US President Joe Biden, left, walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at St. Michaels Golden-Domed Cathedral during an unannounced visit, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When President Joe Biden touched down in Kyiv on February 20, it was more than another secret presidential trip like the visits Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama made to Afghanistan and Iraq. There was no stealthy meeting with American troops, no photo op on a base in an American theatre of operations. Biden’s goal was to demonstrate American support for a democratic ally fighting the most devastating war in Europe since 1945. Not even Franklin Roosevelt did this. He never visited London during the Blitz, choosing to meet Winston Churchill on safer ground in Washington, Casablanca, Tehran, and Yalta. That Biden’s visit came on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made it all the more significant as a show of determination to halt Vladimir Putin’s push to crush a democratic neighbor. “I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said.

Andrey Dubenko is the co-owner of a small shopping mall on the river between Bucha and Irpin, two of the Kyiv suburbs that saw the worst fighting in the weeks after Russia’s invasion last February. The boundary between the two towns—one was occupied through the next month, the other remained in Ukrainian hands—became the front line. Air strikes, artillery fire, and hand-to-hand combat in the parking lot gutted Dubenko’s mall. Now the 54-year-old investor and developer, a man old enough to have served in the Soviet army in the 1980s, is rebuilding and optimistic. But he is also unflinchingly clear-eyed about who will determine what happens in Ukraine. “When will the war end?” he asks rhetorically. “That will be decided by Americans. The war will end when the U.S. wants it to end – when they stop sending weapons and ammunition.”

When the fighting began last year, I put my life in Washington, D.C., on hold and traveled to Eastern Europe to help provide relief for refugees and report on the war. This month, as the anniversary of the invasion approached, I reconnected with four Ukrainians I’ve been speaking with since last spring. A year into the war, I wanted to know if they had a message for Americans. A businessman, a soldier, a university student, and a pharmacist, they come from across the country and bring varying political perspectives, including different views of Zelensky, some more skeptical than others. But they agreed that their fate lies in Washington’s hands, a deeply sobering message and a responsibility they hope Americans will treat with gravity.

Estimates suggest that Ukraine’s armed forces have suffered more than 100,000 casualties—dead and wounded—alongside some 30,000 to 40,000 civilian deaths. The economy contracted by roughly one-third in 2022. And more than 13 million people—close to one-third of the population—have been displaced. An estimated 5 million of them are dispersed across Europe. There may be as many as 3 million, including many abductees, in Russia. Another 5 million fled their homes but remained in Ukraine, many of them in the western part of the country near its borders with Poland, Hungary, and other NATO allies.

When asked what’s at stake in the war, Ukrainians offer an array of answers, something like a hierarchy of needs. It starts with material things and close loved ones—“our land and our families,” Dubenko, the developer, offered. Decorated soldier Serhii Pruzhanskyi made a more abstract argument. A big, charismatic man, formerly the director of a driving school, he fought in suburban Irpin and, more recently, helped liberate the port city of Kherson. For him, the war is rooted in history—Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the Maidan protests that same year that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets to demand a more robustly democratic government and ended by ousting Russia-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych.

“Ukrainians have been fighting for change since 2014,” Pruzhanskyi explained, “And we’re fighting against everything Russia represents – dictatorship, domination, backwardness, brutality, lives without hope or opportunity.”

But among those I spoke to in advance of the anniversary, Inna Paschenko gave the most compelling answer about what’s at stake in Ukraine. The manager of a pharmacy chain in the provincial capital of Vinnytsia, the 47-year-old mother of two, working to remember the English she learned in high school, offered a pair of high-stakes, existential rationales. “Ukraine is fighting for the right to be Ukraine,” she declared, “for its culture and identity. But what’s in the balance doesn’t stop there. We are now the shield between the civilized world and the uncivilized world. We are also fighting for you.”

Americans and Europeans may debate strategic questions. What should victory look like in Ukraine? Does it require expelling Russian troops from every inch of Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean peninsula? Might Western aid trigger a wider, even nuclear, war with Russia? And at a time when the West is running low on ammunition, how much help is enough? In Ukraine, there is little debate about any of these issues.

The most immediate, practical question is about geography. Should Ukraine fight to the borders established in 1991 when it declared independence from the Soviet Union? Should it accept the borders as they existed last year – a country already much diminished by the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014? Or should Kyiv cede all the territory the Russians hold now, roughly 15 percent of 1991 Ukraine—perhaps the only deal that would sate Moscow?

Vitalii Lylyk, an international relations student at Kyiv National University, spends a day a week in officer training school and devotes most of his spare time to crowdfunding for soldiers on the front line. Before the war, he dreamed of going abroad for graduate school. Now, his definition of victory was unequivocal and uncompromising. “There’s no question,” the 20-year-old said. “The goal is the 1991 borders. Anything else would mean a pause, not peacetime for Russia to regroup for the next invasion. And even then, the attacks won’t stop.”

When Ukrainians are asked what outcome they would accept, large majorities align with Lylyk’s view, and no more than 8 or 9 percent say they’re willing to cede Crimea. Paschenko, the pharmacist, allows that the ethnic Russians who have settled in Crimea since 2014 may want to emigrate when Ukraine retakes control, and she fears that could be a messy process. But she too agrees: Ukraine can’t give up Crimea.

Pruzhanskyi, the soldier, is equally adamant about retaking Crimea. “We’ve seen what happens when the Orcs take over,” he said, using a popular term for the invaders borrowed from the author J.R.R. Tolkien, who coined it in The Lord of the Rings to describe a race of malevolent monsters. “The Russkiy Mir”—Putin’s euphemistic phrase for the Russian sphere of influence he is seeking to restore—“brings nothing but death and devastation,” Pruzhanskyi explained. “No progress, no future, no opportunity. We can’t abandon Crimea to that.”

A second critical question posed by the West is whether Kyiv should negotiate directly with Moscow. No query riles Ukrainians more, and several of those I asked had to collect themselves before answering. “Do you really think that will lead to peace?” the ordinarily mild-mannered Pruzhanskyi asked acerbically. “What will you say to the mothers who have lost their sons and the wives who’ve lost husbands?” Paschenko echoed. “Russia isn’t offering anything to negotiate about.”

But perhaps inevitably, the bulk of our conversations centered on a third critical question, Ukraine and the U.S. When asked about allied aid, all four Ukrainians were surprisingly diplomatic. After months of talk and texts, I know when they are being polite. They feel a mix of gratitude and frustration at the pace of Western arms deliveries. But asked on the record about foreign assistance, no one wanted to bite the hand that feeds them. What they offered instead: a chorus of pleas for continued help, some plaintive, some argumentative, some crisply logical, others deeply emotional. It echoed what their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has been saying for months, but in each case in a personal key and with no concession to the price they and their families are paying as the war drags on into a second year. 

The most pointed argument for continued Western aid refers to 1994, when the new nation gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for Russian and American security guarantees. “Is the international order alive or not,” Paschenko asked sharply. “You gave your word,” she said, citing the Budapest memo that codified the disarmament accord.

A second line of reasoning stresses the difference the West can make. “Looking back,” Lylyk, the student, explained, “there were two turning points this year—first, the fall of [the southern industrial city] Mariupol and then the arrival of the Himars.” Autumn’s stunning momentum—a string of Ukrainian victories liberating thousands of square miles—traced directly to the delivery of these American-made high-mobility artillery rocket systems, which allowed Ukrainians to hit Russian supply lines up to 50 miles away. “We need another boost like that,” Lylyk said. “Weapons that can shorten the war.”

A third, powerful argument appeals to the West’s self-interest. “Your [help] is not charity,” President Zelensky maintained in his December speech to Congress. “We’re not fighting for Ukraine alone,” Irpin businessman Dubenko echoed. “We’re also fighting for American security. Don’t you see—we’re fighting, so you don’t have to.”

No one thought Western help for Ukraine would likely lead to nuclear war, but they underscored another long-term global threat. “The escalation the West should fear has nothing to do with nuclear weapons,” Pruzhanskyi said. “It’s that Russia gets away with this. That they aren’t defeated, and this becomes a lesson for Putin and other dictators that they can invade their neighbors with impunity.”

Among the four Ukrainians I spoke with about the anniversary, Paschenko was the toughest and most insistent. “For Americans, the war seems far away. They don’t understand the scale, the barbarity, the destruction – whole cities leveled, tanks shooting at unarmed civilians, children being kidnapped and taken to Russia. We’re asking you to open your eyes – to see and feel what’s happening here.”

She paused to let the images sink in and then switched gears. “The allies need to push themselves,” she implored. “You need to be more decisive. It’s time to speed up the delivery of the weapons. Without you, we can’t win this war.”

Tamar Jacoby

Tamar Jacoby is director of the New Ukraine Project at the Progressive Policy Institute and author of Displaced: The Ukrainian Refugee Experience.