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Thinking Through the War in Ukraine

One Ukrainian expat’s perspective on Putin’s war in her homeland.

Words: Kate Leahy Voigts
Pictures: Emil Karlsen

Sumy, Ukraine, February 2022: “At the start of the year, I was certain Putin was going to invade. My family and friends thought I was crazy. They said he was just bluffing and wanted attention. Then on Thursday, the 24th of February, my 81-year-old mother awoke to see Russian tanks in the streets of our town. I wish I’d been wrong, but I wasn’t.”

My friend Anna is married to a retired US soldier. I met her when we were stationed in Germany together with the US Army. Anna and Daniel now live in Huntsville, Alabama, along with their beautiful 13-year-old daughter, Heather. We recently spoke about the war in her home country and talked about what life is like for her mother, brother, and his family. We discussed Presidents Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin, her past and future predictions about the beginning and end of the conflict, and what “recovery” for Ukraine may look like. She was candid, insightful, sometimes tearful, mostly stoic, vulnerable, hard, pragmatic, and resolved. She is proud, strong, and lovely.

These are her thoughts, in her own words:

Daily Life In Sumy, Then And Now

The city of Sumy is in the center of the oblast of the same name. There are 24 oblasts, or mini-states, in Ukraine. Sumy’s in the northeastern part of the country. When I was growing up, the population was about 350,000. I had everything a girl could want — theaters, parks, museums, and libraries. Before the war, the primary work was in agriculture, but there was also a successful manufacturing industry, including a big chemical factory and a turbine plant.

The first time I traveled to Ukraine with my husband, Daniel, I wanted him to meet my family and friends. I also wanted to take him to my favorite places. There are — or were — a lot of beautiful Russian orthodox churches in the area. Churches are really the soul of our country. The Psel River runs through Sumy; it’s a very family-oriented place where people go to meet friends, picnic, and rest.

Anna, her sister-in-law, Heather’s godmother, and a college friend enjoying the special day by having a picnic at Psel River, Sumy in May 2010.

I also wanted him to see Kyiv, which is only about 200 miles from Sumy, although it takes five to six hours to get there because of poor road conditions.

Typical street scene from Kyiv. Photo was taken by Daniel on his first visit there with Anna on May 15, 2010.

I last visited Ukraine four or five years ago, before COVID-19. We were preparing to leave Germany for Daniel’s next military assignment in the United States, so we took the short two-hour flight from Frankfurt to Kyiv. Heather wasn’t with us, as we’d sent her back to the United States a few weeks earlier in anticipation of our upcoming move.

Heather has been to Ukraine just once when she was just one or two years old, so she has no memory of it. On that visit, we had her baptized. In the early days of the war, there was television footage from Sumy of a burning bombed church. I believe it was the church where Heather was christened.

Heather’s Orthodox christening at Anna’s home church in Sumy. An intimate event, with just a dozen close family members and friends invited. Taken in May 2010.

My mom, brother, his wife, and two children live in Sumy. I also have cousins, uncles, and friends there. My mother turned 82 in December 2022. She’s virtually immobile and can’t leave her apartment, so she relies on others 95% of the time. My brother brings essentials to her, as do her neighbors. Before winter, I could talk with her about twice a week. Sometimes we text but using a mobile phone is hard for her. Sometimes I’ll call, and it’s dark, and I can hear the missiles in the background, and then the call just ends.

Lack of electricity due to the missile strikes is the biggest issue. The lights are usually on in the morning from 5 am to 7 am and again from 10 am to noon. There’s no electricity during the night. Without electricity, you can’t cook or wash clothes. Sometimes you can’t make a phone call.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this war will finish in the near future. I think it will go on for a few more years.

It’s very cold in Ukraine now. My brother has been trying to buy sleeping bags for the family to stay warm, but they cost $50 or more each, which is a whole month’s salary. On television, I’ve seen huge containers of US Army sleeping bags being shipped to Ukraine, but they aren’t given to the people, they have to buy them. The same is true for food and medication sent to Ukraine. Most people attribute this fact to ongoing corruption issues.

My mother-in-law recently stood in line for a few hours outside her church to get a coupon to take to a distribution center for an aid package. If you’re immobile like my mother, this isn’t an option. If you’re old and don’t have family, you’re pretty much done. I can’t ship a package to my family because it can’t be delivered. The only packages allowed are from overseas organizations sent to Ukrainian organizations. Most of the help that is actually getting to the people is coming from churches in the United States.

People are buying camping stoves to cook their food. The biggest issue if you can even get a stove is finding the propane canisters. People are using the stoves inside their homes, and it’s very dangerous. In terms of electricity, for my relatives in Kyiv, it’s even worse. They have fewer hours of electricity because it’s a big city with more people to support. In Odessa, they’ve had many consecutive days without any electricity.

For the first three to four months of the war, people weren’t able to go to work because of the active fighting throughout the country, but they still needed money to live. Most Ukrainians don’t have any savings to rely on like here in the United States. My brother works as the maintenance director for what in the United States would best compare to a mall. It has restaurants, a movie theater, bowling, and an arcade with video games. The war has made it very difficult for this kind of business because people don’t have extra money to spend on leisure activities anymore. Sometimes it’s open, sometimes it’s not. When it’s not open he doesn’t get paid. His wife was co-owner of a store that sold clothing and lingerie. No one has money for fancy lingerie or high-end brand clothing, so now my sister-in-law works in a grocery store.

When people are at work, and the missiles start raining in, everyone has to go into the streets or to a shelter. The employers don’t want the liability of people inside their buildings. It’s crazy; people standing in the streets as they’re being bombed.

Inflation is out of control. Mom gets a monthly pension of 3000 hryvnia (the Ukrainian currency), which is about $80. A pound of meat costs over $5 and utilities are 600-700 hundred hryvnia a month. If I didn’t send money, she couldn’t survive. But I couldn’t send money for the first six months of the war because the financial lines were closed. When things finally opened up, I contacted our bank and was told there’d be a $55 transfer fee, regardless of the amount I sent, and they couldn’t guarantee it would get there. Five or six months after the start of the war, Western Union opened up. The money I send now can be no more than half in dollars, with the remainder in hryvnia.

It would be better for my family to get it all in dollars because from the time I send it until it arrives the Ukrainian currency is further devalued. Some Ukrainian banks require patrons to have an Intercontinental Exchange account number. Regular people don’t have those. My mom can’t walk to the bank to set up all that paperwork. When I send money, I have to let my brother know the amount I’m sending, and he has to inform the receiving bank so they can request the funds from the Ukrainian central bank.

On The Presidents And The Propaganda Machine 

I was certain Putin would invade because of the build-up of forces along the border and the training taking place, but most Ukrainian people thought he wouldn’t.

On the night before the invasion, I spoke with my mother, and she still didn’t believe it would happen.  The next morning, there were tanks in the streets.

I think most Ukrainians didn’t believe Putin would invade because even though Ukraine and Russia are two different countries, they are so intertwined. The Ukrainian and Russian people have been so connected with family members in both countries: a sister in Ukraine, a brother in Russia. My mom thought he was just posturing to get attention.

Around the Sumy oblast there are three bordering Russian provinces. The Ukrainian people thought “would they really shoot at us?” It was incomprehensible. That said, about two years before the war started, many families and friends who were geographically separated started growing apart. They stopped talking with one another and didn’t visit each other anymore. That change had a lot to do with the Russian propaganda machine.

It wasn’t just the regular people who were naïve, the Ukrainian government was fooled too. Every military person should have known this was not a game when watching the Russian military build-up.  The Ukrainian people should have been alerted so they could better prepare. I don’t know exactly how they would have prepared, but they weren’t prepared at all.

About two years before the war started, many families and friends who were geographically separated started growing apart. They stopped talking with one another and didn’t visit each other anymore. That change had a lot to do with the Russian propaganda machine.

Putin is a dictator. His propaganda — and the way he sees the world — is insane. The Russian propaganda message is that every country, other than China, is against Russia. The messages are all about how the West is corrupt, has no values, and is focused on things like transgender education, LBGTQ rights, and the destruction of Russia. Putin thinks Ukraine is now a Western country that wants to destroy Russia. Every level of Russian society believes that because it’s all they hear. For example, the views of my friends and relatives who live in Russia are very extreme and based on Russian propaganda.

Russian churches are now basically government organizations, so people hear the same messages even when they go to church. Inside Russia, outside of the big cities, people can’t move freely. There are no decent roads, people use wood to heat their homes, and there’s very little Internet. People are largely uneducated, and most of the information they receive is censored.

In the beginning, many of the Russian soldiers sent to Ukraine were just kids. They thought they were on a military exercise and then they found out they were inside Ukraine. Others truly believed the Ukrainian people would meet them with bread and flowers as liberators from fascists. Most of the draftees are from the rural areas, not from Moscow and the bigger cities. Russian inmates have been released from prison to fight in Ukraine. There’s been a lot of looting. I was told a man was tortured by Russian soldiers because they wanted his VCR. He said, “we don’t have a VCR, we have Netflix.” They asked, “What is Netflix?” He explained it was through the Internet and they asked, “What is Internet?” The Russian soldiers also take washing machines, clothes dryers, women’s underwear, televisions, and hairdryers. Many could never afford these things and in some cases have never seen them before.

Putin wants the Soviet Empire back together. He’s never tried to cover that up. People should have trusted what he said he intended to do and not been so naïve. When Putin went to the Olympics on President Jinping Xi’s invitation, I thought he would invade right after the games. My family and friends were laughing when I said that, and then when the Olympics were over, he invaded. I also believe when Putin saw the US withdraw from Afghanistan, he thought he could invade Ukraine and nothing would happen. The US withdrawal was confirmation for Putin that no one would stop him.

I think Zelenskyy has risen to the occasion. Initially many people didn’t respect him because of his background as an actor and comedian. He was not a statesman and maybe not competent to run things. Corruption is a big issue in Ukraine and Zelenskyy was elected because people were tired of it. It came down to “anyone but Poroshenko.” Ukraine is a new democracy, and it’s hard to escape corruption as it’s a part of the country’s history. Zelenskyy’s election really pissed off Putin. Putin has watched Zelenskyy’s reform efforts grow and economic ties to the West increase, and he views this as a big threat to his regime. Putin’s growing more and more frustrated.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this war will finish in the near future. I think it will go on for a few more years. Putin needs to go, and the influence of the Russian military-industrial complex needs to be reduced. We, Ukrainians, went through a lot in the 1990s. We wanted to be free, we didn’t want to be Russians. My generation: we remember no lights, we remember food lines. We know how to suffer and survive.

It’s hard for Ukraine to go on the offensive. We are constrained by rules from Europe and the West in exchange for the help that’s being provided. Missiles come in every day to various parts of the country and Ukrainians can see Russians shooting from right across the border. They can intercept the missiles, but they can’t go on the offensive. It’s very frustrating for people.

Regarding recovery, I think it’ll take 50-70 years after the war ends. Some big companies may come and invest and make a profit, but it won’t help ordinary people. I really don’t see a future in Ukraine. The Ukrainian population numbered about 43 million before the war. Now so many people are displaced. Maybe the older people will return, or the people who still have something left. Some wives with young children may return to reunite with the men who stayed to fight. I don’t think young people will come back. They’re going to school and getting good jobs outside Ukraine. A lot of the workforce is lost, which will be a big problem for recovery.

The Grey Areas

I asked Anna what she most wanted war watchers to know. She thinks it’s important to remember Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal, which at the time was the world’s third largest, for the promise of protection by both Russia and the West. She said that it was an agreement that the Ukrainian people believed would be honored.

Throughout the war, there’s been a lot of discussion about NATO’s Article V, which states, “an attack on one is an attack on all,” and how that doesn’t apply because Ukraine isn’t a NATO member. This is very black and white. But when it comes to the agreement about Ukraine relinquishing its nuclear arsenal, the same clear lines aren’t drawn. Sometimes it seems the West picks and chooses what’s black and white and what’s a grey area.

Anna said that Ukraine’s people are very grateful for the help from the West. Without it, Ukraine wouldn’t stand a chance against Russia. Her final thought was, “Thanks to Elon Musk for Starlink!”

I thanked my friend for her candor and for sharing her insights on the human cost of war, as it’s being waged in our faces 5000 miles away.

Kate Leahy Voigts

Kate Leahy Voigts is a retired Army Major General. She's served in senior staff and command positions both in the United States and overseas in Iraq, South Korea, Germany, and Italy. Before her recent retirement, she was the military deputy to the US Army’s Senior Intelligence Officer at the Pentagon. Kate is now a senior US Army War College mentor and a RAND adjunct staff member.

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