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Ukraine vows more self-reliance as war enters third year

Ukraine vows more self-reliance as war enters third year

Ukraine vows more self-reliance as war enters third year

KYIV ­— Halyna, a Ukrainian woman in her 50s, stands on Sofia Square in the capital Saturday morning, surrounded by dozens of fellow Ukrainians honking, waving and protesting for the release of prisoners of war held in Russia.

Like many in the crowd she is wrapped in a flag of the State Border Service. Her son, a border guard from Mariupol, was summoned to service exactly two years ago on Feb. 24, 2022 as Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have destroyed and occupied her native Mariupol and taken her son captive. She came to Sofia Square on the invasion anniversary in the hope that marking the occasion — on the occasion of visits to Kyiv by the country’s Western partners — would help draw attention to the thousands of Ukrainian prisoners of war held in Russia. She also hoped that Kyiv’s allies would finally unblock the latest aid packages for Ukraine and move from commitments to stronger actions.

“Of course, there is still hope for partners. We want to go home, to Mariupol. We believe that they will help us, because if not, Russia will go further,” Halyna said. “Russia must be stopped and return to their land.”

While Halyna was protesting for the release of her son, only two blocks away top Ukrainian officials and international leaders gathered to assess the new reality at the conflict’s two-year mark.

Ukraine enters the third year of war in uncertainty — with a new U.S. aid package blocked by political maneuvering; EU delays in sending promised ammunition; Polish border blockades over Ukrainian imports; and a shell-hungry and exhausted Ukrainian army retreating from Avdiivka.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was also in Kyiv on Saturday, accompanied by Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Belgium’s Alexander De Croo, to pledge continued support “for as long as it takes.” 

Commitments vs. delivery

“Europe will help as much as needed. There will be more funding, ammunition, training for your troops, and investment in the defense industry. We are here once again to prove our commitment,” von der Leyen said during her visit.

But for many Ukrainians, it seems, promises and words of support are no longer enough.

“The situation is so dynamic that at the moment commitment does not constitute delivery,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov said at the “Ukraine. Year 2024” conference in Kyiv on Sunday. “Fifty percent of commitments are not delivered on time. Whatever [is] committed that does not come on time, means we’re losing people and territories.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made the same point at a press conference in the capital on Sunday, where he said that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died fighting the Russian invaders so far, the first time he has announced official figures.

He refused to give figures for the wounded and missing, saying he didn’t “want to let Russia know how many of them are out of the war front.” According to Zelenskyy, Russia has suffered 500,000 casualties in the war, including 180,000 soldiers killed.

Ukraine has tripled production of weapons over the last year, with more than 500 companies now working in the domestic defense sector, Ukraine’s Strategic Industries Minister Oleksandr Kamyshin said at the same conference on Sunday.

According to Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, 90 percent of the drones that Kyiv has used to destroy $5.5 billion worth of Russian military vehicles and other weapons, were made in Ukraine. In 2024 Ukraine will focus on technology to give it a boost on the battlefield against Russia’s much greater resources, Fedorov said.

“However, the needs of Ukrainian forces are so big, not even U.S., European, and Ukrainian defense industries combined can cover it,” Kamyshin said.

Learning to stand alone

While the budget and spending plans of Ukrainian officials have counted on crucial foreign aid, unstable flows of Western financial support and weapons — as well as Polish border blockades aimed at restraining Ukrainian farm produce and logistics services — have impressed on Ukrainians that they need to learn to survive on their own.

“We have to become self-sufficient,” Ukraine Deputy PM Yulia Svyrydenko said on Sunday.

Because of the delays in aid, Ukraine now has to spend its own money to buy weapons and to finance an economy severely hampered by war, said Roksolana Pidlasa, chairman of the Ukraine parliament’s budget committee.

In the past year Ukraine has managed to re-establish export corridors in the Black Sea, and has exported more than 27 million tons of products from its ports since August, Ukraine Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said. Ukraine now transports 90 percent of its grain exports by sea.

But Ukraine’s huge agricultural production has become a problem for EU farmers and has led to protests and blockades, particularly in Poland.

“Our competitiveness, our energy to survive whatever it takes, creates fears among established EU farmers,” Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s deputy economy minister, said at the Saturday conference in Kyiv. “Our bet is that despite all the challenges we now face we will integrate into the EU market.”

Ukrainians have questions

On the anniversary of Putin’s aggression, however, uncertainty and irritation were undisguised in Kyiv. Ukrainians wanted to know why Western sanctions on Russia are not working, and why Moscow keeps getting components for its missiles from Western companies. Why Ukrainians have to keep asking for weapons; and why the U.S. is not pushing through the crucial new aid package for Ukraine.

“We are very grateful for the support of the United States, but unfortunately, when I turn to the Democrats for support, they tell me to go to the Republicans. And the Republicans say to go to the Democrats,” Ukrainian MP Oleksandra Ustinova said at a separate Kyiv conference on Saturday. “We are grateful for the European support, but we cannot win without the USA. We need the supply of anti-aircraft defenses and continued assistance.”

“Why don’t you give us what we ask for? Our priorities are air defense and missiles. We need long-range missiles,” Ustinova added. 

U.S. Congressman Jim Costa explained to the conference that Americans, and even members of Congress, still need to be educated on how the war in Ukraine affects them and why a Ukrainian victory is in America’s best interests.

“I believe that we must, and that is why we will decide on an additional aid package for Ukraine. It is difficult and unattractive. But I believe that over the next few weeks, the US response will be a beacon to protect our security and democratic values,” Costa said.

The West is afraid of Russia, Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s security and defense council secretary, told the Saturday conference.

 “The West does not know what to do with Russia and therefore it does not allow us to win. Russians constantly blackmail and intimidate the West. However, if you are afraid of a dog, it will bite you,” he said.

“And now you are losing not only to autocratic Russia but also to the rest of the autocracies in the world,” Danilov added.

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