The day Hamas attacked Israel, I unexpectedly reunited with my best friend in Kyiv.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February last year, our paths had barely crossed. As a lecturer, researcher and volunteer, I went back and forth between Ukraine and Britain. My friend, meanwhile, traveled across Ukraine as a local producer for foreign journalists covering the war. It was important work. But on Oct. 7, a media trip my friend had been organizing to eastern Ukraine was canceled. The crew instead left for the Middle East.
“They leave Ukraine because the front is moving slowly,” my friend told me when we met at her place in Kyiv. “The journalists will be back in no time once we liberate any significant patch of land.”
Liberate another significant patch of occupied territories and discover another mass grave, I thought. That would, for a few days, refresh the world’s memory of what Ukraine is up against. The delivery of a dozen more tanks might follow, perhaps, along with some renewed talk of commitment. But with enough weapons to keep fighting but not to win, Ukraine is at a stalemate, as Gen. Valery Zaluzhny recently confirmed. Those of us not in the trenches must continue selling Ukrainian resistance to the world, telling our stories in the hope of support.
For 20 months, I have been churning out essays on why the world should stay focused on Ukraine. I have written them in a bomb shelter in Lviv, in a train packed with refugees in Poland, in a bathroom during an air raid in Kyiv and on the back seat of a car returning from near-frontline towns. Now, from the comfort of a London library, I try once again to persuade readers that they should not look away from my homeland’s struggle for survival, even as another part of the world is erupting in unspeakable violence.
But the words won’t come. I refuse to compete for attention.
To captivate capricious and yet lifesaving international interest, Ukrainians film TikTok videos in the trenches and award-winning documentaries on the sites of Russian war crimes. One moment they show breathtaking bravery; the next they show their wounds. Be it NATO summits or TED talks, Ukrainians are using all available platforms to retell the tale of the underdog, in myriad voices, to keep the world invested in our existential fight.
And yet this high-stakes storytelling infantilizes Ukrainians: It turns us into children vying for the adults’ attention. Our allies play the role of easily distracted, perpetually fatigued spectators who cannot face the unadorned truth of the invasion. The truth, however, is there in full view at the center of the picture, like the anamorphic skull in Hans Holbein’s majestic 1533 painting “The Ambassadors.”
Taking advantage of my temporary stay in London, I recently went to the National Gallery to stare at that portrait of two learned men in their best furs and velvets. Between them, inexplicably rising up from the floor, is a strange shape that somewhat resembles a mollusk. When looked at from the right angle, the distorted gray figure reveals itself to be a skull. It hints at the futility of furs and velvets, of verbal acrobatics and dances at the edge of the abyss. Holbein disrupts the vision of earthly riches and pursuits with the final truth of death.
After 20 months of writing our friends’ obituaries and watching our hometowns turn to rubble under enemy fire, Ukrainians have become overfamiliar with the concept of violent and sudden death. We share playlists for our own funerals and complain about having to wear fancy pajamas in case we are murdered in our sleep during another nightly visit of Iranian drones or Russian rockets.
But the threat of annihilation has not made us more willing to concede. According to a recent poll, 80 percent of Ukrainians still oppose any territorial concessions to Russia, even if this means that the war will last longer. As torture chambers and mass graves in the liberated territories of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson regions lay bare, Russian occupation does not present Ukrainians with a choice between life and freedom. Russia takes both, and then it takes some more.
Despite all our storytelling, what we seem to have failed to communicate to our allies is that the annihilation promised to us by Russia is not reserved for Ukrainians alone. By mining Ukrainian fields and bombing agricultural infrastructure, Russia promises starvation to parts of Asia and Africa that rely on Ukraine’s food exports. By weaponizing energy, Russia feeds right-wing reaction in Europe, as populist politicians exploit social discontent. By occupying the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, pulling out of a nuclear test ban treaty and rattling its nuclear saber, Russia normalizes nuclear blackmail.
It simply won’t stop at Ukraine. Every few days, propagandists on Russian state television fantasize about invading Poland, the Baltic States or Finland. The failure to convincingly punish Russia for its initial invasion of Ukraine almost a decade ago led to the escalation in 2022 and inspired others’ disregard for international law, including those now active in the Middle East. The alternative to punishment is an increasingly post-democratic and fragmented world where those who fight to preserve freedom are left to their own devices.
Ukrainians fight in full knowledge that no compromise with evil will contain it. This is the truth that our allies need to contemplate, absorb and act upon — without having to be endlessly reminded of it.