How Ukraine’s invention and resilience confounds Russia

Years of adversity, public unity and private-sector creativity have made Ukraine a formidable enemy, writes Orysia Lutsevych.

The World Today Updated 22 November 2023 Published 3 February 2023 3 minute READ

Vladimir Putin is waging a war to destroy Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, he invaded the country with the aim of dismantling the Ukrainian state, eradicating its cultural identity and upending its aspirations to join the European Union.

His obsession lies with the medieval history of the Kyievan Rus’ civilization. When he says that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, what he really means is that only one is legitimate – the Russian people. He rejects the right of Ukraine to exist as an independent state, and it is this that drives him to conquer Kyiv.

An existential war

For Ukrainians, this is an existential war. They have mobilized with impressive endurance, revealing a resilience grown out of past struggles against imperial oppression, threats of autocracy in the post-Soviet period and decades of various reform efforts, especially after 2014’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’.

On the eve of the Russian invasion, Taras Yatsenko published a special edition of the Lviv Now online news hub with the headline ‘We will resist’. His contributors argued that Ukraine would fiercely fight because it was defending its own land while Putin was seeking to seize another’s. It declared that ‘every stone will become a weapon, every action … will demonstrate resistance, and every word … will sound like a manifesto of dignity and freedom’.

This past year has taken a heavy toll, however. Ukraine has lost nearly 40 per cent of its economy. Its Black Sea ports are blocked; trade routes to the EU are congested and overpriced; many grain storages have been burnt. The local currency, the hryvnia, has seen its value fall by 25 per cent. And it has unleashed a wave of refugees unseen since the Second World War. Some 15 million people have fled their home with half relocating within Ukraine and the rest seeking refuge in Europe.

Since the autumn, Russia has targeted Ukraine’s electricity grid to freeze the country into submission. And it has turned the rich Ukrainian soil, source of the world’s bread basket, into a vast minefield. The territory mined is greater than the size of Britain.

Americans have likened Ukraine’s creative military to MacGyver’s army

Then comes military losses which are still being counted. With the fierce fighting last summer, and more recently around Bakhmut and Soledar, it is thought Ukraine may have suffered 100,000 dead and wounded soldiers. Fresh graves across Ukrainian cemeteries glow with candles at night. The country is paying a huge price to defend its right to exist, but it remains defiant.

Yet Ukraine’s military resistance has proved to be agile and creative – from mounting weapons on vehicles thus improving range and mobility, to rejigging sensors so American equipment is compatible with old Soviet jets. Its armed forces have been likened to ‘MacGyver’s army’ by Americans in reference to the 1980s TV programme about an inventive agent who improvises with whatever comes to hand. 

Total mobilization

The formidable strength of Ukrainian resistance has come from total mobilization across society. Millions of citizens are doing their bit.

A vibrant network of civil society and voluntary organizations channel aid to displaced families and children and send support to military units on the front line, while cities are already planning reconstruction. A Chatham House survey of Ukrainian civil society in December 2022 showed that more than 60 per cent of groups have already contributed to reconstruction efforts. When Russia unleashed its war, little did it know that it was fighting a different Ukraine to that it faced eight years ago when it annexed Crimea.

Popular revolutions in 1991, 2004 and 2013 as well as the pandemic have taught Ukrainians to use their initiative

Collaboration has emerged from past experience of civic resistance movements. Three successful popular revolutions in 1991, 2004 and 2014, and the recent fight against the Covid pandemic fine-tuned Ukraine’s resilience and taught people to act without waiting for instructions.

Volodymyr Zelenksyy’s pre-war mission to digitalize public services via the Diia app has allowed digital ID cards, driving licence renewals, reports of destroyed property and business registrations all to be performed on one digital platform. Today, the Ukrainian railway system remains a reliable cargo and passenger operator. The banking system works well; and macroeconomic stability holds.

An adaptable private sector

The private sector has also adapted to deal with adversity. Years of economic instability, partly caused by trade wars that Russia has waged since 2003, taught Ukrainian companies to pursue new markets, innovate and adapt. In response to current energy shortages, almost half of food retail chains now have generators and the number of alternative energy supplies is continuing to grow. At the same time agricultural companies are finding alternative ways to export grain via Baltic Sea ports or the Romanian port of Constanța.

In Lviv, companies can claim back up to 50 per cent of the cost of a generator if they provide a space to allow people to warm up, have hot drinks, charge their mobile phone or use wi-fi. But western assistance to Ukraine’s private sector is paramount in the coming year if such resilience is to continue.

Small and medium companies lack access to finance with investors wary of a country at war, so financial support to companies already operating in Ukraine would be invaluable in maintaining jobs and sustaining morale. ‘It is time for international financial institutions to pay more attention to the private sector,’ said Konstantin Magaletskyi, co-founder of Green Recovery Fund Ukraine.

At present 90 per cent of western assistance goes to the state. A glimmer of hope is offered by the International Finance Corporation initiative that has launched a $2 billion package to boost resilience in the private sector.

Ukraine remains resolute in resisting Russian aggression because it deployed a ‘total defence’ approach, which combines both military and civilian components. In the first days of war more than 100,000 volunteered to join territorial defence units. They either provided major reinforcement to local police or mounted armed resistance to Russian invasion on their own. Many later joined the armed forces.

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Despite economic hardships, 72 per cent of Ukrainians donate money to support the resistance. On the day of an Iranian drone attack on the centre of Kyiv in October 2022, people donated more than £5.6 million to buy kamikaze drones for the Ukrainian army.

If Russia stops fighting, there is no war. If Ukraine stops fighting, there is no Ukraine

Popular Ukrainian saying

Ukrainians believe these short-term sacrifices are acceptable for what is at stake. Their confidence remains high, with more than 90 per cent believing in victory. They have no appetite for territorial concessions. Territories liberated from Russian occupation are full of mass graves and provide evidence of rape, torture and the illegal deportation of children.

No wonder only 18 per cent of Ukrainians are ready to trade territorial concessions for peace. A popular saying goes: ‘If Russia stops fighting, there is no war. If Ukraine stops fighting, there is no Ukraine.’

So, Ukraine continues resisting, defending itself and in turn Europe. After nine years of fighting Russia, it has overcome what many in the West still fear – fear itself.