A Trip to Kyiv With European Presidents

An Estonian playwright on his train to Kyiv with European leaders—and on the horrors they saw in Ukraine

A Trip to Kyiv With European Presidents
A monument is seen near a destroyed residential building, Kyiv Region / Ukrinform / NurPhoto via Getty Images

At first I do not understand if the shapeless brown mass inside the burned tank is mud — or a burned human. For a moment, the two are indistinguishable: mud and man. On the branches of a willow growing next to the tank, its trunk scorched black, someone’s camouflage-patterned pants hang by their suspenders. Nearby lies a lone rubber boot, a requisite sign of a death. When I ask Liis Mure, the Estonian president’s security adviser, whether anyone in these burned tanks survived, she shakes her head. We get back on our buses and drive on.

It is mid-April, and I am traveling to Kyiv with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. There were going to be five presidents, but the German leader, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was denied access to Ukraine by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — a snub, evidently, for Berlin’s years of appeasing Moscow, and an event that ruptured a newborn European unity. I’m here to write an article, but as a playwright who has worked in theater for almost 20 years, the dark scenery I am about to witness surpasses anything human fantasy has offered so far.

The tour near Kyiv on the second day of the trip lasts over six hours. We drive past a blown-up bridge in Irpin, under which abandoned cars are tucked away like children in a game of hide-and-seek. We look at brand new high-rise buildings pocked with large holes, blunt at their edges. The bombs flew unhindered through the structures. I look through the floors, and I see the sky. An apartment building with 20 or 30 floors stands empty. These high-rises will probably be demolished soon, before anyone can even move in.

We drive through new residential areas, where barbecues were held in the evenings and the smell of freshly mowed grass once rose from the gardens. Now the roofs, windows and entire floors of the houses have been swept away. In the small tracts of forest where people would usually go for a jog, trenches have been dug, but these are also empty. There is silence everywhere. No one can be seen. There is no more life here.

On the roads we drive past large, burned-out shopping centers. Thousands of square feet of molten stains, sooted windowsills and scorched interiors remain. These are huge black caves that resemble nothing, because human cruelty cannot resemble anything. “Man was thinking of flying to Mars,” Marko Reisel, the president’s bodyguard, told me before we left Tallinn, “but instead kills its own species. Not even wild animals do that.” He has been to war. He was in Afghanistan and Lebanon. His colleague Andris Viltsin, who runs the entire personal protection department of the police, has also traveled along battlefields. But after walking in the towns and villages near Kyiv, he shakes his head and says he has scarcely seen anything like it.

We turn onto smaller side roads and drive past pine trees, some of their tops torn off. From the emptiness, the charred wreck of a car appears at a crossroads; then a minibus, half of which has been smashed. A church is riddled with bullet holes, houses are shattered, gates hang loose and streets are covered with pieces of stone. The houses are no more — they’ve been burned to atoms.

Life stopped here in an instant. There is only an empty shell left of one of the stone houses. The wind breezes through the living room, while the garden house, where the rakes and the trampoline are usually kept, is still intact. In one yard, the red garden carts stand out from afar because everything else around them is sooty. The walls of the houses, the small yard, even the young apple trees are covered with an even, gray layer. Bombs and mines have exploded in bedrooms with floral wallpaper, in green-painted kitchens and where a piano once stood. People’s homes have been bombed, but so have shops, cinemas, even cemeteries. Everything has been bombed, and what could not be destroyed will perhaps be done in later by mines hiding in the ground.

At one point, the cortege slows down and takes a small detour. We drive past a truck with a broken front, surrounded by men with minesweepers who are looking for the things that serve only one purpose: to kill. They might kill young pedestrians, children playing or an old couple driving to the store for bread.

Life and death are intertwined in these small villages and suburbs. We move past the car the tank had driven over, and a hundred yards further on, children wave at us. On one side of the street, all the small brick houses are wrecked. But a small gardening store sits opposite them. Seedlings are displayed for viewing, all intact. The bus driver shakes his head but tells us how beautiful my native Tallinn is — what an old town, a wonderful sea, and then those white nights! Here you can see street corners with sandbags, large trenches, burned places on the roads, and next to them a young man plows the soil with a tractor and an old lady calls for her chickens between the furrows. The soil contains more useful ash for plants than ever before. In an almost completely flattened village, someone has placed a large crate of white chicken eggs on a stump. There are only a few old people left here. They look at our flashing cortege, this flock of foreign guests. Then they turn their backs and resume tending their gardens, even though the houses no longer have windows, and life has no future.

Then we are in Borodyanka. It is as if we are standing in the middle of a normal district of apartment blocks. The edges of the park are starting to turn green as the season changes from winter to spring, and a bird flies over us. But instead of apartment buildings, we meet blackened ruins. We have already seen the destruction in photos, we know it all, except that it’s a different feeling to stand on a rock and know that a few yards below you, there is probably another person. Someone who woke up in the dark to use the bathroom when a small, short whistle and then a deafening explosion stopped everything. Twenty-one bodies have been found, we are told, but many are missing.

I don’t know whether any of them lived in this apartment with nice, embroidered curtains that flutter now in the wind. Was someone from the fourth floor now buried under the walls of his own home? What about the person from the eighth floor who recently had a new air conditioner installed? How pleasant it might have been to sit in the summer and enjoy the fresh air, how nice to grow dill plants on the balcony, for the one who is now buried under rubble and indifference.

Broken houses alternate with undamaged ones. Here and there children catch fish. Where there was a house a month ago, there is now a nine-story cemetery. An advertisement for a beauty salon hangs above a basement door, still promising to make everything beautiful and healthy. In one village, where about 80% of the houses are gone forever, three-quarters of the people we see wave to us — statistics of life and death, emptiness and hope.

The war is all-encompassing, I know. But when you smell burned metal, and see yards where a children’s swing has been replaced by the image of grinning Russian President Vladimir Putin, then you really get it. At least you should.

That is why Ukrainians bring foreign visitors to see their suburbs. When the four presidents pack into a minibus along with the prime minister of Ukraine, the prime minister shows them photos of destruction, death and corpses from his phone. He has searched and cataloged the images — an inventory of the indescribable.

Yet this war does not affect me in the same way it does the Ukrainians. I feel like a tragedy tourist. We happen upon new dramas, but as they begin to recur — sooty houses, broken houses, crumbs of human life everywhere — it starts to feel routine. There’s drowsiness in the bus, and some of us fall asleep for a while. I am disappointed that we are not being taken to Bucha, but there is no more time for that. I wanted something to shock me even more.

When Virginia Woolf commented on photos of the Spanish Civil War — one photo was published every two weeks — she expressed that no matter how different we are as people, seeing horrors unites us. We look at another person’s suffering, and it brings us together.

Decades later, Susan Sontag argued that point. It’s an illusion, she said. “If we look at another person’s pain,” Sontag wrote, “we can’t expect any ‘us’ to form.” Somebody feels something, somebody else feels something else. Many feel bemused awareness, and that’s it. The horrors that have taken place in Ukraine are indeed indescribable, yet there is already a danger of routine boredom in the West.

A few hours before going to the suburbs of Kyiv, we were told on the train what clothes we should wear in Borodyanka. Yes, watching death has its own dress code. Light shirt, sweater, good shoes, we were told. This style of clothing is called field casual — that is, “the ordinary, normal.”

Recently, Ukrainians pointed out how the photographers who arrived in Bucha jostled with each other so much that they almost stepped on the bodies. They did this in the name of better shots. When the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, came there, he tended to shove everything with his feet — a dangerous and stupid act, a sign of boredom or anxiety.

Estonia’s Office of the President asked me to take pictures, too. I have to send them to the Office so that they can be uploaded somewhere, and people can share them. “Sometimes I get the impression,” Estonian President Alar Karis tells me ironically on the last day of the trip, “that many heads of state just want to be in the pictures.”

The Polish airport in Rzeszow is tiny. There are only six or seven official flights each day, but there is still life here from morning to night. Life in order to get as much help as possible to Ukraine, and life to take people to look at death. Planes take off and land, bringing politicians, journalists, prosecutors and the military. Cortege flashlights have become so common that when we drive past a goat herd in the early morning, only one of the animals raises its head. It looks at us indifferently and goes back to eating.

The purpose of all this is to take people away from their screens to a place where it is no longer possible to distinguish between man and mud. Some say that without Bucha, new sanctions would not have been discussed. Leaders can’t just scroll past pictures of burned-out cars and film-wrapped corpses. They have to deal with them. Otherwise they might get used to what you must not get used to.

Reisel, the Estonian bodyguard, takes a sip from a small bottle of Coca-Cola. It’s a classic cola, pure sugar and caffeine. When I ask him if he will sleep tonight, he shakes his head. “It will be a couple of nights without sleep,” he says.

We are standing at the airport waiting for the president to arrive. It is late on a Tuesday night, and our trip is about to begin. Traffic is already slowing around Tallinn. The Estonian border guard’s tiny plane seats less than a dozen people, and its wings are painted blue and yellow. The plane has warmed up its engines, but I don’t know what time it takes off, and I don’t know where it will fly. “To a town in Poland,” Celia Kuningas-Saagpakk, the president’s foreign adviser, had told me two days earlier at the gate of a food market, while holding a Sunday meringue. She had not said who would go to the Polish town or what would be discussed. Nor had she mentioned how, when and with whom we would travel.

Only now does Reisel, who seems to stand nearly 10 feet tall, tell me that we will fly to a small Polish town whose name consists only of consonants, and then we will continue by train. When I ask if he is scared, he cannot understand the word. It’s his job to transport important people safely from one place to another. He thinks things through. He assembles the necessary equipment. He listens to what the locals recommend because “we would be very stupid if we didn’t listen to them.” The train was the Ukrainians’ idea. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled on the same train to Kyiv. But the best strategy for someone’s security is when no one knows where you are or when you are there. With these words, Reisel places an empty cola bottle on the table and excuses himself.

When he returns, I tell him that while he was away, the German president told the world that he had planned to go to Kyiv with the presidents of Poland and the Baltic States. The secret is out. It is public knowledge now. But Reisel doesn’t even sigh. So be it. It doesn’t change anything. “Those who really want to know we’re going,” he says, “already know.”

During our drive to the plane, the first media inquiries come in. They want Karis to comment on Steinmeier’s absence. The president does not think it is his job to comment, but his mood can be interpreted as sulky. The presence of a great power was important to him. “We’re just pawns,” he says, a little sadly, but realistically. “But important pawns,” he adds.

The plane is not much bigger than a closet. When it takes off and we fly over Tallinn, the sun is setting. Soon after, the pilot takes a thermos from under the chair and offers us coffee.

After landing a few hours later, we immediately drive off in official cars. It looks like the ultimate conspiracy, when we rush with lights flashing and sirens blaring through sleepy Polish villages. If anyone had managed to miss Steinmeier’s comments, everyone from here to the Carpathians would know now that important people are on their way. These cars, with their flashing lights, bring to mind glowworms looking for a friend who has disappeared into the darkness. They seek, but they do not find.

This visit has been scheduled for several weeks. As always, the leadership came from Poland — they define themselves as the leader of the region, and that is understandable. When Zelenskyy was called sometime before and asked if it made sense for them to come, he said that he and the Ukrainian government don’t need such a symbolic visit. “But the people of Ukraine do,” he then added.

Finally, Steinmeier was added. “The people in the east already know and understand Russia and its warfare,” Kuningas-Saagpakk told me two days earlier at the market gate. “It’s important that the Western allies see it too. And that Putin understands: We are united.”

She would not say anything more specific. I did not know who this fifth president was until Tuesday afternoon, and then Kuningas-Saagpakk sent a text message. “There will be no fifth.”

The Poles had invited Steinmeier, but Zelesnkyy abruptly postponed the German president’s visit. “We don’t need many friends,” he said later at a press conference, standing next to the Baltic and Polish leaders, “but only good friends.” He decided this on Monday night. Polish President Andrzej Duda tried to persuade him otherwise, but the decision had been made.

Steinmeier’s rejection is an unpleasant surprise for everyone. On Tuesday morning, representatives from the Baltic countries and Poland drive to a small Polish town and discuss for several hours whether or not to go. There is no obviously good choice. When you go, you turn your back on Germany. By not going, you turn your back on Ukraine. “We would have liked to go [as] five,” Karis says. But this option no longer exists.

“I understand the Ukrainians,” says Kaimo Kuusk, the Estonian ambassador to Ukraine, when we finally get to Kyiv by train in the dark. Kuusk did not believe that war would break out. He worked in Estonian intelligence for many years, and Ukraine is his first post as ambassador, but despite his ability to read detailed intelligence, he simply did not believe that Russia would fail to take Ukraine’s strength into account. That Russia is dangerous, is attacking, is planning a war — yes. But not such a war as this.

Kuusk has many Ukrainian acquaintances and friends. He sometimes cooks their national dishes at home, and he speaks Ukrainian. He is more attached to Ukraine than the average German politician is, and therefore he does not understand why Germany is squandering its arms aid. Berlin postponed a ban on coal imports, as if they were still living in the 19th century, with steam engines that depend on vital pieces of black stone. “When it comes to choosing between economy or values, Germany always chooses economy,” one senior official says.

According to many, Steinmeier did not seem to think that Russia had anything more dangerous to offer than vodka-soaked candy. He once worked as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s chief of staff. Both are strong Russia supporters, and the Ukrainians will not forget this. Zelenskyy was once also considered a little pro-Russian. But Kuusk recalls a speech Zelenskyy gave a few years ago on the anniversary of the Holodomor, a famine caused by Russia. “We will not forget,” Zelenskyy said then, “and we will not forgive.” Kuusk remembers this addition. There was something about it that he had never heard before. Ukrainians do not forget — and they also do not forgive.

Steinmeier is one of Germany’s most popular politicians. He has admitted past mistakes, which is rare in politics. Moreover, his views on Russia have not always been one-sided. According to sources, after the annexation of Crimea, many foreign ministers worked to impose sanctions on the Kremlin’s lead propagandist, Dmitry Kiselyov. But it was Steinmeier, then foreign minister, who pushed through the final decision. As president, he does not have that much power. He is more of a symbol — but no one forgets when their symbols are attacked.

There are those who think Zelenskyy’s decision was a mistake, and that Ukraine created division among its own allies. Others say the division is not a result of Zelenskyy’s irritation, nervousness or overconfidence, but because of the Europeans themselves, and it started on the very day they started to believe it was possible to talk to Russia.

Because of all this, only four presidents are heading to Kyiv on a night train. We don’t know how long our train ride will be. Maybe 10 hours, maybe 13. Unexpected stops or detours can occur. This train is a ghost train. It follows no schedule, its curtains are lowered all the time, and when it stops at a train station, it meets a platform full of men with masks, holding machine guns.

“If something happens,” Reisel says, “lay on the floor and stay on the train.” We are given bulletproof vests, helmets and inflatable neck rests. The wagon attendants bring us sliced ​​oranges, nicely fried schnitzel and some cookies, and they put some bottles of cognac on the table. I don’t eat much, because the roots of one of my teeth sit in the gum like Russia’s fifth column in Europe — they are rotten. However, it is difficult to pour drinks, because a train riding on the Ukrainian railways shakes like in the good old times: parap-parap, parap-parap. This will be the night’s refrain.

Karis is soon invited to sit with the other presidents. He puts aside his book on the famine in Ukraine, and I put aside the book given to me by Arnold Sinisalu, the chief of Estonia’s Internal Security Service, KAPO. Sinisalu has learned a lot about Russia from the book. “Looking through the eyes of Russia, the nations that left the Soviet Union behaved extremely ungratefully when they declared themselves independent,” is one sentence Sinisalu has underlined in the book. “One of the biggest surprises of the last two decades is the fact that the Soviet imperial mindset lives on,” is another.

According to this book, Russia considers itself an empire willing to adopt technology from the outside world, but it ignores other innovations, such as human rights. It reminds me of the Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, who referred to his country’s mindset as “Genghis Khan with a telegraph.” We will take the iPhones and the villas on Lake Como, thank you very much, but the values, our ways of thinking and doing, come from us alone. Among other things is Orthodoxy — the birth of which was closely connected with Kyiv. There are large crucifixes, pictures and statues of Christ erected in front of the villages near Kyiv. These were meant to protect the villages, but behind them lies a landscape of destruction. An excavator will be coming soon and sweeping it up. Ukraine needs a lot of these. At the meeting with Karis, Zelenskyy asks about excavators, bulldozers and anything else that is used to push, pack and take away people’s homes, their dreams and their quiet evenings in the corner of the garden. Because these do not exist anymore.

It is 3 a.m. when the president returns to the empty compartment. His meeting with the other three presidents at the other end of the train is over. They did not talk much about Ukraine and did not drink, because two presidents are Catholic, and they are fasting before Easter. They talked about the lives of the presidents, about the future, about the past. Then they disbanded. Everyone knows that tomorrow is going to be a difficult day, and in the dark train that runs through the night to the capital of a war-torn country, they tried to take it easy for a while. There are no negotiations anyway. Everything is clear without it. This trip is about being seen — in Kyiv, in front of the cameras and the people. The president wishes a good night and goes to sleep. I watch liquids spill in half-empty glasses, as if moved by someone’s invisible hands.

On the second day of the trip, we arrive in Kyiv a few hours later than planned. At night, rockets attacked one of the railway stations on our route, and the train quickly made a detour. The platform is teeming with automatic weapons as Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal greets the presidents. He apologizes for the delay with his slightly sad eyes and mild voice, as if he is a little embarrassed that the Ukrainians are not able to take down all of the Russian missiles. Then everyone talks a little bit about the weather.

Kuusk, who is back here for the first time since the war broke out, looks at the boulevards and highways of the big city in astonishment. He has never seen anything like it. It is Wednesday’s rush hour when we head north of the capital for our six-hour trip, but it feels like an early morning on an Orthodox holiday. A BMW has been driven into one of the roadblocks, but no one has cleared the car, because it is not disturbing anybody. No special tricks are needed for the drivers to speed up, and they are probably already used to it, as Bucha and Borodyanka have become new destinations in Ukraine, primarily for those who, 50 days ago, thought that perhaps a civilized thing like “dialogue” could be held with Russia. “No one can mediate peace talks,” Kuusk tells a reporter against a background of smashed houses, “because Russia only understands power.” The reporter is from Portugal. He cannot believe what he just heard, and so he asks again. Is it really possible that no one can mediate pleasant negotiations in a wooded area near the city?

This naivety has not disappeared. When Ambassador Kuusk left Kyiv for Lviv because of the war, a colleague from a prominent European country said to him, “Thank God they are in Lviv.” The whole old town is under UNESCO protection there — the Russians would never bomb it!

They don’t know Russia, but they don’t know us Estonians either. On the day of my departure from Tallinn, I meet Peter Pedak, the director of the local French Lyceum. He has just returned from France. Among other things, he was asked whether the fact that he was born in the Soviet Union meant that he was currently supporting Russia. “We are aborigines for the French,” Pedak replied. Thirty years have passed, but so many things are still unspoken. We assumed that people in the West know what Eastern Europe is — but they do not.

As we travel in our important cars with flashing lights through shattered towns, the hands of many old people and children rise to wave to us. I feel like a colonizer, like an arrogant Western ambassador who looks with a certain sincere interest at the suffering natives, and it is possible that many Western politicians still feel exactly the same today. At heart, Europeans are benevolent and empathetic. But at a time when it is necessary to face perhaps the simplest choice of all — the choice between good and evil — the nuances are beginning to emerge in their talk. They start calculating with their fingers and delaying the answers.

After the tour in the suburbs, we go to the presidential palace. Behind the closed doors, herring with beetroot and duck is served, and for dessert, cherry vareniki (dumplings) with astonishingly tasty smetana that some of us consider to be a very special cream. Zelenskyy does not use a knife; he eats fast and only with a fork. “Like a soldier,” says Karis, and that is probably just how Zelenskyy feels. He is determined. Quite different from two days before the war when Karis last met him. Zelenskyy was anxious and tense then.

We are talking about the situation on the front. Zelenskyy reveals the losses on the Ukrainian side and asks for help, but not very urgently, because he knows that these partners have already given almost everything they can. “Poland and the Baltics are positively heroic,” writes U.S. political scientist Eliot Cohen on the same day.

According to Zelenskyy, peace negotiations are difficult. After Bucha, he realizes that many Ukrainians no longer want to hear anything about sitting at the negotiating table. You can sit at a table with people — but how do you share a common space with beasts? Suddenly, the conversation is interrupted, and Zelenskyy asks the guests to wait. U.S. President Joe Biden has called. He is away for almost an hour, and when he returns, Ukraine has several dozen more helicopters, among other new equipment. It seems to me that Karis would like to promise him something similar.

Karis does not tend to theorize or philosophize. When Latvian President Egils Levits starts talking about legal principles at a press conference, his dreamy gaze wanders to the large chandeliers. There, he can see the reflections of the muscular security guards, their fingers resting over the triggers of their automatic weapons as they watch the clever journalists. Karis wants to do something real. He is even a little reluctant when someone asks him for comments on the events that lie ahead. “We better do something first,” he says. When we are together with Karis by the ruins of a tank, I ask him, like a sports reporter, how he feels. “It’s terrible,” Karis says succinctly, a crease between his eyebrows. He does not say anything more, because what is there to say? Everything is already clear.

At all press conferences, he speaks last and speaks the least, but he always tries to be on point. “I speak for all the people of Estonia,” Karis says, “when I say that we understand the pain of the Ukrainians, because our pain is also still there.”

We last met a few days before the war broke out. It was the opening of an art exhibition, and Karis and I stopped in front of a small painting. It depicted the ruins of Tartu after the bombings of World War II. Between the ruins, the grass was green. The artist had painted pedestrians and even a cyclist, and I tried to say something about the continuation of life. Karis interrupted me and said that he was very worried about Ukraine. He was convinced something was breaking out, and he seemed a little nervous. It was as if he wanted to do something, but what? What can the president of Estonia do?

Looking at the collapse of the ruins, and at the welders hanging from cranes and cutting up the sooted balconies in Borodyanka, Karis asks Ukraine’s prime minister if they had enough cranes and dump trucks. Is there any way he can help? Really help? Now, at the dinner table, he is able to tell Zelenskyy that the list is already being put together by the Ukrainians. When he talks about it on the train later in the evening, it seems to me that for the first time on this terrible day, he is a little relaxed.

It is tranquility that his advisers consider to be his biggest strength. Karis remained calm even when it turned out at the Polish airport that his passport had been forgotten in Estonia. Steinmeier had already been left out. Thanks to a small document, the same thing might have happened to Karis. Everything was covered, though. The journey to the end of the night continued.

At the press conference following the trip to Kyiv’s suburbs, the presidents of Poland and Lithuania become emotional. They speak with passion and at length. Duda takes dramatic breaks, shakes his head and taps his finger on the table. It seems to me that, like so many other heads of state, he is trying to imitate, at least a little, the leader of today’s free world, who is standing next to him — Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy has met Putin only once, a few years ago in Normandy. Before the meeting, Zelenskyy and his team sat down and played roles. Someone was Putin. Another was French President Emmanuel Macron. Someone else was former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A role player would say one thing, and Zelenskyy would react. Then another said something else — and Zelenskyy reacted differently. They played through all possible scenarios.

This is a familiar technique from the world of theater, and Zelenskyy has used it often. When the actor became president, according to some intelligence analyses, his trump card was playing in the TV series “Servant of the People.” This series dealt with life in Ukraine, and when writing it, he made sure he understood Ukrainian society completely. Zelenskyy may have played a clown on the screen, but behind it, he and his team did tremendous work. They are now tuned in to the mood of Ukrainian society: What they are proud of, what they fear. Some of his team also moved into politics with him. One of Zelenskyy’s childhood friends, with whom he played on the streets as a boy, took over leadership of the Ukrainian security service a few years ago.

At the press conference, Zelenskyy is fast, relentless and something that Western leaders seldom are: passionate. Although he has bags under his eyes, he has not seen his family for two months, his location is constantly changing and rockets continue to fall in Kyiv, Zelenskyy seems to be calm. He wears a khaki T-shirt, and he is the one who makes the audience laugh for a while. He likes it, and according to some, as an actor he still values feedback. When he talks to someone in a small circle, he looks everyone in the eye, addressing individuals one by one, and one at a time. “It makes you feel like he’s really listening to you,” says Kuusk, who has met him about a dozen times, “and that he wants to tell you something very much.” He calls it the “Zelenskyy-dose.”

Zelenskyy has become a hero of modern times, and a lot depends on him. Boarding the train in Poland required a COVID-19 test. The Ukrainians want to be certain that only people who test negative for the virus will meet Zelenskyy. By no means do they want to lose the president to a virus.

Some say Zelenskyy is certain of winning the war. Maybe even too sure. Steinmeier could have been invited, they say; it was an unnecessary risk to reject his participation. But those who say that are driving back to their homes for the night, where the lights are shining and people apologize if they accidentally touch you. These people may have calmer insight to offer. But they do not have to look at new pictures every day of some little girl who lost her mother and both of her legs while waiting for a train at the station.

It is said that Zelenskyy often asks Macron to talk to Putin. According to Ukrainian sources, Zelenskyy simply told Macron he has nothing against it — talk to Putin if you want — but Zelenskyy did not ask Macron to do it. Zelenskyy knows very well that Russia only recognizes strength, and all Ukrainians want is to live.

The press conference ends with 20 minutes left until the start of curfew. We race through Kyiv, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but we do not see it. The lights are off. There is dimness, emptiness and silence everywhere. It feels like we are driving through a city that was built to the last stone, but nobody moved in.

Karis picks up Zelenskyy’s gift on the train. It is a green shirt with the words, “Russian warship go fuck yourself.” Karis regrets that he did not get it before. At the press conference, it would have looked better than his sweater with a dull “e-Estonian” written across the chest. CNN asks Karis for an interview. Parap-parap, parap-parap, the train chatters onward.

When our train crosses the last miles of Ukraine during the morning shift, we pass a house with a hole dug in the corner of the garden. Sandbags are raised next to the hole. It is possible that in the not-too-distant future, someone will sit there, holding an automatic weapon, as the last person to defend Europe. For now, yellow tulips are blooming, and apple trees have just been treated with lime. A young man plows the ground behind a horse, and a crane scours the riverside, looking for the same thing as we are on the train — a little food and some peace of mind. Not far from here, small children are being killed, women and the elderly are being torn apart, whole families are being beheaded and people’s homes, bodies and futures are being shattered.

Yes, the Baltic countries and Poland have done a lot. Even Zelenskyy, usually so critical, patted and praised them. We have given a great deal of weapons and a great deal of money. We are working for tougher sanctions internationally, and we are not only knocking, but sometimes even battering the conscience of Europeans. We come up with new ideas. Kuusk only recently introduced one idea to his Western colleagues: to declare the trade routes near Odessa as international waters and take them under NATO protection so that Ukraine can continue to export grain. We have gone to Kyiv, and although this trip was symbolic, in war symbols count.

A day later, a photo of four presidents in Borodyanka appears on a Russian propaganda show. A man who resembles a coffee bean with a mustache points his finger at the four Presidents and screams that Russia must immediately bomb the railway to Kyiv, so that nothing like this could be repeated. Never again any visits! No parap-parap, parap-parap! This symbol made them nervous, and if Zelenskyy is right, it did something good for the Ukrainians. What more can we do?

As long as the war continues, you can always do something more. In NATO, too, presentations to superiors are being embellished, Mure says. We all do it. We do not want to look at tragedies and failures for too long. We can’t stand it. Our limit is full, the mind is amused and the conscience is fulfilled. We are looking elsewhere.

Sitting at a Polish airport en route back to Tallinn, we are told that the refusal of Steinmeier’s visit still disturbs the Germans. Some are even a little angry that the Baltic countries and Poland still decided to go. “Well, we have to talk to the Germans,” Karis says calmly. But what other choice did Estonia have? To be loyal to the great power — or to the victim? “The worst thing that can be done,” Karis said on the train late at night, “is to take away someone’s hope.”

In one of the villages, I notice the message, “People living here, children,” written on a gate. A small wooden stump had been placed in front of someone’s door for security. This was perhaps this family’s last hope. Maybe a small bit of a tree will help against tanks, cruelty and rioting.

When we leave the house, we hurry toward Kyiv, and the sun is already setting. As always, it goes down to the West — just like hope. Only Ukraine can win this war. But if this war is lost, Ukraine will not lose it. It is us who will lose it.

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