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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Rubin: Ukraine’s volunteer spirit inspires

By Trudy Rubin
Published: June 20, 2024, 6:01am

As evening falls, the streets are mostly dark in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Russia has been systematically destroying the country’s national power grid as Western allies have dawdled over providing promised air defense systems. The whir of generators has become the new night music for the restaurants, hotels, and homes that can afford to hold back the gloom.

The damage caused by the six-month congressional holdup of U.S. arms shipments to Ukraine is raised in every conversation I have had — the lives lost and morale lowered, all while allowing Russia to go on the offensive. In the wee hours of Wednesday last week, five air raid warnings for Kyiv lit up my cellphone on the country’s Air Alert app. Dozens of alerts buzzed for other cities that have much less protection.

The good news: New Western supplies of missile interceptors have finally arrived. Last week, they shot down the entire barrage of Russian missiles and killer drones over Kyiv, and nearly all of those unleashed on other parts of the country.

But what has cheered me up early in my trip — and bolstered my faith in Ukraine’s future — is that the civilian volunteers who rose up after Russia invaded are still actively involved, helping other Ukrainians escape the fighting or getting them medical care after terrible wounds.

They are not waiting for U.S. government aid to act.

I have been covering world conflicts for decades, and I have never witnessed such strong civic activism in any other country besides the United States. These grassroots movements define the difference between democratic Ukraine and authoritarian, top-down, follow-orders-or-be-killed Russia. They will be critical to any future recovery if the West helps Ukraine drive the Russians out.

A typical example: In Odesa, I visited a small metal factory where the workers were actors and stage designers in the city’s famous opera and theater house. Now, they are welding military vehicles and prototype drones.

There is still a desperate need in Ukraine’s defense system for a more organized way to scale up and fund the promising drone prototypes designed by Ukrainian civilians — a critical need if Russia is to be pushed back.

The help volunteers provide army units by raising funds from their own salaries, on the Telegram app, or from family, friends, businesses, or foundations — to deliver everything from drones to used cars to night vision goggles — may not match the impact of missiles, but it is essential for morale and survival.

Equally impressive are volunteer organizations focused on aiding civilians, like Helping to Leave, a project launched by cognitive neuroscientist-turned-social worker Dina Urich to help Ukrainians escape from occupied territory, which amounts to nearly 20 percent of the country.

“It breaks our hearts because these people have no basic rights and are treated like slaves,” she said. The sole routes to escape require obtaining a Russian passport from Russian occupation officials, then traveling through Russia and surviving terrifying checkpoints. Many would-be escapees are too old or too frightened to try.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Urich said. Ukrainians know they are involved in an existential struggle to retain their independence and freedom.

They are people like the volunteers I’ve met with Ukraine TrustChain, who are rebuilding roofs of Russian-destroyed village homes, and risking their lives to rescue villagers displaced by Russia’s rampage through villages near Kharkiv. And so many other people spend every spare moment raising funds to help war amputees or feed families displaced by fighting.

They give the lie to Russian propaganda — too often echoed by know-nothing MAGA media in the U.S. — that Ukraine is an authoritarian, or, absurdly, a Nazi, state.

These volunteers illustrate what kind of European democracy Ukraine could be if the United States and its allies finally decided to give Kyiv the weapons it needs now — to push Russia back before it’s too late.