Ukraine: 500 Days of Resistance
There are black roses all over Irpin—the remnants of fire damage on the fronts of apartment blocks. There are shell craters hastily filled in and boarded up buildings waiting to be pulled down. The bridge over the Irpin River still slumps from its supports. But in the vehicle graveyard on the edge of the city, among the three-high stacks of rusted, burned-out cars, there are splashes of bright yellow. Someone has been painting sunflowers.
Inside his café in Irpin’s tree-shaded central park, Borys Yefimenko points to the bullet holes that splinter the polished wooden walls. Over coffee at a table outside, he has to pause, fingers pinched on the bridge of his nose to hold back tears, as he recalls last spring, when this small city to the northeast of Kyiv became a battleground.
The café, one of 10 that Yefimenko ran in Irpin, only opened on February 19, 2022. When the full-scale invasion began five days later, a lot of people in town didn’t believe, or couldn’t comprehend, what was happening. They gathered in the park and stood around drinking coffee, watching the war unfold on their phones. After a night of bombing, Yefimenko, his wife, and their young child got into their car and drove. “I only had enough fuel in my car for 150 kilometers,” he says. “It was impossible to buy fuel, so we made a decision. We’ll drive 70 kilometers. If we don’t find fuel, we’ll come back.” On the outskirts of town, miraculously, they found diesel, and they headed southwest.
Many of his friends and employees stayed, hiding in shelters. As they ran out of basic supplies, Yefimenko told them to take what they needed from his cafés. Three were killed: two shot by a Russian column, the third by a sniper. In late March, Yefimenko was told that his apartment building had been shelled—his home was destroyed.
Irpin was liberated on March 28, 2022. When Yefimenko returned on April 3, there was no running water, no electricity. Parts of the city were still dotted with landmines. He shared a room with 25 other people. The streets were “apocalyptically empty,” he says. Only two of his 10 stores could be salvaged. “And for the first several days we turned on the generator and we just made coffee for people for free,” he says. Since then, he’s opened three other stores, rebuilding his business bit by bit.
The damage caused by Russia’s assault on Ukraine is incalculable. The UN claims at least 7,000 civilians have been killed (the real figure is likely higher), while estimates for fatalities among Ukrainian soldiers sit in the tens of thousands. Around 14 million people have been displaced; 150,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. Russia has routinely attacked civilian infrastructure and health facilities, destroying or damaging more than 200 hospitals and clinics. Twenty percent of the country’s famed “black earth” farmland has been rendered unusable. An area the size of Florida—174,000 square kilometers of land—needs to be cleared of mines. The economy shrank 30 percent in 2022. These are just the things that can be counted or estimated. Alongside that, there’s the ecological devastation, dramatically demonstrated by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam in June, which flooded huge areas of land and left others parched without irrigation.
But the course of the war has shifted since the liberation of Irpin. Ukraine has reclaimed much of the land lost in the opening months and is once again pushing toward its borders. This has opened up the space to talk about recovery.
It means more than just building back what was there before the conflict. Instead, there is a momentum—in politics, civil society, business, and the cultural establishment—for a post-war Ukraine that is freer, cleaner, more rooted in its identity. Not Ukraine reimagined, per se, but a better reflection of the country that has been revealed to the world through 500 days and counting of unlikely resilience and resistance.
Achieving that recovery is a vastly complex task. It will require leaning on new industries to create opportunities, using technology to deliver services, restoring cultural institutions, and recording history as it’s being made. It will be a hugely ambitious and potentially fraught exercise in transparency and trust as Ukraine figures out how to spend billions upon billions of dollars of public money as it begins to rebuild.
“We really want to build a better country, and this is the chance that we have,” says Oleksandr Gryban, deputy minister of the Economy. “And we cannot waste it … because we’re paying too high of a price. We’ve already paid an enormous price and continue paying with human lives.”
In March, the World Bank estimated that the financial cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction would be $411 billion. Each passing month adds another $10 billion to the bill. These are inconceivable numbers. Four hundred and eleven billion dollars is more than twice the size of Ukraine’s economy. It’s 100 times the annual budget of the United Nations. It’s nearly two-thirds of the 2008 banking bailout in the US. And it’s likely to be an underestimate. The head of the European Investment Bank, a development finance institution, has estimated that the real cost is more likely to be over €1 trillion ($1.1 trillion). President Volodomyr Zelenksyy gave a similar figure last year. “With all the current shellings and the escalation, we might still see more and more damage,” Gryban says.
Talking on the phone as he walks between meetings, Gryban rattles off statistics—$14.1 billion pledged by other countries for rebuilding infrastructure, $36 billion in loans and grants to cover the hole in the state budget, $2 billion in financial support for small businesses.
He says he is trying to look for positives. Much of the infrastructure that’s been destroyed was “outdated, inherited Soviet infrastructure that was not super efficient,” he says. “We do have a chance to, as we say, to build back better.” That means building environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations into projects, replacing old power infrastructure with green energy, and integrating with the European Union’s “Green Deal” industrial plan. “We can be the powerhouse of Europe with renewable energy, with hydrogen projects,” he says. “We have the gas transportation system where we can export hydrogen to Europe. Or we can set up new facilities, like green metallurgy facilities.”
Gryban’s office is responsible for getting private investment into Ukraine, which is a tough prospect with the war still ongoing. The ministry has set up Advantage Ukraine, a campaign to link foreign investors to projects in the country, listing opportunities in sectors from defense to woodworking. There’s interest, Gryban says, but “foreigners are still, you know, very careful and cautious.”
The economy has, somewhat miraculously, stabilized at two-thirds the size it was at the start of 2022, and it is forecast to grow very marginally in 2023. That’s partly testament to heroic feats of engineering and innovation that have kept services running despite constant attacks, partly because of large amounts of money from international donors flowing into Gryban’s ministry to keep businesses afloat, and partly because of the unexpected resilience of some industries, chief among them the tech sector.
UNIT.City is almost too perfect a metaphor for Ukraine’s economic transformation. It’s the epicenter of Kyiv’s startup scene—a tech park launched in 2016 by UFuture, a real estate and industrial conglomerate that was looking to diversify beyond petrochemicals and agricultural processing.
To get to the campus by car, you have to drive through the middle of a huge warehouse: half the windows cracked or broken, the rest faded sepia with decades of dust. Until the 1990s, it was a motorcycle factory, built during the Soviet era to make knock-offs of German bikes for a brand that didn’t survive the transition to the free market. But on the other side you pass into a post-industrial Narnia, a 2020s tech park with wide boulevards, blue-tinted glass, and elegant greenery.
I’m met near the entrance by Kirill Bondar, UNIT.City’s CFO, who leads a tour of the campus—there’s the best coffee stand, and there’s the second best; there’s the restaurant that just opened; there are the new luxury apartment buildings, under construction, the plastic wrap still on their windows; there’s the radio station that was hacked by the Russians last year and started broadcasting propaganda; there’s the tower that was hit by debris from a downed missile. The owners recovered the debris. They’re going to turn it into a sculpture.
Inside UNIT.City’s offices and coworking spaces, I meet startup after startup: IoT companies, biotech, AI, drones, medtech. Each has their own stockpile of branded merchandise: T-shirts, stickers, cookies. One gives me a branded baseball bat “for protection” that I carry from meeting to meeting for the next few hours.
As well as physical spaces, the tech industry needed a regulatory one, the kind of legal environment that would allow companies to take risks and innovate, and bring in international investment capital. At UNIT.City, the two spaces—the physical infrastructure and the legal—overlap. In a conference room off an open-plan office, I meet Alex Bornyakov, deputy minister of digital transformation and head of Diia City, the “virtual special economic zone,” created by the government as a Ukrainian version of Delaware’s stripped-down tax and reporting regime.
Bornyakov explains in great detail how Ukraine created tailored regulatory provisions for startups, including convertible notes, liquidation preferences, and indemnities for founders; the seriousness only slightly diluted by his T-shirt, which features a cartoon rabbit wielding a chain saw. “The goal was to align the language that Silicon Valley speaks with Ukrainian legislation,” he says. “So when someone from Europe or the UK or North America wants to invest in a Ukrainian company, they speak the same language, and they use similar tools.” Diia City—which was opposed in some quarters as neoliberal, in others as futile—was launched two weeks before the full-scale invasion began—but after a couple of slow months applications resumed, and there are now more than 500 companies registered. Talking to executives across the tech sector, I’m given a dozen reasons for its resilience, ranging from luck to the distributed nature of the industry to variations on “we’re used to solving problems.”
The tech sector has played a vital role in the war effort: turning plowshares into swords; converting civilian drones into weapons; repurposing skills to turn coders into cyberwarriors; and creating platforms and apps to source, fund, connect. There’s a determination within the sector and the government to now turn that mindset to the task of recovery—to grim opportunities, wartime and post-war necessities that can only realistically be solved with tech. There’s govtech and fintech, the need to figure out how to deliver government services, financial support, and education to displaced populations and devastated towns and cities. There’s the need to de-mine huge areas of the country, and to rehabilitate agricultural land. In Warsaw, I met Eugene Nayshtetik, CEO of two companies: Biolity Systems, which uses AI and imaging to automatically clone high-value plants, and Radio Bird, which makes autonomous surveillance drones for the military—one’s for the victory, the other for the recovery.
Tech has also given the Ukrainian economy a success story that it can broadcast. UNIT.City’s residents have embraced their ambassadorial role. There are Ukrainian tech delegations heading out all over the world—the Middle East, Asia, as well as Europe and the US. “The voice of Ukraine has become more prominent, and the doors which have been closed previously, I’ll be honest with you, they have become open,” says Kateryna Hrechko, CEO of Techosystem, a nonprofit that promotes the tech sector in Ukraine.
Making the most of this moment, building something solid in Kyiv—and the other tech hubs of Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro, and Lviv—will be vital for the reconstruction, Hrechko says. The sector has to make sure there’s something to come back to, to keep the industry growing and thriving so that there are jobs and opportunities when the war is over “and that talent pool will not be gone to Delaware.”
Like many others I spoke to in Kyiv, Hrechko sees the Diia City model—not just the low taxes, but the broader sense of collaboration between government and industry, the prioritization of speed and flexibility but also transparency and accountability—as a template for a different kind of economy, one that’s more information-driven, more connected to the knowledge economies of Europe, leaning away from the Soviet-era industries with their oligarchs and ties back to Russia. “People do not believe that change is possible,” Hrechko says. “But then when you start with something small, and you show that it is possible, and then you expand it.”
In late June, a large Ukrainian delegation arrived in London to attend a conference of international donors and businesses. They left with nearly $60 billion in pledges of loans and grants from the EU, UK, and US. That’s on top of tens of billions already promised, as well as other donor programs from the World Bank and other international financial institutions (IFIs).
It’s very hard to spend that much money, and harder still to spend it well. After years of being criticized for profligacy, and decades of agglomerating processes, IFIs are incredibly bureaucratic, demanding enormous amounts of data. And they each tend to want that data in a different form. Most have different weightings for the things they care about. Some programs require you to report up front on the climate impact of every dollar, others on gender and human rights. Some operate in dollars, some in euros, others in pounds sterling. Some offer loans, some grants, some pseudo-private investments. Donors often duplicate each other’s work. Oleksandra Azarkhina, the deputy minister for Communities, Territories, and Infrastructure Development, whose ministry is overseeing the reconstruction efforts (at the same time as handling military logistics), says that her team is currently managing 45 separate IFI programs, each made up of hundreds of smaller projects.
On top of this complexity, Ukraine’s reconstruction needs to be doubly accountable—to its donors and to its citizens. Since the 1990s, the country has had a well-deserved reputation for corruption, which it has spent the past decade trying hard to shake. Ukraine now wants to show—has to show—that it’s moving in line with other European countries, in support of its desire to join the EU. And it has to live up to the trust of its citizens. The Zelenskyy government’s brand is accessibility and transparency, governing by consensus rather than by diktat.
Spending $1 trillion on potentially hundreds of thousands of different projects, with thousands of stakeholders, touching on areas of the economy and parts of local government long associated with corruption—all under the fog of war—is an incredible opportunity to get it wrong.
So in June the government delegation brought data. Reams and reams of data to back up every single thing they’re asking for. “We can explain each line,” Azarkhina says. “No one can say to us Ukraine doesn’t know what it wants.”
This Ukrainian government likes data. The “state in a smartphone” app, Diia, is a single portal for Ukrainians to access everything from certificates for births, deaths, and marriages to voting in the Eurovision Song Contest and paying their taxes. But it has also rolled out databases for the construction industry, for company registration, for government procurement—the latter of which, ProZorro, offers extraordinarily granular data on contracts and bids for public works in an attempt to demonstrate transparency in a system that was undeniably riven with corruption. When February’s invasion began, Azarkhina’s team started collecting data on the damage to civilian property, building a massive, comprehensive register of the destruction being caused by the war. That’s fed into a system that also collates public service data, which can output maps of battle damage, disruptions to health care or education, and population changes as a result of the war.
In June, the Ukrainian delegation presented a system called the Digital Reconstruction Ecosystem for Accountable Management (Dream)—bringing all of these tools into a single interface and adding to it a database of every reconstruction project in the country. These can be submitted from the community level, online, and give donors and investors a searchable database of wrecked schools, hospitals, bridges, and water treatment plants, each listed with the metrics that international donors expect to see, like environmental impact assessments and statistics on gender inclusion. That means someone sitting at a desk at a development bank or construction company in Paris or Washington DC can search for destroyed bridges near Irpin, for example, and get in touch directly with the people running those projects.
The aim, says Viktor Nestulia, chair of RISE Ukraine, a coalition of NGOs, and head of Ukraine support at the nonprofit Open Contracting Partnership, which led the development of the system, isn’t just to provide a massive Kickstarter for the Ukrainian economy, but to help make smart decisions about what to invest in. By including maps of service disruptions, the government can decide, for example, whether the best way to get kids back to class is to rebuild a school or buy a school bus.
It is, Nestulia says, a system that has pretty radical underpinnings—near complete transparency for where hundreds of billions of dollars are flowing. The scale of the reconstruction effort means that some corruption is inevitable. But Dream makes it a lot harder to get away with, and less likely to occur at the systematic level than it used to. He’s quick to point out that transparency isn’t enough on its own. “Transparency is a pretty easy exercise,” he says. “But then I believe that many Ukrainian vested [interests], they aren’t really afraid of accountability and integrity because they know how to manipulate [the system].”
But the stakes are higher when getting caught out means losing access to the international money that’s going to fund the construction industry in Ukraine for the next decade. It’s the kind of project that could quietly change the way Ukraine works well beyond the end of the war. It’s a way for the victims of the war—communities themselves—to help decide on their future, even to pitch directly to international donors without needing the government to intermediate. In June, when Nestulia hosted a Zoom call for communities interested in pitching projects, 900 people joined.
Transparency and trust, involving citizens in their own governance, and giving them tools like Diia to interact directly with the government are things this administration has put front and center. But Nestulia says puckishly that Dream is the kind of system a government may come to dislike, since it takes power away from them. So far, there haven’t been any protests, not even from the economic old guard who most profit from opacity. But that could simply be because they haven’t gotten wise to the significance of the system. “Not everyone understands what we’re building,” Nestulia says.
It is Museum Day when I visit Irpin. The city’s small museum is closed to the public, but its administrators have set up a small display outside—a table set for tea, a woman in early 20th century costume, and a cabinet of locally made fruit jellies. Inside, the exhibits are packed tightly in store rooms on the second floor, 125 years of artifacts. Among the paintings, ceramics, and ephemera are busts of Lenin and works by Russian artists from the Soviet era. “We’re going to let the historians sort those out,” says Yevgeniia Antonyuk, the head of the city council’s Department of Culture. They won’t destroy things of potential significance, even now. But by the door is a stack of Soviet-era textbooks “for the recycling,” Antonyuk says.
The museum was damaged by shelling, but most of its exhibits survived. It now also houses items rescued from destroyed cultural sites, like a wooden icon, still speckled with shrapnel, from a church that was gutted by fire last year. As we walk around Irpin’s central plaza, Antonyuk points out the scarred facade of the library. “We replaced the windows, but we can’t restore that,” she says. “It’s difficult and expensive. There are 10,000 people without homes here, it’s not the right time for doing stuff like that.”
Irpin’s cultural institutions aren’t just rescuing and restoring artifacts from the city’s early years, they’re also trying to memorialize the past year and a half. It’s hard to curate history in real time. There are too many physical remnants of war. But they have huge amounts of digital material. They want to create a VR experience based on footage captured in the immediate aftermath of the Russian withdrawal from Irpin, to capture that moment even after the city is fully restored. It would be one of many attempts to digitize Ukraine’s heritage and culture, as volunteers take 3D scans of significant buildings, make high-res copies of art, and even catalog wartime memes for future generations. These are needed because cultural heritage hasn’t just been collateral damage in the war. The invasion has been motivated by the Russian idea that Ukraine doesn’t exist.
“This war is not only about territory, but it is also about culture,” Antonyuk says. “The first thing that Russians do when they occupy territory, they destroy the cultural institutions, they destroy everything Ukrainian, and they destroy everything that can identify us as Ukrainians.” Rebuilding stronger is an act of defiance and a way to reiterate the Ukrainian identity. “Cultural institutions are there to show us who we are.”
It’s also important to remember and record the present. The war in Ukraine is the first conflict of its scale and scope to happen in the era of mass digitization, with an almost unlimited ability to store and record information.
I met café owner Yefimenko and council member Antonyuk through the Museum of Civilian Voices, a project by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, a philanthropic organization that started in 2014, taking video testimony of people living near the front lines of the proxy war being fought between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed militias in the eastern Donbas region. Over the first four years, they collected thousands of hours of videos covering how ordinary citizens had experienced the conflict. When the larger invasion began, they expanded the project to cover the whole country. It’s an effort to make sure that the stories of individual civilians—small business owners, homemakers, school teachers—are visible within massive meta-narratives of conflict, an eye-level story of the war told in 75,000 individual accounts. The idea is “to save as many stories as we could find to create this [360-degree] understanding of what happened, of the scale of the tragedy,” says Natalya Yemchenko, one of the foundation’s board members, who has been involved in the project from the beginning. And there’s a healing aspect to it. The country needs to learn how to remember, Yemchenko says. “Otherwise we will keep these traumas with us in our future, and it will traumatize us again and again.”
Yefimenko, outside his coffee stall in Irpin, in a park which a year before was pocked with craters and strewn with bodies—where children are now playing on a bouncy castle—says rebuilding has given him a sense of mission and has become his own act of solidarity and defiance. It’s something I heard over and again in Ukraine: that reconstruction and reform, even the smallest acts, are ways to honor the sacrifices being made, and that rebuilding isn’t just a consequence of victory, but a way to achieve it.
“The only reason we can sit here with the coffee is because other people died on the front line,” he says. “I believe that everyone should do their thing in their place. Some people make coffee, some people fight, some people make bread, and that makes up the economy of Ukraine. We are fighting for our independence. Our financial independence is also important.”
This article appears in the September/October 2023 edition of WIRED UK
Get More From WIRED
Credit belongs to : www.wired.com