‘I Am Dreaming It Will Stop’: A Deadly War Tests Ukraine’s Morale

Hearing the daily pounding of artillery pounding nearby towns, a school principal in southern Ukraine called on parents to ask for donations for a new bomb shelter.

A soldier and his girlfriend gave up hope that the war against Russia would end soon and decided to get engaged, even though they had no idea when he might come home.

A woman, depressed for months by the instability, decided to stop worrying and imagine that peace would come next spring, perhaps with the blossoms of flowers.

“I felt so helpless,” said the woman, Tetyana Kuksa, who works at a market in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. “I dream it will stop.”

With Ukraine’s army frozen in trenches along the front line and a sense that weapons from allies have arrived too late and will now begin to dwindle, Ukrainians are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for a quick victory, show polls and interviews. Hope, the linchpin of Ukraine’s struggle against a far more powerful enemy, has collapsed.

The result is a nation preparing, with a kind of sober resignation, for life with war as constant and without end.

It’s a trend, not a waving of the white flag. The vast majority of Ukrainians remain defiant, support President Volodymyr Zelensky and trust their military. The spirit that drove Ukrainian bartenders, truck drivers and university professors to join the army after Russia invaded in February 2022 is still evident every day.

However, recent polls show it has faded by many measures.

Readiness for a negotiated settlement with Russia has risen in a small but significant way for the first time since the invasion began, according to polls and focus group studies, rising to 14% from 10%, although the vast majority of Ukrainians still strongly rejects land trade for peace.

Ukrainians were more optimistic, according to polls, last winter, ahead of the counteroffensive in the south. Trust in all institutions outside the military has since fallen, according to a research from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, one of the country’s leading pollsters. Trust in the government fell from 74 percent in May to 39 percent in October, around the time the Ukrainian offensive began and then eased, the institute found.

Ukraine’s last major military gain, the recapture of the city of Kherson, came a year ago. Despite months of bloody fighting in the trenches and tens of thousands of casualties, little land has changed hands since then.

This week, Ukraine’s top military commander, General Valery Zaluzhny, provided a stark assessment of the country’s near-term prospects, saying The economist that the fighting had reached a “stalemate”. Mechanized attacks are failing, he wrote, and without more technologically advanced weapons, a new, long phase of war will settle in.

It was a conclusion Andriy Tkachyk, the mayor of the village of Tukhlia, in western Ukraine, had already drawn after volunteering to drive the bodies of soldiers from the front to their towns and organize funerals. In conversations, he said, he heard of hard, bloody fighting just to hold positions and complaints from war-weary soldiers that they were running out of ammunition.

“The boys at the front are physically and psychologically tired,” Mr Tkachyk said. “Very tired. This war will last a long time.”

“Frustration is growing,” he said, including the feeling that poor boys from the villages are dying while citizens from wealthier families in the cities are finding ways to avoid conscription. Military evasion is on the rise, with men hiding to avoid receiving notices or trying to bribe officials at local recruitment centres.

“Every village has graves,” he said. “The situation is bad.”

Ukrainians once quick to express healthy skepticism about their government rallied around the flag when full-scale war began, boosting confidence in Mr. Zelensky, the military and nearly all of their threatened state’s institutions.

And this is fading with the stagnant military advance, daily shelling and mounting casualties.

Confidence in Mr. Zelensky, though still shared by a majority of Ukrainians, has fallen to 76% in October from 91% in May, the survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed. Other polls put Mr Zelensky’s job approval rating at 72%.

Only 48 percent of Ukrainians say they trust the government-controlled TV news channel Telemarafon, which has aired upbeat reports on the military operation in the south, according to an institute survey. The planning was intended to boost Ukrainian morale as their military struggled to push Russian forces off the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov, but its divergence from events on the ground ended up causing skepticism among Ukrainians.

“We should be honest,” Anton Hrushetsky, director of the Kiev institute, said in an interview. “People are getting pessimistic.”

Anxiety is growing, he said, as Ukrainians want to get on with their lives in safety, but see no promising prospects.

The pervasive sense of insecurity in Ukraine, Mr. Khrushetsky said, is leading Ukrainians to look for someone to blame.

“People don’t describe it as a failure and they don’t blame the army,” Mr. Hrushetsky said of the deadlocked effort to regain territory, or, in General Zaluzhny’s words, the “impasse” in the war.

But anger is growing over government corruption at home and at the country’s Western allies, who Ukrainians say have been slow to hand over weapons.

A survey commissioned by the European Union found that the number of Ukrainians who say the West does not want Ukraine to win the war has doubled, to 30 percent from 15 percent, in the past year.

Rifts are also emerging in the country’s internal politics. Those who support Mr. Zelensky are more inclined to blame allies, while Mr. Zelensky’s political opponents point to corruption at home.

Small protests broke out in October, revealing signs of stress. Families of Ukrainian soldiers missing in action pressed the government for answers at a demonstration in Kiev. And in the capital and other cities, families of soldiers who were in the army during the war protested to demand that the government divert them from the front. “It’s time for others to come up too,” they shouted on Maidan Square in Kyiv.

Frustrated expectations of a summer military success are largely behind the trend toward pessimism, the poll shows.

After a winter of darkness last year, when Russia targeted power stations and transformer substations, leading to blackouts, Ukrainians felt hopeful as electricity returned in the spring.

“We said, ‘Well, we made it, it’s all over, now there will be a counterattack,'” said Andriy Liubka, a Ukrainian novelist. “We had this inspired optimism.”

Now, families hear from soldiers in the trenches, where autumn rain drenches them and “life is like something out of a bygone era” of hardship and violence, Mr Liubka said.

The trenches yield a constant stream of dead and wounded. In their most recent estimate, US officials said in August that about 70,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war and that more than 100,000 had been wounded. The Ukrainian government does not provide information on casualties.

Many Ukrainians view with concern the politicization of military aid to the United States, Slovakia, Poland and other countries.

“A stage of great concern” has begun, Mr. Liubka said.

And yet any concession to Russia risks leaving millions of Ukrainians under occupation, facing possible repression, arrest and execution.

In the village of Blahodatne, in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region, a school principal, Halyna Bolokan, deemed it safe enough to reopen the primary school, despite daily explosions nearby. But he went to the trouble of refurbishing the basement as a bomb shelter, with donations from the community.

“I use strength to put a smile on my face,” he said. “People are now dreaming of our new bomb shelter.”

Serhiy Mykhailyuk, a soldier in the air defense forces, walked on a recent dreary autumn day in Kiev with his fiancee, Yekaterina Bordyuk. “Of course, there’s sadness every day he’s not home,” Ms. Bordyuk said. “But the war will take a long time, not one or two or three years. Somehow we got used to it.”

Maria Varenikova contributed to the report.

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