WARSAW, Poland – Last week, a friend asked me what he could learn from a four-day trip to Ukraine he was planning that he couldn’t get just by reading the news.
It was a good question.
Now that I have finished the trip, I can answer.
I learned how strange it is to visit a country where no planes fly and, since last Monday, no ships have sailed, thanks to the cruel and cynical withdrawal of the Russian president. Vladimir Putin of the Black Sea Grains Initiativethrough which Ukrainian agricultural products reached starving countries like Kenya, Lebanon and Somalia.
The only feasible way for a visitor to get from the Polish border to kyiv, Ukraine, is a journey of nine hours by trainwhere the sign inside the carriage door urges:
“Be brave like Ukraine.”
I found out that you have to download the application Air Alert! on your smartphone as soon as you enter the country.
sounds a alarm whenever the system detects drones, missiles or other aerial threats in the immediate vicinity, something happened and again during my short stay.
After the alarm, a recording – in English, by “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill – intones:
“Go to the nearest shelter. Don’t get careless. Your overconfidence is your weakness.”
I heard that kyiv is to burst.
despite the 1,620 missile and drone strikes that, according to the US embassy, the city has suffered, and despite the fact that the economy contracted 29% in the first year of war, cars speed by, people dine in outdoor cafes on well-swept sidewalks and activists, officials and elected officials freely share divergent opinions with visiting columnists.
Adapting a phrase attributed to Yitzhak RabinUkrainians go about their daily life as if there were no war, while they wage war as if there were no daily life.
I have learned that all the staff members of the United States embassy in kyiv, led by our brave and outspoken ambassador, Bridget Brinkthey presented themselves volunteers.
They have been separated from their families and living for months in hotel rooms.
Your job is to oversee one of America’s largest relief efforts since the Marshall Planmaking sure that tens of thousands of pieces of US military hardware in Ukrainian hands are properly accounted for, rebuilding an embassy that was destroyed on the eve of the Russian invasion, and monitoring the Russian war crimes, about 95,000 of which have so far been documented by the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office.
I learned what it was like to sit in conference rooms and walk down corridors that would soon be torn apart by Russian artillery.
I joined a diplomatic group led by US Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power on Tuesday for a port visit to Odessa.
Power met first with Ukrainian officials to discuss logistical options for their exports following Putin’s withdrawal from the grain deal, and then with farmers to discuss issues such as the demining of their fields and the reduction of risks to their finances.
The stately Port Authority building where the meetings were held, a purely civilian target, was attacked just a day after we left.
I learned that Ukrainians are not interested in turning their victimization into an identity.
Years ago in Belgrade, I saw how the Serbian government had preserved the remnants of its former defense ministry, hit by NATO bombs in the 1999 Kosovo war, in keeping with its self-pitying view of that war.
On the contrary, in buchathe Kiev suburb that suffered some of the worst atrocities during the brief Russian occupation in the early days of the war, I witnessed the transformation of patched up bullet hole-pocketed apartment buildings into modern coworking spaces.
As Anatoliy Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha, told Power:
“The memory will remain in the memories, but the residents want rebuild no reminders.”
I learned that not likely for the Ukrainians to trade sovereign territory for Western security guarantees, let alone some kind of armistice agreement with Moscow.
They already tried it in the 1990s with the Budapest Memorandum, in which they handed over to Russia the nuclear arsenal on its territory in exchange for guarantees of territorial integrity. They tried the latter with the equally toothless minsk agreements after the first Russian invasion in 2014.
The goal of Western policy should be to provide Ukraine with the military means it needs to win, rather than press Ukraine to haggle over its sovereignty and security rights again in the name of calming our anxieties about Russian escalation.
I have learned that despite all the help we have given Ukraine, we are the true beneficiaries of the relationshipand they the true benefactors.
Ben Wallacethe usually thoughtful British defense minister, suggested after this month’s NATO summit that the Ukrainians should show more gratitude to their arms suppliers.
That amounts to a relationship backwards.
NATO countries are paying for their long-term security in money, which is cheap, and ammunition, which is replaceable.
Ukrainians count their costs in lives and limbs lost.
I am writing this column from Warsaw Chopin Airport.
Parked outside the terminal are planes bound for Doha, Qatar; Istanbul; Rome; Toronto; NY.
Seeing them here could hardly be imagined 40 years ago.
It came true because the Polish people remained, in Ronald Reagan’s apt words, “magnificently unreconciled with oppression.”
Today, it is Poland’s neighbors in the Ukraine that are magnificently unreconciled with the invasion.
What I learned after four days of closed skies is that you should never take a bustling airport scene like this for granted.
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