Two years into Russia’s invasion, exhausted Ukrainians refuse to give upon February 24, 2024 at 6:00 am

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Ukrainians may be fatigued by the war, but they still see it as a fight for survival.

Two Ukrainian soldiers duck after firing a mortarImage source, Getty Images

It translates as “crooked horn”, but President Zelensky calls Kryvyi Rih his “big soul and heart”.

He credits this gritty, industrial city with moulding his character. He grew up in a sprawling block of flats known as the Anthill.

When you stand in front of this towering structure, Volodymyr Zelensky’s journey from this setting to wartime leader feels remarkable.

“I want the war to end soon,” says Vita, who lived near Zelensky’s parents. “He’s a normal, good guy who fights for people. I just want this war and the sirens to end sooner.”

But with minimal Ukrainian progress and growing Russian dominance, there is no end in sight, and that’s both fuelling and being fuelled by influential pockets of Western doubters.

At the recent Munich Security Conference, President Zelensky told delegates not to ask Ukraine when the war would end, but instead to “ask why Putin is still able to continue it”.

With blocked military aid now directly hampering his forces on the front line, it was a swipe at those delaying the ammunition and weapons his soldiers desperately need.

Valeriy

BBC
We must fight; we won’t tolerate anything else.
ValeriyAnthill resident

“I’m no politician,” confesses Valeriy, a man in his 80s perched outside a grocery shop. “We can’t ask when the war will stop again.

“We must fight; we won’t tolerate anything else. People are so angry now.”

That appetite to defend has remained mostly intact since that morning on 24 February 2022. Against a terrifying unknown, people volunteered in their thousands to join Ukraine’s fight.

The world’s gaze turned to Kyiv, from where I was reporting.

President Zelensky’s profile and popularity went stratospheric as he turned down offers of evacuation and remained in Kyiv.

“I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said in a now iconic quote.

His needs have not changed, but his pleas have lost their electrifying impact.

A failed counter-offensive in 2023 led to uncomfortable questions over whether Ukraine is capable of liberating its territory.

Republican doubters in the US are hindering Ukraine’s ability to fight by blocking billions of dollars worth of military aid. Kyiv says more frontline troops are dying as a result of weapon shortages and dwindling ammunition.

All the while, Russia has remained on a war footing, and its allies North Korea and Iran are supplying more missiles to rain down on Ukrainian cities.

As US funding is held up, a growing army of volunteers in Ukraine help with the war effort

Image source, BBC/Scarlett Barter

Kryvyi Rih isn’t immune to the fatigue most of the country feels. Some have had enough of this war, many men are fearful of being conscripted, and yet they say the conflict is still a fight for survival.

The idea of a compromise or concession to Russia is viewed as a defeat. It’s existential.

In a symptom of the world Ukrainians live in, I now associate playgrounds with death.

The last time I saw children play in one was at a school next to my flat in Kyiv, before the invasion. Now they are the site of a devastating missile strike, lying abandoned on a front line, or in Brovary, near Kyiv, the scene of a helicopter crash.

Youthful innocence replaced with body bags and destruction.

In Kryvyi Rih, we meet a tearful Yuriy as he watches his flat get demolished after a missile strike last year. Exposed wallpaper patterns reveal the different lives destroyed.

“No one needs this war, what is it for anyway?” he asks. “So many people are being killed.”

So, does he think Ukraine should swap territory for peace?

“Definitely not,” he replies bluntly. “A lot of people died for those territories. There is no point in giving them up.”

Map of Ukraine

The lack of battlefield progress caused a corrosive rift between President Zelensky and the head of his armed forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi. Now sacked, General Zaluzhnyi is seen as a potential political rival to his old boss.

Around Kryvyi Rih, Ukrainians try to help where their country’s allies increasingly will not. In one inconspicuous building, a growing army of volunteers stitch camouflage nettings for troops on the front line.

The men and women are kept separate because of “their different jokes,” explains the organiser.

In another industrial wing of the city, a former bike club has swapped cycling for smoke. Teams mix chemicals into canisters which will become smoke grenades. A useful military tool if you are trying to attack, or evacuate the injured.

“It’s impossible to stay at home with my thoughts when my husband is fighting,” explains Ines, one of the volunteers. “Here I feel I can do something to make it easier for them.”

Russia’s decade of aggression towards Ukraine began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and then spilled into a draining war in the country’s east. On the 731st day of the full-scale invasion, it’s a different kind of war.

While extraordinary, Ukraine’s successes in defence and degrading Russia’s navy have not changed the tide in its favour.

The novelty of this war has gone. Ukraine, Kryvyi Rih and its famous son will need to find new reserves of strength and a clever playbook to keep the world engaged.

Additional reporting by Hanna Chornous, Scarlett Barter and Svitlana Libet.

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