A View from the Frontlines:

What It’s Like in Ukraine as the Russia Crisis Unfolds

January 26, 2022
Last week, as Russia intensified its military buildup along the border with Ukraine, the German Marshall Fund of the United States in cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Foundation organized for a study group of lawmakers, EU and NATO officials, journalists, and think tankers from European countries and the United States to visit Warsaw and Kyiv.

The goal was to learn more about the situation on the ground and about the multidimensional threat that Russia’s actions pose for the wider region. Below are the takeaways from the Ukrainian leg of the study group’s trip.

Ukrainians are less nervous about an impending invasion than their Western partners.

Last week, a visitor to Kyiv would not get the feeling that it is the capital of a country under the immediate threat of war. There were traffic jams; restaurants were full; there was nightlife. Blood bottles and other lifesaving supplies had not yet been sent to what could become a front line soon. The overall level of preparedness seemed rather low.

How can this calm be explained? First, there is weariness of war. Ukrainians have been living under constant threat from Russia. The war in the east of the country is now in its ninth year. Citizens ask what is new. At least some elements of the government seem to agree. Ukrainian intelligence sees the same Russian troop concentrations near the border that US intelligence sees but they interpret the situation differently, understanding the threat as less imminent. Hence, officials—including President Volodymyr Zelensky—try to communicate and prepare in ways that do not cause a panic.

If there was any nervousness, it was created by Zelensky’s plea not to be nervous. During a televised address, he called on citizens not to stock up on basic foods and the like—the opposite was the result. There have also been reports of the start of a flight into the US dollar and the euro.

Ukraine is better prepared militarily than in 2014.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the latter was undergoing a revolution. Its armed forcesd barely existed and militias, together with a few regular military formations, defended the country. Things have changed. Ukraine’s military is larger, better trained, and better equipped, including with tactical precision missiles. It is very likely that it would throw up serious resistance to any invasion.

That is not to say that Ukraine can stop one—Russia’s military is among the world’s largest, and it has undergone massive modernization and growth over the past years. The costs of an invasion, including in human lives, would likely be much higher than in 2014.

Western unity is key for Ukraine.

There is zero desire among Ukrainians to give in to Russian demands, and they hope that the West will not bend either. Their key request is that the West stay united. Unity behind credible sanctions against Russia was the top plea among the GMF study group’s interlocutors in Kyiv. Right now, this unity looks a little better from Kyiv than it does from the likes of Warsaw, Tallinn, or Brussels. While Western policymakers and commentators often focus the differences among the transatlantic allies, something that President Joe Biden even publicly acknowledged, from Kyiv’s perspective the West has so far stuck together well, despite the tensions and pressures.

Arms shipments are essential.

Even though Ukraine’s military is in much better shape than it was in 2014 and Ukrainians say they are ready to fight if need be, they need Western weapons to make an invasion costly for Russia. A few Western countries have begun weapons shipments, with the United Kingdom and the United States at the forefront. The Baltic states are shipping Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft weapons. Canada, Poland, and others are also helping.

But what Ukrainians say they really need is anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems. Ukraine’s military positions and major cities are exposed to Russian air strikes. The US-made Patriot system is the only one that could provide a protection similar to the one Russia enjoys with its S-400 system.

A massive invasion is less likely than hybrid and irregular warfare.

The scenario that is often discussed in the Western press is a massive invasion involving hundreds of tanks. The assessment in Ukraine is that first there will be more hybrid and irregular warfare. Such attacks are likely to cover a spectrum from disinformation to provocations, false-flag operations, and cyberattacks.

A first serious cyberattack against Ukraine took place recently at the end of the week of intense diplomacy in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna. When the GMF study group visited Kyiv, schools were closed due to multiple bomb threats. Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure is seen as vulnerable to sabotage. By attacking its natural-gas transportation infrastructure, President Vladimir Putin could force Germany to open the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Putin is very likely to escalate such pre-kinetic and irregular attacks to strengthen Russia’s position in negotiations with the West. Hybrid tactics also carry much lower costs compared to a full-scale invasion. Russia’s military will likely suffer losses in any invasion due to Ukraine’s determination and upgraded equipment—a fact that could deter Putin.

This crisis is about Ukraine and yet about much more, too.

The struggle for Ukraine is just the beginning. Putin’s ambition currently focuses on Ukraine but it extends much further. He is attempting to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence on the territory of the former Soviet Union and demands that NATO forces pull back from Central and Eastern Europe, which would leave the region a security gray zone. Finally, he demands the removal of the United States’ nuclear weapons from Europe, which amounts to kicking it out of Europe. Putin appears to want to destroy the current European security order. The Ukrainian political class, understanding the extent of his demands, frames its fight as Europe’s fight. Ukraine’s freedom, they say, is Europe’s freedom. And, because they feel they fight for the European cause, they feel they have a good reason to ask for support.

Giving in to Putin’s demands is the surest path to war.

Shrewd observers of Putin know that he will push as far as he can until he is stopped—if he can be stopped. His Russia is seen to operate under a hooligan’s logic, understanding primarily the language of power and weakness. Acceding to Putin’s demands will be read in Moscow as a sign of Western weakness rather than as a sign of productive restraint and willingness to solve the crisis by diplomatic means. Perceived weakness will only provoke further escalation by Putin and lead to more demands. Unpredictability on the part of the West would be welcome. Right now, it is very transparent about what it is ready to do and what it is not ready to do in case of a Russian attack. The West is very much playing by the book, while Russia is throwing unexpected jabs with the aim of keeping it off balance. This creates a situation in which the Kremlin predicts pretty well how the West will respond and it puts the latter in a reactive mode. Less predictable counter-jabs from the West would give Putin a pause.

Ukraine remains a difficult partner for the West.

Unlike in Russia, in Ukraine the president can be replaced in an election. The peaceful transfer of power is now part of Ukrainian democracy. But Ukrainian democracy remains far from perfect. President Zelensky goes after his opponents, including his predecessor, with the power of law enforcement. GMF’s study group met with former president Petro Poroshenko who, just a day earlier, was to be arrested on treason charges widely seen as trumped up. His incarceration was only prevented by the intervention of high-ranking Western officials.

Selective justice is just one of Ukraine’s problems. Reforms have largely stalled; the country is run by two individuals—President Zelensky and Head of the Presidential administration Andriy Yermak; and the president has adopted a revolving-door system for the cabinet with changes in the dozens so far. Ukraine is ranked 110th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. While many of the GMF study group’s interlocutors stressed that Ukraine is headed toward NATO and EU membership, and pointed to polls about the growing popularity of both institutions among Ukrainians, this path will be long and arduous, even though NATO and the EU have declared themselves ready to start a membership process.

Ukrainians are disappointed by Germany.

As seen through Ukrainian eyes, Germany is the odd country out in the Western camp. Ukraine wants four things from the country: support for NATO membership, military support, an end to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and tough sanctions in case of a Russian invasion. So far, Ukraine has not gotten much from Germany except for expressions of solidarity and the offer, made by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock last week, of a hydrogen partnership, which analysts in Ukraine see as a very long-term project at best and a fig leaf at worst. Whether it is a good idea to invite Ukraine into NATO is a legitimate question, but that of supplying it with arms is more urgent.

Last week, rallies could be observed in front of British institutions in Kyiv. These were “thank-you demonstrations” for the United Kingdom for sending arms to Ukraine. Germany’s reservation about sending weapons into the bloodlands it once created may be understandable, but why should it derail the arms exports of other countries that have less historical baggage? Former president Poroshenko told the GMF study group: “I like Angela Merkel. She saved the Ukrainian nation in 2014 when she forced Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table, finally ending the invasion. But today, I cannot explain Nord Stream 2 to my voters. Impossible.” Clearly, Germany has got work to do in Ukraine and with its Western allies.

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