In Kyiv, War is Both Remote and Ever-Present

As the West girds for an ‘imminent’ Russian offensive, Ukrainians are calm and resolved

In Kyiv, War is Both Remote and Ever-Present
Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman walks along the frontline with the Russia-backed separatists near Zolote village on Jan. 21, 2022/ Anatoli Sepanov / AFP via Getty Images

“For a cyborg, you look remarkably human.”

Roman Kostenko smiles, realizing perhaps that statistical probability means he should not be here, sipping tea across from me in an underground banquet hall in central Kyiv. An elected deputy of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, he betrays his military background right away with his short-cropped haircut, broad shoulders and precise language.

Kostenko is a former commander of one of the units of Alpha Group, the special forces of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU). Seven years ago, he was crawling through holes in the ceilings, floors and walls of Donetsk International Airport, fighting pro-Russian separatists. The first time he went, in October 2014, it was unauthorized by his unit; it was during his “vacation” when Kostenko volunteered to help his compatriots in a ferocious battle seen as symbolic rather than strategic.

“The enemy was on the ground floor, plus the third and fourth,” Kostenko remembers. “We were on the first and second floors. Of course, our positions changed all the time. It was like Stalingrad.”

And it lasted nearly as long — more than four months until the airport, once heralded as a jewel of modern architecture and efficiency in Ukraine’s industrial east, was reduced to a ruin of rubble and dust. In the makeshift barracks of blasted terminals, Kostenko celebrated his 21st birthday, drinking cognac with his comrades as the bullets and artillery shells whizzed by.

The second time he fought at the airport, it was on official duty, at the end of November. Kostenko was wounded when a piece of shrapnel tore through his shoulder, narrowly missing the bone. “It was impossible not to be injured in some way,” he says. “We had our dead wrapped in blankets, waiting for armored vehicles to remove them — and the living.”

Kostenko was eventually evacuated by paratroopers. The separatists then caved in a roof on the Ukrainian soldiers’ heads, forcing their surrender. Survivors were traded back to Kyiv, after being paraded through the streets and humiliated. Locals spat at them and called them the real terrorists.

Defenders of the airport became legends in unoccupied Ukraine and even entered into a national lexicon already swelling with wartime neologisms and metaphors (“little green men,” “the Heavenly Hundred”). They were “cyborgs,” a name actually bestowed on them by a separatist in acknowledgement of their almost science fictional levels of stamina and fortitude.

Kostenko has remained, more or less, a soldier still at war with Russia. “When I ran for office in 2019, I handed in my rifle, returned to Kyiv and campaigned. When the election was over, I returned to the front to fight again, not knowing the result. Then my commander told me I won, so I came back to be a lawmaker.”

He is now in the active reserve of Alpha; members of his unit are currently deployed to Kramatorsk, in the unoccupied region of Donetsk, where they serve as snipers, breachers and anti-tank specialists armed with Javelin missiles supplied by the United States. Kostenko is also the secretary of the Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence in the Rada and receives briefings twice a week. Lately these briefings have been almost exclusively about whether Russia will reinvade Ukraine, not in some plausibly deniable way, with insignia-less troops and hired proxies, but with half its conventional army.

There is a surreal calm in Kyiv.

I’ve been coming here at least once or twice a year since the Revolution of Dignity kicked off in the winter of 2014. Each time, the city has seemed more alive and self-confident. Foreign luxury brands and foreign businesspeople keep turning up. There are plays, poetry festivals and concerts (Gorillaz and the Pixies are slated to play this June). Independent TV shows and state broadcasters ring up not to talk about American support for Ukraine but to ask whether America is going to be all right given its nightmarish politics and culture.

“Normalization” is usually used in the pejorative sense to describe a country under military occupation. You’re not supposed to get comfortable with the status quo because that’s how it becomes permanent. But each time I visit Kyiv, I leave thinking that Ukrainians have turned normalization on its head, whether consciously or subconsciously borrowing a leaf from the anti-totalitarian playbook of the 20th century. People have gotten on with their lives and with building their country not by forgetting that trenches exist just four hours east of here, where soldiers are shot at and shoot back on a daily basis, but by acting as if this were not the case.

More remarkable still is what Ukraine has been through absent ongoing war. It has had a successful transition of power from confectioner president to comedian president as well as an awkward and wholly unwanted cameo appearance in a bitter U.S. impeachment saga. It also has played host to a gaggle of American con artists, grifters and opportunists in not one but two U.S. election interference campaigns abetted by Russian intelligence operatives. Now it is making global headlines again not because of its distinct virtues but because of its looming victimhood. At any moment, we are told, Ukraine may cease to exist, at a time it has never been more at ease in its existence.

I came for a week to try to understand how a country is preparing for what may be the largest land offensive in Europe since the end of World War II, an offensive variously described (or mistranslated) as “imminent,” “likely” or “inevitable” by well-informed observers thousands of miles away. One would think such a contingency would be met with boarded-up windows, concertina checkpoints, sandbags and breastworks.

Not even a little. The restaurants and bars are packed, including with holidaymakers evidently oblivious to Armageddon. Children play or sled in the snow. Commuters take the metro.

The Kremlin’s grand design, based on changing Western assessments, is an all-or-nothing scenario that ends with Ukraine’s destruction as a sovereign, independent state. How this is to be achieved depends on which anonymously sourced news item you read or expert Twitter account you follow. Perhaps Moscow will somehow install a puppet regime made up of a risible collection of has-been Ukrainian politicians who’ve spent years cooling their heels in Russia. Maybe it will stage a false-flag attack in the Donbas, furnishing a casus belli to roll in and grab more turf, possibly up to the Dnieper River, bisecting the country. Or it could launch a 48-hour blitzkrieg on Kyiv, “decapitating” the central government, injuring some 50,000 and internally or externally displacing 5 million people. Or it might invade and occupy all of Ukraine, a territory of 233,000 square miles with a population of over 44 million and then … keep on occupying it indefinitely or until some as-yet-articulated Russian demands are met.

Rob Lee is a doctoral student in the war studies department of King’s College London and one of the most acute observers of Russia’s military deployment. “I think an occupation is less likely,” he tells me over the phone. “The Russians know where the Ukrainian military units and their barracks are. They could strike every one east of the Dnieper River, plus airfields, air defenses, artillery and fire capability. They could make most of Ukraine’s military combat ineffective in about half an hour without even mounting a ground invasion. Then wait and see how much Kyiv can take.”

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, is staying at my hotel in Kyiv, attached to a Washington, D.C., think tank delegation. While waiting for the result of his COVID-19 rapid test to allow him to fly home (he was negative), he war-games what he believes are the three likeliest Russian attack scenarios.

“They could take a western route through Belarus and put immense pressure on Kyiv, encircling it,” Breedlove says. “But to sack it and resort to urban warfare takes a lot more force than what the Russians have built up. Hell, you’d need an entire battalion to adequately hold this hotel.”

Another option would be to invade up to the contact line between Ukrainian and separatist forces in the Donbas, in effect fortifying positions Russia and its mercenaries have already held for eight years. “That’s a huge problem for NATO and the European Union,” Breedlove says, “because there’s little they can do about it. It also means minimal body bags.”

The third scenario is the most ambitious: an invasion along Ukraine’s southeastern coastline, cutting off the city of Mariupol from the rest of the country and possibly moving all the way into Odessa, a major port city. This would establish a land bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea, destroying Ukraine’s maritime trade and thereby strangulating its already wheezing economy. If Russian President Vladimir Putin opts for this play, Breedlove says, “he will have to fight. There will be Russians coming home in zinc coffins — and Russian mothers marching in Moscow.”

A senior European intelligence official of a NATO country I’ve been calling at least once a week for the past three months who was initially skeptical that Russia would move in now tells me his skepticism was misplaced. “What the U.S. was saying in October — that’s pretty much right. What we’re seeing is unprecedented in size and scope. A full territory occupation is unlikely. But taking half the country, going right up to and surrounding Kyiv? I’m starting to believe it’s doable.”

Yet these dire projections have largely been met by shrugs or bemused responses by those who stand to suffer the most from them. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the doom disharmony between Washington and Kyiv — at least when the cameras aren’t rolling — owes not to Ukrainian obtuseness or obliviousness as to the facts.

Of the dozen or so past or present officials I’ve talked to, all are well aware that their neighbor to the east has steadily moved over 130,000 combat-ready forces to positions all around its border, from east of the Donbas, to occupied Crimea in the south, to the “frozen” enclave of Transnistria in the west and now to Belarus in the north for a coming joint military exercise that will conclude at the end of February.

They need no tutoring as to the capability of the manpower and firepower Russia has amassed at their periphery: over 80 battalion tactical groups and counting, complete with tanks, attack helicopters, fighter jets, anti-aircraft batteries, short-range ballistic missiles, multiple launch rocket systems, and now even amphibious landing craft in the Black Sea.

They also know that by the end of the month, the Russian troop presence is likely to hit between 150,000 and 175,000, which U.S. officials reckon is the threshold for mounting a full-scale invasion.

What Ukrainians argue over is their underestimated or unacknowledged resilience. Many also believe they know what’s going on in Putin’s head, an admittedly dark and inscrutable precinct, better than their Western counterparts do. (Breedlove: “If anyone tells you they know what Mr. Putin is going to do, shut your phone and your computer off and walk away.”)

Rather than play into Russia’s psychological brinkmanship, Ukrainians have opted to keep calm and carry on. Is this the mentality of the cyborg or myopia of the ostrich?

For Kostenko, the next few weeks is a question of mathematics and demography.

“In the West, you like to give Ukraine’s order of battle at 260,000 combined armed forces,” he says. “But you don’t take into account that 420,000 of our people have fought in this war for almost a decade — that is about 1% of our population, a reserve force that will absolutely fight again if they need to. You also forget that we have a territorial army in the process of recruiting 140,000, a national guard of 50,000, a border guard of 35,000, militarized SBU forces of 30,000. Even if the Russians take out our command-and-control capabilities with airstrikes and rockets, we still have a large segment of the population with military training that will take up arms.”

“So 935,000 against 175,000,” I say.

“Yes. And that does not even get into the number of ordinary civilians who will resort to partisan warfare if their country is occupied. It’s one thing to penetrate Ukraine, quite another to hold every village and every town when the locals are shooting at you. You’ll need to create some sort of administrative units, police units and counterintelligence units. Our doctrine is one of comprehensive defense — the entire nation goes to war. Even though Russia has more resources than we do, our goal will be to bleed them to such an extent that their losses outweigh their gains.”

Putin, Kostenko argues, still wants to achieve by political means what he set out to achieve by stealth military means eight years ago. He has belatedly realized that stealth must give way to overt coercion: scaring the West with a credible threat of all-out war to force Ukraine into making concessions it doesn’t want to make.

Ukraine’s history since the Revolution of Dignity might be defined as a series of unintended consequences, if not felicitous paradoxes.

Paradox one: What the revolution set out to achieve — the fulfillment of Ukraine’s promised integration with Europe — Putin finished by trying to violently abort it. He wanted to undermine the integrity of the state but only ended up turning the country against him. Nemesis nipped at the heels of hubris because after his stunningly successful and near bloodless seizure of Crimea, he underwrote and armed an insurgency in the Donbas hoping to divide and hobble the rest of the country. That effort backfired spectacularly. Ukrainians became more united in their contempt for Russian hegemony, more cognizant of their own distinct history and peoplehood and more pro-Western in their orientation.

Putin’s “hybrid” war was driven back by a depleted and aged Ukrainian army and air force, which forced him to call in regular military assets and hardware to stop the insurgents from losing. The yield of that “maskirovka” (deceptive effort) was the destruction of MH17, a commercial airliner shot out of the sky in July 2014 by a Russian-made Buk missile wielded by Russian military personnel. All 298 people aboard, many of them citizens of EU and NATO member states, died instantly.

Paradox two: Putin has turned a dove into a hawk and a pushover into a spark plug. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who campaigned in 2019 on ending the war, has lately swapped his hymn sheet. Now he makes noises about joining NATO, cancels meetings with European leaders seen as insufficiently supportive of Ukraine and lobbies for advanced weaponry from major powers. This transformation is as much a reflection of Zelenskyy’s unsentimental education in negotiating with Moscow as it is of his constituency’s calcifying tendencies. And if he is a mere “vassal” of the United States, according to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (who is really one to talk), then Zelenskyy clearly does not appreciate U.S. President Joe Biden’s noblesse oblige, judging from reports of their tetchy phone call in late January. He reportedly told the leader of the free world to “calm down the messaging” about Ukraine.

Time, Kostenko believes, is running out for Putin.

Ukraine’s military continues to receive advanced matériel from its allies. Crimea, meanwhile, has become a costly sinkhole of a peninsula facing a major water shortage after the Ukrainian government cut off 85% of Crimea’s fresh water supply when it dammed up the Northern Crimean Canal following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. Putin’s mainland revanchist experiment is confined to two Stalinoid “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk whose gangster leadership has routinely been liquidated by Russian operatives — a collective state of suspended animation and unfinished business, borne at Russia’s expense.

And so paradox three: By physically isolating the parts of Ukraine most likely to support stronger ties with Russia, Putin has only isolated Russia from Ukraine.

How, then, to wriggle out of this trap of his own devising? The answer, say Ukrainians, is diplomacy at the end of a bayonet.

The Minsk agreements (there are two, not one) to resolve a war Russia started mandates, among other things, that the combatants living in these occupied territories be amnestied and the people under their yoke reincorporated into Ukraine’s political system. Yet because Russia denies even being a party to the conflict, while nonetheless remaining a signatory to its proposed resolution, it refuses to withdraw its forces and equipment from Donetsk and Luhansk.

If this lopsided protocol were fully implemented by Kyiv, as Putin wants and as certain stakeholders in the White House are said to be pressuring Zelenskyy to do, the result would be continued foreign occupation of the Donbas with the upshot of reabsorbing a substantial pro-Russian voting bloc, which would retard or stymie Kyiv’s westward trajectory.

“In the Rada now we have about 43 pro-Russian MPs, a very low number that can’t affect the course of political development in Ukraine,” Kostenko tells me. “Now if you fulfill Minsk and allow another 2 million voters from these areas in, this number could jump to an additional 30 or 40. Eighty MPs in a Parliament of 450 is almost 20% — enough to be a spoiler. Moreover, it would be great propaganda for Russia, because the voters from these territories would be convinced that Putin ‘brought peace’ to Ukraine.”

Oleksiy Danilov looks very tired when he receives me in a grand conference room close to his office at Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council headquarters, a campus of neoclassical buildings in eastern Kyiv, at the edge of the Dnieper. He has spent the day talking to foreign and domestic journalists as part of the government’s attempt to assuage anxieties and reassure the world, even if the world won’t listen, that the situation is under control.

One gets the impression Danilov has had to repeat himself a lot. It’s around 5 p.m., and Zelenskyy is meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has come to Kyiv to escape his raucous lockdown nightlife, embarrassing cakes and imploding premiership in London. The British P.M. has also announced a trilateral security agreement with Poland (whose P.M. is also in town) and Ukraine, although the details of it have yet to be announced, and trilateral security agreements announced as war clouds gather are usually omens.

I try to anticipate what Danilov heard all day and what he’ll say. Will Russian tanks soon roll down Khreschatyk, Kyiv’s main thoroughfare? What are you doing about it? Why is your president arguing with mine and lashing out in public at anyone asking him these questions?

In the mid-’90s, Danilov, now 60, was elected the youngest mayor of Luhansk city, before going on to become governor of the eponymous region a decade later. I’ve heard both admirers and detractors use the same term to describe his old-school bureaucratic sensibility, honed from years of politicking in an oligarch-riddled industrial region now partly out of Ukraine’s possession: “Sovok”— someone with a Soviet mentality. In this case that might not be such a bad thing to have, given the adversary.

I find it’s a slightly unfair characterization, as there’s an unmistakable irony to Danilov’s demeanor as he peers at you from above his specs, perched halfway down his nose. Sure, he wants you to know he has heard it all before, has considered the angles and is just humoring you politely. But he manages to be cagey by being direct. “As for our relations with Russia,” he says matter-of-factly, “you know how it is: They have a very simple task, which is to destroy our country.”

This is Russia’s primary task, he affirms, one it tried to fulfill years ago and failed to do, just as it will fail again now.

“Why will it fail?” I ask.

Danilov rattles off Ukraine’s resistance quotient, numbers similar to those Kostenko gave me, but with an additional contingent of 850,000 “hunters.” In all, he estimates, there would be 2.5 million armed Ukrainians at the ready. And then he grades into civilizational anthropology.

“Putin cannot win here or break us. We are completely different, different on the inside. We are part of Europe. They are part of Asia. In Asia they respect the king or the czar. We are a free people. The mayhem the Russians caused us for centuries cannot come back.”

Like his boss Zelenskyy, Danilov is anti-alarmist; although unlike in Zelenskyy’s case, I think the sangfroid is intrinsic rather than a way of mugging. I try to imagine Danilov chewing his tie, as Mikhail Saakashvili famously did on national television as Russian columns invaded Georgia in 2008, and I simply can’t.

He appreciates all the military support the West has provided Ukraine, but he does not agree with the urgency of its provision or that something catastrophic is in the offing. Catastrophe, he thinks, would have to be self-created in Ukraine, and that is precisely what his government is trying to avoid. “We don’t want to create panic in our society because we understand what panic is. Panic is the beginning of failure. Once we panic, we immediately put ourselves in a very dangerous situation with respect to our economy.”

“For the past three months,” Danilov continues, “every day we’ve been hearing about a full-scale war starting tomorrow. Business is moving more slowly as a result. People are hedging their bets. This is Putin’s plan. He wants an economic collapse in Ukraine.”

The eyes stare out over the glasses professorially. If the United States is so worried Ukraine is about to be overrun with Russians, then it should be sending more cargo planes filled with weapons to Kyiv, not every two or three days but every single day.

“And what kind of weapons do you need that you aren’t getting?”

“Will you relay my shopping list to the Pentagon? They know very well what we need.”

All right, I think: a fourth paradox. The further Ukraine integrates with the West, the angrier it becomes at the West for its dragged-heel approach and political hypocrisy, which Ukraine sees as hindering its integration.

Danilov has couched this struggle, as have Biden and other leaders, as one between democracy and authoritarianism. One nation is choosing the difficult path of constructing a democracy under an ongoing state of siege, while the other is murdering, imprisoning or poisoning its opponents while also influencing and bribing accomplices abroad to look the other way.

“Some countries think Ukraine has a price,” Danilov says. “They focus on money instead of the principle of democracy. In Russia there are a lot of Germans, French and Austrians in management positions who used to be big officials in their countries. Now they work for Putin. Either he doesn’t have a very good HR department or it’s a slightly more complicated situation. I don’t know. I do know that 14,000 of my citizens have died already. And who killed them? Putin. For this, you have to respect him, as one German admiral said recently? You have to negotiate with him? What world do we live in?”

Danilov reminds me (twice) of what Ukraine relinquished 30 years ago in exchange for what it expected but never received. “In 1994, we were given guarantees for our security from other countries when we gave up our nuclear arsenal,” Danilov says, referring to the Budapest Memorandum, now seen as a stab-in-the-back moment by many Ukrainians. If they still had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, we would not be having this conversation. “The U.S., U.K. and Russia, joined by France and China — all our nuclear missiles, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, we forfeited in exchange for protection, which never came in 2014. We hope things will be different in 2022.”

So what does Danilov expect Putin will do?

He doesn’t foresee wholesale occupation but rather a coordinated effort at what he calls “internal destabilization.” “Modern warfare is not just about rockets and missiles. We already see Russia waging energy warfare against Europe today, manufacturing a rise in gas prices. It is waging cyberwarfare against us every day. Every day we resist these attacks, which are ongoing as you and I sit here talking.”

As for provocations, one could well be in the works in the Donbas. Russia has handed out hundreds of thousands of Russian passports to Ukrainians in the occupied territories. If Western reports of a false-flag operation prove true, then the Kremlin will use it to argue Kyiv is attacking its compatriots and move in either to solidify their hold on the occupied territories or to gobble up more of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“Russians have different rhetoric about who they’re supposedly protecting,” Danilov says. “Previously it was ethnic Russians. Now [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov says it’s anyone who speaks Russian. If Putin can understand your language, apparently, he wants to protect you. This is dangerous nonsense. And it will not stay confined to Ukraine.”

The minute she speaks, you can see why Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze was appointed the deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Her English is perfect, with a slight hint of a British or American education behind it. She sits at a café just a stone’s throw away from the Rada, where she is now a deputy affiliated with former President Petro Poroshenko’s “Solidarity bloc.” Papers are fanned out on the table; this is something of an ad hoc after-hours conference room. Klympush-Tsintsadze has kindly squeezed me in between the end of her day in Parliament and a meeting with a visiting European delegation — “old friends,” as she calls them, from her time as an official liaison between East and West.

She is a critic of the man who replaced her boss and is now trying obsessively and controversially to prosecute him for treason. Possibly owing to the fact that now isn’t the time for partisan rancor, Klympush-Tsintsadze is diplomatic in telling me how Zelenskyy has failed.

“Until 2019, we were refurbishing our military, starting new weapons and rocket programs, greenlighting new systems that had to be put into production,” she says. “They haven’t. Everything has been stopped. For three years we have not been fulfilling our defense procurement plans or raising salaries for the military.

“I think we would be much better off if, when our authorities say, ‘Do not panic,’ they follow that up with a set of actions, not necessarily mobilization, but information for the public. How many hospitals are working? What do we have in stock? How many facilities are there to care for those wounded by firearms?”

Zelenskyy’s reinvention from opera buffa to opera seria politician has been a decidedly mixed bag for many, not just those in the opposition. He is almost wholly reliant on the wisdom and counsel of Andriy Yermak, the head of his administration and a dubious figure whose loyalties are forever in question. One former government official tells me that Yermak is incapable of hiding, either in his body language or spoken language, his contempt for those he disagrees with, which happens to be almost everyone. Yermak’s gray cardinal-like role in Zelenskyy’s inner sanctum is such that Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan doesn’t hold regular calls with Danilov, his Ukrainian counterpart. He holds them with Yermak.

Zelenskyy is also rumored to be even closer now than in the past to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Owner of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest retail bank, Kolomoisky earned a great deal of regional and national respect when he was governor of the Dnipropetrovsk province by bankrolling a consortium of pro-government militias to fend off the separatist onslaught in the east. But he has been sanctioned by the U.S. for “serious corruption” and the Department of Justice has accused him of using commercial real estate holdings in the American Midwest to launder hundreds of millions of dollars stolen from PrivatBank. (Kolomoisky denies the accusation, saying he bought the properties legitimately.)

In many respects, Zelenskyy has become a lot like the Ukrainian politicians he used to satirize in “Servant of the People,” the hit television series Kolomoisky financed, about an angry school teacher whose viral rant against the petty and not-so-petty crimes of the Ukrainian establishment transformed him overnight into an unlikely made-up president — and then transformed the actor who played him into an even unlikelier real president. Zelenskyy came to power in 2019 with an almost unbelievable 73% of the vote. Now his approval rating has sunk below 30%, an ethereal postmodern spectacle dragged back down to earth by the empirical realities of governing.

A former Ukrainian intelligence official told me that he thinks Putin has picked now to threaten a major attack because he senses Ukraine’s leadership isn’t up to the challenge. Klympush-Tsintsadze agrees. “​​I think Putin has seen that Ukraine is getting weaker. He has been inspired by his success in Belarus and possibly in Kazakhstan, and Ukraine is the last piece to puzzle for USSR 2.0.”

For all that, the optimism is misplaced. “He will choke on Ukraine,” she affirms.

The worst part of the present crisis for Klympush-Tsintsadze is how Putin has reset the terms of the discussion about Ukraine’s future. No longer is it about how to reclaim Crimea or end the dirty war in the Donbas. Guns and missiles pointed at Ukraine are also pointed at its cultural patrimony, its history. Pundits, intellectuals and policymakers, whether they mean to or not, are arguing on Putin’s terms, following his lead in relitigating the end of the Cold War and engaging in hoary debates about what James Baker did or did not tell Mikhail Gorbachev about NATO enlargement. Ukraine is being talked over as it’s being talked about, offered up for “Finlandization” by political leaders with delusions of grandeur who do not bother to ask whether Ukrainians want that kind of neutralization.

“We thought it was a major defeat when we failed to persuade the German Bundestag to recognize the Ukrainian famine as a genocide,” Klympush-Tsintsadze says. “Now we’re complaining that Berlin is sending us helmets and not canceling Nord Stream 2.”

I ask this “frustrated transatlanticist” and Europhile if, surveying the current state of transatlanticism and Europe, she isn’t maybe a little reluctant to see her country join in such a tenuous and quaky project.

Illiberalism has had a banner decade and shows few signs of diminution. Much of America is now too worried about whether or not its own democracy will survive in three years — not whether Ukraine’s will last another three weeks. Elsewhere, populist talking heads on the right openly root for Russia, a nation they see as a necessary traditionalist bulwark against Western depravity, weakness and wokeness. And populist talking heads on the left think helping Ukraine will lead to World War III.

“Are you sure you even want into this racket anymore?” I ask.

Klympush-Tsintsadze sees it quite the other way around. The West hasn’t become defunct; it’s become too comfortable.

“Your culture, your well-being, your economy — they’re flourishing, at least by historical standards. You do not remember that these things need protection. You do not remember that some of the things you believe in actually sometimes have to be fought far from the home. I think it’s part of our mission as a country to remind you.”

Recently, Klympush-Tsintsadze signed up for a course at a local shooting range. She has never held a gun before, although her husband, a Georgian national, is ex-military. “I was always against having any weapons in the house. Now I’m going to go out and get a permit for a gun.”

Is this for personal protection in case something kicks off in Kyiv? “No,” she says. But if Russia invades, she will fight.

Her delegation of old friends arrive at the café, including the former Polish foreign minister.

“Good evening, comrades,” he says.

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