KYIV (Reuters) – Recovering from his third battlefield injury, Oleksandr Yabchanka had a warning for those Ukrainians he said may be burying their heads in the sand over the war with Russia.
“Guys, sooner or later it will catch up with you,” said Yabchanka, who was back home in western Ukraine waiting for his wounded leg to heal before returning to his unit.
The 42-year-old paediatrician and former health ministry adviser from Lviv is now a platoon commander in the 1st Separate “Da Vinci Wolves” Battalion, and has been fighting since the early days of the war.
As the two armies pound each other on the front lines, the illusion of normal life prevails in Lviv and elsewhere in Ukraine, where coffee dates and cocktail parties offer some respite from sporadic air strikes and news of civilian casualties.
Fighters like Yabchanka fear that while Ukrainians are broadly united, some are detached from reality as the soldiers see it: that the war could last for years and require far more people to fight, and that a Russian defeat should not be taken for granted.
Buoyed by their military’s resilience and Western support, Ukrainians rallied around the cause after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, backing the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and, in many cases, taking up arms.
Public morale remains high 19 months later, and people still hail the troops as heroes. A popular topic of conversation remains personal plans for “after the victory”.
Ukrainians still often dismiss Russian troops as incompetent after battlefield failures in 2022 and the recruitment of thousands of convicts to fill their ranks.
Yet Kyiv’s much-vaunted summer counteroffensive has made only incremental gains amid signs Russian forces are now more effective, and losses are mounting on both sides.
Ukraine is revamping military recruitment as the war grinds on, including by replacing heads of regional recruitment offices, punishing draft dodging and modifying the rules on medical exemptions to fighting on the front.
Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are generally barred from leaving the country but most have not been called up so far.
No change to overall mobilisation plans has been announced and analysts say the government has to consider the broader economy and social stability.
‘THINGS MAY GET WORSE’
Adriana Romanko, a psychotherapist who leads a volunteer group that supplies the military, UAID, said it was natural for an embattled society to mythologize its defenders in a fight for survival.
But pointing to a popular slogan – “I believe in the AFU (Armed Forces of Ukraine)” – she added that it also risks distancing people from those who are fighting.
“This slogan puts people into the infantile position of having this ‘Big Dad’, in this case the AFU, come along and take care of everything,” said Romanko.
Many Ukrainians not directly engaged in the war still actively support the cause. Around 68% help the army or people affected by the war by volunteering or donating, according to the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation – up from 61% last December.
Around the same amount reported that a family member or friend had either fought or are currently fighting, another survey, by polling organisation Rating Group, found.
Still, battle-hardened veterans have expressed concern on local media over the impact on Ukraine’s long term resilience of what they describe as a rose-tinted view of the war or a sense of impatience fuelled by some public figures and journalists.
“It could turn out that the situation at the front will worsen, and we need to be ready for that,” Bohdan Krotevych, the chief of staff for the Azov Brigade, posted on Telegram in late August, urging Ukrainians to steel themselves and stop asking how long the war will last.
Yabchanka, who sports a Cossack-style moustache and hairstyle, said those who are close to someone fighting tend to be more realistic. But he worried that many military-aged men were not prepared for the reality of fierce close combat and heavy artillery fire if they were to be called up.
“This is someone’s husband, someone’s son, someone’s father,” he said. “It’s a Ukrainian over whom it will be painful for me when, God forbid, he’s killed.”
(Reporting by Dan Peleschuk; Editing by Michael Collett-White and Philippa Fletcher)