ZOiS Spotlight 9/2022

Everyday Decisions in the War in Ukraine

People seek refuge from bombings in the Kyiv metro. IMAGO/NurPhoto

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

While much of the coverage of the war in Ukraine focuses on political decisions, we look at the realities of life for ordinary people, especially women, and how the war affects their plans for the future. People’s spatial and temporal horizons of expectation are now determined by the war. Just last September, we launched a new project with the aim of exploring how people in Moldova and Ukraine live with ongoing structural uncertainty. We did not anticipate that this uncertainty would suddenly become so much more acute because of a war. We are in close contact, via chat, phone and email, with friends and acquaintances in Ukraine whom we met during various field trips over the years, and we witness their struggle over whether to stay or leave.

Meanwhile, the disconnect between the decisions taken by governments and the Ukrainian people’s everyday horizons of expectation seems greater than ever. While Russian tanks roll towards Ukrainian cities, and governments in other national capitals take far-reaching decisions about the energy supply, financial flows, military hardware or rearmament, the Ukrainians’ scope to make self-determined choices is steadily shrinking. For the Ukrainian people, but also for various countries’ leaders, decision-making is beset with uncertainty, and yet the purpose of the decisions they take is to create certainty in a situation which is spiralling out of control.

Every day, we see our friends and colleagues trying to decide whether to stay or go. The longer the war goes on, the more likely they are to be inclined to leave. It is mainly the women who still seem to have a realistic prospect of making it to another town, or another country.

Should I stay?

People living through war are forced to make existential choices; there is no respite to this. When the emergency siren sounds, should I go down into the subway, the basement or the underground car park, or should I stay in the apartment? Can I stand near the window while I finish cooking the soup, or is it safer to retreat to the hallway, where there are no windows? Should I leave the house to fetch water for the next few days, or is there too great a risk of being injured or killed?

People live in the moment. Some report that their sleep patterns have been disrupted by the night-time shelling so they now take several naps during the day. When you are under attack, life is lived through the constantly updated news feeds, on social media, individual and group chats, in the interaction with family and friends. People talk about being unable to stop checking the news, even for a few minutes, although the accuracy of the reports is impossible to verify, which simply adds to the uncertainty. Some try to briefly distract themselves from the horror by playing board games or doing puzzles on their mobile phones.

Some people manage to adjust to the more limited temporal and spatial scope for decision-making. They stay in their protected space, sometimes supporting the military campaign by making Molotov cocktails, providing food, water and essentials for the soldiers in their camps, or challenging Russian news media and propaganda on the Internet. Many search for positive messages in the videos and news updates on their social networks, which describe the defence capabilities of the Ukrainian fighters or the courage of civilians, offering a glimmer of hope, however brief, of a better future for Ukraine, at least in the longer term.

Or should I go?

Over and over, the decision – to stay or to leave – is taken, rejected and then taken again. In most cases, it is a step-by-step process. First, people leave the cities; they wait in smaller towns in the countryside or in Western Ukraine, hopeful of being able to return home soon. Then they decide to continue the journey. They worry about the dangers they might face on the way, the loss of their resources, such as their networks and or their property, and the uncertain future in a strange country, without language skills and with the prospect of being “refugees”. The perceived shame of abandoning their country weighs heavily on them. Women and children are forced to leave their partners and fathers behind, because men aged between 18 and 60 are no longer allowed to exit Ukraine. It is a parting for an indefinite period, with an uncertain outcome. Will they make even it to the station, let alone the national border? That hangs in the balance, like the fate of those they leave behind.

Some try to cling to the old routines, established procedures and rules: buying train tickets for the journey, for example. But these tickets are a convention left over from pre-war Ukraine. Managing to get on a train is no longer about having a ticket. Someone who is fleeing the war can often, at best, visualise the next step, the one that is seemingly within reach, but without knowing where the journey will end. The people standing in these overcrowded trains have no idea where they will go once they arrive at their destination. They navigate on the basis of information from chat groups and social media. As they try to work out where and how to cross a national border as quickly and safely as possible, they have to deal with a mass of sometimes conflicting information and conditions that are in a constant state of flux.

Where do I go from here?

As well as having to make these choices for the next few hours and days, the refugees have to take decisions about the future – without knowing how long that future is likely to last. Am I moving to another country for a few weeks, or for the rest of my life? Where am I most likely to get practical help, and where will I have the best employment prospects? Although some refugees resist the idea of permanent emigration, they still think carefully about the long term and, even during this hastily organised exit, try to identify the options that will work out best for them if they cannot go home.

Having made it across the border into a safe neighbouring country, these women, children and elderly people still face fundamental uncertainty. The EU, currently a safe neighbouring region, has agreed to grant them privileged admission and fast-tracked recognition as refugees. Even so, precisely how much certainty can be guaranteed to them, apart from a safe and secure place to stay in the first instance, remains to be seen. Uprooted from their socio-spatial contexts and relationships without any preparation, they have lost their familiar reference points and their material security and have been deprived of their prospects for the future.

Dr Sabine von Löwis is a researcher at ZOiS and head of the ‘Conflict Dynamics and Border Regions’ research cluster.

Dr Irina Mützelburg is a researcher at ZOiS.