Witness to history: Two years into Russia-Ukraine conflict: Ordinary citizens in Ukraine struggle with uncertain future
Fragments of Hope
Published: Feb 29, 2024 11:19 PM
 A woman wipes tears near Ukrainian flags with the names of the fallen Ukrainian soldiers who died during the Russia-Ukraine conflict at the Independence Square on February 24, 2024, the second anniversary of the conflict. Photo: VCG

A woman wipes tears near Ukrainian flags with the names of the fallen Ukrainian soldiers who died during the Russia-Ukraine conflict at the Independence Square on February 24, 2024, the second anniversary of the conflict. Photo: VCG

Editor Notes: 

February 24, 2024 marked two years since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which now still shows no signs of abetting. How do ordinary Ukrainians live in the midst of the conflict? The Global Times recently interviewed several Ukrainians who said that while the supply of goods in Kiev is relatively adequate, many people have lost their jobs or seen a significant decline in income. Many have had to change their way of life to adapt to frequent air raids and explosions. The healthcare and education sectors have also been impacted.

Those interviewed in Ukraine said that the conflict has completely changed their lives and their outlook on the future. "Almost everyone around me has lost someone they love," said one interviewee. Another young Ukrainian woman said that she no longer thinks about the future because "tomorrow may never come."

This story is a part of the Global Times' "Witness to history" series, which features first-hand accounts from witnesses who were at the forefront of historic moments. From scholars, politicians and diplomats to ordinary citizens, their authentic reflections on the impact of historical moments help reveal a sound future for humanity through the solid forward steps taken in the past and the present. 

People take shelter in a subway station as they wait for the end of an air alarm in Kiev, on December 29, 2023. Photo: VCG

People take shelter in a subway station as they wait for the end of an air alarm in Kiev, on December 29, 2023. Photo: VCG

After the outbreak of the conflict, Anna Smirnova and her husband moved from the countryside to the capital, Kiev, as they thought it would be relatively safer there. However, they still had to frequently seek shelter due to air raids, which have become a common occurrence over the last two years. 

What's more dangerous, for her, is that "sometimes we are asleep and fail to hear the air raid alert in time, but the subsequent explosion wakes us up. Since we don't have time to get to the shelter, we can only lie on the floor, putting some pillows over and around us (as protection)," Smirnova told the Global Times. 

She has lived in anxiety and fear every day for the last 700 days. Her experience is representative of many in Ukraine. After the outbreak of the conflict, almost all underground spaces in Kiev were converted into shelters, from larger city metro stations to smaller basement levels of office buildings and restaurants, according to media reports.

On January 2, humanitarians in Kiev counted over 30 explosions in the city alone, according to a UN report. According to a recent survey of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, children in cities in the frontline areas of Ukraine have spent between 3,000 and 5,000 hours equivalent to between four and almost 7 months - hiding in basements and underground metro stations over the last two years.

The conflict has also completely changed Smirnova's daily schedule. She is now more accustomed to sleeping during the day while remaining awake at night. She works from home in the early morning and at night, as during the daytime, she may have to stay in shelters. 

"I started working from home after the beginning of the conflict, because I feel safer. My office is full of glass; this is quite dangerous when there is an attack or air alert, and people might get injured easily because of this office design," she said, adding that her current life and working style have greatly affected her health.  

Despite facing constant danger, several interviewees in Kiev told the Global Times that the city's order is relatively stable, and there are no signs of shortages in the market, especially of food, vegetables, and other basic necessities. However, over the last two years, prices have increased significantly, while many people's incomes have decreased due to the impact of the conflict.

While Smirnova's salary remains constant, she has found that her purchasing ability has decreased as commodities become more expensive and the prices for many daily essentials and foods in supermarkets have roughly doubled compared to two years ago and continue to rise. 

According to her, a dozen eggs that cost 30 Ukrainian hryvnias ($0.79) previously now cost 60 hryvnias. The same goes for bread. People dare not spend money as they did in peacetime. "Everyone wants to save some money because we are afraid of the future."

Anastasiia Kupryk, 22, is not as lucky as Smirnova. Kupryk now works at a skincare product store in a shopping mall in Kiev, but business has suffered, leading to a significant reduction in her income. 

She told the Global Times that she now looks for extra work every day to earn more money, especially more stable work, but it is difficult to land such a job.

A Reuters report in February pointed out that a profound challenge for Kiev is that trying to recruit more people into the military could further damage the already war-ravaged economy.

A building is destroyed during a missile attack in Dnipro, Ukraine, on February 26, 2024. Photo: VCG

A building is destroyed during a missile attack in Dnipro, Ukraine, on February 26, 2024. Photo: VCG

Live in the moment

Before the outbreak, Kupryk lived in Borodyanka, a peaceful and beautiful small town in central northern Ukraine. In her eyes, it was once a peaceful and beautiful town, but now large areas of land have been reduced to ruins. 

Her own home was destroyed in the bombings, and now she can only temporarily live in Kiev. Some of Kupryk's relatives still live in Borodyanka but their lives are much harder than before. People are also trying to do some reconstruction work, but progress is very slow, according to her. 

In Borodyanka, she lost her mother and her ex-boyfriend, painful memories she still avoids touching upon to this day. "At that time, I couldn't do anything. I was powerless. Later, I realized that war is not just happening on the battlefield, among soldiers - it is a huge threat and pain to civilians," the young Ukrainian woman told the Global Times. "All of my friends and relatives have lost someone they love."

According to a study conducted by the World Bank, the United Nations, and the European Commission, some 3.7 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced by the fighting and another 5.9 million are still displaced outside of Ukraine. Many children have lost their opportunity for education due to the conflict. According to data from the UNICEF in August 2023, only about one-third of school-age children in Ukraine were able to attend school regularly, read a Reuters report.

The conflict has even profoundly changed the way people talk to each other. 

Smirnova said that the topics among people on the streets are mainly about the conflict. In Kupryk's view, even the "atmosphere" in the city seems to have changed as tense emotions consume everyone and every conversation.

For Kupryk, aside from losing loved ones, the biggest change the war has brought is that she no longer plans for the future. "Now I only plan what to do 2 to 3 hours ahead every day. I don't even think about the whole day, let alone talk about a week, a month, or a year," she told the Global Times. 

Before the conflict erupted, Smirnova and her husband had planned to have a child and renovate their apartment. However, both of these plans have been put on hold. In her view, investing in a house during wartime is very risky, and having a child is even more challenging because bringing a new life into this world means taking on enormous responsibility.

She is even afraid to take antidepressants again. "Shortly after the outbreak, I needed to take antidepressants, but the closure of many pharmacies made it difficult to buy these medications. The situation has improved a lot now, and in Kiev, it is not very difficult to buy basic medications other than antibiotics. But when the doctor suggested me continuing taking these medications, I dared not start the treatment again because I was afraid that one day, pharmacies would close again."

"It has completely changed my life," Smirnova said. "I now look at life from different angles. I live in the present because tomorrow may never come."

Black smoke rises over Ukraine's capital Kiev on October 10, 2022. Photo: VCG

Black smoke rises over Ukraine's capital Kiev on October 10, 2022. Photo: VCG

Grim peace prospect

"Ukraine, two years on: Exhaustion at home, fatigue abroad, but the fight continues," read a recent commentary piece in The Guardian. 

"A year ago, there was still cautious optimism about the counteroffensive. But hopes of a breakthrough were dashed and Russia's capture of the eastern city of Avdiivka last week was its biggest gain since the capture of Bakhmut last May," the Guardian article went on to say. 

The former commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said recently that the Russia-Ukraine conflict has now entered a phase characterized by stalemate and attrition.

Analysts pointed out that the prolonged conflict in Ukraine has begun to wear on many Western nations, resulting in a divided stance on extending additional support to the country. The recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict has further diverted the attention of the West, especially the US, limiting their ability to prioritize the situation in Ukraine.

They pointed out that the upcoming US presidential elections in November are also seen as the biggest variable in the trajectory of the conflict. 

A January survey conducted across 12 EU countries found that pessimism about the conflict's outcome was being fueled by Ukraine's failed counteroffensive. A recent Gallup poll found out that nearly half of the US public believes their country is spending too much on Ukraine.

A Pew Research Center survey released in December 2023 showed that the share of Americans who believe the US is giving "too much support to Ukraine" has grown steadily over the last two years, especially among Republicans. 

The percentage of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who believe the US is providing too much aid to Ukraine has increased to 48 percent. This marks a slight uptick from June, when it was at 44 percent, and a significant increase from earlier stages in the war, according to the Pew report. 

A 60-billion-US-dollar package of aid to Ukraine is currently stalled in US Congress by right-wing Republicans. EU countries reached an agreement in early February to offer Ukraine 50 billion euros in assistance. This deal was secured after Hungary withdrew its veto threats. However, transforming this dedication into readily accessible ammunition for soldiers on the front lines remains a challenge. 

In February 2024, compared to October 2023, the percentage of Ukrainians who believe that the West is growing tired of Ukraine has increased from 30 percent to 44 percent, according to a survey from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted from February 17 to 23, Ukrainian media outlet Ukrainska Pravda reported. 

However, the Ukrainians interviewed maintain a strong will to resist, even though they also understand the helplessness of the situation. They hope for assistance from the West, but many struggle to grasp the complex geopolitics behind the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

As the conflict in Ukraine drags on, it is not just Ukraine that is suffering. The longer the fighting continues, the more likely it will become a problem for the US as well. Rising energy, industrial, and commodity prices will impact people around the world. While the US may see temporary gains from arms and energy sales, in the long term, the US dollar could lose its strength and the country's global dominance could diminish, analysts noted to the Global Times. 

"If one day, peace can come again, I hope to regain my previous aspirations. My husband and I will renovate our little home and have a child. We will strive to resume a complete life," Smirnova told the Global Times.