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A journalist in Ukraine reflects on daily life since Russia's invasion 2 years ago

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

February 24 will mark two years since Russia invaded Ukraine. News outlets from around the world, including NPR, broadcast regular reports on the battlefield. But what has the war meant for daily life in Ukraine? Yaroslav Trofimov is chief foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He's author of the new book "Our Enemies Will Vanish." Kateryna Iakovlenko is editor of the Ukrainian Public Broadcasting arts reporting site. And she has an exhibition of Ukrainian art that's now on display in Lviv. I want to thank you both for joining us.

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV: Thank you.

KATERYNA IAKOVLENKO: Thank you.

SIMON: I don't know any better way to put it than to ask you, what's life like in Ukraine now? How has it changed since the war began? Yaroslav?

TROFIMOV: Well, I think everything has changed. I don't think there is a single person in Ukraine whose life hasn't been affected either because they had to flee their city or their country. Millions have had to flee because someone in their family was killed or injured or lost their home or is fighting on the front lines. I think there is a generational trauma that has been inflicted on the Ukrainian people. That is really hard to understand for people who don't live that reality day by day.

IAKOVLENKO: Yeah. I agree that for many people - have been changed a lot. But I also would add that it's almost 10 years of annexation of Crimea and occupation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. So many people already live through such a huge and violent experience. They lost their homes. They lost their kids and friends. And now, of course, the situation become much more complicated because more cities are erased, and there is no quite, normal life in any place in Ukraine now.

SIMON: Yaroslav, you have covered wars all over the world. You've been to the front lines a lot, too. What's it like for soldiers? How do they feel?

TROFIMOV: Throughout the war, in the beginning and now, one thing hasn't changed. The war is existential for Ukraine. And I think Ukrainian soldiers do realize, and Ukrainian civilians do realize, that what Russia wants is to wipe out Ukraine as a state, as a culture, as a nation, as a language, as a people. And so there is no option but to keep fighting. And there is no prospect of Russia settling for something short of wiping out Ukraine in the long term unless Russia is defeated militarily. So danger is everywhere. This is Europe's bloodiest war since World War II. It's on a complete different scale from all the counterinsurgency campaigns that we have witnessed in the past two decades.

SIMON: Kateryna, how are people finding the energy and spirit and just the time to create art when they have to worry about just surviving day to day?

IAKOVLENKO: Yeah. It's a good question. But I also perhaps need to emphasize that this war is also about culture and against culture. When you see how many institutions are targeted by the weapons and how Russia destroyed museums, how they stolen our art pieces from the museums, and how do they change the narrative about Ukrainian history and history of art. So you want to resist this. And, of course, one of the ways of resisting is that - to create something material, something that will stay for a long time and something that you can give your, I don't know, children - right? - and someone who will come after you. And this is - gives huge desire to do such kind of work.

SIMON: May I ask, have either of you, each of you, lost friends, loved ones, family?

TROFIMOV: I mean, I haven't lost family, thankfully, but friends, yes, for sure.

IAKOVLENKO: I guess this is, like, really hard question, what is lost about. My parents still live in occupied territory. I have friends who are on the front line right now, and I lost my home because it was destroyed in the March 2022. So, yes.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, I'm sure, there's a debate going on in the U.S. Congress about giving funding for Ukraine to defend itself. How is that debate in the U.S. Congress being viewed there? Yaroslav?

TROFIMOV: Well, I think there is a sense of puzzlement because it's hard to understand why all of a sudden, because of domestic political reasons, the plug has been pulled. And I think there is a broader point there, though. Early in the war, the U.S. also pulled the plug. The U.S. walked away from Ukraine, closed the embassy, didn't expect Ukraine to survive and basically provide a little bit of weapons for an insurgency campaign. If Russia had won in Ukraine at the time, it would have been a tragedy for Ukraine but would not have broken the Western alliance, would not have been an existential defeat for the West.

But now, two years into this, after hundreds of billions of dollars, commitments to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes, if the U.S. does actually walk away now, this will be seen as a Russian victory against what Putin calls the collective West, against Western democracies. And we'll be seen this way all over the world, and it will have an impact, not just in Europe, not just in Ukraine, but in all the other areas that opponents of Ukraine claim they care about - East Asia, Middle East, you name it.

SIMON: I'm going to ask you a question I know that there's really no answer to, but I want to hear your thinking. How long can this go on? How long can Ukraine hold out? It begins to get hard. And there's a human cost. Kateryna?

IAKOVLENKO: Of course, we all understand the price of this war, and we already paid a lot. Maybe because of this, we don't want to stop fighting because this is not only about our existence, everyone who is still alive. But this is also a question on behalf of all these people who already died for this independency and freedom. I don't know how long it would be, but I think we all have the same idea that we should stand until the end.

TROFIMOV: It's certainly going to last a long time. But let's not forget, also, that the Russian capabilities are not limitless, and the war of attrition is also affecting Russia. And at some point, in a year or two, it will run out of tanks and armored personnel carriers because they are being destroyed at a much higher rate Russia can produce them. And here, again, the issue of Western resolve matters. If Western resolve ends and Ukraine collapses before Russia reaches its own tipping point, then Russia wins. But it doesn't have to be.

SIMON: Yaroslav Trofimov is chief foreign correspondent of The Wall Street Journal and author of the new book "Our Enemies Will Vanish." And Kateryna Iakovlenko is editor of the Ukrainian Public Broadcasting arts reporting site. Thank you both very much for being with us.

TROFIMOV: Thank you.

IAKOVLENKO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.