After a year of picking my own subjects related to Ukraine and the war, or just my own meandering experiences, it's a good time to answer your questions.
The following are questions from folks, sometimes blended with others, but attributed to the asker's geography. I initially felt that I didn't have enough questions and then realised that, given the breadth of the answers, that I'll have to do my utmost to be brief.
Q. "Could you make your blog entries shorter?"
- Reading, Pennsylvania
A. Yes... :)
This question is a shortened version of what was more of a suggestion. The thought was that maybe something more frequent and shorter would be more useful. To me, that seems more like reporting, and there are quite a lot of sites dedicated to that. I was always more interested in trying to improve understanding outside of Ukraine in more of a long-form format. I think what also came from the exercise of writing was the chance to test out my own knowledge and reasoning. It's something that has come in handy in my travels and frequent discussions with people of varying opinions around the world.
Q. "What was the response inside Ukraine to the recent anniversary addresses by Putin and Biden?"
- Exton, Pennsylvania
A. Not much, really.
I think that most Ukrainians wish that its allies would listen less to the Russian President. Pay more attention to what he does. Afterall, this is the guy who said he was not going to invade Ukraine four days before he did.
There was much more enthusiasm for Biden's visit to Kyiv than his speech in Warsawa. I still think, though, that former British PM Boris Johnson is more popular in Ukraine than just about any other foreign person. He was much more enthusiastic in his support of Ukraine, perhaps because Ukraine was the only place he was popular toward the end of his time as Prime Minister.
Biden, to most Ukrainians, seems to be lagging behind the vanguard of its allies, which is often seen as being the UK and Ukraine's Eastern European neighbours. I think we can partly accept that Biden has been trying to keep the Germans, French, and the rest of the EU moving along behind the leadership of those other nations. While that's an important role, I think it's done more to delay essential military capabilities than to benefit Europe as a whole.
There's no doubt that the most important ally is the US, but there's also little doubt that the US has not helped its own cause by being so slow on policy and support. People here would have been a lot more excited about the speech if there was more substance on essential capabilities like long-range precision strikes. Cheerleading is old hat by now.
Q. "What if Russia wins?"
- Frederickburg, Virginia
A. Someone asked what I believe many have wondered.
Defining "winning" has been something that even Putin has struggled to do. It has also confounded many of those people who wanted to give Putin an early win and an easy "off ramp" to stop the death and destruction earlier on during the invasion.
For the sake of brevity, I'm going to answer what the question probably assumes is a win at this stage in the fighting. The most likely route to a "win" for Russia is one in which Ukraine's western allies stop contributing weapons and push Zelenskyy to negotiate a ceasefire and concede territories occupied by Russia at the time of the ceasefire.
It's hard for me to imagine Ukraine making permanent those territorial concessions without a security agreement like being a member of NATO. I suspect the west would be ready to do that, recognising that no ceasefire would last very long once Russia rearms. Putin would also be emboldened by the knowledge that NATO hit its breaking point without losing a single soldier, and so he'd have reason to believe NATO would not respond in the future when he'd invade Estonia or Latvia. Put more simply, Putin is likely more dangerous given a win than handed a defeat. This is a common belief among Russia experts.
So Russia could gain some territory, but I cannot see this ending well for Putin's larger territorial ambitions to the west (Baltics) and south (Georgia and Kazakhstan)... as long as the West maintains its liberal democratic influence across Europe.
There is a scenario out there, though, where Europe doesn't have the stomach to sustain energy and trade sanctions on the Russian Federation. That has a lot to do with how far to the right each country swings, and how many "Hungaries" sprout up around the EU. It's not far-fetched that Europe becomes more cynical and each nation becomes more insular, which is the basis for continued war in Eurasia. This is Putin's best case scenario. This is the one in which Europe breaks apart and is carved up into the small pieces it looks like on a map.
(There's a fair bit in previous blogs that explains why a conquest of the entirety of Ukraine is virtually impossible. There's also more than one discussion in my previous posts as to why nuclear weapons will likely mean the end of Putin's aspirations, and are thus not likely.)
If you follow my social media accounts, this then-and-now photo will be familiar. It's important that we remember all the progress that Ukraine has made.
Q. "You mentioned anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine over the last year. Could you eleborate on some?"
- Boulder, Colorado
A. It's actually a regular feature of the news, and there's even healthy scepticism that the accusations of corruption can get overblown.
Perhaps the biggest corruption story of 2023 is that of over-paying for military food stuffs. The accusation made in the press was that the Defense Ministry was paying more on bulk orders than what they would have paid just going to ATB or Metro (grocery stores). This did result in Defense Minister Reznikov being transferred to another post, but there is a resemblance of a legitimate reason that might make this look more like the Pentagon's storied excesses rather than something that involved kick-backs from suppliers to top officials. As far as I am aware, there is no money trail leading into pockets, and there is the possibility of the prices paid including logistics and not just the food.
There have been many lower-level cases of mayors and parliamentarians doing dodgy things, but the worst of those were Russian sympathisers. I think the mayor of Poltava was arrested just last week on corruption charges. As a retired lawyer or even judge might appreciate, there are the charges that lead to arrests, and then there are cases made for a conviction. The courts are working and they seem to be processing cases in the usual manner. That is to say, what's reported in the newsfeed regarding allegations and what holds up in court under more thorough investigation could be quite different and quite far apart. Indeed, just this week the former CEO of Boryspil airport was sentenced to five years for corruption. I believe he was charged in the case two years ago. It'll take some time after the war to know what's been going right and wrong.
On the broader subject of the culture of corruption, I am comfortable saying that Ukraine and Ukrainians know they have a problem. That's step one of many, I suppose you could say. It's very public in airports and public places, posted in Ukrainian and English, on how to report corruption. I think the average Ukrainian is concerned that many in the political elite will revert to their old ways once the war is over. This is a healthy concern.
I also think it's helpful to understand that payoffs have been a practical way of cutting through what I would describe as a "criminal" level of bureaucracy. It touches everyone. One thing I like about how they're addressing this is that rather than trying to reform existing institutions that seem to be Stalinist in spirit and practice, they often create a redundant institution that parallels the existing one. The new one quickly becomes the preferred way of getting things done in society and the old one is marginalised. Postal and telecoms would be two good examples, but the old institutions are yet to die on the vine, as I think many are hoping they will.
One area where reform is desperately needed but hasn't occurred is in the requirements for a registered address, and how this affects voting. It is very difficult to change your address in Ukraine, for reasons that the government won't acknowledge as genuine. This affected lots of people who fled Crimea and Donbas in 2014. It affects lots of highly mobile young workers. One of the worst results is those people don't get to vote. There is no absentee voting in Ukraine like we know it in most US states.
Follow-on related question: "Corruption seems a commonly cited reason why Ukraine isn't yet ready for EU membership. Is that something they can work through?"
- Mt Gretna, Pennsylvania
A. I think corruption is a big challenge, but probably less so than the pervading culture that enables it.
Some of my response is in the answer above: Corruption is a recognised challenge within Ukrainian society and they're taking measures to address it. What worries me more, and I see this in places like Montenegro and other former socialist societies in Europe, is the culture of bureacracy and customer "disservice". (We're not satisfied 'til you're dissatisfied.)
I don't know about you, but when I walk into a government agency in the US, I typically meet a public servant who sees their job as how to help me how things work and maybe set me up with a way to fix my problem. In the former-socialist states, they pretty much just want to send you on your way. They will often withhold information that will help you solve your problem simply because it requires them to do something. You often have to know the right question to ask. They're not there for you; you're there to give them a job... and many long smoking breaks. (Seriously, if you want to find a public servant, hang around outside the doors of government buildings.)
Combating this culture is difficult, because it usually means making enemies within the institutions of government among the people who do well from the jungle of red tape. It ties in to corruption, of course, because if you have the financial means to make it all disappear, you can pay the right person, and things get done.
There are elements of this all around the EU, though, too. I think someone in Spain or Italy and most certainly in Greece would read this and ask "isn't this normal?" Indeed much of the high fee and tax environment in Europe rewards informal work-arounds. Yeah, sure we all have those everywhere, but the degree is much higher where the incentive is higher. When 40% of a minimum-wage worker's wages are withheld from their paycheque in taxes, you're going to end up in an economy where a lot of people officially earn the minimum wage, but are also paid quite a bit more under the table. When your value-added-tax (sales tax) is 27%, businesses are going to do a lot of their transactions off invoices because otherwise they won't happen at all.
OK, much of my answer is my own personal beef coming out, but it's also to say that in Europe there's a lot of what's happening in Ukraine going on to a lesser degree. There's quite a lot of work to be done in Ukraine, but the EU cannot sit by neglecting many of its much needed reforms.
Q. “You write about the Ukrainian people as though they all feel alike and all were prepared for what began in 2014 in the same way. Does the school curriculum teach them about dealing with historical Russian mistreatment and how to move forward?”
- Shillington, Pennsylvania
A. Well, it's complicated.
Let's start with the observation that, by European standards, Ukraine is a large country and the regional differences are readily apparent and deeply held, mostly in a positive way, though. Just like someone can prefer living in Phoenix, but appreciates that Flagstaff is there and provides such a quick change in scenery and temperature. Politically, the east is more Russian-leaning, BUT, and make note of this, folks: In the 1991 public referendum on Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union (pretty much Russia at that stage), every single oblast and city across all of Ukraine favoured Ukrainian independence. That include Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk.
To anyone out there with their deserved "yeah but" caveats on hand -- the biggest being that Russians like Yeltsin wanted out of the Soviet Union too because it really was THAT bad -- you can't look at the 1991 results and the present border-to-border opposition to Russian occupation, and tell me Ukraine didn't recognise itself as Ukraine and not some sort of lesser Russia.
Interestingly, though, prior to 2014 you wouldn't have heard Ukrainians making such a big deal out of that. The Holodomor, which was pretty much when the communist elites starved over 5-million Soviets to death from 1932-34, wasn't seen as much as a defining event of Russia-on-Ukraine tragedy. While about 80% of those deaths likely occurred in Ukraine, Russians and Kazakhs also died in terrifying numbers.
What Putin's invasion in 2014 and the full-scale war of the last year has done for Ukrainian national identity is remarkable. It has rewritten Ukrainian history in a different tone, and yes that's one that is slowly working its way into the schools to the point now that it's entrenched. It took a long while to cycle out the old textbooks and the old Soviet teachers, but the full-scale invasion has made no doubt about Ukrainian nationalism.
Most of my references to Ukrainians are made as generalisations for the sake of brevity, but I do think it's important to remember that they are generalisations. These generalisations are not meant to cover all points of view, but even those points of view can sway from good days to bad. We're in a period of heightened Ukrainian nationalism and for a very obvious and important reason. I doubt it will persist like this for long, but it's extremely unlikely Ukrainians will moderate their views on Russians anytime soon.
The move forward that you mention, especially now that China is making its interests clear to Ukrainians, is definitely westward facing.
Q. "You've mentioned how low incomes are in Ukraine. Are there a lot of expenses we have that they don't because I don't know how people can live on [$300] per month."
- Charleston, South Carolina
A. You're not alone in wondering how this works; many ukrainians are curious as well.
My friend said as much of her parents in a village in northwestern Ukraine. In their case, she knows how they make ends meet: She helps them by sending money and they have a subsistance garden. Remove those two factors and she doesn't know how a retired couple would live in L'viv on a combined pension of $100/month. That's a lot of potatoes and tomatoes and buckwheat.
What I tell people is that former-communist Europe is income poor, but is relatively asset wealthy. With the unwinding of communism, people inherited the homes they occupied and so not that many households pay rent or have a mortgage payment. Mortgages are very rare. The issue, though, is that their home could have been entitled to what is now and extended family, and so which sibling's family lives in the home could have been a matter of tension within the family.
It's likely that multiple generations of adults share the home now, more likely than you'd find in the US today. Bedrooms get shared, still. It's not quite like it was during communism, but the actual living conditions of many of these households wouldn't meet expectations with how these people look out on the street, which is generally rather fashionable and stylish. Back in the 1980s, even in a city like Budapest, you'd have a couple families totaling over a dozen people sharing a kitchen and bathroom. When "Lopez" Molnar, a former Olympian for the Hungarian rowing team, relates this story, young Hungarians laugh because they say he's exaggerating. It sounds like the "we walked through five-feet of snow, uphill, both ways" kind of story to them. He insists he's not exaggerating, though. It certainly overlaps with images I had of communist Europe as a Cold War kid myself.
Compared to Montenegrins, for example, Hungarians and Ukrainians are even more asset-wealthy. They have a better legacy of infrastructure investment. Ukraine has a highly functional (if slow) train system and many of the cities have excellent affordable transit. You don't need a car in these cities in my experience.
My friend Ivana insists that contemporary visitors to Montenegro cannot imagine how poor the country was when her parents were kids coming out of WW2. What she portrays is something akin to mid-19th Century rural Ireland, without the potato famine, but with the most basic barn-like living conditions, and mule paths for roads.
Utilities are highly subsidised in Ukraine, and most people can get by without a car. In some cases, a car would increase convenience, but in most cities I think they're an aspirational cost. Lots of people would rather show off their 20yo Skoda than be seen packed into a tram, despite the tram getting there faster given how bad Ukrainian traffic is.
Ukraine has suffered badly from an under-developed financial system. That close friend in L'viv with the parents living in a rural village, is confounded by how much borrowing Americans are willing to do. I explain to her, though, that if she could borrow on the terms that Americans enjoy, she'd own 3x more properties than she does now and would be accumulating wealth her parents would never have imagined. Sure, there are people who would use debt poorly, but she wouldn't be one of those. Normalising the financial culture of Ukraine is going to be a big component of its future wealth, for certain. 18% interest on a home loan (before the war), just doesn't make sense for anyone.
As for education and health, few Americans would want the free version that's offered in Ukraine. Most would pay for the private clinics and private international schools if given the choice. The private clinics and schools, though, are really quite affordable. If you compare tuition to property taxes in places like Pennsylvania or New Jersey, the tuition is likely similar. The private clinics are much less than the insurance premiums Americans are used to.
The big difference between the cost of medical care in the US and the rest of the world is in salaries. I'm not talking about hospital administrators so much as doctors and nurses, who are paid a lot more than their contemporaries around the world. An American doctor, however, would point to his medical malpractice insurance expense, the price of which would be inconceivable elsewhere. We do like our lawyers and lawsuits in America, apparently. How much that leads to better medical outcomes isn't obvious to me.
Q. "What are the financial implications, win or lose?"
- Norfolk, Virginia
A. For Ukraine, it's all a matter of getting reconstruction assistance from its allies around the world in both win or lose scenarios.
The amount of damage to most of Ukraine controlled by Ukraine presently is pretty manageable by North American standards, and doubly so when coupled with EU and other OPEC resources (like Japan and Korea and Australia). The World Bank estimates total damage just south of about $400-billion across the whole of Ukraine, and so in the parts currently controlled by Ukraine would be less than half of that as things stand.
Hurricane Katrina's damage was estimated at just under $200-million. While these kinds of numbers and comparison are vulnerable to a lot of broad assumptions, it's important to remember the magnitudes of difference in replacement costs between Ukrainian and American real estate and infrastructure. I think most people in Ukraine are hoping that there's an opportunity to build things back better.
The other critical factors in Ukraine's future are NATO membership and a path to EU membership. If there's no security guarantee in Ukraine, then there's simply no private investment. Public investments would all be at higher risk with no security guarantee.
The EU would be a major factor in encouraging private investment that would be following EU infrastructure investment euros.
I think there's really only one economic outlook for Russia and that's gloomy, win or lose. The best chance that Russia could end up doing well is if Europe transitions more to an isolationist position, favouring perpetual regimes of their own, like Hungary has presently. Hungary is a long way from Belarus, but it's not impossible to see that as one of several outcomes for the magyarok by 2030. France, for example, is itself only as far from becoming like Hungary as Hungary is from Belarus. It's not guaranteed by any means, but it's a possibility. Macron is aware of this and it's one reason France has a hard time being out in front on issues like Ukraine; it could risk the entire French domestic political landscape.
All of this is one reason why I think we're making far too much about the expense of supporting Ukraine. It's a small portion of the larger economic threat and expense we're looking at if the world order transitions from globalism to isolationism. (It's both the extremes at the Left and Right that threaten the isolationist rhetoric, but the Right has been more successful of late.) Such a shift could cause economic contractions several times larger than what we're spending to support Ukraine. Furthermore, it's one where the damage only gets bigger, not only to Ukraine but to the global economy, the longer we allow this war of Russian aggression to persist. Time is not on our side.
Q. "We've been hearing stories of Ukrainian children being kidnapped and transported deep into the Russian Federation. Could you explain what's going on?"
- Reading, Pennsylvania
A. It's apparently true and has been going on for most of the war.
Voice of America here in Europe cites US intelligence sources that at least 6,000 Ukrainian children (likely many more) have been sent to what I'd call re-education camps inside Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea. I recall reports in the media and some first-hand accounts from Mariupol back in March and April about people boarding buses that were supposed to repatriate Ukrainians but sent them, regardless of where they wanted to be, deep into Russia.
Among those people were children with and without their mothers (fathers had low survival rates, if they were around). There are reports as well of forced separation. I can only assume that a mother who expresses a desire to be allowed to be returned to Ukraine is the one most likely to have her children taken away. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine what she would do and say if she was aware of this connection? (Take me to Mother Russia, you bastards.)
I recall these stories largely from the south where the initial expansion of the Russian-held territory was the fastest and where efforts to Russify communities were almost immediate. This includes Kherson city. When it came around to the Russian retreat from Kherson last autumn, people were not given a choice as to which side they had to go. They were taken to Russia. I believe it was at this time that the story of the "re-education" of Ukrainian kids seemed to be most in the press here. It probably reflects an acknowledgement by Russia that its hold on the land was weak, so they could at least appropriate the people, including thousands of children.
I'm reminded of a man I met in our L'viv refugee supply centre in the spring of 2022. He had recently arrived from Mariupol. He and his family tried to vacate the city three times in a private car before they were able to get out. On that last trip, they came across a bullet-riddled car in the street that was occupied by a deceased woman and her two small children. We cannot forget what Putin's disasterous decision to invade a peaceful neighbour did to the lives of millions. What's more: we know he has no remoarse and would only do it differently if it would improve his chances of conquest. The lives of milions matter not to him.