‘Happy with my wife, but need my brothers’: Ukrainian men caught between Russia and a war of attrition

Overnight train, Kyiv to Odesa —  “Kick the door.” The soldier drinking tea on a makeshift seat in the anteroom of a Ukrainian Railways train car could only watch so many unsuccessful attempts to latch the door between carriages, whatever the language barrier. Instructions and clarifications ensued; the obstinate door yielded to the prescribed “arm-kick,” […]

Overnight train, Kyiv to Odesa —  “Kick the door.” The soldier drinking tea on a makeshift seat in the anteroom of a Ukrainian Railways train car could only watch so many unsuccessful attempts to latch the door between carriages, whatever the language barrier. Instructions and clarifications ensued; the obstinate door yielded to the prescribed “arm-kick,” and we got to talking about the war.

“When people die, all days, all days, all nights, when the shooting, when the mines, artillery — it’s scary … Any [every] man scared for your [own] life,” said Leonid C., an army medic with stitches in his cheek and a brace on his right arm and hand. “You say [to] your wife, your daughter, that you [will] come to home. You must be tough.”

Not everyone keeps up the facade. More than two years into the largest state-on-state conflict since the Second World War, perhaps the greater wonder is that anyone does. Some men have high morale, he says; others sound scared when talking to their families, and others are somewhere in between. In any case, the task remains: they have to “rescue” Ukraine from Russia‘s forces.

“We rescue our country, our tradition, language, our families, wives, children,” said Leonid, whose last name is being withheld as a security precaution. “That [is why] we fight.”

Volunteers difficult to find

And yet, not everyone who can — or, by law, must — does. In the early weeks of the war, Ukrainian men raced to volunteer for the fight. More than two years later, volunteers are much more difficult to find. Mounting casualties have created a painful manpower shortage, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to staunch this spring through a long-debated military mobilization law, a measure rendered all the more unpopular by reports that new recruits are receiving rushed and inadequate training. Many Ukrainian men feel caught between the threat of Russia and a grinding war of attrition.

“We have people [with] low morale in [cities], where [there is] not war,” Leonid said. “And many men left from country and [do] not want to come back. “They think that [how] many soldiers who we have, it’s enough, but the [are] very wrong.”

The mobilization difficulties are exacerbated by persistent doubts about the reliability of Western support — a misgiving that deepened through the months-long lapse in deliveries of U.S. military equipment to beleaguered Ukrainian forces.

“If we get Lend-Lease and all support, many people will come to army and say, ‘I want to serve as a soldier,” Fr. Sergiy Berezhnoy, a military chaplain and Kyiv-based priest of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, said in a reference to the Second World War-era program that Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to supply the British to fight Nazi Germany. “How can [someone volunteer to] serve as a soldier if we don’t have enough weapons?”

Passengers disembark from a full train that carried them overnight from Kyiv to Odesa-Holovna, the 19th-century railway station near the heart of the city. Photo credit: Joel Gehrke

Leonid says that he speaks Ukrainian, but his wife speaks Russian. He has been learning English with his daughter. He is returning to his family on medical leave to recover from injuries sustained in a close encounter with a mine. He was wounded while stationed in the Donetsk region, one of the four Ukrainian oblasts that Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared to be part of the Russian state, and partially has seized from Ukraine.

“I understand that if I [do] not come at once, today, not come on the front, the front [will] come to my home,” he said. “Not today, not tomorrow, but any time.”

People stream into Odesa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre for a Sunday matinee performance of Carmen, by French composer Georges Bizet, July 16, 2024. Photo credit: Joel Gehrke

Life goes on

Away from the front lines, Ukrainian cities are bustling with the day-to-day activities of civilian life. If a uniformed solider passes by, he is liable to enjoy some impromptu courtesy, like a gift bag of baked goods from a woman at an open-air stand or, more simply, free passage into a paid bathroom. In Odesa, the Black Sea jewel that Putin regards as “a Russian city,”  the world-famous opera house continues to delight audiences, provided the air raid sirens do not interrupt. The opera house has a bomb shelter, but if an air alert causes a delay of more than one hour, patrons are invited to return with their ticket to another show.

“I would say that [many people] are already used to it, but at the moment, only men are afraid,” Oleh, a 26-year-old clerk at a local electronics store, told the Washington Examiner with the help of the Google translator app. “At the moment, only men are afraid … you can go out for bread, and you will be taken to an unknown place. And you [go] through a month [of training] at most — in the worst case, two weeks, a week — you will already be at zero [line] without any skills.”

Oleh is one of many young Ukrainian men who are not uniform. Some carry their own distinguishing marks: a young man in shorts and a casual shirt, walking with a woman through a train station, held her right hand in his left — his right arm was missing from the shoulder; on another city sidewalk, a tall man whose grey athletic clothes almost camouflaged the forearm support of his walking cane.

“I think a lot of people are ready to fight, but a lot of people are simply tired of it,” said Oleh, who has not fought in the war. “All the men you see here dream of winning, but they are very afraid of dying for nothing.”

Oleh is also daunted by uncertainty about Ukraine’s plan to win. “I do not know how many people will be needed, how many more people will have to die for this to end,” he said. “But even in the future, the Russians simply have an advantage in the number of people.”

Russia continues to struggle

Russian commanders continue to struggle to turn those numerical advantages into major gains, most military analysts agree. They rely, very often, on “meat attacks” by the infamous Wagner Group paramilitary forces during the Battle of Bakhmut in 2023. To avoid a gradual defeat, Ukrainian forces must weather several more difficult months of fighting in 2024, in the hope that an expanding Western defense industry will be able to provide more and better equipment and ammunition in 2025.

“So that’s why when people see this, they will go to army, as much as possible, in order to finish as soon as possible, this war,” Fr. Sergiy said. “Of course, people [are] tired from the war but we’re tired more from — not from the war, but from [the] approach of our friends from the USA, from Europe, from their very weak approach to this war. We [are] tired more from this. We need more help.”

In the meantime, Oleh prays, “God forbid the Russians occupy this territory or this country.” Life would never go back to normal. 

“I hope that they will never win, but even if this happens, I guarantee you that most of the people will simply leave. None of the normal people will remain here,” he said. “The Russians are not people … I mean, you can’t call them people, [who] start a war just like that, for nothing. Well, ordinary, normal, adequate people would not do such a thing.”


Leonid, the wounded soldier on the train, believes that if Ukrainian men do not fight for Ukraine, “we will be soldiers of Russia, and we will be [at] war in Poland, Moldova, Romania. Or Germany.” And he intends to return to the front lines after a few months of rest and rehabilitation.

“I must go back,” he explained. “I am happy with my wife, but I need my brothers — arms-brothers.”

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