Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on the assumption it would be comfortably wrapped up in a few days. Seven months, tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of hectares of blackened ruins later, he still hopes to come out, by his definition, a winner, but he made clear yesterday that he was prepared to take as much time as he needs.
The strangest thing about the Victory Day parade in Moscow this year was the absence of victory. Normally it’s there, the victory over Nazi Germany, a safely won triumph, unchangeably in the past, veterans and the glorious dead honoured, the country rebuilt, and in his speech today Vladimir Putin went through the motions of commemorating it. But this year, for the first time since the original Victory, Russian troops are openly fighting a war against the descendants of their Ukrainian former comrades-in-arms, on land whose evocative toponymy casts doubt on Russia’s traditional representation of May 1945.
It is striking how many commentators in the west have described Vladimir Putin, since he invaded Ukraine, as ‘detached from reality’, when he is not detached from reality. He is reality.
An airborne assault by Russian paratroopers using dozens of helicopters has seized a cargo airfield to the north-west of the capital. Ukrainian forces have fought back with the limited array of armour and missiles at their disposal. Aircraft have been shot down; tanks have been burned out; civilians killed and injured. In what so far seems like a pinnacle of willed madness, Russian and Ukrainian troops were reported to be fighting over control of the Chernobyl nuclear power station.
The baleful alternative of Kyiv Beta, the Kyiv of war and the rage of slighted men, seemed closer. And that presence compels me to imagine – especially since I lived in Kyiv for two and a half years, at the time Ukraine came into independence – the choices faced by Kyivans. To stay or flee? To flee when, where, how? To stay and take up arms, or hunker down and look to your family? And if defence fails, what then?
Every day I ask people in Kyiv, and ask myself, whether the Russian president could seriously intend an assault on the Ukrainian capital. After Putin’s rant, and his announcement that he considers areas of Donbas controlled by Ukrainian forces no longer part of Ukraine, it seems more possible. More young men could be ordered to lay down their lives violently on Ukrainian earth around Kyiv, even as the bodies of Soviet soldiers from the 1940s are still being found.
Thirty miles from our destination, we came to a police post and a striped barrier. A policeman with a Kalashnikov strapped across his chest allowed us to proceed but warned us that we shouldn’t on any account stop along the way. I wondered what he meant. We passed relatively modern buildings without glass in their windows, as if a significant settlement had been abandoned a long time ago. We passed through an area that had been swept by fire. Blackened birch trees stood with their crowns lopped off, like an endless henge. It was the world of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. ‘Is this the Zone?’ I asked.
Artem Chekh served in the Ukrainian army in the mid-2010s, on the front line in Donbas. He wrote a book about it. He’d be first in line to be called up in the event of mobilisation. He has a bag of odds and ends left over from his service; most of what he had he gave away to other soldiers. He still has a three-point strap for an automatic rifle, boots and a summer uniform. He’ll go if he has to.
In the morning it was grey and windy and although I couldn’t see any snow as I walked along there was the faintest rattling on the shoulders of my coat, as if tiny snow particles were hitting it. Last night Joe Biden repeated his belief that the Russians intend to attack not only eastern Ukraine but Kyiv itself. Perhaps it would be better to take the grey skies as a blessing, since it would make it harder for aircraft to strike.
It’s got to the point where people are passing on the wildest rumours to cheer themselves up. Alexander said he’d heard that Britain was going to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine to protect it from Russian air strikes. When I told him the Royal Air Force didn’t have the capability to enforce such a zone against Russia by itself, he looked sad. I think I misunderstood the point of a rumour like that: it isn’t about whether it’s true.