I spent most of April and some of May traveling around Ukraine, visiting the cities of Uzhgorod, Lviv, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Odessa.
As with my other travels, I’ll write down thoughts and observations from my experiences, conversations, and research that I found interesting. I want to say upfront that I don’t think I have any brilliant insights on Ukraine or the war. If you consider yourself fairly unknowledgeable about the war (like I was before going to Ukraine), hopefully you’ll come away with a better understanding of the nature of the conflict and what it’s like on the ground.
I have no idea what this says, but it’s right next to the most famous town square in Ukraine.
Why Go to Ukraine?
I had been planning a long Eurasian trip for months. Originally, I was going to take the trans-Siberian railroad, but travel in and out of Russia is iffy and expensive now for Americans. So I pivoted to a general Europe/Middle East/maybe Central Asian trip. Ukraine is currently one of the most interesting places in the world, so after landing in Hungary, that was my first stop.
I chose to go to Ukraine because I thought doing so would be a fascinating form of travel and to help out the humanitarian crisis or war effort in whatever small way I could.
I have never been in a country at war (unless you count the United States), and I doubt I will get a chance to do so besides Ukraine. If another war breaks out in, for instance, Syria, a white American like me can’t waltz in and take pictures. Even if I could get a visa, everyone would think I’m in the CIA or something. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been extremely receptive to international support, and is still running a normal visa regime (except presumably for Russians and maybe Byelorussians). I was even able to get press credentials from the Ukrainian government due to some professional writing I’ve done.
So I talked to a Ukrainian friend of mine living in America and asked him about the situation on the ground, if he had any contacts I could meet with, and if there was anything I could do to help. He put me in touch with a civilian organization in Ukraine which distributes supplies to the military, and with a friend of his who is fighting in the Territorial Defense Force (basically the Ukrainian National Guard). A friend, a family member, and myself pooled money to buy combat tourniquets and gloves, while my Ukrainian friend bought a drone and some clothes which I packed into a duffel bag and brought to Europe. Most of the material went to the organization, and some went directly to the Territorial Defense Force guy.
(To my eternal shame, I forgot to bring the clothes, but I got them shipped later.)
I realize that this is not the most efficient possible way to help Ukraine by Effective Altruist standards. While planning my trip, I was also concerned that I might harm Ukraine in some way by travelling there, either by consuming scarce resources, or just generally getting in the way.
Having spent almost a month there, I am confident I was a net positive, both from the materials I brought, and from pumping a little money into the desolate tourist economy. As far as I can tell, I didn’t take up space on trains or in hostels which would otherwise have been occupied by soldiers or refugees. Everyone I met in Ukraine was extremely nice, many were thankful, and they welcomed international travelers.
What’s It Like On the Ground?
Uzhgorod, Lviv, Dnipro, and Odessa
In Uzhgorod, Lviv, Dnipro, and Odessa it is easy to forget that a war is going on. I’d estimate 90%+ stores are still open. People work, chill in cafes, and go out at night to bars and restaurants. There are some soldiers walking around, most of the police carry assault rifles, and you’ll come across the occasional street blockade or checkpoint. Still, life mostly functions like normal.
Uzhgorod is considered the safest major city in Ukraine and to my knowledge it has not been hit by any Russian attacks. Dnipro was subject to a few bombings, especially earlier in the war, and its airport was destroyed. Lviv was hit a few times but there was no major damage. Nearly all of the bombings in Dnipro and Lviv were on the outskirts and the vast majority of citizens are so far unaffected. Still, there are sandbags piled up in front of windows of government buildings and some corporate stores, presumably to protect from shrapnel in case of artillery strikes or bombings.
There are curfews even in these more peaceful parts of Ukraine. It varies by city and has changed over time, but when I was around, the curfew was 10PM-5 or 6AM. Almost everything is closed an hour beforehand, so the city is pretty desolate at night beside the police/military. A Spaniard at one of my hostels didn’t get back before curfew started and the cops yelled at her, but she was fine.
The one time I was out after curfew was when I arrived in Dnipro at midnight. All of the lights were shut off, presumably to limit bombing targeting, so it was striking to see a sky full of stars in a city that normally housed 1 million people. Fortunately, I had a friend in the city who has contacts in the police, so four police officers with assault rifles found me in the dark of the train station, marched me to a police car, and drove me through eerily empty streets for fifteen minutes to my friend’s apartment. Riders on a Storm was playing on the radio, and it was oddly fitting.
An odd side effect of the curfew is that everyone goes out to eat/drink earlier. In Dnipro, the bars were packed by 6PM, and by 9PM felt more like 1AM in an ordinary bar. There were a lot of drunk people waiting on huge lines near bus stops trying to catch the last rides back home before curfew. Taxis were making bank.
I couldn’t find any official figures, but Dnipro was somewhat depopulated. It is located in the middle of the country and is considered a major Russian strategic target, so a significant number of people left. It was difficult for me to feel the loss, but others said it was less crowded than usual.
In contrast, much of Lviv and Uzhgorod (both in the west, near the Polish and Hungarian borders respectively) were more crowded than usual due to the influx of refugees. There was also a noticeable gender and age imbalance – significantly more women, children, and older people, fewer younger men.
Ukraine pretty much always looks grey, even when the sun is out.
I arrived in Kyiv about a week after the Russian forces had retreated from the city. They never actually got into the city center, but had occupied or fought over much of the outskirts and suburbs, nearly encircling the city. So security was understandably much higher here than the other cities. There were soldiers, strategic checkpoints and roadblocks, and entrenched positions with sandbags and small bunkers throughout the city. Most of the positions were still manned, some had been emptied. Most of the major roads had concrete barriers, Czech hedgehogs, or sandbags which formed snaking corridors that forced cars to slow to navigate. Military trucks and convoys constantly drove through the city.
I’d estimate 50% of the stores, cafes, bars, and restaurants were closed. Generally, the farther west the location, the more openings. All of the museums and tourist sites were closed. Most statues, including large ones in the middle of squares or parks, were completely encased in sandbags and/or wooden crates to protect them from bombings. St. Michaels, one of Kyiv’s major churches, was closed, but I talked my way inside past a rather nice soldier.
Curfew was 10PM for most of the time I was there, but was raised to 11PM before I left. Almost everything was closed by 8PM, but one Turkish restaurant and one Cuban bar stayed open almost to curfew and were always packed with journalists and locals alike.
Through a journalist I met in my hostel, I managed to join a local charity on a convoy to deliver supplies to people who had stayed behind in the northern and eastern suburbs and had lived under Russian occupation. The convoy consisted of a big pick up truck, a U-Haul type truck with food and medicine, and two cars which carried about ten Ukrainian soldiers who escorted us.
Most of these outlying towns were deserted, but some had a handful of people left who had lived without electricity, internet, or a reliable food supply for months. Most were older and didn’t want to leave their homes behind. There wasn’t too much apparent damage for the most part, just broken window and fences here and there. One store had a few bullet holes and the inside was smashed up from some Russian soldiers who raided it. Some bridges were collapsed. I saw maybe a dozen blown up Russian troop carriers and tanks on the roads. I didn’t see any dead people, though there were two dead horses.
At the end of the trip, we went to Bucha, a site now infamous for the killing and raping of Ukrainian citizens. The destruction is far more apparent here; lots of collapsed buildings, rubble, holes in structures, etc. The place seemed deserted aside from soldiers and some aid workers camped out in ruins. The soldiers accompanying our convoy showed us an artillery shell or bomb (I’m not sure which) which hit a cemetery and didn’t explode.
The most fascinating part was walking through the remnants of the Russian encampments. A lot of the Russian soldiers settled into forests, digging trenches and bunkers into the soil. They left behind boxes, food, utensils, clothes, toothbrushes, random tools, and lots of miscellaneous stuff. Here’s one particular item I’m sure they will miss:
The area seemed safe as we were travelling around; I think Russian forces had pulled back behind their border 50+ KM away, north of Chernobyl. But the main concern for the locals was leftover mines. Some minefields had already been identified and were marked with signs, but the Ukrainians hadn’t had the time to check everywhere. We were told never to walk off the roads unless a soldier checked the area in front of us. This made for one of the most nerve-wrecking pisses of my life.
Kharkiv has been under attack since the war began, and as of writing this in early May, it is still on the front.
The war was more apparent here than anywhere else. I’d say 99% of stores were closed, rendering a city which once held almost 1.5 million people a ghost town. There were two cafes open near the train station and no other place to buy meals. The nearest supermarket to my hostel had maybe 10% of its shelves full and only allowed a handful of people in at a time (though another supermarket I found was about 50% full). There were few people on the streets and few cars, especially as I went more eastward or northward where the front is still active.
I heard artillery as soon as I walked out of the train station. The journalist with me explained which booms were from Ukrainian artillery and which were from the Russians. Basically, the quieter booms were the Ukrainians shooting at the Russians about 20 KM from the city center, and the louder ones were the Russians lobbying artillery into the city. Both could be heard throughout most of the days at regular intervals.
One of the cafes near the train station became the go-to spot for what little socializing was available. I met several Foreign Legion soldiers and they were more than happy to tell me about their experiences for a cup of coffee. I also hung out with some Ukrainian soldiers, one officer who seemed to want to practice his English, and a meteorologist who lost his job because the meteorology center got hit by artillery.
Curfew was 8PM-6AM. They few open shops closed by 7PM, and the city was practically deserted thereafter.
Quite a few sites were bombed out in the city center, including most notably the city council building. I went there with the journalist and there were no soldiers or workers of any sort, so we walked through the whole thing, all the way up to the 6th floor.
We also walked through a bombed-out school, which I guess caught fire and burned down because there was ash everywhere. Teenagers still hung out in its playground.
On two occasions, I accompanied my journalist companion to Saltovka, a region on the eastern outskirt of the city. A military blockade on a bridge divided the area between the active front where fighting continued and the rest of the city.
The first time we went, we stayed on the technically-not-in-an-active-battle side, and saw high-rise apartments, gas stations, food stands, and lots of other random buildings that had been hit by artillery. Little of the wreckage has been cleared so there was lots of concrete and glass on the sidewalks and around buildings. The whole zone was almost entirely deserted, so with the Soviet-style concrete high rises, it had Chernobyl vibes. We saw maybe a dozen people walking around over the course of a few hours, likely the few locals who stuck around. I walked through a grocery store which looks like it could be in the Last of Us. A row of lockers had been pried open, but the ATMs remained intact.
The artillery booms were much louder here than in the city center. We were hearing Russian strikes every 2-5 minutes and occasionally we felt the ground shake. At one point, two soldiers questioned us, which was a nearly daily occurrence for two guys walking around with cameras. After showing our passports and journalist passes, we asked how far away the strikes were, and they said 1-2 KM. Eventually, we heard strikes hit in all directions around us: north, south, east, and west, so we were somewhere in the current artillery strike zone.
We briefly talked to one of the locals, and he claimed we were allowed to go into the "grey zone" past the bridge where fighting was still ongoing. We walked to the bridge with the checkpoint, but a jeep with five soldiers came speeding down the bridge and stopped right in front of us. A guy who looked like an officer immediately jumped out and started shouting at us: "who are you!?" "what are you doing here!?"
We explained and started to take out our papers, but he said "I believe you!" and told us to leave immediately because Russian forces were nearby. As we power-walked away, we heard small arms fire behind us, though we didn’t see anything.
The second time we went to Saltovka it was calmer, there were only occasional artillery strikes, and not as close by. We milled around the same side of the bridge for awhile and went into one of the abandoned high rises on the border. We couldn’t quite get to the roof, but we got some good pictures of the grey zone from maybe the 9th or 10th floor. I would show them, but we were later told not to publicize anything that could reveal the positions of the Ukrainian military.
We then saw that there was a park in the valley between our area and the grey zone, and that we could bypass the checkpoint by going through it. Along the way, we found a public fountain/pipe thing where a few locals were filling water bottles.
We reached the grey zone on the other side of the valley. There was far more destruction here; all of the buildings had holes in them, usually multiple. Some roofs were collapsed. There was rubble all over the streets, sometimes blocking entire sidewalks. There were holes in the ground in the roads and grassy areas where artillery shells had landed.
The whole area was completely silent except for artillery which became louder and louder the longer we were there. It actually sounded different in the grey zone, more like thunder than booms. As would soon be explained to us, the artillery was being fired over our heads from close by, so we were hearing the sonic boom of the shells going past us rather than the explosions.
We ran into one of the local inhabitants and ended up spending almost an hour with him talking in broken English and through Google translate. He was in his late 30s or early 40s, and stayed in the grey zone because his blind mother couldn’t travel. He explained that there were three people left in his building (a massive nine story concrete Soviet high-rise) and 1-5 people in each of the buildings nearby. They all got their water from the fountain we passed, they cut branches in the park/valley for heating fuel, and they received a shipment of food from the police once every two weeks. This guy, seemingly the only not very old person in the area (aside from one severe alcoholic), hand-delivered the police shipments to all the remaining locals.
He tried to introduce us to another guy living near by whom he described as "an extremely strong old man" but he was asleep. So we bid him farewell and began walking toward the exit of the grey zone.
Then two Ukrainian soldiers spotted us. They didn’t speak English but they seemingly ordered us to stop and then said some other stuff I didn’t understand. Then one said "come" and beckoned us down one of the roads. We slowly walked while the two of them trailed a few feet behind us.
They didn’t point their guns at us, but it’s the only time in my life where I’m positive I would have been shot and killed if I did something stupid.
They marched us down three streets until we came upon a contingent of soldiers, maybe eight in total. The commander of the squad briefly talked to the two soldiers who brought us and then turned to us. In very good English he asked us who we are, what we were doing there, and who we worked for. He examined our passports and press cards, and then pointed to a line on my press card that says: "The Armed Forces of Ukraine are not responsible for your life and health while in a combat zone."
He told us that this was an active combat zone and that we had to leave at once. He asked if we had taken pictures and we said we had. He told us that if they were posted online, they could be used by the Russians to find military positions, so he ordered us to delete them, and he watched as I deleted about 50 photos. The journalist asked if we could keep photos taken indoors, and the commander said that was fine.
He then shook our hands and ordered two soldiers to take us out of the grey zone. The commander was polite but firm the entire time.
The two soldiers marched us differently on the way out than in. This time, they had one guy in front of us and one behind us, which I’m guessing is an escort formation. Rather than take us through the valley, they took us to the bridge with the checkpoint. The soldiers there looked over our passports and press passes again, then sent us across the bridge. We walked maybe a mile until we had cell service and could call a taxi to leave.
We went to another section of the front later that day, this one to the north where a few villages are situated on the outskirts of Kharkiv. We arrived at a military checkpoint on a highway out of the city, and as we were showing our papers, a guy walked over to us and started talking through Google translate. He had some sort of official position in one of the local villages and he wanted to show us around. 30 minutes later, we were talking to the village’s mayor and his assistant who spoke English. He offered to show us some of the places hit by Russian artillery and we accepted.
What we didn’t know is that the Russians were still very close by. We drove through some suburbs filled with one and two-story homes, and when we rose to a slight hill, the assistant pointed to a tree line she said was six KM away. She told us the Russians were there right now.
We saw a destroyed school (seemed to be a lot of those), a few destroyed houses, and a destroyed clinic. Then we heard a bunch of artillery hits nearby (I’m guessing 2-3 KM) and they said we needed to leave quickly.
We drove back toward Kharkiv and stopped at a military checkpoint where we were introduced to some members of the Territorial Defense Force, and the journalist did a short interview. At one point, we heard a series of explosions and the soldiers moved us behind some concrete barriers. They pointed to the distance and we saw the artillery strikes as they hit.
They drove us back to the checkpoint at the edge of the city where we were picked up. They introduced us to two more soldiers there (Ukrainian army) who took pictures with us. One of them offered to give us a ride back to our hostel and we accepted. I had to sit in the back with the AK.
EDIT – Since writing this, Ukrainian forces have pushed the Russian military away from Kharkiv, effectively winning the battle.
Why Didn’t the Russians Win?
When the invasion kicked off, I remember hearing that Russia would win the war by conventional standards within 3-7 days, though there would likely be insurgent fighting for long afterward.
The predictions of a swift Russian victory were not unfounded, at least on paper. Russia had 100 million more citizens, about 3-4X as many soldiers, a 10X larger air force and navy, 10X GDP, 3-4X GDP per capita, and massive reserves of key resources like oil and gas. In 2021, Russia spent $66 billion on its military, the 5th most of any country on earth, compared to Ukraine’s $6 billion, the 36th most.
And yet, as of writing this, the war has gone on for well over two months and the Russian forces have been pushed back significantly. Russia’s stated goal is no longer to take Kyiv and overthrow the Ukrainian government, but merely to occupy the Donbass region in the east and force some sort of favorable peace. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s objective has upgraded from "survive" to actually winning the war militarily and forcing Russia to give up its claims on Ukraine.
So why didn’t Russia win and why might they lose?
I know a bit of military history, but little about modern warfare, so I am by no means an expert. Take the following claims as my best explanations based on talking to lots of soldiers, volunteers, and observers, as well as reading a lot online.
The Russian Military Was (Somewhat) of a Paper Tiger
Russia has a large army, and it spends a lot of money on it, but it is significantly weaker than it appears.
First, much of its equipment is old and ill-maintained. Most is leftover from the Soviet Union, particularly its rifles and assorted small arms. Even its newer weapons are mostly repurposed versions of older weapons. Its non-weapon equipment is even worse, especially its transportation, which became readily apparently with frequent breakdowns during the initial invasion.
Second, the paper-strength of much of the Russian military is likely exaggerated due to rampant corruption and mismanagement. Stories of mafias and commanders alike pillaging and selling military equipment for personal gain are common. Commanders are likely overreporting their strength to Putin to avoid looking bad.
Third, the Russian military’s leadership has been systematically gutted by Putin. His base of support within the government has always stemmed from the loyalty of the FSB (the successors to the KGB), and the military is a natural rival. Supposedly, Putin has removed the most component and charismatic military leaders over the years, replacing them either with dull loyalists or FSB members who don’t know anything about leading armies.
Fourth (I have heard this from numerous Ukrainians, but this might just be blatant dunking on the outgroup), Russian tactics are generally haphazard and outdated. Supposedly they use a lot of WW2-style "charge at the enemy with a ton of tanks and overwhelm them with force" tactics even though modern small-scale mobile operations can consistently outcompete that with smaller numbers.
Russia Botched the Invasion
There is a strong consensus that Russia’s invasion plan was badly flawed. Even beyond overestimating their own forces and underestimating the Ukrainians, the Russians made numerous mistakes.
At about 200,000 troops, the Russian invasion force was too small. In comparison, the allied invasion force during the Gulf War was over 600,000 troops; compared to modern Ukraine, Iraq was a smaller country, with a larger army (fifth largest in the world at the time, believe it or not), and most of its soldiers were veterans of the Iraq-Iran war.
The meager size of the invading army was compounded by the already mentioned unsophistication of its tactics. The Russians mostly tried to charge giant columns of tanks straight into Ukraine with limited or no infantry support. This Soviet strategy requires far larger numbers to overwhelm the enemy.
Russia’s supply lines did a terrible job keeping up with their invading forces, leading to constant shortfalls in fuel and food for the advancing units. Hence most of the Russian armies never made it more than a few hundred KM from their borders.
This is possibly apocryphal, but there are also lots of stories of Russian troops getting lost during the invasion. Supposedly, some captured Russian equipment had maps of Ukraine from World War II. To their credit, the Ukrainians encouraged the confusion by destroying road signs on the highways near the border. Personally, I don’t understand why the Russian military can’t use satellites or even Google Maps (or send someone to a country where Google Maps is available to download and coordinate), but who knows?
Combined, all of the above failings allowed the Ukrainians to execute a brilliant defensive strategy. Using small squads, many of which were equipped with anti-tank weaponry, the Ukrainians went around the heavy Russian columns, destroyed their supply lines with raids and small assaults, then waited for the tanks and trucks to run out of fuel, and the troops to run out of food, and then execute ambushes or larger assaults on depleted, lost, demoralized Russian soldiers. This is why the Russian advance quickly collapsed, and the Russians were forced to settle into defensive positions before they reached their targets, like Kyiv. They quickly lacked the power to punch through Ukraine’s stronger defensive positions, so they settled into defensive positions to bring up more artillery support.
There Were Unexpected Dynamics of This War That Incidentally Benefitted the Ukrainians
In the early days of the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon kept crushing army-after-army in part because he accurately valued artillery while almost everyone else undervalued artillery, so his army had more and better artillery than other armies.
In the early days of WWI, lots and lots of cavalry units got wiped out because no one realized that infantry weapons had vastly surpassed cavalry to the point of making them obsolete. Likewise, lots of smaller armies unexpectedly won defensive battles against huge attacking armies because most generals didn’t realize that defensive positioning had been massively buffed by machine guns, barbed wire, easy trench digging, and other technological innovations.
My understanding is that there has been at least one major unexpected paradigm shift revealed in the Russian invasion which has benefited Ukraine.
Anti-tank and ground-to-air weapons have proven super effective against tanks and planes. Or in other words, fairly small weapons that cost thousands of dollars wielded by a few individuals with moderate training have proven quite effective at destroying enormous machines that cost millions of dollars and are piloted by extremely well-trained soldiers.
Fortunately for Ukraine, Russia has tons of expensive tanks and planes, while Ukraine has been importing nice, new, shiny, almost state-of-the-art anti-tank and ground-to-air weapons from the West. This has negated two of Russia’s greatest military advantages and undermined the use of overwhelming heavy armor and air support as key strategic elements in the initial invasion.
The Russians Underestimated the Defensive Advantage
This could be considered a part of the Russia Botched the Invasion section, but it deserves special attention.
US military doctrine has something called the "3:1 rule" – whenever one army attacks another, the attackers need at least three times more strength to defeat the defenders.
This is obviously more of a heuristic than a rule. It depends on the fortifications of the defenders and the sophistication of both armies. The allies in the Gulf War had something like a 1:2 disadvantage compared to the Iraqis, but of course the Western allies had vastly superior technology and tactics.
In the Russian invasion, Russian and Ukrainian forces seem to be at about parity in terms of man-to-man military strength, at least by this point a few months into the war. This would suggest that Russia needed at least 3X troops in its invasion.
But Ukraine had over 200,000 active personnel at the outbreak of the war, and presumably would deploy pretty much everyone to fight. And Ukraine had another million personnel in reserves who would take some time to get to the front, but presumably would be called up and deployed as fast as humanly possible.
Thus, Russia’s 200,000 man initial invasion force seemed blatantly underpowered. Presumably (I’ll reiterate that I’m not an expert and am doing a lot of presuming), Russian high-command believed its overwhelming advantage in tanks and planes would make up for the balance in troops, but as noted, they failed to perceive the changing military paradigm which now reduces the value of both.
While Russia’s strategic mishaps hindered its offensive, it’s important to note that Russian and Ukrainian forces are still at about parity. Russia has gotten badly beaten when it advances against Ukraine with even numbers, but we shouldn’t assume Ukraine will keep winning by such margins as Russia continues to consolidate its forces and slow its advance.
IMO, the Russian army has perversely become somewhat underrated, and vice versa for the Ukrainians. It seems like a lot of commenters are assuming that the Ukrainian forces will keep stonewalling Russia in the months ahead, but the shape of the war looks different now. Both sides have settled into lobbing artillery at each other and using small, incremental advances at strategic points. Russia seems to have learned its lesson and isn’t throwing away massive tank convoys anymore. We should expect the balance of military success to be more even now.
Also, while the Ukrainian army has done a magnificent job on defense, its offensive capabilities are far more limited. It lacks the equipment and doctrine to effectively destroy large Russian positions. Thus far, Ukrainian counter-attacks have been successful, but very small-scale compared to what Russia did in the first few weeks of the war.
Also, I think it’s likely that the current balance of success has been overstated in favor of the Ukrainians.
By combining the estimates of what the Russian government admits with what the Ukrainian government claims, with what foreign observers estimate, the Russian military has suffered up to 20,000 dead. Meanwhile, no one really knows how many men the Ukrainian military has lost. The Ukrainian government claimed only 2,500-3,000 dead by mid-April, which seems impossibly low. That would give Ukrainians a 6-7:1 K:D ratio, which, again… just seems impossible.
This is completely anecdotal, but I talked to a handful of soldiers who claimed the real K:D was probably close to even, or only slightly in favor of the Ukrainians. Given the understandable need of the Ukrainian government to maintain morale, I think it is extremely likely that they are downplaying their own losses. Oddly enough, the Russian losses are probably accurate since the Kremlin’s figures are quite close to everyone else’s estimates.
Everyone Badly Underestimated Ukrainian Forces
I think this is both de to military legacy and recent events. Russia still has some leftover prestige from WW2 when it transformed into the strongest ground army on earth and then at least sort of kept pace with the US military for 50 years. Then in 2014, Russia invaded the Crimea with almost no casualties and made Ukraine look like a little rump state with no chance of fighting back against its mighty neighbor.
But 2014 really was a wakeup call for Ukraine. Both the Maidan Revolution and the loss of Crimea sparked a genuine drive to reform the country, or at least the military, and get the Ukrainian people ready to resist an inevitable future Russian invasion.
So while Ukraine’s military will always be smaller than Russia’s, we shouldn’t think of its armed forces as being on par with Romania or Bulgaria or Hungary, or any other relatively poor European country. I definitely wouldn’t go as far as saying Ukraine is at the Israel-tier of overperforming militarily compared to its size and wealth, but Ukraine seems to be in that same bracket of countries which are surprisingly powerful, especially since it is arguably the single poorest country in Europe (next to Moldova).
Ukraine’s military strength has also been augmented by public and not-so-public support. NATO and the US have been funneling money and equipment into Ukraine for years, most of which is superior to the old Soviet weapons of Russia. More controversially, the US has probably sent military personnel to train at least part of the Ukrainian military, particularly in how to use its fancy new weapons. That could partially explain why the Ukrainians have crushed the Russians thus far on a tactical level.
Russia Badly Underestimated the Ukrainian Government
This one seems particularly baffling.
Many of the mistakes above, particularly the meager size of the Russian invasion force, can be partially explained by an apparent misperception on the Russian side that the Ukrainian government had little support from its people and would swiftly collapse under external pressure. There were a few explanations for this supposed shaky support – general opposition to alleged Ukrainian Nazis taking over the state, a lack of real Ukrainian cultural solidarity, a brotherly affection for Russia, etc.
This turned out to be a huge miscalculation on Putin’s part. Ukraine may well indeed be an extremely poor and corrupt place, but the vast majority of Ukrainian people seemingly really really prefer to live in Ukraine than in Russia. So when the Russian tanks rolled across the border, the Ukrainian people didn’t turn on their state, and the Ukrainian politicians didn’t flee. Almost everyone stayed and fought, and with tremendous effectiveness at that.
The Morale Gap
Of course Ukrainian morale is far greater than Russian morale. Ukrainian soldiers are fighting defensively, they are stopping an aggressive invader, they are defending the lives of their countrymen and families, they are literally defending their homes. Even before Ukraine surprised the world by fending off the initial invasion, there was widespread speculation that the Ukrainian people would launch a long-term insurrection against Russian occupiers a la Afghanistan.
Russian morale is more mysterious to me. They are ostensibly motivated by a humanitarian drive to protect cultural cousins from a Nazi menace, to defend Russia indirectly from US/NATO encroachment, and to abstractly safeguard the glory of Mother Russia. But I have no idea how widely or deeply these beliefs are held in Russia, let alone amongst its military personnel.
On the one hand, I constantly hear that the Russian government’s propaganda is extremely effective at keeping its own people in line, even to the point of Russian citizens not believing their Ukrainian relatives who tell them the truth about the alleged Nazi infestation in Ukraine. On the other hand, there have been a lot of reports of desertion in the Russian military, and soldiers generally being reluctant to engage. Maybe that’s more of a product of the apparently failure of the military to achieve its objectives than the supposed righteousness of their war aims.
Not my photo.
The estimates on the numbers of refugees are all over the place, but combining the internally displaced Ukrainians and the refugees who have left the country, the actual figure is at least in the millions and maybe more than 10% of the pre-war Ukrainian population.
Under Ukraine’s martial law, men between the ages of 18-60 cannot leave the country unless they have at least three children. Women are permitted to leave. Most who left Ukraine went to the nearby countries, particularly Poland, which have been quite generous in granting resources and refugee status. Those who were internally displaced mostly went to the Western cities of Ukraine, especially Lviv.
Lots of people I talked to said there was a huge wave of people who left when the war broke out, but after the Russians were halted and turned back, many refugees returned to the country. There is likely even a slow return of Ukrainians to the central cities like Dnipro and Kyiv.
Many people I met were proud to have stayed in Ukraine during the war. Even the ones who didn’t join the military said they supported the war effort in their own way, either through volunteering or maintaining the economy.
Nearly every railway station had some sort of aid station with tents set up by international charity groups where they provide free food and guidance to refugees. In Moldova, I saw a small refugee camp consisting of a few dozen tents in an open field. Hotels in Chisinau offered steep discounts for Ukrainian refugees, and a restaurant I went to in Romania closed its kitchen from 3-6PM every day to cook for refugees.
Significant portions of Ukraine have been occupied, millions of people left the country or moved to different cities, and the government is focusing all of its attention on waging the war. This has obviously had a huge negative impact on the economy.
Shortly after the war broke out, the Ukrainian government pleaded with everyone to continue working, even in cities which weren’t too badly attacked by the Russians. This directive seems to have been followed in most of country; even in central cities like Kyiv and Dnipro, most businesses are still active, though their customer base is reduced.
I talked to one coffee shop owner who said his taxes have been slashed to almost nothing. Likewise, the government is subsidizing rent and heating.
Employment is still tough though and many people have lost their jobs. In Dnipro, I was told that the government (I’m not sure if it’s the city government or national government) will pay for most of the salary of new employees from other cities hired in Dnipro. So if a Ukrainian fled Mariupol and is now living in Dnipro, and he is hired by a coffee shop, the government will reimburse the coffee shop for most of his salary. It’s a well-meaning rule, but one local Dniproian (?) grumbled that she was having a lot of trouble finding work because of it.
Gasoline is extremely expensive. In most places I saw a liter going for 32-35 UAH (about $1.10), so that’s about $5 per gallon, which is a lot for the US, but even more for a country with a per capita GDP of $3,700.
Some people speculated that after the war ends, the US and NATO will dump billions of dollars into the Ukrainian economy for a new Marshall Plan. A smart man might just have the idea to go to an up-and-coming city like Dnipro, or a sunny sea-side resort like Odessa, and buy up all of this newly cheap real estate…
I was generally more afraid of the Ukrainian military than the Russian military. Ukraine is under martial law, and now there are laws prohibiting public photography, though it was never clear to me to what extent. There are soldiers everywhere in the city, so as a foreigner with a camera, I was definitely watched closely.
After being questioned at the border and having my bags searched, I nearly got arrested in my first thirty minutes in Ukraine. I stepped off the bus in Uzhgorod, took out my camera, and took a picture of a nearby train station (it looked super Soviet). A minute later, two soldiers approached me and asked what I was doing. I didn’t have a press pass yet, so I had no good reason to be taking photos. Luckily, the guy I was meeting in the city showed up a few minute later and talked me out of the situation.
Something like that happened at least once every day or two. They would always ask for my papers first – my passport and press pass. Sometimes they would say a few words of English, but usually they wouldn’t know any. Sometimes they would look through my camera and tell me to delete a few photos (ex. pictures of the port at Odessa). One time, I showed a soldier my press pass, and then he asked to see the email I got from the Ukrainian government awarding me the press pass. I guess he was suspicious.
I got used to the interrogations quickly. The soldiers were always polite about it. They nearly always shook my hand with a smile afterward. I respected that they were doing their jobs.
It only happened to me one time when I wasn’t alone or with a journalist. I was walking around with a Ukrainian guy I met at a hostel when two soldiers called me over and went through the regular process. The Ukrainian guy froze and started babbling.
When we walked away unharmed, the Ukrainian guy told me to put my fucking camera in my fucking bag.
Not my photo, obviously. He was in Kyiv when I was there and gave a public speech, but I never saw him.
What do you Ukrainians think of President Zalenskyy?
(Of course, this is my understanding based on a sample size of around 20, and all from central and western Ukraine.)
Zalenskyy is universally beloved as a war leader at the moment. His decision to stay in Kyiv during the initial assault was a remarkable act of bravery and earned the unending loyalty of patriots. If Zalenskyy died tomorrow, he’d probably go down as one of the greatest national legends.
Before the war, opinions were far more mixed. For those not in the know:
Zalenskyy was a comedian/actor. He starred in a tv show called "Man of the People" about a random Ukrainian teacher who is elected president of Ukraine after a rant about politics goes viral. He then struggles against bureaucracy, corruption, and the oligarchs who truly run the country while slowly instituting reforms.
Then, in real life, Zalenskyy ran for president through his newly formed "Man of the People" party, and won. His platform IRL was the same as on the show – Ukrainian politics is broken, corrupt, and dominated by oligarchs, so we need a true outsider to come in and shake things up.
I’d say the consensus before the war was that he was mediocre. He was a comedian/actor who got in over his head. He never really challenged the oligarchs. He never did a big crackdown on corruption. He pushed military spending but not nearly enough; one critic said he did a magnificent job fixing the roads that the Russians used to invade Ukraine.
Many people believe he is/was a puppet of one of Ukraine’s most prominent oligarchs who runs the tv station Zalenskyy worked for. One person said Zalenskyy reminded her of the cartoon bear in the Black Mirror episode, "Waldo Moment."
The most cynical people even said that Zalenskyy was 100% propped up from the beginning to run for president. The whole story of him being the star of a tv show where a random dude accidentally becomes president, and then actually getting elected president IRL, was all planned. I even heard a kind of genius theory that the oligarch named both the tv show and Zalenskyy’s political party, "Man of the People" to get around campaign finance laws regarding advertising. They could put up giant "Man of the People" billboards with Zalenskyy on it, and pay for all of it outside normal campaign finance laws, and then just say it’s an advertisement for a tv show, and not a political advertisement, even though it’s obviously both.
The Foreign Legion
While in Kharkiv, I spoke to seven soon-to-be-ex members of the Foreign Legion, three for quite some time. They told me a lot about what they went through, which ranged from the shocking to the disturbing to the funny. I’d be more nervous about writing this if Vice hadn’t broken a story about the unit’s dysfunction last month, though my info updates their findings.
Everything I will write here comes from their testimonies. They were in two different groups when I met them, and served in two different companies. Most of what the two groups said was corroborated by each other, though some wasn’t.
The Foreign Legion is a military unit formed by President Zalenskyy at the outset of the war. It consists entirely of non-Ukrainian volunteers who are paid about $400 USD per month to serve in the Ukrainian army. Note that foreigners can serve in other units of the Ukrainian military, but the Foreign Legion is supposed to be the central rallying point.
Wikipedia puts the Foreign Legion’s numbers at 10,000. I’ve seen other estimates in the 2,000-5,000 range. The ex-Legionnaires I talked to said these numbers are laughable overestimates; they are probably accurate to the number of people who signed up to join the Legion, but 90%+ never came to Ukraine. The real number of Legionnaires probably never passed 200.
When the first wave of volunteers arrived, they were put in busses and shipped to the front to fight. After all, most were veterans of other wars, and many had served in the elite militaries of the world (US, UK, etc.). Unfortunately, one of the first busses was caught by a Russian tank and blown to bits; of the 20 Legionnaires onboard, 3 survived.
This freaked out the Ukrainian government. They are heavily reliant upon foreign support, not really for ground soldiers, but for money, equipment, and morale. It’s a bad look when the very first foreigners to arrive get blown up before they even reach the front.
So the Ukrainian military decided to treat the next wave of Foreign Legion volunteers differently. Regardless of the expertise of the incoming soldiers, they weren’t going to the front. Instead, they were put in a big base near the Polish border, far from any Russians. Plus, either at this point or some time before, an oligarch or friend of an oligarch with little-to-no military experience was put in charge of the unit, likely as some sort of vanity project.
The soldiers I talked to were part of this wave. About 200 of them were sent to this base where they did nothing for a few weeks.
Then the Russians bombed the shit out of it and at least a third of the Foreign Legion was killed. Two of the soldiers described running out the buildings, hearing comrades screaming in agony as they burned to death behind them, then digging trenches in the woods and waiting for an inevitable Russian ground attack. They both said that they knew for certain they were about to get "run over by tanks" and die.
Fortunately, the Russian advance was stopped a few KM away by Ukrainian artillery or something, so they survived, though they said it was one of the coldest nights of their lives.
But now the Ukrainian government was ever more freaked out about losing a ton more foreign soldiers in an even more pointless way, so they made 100% certain that the Foreign Legion wouldn’t do anything remotely risky from then on. The remnants of the Legion, combined with a few fresh volunteers, then spent the next 1.5 months trekking around empty regions of northern Ukraine, and eventually settled in to guard what all of them swore was the farm and hunting lodge of a rich friend of their commander.
It was at that point that all of the soldiers I talked to quit the legion. They made their way to Kharkiv to catch a train to Kyiv where they were going to meet up with a bunch of other foreign soldiers and join a new unit. They universally agreed that the Foreign Legion was a good idea, but terribly executed. They didn’t mind being in danger, they just wanted to contribute to the war, and the Legion wasn’t letting them do that.
But everything I just described is only the big picture dysfunction of the Foreign Legion. The dysfunction ran far far deeper than that to comical levels. They described the incompetence, mismanagement, inefficiency, and stupidity in agonizing detail, often laughing as they recalled one of the worst periods of their lives.
The Foreign Legion was divided into two companies. By my understanding, one company was the first-rate soldiers, including most who could speak Russian, while the other company got the leftovers. The first company was much better treated, and most of the horror stories I’ll describe comes from the second company, though both were mismanaged by professional Western standards.
The first shocking thing I heard from the group is that some of the first company and most of the second company had no military experience. I don’t mean no combat experience, I mean they had never served in a military or undergone military training to completion. This included one of my main sources; he came to Ukraine to volunteer for a humanitarian group, but a bus pulled up and a Ukrainian officer jumped out and asked him if he wanted to join the Foreign Legion, and he said "yes."
When the Foreign Legion volunteers showed up, regardless of their military background, they were given 1-2 days of training. Note that professional Western armies typically have a bare minimum of three months training, and usually more than six months, plus refreshers. But the Legion’s training consisted of going to the shooting range once or twice. One guy described how he was put into an anti-tank squad after firing an RPG six times.
Another solider said they were all surprisingly given M4s, the standard-issue American military rifle, and one hell of a gun. The problem was they had almost no ammo for it. At the end of their one day of training, the Legionnaires were told by their squad commander that whatever ammo they had left over from training was what they would bring to battle. The stunned soldiers ended up with four magazines each, which they told me was about half as much as the absolute minimum they would normally bring on deployment.
(Also, nearly every other soldier on both sides of the conflict is using an AK variant. So Ukrainians can use captured Russian ammo and vice versa. But if you’re the one guy with an M4, you’re shit out of luck.)
This set the tone for the logistics and supply problems which would plague their entire time in the Legion. Many of the guys I talked to were 100% sure that their supplies were being stolen by their commanders. They hoped it was being given to other military units who would actually be fighting, but they assumed that some/most/all of it was being sold off for profit.
On a typical day, they were given two meals consisting of one piece of chicken (though they guessed it was probably pigeon), a cup of rice, and a tiny bit of vegetables. If they were lucky, they’d also get an apple. They never got any more food than this on a given day.
On multiple 24-hour stretches, the second company (without the Russian speakers) did not get any food. On more than one occasion, they saw their rations being taken away, again, either to be used by other units or to be sold off. The two members of this company I talked to reported losing a huge amount of weight; one had to make new holes in his belt, the other had to use a pair of suspenders he took from a dead guy back at their destroyed base.
Crazier still, they often had problems getting enough water. Granted, Ukraine’s tap water isn’t potable, so a water supply isn’t always readily available. The soldiers often resorted to drinking clearly unpotable water they could find, which is part of the reason why…
Everyone was always sick. The second company had it worse, but members of the other company corroborated most of the following tearing through camp:
- Legionnaire’s Throat (a name they made up for a disease which caused them to cough up black discharge)
And all of this occurred in two months. They were basically sick from the moment they stepped foot in Ukraine until they left the Legion.
The worse off company had two medics. Neither had medic training. Neither had a background in medicine.
At one point, one of the soldiers I spoke with got pneumonia. He went to one medic for help. The medic ordered him to stand guard in front of the armory on a particularly freezing night (which really means something in fucking Ukraine). The soldier said it was one of the worst nights of his life, up there with hearing his comrades burn to death. He stood for hours with insufficient clothes and breathed freezing air into his lungs. He nearly passed out several times.
Another soldier I spoke with stepped on a nail which penetrated his boot and foot. He went to the same medic and asked what to do. The medic said it was fine. The soldier showed him the nail – it was four inches long and covered in rust. The soldier said he had never gotten a tetanus shot. The medic said not to worry about it; this stuff happens all the time. The soldier asked for antibiotics. The medic refused to give it to him.
The next day, the soldier walked (or rather, hobbled) 12KM with a full backpack to their next camp site. Frankly, he is lucky to still have the foot.
While the medic was not the best soldier, he was far from the Legion’s worst. The guys I talked to all seemed like smart, competent individuals. One had been in the Marines, another the U.S. Army, the others in other various Western militaries (I don’t want to give too many specifics). Even the one guy who had no military background seemed like he knew what he was talking about, and one of the other soldiers had selected him for second-in-command of their squad.
And that was precisely why all of these guys had left the Legion. Because everyone who stayed was a moron, a psychopath, or both.
Or rather, everyone else who had stayed up until that point fell into those categories. There were plenty of competent Foreign Legion guys at the start, but they either died on the bus or at the first base, or fled the unit in the early days when they realized what a shit show it was.
That left behind a motley crew mostly consisting of:
- Individuals who had been kicked out of other militaries
- Individuals who had tried and failed to join other militaries
- Individuals who lacked the discipline to even try to join other militaries
- LARPers who just want to be somewhere they can feel like bad asses
- Genuine psychopaths who finally have an opportunity to kill people legally
A not insignificant portion of soldiers who fit into the categories listed above were literal, explicit, open fascists. They were sometimes, but not always of the Nazi variety. Apparently, the Foreign Legion encampments were abuzz with talk about Hitler, the Holocaust, and just generally how cool fascism is.
(It’s worth noting that none of the guys I talked to struck me as being the least bit left wing. Quite the opposite in fact.)
One of these gentlemen was referred to as the "Sleepy Fascist," for obvious reasons. He was considered particularly incompetent and couldn’t be trusted to any duty unsupervised, lest he dozed off. Another gentlemen was the "Nice Fascist," and was generally well-liked and considered a good guy aside from his fascism.
There was also a guy with autism that my contacts mentioned off-handedly while listing off the various fascists. I asked if the autist was fascist and a bad soldier. They replied "no" on both counts. He was just autistic.
Probably my favorite of the many soldiers they described was the Glowie. For those not in the know, a "glowie" is internet slang for an undercover federal agent who does a bad job at blending into online communities. In the Legion’s case, the glowie was a 30-something American with a vague background who anomalously spoke four languages and asked everyone questions about everything.
When two of my contacts told me about this, I repeatedly asked if they were serious, and they were. They were 95% sure this guy was in the U.S. intelligence services. At one point, another soldier asked if he had just come from Chernobyl (because he was glowing so hard). Regardless, he mysteriously left their encampment after a few weeks.
The Legion guys told me lots more, but it’s too much to get into. The bottom line was that the Foreign Legion was a complete disaster, a disservice to both Ukraine and the men serving within it. I wish them all the best wherever they may go.
Cats on Leashes
Throughout my entire life before coming to Ukraine, I think I saw two instances of cats being walked on leashes outside.
In Ukraine, I think I saw it 10+ times, and once where the cat wasn’t even on a leash (pictured).
Is this a Ukrainian thing? An eastern European thing?
The Orthodox Easter celebration is super fun to watch. People line up in front of a church with baskets of food and other offerings, and a priest goes around splashing everyone in the face with holy water. It’s easy to get money shots.
This isn’t unique to Ukraine, but what is it with poorer countries not having enough change to break larger bills? I can’t tell you how many times I tried to… say, give a store clerk 50 UAH for something that costs 20, and they refused because they literally didn’t have the right change.
"Underground Rock Concert"
In Dnipro, I was invited to an "underground rock concert," which sounded like a perfect mini-adventure.
It turned out to be a literally "underground" concert in a subway. They did play rock, but it was more like folk music with an electric guitar.
It was still pretty cool though. They sang Queen at one point and everyone went berserk for the Ukrainian national anthem.
The Hungarian Conspiracy
When I first arrived in Ukraine, I came to Uzhgorod. There, a Ukrainian told me a conspiracy theory that Uzhgorod would never be struck by Russia because Putin had made a secret plan with Hungary to return the city to Hungary which it controlled pre-WW2.
This is apparently a pretty common belief in Ukraine, and the government thinks Hungary knew about the invasion before it began.
The Jewish Conspiracy
I met a woman in Dnipro who claimed that Israel paid Russia to invade Ukraine to depopulate or evict a portion of Eastern Ukraine to establish a second Jewish state with Dnipro as its capital.
I asked for her evidence. She said:
One, the world’s largest "Jewish Centers" is in Dnipro. This is true, and it’s kind of strange given that Dnipro’s once-large Jewish population has dwindled so low that it doesn’t show up on Wikipedia.
Second, she said that lots of Jews owned buildings in Dnipro and none of them have left since the outbreak of the war.
I pointed out that she hadn’t left since the outbreak of the war.
She shrugged and said she was patriotic.
We left it at that.
Tragically, all of the McDonalds were closed in Ukraine, including the one in Maidan Square where Ukrainian revolutionaries had overthrown the government eight years ago. The only other Western fast food restaurant I saw in Ukraine was KFC, all of which were also closed…
Except one in Dnipro. A Ukrainian told me about its reopening, and the pure ecstatic joy in his eyes convinced me to go. So I went at 3:40 PM and… see the above pic.
The one casino I found in Dnipro was closed. The one in Odessa was open, but their blackjack table was closed. The Russian invasion has truly impacted us all.