by Judy Dempsey*
Europe is testament to centuries of conflict and battles. The institutions that were built after 1945, including what is today the European Union, were aimed at bringing peace and stability to the continent. Russia’s war in Ukraine has shattered that grand ambition.
So far, the EU and the member states have rallied behind Ukraine. So have NATO and the United States. That political and military support is still not enough for Kyiv to reach the point where it can set the terms for negotiating any peace deal with Russia.
And as Russia’s brutal war on its neighbor continues, with mounting casualties on both sides, it is hard to see why and how President Volodymyr Zelensky can even contemplate negotiations. Ukraine’s population, demonstrating extraordinary resilience daily, would resist it.
This resilience cannot be underestimated. It is set out in a very special and powerful book—Himmel Uber Charkiw (Sky Over Kharkiv)—by the prize-winning Ukrainian author Serhij Zhadan.
Zhadan was born in Luhansk and studied in Kharkiv, a bustling university metropolis before February 2022. He spent the first seven months of the war barely finding the time to keep a diary about what it was like living in a city constantly attacked and bombed by Russia.
It’s a poignant book because it is about the humanism and the humanity of the people of Kharkiv, combined with their growing hatred toward Russians. It is about how individuals and groups of people, young and old, help each other to survive.
Zhadan recounts the endless examples of solidarity and decency, of him and his friends finding generators for hospitals, and collecting medicines, food, and clothes.
He shares memories of arranging entertainment for children traumatized by the war, who, like their parents, had to spend so much time in underground shelters or in the subways away from the light, away from the sky—hence the title of his book. Nearly every second entry of Zhadan’s diary ends with one of two sentences: “Early tomorrow our victory will be a day closer”, or “Over the city flies our flag.”
Zhadan’s diary is essentially about resilience. It is about the yearning for freedom and peace, of being able to open the local bakery, the barber shop, the bar, the school, the bookstore, or concert hall.
Of having the people of Kharkiv owning and living in their city without hearing the boom of war planes, without being afraid, without being forced to flee. It is about a determination to survive and win. It is a special kind of resilience which those living in the EU can hardly conceptualize.
So when politicians or commentators living in their own comfort zone suggest that ways must be found to start negotiating some kind of peace, they cannot ignore Ukrainian resilience. That resilience is resistance. There are few if any signs that the country’s citizens would even contemplate compromising that resilience.
The continued suffering, death, and need for solidarity have made that resilience even more pronounced. And the longer Russia wages a war that is now known for its cruelty and indiscriminate killing of civilians, the harder it will be for Zelensky to even think about negotiating a peace that does not factor in the nature of his country’s resilience.
That resilience is not ebbing. This is despite the leaks from U.S. intelligence that Ukraine’s planned spring offensive is not adequately militarily equipped.
And it is despite a growing weariness if not a sense of impatience by some Western political and military elites of a war that has the huge potential to create instability in other parts of eastern Europe.
That is a fear making the rounds in some chancelleries and ministries in Europe, and one that perhaps Moscow is banking on. With Vladimir Putin giving no indication of backing down from his goal of destroying Ukraine, the Kremlin may be hoping that as the war drags on, it will break the unity of the Europeans in their support for Ukraine—and the morale of Ukrainians. So far, neither has happened. Nor has the resilience of the Ukrainians been weakened.
After so much destruction, death, and millions of forced displacements, it is hard to see under what terms peace could be reached—unless Ukrainians could regain their territory, their land. And once again, the control of their sky.
*Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
**first published in Carnegie Europe