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As Zelenskyy rallies more soldiers, some Ukrainians now think talks, not troops, will end the war

The Russian-Ukrainian war has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. As it grinds on, and as Russia continues to strike Ukrainian cities with missiles, bombs and drones, there is a growing weariness among many Ukrainians, who are exhausted by fear and grief and struggle to see an end to the conflict.

In 3rd year of war, Ukrainians are weary and there aren't enough soldiers to let volunteers stand down

A mourner kisses the forehead of military photographer, Arsen Fedosenko before his buried at a ceremony in Baikove cemetery in Kyiv on June 14.

Before the white casket carrying the body of Capt. Arsen Fedosenko was lowered into the ground at a cemetery in Kyiv on Thursday, the large crowd gathered for the service prayed and chanted glory to Ukraine, honouring the 46-year-old father of two who was killed while working as a photographer with the military.

Fedosenko enlisted at the outset of Russia's full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, and was eventually assigned a role that allowed him to capture some of the horrors of war. He was killed by a Russian glide bomb nearly two and a half years later.

"More and more of my friends are dying," said Hanna Bondar, one of Fedosenko's friends, who also serves as a deputy in Ukraine's parliament. "My feeling is that this [war] will be finished now in a political way, not on the field."

A portrait of Captain Arsen Fedosenko is displayed at his burial at Baikove cemetery on June 13. He was working as a photographer in the Kharkiv region when he was killed by a Russian glide bomb on June 10.

The war has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. As it grinds on, and as Russia continues to strike Ukrainian cities with missiles, bombs and drones, there is a growing weariness among many Ukrainians, who are exhausted by fear and grief and struggle to see an end to the conflict.

Ukraine appears buoyed by the recent arrival of delayed U.S. weapons and ammunition, but there's a shortage of soldiers, despite government efforts to mobilize more men and get others to sign up voluntarily. As a result, those who bravely signed up at the beginning are stuck on the front line, as no one else seems prepared to step in.

Like others CBC News spoke with, Bondar, a member of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Servant of the People party, is adamant Ukraine cannot give up territory. But she feels conflicted over the desire to keep fighting for victory versus saving potentially thousands of lives by settling the war through political negotiations.

WATCH | Vladimir Putin lays out conditions for Russia ending war in Ukraine:

Vladimir Putin lays out conditions for Russian ending war in Ukraine

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Duration 0:43

Russian president says Ukraine has to abandon interest in joining NATO, and withdraw troops from several regions.

With the country under martial law, Zelenskyy's five-year presidential term has been indefinitely extended. While public opinion surveys show he remains well-liked at home, his popularity has dipped and there is growing distrust of government institutions, including from some who feel that in an attempt to rally the nation, officials painted too rosy a picture of what was happening on the battlefield.

"For two years, they have been telling the whole country and telling society that we are doing well at the front," said Anastasia Bulba, a 37-year-old mother of three whose husband, Vitaliy, has been serving since he enlisted at the start of the invasion.

"Throughout this time, they should have been growing the [military] reserves."

Rush to enlist

Vitaliy, 48, suffers from chronic health conditions including diabetes, but rushed to sign up to defend his country when Russian tanks rolled toward the country's capital in early 2022.

Shortly after he joined the forces and his wife and children relocated to western Ukraine, Russian troops briefly occupied their community of Dmytrivka, which lies about 30 km west of Kyiv.

WATCH | Ukraine recruits prisoners to boost troop numbers:

Ukraine recruits prisoners to bolster troop numbers

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Duration 2:16

With its soldiers on front lines fighting against Russia feeling exhausted, Ukraine is looking to its prisons to bolster its troops — a move that echoes Russia's use of prisoners as part of the Wagner Group mercenary force last year.

Before the war, Vitaliy was an entrepreneur who had a small business selling weighted blankets he designed himself. Now, he remains on the front line, with no end date to the military service he volunteered for.

Anastasia Bulba is part of a group of women who have staged small protests across the country, calling on the government to "demobilize" their exhausted husbands, brothers and sons.

While speaking to CBC from her apartment in Dmytrivka, she wore a necklace with a bullet attached that her husband gave her. Each day, she checks her phone to make sure he has messaged to say good morning. If she hasn't received a message by 11 a.m., she begins to really worry.

Anastasia Bulba stands in front of rusted Russian military vehicles that have been sitting on the side of the road in Dmytrivka since Ukrainian forces reclaimed this community 30 km west of Kyiv in March of 2022.

Bulba told CBC News she was happy to share her perspective with international journalists, because Ukrainian media are generally not interested in covering the group's pleas for demobilization.

'Replace them when they are alive, not dead'

At the end of 2023, the former head of Ukraine's armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, suggested the country needed to mobilize as many as 500,000 new soldiers, adding that he was unhappy with the work of the draft offices.

A month earlier, he told The Economist magazine that the war was headed toward a stalemate. Zaluzhnyi was dismissed from his post less than two months later.

Now, with Russia recruiting an estimated 30,000 new soldiers every month, the Ukrainian government has embarked on a recruiting campaign that includes lowering the age of conscription to 25, toughening penalties for draft dodgers and drumming up recruits from the prison system.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (right), poses for a photo with an injured Ukrainian soldier, at a military hospital in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, in October 2023.

But there has been no move to release soldiers who are now in their third year of fighting along the 1,000-kilometre front line.

"Guys will have to be replaced," said Bulba. "I say to everyone, let's replace them when they are alive, not dead."

Bulba said she never had any illusions that it would be a quick victory for Ukraine, but thought at maximum the war might last a year.

"We know that we will never live in peace with such a neighbour," she said. "It is difficult for me personally to say whether we should sit down at the negotiating table right now, or some other strategy should be developed by the military."

Ukraine was adamant Russia not be included in the peace summit hosted by Switzerland this weekend, because officials say Russian President Vladimir Putin can't be trusted. Zelenskyy has repeatedly said Russian troops have to withdraw from Ukraine in order for there to be negotiations.

Attitudes toward negotiations

Anton Hrushetskyi, executive director of theKyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), a private company that conducts public opinion surveys, says recent questionnaires have shown growing pessimism in Ukrainian society about the state of the war. He says people are generally ready for some negotiations, but it would require the West to make security guarantees.

"It could be NATO membership, it could be military bases in Ukraine," he said. "It could be something that will really convince Ukrainians that Russia will not attack again."

WATCH | 'Putin can end this war today,' U.S. defence secretary says:

'Putin can end this war today,' U.S. defence secretary says

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Duration 1:16

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin responded to the Russian president's ceasefire demands, saying Vladimir Putin is not in 'any position' to dictate terms to Ukraine.

KIIS conducts more than 100 surveys a year, which include research done at the request of international organization and universities. In one survey conducted during a six-day period in mid-May, KIIS asked a series of questions to more than 1,000 Ukrainian citizens living across the country (except in territories currently occupied by Russia).

They were asked about their level of trust in President Zelenskyy and their opinions on the government.

At the start of the invasion, Hrutetskyi said surveys showed that 90 per cent of Ukrainians trusted the president. That has now dropped to just below 60 per cent.

Hrushetskyi says Zelenskyy's decision to dismiss Zaluzhny in February contributed to the drop in trust. But he adds that Zelenskyy is still popular when compared to how previous Ukrainian presidents were viewed after five years in office.

Consumed by grief

When it comes to the performance of Zelenskyy's political party, which holds a majority in Ukraine's parliament, more than half of respondents said they were unhappy.

"They don't see Zelenskyy as a bad guy or incompetent guy, but they say there are some people on his team that are not very good," said Hrushetskyi.

Some war-weary Ukrainians don't have the energy to think about high-level politics, and are instead focused on the immediate grief.

Kateryna Fodorova went to Kyiv's Maidan Square on June 11 to leave flags in memory of her brother and cousin who were killed fighting in eastern Ukraine.

At Kyiv's Maidan Square, thousands of flags and photos have been placed in honour of the country's fallen heroes, including Maksym Fodorov. He was killed at the end of February near Chasiv Yar, a community in the Donetsk region sought after by Russians, as it's perched on strategic high ground 20 km from Bakhmut.

Fodorov's sister Kateryna Fodorova, 25, came down to the square to place flags for him, as well as for a cousin who was killed on the front line in January. Through tears, she said it was at his funeral that she last saw Maksym, who ended up being killed a month later.

She says Ukraine has no choice but to keep fighting for its land, but isn't optimistic that victory is on the horizon.

"I don't know how this will end, I am not a politician," she said. "Unfortunately, the guys are dying, but nothing is solved."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Briar Stewart

Foreign correspondent

Briar Stewart is CBC's Russia correspondent, currently based in London. During her nearly two decades with CBC, she has reported across Canada and internationally. She can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on X @briarstewart

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