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After two years of war, a reminder of what Ukrainians are fighting for

As the world switches the channel to focus on the Middle East, Ukrainian-born ZOYA SHEFTALOVICH calls on Kyiv’s Western allies not to look away.
Zoya Sheftalovich
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Man with camera walking through refuse from destroyed buildings

Photographer and filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov walks through the devastated Ukraine landscape (20 Days in Mariupol)

Published: 8 February 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

As the world switches the channel to focus on the Middle East, Ukrainian-born ZOYA SHEFTALOVICH calls on Kyiv’s Western allies not to look away.

Two years of death. Two years of missiles falling on apartment blocks in Kyiv. Two years of lives disrupted, of families separated, of children stolen, of pain and trauma, of unspeakable loss. But also two years of courage. Two years of beating the odds. Two years of freedom, of resistance, of sovereignty. Two years of pride in my fellow Ukrainians, who have managed to fight back against a much larger force seeking to wipe our culture and our country off the face of the earth.

I was born in Chernivtsi, a gorgeous city in western Ukraine affectionately dubbed “Little Vienna” by locals. I migrated to Australia among the wave of Jews who fled the crumbling remnants of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s to seek a better life in the West.

I’ve watched from afar as the countries that emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union pursued varying paths for their futures. There were those that marched toward democracy and the rule of law, and right into the heart of the European Union — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. There were those that switched one form of autocracy for another — Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan.

Ukraine, meanwhile, found itself among the countries stuck somewhere in between; its people repeatedly pulling it Westward, while a string of Kremlin-friendly rulers tugged it back toward Russia’s clutches. A thousand times, I had sworn off hoping Ukrainians would finally get the government they deserved, rather than the one bought and paid for by the Kremlin. Still, hope dies last.

In President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine finally found a head of state not beholden to Putin and his vast, ill-gotten resources. It now has an army willing to fight for so-called Western values and to hold back the dark forces that seek to subvert them. And it has a people who refuse to be cowed into submission or to give up on democracy in exchange for relative safety.

But after two years of relentless attacks, of hybrid warfare, of disinformation, Ukraine’s allies appear to have grown tired of its existential battle for survival. Western governments, who vowed to support Kyiv for “as long as it takes”, have become weary of the costs involved with following through on that pledge. Inflation, elections, protesting farmers, the October 7 Hamas attacks and the war in Gaza that followed — all vying for real estate at the top of the news agenda and on government budgets.

The cash Ukraine needs to keep its economy afloat and the weapons it requires to continue holding off Russia’s forces are drying up.

Two years ago, Ukraine was the only thing anyone wanted to talk to me about. I was a magnet at any panel, gathering or dinner I went to, peppered with questions about Ukraine’s military tactics and battlefield progress, asked for insights on Zelenskyy’s thinking, or on Putin’s. Those days are long gone. A couple of months ago, I spoke at a fundraiser for Ukraine — but afterwards, the only real topic of conversation among those milling in the room was the Israel-Hamas war.

I get it, I do. People are ready to change the channel, to move on to the next crisis. And as they do, the cash Ukraine needs to keep its economy afloat and the weapons it requires to continue holding off Russia’s forces are drying up.

In the US, where campaigning is in full swing ahead of the November presidential election, billions of dollars for Ukraine have been caught up in party-political congressional haggling. In the European Union, a pledge to send a million shells to Ukraine by this March has been kicked months down the road, while an aggressive campaign by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s best friend in the bloc, to stand in the way of an aid package has drastically delayed its delivery. And in Australia, the government insists on dismantling and burying its retired fleet of Taipan helicopters, despite Kyiv’s pleas for them to be sent to Ukraine instead.

It was easy to back Ukraine when its heroic President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was able to command headlines with every utterance, every speech, every surprise appearance at the Grammys or the Cannes Film Festival. It was easy, when Ukraine appeared to seize the upper hand during its roaring Kharkiv counteroffensive back in the late summer and early autumn of 2022.

It is hard to continue to back Ukraine two years later, as Western governments’ domestic woes mount, economic crises come and go, as the battlelines become further entrenched.

That is of course precisely what Putin has been counting on, though no doubt it took far longer than he expected it to — for the tough to get going as soon as the going got tough.

But bombs still fall on apartment buildings in Kyiv. Ukrainians are still being killed and maimed. There are still civilians surviving — not living, you must understand, but somehow surviving — in occupied territories. The documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, showing at Antenna Documentary Festival in Sydney next week, is a brutal, vital reminder of what is at stake, after two long years of war. Of the suffering doled out by the Russian invaders, of the terror, the agony, the cruelty and the injustice of living under Putin’s occupation. And of the indominable spirit of the Ukrainian people, who are ready to give up their lives for freedom and for democracy — as they wait for their Western allies to fulfil their promise to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to help them.

For more on the Ukraine War, watch 20 Days in Mariupol at the Antenna Documentary Festival in Sydney next Tuesday 13 February.

About the author

Zoya Sheftalovich is POLITICO’s Global Playbook Editor.


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