Drones Under the Christmas Tree: Thoughts from a Christmas in Kyiv

January 2024

Maurits Foorthuis

Ukraine specialist who often visits the country.

On Christmas Day 2023, I boarded a train in the Polish city of Przemysl to travel to Kyiv. In my suitcase, I carried tourniquets and an observation drone for Ukrainian friends who serve on the frontlines in the Luhansk region. The absurdity of this situation keeps on striking me every time I visit Ukraine. How strange it is that friends of mine, former co-workers from the time I lived in Kyiv, are now in trenches defending their land like it is 1917 is something that I can never get used to. As the train carries me 12-hours from the Polish border to the Ukrainian capital, I wonder what the atmosphere in the country is today with Western support slowly becoming less evident and with the long-awaited counteroffensive not having been as successful as hoped.

It is now the fourth time that I visit Ukraine since the outbreak of the full-scale invasion. Every time I visit Kyiv, the war somehow feels further and further away. At times it almost feels like the war is something from the past, or something that is happening far away from the capital. This is a feeling I recognize from the time I lived in Kyiv before the full-scale invasion. Bars, restaurants, and shopping malls are buzzing with people, and even during air raid alerts, street artists entertain the passersby during rush hour. It is sometimes possible to ignore the war and think of it as something that is happening on the other side of the country. Until the next missile attack on the city, that is.

The atmosphere in Kyiv is strange. On the one hand, the city is celebrating life as always, perhaps even more than usual, but on the other hand people are tired and depressed. All my Ukrainian friends suffer from depression and anxiety, and most of them often visit a therapist. People are tired of the constant attacks and afraid of the future. Objectively speaking, however, the situation in Kyiv itself is much better than it was a year ago. Western air defense systems are much more effective in protecting the city than before. In January 2023, when I visited Kyiv, the city was covered in total darkness. One of my most surreal experiences of this war was visiting a Christmas market in total darkness, the only light coming from a giant Ferris wheel that ran on a loud generator. Darkness is no longer haunting Kyiv, and during the first days of this visit, Kyiv, to me, started to feel like a normal European capital again.

Political discussions are back on the menu

In the bars and restaurants of the capital, people are discussing politics. For a long time moved to the background, political scandals are once again a topic of debate. President Zelensky has verbally attacked the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, Valerii Zaluzhnyi. A recent poll showed Zaluzhnyi’s approval ratings at 88% per cent, whereas Zelensky’s ratings have dropped to 62 per cent (Ostiller 2023). My friends in Kyiv believe the rivalry between both men is pointless, as no elections are coming up due to the ongoing war, and as Zaluzhnyi has never claimed to have any political ambitions. Many believe that by attacking Zaluzhnyi, Zelensky is awakening sleeping dogs, and also weakening the country and himself.

As I take a taxi to a smaller town near Kyiv, the taxi driver, originally from the eastern city of Poltava, is very much going into the debate between Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi. Discussing the topic of mobilization, the taxi driver believes mobilization is definitely a necessity, but forcibly mobilizing men who are waiting for the bus is not the answer. He criticizes Zelensky for not addressing the unrest that mobilization is causing in the country. He believes Zaluzhnyi would be a much better fit to lead this country, as he explains the necessity of mobilization much better and as he believes Zaluzhnyi would never forcibly mobilize men who happen to be walking on the street. The taxi driver claims that in his home town Poltava, men no longer dare to go outside. Although this seems like an exaggerated claim to me, I do experience this myself to an extent. As I attend a birthday party in a provincial town near Kyiv, one of the invited men does not join the party as he no longer leaves his house out of fear of mobilization. Still, I see plenty of men outside everywhere in the country.

” The resilience of Ukrainians is something so beautiful, so hopeful and so energizing that I almost become emotional.”

Back in Kyiv, I fully enjoy all the great things the city has to offer, almost feeling as if there is no war going on. That is until my last day in Kyiv, when four loud explosions wake me up early in the morning. As I walk outside, I see smoke plummeting from several locations within the city. A befriended Dutch journalist called me and asked me to visit some of the impact sites for the Dutch news, and at his request, I took an Uber to a burning warehouse in an industrial area. After interviewing some policemen, who emphasized the civilian nature of the warehouse, I took the subway to a subway station that suffered damage from a missile hit nearby. The subway station reopened about 90 minutes after the attack, but the damage is still very visible. As I take pictures of the McDonalds and the office building that were hit right next to the subway station, the air raid alert sounds again and I decide to go back to my apartment. On my way back home, I pass street artists singing and people dancing.

The resilience of the Ukrainians is something so beautiful, so hopeful and so energizing that I almost become emotional. At the end of the day, I go out and watch people dance away all their frustrations in the buzzing nightlife of the Ukrainian capital. December 29th 2023 was definitely one of the most absurd days of my life. Watching from up close how a McDonalds in a European capital gets bombed is something so strange and is such a clash between the world that I am used to in my hometown The Hague and the insanity of war, which I always associated with something far away.

“ It will not be the end, but it will be much more difficult and more people will die ”

Despite the improvement of the air defense system of Kyiv, some Russian missiles still manage to get through to the capital. Other Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv, Odesa or Dnipro do not have such state-of-the-art air defense systems as Kyiv has, which often results in more civilian casualties in these cities. With Western support slowly fading, the country holds its breath for what happens when the air defense systems run out of ammunition. Ukrainians are very worried about Western support slowly diminishing, although they are convinced that even without Western support, not all will be lost. “It will not be the end, but it will be much more difficult and more people will die”, a taxi driver tells me. Even without any weapons, Ukrainians are willing and determined to continue to fight for their land and their people, for Ukrainians just want to be free and independent. With freedom and democracy being under threat everywhere in the world, a visit to the true world capital of freedom, democracy and resilience is something I can recommend to anyone who is looking to be inspired.

Ukraine is fighting exactly for the ideals and values which we in the West say we cherish so much. The West therefore needs to step up its efforts to support the Ukrainian people. Now is not the time to abandon our values.


Ostiller, Nate. “Poll: Ukrainians’ trust in Zelensky declines to 62%, trust in military, Zaluzhnyi remains high”. The Kyiv Independent. December 18, 2023.


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