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Romeo Krokriatski lives in Kyiv, Ukraine. And the main thing he wants you to know about that is that, a year into Russia’s invasion, things are pretty normal. Until they aren’t. “My best buddy lives in New York, actually, and he was asking me how it was and when I was telling him, he’s like, ‘Well, it doesn’t sound like too much has changed.’ And then the air raid siren went off loud enough that you can hear it through the windows,” Romeo said. “So that put the situation into stark clarity.”
Romeo grew up in New York City, but he moved to Kyiv as an adult and became a journalist. Now, he’s the managing editor of the New Voice of Ukraine. I last spoke with him about a year ago, when the war was still fresh. It felt right to call him back now and see how he was holding up.
He says, at least where he is, it’s the erratic electrical supply that would tip you off that a war’s on. And when the lights go out, you can hear the difference. You can smell it, too. “If the power is all good, then things look more or less fine But all the generators are diesel and diesel stinks a lot,” he said. “So it gets pretty noisy and smelly.”
Romeo’s neighborhood group chat has become the place he pings on the way home from work to figure out: Are the lights still on? In fact, this practice is so common that someone recorded a song about it for a laugh. “The little song was people just satirizing that exact situation. It was like, ‘Is there power or not? Is there power or not?’ ” Maybe it’s a stereotype, but it seems to me that Ukrainians have a much greater capacity for laughing at themselves than anyone else. We don’t take many things very seriously. And even the serious things we try to joke about.”
It’s a little like there are two Ukraines right now. There’s the Ukraine that Romeo is living in, which is somewhat normal, and then there’s Eastern Ukraine, where things are anything but. “Just today an entire bus station was blown up, killing six people or something. On the one hand, I’m grateful. I also feel a little guilty that I live in a relatively safe place with all the usual modern amenities,” he said. “It’s hard to reconcile the disparity in feelings. Ukrainians, if nothing else, are very determined to keep on living.”
On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I got an update on Romeo’s war. It’s been a year. He doesn’t see an end in sight. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Early in the war, Romeo Krokriatski fled Kyiv and went to his hometown, a village in the countryside. He was living alone, wondering each week if Kyiv would finally fall to Russian forces.
Romeo Krokriatski: It was a pretty chaotic situation at the beginning because Kyiv was still under threat. The defense lines were pretty fluid. It wasn’t clear if the Russians were going to break through or not. And as a journalist, I had to be covering everything, fielding media requests from every corner of the globe. But then things settled down and kind of approached normalcy. There was a curfew at 10, which was a bit strange. The street lights were kept off.
To encourage people to stay inside and so you couldn’t be seen?
Yeah, absolutely. The government was very strongly encouraging people to keep the lights off at night to make it harder to target places.
I know you’re a journalist, but I imagine you know all kinds of people involved in the war effort in all kinds of ways. And you’ve alluded online to knowing people who fought and even died in the war. Would you feel comfortable telling me one of their stories?
Yeah, an old colleague of mine, and actually one of the first friends I made in this country, Eugene Bakafka was his name. He’d messaged me in the beginning of the war, saying he’d enlisted. We didn’t keep in too good touch, something I will always regret. But we would message each other from time to time. And Eugene was an incredibly smart guy, one of the smartest guys I’ve met. He was an electrical engineer, an IT specialist. The guy was really, really clever. He was really, really artistic and creative on top of that, which is weird for an engineer. And he messaged me last in September, and then in, I think, December I found out that he’d been killed.
I cried for a day and then I tried to move on. To be honest, I’m lucky that I’ve only lost one friend so far. And I warn all of my other friends in the front that if they don’t come home, I’m going to go find their ghost and harass their ghost for the rest of their afterlife.
So how did you decide to return to Kyiv? When did you know it was time?
Around mid-December, I don’t know if I knew it was time or not. I was just getting really tired of being away, and most of my friends had moved back by then.
Could you tell me about the first time you walked back in to your apartment? Were things as you left them?
It was definitely a frozen-in-time feeling. Actually, a month before the war started, I’d finally bought a dishwasher. I hadn’t had a dishwasher for the past eight years of living in Ukraine, and I’d completely forgotten that I bought it. When I came back, I had cooked myself a huge dinner to celebrate, and I’m looking at this giant pile of dishes when I saw this dishwasher and I was like, What? How did this get here? I had to call my wife and I was like, “Hey, how do we use this thing?”
If it feels strange to hear Romeo laughing, remember: The Ukrainian way through this war has been with humor. After all, President Volodymyr Zelensky used to be a comedian. The war has put this slapstick approach in the spotlight .
The Ukrainian meme game is really tight. I share a lot of them on Twitter. But honestly, even I’m shocked with official government channels sharing pretty hilarious memes, especially the Russian warship meme. That was a big one.
“Russian warship, go fuck yourself”?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It kind of died down now, but people still have stickers on their cars.
I wonder how you’re anticipating what’s going to happen on the actual day of the anniversary of the invasion. You’ve noted that Vladimir Putin seems to like anniversaries, so how are you preparing yourself?
To be honest, and maybe I’m being too optimistic here, my expectation is it’s just going to be a mass missile attack.
Yeah, it feels weird to say just a mass missile attack, but we’ve had so many of them that now when I hear an air raid siren, it feels comforting, not scary.
Because it’s a reminder that we have a warning system in our air defenses working.
That is the most unhinged optimism I’ve ever heard.
Maybe. I can’t dispute that. But, in general, people are not as optimistic as I am. A lot of people are either preparing to spend the night in a bomb shelter or a corridor or a basement, or they’re just leaving Kyiv for a few days.
No. From what I can tell, the Russians don’t have the capability of doing anything flashy short of nuking us. And if they nuke us, it won’t really matter where I am. But I don’t think they’re going to nuke us.
When you heard that Joe Biden was visiting Kyiv, were you surprised? Reassured?
To be honest, I was completely shocked. I did not expect Biden to come to Kyiv during wartime at all. But for Ukrainians, to be honest, we’re just incredibly happy that Biden came. And that was support as solid as sending tanks and jets, though the U.S. should still do those things, not just show up.
Do you feel like Ukraine has what it needs militarily at this point going into this anniversary?
No, absolutely not. There are still no there’s still no agreement on providing Ukraine with modern airplanes, with modern jet fighters. Ammo is running out as pretty much every military official has been yelling for the past couple of months. There’s definitely not enough stuff to keep up a concerted defense of the type that’s needed against basically near-constant Russian assaults. Ukrainian intelligence believes that Putin ordered the Russian military to basically take the rest of the Donbas, the rest of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by the end of March. And they’re attacking very constantly, taking enormous, enormous—1,000 plus—losses per day. And they are taking some ground. Not a lot, just a couple of meters a day. But they are still taking some ground, and we don’t have enough to keep up the firepower necessary to deter them, and nor do we have the modern tanks that were promised. A Pentagon official said that the 31 Abrams that were promised by Washington wouldn’t be arriving for the next three to six months.
Oh my gosh.
Which is an incredibly long time. The officials said that they haven’t even decided whether they’re going to send us existing Abrams or build entirely new ones when these processes should have been already in place. Same with the Leopards and the Challengers and all the new stuff that’s been promised—it’s promised on a timeline that is way too far out. So I definitely do not feel like we have what we need to continue to defend ourselves successfully.
That must make you kind of nervous.
It would have made me nervous earlier in the war. But we’ve seen the pattern of the West speeding up as the deadline draws near. So I think the weapon and supplies deliveries will speed up. And to be honest, another reason I’m not too nervous is that Russia is simply running out of everything. The air mass missile attacks slowed from every few days to once a week. Now once every few weeks or before big occasions. The simple fact that Russia is seemingly unable to scale up any of its operations. Its mobilization drives are drying up. Its soldiers are being sent to fight in winter conditions in basically single-layer linens, and they’re taking a 1,000-plus losses per day. Morale has been negative for months now. There’s a very physical limit to how long they can keep up what they’re doing. I, as an inveterate optimist, hope that that physical limit is reached sooner rather than later, but they will reach it regardless.
I know you’ve spoken before about this sense of solidarity among Ukrainians that’s been sparked by the Russian invasion. People have helped each other, crowdfunded for resources. I’m curious about whether you see ways the invasion has inflamed divisions, too. Like, we did a show a few weeks back about the way some neighbors turned against each other, accusing each other of working with the Russians, especially in towns that were occupied. I wonder if you’ve seen some of that friction as well.
It’s a joke amongst Ukrainians that one of our favorite hobbies is to accuse everyone around of being traitors to the point where it’s a meme. Like, whenever anything bad happens, you start yelling strata, or treason in Ukrainian.
I actually have an app on my phone calls, Strata, which is, like, a tip line if you suspect someone of collaboration. But to be honest, the divisions aren’t that much. I’d even say there’s less division now than there was in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas. Then, you had a lot of stereotypes about people from the East being all criminals, all Russianized. What are they doing here? Blah, blah, blah.
When they fled, you mean?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And there were even listings for apartments that would say, “Oh, we don’t rent if you’re from the East” or whatever. But that has not been the case.
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Last time we were on, you talked about your doomed optimism about the war. Do you think that there’s going to be a Year Two mark to this war? Do you think in February 2024 I’ll be calling you back?
Yeah, probably. I don’t see this war ending until Putin is dead. Whether from natural causes or infighting or, I don’t know, a commando raid that’s going to make a great movie in 10 years. But I don’t see the war ending until he’s dead.