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Increasingly Confident Ukrainians Want No Concessions to Russia

Ukrainian servicemen ride on an armored transporter moving through a Russian position that had been overrun by Ukrainian forces outside Kyiv, Ukraine, March 31, 2022.
Ukrainian servicemen ride on an armored transporter moving through a Russian position that had been overrun by Ukrainian forces outside Kyiv, Ukraine, March 31, 2022.

LVIV / VINNYTSIA, UKRAINE — Yulia isn’t convinced Ukraine should give up any part of its territory to Russia — even if by doing so it could end the war.

The 25-year-old from Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv is now living in a shelter in the western Ukrainian town of Lviv, and her life is on hold while the conflict rages.

She fled Bucha as “there were bombardments and stuff like that. And a lot of times it was really scary.” Her mother went to Germany, but Yulia decided to remain in Ukraine “because it is my country.” She doesn’t want Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to offer any concessions to Russia, including territorial ones, even to stop the fighting.

Many Ukrainians feel the war is going their way following Russian reversals northwest and east of Kyiv. They are heartened by Russian announcements that military operations around Kyiv and some other northern cities will be scaled back and the focus now will turn fully on “liberating” the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainians see that as a statement of the obvious and one forced on Moscow by the valor and effectiveness of Ukraine’s defense forces, which have stymied all of Russia’s efforts to advance on Ukraine’s capital.

With the Russian invasion faltering, Ukrainian confidence is soaring despite continued missile barrages, and talk is turning to how this war may end.

Neutrality, with guarantees

This week, Ukrainian and Russian diplomats met in Turkey. Ukraine said it was ready to become a neutral state — with security guarantees — to disarm Russian fears it might join the NATO military alliance. And the proposals included a 15-year consultation period on the status of the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine and illegally annexed in 2014.

The status of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk would be discussed directly by Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy at a later date, according to the Ukrainian proposal. Any peace deal would then have to go to a referendum, under Ukraine’s draft proposals.

Yiannis Valinakis, Greece’s former deputy foreign minister, said Kyiv might have come up with this sequence “to alleviate public opinion pressure on Zelenskyy.” If that is the plan, it might not work — even if the Russians eventually accept something along the lines Kyiv is proposing.

Zelenskyy may face a big challenge in persuading Ukrainians to approve the proposals in a referendum, judging by interviews VOA conducted in western Ukraine. Said Yulia, “I don’t agree with giving land away because Ukraine is one country in terms of our Constitution and the territory defined by the Constitution.” She said she believed the Ukrainian army could overrun the Moscow-controlled regions in the Donbas, and she isn’t alone. Many Ukrainians say they are braced for the war to go on for a long time.

Archbishop Vasyl Semeniuk, a Greek-Catholic prelate in the western Ukraine town of Ternopil, said Ukraine has a sacred duty to vanquish the Russian army on the battlefield, and he said Kyiv should not give up on the Donbas or Crimea.

“Why should we give any land away, what for?” he asked. “So many people have died. So many cities have been destroyed. Those territories belong to us, and they grabbed them.”

“Mariupol has been destroyed. Kharkiv is destroyed, and other towns near Kyiv,” Semeniuk told VOA. “There are dead bodies in the street; they run over them with tanks. The war will continue. We have to stop this army that attacked Georgia, Syria and Transnistria.”

Both Washington and Moscow have cast doubts about the prospects for the peace talks, and U.S. officials are questioning the Kremlin’s sincerity, saying actions speak louder than words. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said midweek that he hadn’t noticed anything “really promising” in the talks so far.

Taken a turn

Nonetheless, there is a feeling in Ukraine that the war is entering a new stage. Ukrainians suspect it might be the endgame; others think it will mean fighting continues but almost exclusively in eastern Ukraine.

They echo remarks made Thursday by Britain’s Chief of the Defense Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, who said Putin has “lost” his war on Ukraine through a series of “catastrophic misjudgments.” Radakin said Russian officers had taken soldiers into combat without their realizing what they were undertaking — a move he described as “insane” and “morally bankrupt.”

Radakin said there were “early indications” that Russian forces were retreating, a move that was making Putin’s military open to attack from Ukrainian defenders. “I think we are seeing that Russia’s ambitions to take Kyiv and Russia’s ambitions to take the whole of Ukraine and do that in a very swift and impressive fashion, those ambitions have fallen apart.”

Ukrainians put more emphasis on the courage of their army for Putin’s setback.

So far, the guns have not been silenced around Kyiv, and British intelligence officials said they expected some heavy fighting around the capital in the coming days. Russian forces blasted Kharkiv Oblast midweek with Grad rockets, and Russian rocket strikes hit a Red Cross building in besieged Mariupol in southern Ukraine. Dnipro in central Ukraine suffered a missile strike, and Chernihiv in northern Ukraine came under “colossal attack,” according to local officials.

But this has done nothing to stop more normal life from reappearing in much of western Ukraine, and slowly in parts of central Ukraine. In Lviv, most stores have reopened, including shopping malls, and there is bustle on the streets. Just three weeks ago, pharmacies were running low on antibiotics and even painkillers. Now they are well stocked, thanks to supplies from Europe. The occasional air raid siren doesn’t prompt people in any large numbers to rush to bunkers as they did a few weeks ago.

Outside Lviv, on highways and in nearby towns and villages, there are still checkpoints, but many are unmanned and at others traffic is waved through with few document checks. Part of the reason is farmers have been putting away their guns to focus on planting crops with the sowing season beginning.

It is also a sign that people in western Ukraine are becoming more relaxed. Many Kyivans are starting to head back to their homes, and the refugee flow across the border into Poland has decreased from a flood to a trickle.