‘Why are you killing us?’
Initially, most expected Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to last just a few days. It was a frightening moment in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city and the jewel in the crown of Russia’s ‘special military operation’. On the first night of the war, Western intelligence warned that the city would be encircled by Russian forces in a matter of hours.
As thousands of people headed underground to hide in the city’s palatial metro stations and bomb shelters, my colleagues and I decided to get what sleep we could in our news agency’s office, wrapping ourselves in coats on the floor. We woke at dawn to the news that the shelling had begun on the outskirts of the city. We braced ourselves for the image of Russian tanks rolling into Kyiv’s Maidan square, the site of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution which deposed the pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovich. The square has since become one of the Kremlin’s most despised pro-European symbols.
But, weeks on, the Russian tank column which was on its way to try and capture the city has still not been able to reach Kyiv’s centre. Moscow’s initial invasion strategy – to seize major cities, remove Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and install a puppet government – appears to have fallen apart. The Russian army has switched to horrific siege tactics, squeezing the lifeblood out of the towns it has managed to encircle. This has driven residents to steal food, melt snow and hunt dogs for survival. Observers now talk of a stalemate, and there are signs of troops digging in for a longer-term conflict. Amid ongoing peace talks, Russia’s defence ministry has also said it will ease its full-scale assault and scale-back to focus on the east of the country.
The war in Ukraine has become an unlikely case of David vs Goliath. It seems that many overestimated the Russians – and underestimated the Ukrainians. Igor Girkin, a former FSB colonel and separatist leader in the breakaway territories of eastern Ukraine, said in a recent video interview that Russia had made a ‘catastrophically incorrect assessment’ of Ukraine’s forces.
On paper, Russia’s army – in terms of size and arsenal – dwarfs that of Ukraine. With 900,000 active military personnel and two million reservists, it’s eight times the size. But Russia did not make the swift, lightning-strike advances many expected. Moscow’s chaotic attack has been weighed down by logistical problems, along with the misplaced assumption that Ukrainians would put up little hostility to the operation. Meanwhile, Ukrainian resistance – buoyed by light, modern, high-precision weapons from the West – has proven itself to be surprisingly fierce. Russia began the war with the world’s largest tank force: roughly 3,000 to Ukraine’s 850. The Ukrainian government now claims to have destroyed around 400 Russian tanks, while independent sources say that as many as 111 tanks have been put out of action. Their burnt-out carcasses can now be seen scattered across the country. Some have simply been abandoned by their occupants. Others have even been ‘hijacked’ by local farmers, sparking a trend on TikTok of videos showing Ukrainian tractors carting away empty Russian tanks, their ominous ‘Z’ – an insignia adopted across Russia to exhibit support for the war – splashed across their sides.
NATO estimates that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine. Russia, meanwhile, said on 2 March that 498 soldiers had been killed in action. Strikingly, several high-ranking Russian generals were also killed within the first month of the war: Russia has so far confirmed two of these. As a comparison, Russia lost 11,000 service members in its near ten-year conflict in Chechnya. President Putin, meanwhile, insists that his special military operation is going ‘according to plan’. While the initial failures of Russia’s invasion do not necessarily mean that Russia will lose this war, or that Ukraine win, they are certainly shaping the course this war will take.
‘Let us live’
On the ground in Ukraine, there is still shock and rage that Russia – a country with whom they share a language, culture and long history – could bomb their homes and kill their people. Many Ukrainians fought alongside Russians during the Soviet Union; many more have family and relatives in Russia.
In the village of Gorenka in northern Kyiv, which unwittingly found itself on the frontline of Russia’s fiercest efforts to take the capital, residents recently hid in a damp cellar among jars of pickles and jams. Russian planes had destroyed several houses that morning.
Through her tears, one local resident, Larissa Lipatova, implored Russia to stop the bombings: ‘Leave us alone. Let us live, we’ll deal with our government ourselves, with our problems’, she said, ‘Now you fascists are bombing peaceful homes and peaceful people.’
Her neighbour, Natasha, interjected, her open palms raised to the sky in frustration. ‘Think about what you are doing! We want to live and raise our children. Why are you killing us?’
Cities and towns across country began to fortify themselves within hours of the invasion, constructing checkpoints and barricades out of concrete blocks, stacks of tyres and ‘hedgehog’ tank traps. Makeshift Molotov cocktail factories cropped up in Kyiv, Lviv and Dnipro. City authorities opened local armouries and distributed guns to anyone who wished to defend Ukraine. The queues continued for days.
In Gorenka, even pensioners began to arm themselves as they waited for the approach of Russian soldiers. 81-year-old French teacher Pjotr Vyerko, armed with a hunting rifle, told me that he was ready to shoot any of ‘the bastards’ that entered the village.
‘Putin united Ukraine! With his actions, we actually came together,’ said Vyerko. ‘We were never as united as we are now.’
Unity and defiance
Going forward, Ukraine will be very different from the Ukraine of the past. On 11 March, I visited Lutsk in West Ukraine on the day it had suffered a second airstrike. This was the first time the west of the country had been hit since the beginning of the war, and was a sign that Putin was expanding the arena of the war to a region that had since become an oasis of relative security for many fleeing the violence in the east, north and south of the country.
The Lutsk military base was first hit on 24 February. In March, four missiles struck the base again, killing two soldiers and injuring six others. The atmosphere in the town that day, however, was calm. One volunteer at the town’s humanitarian hub, Oksana, shrugged when I asked her if she was worried: ‘This is the second strike. Now we are at war, we expected this would happen. Everyone is now very focused and we understand that we shouldn’t panic, we should support each other.’
Lutsk’s mayor, Igor Polishchyk, was also defiant. ‘Unfortunately, we have to get used to this new reality,to these new conditions of life of the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine,’ he told us in an interview for the Associated Press. ‘I, as the mayor of the city,am doing everything possible to ensure that the townspeople do not lose morale and that [we]are set to win.’
The resilience Ukraine has demonstrated thus far has been crucial in determining the course of the conflict so far. Many politicians and regions previously seen as sympathetic to Russia have positioned themselves vehemently on the side of Ukraine. In some cases, however, this has not been a sufficient vow of loyalty. Last week Zelensky announced a ban on 11 political parties with alleged links to Russia, including the Opposition Platform for Life, which has 44 seats in the Ukrainian Parliament and opposes the war. The predominantly Russian-speaking region of Kherson, which borders Crimea, has been occupied by Russian forces since 5 March. But despite the risk of arrest, or even death, local residents have held peaceful protests against the occupation every day since.
Olga, a local English teacher who did not provide her full name for security reasons, is among those protesting. She believes that Kherson will always see itself as Ukrainian. On the day we spoke, local deputies had unanimously voted to reflect Kherson’s desire to stay in Ukraine and reject Russian pressure to hold a referendum to form a breakaway ‘independent’ republic like those in Luhansk and Donetsk.
Having been a predominantly Russian speaker, Olga now refuses to even speak the language. ‘I hate them already. I can never talk to them again. How can I feel about people who bomb maternity hospitals and children? Why don’t they stop it? Why don’t the soldiers disobey?’
That day she had heard that local troops had started kidnapping journalists and activists in Kherson.
‘We have been living rather nicely here. We have been flourishing. Now, they have ruined our lives which we have been building for so long.’
Francesca Ebel is a British journalist and Associated Press foreign correspondent. Based in Tunis, she has previously worked from Moscow and Kyiv.
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