Ukraine Unlocked is a weekly newsletter providing a roundup of the cultural, political, and economic developments in the country. We hope to provide students, professionals, and the casual reader with greater insight into Ukraine as its role on the global stage evolves throughout the 21st century.
On Tuesday, Russian officials announced that they would be reducing military operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv as an "act of good faith." Outside observers reported Russian troops leaving the area surrounding the former nuclear Chornobyl power plant and other contested areas as they retreated towards Belarus. Western analysts mistook this move as Russia’s abandonment of its “special operation” into Ukraine. Russia’s military history over the last 20 years should raise skepticism that Putin will entirely end the war in Ukraine. Events in Georgia and Syria indicate that Russian troop withdrawals are simply cover for resupplying and a renewed offensive. Ukrainian forces may have stopped Russia from taking Kyiv, but Kremlin officials are still set on “liberating the Donbas.”
What could a renewed Russian offensive look like…read more here.
A Request from Philip and Gabe (Co-Founders of Ukraine Unlocked): If you are enjoying this newsletter please consider forwarding it along to a friend, colleague, or neighbor. As the situation in Ukraine continues to evolve we are hoping to give folks the context they need to understand the various developments coming out of the country.
Carnage in Mariupol. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Strategic Update – Week 5 of War
Pushing for Peace: On Tuesday, Ukrainian and Russian negotiators conducted another round of peace talks in Istanbul, which produced the first tangible signs of progress. First, Ukrainian officials said that the country is willing to declare itself neutral in exchange for security guarantees from NATO member countries. The guarantees mean that certain NATO members would provide military aid to Ukraine if the country came under attack. Second, Ukrainian negotiators proposed a 15-year moratorium period to decide the fate of Crimea and signaled openness to discussing territorial claims in the Donbas region. While both sides seemed more optimistic, it will likely be several weeks before the prospect of actual compromise becomes a reality. Negotiations will resume on April 1st.
Russia Proves Zelenskyy Right: Russian officials said they were pulling back troops to promote "mutual trust." However, President Zelenskyy expressed skepticism that Russian forces would actually scale down military operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv after the announcement.Continued artillery attacks on cities outside of Kyiv proved Zelenskyy’s skepticism correct and shattered any illusion of faith between the two sides.
Mariupol’s Demise: Ukrainian officials are unclear on the condition of Mariupol due to the Russian blockade around the city, but drone photos reveal a city reduced to rubble. A recent refugee from Mariupol claimed that at least 5,000 civilians had died. In a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin said that Russian forces would only stop shelling Mariupol if the city surrendered.
Russian Camps: Ukrainian officials are accusing Russian troops of forcibly relocating tens of thousands of civilians from Mariupol to camps in Russia. Reports suggest that Russian forces have sabotaged humanitarian corridors leading to Ukraine on multiple occasions. Kremlin officials deny this, but refugees from Mariupol who have made it to safety in Ukraine tell a different story. In their accounts, the situation is dire and starving people are forced to choose between staying in Mariupol and dying or relocating to Russia.
Shelling in Kharkiv: Russian missiles have not stopped bombarding Kharkiv since the beginning of March. On Monday, Russian forces shelled Kharkiv 200 times over 24 hours.
Putin Misinformed: U.S. officials are alleging that Putin’s advisors are misinforming him about the failures of Russian troops in Ukraine. The officials claim that Putin berates advisors who report losses or express dissenting opinions. Intelligence reports also suggest that Putin has been extremely isolated since the pandemic, which has only exacerbated the disconnect. U.S. officials are likely declassifying this information and sharing it with the public to undermine the trust between Putin and his advisors. The intelligence is another piece of evidence demonstrating fundamental issues with Russia’s war strategy and questions Putin’s grasp on power.
POWs Tortured: A video has emerged showing Ukrainian soldiers torturing Russian prisoners. In the alleged clip, a horrifying scene shows Ukrainians shooting at least three Russian soldiers in the leg, while others lay on the ground bleeding with bags on their heads. An advisor to President Zelenskyy condemned the video and said the government is investigating the incident.
Abandoned amusement park inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Credit: Gabe Pimsler
Biden's Words Bite Him: During a visit to Poland this past week, Biden declared "For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power," while referring to Putin. White House officials and Biden tried to clarify later that he did not mean to call on regime change in Russia. The remarks fed the Kremlin’s paranoia that the US is interested in removing Putin from power. Putin’s spokesman stated that Biden has no place in deciding who serves as President of the Russian Federation.
Radioactive Forests: The forests surrounding the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone are on fire. According to researchers, the forests encircling the former power plant pose a large risk to the atmosphere. Following the 1986 disaster, the trees near the accident site absorbed a great deal of radiation. As they start to burn, the trees can release toxic radiation into the air. Wind patterns have the potential to carry radiation across Ukraine and into Europe.
Veselka restaurant in New York City. Credit: Flickr
Ukrainian Roots Reach Far
Comfort Food from Afar: At the corner of East Ninth Street and Second Avenue in New York City, you can find a long-standing institution of the Ukrainian diaspora community. A Ukrainian immigrant founded the folk restaurant Veselka in 1954 which is known for serving traditional borscht and varenyky to its hungry patrons. One of its managers is originally from Kyiv and recently discussed the outpouring of support the business has received since Russia invaded Ukraine. Currently, all proceeds from the sales of Borscht are going to the Ukrainian military.
NFTs are the New War Bonds: Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation is selling non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to help raise funds to support the country’s war efforts. The NFTs serve a dual purpose of providing financial support to Ukraine while also allowing artists to document the first three days of the war. Cryptocurrency, frequently used to purchase NFTs, has become the darling child form of donation for Ukraine as it allows the country to bypass currency restrictions.
No, You Can’t Have It: TheSejong Center for Performance Arts in Seoul, South Korea is refusing to return 75 pieces it has on loan from various Russian museums. The Russian Minister for Culture had demanded that the pieces be returned before the date listed in the contract. The order came in the wake of South Korea joining the long list of countries sanctioning Russia. The collection includes artists Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, and Natalia Goncharova.
Russian Rubles. Credit: FreeIMG
Ruble Revived: The Ruble has returned to its pre-war exchange rate, which brings into question the effectiveness of the current economic sanctions. Russia continues to export oil and natural gas to countries in the European Union, China, and India uninhibited. The European Union relies on Russia for one-third of its natural gas, which means those countries cannot sanction them without destroying their own economy. The current sanctions and the world's reliance on Russian energy means that the heart of the Russian economy can continue to operate unrestrained.
U.S. Aid: The Biden administration pledged another $500 million in aid for Ukraine, bringing the total to $13.6 billion over the last month. In his address on Wednesday, Zelenskyy thanked Biden but reiterated his call for more tanks, aircraft, and artillery systems.
Polish volunteers handing out supplies. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Mass Exodus: U.N. officials report that over 4 million Ukrainians have fled the country since February 24th. Over 2 million have sought refuge in Poland, while others have fled to Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova, Romania, and several other EU countries.
Inside the Country: Officials also say that 6.5 million Ukrainians are internally displaced, while another 13 million are stuck in conflict zones. There are almost 1,200 civilians confirmed dead, and another 1,800 have been injured. Officials claim that artillery strikes are the leading cause of death and injury.
Some Human Moments Prevail
Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding the war in Ukraine, videos shared over social media show that humanity still exists.