When I come back to Kyiv I always like to talk with the regular folks to hear how they feel.. A driver. A doorman. A waitress. A student. A mother.
I can report that there is weariness.
There is the feeling that this has gone on too long.
And in some, even a desire to ignore the problems.
But with nearly all there remains a determination to finish this horrible job. To beat back the Russians and their mastermind Vladimir Putin. And get on with life.
And the hope that America and others will hang in there and help them achieve victory. And freedom.
Considering all, not too much to ask.