In November 2021, a group of EU ambassadors gathered in the government quarter of Kyiv. The US and UK ambassadors took the podium to discuss what their respective country’s intelligence was saying. Most was already public knowledge. A small part wasn’t. The latter was already known to the diplomat who convened the meeting: Head of the Delegation of the EU to Ukraine Matti Maasikas. He was convinced that war would erupt sooner or later. When I ask if his intention was, besides information-sharing, to influence EU member states to act in a particular way, he smirks and replies: „A little.“ When I follow up by asking if his hopes came to fruition, he shakes his head for several seconds and simply says: „No.“

„I didn’t believe there’d be war,“ says a Western diplomat who has served in Ukraine for years, and whose national intelligence is unparalleled.

„We weren’t prepared,“ says a former major general of the Ukrainian security services as he turns his beat-up Honda onto Kyiv’s main thoroughfare and speeds through the darkness with his seatbelt unfastened. He was at headquarters on the night the war began. He saw volunteers filing in to defend their homeland with hunting rifles – no one had imagined Kyiv would be attacked. It was simply illogical.

Therefore, no one I speak to about Ukraine blames Western allies for not believing that full-scale war would break out. They aren’t even criticized for not immediately supplying weapons.

„I didn’t believe there’d be war,“ says a Western diplomat who has served in Ukraine for years

„If anyone had said on February 24th that Ukraine could win this war, they’d have been a genius,“ says Olga Rudenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine’s largest English-language outlet The Kyiv Independent. „Or at least a great statesman.“

„Our analysis was crystal clear,“ says Jakub Kumoch, one of Polish President Andrzej Duda’s chief advisors. „Duda was convinced the Ukrainians would fight back and stop the Russians. And everybody thought we were crazy.“

Andrzej Duda

A little more than a month before the war began, he was sitting with Duda, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the latter’s advisors in the southern Polish town of Wisła. The Ukrainians were insistent: of course they would resist. Not everyone took them at their word. Some sources say Duda also attempted to convince German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron at a meeting in early February, but was dismissed by the Western European leaders. They demanded that Ukraine adhere to the Minsk Agreements, which Duda said was merely Putin’s tool for applying pressure to the country.

Twice, the Poles approached US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to ask for increased weapons aid. Other members of the administration thought the Russians could reach Kyiv in three hours, even though it was explained to them that such a feat would be impossible even in non-rush-hour peacetime. The assumption of Kyiv’s rapid capitulation was so entrenched that after colleagues decided to evacuate, one large EU country’s diplomat proposed they stay put and await the Russians, then ask for safe passage to free Europe.

Nevertheless, as the Americans analyzed Ukraine’s combat victories in real-time, the arms shipments picked up pace and, according to sources, meetings to coordinate military aid grew increasingly determined. Everyone I interview affirms that the outcome of the war in Ukraine depends first and foremost on the US. Why? The two countries that profoundly define the nature of EU foreign policy – Germany and France – dragged their feet then and are still doing so now.

The price it took to convince every Western ally, a price that is being paid to this day, is a steep one for Ukraine: human lives.

„Our soldiers had to die to prove to others that we’re worth supporting,“ says Illia Ponomarenko, Ukraine’s renowned wartime journalist. He regards several of his own friends’ deaths as „sad but inevitable“ – all to foster belief in Ukrainians and the country’s fundamental Europeanness, which not all Western Europeans believed before.

„Until March of this year, there was no willingness in the EU to discuss Ukraine ever joining,“ says Maasikas, whose entire career has focused on post-communist Eastern Europe and bringing it closer to the West. I sense a note of sadness as he, just like many who have had dealt closely with Ukrainians, has grown deeply fond of them. „If the Ukrainian people has decided to be European, then who the hell has the right to forbid it?“

Many of the ‘games’ went over the Ukrainians’ heads, EU expansion has never been a particularly popular topic, and on top of that, there’s Russia. Still, when I ask Maasikas if drawing Ukraine further into Europe has been slowed by a fear of Russia or the opinion that they’re not true Europeans, he takes only a moment’s consideration before saying: „More the latter.“

„No other country has undergone two revolutions for European values in the last few decades and is currently at war in their name,“ says Ihor Zhovkva, Zelensky’s chief foreign advisor. He wears a camouflage-green shirt and my hand cramps when trying to keep up with his exceptionally brisk speech. We’re sitting in his rather modest office in Kyiv’s government quarter. It’s dim, just like the hallways and the courtyard, because all the streetlights and the lights in every building are off. Whenever I walk the darkened streets, the outlines of soldiers carrying machine guns and silently parked armored cars emerge and disappear. I tripped once on my way to the meeting.

„There was so much light here before. Especially during Christmas, because there was always an open-air Christmas market here in front of the building,“ says Alina Dyukova, Zhovkva’s press secretary. „And there was always classical musical playing. It was wonderful.“ That’s all over for now, though a different kind of light is burning in Kyiv.

No other country holds greater conviction in European values when describing and defending them. Nevertheless, many European countries’ reactions to their cries for help at the beginning of the war were „ambiguous“, says Zhovkva. Why? He chooses his words carefully.

„They lack the courage to make brave decisions.“

On November 23, there was a power cut in Lviv. An employee of the hospital, left without light, stands at the door of the maternity ward.


One early October morning in Kyiv, I’m awoken by a loud explosion. Shots, followed by dull booms, roll across the city as a cluster of Russian drones attacks Europe’s fifth-largest capital. Ukraine’s air defense is still far from perfect, so ordinary civilians use rifles to try and pick off the drones from below like duck hunters in spring.

That morning, one drone hurtled into a residential building and killed so many people that the bodies were still being dug out days later. A block away, the stench of sulfur hangs in the air and a choking cloud of smoke refuses to dissipate.

Later, I learn that among the victims of the attack were a man named Bohdan and his wife Viktoria, a sommelier. Young and deeply in love, they were awaiting the birth of their first child a few months later. Their bodies were found in an embrace. Doing the math, I realize that Bohdan and Viktoria decided to conceive a couple months after the war began. They cherished hope and did not fear, creating new life amid sirens.

A couple hours later, I’m sitting underground with Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba. We’ve settled in amidst the green pipes and empty metal shelves of a basement-level boiler room, as drones are once again flying overhead. I ask whether Bohdan, Viktoria, and their unborn child would still be alive if Germany, France, and other countries had supplied air defense systems earlier.

„Certainly,“ Kuleba answers without a beat. „We’ve been asking for them since day one of the war.“

Why weren’t they delivered?

„I suppose they hoped the situation would change and there’d be no need to provide anything,“ Kuleba sighs. „Sure, it cost us the blood of our people, but I guess that’s the way humankind works.“

That being said, things have improved over the last few months.

„I can’t speak for everybody, but the dynamics are much better than before,“ says Zhovkva. Germans sources confirm: Westerners were getting bored when nothing „exciting“ happened on the front in summer, but the Harkiv counterattack changed all that, luckily. Which is nice, of course. Still, it means Europe didn’t start helping Ukraine simply because it is a part of Europe – a region that was once the stronghold of humanism and solidarity. Europe had to be convinced. With blood.

When I ask how she calmed her nerves, the young woman replies: „I cooked borscht.“

Kuleba doesn’t overdramatize. He remains calm and thinks there’s nothing surprising about allies being unwilling to supply weapons to a side that was possibly facing imminent defeat.

Lining the corridors outside the boiler room are people who aren’t allowed to leave because their home city is being attacked once again. I speak to one employee, a young woman, who says she and some friends had a picnic near a children’s playground last Sunday. They rolled out blankets, snacked on cheeses, and sipped wine. That night, warnings to stay home the next day began spreading over social media – something big was coming. Diplomats took shelter, American intelligence predicted a missile attack, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called through all its employees, warning them not to come in to work. By morning, their picnic site was a crater. When I ask how she calmed her nerves, the young woman replies: „I cooked borscht.“

Borscht is similarly one of the reasons why Europe delayed military aid for so long: generally, apart from the soup, next to nothing was known about Ukrainians. And, in fact, most believed the Ukrainian national dish was actually Russian, just like Ukraine itself.

A seller waits for customers at the Bessarabsk market in the center of Kyiv despite another power outage.

Forgotten Ukraine

„Lots of Western journalists visit nowadays,“ Rudenko tells me at another one of Kyiv’s amazing cafés. „It’s night-and-day from before.“ She has traveled extensively over the last few months but is still forced to spend the beginnings of presentations at European journalism conferences familiarizing participants with her homeland – knowledge of the population of 40 million is generally slim. When Russia attacked a Ukrainian nuclear power station in March, a German journalist called the news office and asked if they could hear and describe the explosions. No matter that the plant is located about 600 kilometers from Kyiv.

People didn’t visit. They weren’t interested. They settled for the notion that there existed an everlasting Russia and some smaller, temporary Russias around it.

„Europe still sees us not with our own eyes, but Russia’s,“ says Rudenko. Ukraine is somehow portrayed as both a failed state and an existential threat to Russia; Ukrainians are simultaneously Nazis and Russian kin.

„Ukraine has been viewed through Russia’s prism for 30 years and hasn’t been treated as independent for centuries,“ says Maasikas.

„We’re often told we’re like a bridge between Russia and Europe,“ says Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, who has worked on Ukrainian integration into Europe for decades and is currently the chair of the parliamentary committee on EU integration. „But we don’t want to be a bridge. We want to be ourselves.“

19th-century Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz called Ukraine a „border state“ through which Asian ways enter Europe. It is often regarded as a battlefield, a gate, or, indeed, a bridge. Russia is „real“. As is Europe. But Ukraine and its population of 40 million is merely a footbridge. A no man’s land, a gray zone, hypnagogia – not quite a dream, but also not waking life.

Ukraine was indeed dormant in many senses. One diplomat who first visited Kyiv in the 90s says it was hard to call the country European at the time. The streets were rife with corrupt militsiya and it was impossible to find a good coffee.

„It was only in 2004 that we realized we possess national self-consciousness,“ says Klympush-Tsintsadze. Her grandfather was a leader of the Carpathian Ukrainians who stood out in his resistance to the Nazis. Klympush-Tsintsadze’s family only spoke in Ukrainian at home when she was a child. She had to lower her voice whenever speaking to a classmate on the phone because they almost always spoke in Russian and hearing it would have caused a serious row with her mother. Russian was standard at school.

Ukraine was seen as just another post-Soviet state. Countless times since the early aughts, Kuleba has heard people say that Ukraine isn’t Europe.

„I wanted to fit in with the other kids, not to be different,“ Klympush-Tsintsadze says. Only when she was in seventh grade and her cousin died did she, shaken to the core and walking home from the funeral, decide to alter her life, honor her deceased relative, and stop being uncomfortable about her Ukrainian identity. She went to school the next day and announced that from that moment forward, she would only speak in Ukrainian, which is as removed from Russian as German is from Dutch.

„Half of the class joined me,“ she says. One student did approach and ask: „Why are you speaking Ukrainian? Are you from a village?“ (That child later became a professor of Ukrainian literature.)

At the time, Ukrainians generally weren’t associated with anything cultural and were frequently unable to draw the connections themselves.

„The Russians stole everything there was to steal from us,“ says Klympush-Tsintsadze. They’ve taken possession of borscht, Gogol, Malevich, bliny, and even church relics. Victims of the Second World War, victory over the Nazis, pelmeni, and religion – Russians claimed it all as their own, Ukrainians struggled to argue, and Europeans took Russians’ word for it. As a consequence, all Ukraine could boast to the world a couple decades ago was bountiful fields, a handful of outstanding athletes, and the Chernobyl disaster. Period.

„Neither tourists nor politicians took any interest in us,“ says Klympush-Tsintsadze. „To Europe, we were terra incognita. We didn’t exist.“ Ukraine was seen as just another post-Soviet state. Countless times since the early aughts, Kuleba has heard people say that Ukraine isn’t Europe.

„We were treated unfairly in Europe after 1991, but we didn’t give up,“ he remarks.

Change came with the Orange Revolution, Euromaidan, and the Maidan Revolution. Vladyslav Greziev was just 14 when he first went to Euromaidan with an orange ribbon pinned to his chest, just like everyone else in his class. Not one Ukrainian I speak to can fathom ordinary Russians’ silence.

„They say it’s dangerous to protest in Russia,“ says Klympush-Tsintsadze. „Well, it was in Ukraine, too, but we still took to the streets. We were arrested and we were killed, but we went out.“ There were even children in the crowd. Once more, Ukrainians had to make a blood sacrifice to prove they are European.

During the Maidan Revolution, Greziev refused to leave Kyiv’s main square until it was all over. He doesn’t refer to it as Maidan, in fact, but as a „revolution of dignity“. That’s what Ukrainians were fighting for, he says. Not the European Union, not better stores, or even fairer politics, but pride, dignity, and freedom. They are European slogans that carry European values but have, for the most part, grown hollow. It was here, surrounded by towering buildings on Kyiv’s central square, that the words regained their meaning.

„Only someone who is free can be human,“ Greziev remarks with astounding casualness as he sips a latte.

We’re sitting in a basement-level café. Not Idealist Coffee or Liberal, though both are names of local establishments. The lights are out because a suburban substation was hit earlier that morning. We order Cherry Cokes and I add a pistachio éclair, the best I’ve ever tasted. Leisurely, we take in the café’s French vibe and indulge in calories. Warm autumn air shimmers outside, sirens wail, and rockets approach.

„Germans were skeptical of change,“ one high-level German official acknowledges. The rallying cries in Ukraine were nice, but the structures were outdated. Corruption was still rampant and investments failed. „We didn’t realize that a middle class had formed and a new, younger generation was stepping in,“ they add. Even after Maidan, the source says, Berlin and Paris still regarded Ukraine as a problem foremost and flatly ruled out any talk of EU accession. It took until May of this year for the French to change their minds; the Germans haven’t yet.

„Perhaps they have better political instincts,“ the German official sighs. „Unlike us, they don’t want to come in last.“

Dormant Germany

Autumn Berlin is a different world. The chestnut trees shed their leaves in orderly fashion, the buses arrive and depart with precision down to the minute, and new buildings endeavor not to be unique.

I’m here to try to understand what took Germany so long to provide military aid. Ukrainians don’t want to make any critical jabs at their ally, and that’s not just the case in Kyiv. When speaking with several diplomats, advisors, and politicians, I sense that the newfound harmony with big EU countries is still so delicate and precious that many prefer not to discuss „those topics“ right now.

„You must understand that these topics are very complex, and no situation is black and white. We must keep calm,“ says one diplomat while popping an entire slice of lemon into their mouth. Chewing, they don’t blink once.

However, Ukraine has not always handled Berlin’s cool approach so stoically. Zelensky was incensed by Germany’s sluggishness early in the war and, being an impulsive individual, made no effort to hide it. His irritation culminated in refusing to receive German President Frank Steinmeier, which one high-level diplomatic source in Kyiv called „a political super-failure Upper echelons of German society took offence and were apparently the ones who leaked the news to the media.

Physicist Igor Žuk (70) reads a book using a headlamp at his home in North Kyiv.

„The Ukrainians are playing right on the brink with the Germans,“ says one high-level official of a NATO country. Nevertheless, German officials say that the incident has more or less been forgotten: Steinmeier has sat in a Ukrainian bunker and Zelensky is now more even-tempered, as he’s come to understand slow-moving German bureaucracy. Others say he’s simply dampened his hopes. Just recently, the Ukrainians told one diplomat that little credence is placed in German promises anymore and all they can count on is what realistically crosses the border.

„Everything the Ukrainians receive from the Germans and the French is a pure bonus,“ one European diplomat confirms. „They no longer bargain on it.“

Ponomarenko disagrees, saying the Germans actually do much more than is spoken aloud. True, there were hiccups with arming the country, but injections of German euros helped to keep Ukraine’s economy afloat.

„Just look outside,“ he says with a sweep of his long arm. „Thanks to the Germans, life here didn’t come to a halt.“ I don’t need to look to know that the sidewalks are bustling and traffic is still flowing, albeit to a much lesser extent than in pre-war Kyiv. One interviewee says it used to take them an hour and a half to drive to work, but now they can get there in 20 minutes because there’s zero deadlock. Ponomarenko has seen a more-or-less a full list of the arms that Germany has provided and mentions repeatedly that it is „very impressive“. After the assaults on Kyiv, air defense systems were quickly supplied, Ukrainians have been given German military training, there is great assistance in the treatment of wounded frontline soldiers, et cetera.

„Don’t forget that only Germany has provided Western-made tanks, no one else,“ German Green Party politician Anton Hofreiter tells me.

„Germany is the sole ally that 100% shares our thoughts on building up NATO’s eastern flank,“ says Estonian Defense Chancellor Kusti Salm. „They’ve taken leadership overnight.“

Germans have both the will and the knowhow to provide assistance.

„They simply don’t know how to communicate,“ Ponomarenko reckons. Given that the demand for German aid is so high, even a sudden turn wouldn’t change much – one doesn’t stride ahead of expectations, but plods behind them.

„We do not wish to be leaders and therefore do not speak much,“ a high-level German official acknowledges regretfully. It’s akin to producing BMWs that only have back seats.

Germany’s Reasoning

When I ask around Berlin and Kyiv about why Germany might harbor doubts, I receive a whole bouquet of opinions. German bureaucracy suffocates quick decision-making. According to one local official, there exist a whopping 17 (!) levels of resolution between any given minister and the final actor.

According to sources in close contact with the German defense ministry, there is absolute consensus on aiding Ukraine but issues continually appear out of unexpected places whenever any attempts are made to seal a deal. Due to decades of still life, weapons are scant, any available ones are in poor condition, software hasn’t been updated, and it’s all led to a sheen of public shame. What’s more, the weapons are needed first and foremost by the Bundeswehr, which just recently began rearming at an unprecedented speed.

Justifications don’t end there. The foreign minister may be new, but his advisors are from Steinmeir’s administration. Donald Trump only exacerbated distrust of the US. Leaders were haughty in their attitudes towards tiny Eastern European countries but also unable to adequately analyze Russia’s actions.

„We thought we knew Russia better than US intel,“ says one German intelligence officer. As a result, the chief director of German intelligence was visiting Kyiv on February 24th because no one truly believed that war could erupt.

Then, there are the long-standing economic ties to Russia. Some claim that Germany’s entire success was supported on three pillars: US security, the Chinese market, and cheap Russian energy. The trio collapsed in the early hours of February 24th, forcing Germany to not only chart a new foreign-policy course, but greatly widen the ring around it. A gargantuan society in which traditions and rational thinking are held in the highest regard cannot do so on the turn of a dime.

Germans have also long believed that war can be avoided by binding economies closely together. The EU was founded on such ideals, so why shouldn’t such reasoning work with Russia? It turned out to be anything but that.

„We cannot allow Porsche and Kalashnikov to increase their symbiosis,“ German counterintelligence officers told their partners several years ago. Nevertheless, a symbiosis had already formed and ethical lines faded in the name of financial well-being.

„If you have to choose between values and pragmatism, then Germans will always pick the latter,“ one high-level European official says critically. Polls do not back the assertion: Germans overwhelmingly support aiding Ukraine. German newspapers are packed with editorials rallying around the country. Yet according to sources, former Ukrainian ambassador Andriy Melnyk encountered difficulties gaining audiences with German officials and politicians after the war broke out. Journalists, on the other hand, swarmed him and amplified his messages.

Surprisingly, the typically peaceful German Green Party is also a fiery supporter of Ukraine. Hofreiter doesn’t share the general astonishment. Hofreiter is the chairman of the Bundestag Committee on European Affairs and came very close to a higher position but was, allegedly, pushed aside because of his un-German candidness. He was skeptical of sending weapons to crisis zones not so many years ago, but by April had advanced to advocating heavy weaponry for Ukraine.

„The Greens have always defended human rights,“ Hofreiter says. „But human rights cannot be defended abstractly – you need to protect the people.“

He claims that unlike Germany’s other parties, the Greens have had a persistent decades-long debate over the pros and cons of military interference, which has enabled them to be both a credible peace-party and supporter of more hawkish stances.

„Assisting Ukraine is of geo-strategical importance to us,“ Hofreiter comments. „But mostly, it matters morally.“ Yes, he admits, Germany should certainly do more. But why doesn’t it, then? When I ask if everything might ultimately boil down to one person at this historical moment –Chancellor Olaf Scholz – Hofreiter nods.

„He’s hesitating. He hesitates too much.“

Olaf Scholz’s Qualms

It’s said that Olaf Scholz only makes decisions in a very tight circle. Sources claim that since the invasion of Ukraine, he hasn’t called Duda once, for instance (Macron, on the other hand, has dialed the number „two or three times“). No matter that everyone is aware of Duda’s knowledge of, and good ties with Ukraine. That being said, no one I interview can quite put their finger on the reasons behind Scholz’s decisions. He keeps mum before and after. When Zeiteinwende was declared – a radical transformation in German security – the move required establishing a private fund. This in turn entailed approval by the opposition, though its leader was only informed the night before.

So, what exactly is Scholz thinking? Why is he thinking it? Who is influencing him? No one can say.

„He’s an historical misfortune,“ a German leader tells me with very German bluntness.

„Scholz is a former mayor,“ one high-level official tells me. „He lacks any kind of foreign-policy experience or, I suppose, even an interest in it.“

According to persons who have attended meetings of European heads of state, Scholz is fond of discussing not foreign affairs, but waxing lyrical about his local success in Hamburg. Pipes laid in all the right places, jawohl. Only a couple years ago, Scholz attempted to scrap sanctions against Russia and still supports selling off the Port of Hamburg to China. Alas, not even the most vocal critics of Germany’s government believe corruption might lurk behind the wavering and delays.

„Scholz certainly is no friend to Russia,“ says one source.

He simply can’t grasp the truth.

„Scholz is no leader,“ one high-level Ukrainian official whispers to me in private, slowly shaking their head. Various sources say Scholz has little sense of humor and overvalues public opinion. At the same time, he’s afraid to make bold decisions, is extremely withdrawn, doesn’t quite get along with any other head of state on a personal level, speaks softly and incomprehensibly, and loves to give a firm „no“ instead of the very European „yes, but“. He’s quick to take personal offense, which was one reason for the Zeitenwende speech: he felt Putin had lied to him. On the other hand, Scholz has been greatly put off by Ambassador Melnyk’s frank statements and complains about them publicly, widening his displeasure to Ukraine and Poland as a whole – „they“ are being ungrateful. To make matters worse, Scholz is often unable to keep track of who has said what and mixes up Eastern European flags. Many remark that Scholz wants to be an earnest official, not an outstanding visionary leader.

Scholz belongs to the Social Democratic Party, which hasn’t been cozy with Russia so much as distrustful of the US. During Gerhard Schröder’s chancellorship, German intelligence was asked to not actively focus on Russian politicians.

„They continued working on the Russian mafia, but that was basically the same as politicians,“ says one person with ties to German intelligence. The Germans showed him photos from a meeting in Munich where Russia’s parliamentary speaker was sitting alongside known mafiosos. None of his bosses wanted to hear anything about it. Several employees of the German Ministry for Economic Affairs were arrested a few months ago after making decisions so beneficial to Russia that bribery was suspected. It still hasn’t been determined whether they were Russian agents or run-of-the-mill German officials, as the two are sometimes hard to tell apart.

There’s a palpable nostalgia for the era of East Germany when life was less ambiguous and opposition to NATO was high. This was also true in West Germany, where hundreds of thousands marched for peace in the 1980s and were convinced that Russia and NATO both represented evil. This mindset unfortunately worked its way into the consciousness of many of Germany’s present-day leaders as well.

Those generations, Angela Merkel and Olaf Scholz counted among them, were raised with myths and tall tales that portrayed Russia as great, invincible, and unstoppable – attempts had already been made. One high-level German source notes that neither leader has children, and therefore only knows the stories told by their own parents who’d lived through the Second World War – not the younger generations’ own experiences.

„Scholz is a former mayor,“ one high-level official tells me. „He lacks any kind of foreign-policy experience or, I suppose, even an interest in it.“

When the war began, many embassies in Kyiv were fully evacuated, including that of Germany. Poland, on the other hand, decided to stay. When I ask Kumoch why, his response is quick. „Out of honor to Ukraine.“

He knows that when the Bolsheviks closed in on Warsaw in 1921, every ambassador fled. All, that is, with the exception of the Catholic church’s representation – the future Pope Pius XI. A century has passed, but Kumoch says Poles keep the memory alive to this day. For memory isn’t simply memory. Memory is who we are.

The Second World War

No, this isn’t a third world war – it’s merely the second act of the last one. Guerre à durée; a long war that began 80 years ago and hasn’t concluded yet. Old wounds have been reopened and the blood seeping from them is not symbolic, but real.

„The DNA of German society is encoded to never send weapons to that region because German weapons have been there before,“ one high-level official says. „By the same token, we know that Nazis fought Soviet soldiers in the Second World War, which is to say they fought Russians. We will never shake that guilt.“

Rudenko shrugs.

„That’s a crazy excuse,“ she says.

„Those weren’t Russians,“ Klympush-Tsintsadze adds. „The percentage of Ukrainians and Belarusians killed by Germans is even greater than that of Russians.“ Germany shouldn’t feel its famed Schuld (guilt) over Russia – Germans should feel it over Ukraine. Yet to this day, permission has never been granted in Berlin to build a monument to the Ukrainian victims of the Second World War. Nazis slaughtered Ukrainians and did so twice-over – on the way to Russia and on the way back. But a monument? Nein!

Sources say that many members of the Bundeswehr are in favor of providing significantly greater military aid to Ukraine, and Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht is quite alone in her stinginess. Nevertheless, Germany’s parliament is extremely cautious not to appear as an organization capable of independent thought. For historical reasons, of course. History is why Germany may never have another strong leader, a Führer, but instead must hold lengthy discussions over every topic with everyone involved and then double-check, reconfirm, and stamp, only to debate the matter anew because Germans also tend to be unyielding and tight-lipped. History, yes – only the history is remembered incorrectly.

Kuleba and I are still sitting in the boiler room beneath the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. Distant explosions boom dully as he remarks that Ukraine and Germany will be having a greater discussion once the war is over – not over the present, but the past.

„We have to talk about what Germany did to Ukraine,“ Kuleba says. Not to mention the crimes committed by Russia.

„Russians have to come to understand what the Germans did in 1945,“ Kumoch tells me in a modest palace in Warsaw. „Ukrainians will fight to the death and we know that as a fact because in 1939, we also could have given up and become nothing but a German colony.“

Yet, Ukrainians are hurt most not by tardy weapons deliveries, but the symbolic meaning of Western Europe shuffling its feet.

„Germany has been the country Ukrainians looked up to the most,“ says Klympush-Tsintsadze.

„Ukrainians aren’t so much disappointed about not receiving tanks as they are about us not willing to be leaders,“ a German official admits. „Who could have guessed that Germany and France would turn out to be the most unreliable countries in Europe?“ one European ambassador asked his colleagues last spring.

A grocery store in Lviv has no electricity due to Russian missile attacks. Work continues...


„We talk a lot about Germany,“ Klympush-Tsintsadze says, „but I constantly ask my colleagues in Ukraine: Why aren’t we placing more pressure on France?“

She’s married to a Georgian and hasn’t forgotten how former French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated with Russia during its invasion of Georgia – over the head of the Georgians.

„The presidents of the Baltic states and Poland visited Tbilisi, and Poland’s president proposed a meeting with Sarkozy,“ former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves recalls. „Sarkozy agreed to meet with the Poles, but not with ‘those little ones’.“

Sarkozy did produce a peace treaty in the end, but not one that satisfied Georgia or stopped Russia. Klympush-Tsintsadze says that France wants to be Europe’s leader, always play a special part in negotiations, deliver powerful speeches on a wide spectrum of topics, bring adversaries together, paint itself as European No. 1, etc., but fails to realize it’s all one „awfully big mistake“ because such actions do not bring peace. Quite the contrary. What’s more, France (not to mention several other large EU countries) hasn’t lost its patronizing colonial attitude.

Emmanuel Macron

„Now begins the Slavification of Europe,“ one former German foreign minister was said to grumble after Brexit.

„Georgians aren’t civilized,“ a German counterintelligence head commented several years ago. His Eastern European partners could barely hold themselves back from asking: „Were you in the 1940s?“

„France’s foreign policy has never been based on values in our region, though I suppose that’s starting to change,“ Klympush-Tsintsadze says. All their „solutions“ are only ever put in quotes. She makes a very European hand gesture before getting up to ask an aide for aspirin to counter a wracking headache.

„Negotiations are European,“ argues French Ambassador to Estonia Éric Lamouroux. „For us, speaking to enemies has never been taboo.“

Lamouroux and I have a very long conversation. It takes him 21 minutes to answer my first question (I keep track) even though I never have the chance to actually ask it. He wants to list all the things the French have done to assist the Ukrainians. They aren’t few and are indeed exemplary, ranging from arms to refugee aid. It’s impressive, but several other interviewees emphasize that France could very easily do much more. Their CAESAR self-propelled howitzers are lauded on the battlefield – incredible weapons capable of striking a target from 55 kilometers away.

„We have a much better attitude towards the French thanks to their CAESAR systems,“ Greziev says.

„Soldiers are over the moon about them,“ Ponomarenko nods. This is also because the howitzers are exceptionally durable. Yet in reality, the French have allegedly provided so little ammunition that the systems have never worked at full capacity in Ukraine. It’s akin to the Germans making a big deal about starting to share intelligence with Ukraine, even though the fine print stipulated that it would be two days old.

„That’s of fine academic value but useless in war,“ says one person involved in counterintelligence.

France’s arms industry is remarkably larger than those of Germany or the UK. Still, until just recently, the country had provided less aid to Ukraine than Estonia – both per capita and in total.

„Given what France has done, it’s unfair to trash-talk Germany,“ says one high-level official of a NATO country. „The French have really pulled something off.“ One of their colleagues informs me that in internal discussions, they reckon that the French must secretly be providing the Ukrainians „something else significant“, which would explain why Kyiv is so soft on Paris. When I ask if intelligence might be that „something“, the person nods.

„Something along those lines, maybe.“

Still, they can’t be certain. The source and their colleagues are simply amazed by everyone being so kind towards France.

„God-damned Macron,“ a foreign-policy shaper in Eastern Europe growls one autumn day. „If I had his god-damned army and his god-damned nuclear button, then I’d act god-damned differently.“

It’s no great secret that unlike Scholz, Macron would like to be today’s leader of Europe. He has the charisma, vision, and, according to a source who has attended meetings between European heads of state, „a wealth of interesting ideas“. Among the latter are ways to end the war in Ukraine. Yet his methods elicit many questions. When Macron called Putin early in autumn to discuss the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, he first spoke to Zelensky and proposed allowing Russian troops to continue occupying the station.

„You’re the leader of Europe, and you suggest to a candidate member that they legalize the presence of Russian military on their territory,“ a source says in exasperation.

Naturally, Zelensky categorically refused. Macron called Putin on a Sunday. By noon on the following Tuesday, Zelensky still had not been given any details of their discussion.

Most complaints concern Macron’s obsession with peace, which inhibits him from providing sufficient weapons aid – though peace is an intrinsically European ideal. Whereas Brits and Americans think only in categories of victory and defeat, Germans and French are prepared to debate for years and, if necessary, at the cost of human lives, all to find a peace deal that satisfies all parties.

„It’s understandable because in European history, peace meant building a new society,“ says Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. „However, for Estonia, ‘peace’ also meant deportations, murders, and cultural repression. The same would happen in the event of such ‘peace’ in Ukraine, and that is hard for Europeans to understand.“

There’s an old diplomats’ saying that you should negotiate even in hell. Regardless, those who claim not even that works sometimes are right.

We have a much better attitude towards the French thanks to their CAESAR systems.


Though he doesn’t name any names, Zhovkva says Zelensky has repeatedly been forced to tell „a few“ European leaders not to constantly look to each other before making decisions, but to use their own heads and simply decide.

„Yes, Russia has lost a lot,“ says Salm. „But from the perspective of our end goal, i.e. Russia losing, things haven’t gotten much better.“

It’s not about Kyiv, Kharkiv, or Kherson.

„It’s a question of world order,“ he continues. „It’s a question of whether we’re able to seize what’s noble and worthy for ourselves even when things are hard.“

The Future

On March 1st, Maasikas stared at his Twitter feed. Familiar names, familiar topics. Suddenly, he noticed something completely out of place. Zelensky had just tweeted that Ukraine submitted its application to join the EU – ASAP. The Ukrainian president hadn’t discussed it with Maasikas, nor apparently with anyone else in Europe.

„Oh, yes,“ Maasikas whispered to himself. „That is absolutely incredible!“

He could remember all too well how many debates there’d been not only over Montenegro’s application, but all the rituals surrounding the declaration of such a decision. What flag to raise. What time it should be announced. How to act so as not to offend any other country. Yet the Ukrainians decided to blow through every ritual and declare exactly what they needed – and what they had earned from Europe – without pomp or fanfare.

„Unfortunately, very many countries still hesitate about what kind of weapons to give to Ukraine,“ sighs Celia Kuningas-Saagpakk, the Estonian president’s foreign policy advisor. Yes, tiny Eastern European countries are being heard more than ever before. The West’s perception of Russia is said to have changed, words have gotten rosier, and new weapons are being delivered, but signs of danger loom in the distance. The impression that Ukraine is not under- but over-armed is gaining traction in some places. When Kuleba toured Africa some time ago, several states he visited asked to be given the weapons delivered to Ukraine. The assumption was that aid had been immense and Ukrainians had to have stockpiles of extra tanks, artillery, and ammunition.

„No one has said that Ukraine’s warehouses are running out of weapons or ammunitions,“ said a defense official of one NATO country. „But neither has anyone said: shoot away, we’ve got supplies galore.“ Given that European countries spent decades naively hoping the Russian threat was over, defense spending was casually whittled away. Much of the available weaponry became outdated or was written off or thrown away, and few plans were made to replace it.

Despite extensive fighting on a front that would stretch from Warsaw to Barcelona, not one arms manufacturer has started building new plants. At most, a third, overnight shift has been scheduled. There hasn’t been a deluge of contracts for new weapons, nor is one on the horizon. At the moment, miniscule Estonia – which not only boosted its defense spending over 4%, but has already signed tenders – is a VIP client of Europe’s two biggest missile factories. At the same time, large European countries are rolling weaponry out of their own warehouses and haven’t even begun to look for upgrades or replacements. Even at the presently slow pace, those warehouses will soon be empty.

Russia has the capability to produce enough new ammunition to restock its own supplies, and no doubt will before long. It may not be as smart as Europe’s high-tech chip-based weapons, but a dumb missile is still better than empty CAESAR barrels staring at the sky.

„The quantities that Russia is able to deliver to the frontline really are impressive,“ a source comments.

„We’d dozed off,“ one high-level German official admits. „Perhaps the war in Ukraine was a wakeup call.“ He seems optimistic, though far from everyone is as hopeful.

„I don’t believe in Zeitenwende,“ Ilves says. „It was a nice speech, but we haven’t seen results yet.“

„Germany’s transition has been abrupt and clear,“ an official involved in international weapons aid disagrees. At the summer NATO summit in Madrid, Germany was apparently one of the few members that didn’t need much convincing over new defense plans. Many countries do understand and act and the situation isn’t as dire or one-sided as it may seem, but that isn’t universal. Political obstinacy has led to paralysis in some officials’ eyes: instead of a long-running war, people are starting to bank on a swift peace settlement.

Volodymyr Zelensky

For Ukraine, however, it’s not merely about weapons, and hasn’t been for some time.

„In my country there are no obstacles to returning to the European family, where Ukraine belongs,“ says Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna. „It is certainly an historic decision and not all European countries may feel an obligation to make it. All in all, it’s an individual choice that each individual head of state must make.“ She hopes leaders won’t simply hide behind bureaucracy as an excuse.

Zhovkva can remember President of the European Commission Ursula van der Leyen’s astonished expression when the Ukrainians filled out and submitted 5,500 pages of necessary documents in two weeks. He didn’t mince words:

„Give us a clear answer of whether or not we are Europeans. Right now, we are defending European values. We are ready. Treat us as Europeans.“

Matti Maasikas fears that trust in Western Europe will have eroded by the end of the war. Although several Eastern European countries aren’t necessarily assisting Ukraine out of genuine goodwill, but as an opportunity to replace their beat-up old tanks with new ones, it is the countries west of the Oder that are seen as morally degenerate. The paragon is gone and disappointment reigns. Yet, others will rise.

Relations between Poland and Ukraine were tense for years. In the Second World War, Ukrainians decimated Poles in ethnic cleansing in Volhynia and Galicia. The Poles later took revenge with their own bloodbath. When Martin Roger was appointed Estonia’s ambassador to Ukraine in 2018, one of his contacts said he dealt with „corpse work“ on a daily basis. Ukraine refused to allow Polish experts to inspect the sites of mass murders committed by its nationalists and exhume the victims’ remains.

„As a kid, I learned about the Ukrainians’ barbarities first,“ a Pole who grew up near the Ukrainian border in southeast Poland told Roger. „Only afterward did I hear about the Nazis and the Communists.“

However, the Poles and Ukrainians have learned from history. On this year’s anniversary of the mass murders in Volhynia, Poland’s prime minister remarked that today’s war will help the two countries make peace with the past and move forward together.

„The Polish-Ukrainian axis is strengthening and that’s bothering many people,“ said Deputy Director of the Estonian Internal Security Service Aleksander Toots. Kumoch agrees. Put together, the populations of Poland and Ukraine totals nearly 80 million. Their alliance is strong, sincere, and already integrated on every level. A similar language. A similar history. A similar disposition. Ukrainians have the opportunity to work in Poland and Poland has the opportunity to start rebuilding Ukraine. Their infrastructure is mostly interconnected, many Ukrainian refugees are likely to stay, and, as Kumoch says, „We have to be ready for that.“ He adds that the two countries share a „spirit of brotherhood“ and envisions even greater changes on the way.

„I’m confident that the Central European identity will become very important in the future,“ he says. „Many of our leaders and intellectuals have been ashamed of their Eastern Europeanness. Soon, this will no longer be the case. We realize that we stand at the center of history.“ The losers of this war will be in Moscow, Berlin, and Paris. The winners will be in Warsaw, Prague, Tallinn, and Kyiv.

Hofreiter shakes his head. He doesn’t see it happening. True, Germany’s influence has suffered a blow, but it isn’t fatal. Furthermore, he believes Poland is not Ukraine’s gateway to Europe, but may rather turn out to be a barrier.

„The Polish-Ukrainian axis is strengthening and that’s bothering many people.“

Deputy Director of the Estonian Internal Security Service Aleksander Toots

„If Poland gets into a row with Brussels, then it makes it very easy to say the EU doesn’t need new members,“ he remarks. The future of not just Ukraine, but also of Georgia, Serbia, Moldova, and a swath of other Eastern European countries depends on the way in which Hungary and Poland adhere to the principles of democracy and the Europeanness of Ukraine’s actions after the war has ended, given that there are already rumblings concerning freedom of the press there. Yes, Europe expects those countries to demonstrate Europeanness. Those countries expect the very same of Europe in turn.


One Sunday, a group of children and their parents gather on a playground in Kyiv. Instead of clambering over the attractions, they stand staring at a crater.

„I thought it’d be bigger,“ one of the boys sighs a little disappointedly. He asks his father if anyone died and when his father replies that, yes, some people did, the boy just shrugs and runs off to join the others. Some of the dads are wearing military uniforms – they’re on a short leave, perhaps their last one ever. Maybe they’ll never hoist their daughters onto a gaudy playground elephant again.

As air raid sirens sound and Greziev and I walk towards a bunker, an elderly gentleman continues performing graceful tai chi movements in a corner of the park, undisturbed. He resembles a swan rising in slow motion while threatening wails reverberate around us. I’m reminded of Ponomarenko, who said he’d occasionally wake up with a start in his apartment not far from the battles raging in Bucha – the booming artillery had fallen silent for some reason. Only when the firing resumed could he put his mind to ease and fall asleep again. Buskers continue playing their guitars and drums during the air raids. One elderly man starts dancing to the music on Maidan and points his cane at the passersby who pause to watch, mocking Russian soldiers. When I tour the catacombs, our guide, an older woman, never once uses the word „war“, replacing it with „the difficult situation“ – in her mind, the Russians’ atrocities do not deserve anything greater. Yes, one can become accustomed to almost anything. Almost.

When Kaimo Kuusk, Estonia’s ambassador to Ukraine, walks the streets of Tallinn’s outlying Nõmme district on visits home, he’s reminded of the mass graves. The tall pines and sandy soil closely resemble Izium, where the corpses of tortured men, women, and children were tossed into trenches. Walking in Kyiv, I come across a monument to the victims of the Holodomor. It was erected relatively recently, as even in Ukraine, people have only just begun to recount Russia’s man-made famine. Europe wasn’t alone in its unfamiliarity with Ukraine’s history – Ukrainians themselves haven’t had a strong grasp on the country’s past for very long.

„Ukrainians didn’t take their young country as such very seriously,“ says Maasikas. „But they take their liberty extremely seriously.“

A planned museum dedicated to the Holodomor hasn’t been completed yet and when I mention the tragedy to colleagues in Ljubljana a few weeks later, they scribble the new word down with interest. How many million people died in it? they ask. Two? Three? I shrug. I don’t know.

A few hundred meters from the Holodomor monument is an entire sweeping complex dedicated to the memory of the Second World War. It’s ringed by plaques bearing the names of Russian „heroes“. Ukrainian soldiers on leave and their wives are having a picnic nearby. They laugh and pop grapes into their mouths. A middle-aged woman wearing a blue-and-yellow sweater and blue-and-yellow earrings makes her way through the columns.

When I arrive back in Kyiv on Thursday morning, I walk past the site where the missile struck just three days earlier. People burned to death in their cars, but the street already has a fresh coat of asphalt – Ukrainians do not hesitate for a moment when destruction must be overcome. Church bells ring nearby. A Georgian casualty of battle is being buried. Tears stream down uniformed soldiers’ cheeks and women throw themselves onto the coffin on that mild autumn day. The air is warmer than it was in Brussels Airport, where the indoor temperature has been set a little cooler to counter rising energy prices and passengers seem a little grumpier than usual because of it.

On my last day in Germany, I walk past a wooden fence sprayed with „THIS IS NOT OUR WAR“. Soon, I find myself in a tiny bookstore in former East Berlin. Somewhat incidentally and obviously unaware that the author would receive the Nobel Prize a few weeks later, I purchase a work by Annie Erneux. It’s a good book, a true story about her affair with a Soviet diplomat. The romance is passionate and somewhat bemusing, as the Russian is uncouth, always leaves his socks on while making love, flaunts foreign brands, and disappears for weeks at a time without calling. And yet, the upper-class French writer loves him with her whole heart anyway. Why, she cannot even explain to herself.

I leave Kyiv’s government quarter late in the evening on foot. It’s hazardous going, as all the streetlights are turned off. I stare up into the sky. The stars twinkle just as clearly as at my country home in summer. I know they can’t be seen at that moment in any other European capital. Life there is so colorful and vibrant that city lights choke out the starlight. Yet I cannot shake the sense that another kind of light is burning here in Kyiv – one more dazzling than anywhere else.

When I arrive back in Estonia, I realize I’ve been carrying a little stub of burned candle in my jacket pocket the whole time – one lit at the graves of Ukrainian saints in the catacombs of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. I’m reminded of Bohdan and Viktoria. I can’t be certain, but I suspect there wasn’t a candle stub like it in their home before the missile struck. For if there was, then at least someone would have protected them.


I wish to thank Matti Maasikas, Celia Kuningas-Saagpakk, Kaimo Kuusk, Alar Streimann, Liis Lipre, Mikk Marran, Inga Springe, and Holger Roonemaa for their help in arranging these interviews.

Translated by Adam Cullen

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