KIEV, Ukraine — To hear it from their president, the Ukrainian people have never been more determined to beat back what they see as a threat to Western civilization — all the way to the Russian border.
But intensifying violence and a new offensive from separatist forces, which the West believes are buttressed by fresh Russian support, are coming at a particularly fraught juncture for Kiev. The country’s economy is reeling from rampant inflation, worsening debt and a currency that lost more than half its value in the past year. The public is increasingly frustrated that government-promised reforms — chief among them an anti-corruption effort — have yet to be realized. And in the ranks of a rapidly expanding military, there are signs of disorganization and frustration with commanders as the conflict in the east wears on.
Almost a year after protests led to the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency, hopes for justice and swift peace have been replaced by war fatigue and belt-tightening. But government officials are adamant that problems on the home front will not compromise the country’s commitment to quelling the pro-Russian uprising.
“It’s not like we can say, yeah, we’ll drop something. What do we drop, the reforms? Dealing with the financial problems? The military? No,” said Dmytro Shymkiv, a deputy to President Petro Poroshenko in charge of reforms. “You have to deal with the crisis, and you have to deal with the economy. We have to do both. Even though it’s difficult.”
Kiev’s political will to fight to reclaim or secure through a peace deal the industry-rich territories of Donetsk and Luhansk from pro-Russian rebels may be strong. But it is dependent on money, competence and popular support.
Valeriy Chaly, another Poroshenko deputy, says that despite the challenges, the conflict has fostered Ukrainian solidarity.
“The only thing that’s made me more optimistic is that Ukraine never had such a chance to build popular support in the country because of the threat from abroad,” Chaly said in an interview.
But that solidarity is being tested. Ukrainians became used to frequent updates about casualties, even when a cease-fire was supposed to be in effect. But to many, there’s something different about this latest round of fighting, in which civilians are regularly emerging as the victims — and perhaps the intended targets — of strikes. In the past month, deadly shellings of buses and residential areas left scores dead and hundreds wounded.
Plans to increase the ranks of the armed forces to 250,000 this year — 68,000 more than at present — mean that practically every Ukrainian will know someone at the front. Many already have lost loved ones in the fighting.
The country is also waiting anxiously for foreign financing — such as a $2 billion loan guarantee from the United States announced this past week and an expected International Monetary Fund deal worth $15 billion or more.
It’s not free money. To conclude the IMF deal, Ukraine must agree to significant domestic changes, including higher prices for gas, for which Ukrainians are used to paying cut rates. The conditions are intended to ensure that Ukraine takes steps to bring about economic recovery.
Pro-reform activists, who accuse the government of “using the war as an excuse” to avoid the policy changes, say reforms are actually part of the war effort.
Hanna Hopko, a newly elected member of parliament, said that supporters of the separatists are looking for an opportunity to “radicalize the people’s mood” by exploiting discontent. “Our task now is to say, ‘Okay, we’re suffering, we’re tightening our belt, but we understand that this fight is for the future of independent Ukraine,’ ” she said.
Finance Minister Natalia Yaresko, who recently oversaw a budgeting process that avoided the politically messy work of raising gas prices, converting subsidies or cutting pension minimums, wouldn’t go that far. But she said the government is ready to make “costly” reforms to secure desperately needed financing and attract investors to help the economy make a fuller recovery.
“Stabilization first, growth second,” Yaresko said in an interview. “My economic reforms will not stop the violence in the east, but they will help us to convince our population and the population in the occupied territories that this is a system that works. It delivers, and it is preferable.”
But economists are skeptical that the government has the political stamina to see plans through.
Pavlo Sheremeta, Ukraine’s former economic minister, blamed “decades of mismanagement and overdue reforms” for the “severe” crisis. “I wish it could take just a few months,” he said, “but it will take decades of hard work to correct it.”
No one is “courageous enough to do these reforms,” added Sheremeta, who said he believes the anticipated aid packages would not be enough to allow Ukraine to end the crisis or ease the population’s pain.
“People are living on pensions,” he said. “That’s the only way sometimes a family of four or five is supporting themselves.”
Valentina Kuznetsova, 75, is one of those pensioners. A recent arrival from Luhansk, she lives in Kiev with her husband, daughter and granddaughter — none of whom can find work. Like many others displaced by the conflict, she is ready to end the war and focus on problems closer to home.
“Give the territory away,” Kuznetsova said. “Why are we doing this? Why do we need to kill each other?”
But the troop buildup suggests that Kiev has no intention of backing down, which presents another problem: ensuring that the military can train tens of thousands of fresh recruits to wage a guerrilla-style war against an enemy thought to be backed by one of the largest military complexes in the world.
“We have problems, not only material and technical, but we have problems with teaching soldiers, with preparing soldiers and with discipline,” said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the head of the Interior Ministry, one of several agencies overseeing the war effort.
Still, many Ukrainians are patient with leaders in office less than a year who are trying to fight a war as they figure out how to run a country.
“We elected this government, we chose it ourselves,” said Volodimir Yakubuk, 55, a miner from Lviv protesting outside the Cabinet of Ministers last week. Such demonstrations — usually for unpaid wages — have become common. Yakubuk doesn’t want the protest to detract from the war effort. He said the fighting has killed 160 people from his community.
“If someone closes our mines, we will be dying of hunger,” he said. “But it is better to die from hunger than from an enemy.”
“I’m not sure about that,” interjected his mining colleague, Maryan Dubetskiy, 34, a electrical welder. “At war, men die. But at home, it’s women and children who suffer.”
Natalie Gryvnyak contributed to this report.