Ukraine’s army, politics, economy, and citizenry have all been transformed by six months of war

24 August, 10:30 PM
Ukrainian celebrate Independence Day amid war (Photo:REUTERS / Valentyn Ogirenko)

Ukrainian celebrate Independence Day amid war (Photo:REUTERS / Valentyn Ogirenko)

Kyiv’s central Khreshchatyk Street was full of Russian armor – tanks, APCs, and so on – days before the 31st anniversary of Ukrainian independence on Aug. 24.

Capital locals were unfazed by the display, however. Crowds congregated around the display of Russian military prowess, gawking and taking pictures. Every piece of enemy military equipment has long been neutralized by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), and isn’t much more than a rusting pile of scrap metal. The exhibit in the very heart of Kyiv aimed to raise public morale.

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“That’s the only kind of military parade Russia can expect in Ukraine,” said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Days earlier, The Washington Post printed a series of articles on Russian war preparations. According to them, the Kremlin expected to seize two-thirds of Ukraine, with Kyiv falling within three to four days of the invasion.

Russian special operations forces were then supposed to “remove” Zelenskyy from office, physically liquidating him, “if necessary.” A puppet government would then be set up, under the total control of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

The “parade” of rusting remnants of Russian tanks on Khreshchatyk was a vivid illustration of just how spectacularly Moscow’s plan has backfired.

“I can’t wrap my head around what they expected, launching the attack on Ukraine on Feb. 24,” military observer Denys Popovych told NV.

Popovych said that perhaps Russia expected Ukrainians to greet Moscow’s troops as liberators, with the Ukrainian army regiments switching sides en masse.

“That was a categorically wrong assessment of the situation on the ground,” he added.

“That’s the analysis they based their invasion plans on.”

Besides the AFU, Ukrainian society as a whole has resisted the invasion, precluding Moscow from getting even close to its war aims after six months of fighting.

According to Ukraine’s General Staff, Russian losses exceed 45,000 troops, so far.

Ukraine has lost 9,000 troops, in comparison, Commander-in-Chief of the AFU Valerii Zaluzhnyi said recently.

“The stench of death is unmistakable; it’s the bitter taste of tears, and we remain in constant hell these days,” Zaluzhnyi said during a meeting with Ukrainian veterans on Aug. 22.

The “constant hell” across Ukraine endures for over 180 days now, touching the life of every Ukrainian, one way or another. Besides the AFU, the Territorial Defense Force, volunteers, medics, and millions of ordinary citizens are all doing their bit to aid and support Ukrainian forces. According to Zelenskyy, virtually no corner of Ukraine remained unmarred by the war, as Russia has launched 3,500 missiles, striking cities and towns across the country, not to mention relentless air strikes and artillery barrages.

War has become the determining factor in the development of Ukrainian society and economy, transforming both. Back in spring, many Ukrainians felt it would all be over quickly. By now, it’s become clear that a long struggle lies ahead.

Society and army

The Ukrainian society has consolidated and united during the six months of war, according to Maria Zolkina, head of the security research department at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF).

DIF’s recent polling data suggests that 72.5% of Ukrainians are untied by their shared confidence in the country’s eventual victory.

A large-scale volunteer movement has emerged to fill the gaps in the army’s supply and logistics – just as it did back in 2014.

Come Back Alive – one of the most prominent war charities – has been officially permitted to do armament procurement for the benefit of the Ukrainian army. TV host and activist Serhiy Prytula raised UAH 600 million ($16.3 million) to buy a radio-imaging satellite – a major intelligence tool for the AFU. Scores of less prominent initiatives and organizations are actively working to alleviate the burden on Ukrainian troops and civilians.

The usual squabbles between civil society and government have taken a back seat during the war, Zolkina noted.

The pre-2014 east-west Ukrainian divide is no more. The Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas has shattered the old order of eastern and southern Ukraine favoring economic ties with post-Soviet states, with western regions advocating European integration. Nevertheless, even as many Ukrainians soured on Russia in 2014, they didn’t exactly become convinced that the country’s destiny lies westward.

“They became disillusioned with Russia, but didn’t joint the pro-EU camp,” Zolkina explains.

Now, nearly 90% of people (excluding occupied Crimea and parts of Donbas) support EU integration.

“The war with Russia has forced the Ukrainian society to finally make a decisive choice.”

In its turn, Brussels has also finally recognized Kyiv’s European aspirations: Ukraine became an EU candidate member on June 23.

It’s far from being a purely symbolic gesture, according to Managing Director of the Union of Ukrainian Entrepreneurs (UUE) Kateryna Glazkova. EU candidacy increases Ukraine’s chances of attracting foreign investment and partnerships.

Democracy House analyst Anatoli Oktysyuk notes that Ukrainians are adapting to wartime conditions. Many, who have left the country in February-March, have since returned, and are once again making plans for the future, even as the war is still ongoing.

Russia, meanwhile, has lost the last of its influence in Ukraine.

“The scale of decoupling from Russia is so staggering, it will be impossible to restore this influence,” said Oktysyuk. The recent introduction of a visa travel regime for Russian citizens enjoys wide public support in Ukraine.

Even the domestic political opposition has felt compelled to pause criticism of the government and political point-scoring against the sitting president. Zelenskyy’s status as the symbol of national resistance is a matter of social consensus. Any attempts to rock the president’s boat would be seen as doing Kremlin’s dirty work.

“Society will respond sharply negatively to anyone resuming political bickering,” Oktysyuk explains.

This dynamic outlines one of the major long-term socio-political challenges for Ukraine, according to Zolkina. Any potential disillusionment with the country’s political and military leadership should not dissuade individuals from working towards Ukraine’s victory.

It’s important “to volunteer, to work, to donate, to fight – not for the government, but for the country,” Zolkina believes.

The Ukrainian army was well-regarded by the citizenry even before Feb. 24, and institution’s public approval has only grown since.

The AFU is also undergoing an unprecedented wartime modernization, transitioning to Western military equipment, as Kyiv’s allies continue to expand arms shipments. Western-made armor, artillery, and “celebrity” weapon systems like HIMARS rocket artillery have bridged the gap between Ukraine’s and Russia’s military capabilities.

Ukraine continues to follow its strategy of defense-in-depth, but the AFU will eventually have to go on the offensive across at least parts of the battlefield.

“We have even begun to scratch the sacred Crimea; even a month ago it was considered to be off-limits,” said Popovych.

Ukrainian insurgents and guerrillas are ever more active in occupied areas of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts.

Russian military tactics remains unchanged: heavy artillery concentration at specific frontline segments.

Ukrainian forces remain dependent on the pace and volume of Western shipments of weapons and ammunition.

“Even if we had 100 HIMARS, they would be just pieces of real estate without sufficient ammo,” Popovych explains.

As Russians continue to make liberal use of their ammunition reserves, logistics has become AFU’s first and foremost concern.

Ukrainians expect the liberation of their lands – at least in the south – in near future, and this sentiment presents another challenge, warns Zolkina. Society has to psychologically prepare for a more painful, protracted scenario.

“It’s crucial for people not shut the war out, should it drag on,” said the expert.

Business and economy

The resilience of Ukraine’s financial sector is the most surprising revelation to emerge from the war, according to Executive Director of the Center for Economic Strategy (CES) Hlib Vyshlinsky.

Both the current and former leadership of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) deserve credit for it. The central bank has ensured that cashless payments remained operational, and immediately enacted a prepared playbook to deal with financial instability on Feb. 24. Major commercial banks and the Treasury have also played their part.

“If Ukrainian banks started to crumble, payments seized up, and the USD to UAH exchange rate soared to UAH 100 per $1 – everything would have been much worse,” said Vyshlinsky.

The private sector similarly acted responsibly, just as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic. Realizing there’s no one to bail them out, businesses started to resume operations wherever possible. Naturally, this doesn’t include enterprises suffering from the kinetic consequences of war: those physically destroyed or relying on maritime trade. Nevertheless, Ukrainian businesses adapted to the new normal much more quickly, as many foreign companies still have their Ukraine operations suspended.

In Glazkova’s estimation, Ukrainian entrepreneurs have gone beyond simply adapting; they’ve become the bedrock of the national economy. They continue to manufacture and distribute a wide range of goods for both military and civilian use, and are deeply involved with various volunteer movements.

The private sector surprised itself by how resilient it turned out to be. Over half of UUE members said they can operate for two more months at most, back in April. But three months later, 35.7% of them resumed operations, nearly 24% reported growth, with only 12% being shut down or nearing collapse. Some companies relocated to relatively more safe parts of the country.

The situation remains dire for farmers: there’s often no way to export their produce, or even store it.

Vyshlinsky warns of tougher times still: macroeconomic stability is an ever-growing concern, as the government is running a $4-5 billion monthly deficit, sapping the NBU’s reserves and potentially causing rampant inflation.

Energy will be another challenge Ukraine is to face this winter, Oktysyuk added.

Glazkova notes that employee safety, a decline in paying customers, and 35% unemployment all compound economic risks for the country.

“It’s a vicious cycle: companies can’t boost employment, as they can’t guarantee their employees’ safety,” she explains.

“Workers will lose their incomes, driving down consumption, further depressing business growth.”

Rebuilding Ukraine will require private investment in the economy, according to Vyshlinsky.

“Without investment, fighting a protracted war, we will remain stuck in the current state of partial restoration,” he concludes.

Despite the historic challenges Ukraine faces, its citizens remain optimistic about the country’s future. According to polling by Razumkov Center, 65.5% of Ukrainians are “hopeful” about their future, and 40% are “optimistic.” Only 23.5%, however, say they are “confident” about what’s in store for them.

A record 90% of respondents say they are “proud” of their citizenship.

To summarize: six months into the full-scale war, Ukraine has seen Russia occupy some territories, but Moscow has lost what remained of its political and economic influence over Ukraine for good. The Ukrainian nation has consolidated and stands ready for the fight still ahead.

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