For Our Today, for Your Tomorrow


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April 14, 2022

For Our Today, for Your Tomorrow

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

Paweł Pieniążek form Kyiv – 03/07/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

PAWEŁ PIENIĄŻEK FROM KYIV | Thanks to his tenacity and his will to stay and defend his country, Volodymyr Zelenskyyy has become the most popular leader in the history of independent Ukraine.

KHARKIV, UKRAINE – FEBRUARY 26, 2022 – People carry bags during the Defence HQ, Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.

On the tenth day of the Russian invasion, 38-year-old Kristina Berdynskykh finally visited her home. She decided to take some supplies that she had left in the apartment, most important, a Ukrainian flag, along with two traditional embroidered shirts and a collection of souvenir fridge magnets.

Berdynskykh is one of the best political journalists in Ukraine. She writes for the weekly Novoye Vremya. Few employees remain in its Kyiv editorial office. Some went to western Ukraine, while others joined the territorial defense.

Russia launched a massive attack on February 24. Its key goal is to seize the capital and install a puppet government. Kyiv, like other Ukrainian cities, became the target of missile attacks, and fierce fighting quickly broke out on its outskirts.

Not wanting to miss victory

Immediately after the clashes began, Berdynskykh decided to go to the metro station near her mother’s house. She sleeps underground with her mother and her niece. The metro guarantees safety during a rocket attack or air raid.

The journalist considered leaving Kyiv in the first days of the invasion. Many foreign colleagues urged her to leave the city, better yet the country. Perhaps she would have agreed to their requests had it not been for the fact that the president remained in Kyiv. Volodymyr Zelenskyy regularly recorded videos in which he and those around him showed that they were present. The United States had proposed to evacuate him. According to the Associated Press, Zelenskyy responded: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

“At first I was scared and I seriously thought about leaving,” says Berdynskykh. “But I changed my mind when I saw that the authorities were still here. Nobody is running away and the defense of Kyiv is given great attention. I stayed because I don’t want to miss Victory Day. Then I’ll come out of the metro and describe everything.”

Every day, wearing a military T-shirt, Zelenskyy addresses Ukrainians and explains the current situation. He also appeals to other countries. He reacts to events regardless of the time of day. The messages are published not only in traditional media, but also on social media. As a result, inhabitants are not left in an information vacuum. It was only during this war that many Ukrainians came to see Zelenskyy as a statesman.

New to politics

Zelenskyy’s 2019 political debut was widely publicized. He won the second round of the presidential election with a huge, historic advantage, receiving 73 percent of the vote. He had no previous political experience. He was an actor, comedian and owner of the Kvartal 95 film studio. In the TV series “Servant of the People”, he played the role of a teacher who becomes president. He then took part in the elections and named his party after the television show.

Zelenskyy promised a lot. Everyone saw in him what they wanted to see. Among his electorate there were those who were oriented towards the West, but also those who wanted rapprochement with Russia; NATO supporters and opponents of the alliance; participants of the Maidan protests and those that looked at them critically. He introduced himself as a simple boy from Kryvyi Rih, a southern city. During the campaign he focused not on billboards and election spots but on social media. It was no coincidence that the largest part of his electorate were those less than 30 years of age.

Zelenskyy wanted to break with the corrupt elite so he brought people who had previously not taken part in politics into parliament and his government. As a result, an unusual array of people won seats in the Supreme Council. He announced that he would move the presidential administration to a new building because the old one evoked negative associations. He wanted to digitize the country, transfer everything to a smartphone application and rule with referendums.

The most naive part of his program turned out to be the belief that through negotiations, but without rotten compromises, it would be possible to end the war in Donbas, which broke out in 2014 and has resulted in the death of over 13,000 people. Many Ukrainians feared that Zelenskyy had too little experience to handle himself in talks with the Kremlin and would make far-reaching concessions. However, it soon turned out that experience did not matter because no one on the Russian side was eager for dialogue.

Standing together behind the president

Only two weeks ago, Berdynskykh expected that the main political topic in Ukraine this year would be the “de-oligarchization” announced by the president. The journalist criticized Zelenskyy’s actions in domestic politics. The president did not seem particularly worried about corruption in political circles that Berdynskykh had been following for years.

“In this respect, everything had been going wrong lately,” says my interlocutor.

And she gives an example: the head of the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office was not appointed. There was also some controversy over the election of the chairman of the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine. Building infrastructure was a much greater priority for Zelenskyy; this included the “Big Construction” program through which, according to official data, over 7,000 kilometers of roads, dozens of schools, kindergartens and hospitals were built or repaired.

Foreign intelligence had been warning about a full-scale war for months, but initially it seemed that Zelenskyy and the rest of the government were playing down the threat. Gradually, however, his speeches became more and more alarming. The president called on the world to stop bloodshed.

For Berdynskykh, Zelenskyy’s image completely changed when the president spoke at a security conference in Munich on February 19. He asked the world to act in his distinct style, without mincing words: “We will defend our land with or without the support of partners. Whether they give us hundreds of modern weapons or five thousand helmets. We appreciate any help, but everyone should understand that these are not charitable contributions that Ukraine should ask for or remind of. These are not noble gestures for which Ukraine should bow low. This is your contribution to the security of Europe and the world. Where Ukraine has been a reliable shield for eight years.”

“It felt like his very soul was crying out,” says Berdynskykh. “At that time I saw wartime Zelenskyy.”

Since the escalation of the conflict it has been difficult in Ukraine to find critics of the president. Polls by Rating Group Ukraine, conducted after the Russian aggression, show that Zelenskyy’s actions are supported by 91% of the respondents, almost three times more than in December 2021. Even opposition parties have demonstrated unheard-of unanimity.

The moment of unification

The chairwoman of the Voice political party, Oleksandra Ustinova, hesitated to the end about whether to leave the country. She was in the late stages of pregnancy. Her husband had been living in the United States for three years. She wanted to be with her family at this time. Ultimately her friends convinced her to take maternity leave, and she left just two weeks before the invasion, when many still believed that it would not happen.

Ustinova has been involved in anti-corruption activities for years, and only became involved in politics in 2019, receiving a parliamentary seat in the elections. She was a fierce critic of the president. “Now there is no opposition. I have never seen such unity, present even among politicians,” she claims. “They are all together against Putin.”

The deputy praised the preparations for war from the point of view of public finances. Banks are operating and the hryvnia has only weakened slightly, incomparably less than the Russian ruble which has depreciated as a result of sanctions imposed by the West.

Until February 24, Zelenskyy and his entourage maintained that the situation was under control and that everything would be fine. It was a strategy aimed at halting an outflow of investors and the decline of economic activity. The president’s entourage kept information about the impending war to a small group until the very end. “MPs found out about the war at the same time as everyone else,” Ustinova says.

The end of diplomatic games

Ustinova, however, speaks of some shortcomings in preparations for the war. For example, the fact that the territorial defense — which 100,000 people signed up for during the first ten days of the war— lacks weapons, bulletproof vests and helmets. She believes that Kyiv could have been better supplied — the situation in the city may quickly become difficult if the capital is surrounded by Russian troops. Generally, however, Ustinova argues that the decisions made by the president and his entourage do not leave much room for criticism.

“President Zelenskyy arouses great respect, and not only in Ukraine,” says Ustinova. “Everyone I meet in the United States knows who Zelenskyy is and is enthralled by him.”

The deputy claims that foreign leaders are the least fascinated by him because it puts them in an uncomfortable position. He is not a professional politician, the type that will say what everyone wants to hear, and does not follow the strict rules of diplomatic protocol.

“He goes out and tells the truth,” says Ustinova. “The president of a fighting country says that they will fight alone, but that they need help to do it. This has an effect on people.”

According to a Reuters/Ipsos survey, 74% of respondents support the introduction of a no-fly zone over Ukraine which, apart from the supply of weapons, is the main demand of the Ukrainian authorities. While 80% say the US should stop buying Russian oil.

“Although people support this postulate, Western leaders are afraid that it will affect the price of this raw material and their popular support. They are still playing politics, economics and diplomacy,” Ustinova claims. “President Zelenskyy does not perform diplomacy, he does not go out to thank for material help, only reminds us that we have political agreements.”

Ustinova refers to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by, in addition to Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. According to him, Ukraine agreed to transfer its nuclear arsenal, and in return received a promise that the independence and sovereignty of its borders would be respected.

No flight ban

Lawyer, academic lecturer, veteran of the Donbas war; Fedir Venislavsky is a parliamentary deputy on behalf of the Servant of the People party and the president’s representative in the Constitutional Court. Until recently, he wore a suit. Now he wears a uniform. We meet near Zelenskyy’s headquarters.

“The president is in his office,” says Venislavsky. “He is safe there regardless of the conditions. It is the same with the government. The ministers are located in a variety of places.”

My interlocutor claims that they only had communication problems in the first days and have adapted to functioning in wartime conditions. He himself is in constant contact with the heads of several ministries. Parliament also meets regularly. Venislavsky claims that the government district is fully operational. The only change is the checkpoints and patrols, many of which have appeared in the area to check the identification documents of the people they encounter. “It is important to show people that the authorities are here, functioning, that nobody is afraid and that they do not intend to go anywhere,” he admits. He also assures that the situation in the country is under control and that Kyiv will never be conquered.

Venislavsky admits, however, that Russia has air superiority and is still attacking Ukraine with rockets. The defenders cannot repel all attacks. “If the NATO countries passed a no-fly zone resolution, we would chase the Russians out very quickly,” states the deputy.

Euro-Atlantic states, however, do not want to pass such a resolution, realizing that it would mean a direct confrontation with Russia. On March 6, Zelenskyy addressed Western leaders in a message published after the rocket barrage at Vinnytsia airfield. He said about the introduction of a no-fly zone: “If you don’t do it, if you don’t even give us planes so that we can defend ourselves, there is only one conclusion that can be drawn from this: you, too, want us to very slowly be killed.”

Kristina Berdynskykh returns to the metro for the evening. Fighting northwest of Kyiv has intensified in recent days. She probably won’t be able to return home anytime soon. She has no doubt, however, that it will happen sooner or later.

“If Ukraine wins this war, Zelenskyy will go down in history. Of course, this is also risky because he will be able to do whatever he wants since he will have saved the country from losing its independence,” says Berdynskykh.

But she is ready to forgive him for everything.

Text completed on the morning of March 7.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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