• “What is cooler than a family of 44 million?” asks a phrase on a mural in central Kyiv. 44 million was the estimated Ukrainian population before Russia’s full-scale invasion, and the mural, painted after it started, rhetorically appeals to national unity. Despite Ukrainians answering this question with “nothing”, the figure is far from correct – and may always be unreachable.

    In almost two years of all-out war, about six million Ukrainians have left the country. Before the invasion, three million were working abroad, where they have mostly stayed since. Each new day they strengthen their ties with their host countries, and lower the chances of ever coming back.

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy understands the negative effects of depopulation. In his New Year’s speech, traditionally perceived as policy-setting, he said a rather controversial phrase: “I wish everyone who is still hesitating [about whether to come back] to make a bold choice next year ― […] to find themselves here, because it’s the only place on earth where we can all say: we are at home.”

    Many will probably do otherwise. According to the leading Ukrainian demographer, Ella Libanova, most of those abroad will never come back. During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, a third of the refugees never returned ― and most of those wars ended in less than two years. It’s worth noting that Ukrainian refugees are mostly well-educated. “70 percent of women refugees have finished university. Do you think aging Europe is interested in keeping them there? It definitely is!” Libanova said in a recent speech.

    What can be done? A postwar baby boom is not expected: since the 1960s Ukrainian women haven’t been leaning towards having many children. So the key to making a family of 44 million again lies in tolerance of other nationals. Hopefully economic growth will attract people from faraway cultures ― and Ukrainians will have to kindly accept them, says Libanova.

    A common view of a spy is someone highly intelligent, successful, ambitious and, due to their side hustle, rich. 

    This may be true in peace-time or in movies, but when the enemy is at the gates, or has already invaded, most spies are different. They aren’t dolled up in tuxedos, sipping Vodka Martinis and driving a gadget-decked Aston Martin, but opportunistic misfits sensing  injustice, fearing poverty and prone to greed.

    This is what happened in Ukraine when Russia invaded in 2022.

    While the Ukrainian military was on the move, the occupiers had to assess the best targets around the country, so needed eyes on the ground. They enlisted hundreds of locals, focusing on those who felt disadvantaged since Ukraine’s independence.

    These were Soviet nostalgists, prone to conspiracy theories, and those who were successful many years ago, but had since lost their wealth and influence. Russians promised to bring them from rags to riches as soon as they came to power.

    In the occupied areas, such people became collaborators. The last two years of the temporarily occupied regions of Ukraine are dotted with such examples. Here are two of them.

    Kyrylo Stremousov used to be a fringe journalist in Kherson, pushing USSR nostalgia and spreading Covid denialism. In spring 2022, he became deputy governor of the occupied Kherson region. Six months later, while the town was still under Russian control, he died in a suspicious car crash.

    Liudmyla Byeloushchenko used to be a cinema director in Kakhovka, a now-occupied town on the Dnipro. In the 1990s, Kakhovka couldn’t afford a municipal cinema, so Liudmyla started selling apples on the local market to get by. When the Russians came, she agreed to lead the town’s cultural centre, to help spread Russian propaganda.

    The takeaway for other countries is short: paying attention to the disenfranchised pays off, so they won’t become your enemy’s allies in the future.

    For almost a year, Ukraine’s Western border checkpoints haven’t offered a clear passage to the EU: from time to time, they are taken over by protesters.

    Firstly, these were Polish farmers who blocked control points between the two countries during last April.

    In November, truckers in Poland built a blockade that grew longer and larger, then the farmers joined them. For weeks they only allowed humanitarian cargo and a limited number of commercial trucks to pass through to Ukraine, causing significant delays to supplies for the Ukrainian military. This resulted in about $1.5 billion in losses for the Ukrainian economy, just in November-December.

    Both farmers and truckers demanded stronger regulation on their Ukrainian counterparts. At the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, these groups had de facto equal rights with the EU truckers. Ukraine’s neighbours felt this strongly. They feared price-dumping for goods and services. Cheap grain and logistics disrupted their markets. For example, due to an influx of Ukrainian grain, wheat on a Polish agricultural exchange in 2023 was sold for half as much as in 2021.

    Emotions of Polish farmers are best described by the name of their initiative group – “Deceived village”. Similar feelings were expressed by their Romanian, Slovak and Hungarian colleagues. In the last three months, all these countries’ border crossing points with Ukraine were blockaded for hours ― or weeks.

    This is the beginning of the story. As Kyiv is already in accession talks with Brussels, the Ukrainian market will someday merge with the EU. And Ukraine is an agricultural powerhouse. Wheat is just one item. For corn, barley or rapeseed, it’s among the top world exporters. The country also produces tomatoes, honey and poultry, so there are reasons for EU farmers to worry.

    An intricate process of aligning two economies is required. Otherwise there will be more protests ― even louder ones.

    “For every tricky problem, there is a simple, appealing and wrong solution.” This phrase by policy strategist Yevhen Hlibovytsky describes the typical Ukrainian reaction to Donald Trump’s promise “to end this war in 24 hours”. It’s clear that even a politician as unconventional as Trump cannot stop a strong and determined aggressor like Russia overnight.

    A quick solution can be provided only by negotiations in which Ukraine accepts significant territorial losses, as the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently stated. This not just dooms three million Ukrainians living in occupied territories to prolonged persecution, but also doesn’t prevent this war from flaring up again in a couple of years, as it is unlikely Putin’s objective to subjugate Ukraine will change.

    This is obvious to anyone ankle-deep in the origins of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Once people realise how significant and symbolic this conflict is, effort and a call to action are necessary. An easy way to avoid this? Believe Trump.

    Even if Trump only says this in his election campaign, the effects of such rhetoric are already visible. The Republican party can’t ignore Trump’s simple “solution”, which appeals to many US voters, and hardens its position against allocating money for military help for Ukraine. The crucial decision of giving Ukraine $61 bn is getting postponed for the third month already. Without Trump, there would probably be no such crisis.

    Under Trump, it’s clear that US help to Ukraine will hardly be more generous than it has been. This has awakened Ukrainian arms factories, which are now scaling up production, making the Ukraine war effort more sustainable. Also, this stirs the EU awake. Now it is making its commitments to Ukraine more substantial, realising the US may not help. This is a viable strategy for the future. However, 2024 promises to be harder than it has to be.

    What Pavlo Kazarin never lacked is the skill to find the right words at the right time. Born and raised in Crimea, he left his job as a radio host in the peninsula after the Russian annexation in 2014, and moved to Kyiv. In a few years, he became one of the country’s top columnists, combining a sober style with a bitter attitude, but still rooted in realism. In late 2021, he published an award-winning collection of essays, “Eastern Europe’s Wild West”, about his experience of living in the Ukrainian South, of foreign occupation, realising his Ukrainian identity and building a new life.

    On the second day of the full-scale Russian invasion, Pavlo joined the Ukrainian armed forces. “This was a postponed necessity,” he explained. “I didn’t do it in 2014, and spent the time that was given to me by my compatriots who defended Ukraine, and got killed, on building a career [for myself] and various self-reflections. Now it’s my turn to give something back.”

    He didn’t stop writing. When numerous Ukrainian businessmen and artists said they would not fight at the frontline, because they were defending the “economic” or “cultural” fronts, he wrote last July: “There is no other front than the real one.”

    Now, as the counter-offensive has disappointed many and Western resolve to support Kyiv is wavering, the public mood in Ukraine seems grim. After almost two years of heavy fighting, most soldiers and civilians are exhausted. As a reaction to the challenges, political disputes have returned. Kazarin’s dry, realistic and well-informed perspective is timely, again.

    “This winter might be harder than the last,” he wrote recently. “Now it’s not about missiles and electricity. We are entering [the season] with a smaller reserve of psychological resilience and greater collective fatigue. It may be easier to divide us. And there’s nothing worse than that, as this is how we all may lose.”

    Most of the work regarding Ukraine’s accession to the EU is still to be done, reveals one of Ukraine’s leading European integration experts, European Pravda editor-in-chief Sergiy Sydorenko.

    The European Commission has acknowledged Ukraine’s accomplishments in reforming since the summer of 2022. But were these substantial reforms, or mostly bureaucratic?

    I strongly oppose the narrative that there is a difference between “true” and “paper-based” reforms. Most reforms are actually done in the spheres of legislative acts, and procedural changes, among others. In terms of reforms which can transform the country, often there is no element that is really tangible [to the people at large].

    If you take into account the situation in Ukraine, in a year’s time a lot has been done. Even EU bureaucrats who aren’t supportive of Ukraine have acknowledged this. But if we really want to join the EU, we are still doing too little too slowly. The amount of work to be done is about ten times larger than for us to become an associate member of the EU.

    Which key challenges do you see?

    If you are waiting for the words “anti-corruption” from me, I won’t say them. I think there will be harder challenges, but we can’t even imagine them now. For example, environmental reforms are usually really hard to implement. But maybe in Ukraine things will happen differently.

    Ukrainian politicians say it’s possible to end the EU accession talks in about two years. Is there any other country which has done such a large amount of work this fast?

    I don’t think two years and even four years are realistic. But comparing Ukraine to other countries is a trap: The EU has changed since its most recent substantial enlargement. It’s more loyal and faster in some things, such as accepting new members which are in its security interests. This is the situation now, though. If in France, for example, Marine Le Pen will become President instead of Emmanuel Macron, the story will change.

    An image of this railroad carriage, which is exhibited in one of Kyiv’s central squares, has gone viral in Ukraine. It was part of a special train that regularly evacuated Ukrainians from the almost-encircled city of Irpin in the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022. 

    On 3 March, the carriage was hit by shelling and badly damaged by shrapnel. Fortunately, there were no casualties and the train continued its journey.

    Before the war, the state railway company Ukrzaliznytsia was seen as a problem: inefficient, corrupt, opaque, and too big to be closed down due to its up to 400,000 employees. Several attempts to reform the company had failed. 

    In the crisis of the last two years, however, its shortcomings proved to be a lifesaver. As a centralised state structure, it is reliable and fast in evacuations. Its unprofitable and widespread network, with many branch lines, meant that for many communities in at-risk areas, the railways were sometimes the only way out of danger.

    And, despite the everyday challenges of life in Ukraine, there are no delays.

    If I were to describe the mood in Ukraine this October in one word, it would be “anticipation”. We know the Russian missiles will come. We are waiting for the enemy to try and deprive us of electricity, and, if it’s lucky, heat. We are aware our energy infrastructure is more fragile than last year and Russia is probably so short of missiles that it cannot afford to make mistakes.

    Last year, the first massive missile attack that targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure happened on 10 October. That evening, authorities in Ukraine asked the population to minimise their electricity consumption. A week later, after another attack, blackouts started, streets went dark, and one could find cafés and shops by the sound of the rumbling diesel generators powering them.

    Now, we are trying to be better prepared. Several of my friends tweaked their internet access to ensure the connection could last longer during outages. NGOs are supplying different communities and companies with charging stations which can power several devices for a day. I have also received one. Some people are insulating their houses and flats, so less heat can escape.

    But for power generation and transmission systems, it is hard to prepare. Power lines were restored after suffering damage, but repairing large generating or distributing facilities which were badly affected is costly and complicated. Sometimes it’s even better to build a new substation or thermal power plant, instead of repairing the old one. But this takes years ― which we obviously haven’t had since last winter.

    When I go to bed, I often think: maybe, this will be the night of the Russian attack? It will probably be massive, in order to overwhelm our anti-air system. Maybe, it will involve swarms of drones too. So far, the invader isn’t ready yet.

    When it will come, it won’t feel catastrophic. Our backyards are still dotted with generators, big and small. If we are unlucky this winter, the streets will just fill again with their humming.

    ― Yevhen Hlibovytsky, Ukrainian public intellectual and Ukrainian Public Broadcaster board member.

    All major political parties in Poland support Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion, so a victory for either the Law and Justice (PiS) party or the Civic Coalition-led opposition would have helped Kyiv.

    But in the weeks leading up to the elections, Ukraine-related issues became highly politicised in Poland, including the revival of past conflicts to questions about Ukrainian grain prices and refugees. By criticising Kyiv, PiS tried to attract more voters from poorer regions.

    A Ukraine-sceptic agenda was also adopted by the Polish public broadcaster TVP.

    This photo of graffiti with the word “Together” in Hebrew and Ukrainian, and the coats of arms of both nations recently went viral in Ukraine. 

    It was posted by Yigal Levin, former Israeli soldier and Ukrainian journalist, and gathered thousands of positive reactions. Ukrainians can relate to Israelis: the Hamas attack was as reckless and violent to civilians, as Russia’s full-scale invasion. Both Hamas and Russia want to annihilate the state they’ve invaded.

    Last year, Ukrainian officials and citizens voiced their disappointment with Israel‘s reaction to what Ukrainians see as a genocidal war. There were expectations that Israelis, who also faced existential threats, would generously support Kyiv with weapons, such as the “Iron Dome” air defense system.

    But Tel Aviv’s reaction was lukewarm, as Israel argued that it didn’t want to challenge a shaky balance in the Middle East region. Now, as war has returned to both the Middle East and Ukraine, both nations have got closer. In Israeli social media, there are now many signs of support for Ukraine.