ukrainians urge spending shift as war drags on

Protesters are lobbying city councils to freeze urban renewal projects and buy military equipment instead, part of a wider call to put Ukraine on a war footing.

Braving rain and snow, hundreds of Ukrainians gathered last week outside the Kyiv City Council with signs reading, “I don’t want a park” and “Why do I need paving stones?”They chanted, jumped and clapped as they called for an end to road repairs and a freeze on the construction of a new subway depot.

Protesting the renovation of one’s city may seem highly unusual, especially in a country whose president was elected four years ago on a promise to repair roads. But protesters said a more urgent cause demands funding today — the war effort.

“This money should be spent on buying weapons,” said Yevheniia Klyshal, a 29-year-old nutritionist who was waving a sign that read, “New roads won’t win this war.”

The protests, which have also been seen in other major Ukrainian cities such as Odesa and Lviv, have reflected a growing sentiment: as the war against Russia drags on and Ukraine runs out of weapons and ammunition, the whole country must be put on a war footing.

Since Russia invaded last year, large numbers of Ukrainians have raised money to buy weapons and volunteered for the army. But with the war raging far from several large Ukrainian cities, many citizens have returned to a semblance of normal life, going to work and schools during the day, and restaurants and bars at night.

Now, with Ukraine’s counteroffensive failing to yield major gains and as Russia regains the initiative in parts of the battlefield, calls have been growing for all Ukrainians to play a greater role in the war effort.

In places like Kyiv, protesters say that will mean forgoing the comforts of life far from the front line and reallocating most public resources to the army.

A street in Kyiv, where protesters say it is necessary now to forgo the comforts of life far from the front line and reallocate most public resources to the army.Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

“The war will last long,” said Iryna Ignatovych, a founder of Money for the A.F.U. — an acronym for Armed Forces of Ukraine — a citizens’ group behind the Kyiv protests. “Russia is a very big country with a lot of resources. Ukraine is not so big, so in order to win we must redirect all our efforts to help our military. The rear must support the front.”

“It’s a question of the nation’s survival,” Ms. Ignatovych said.

The protests began in late August in Odesa, when a few dozen Ukrainians demanded that money earmarked for repairing a courthouse be spent on the army instead. The initiative struck a chord with many citizens and the movement quickly spread to other cities. In Kyiv, demonstrators have gathered every Saturday since mid-September under the Soviet-style building of the local city administration to press for changes in the city’s public spending.

Much of their anger has been directed at the Kyiv city budget for 2024, which includes $1 million to rebuild a crossroads and $670,000 to renovate a park opened only five years ago. “It’s just luxury,” Ms. Ignatovych said.

Some Kyiv city councilors have suggested that it was not the capital’s main role to finance the war effort and that substantial funds have already been allocated to funding army brigades. Still, the capital’s military budget for 2024 — about $27 million, according to official figures — is only a fraction of this year’s, which has outraged protesters.

“I want the budget to be used for the defense of our country, not to repave sidewalks or put asphalt on roads that already look normal,” said Tetiana Nagumuk, who was standing among protesters last week, a Ukrainian flag draped around her shoulders.

Around her, hundreds of people in their 20s and 30s held up placards highlighting what they saw as absurd wartime investments.

“You’re building roads for the occupiers,” said one. Another was scrawled with a slogan alluding to the air raid alerts that routinely rattle the capital. It read: “Kyiv in 2024 be like: Attention! Missile danger. Proceed immediately to the renovated park,” with the word “shelter” crossed out.

Workers repairing a cobblestone road in Kyiv.Roman Pilipey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Under pressure, the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, announced last week that the City Council would earmark an additional 600 million Ukrainian hryvnias, about $16 million, to the military in this year’s budget.

That didn’t quell the protesters’ anger.

“Six hundred million is not enough!” they chanted last Saturday, on a bitter-cold morning, as passing motorists honked their horns in support. The demonstrators demanded that more money be spent on buying armored vehicles, building bomb shelters and funding relief programs to help wounded soldiers returning from the front.

“It’s OK to make our city comfortable and nice, but I don’t think that’s our main need now,” said Liena Kyrylovska, 24. Like most protesters, she also believed that funding urban development would lead to the kind of corruption schemes that have long plagued Ukraine.

Many in Ukraine had hoped for a quick victory after the country’s armed forces successfully repelled invading Russian forces and then regained vast swaths of territory last year.

But Ukraine’s stalled summer counteroffensive has dashed those hopes and “a majority of people now understand that we’re not on a pathway to victory,” said Petro Burkovsky, the head of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Ukrainian think tank.

Mr. Burkovsky said the popularity of the protests — in a country where public displays of criticism of the government have mostly vanished during the war — shows that Ukrainians are eager not to let what they consider wasteful spending derail the war effort.

To many, this means shattering the relative sense of normalcy that has taken hold in cities far from the front line.

Ukrainian soldiers with a tour guide, center, in the port area of Odesa, which has been struck by drones and missiles, in September. Nicole Tung for The New York Times

“Sometimes, everything looks like we live in a country without a war,” Yevgen Dykyy, a former Ukrainian battalion commander, told the magazine Ukrainsky Tyzhden last month. He said he had been shocked to see “hundreds of flower beds, sidewalks, pedestrian bridges and fountains” that had been paid for by taxpayers and that were spread all over Kyiv.

“Have we already won the war?” Mr. Dykyy asked. “Today, all the money used for building fountains, decorations and laying tiles should be redirected directly into the national defense fund.”

Myroslav Havryshchuk, one of the organizers of the Kyiv protests, said putting the country on a war footing had become all the more urgent in the face of the West’s dwindling support for Ukraine’s war effort. “We need to think strategically and start to count on ourselves,” he said.

Perhaps the protesters’ main fear is a return to a situation similar to that of a few years ago, when a frozen conflict between Ukrainian troops and Moscow’s proxies in eastern Ukraine gradually escaped the public’s attention, leaving the country unprepared for the full-scale invasion that lay ahead.

“I really hope that this won’t happen,” said Markiian Zadumluvyi, a photographer at a recent protest.

A few feet from him, a protester held up a sign that read, “I don’t want a park where I can be killed by the Russians.”

Daria Mitiuk contributed reporting.

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