The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February with a multi-front land assault and sporadic missile strikes around the country. The invasion force was conventional: divisions of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery. Talk from the previous few days of the first major ‘cyberwar’ disappeared like smoke in a gale. The fighting continues in three main theatres: from staging grounds in Belarus, Russian forces have advanced on Kyiv, passing through the forest north of the capital towards the north-western suburbs. Troops are also approaching from the east of the Dnieper. In the south, the Russians have seized the city of Kherson but have had trouble breaking through the Ukrainian defences at Mykolaiv. The worst destruction has taken place in the east of the country. Kharkiv has been subjected to heavy Russian shelling. Mariupol, the final obstacle blocking Russia from connecting Crimea and the Donbas, has been almost razed. Western Ukraine has seen no fighting but there have been Russian missile strikes on some areas.
In the first week, Russia lost a considerable number of tanks and armoured vehicles, large numbers of which either broke down or ran out of fuel and were abandoned. The Ukrainian army’s main tactic has been to target them with portable anti-tank weapons, such as Javelins and NLAWs, supplied by Western countries. The war is in its early stages but these weapons have already become its signature munition. Logistical and communications problems for the Russian army (many troops seem to lack encrypted radios), combined with some clumsy tactics, have given Ukraine some unexpected battlefield successes. In some battles its forces have fought Russian troops to a stalemate. They have also managed to take down a number of Russian aircraft with surface to air missiles. The number of soldiers Russia has lost remains disputed. The pro-government Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda published and then withdrew an article claiming that nearly ten thousand Russian soldiers had died; the figure given by the Russian army is 1351. So far, Russia has not attempted to destroy the Ukrainian air force or air defences, nor has it deployed fighter-bombers to clear the way for its ground advances. Instead it has relied mostly on artillery and missile strikes to support the ground invasion. Its forces have nevertheless managed to destroy parts of every Ukrainian city they have reached. The number of Ukrainian casualties is unknown, but around five million people are internally displaced or are now refugees.
I crossed into Ukraine overland by taking a bus that had dropped off refugees in Krakow and was heading back to pick up more. There were few passengers, almost all of them men. We travelled in silence and it was night by the time we reached the border. The last building on the Polish side was a lonely-looking single-storey building with a sign that read ‘Motel Panorama’. On the Ukrainian side of the border, hundreds of women and children were huddled in blankets. They had been left at the frontier by evacuation buses to make the crossing on foot. The temperature was below zero. Some people were burning rubbish in metal drums to keep warm. According to the UN, more than three million refugees have fled the country. Despite special measures allowing resettlement in Europe, it remains a hard journey. I met a 17-year-old girl who had been alone in Kharkiv when the invasion began. She had sheltered there on her own for two weeks before she was able to travel across the country. Now she was crossing into Poland alone. She didn’t even have a passport. A mother and two children climbed onto the bus. They were from Donetsk but had left during the fighting in 2014 and settled in Mykolaiv in the south. Now they had been forced to evacuate for a second time. They had waited ten hours at the border but the cold was proving too much for the children. They planned to find somewhere to stay in Lviv and return as soon as they could.
In Lviv the curfew was still in effect, but I found a driver with a car that wasn’t quite falling apart who was out in the dead of night regardless. He took me through the empty streets at speed until he got lost, stopped, and got out of the car to hold an ancient map of the city in front of one of the headlights. By six in the morning Lviv’s central train station was surrounded by lines of people moving in all directions. Large numbers of the displaced have come to the relative safety of the western cities. Here, too, people were standing around fires, but they had wood and cardboard to burn. A woman holding a printout of the Norwegian flag above her head was leading people towards the coach stand. A group of American evangelicals turned up and were getting on the buses and shouting about God. ‘We came all the way from America to tell you Jesus loves you,’ one teenage girl said as her friend translated into Russian. There were thousands of people in the station building but only one train. The few station workers and volunteers were overwhelmed.
One of the ironies of war is that people often know random bits of information – ‘Did you hear that US destroyers were spotted in the Baltic?’ – but not what they need to know about their immediate surroundings. When trains arrived in Lviv there was often no way of finding out where they were going without getting on and asking the workers. The train to Kyiv was almost empty and the carriage floor looked like it had recently been used to transport cement. One of the few other passengers was idly playing with a Ka-Bar knife. The train travelled towards Ternopil through scrub and farmland. There were few signs of mobilisation – most of the soldiers and armed volunteers had already been sent further east – but on the approach to Khmelnytskyi a defensive perimeter had been set up around a large farmstead, which was serving as a training facility for volunteer soldiers. That day Russian forces were shelling Zhytomyr to the north-east, so the train was diverted onto older tracks to travel through Fastiv and Boyarka. By the time we reached the capital the curfew was in effect. Unlike in Lviv, it was strictly enforced. I slept on the station floor with a couple of hundred other people. Most had decided to stay in the hope of getting a westbound train the next morning. A woman who must have been in her sixties worked quietly through the night to keep the place clean. At daybreak an Orthodox Jew set up an area for himself facing a shuttered ticket counter and prayed Shacharit.
Two weeks into the war, Russian forces were approaching the east of the city but supply lines remained open. To the north-west, the Russians had pushed through the suburb of Bucha but were being held back at Irpin. Until recently Irpin was a comfortable bourgeois suburb. Now it was being levelled. At Kyiv’s western edge you could hear the howitzers. Air-raid sirens were more or less constant in the city centre. During the first few days of the invasion people had rushed to shelters when the sirens sounded. But by the second week at least half the city’s inhabitants had left and those who remained were staying indoors. Some apartments had hastily made ‘for sale’ notices in their windows. The streets were deserted apart from people manning improvised roadblocks. Some were constructed from blocks and sandbags, others were makeshift affairs of bricks and piled-up tyres. Around government buildings police and veteran soldiers manned the checkpoints, but in the rest of the city the job was left to armed volunteers. They tend to ask more questions, not having the practised reserve of professional soldiers. The few cars were for the most part driven by civil volunteers tasked with transporting supplies across the city, often to militiamen. These volunteers wear yellow armbands and have blue and yellow tape on the wing mirrors of their cars.
The sense that this is a ghost town is in some respects misleading. Work is being done to support the city’s defence. In a gutted café, which was being renovated when the war broke out, a group of women had set up a kitchen and were feeding around a hundred armed volunteers a day. When I arrived they were making very good borscht. Some armed men were eating at the next table. One of the cooks, a young woman called Maria, said she thought Ukraine had already won the war: after all, the country hadn’t collapsed in the face of the assault. ‘We held together,’ she said. ‘That is the biggest victory.’ One of her friends was handing out jumpers that had been part of a film prop wardrobe. I met a group of volunteers who were delivering body armour to the militia. Their next job was to transport ammunition to underground caches – it would be used if Russian ground forces managed to enter the city. Mutual aid, barter and favours have replaced cash transactions. In the Podil district, I visited a civil defence headquarters next to the only Old Believers’ church in Kyiv. The men there had recently exchanged a boot-full of ammunition for a minivan, which they were using to transport supplies. I drove with them to western Kyiv, past a university hospital and the television tower, which had been struck by a Russian missile on the fifth day of the war. Nearby, at a factory that once made freight wagons, girders and train tracks were being welded into Czech hedgehog anti-tank defences.
Many Ukrainians feel both surprise and pride at having survived the initial attack. There is little doubt that Russia hoped for a much easier time than it has had. Its leaders wouldn’t have expected a bloodless operation of the sort that took Crimea, but they seem to have anticipated easy battlefield victories for their infantry and special forces, as happened in Donbas in 2014 and 2015. Before the invasion the Kremlin repeatedly referred to the Ukrainian government as a ‘puppet regime’. It hoped, and perhaps believed, that the government would dissolve and President Zelensky would flee to his villa on the Tuscan coast. But government and institutions have been forced into coherence by the invasion and the resistance as a whole has been stronger than most foresaw. Russia appeared to expect a degree of acceptance of its invasion (in the first few days, vanguards drove along the main roads). In this they miscalculated. The Kremlin seems to have had a false impression of both Ukraine’s internal dynamics and its military preparedness. The fact that the FSB’s Sergei Beseda, head of foreign intelligence, is now under house arrest in Moscow suggests that this mistake has been recognised.
Ukraine’s military success can largely be explained by the arms transfers and training received by its forces since 2014. Judged by its monetary value, the military equipment supplied to Ukraine by the US and its allies was quite modest. But the weapons have proved well suited to this war. US transfers of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as radar systems and secure communications equipment, now appear prescient. (It can’t have hurt that US intelligence appears to have had a source in the Kremlin with access to the war plans.) The Ukrainian army has made good use of Western-made anti-tank weapons, and portable air defence systems seem to have discouraged the full-scale use of Russian air power. Instead of supplying Ukraine with flashy and expensive kit, which in the Middle East has been used to foster dependency rather than effectiveness, the US helped shape its armed forces into an appropriate form to frustrate Russia’s conventional army.
Russia also appears to have underestimated Ukrainian nationalism as a political force. Since the incursions in 2014, anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism has extended beyond its traditional Galician heartlands. That well-heeled residents of Lviv dislike Russia and aspire to European economic integration has long been a given, but nationalist sentiments are now much more widespread. Many mother-tongue Russian speakers from Kyiv or the east are zealous Ukrainian nationalists. It would be presumptuous to make grand judgments on the basis of this, but it’s clear that Russia had little sense of the growth in national feeling among Ukrainians. However imperfect the uprisings of 2004 and 2013 were, they have led to a distinct kind of political development. This amounts to more than a few murals in Kyiv depicting Putin’s head on the body of a snake. The sense of unity is quite recent, and has only grown stronger with the invasion. The Maidan movement of 2013 was far from universally supported, but being invaded is a universal experience.
The mobilisation of irregulars drawn from the general population has put weapons in all sorts of hands. One volunteer I met was a psychologist by profession, an Uzbek by ethnicity, a citizen of the Russian Federation, and now a Ukrainian irregular manning rural checkpoints. A few civil volunteers I talked to found some of the armed irregulars worrying. I visited one underground shelter decorated with posters, flags and graffiti. Before the war it had been the clubhouse of a far-right militia called Gonor. Most of its members were deployed on one of the fronts under military oversight, but their hangers-on volunteering in the city militia were making use of the den. There were a few Stanley knives strewn about. The word ‘sistem’ was scrawled on a whiteboard. Nazar, who described himself as the ‘administrator’ of the shelter, said he and his men knew the city’s streets well enough to put up a good fight against the Russians. The vast majority of irregulars I saw appeared to be maintaining good discipline, but that will be tested as the war drags on.
Icrossed to the eastern side of the city on foot over the Paton bridge. At the western end, the bridge was a maze of concrete blocks; the eastern side was blockaded with sabotaged trucks and buses. The left bank of the city is made up of Soviet-era prefab tower blocks and office buildings that would make soft targets for Russian artillery. There are few fortifications in the streets. One checkpoint was attended by a man in a red Stetson. A two-chair barber shop in a corrugated metal shed at the side of the road had opened its doors under a sign that read: ‘Express haircuts: fast and quality. 60 hryvnia.’ Marina, the woman working there, was turning away the local babushkas: she only wanted to serve volunteers. She spoke Russian with a heavy Ukrainian accent. The barbershop had reopened one week into the invasion, she said, and it would stay open ‘until things start falling from the sky’. In fact, things were already falling from the sky. In the Kharkivsky district, fragments of a Russian missile – shot down by Ukrainian air defences – had landed on a housing complex next to a nursery school. The crater at the foot of one of the tower blocks was about four metres across. It was full of broken steel and bits of window frame. A bag from a lingerie shop and a birdcage sat at the edge of the crater. The remains of the missile had narrowly missed the building, but the blast wave had destroyed its façade and broken the windows of all the nearby tower blocks. The buildings in the complex were now deserted.
The Russian positions around Kyiv are still being contested by Ukrainian forces. As a result, there have been fewer artillery strikes on the city than in the east of the country. But there are signs that this may be changing. On 14 March, an artillery strike hit an apartment building in the Obolon district. Another residential building in the west of the city was hit on 15 March. On 20 March, a missile hit a shopping centre, killing eight people. Most of the defences on the eastern bank were on the airport road, where there were Czech hedgehogs and sandbag walls. At the city limits a roadblock had been built out of burned-out cars, though there weren’t many paramilitaries around. The airport road would provide easy access for Russia’s tanks and armoured vehicles. I drove down it towards Brovary, where you could hear the Russian army fighting to establish a beachhead at the city’s eastern edge. It doesn’t look like Ukraine is aiming to protect Kyiv’s eastern residential sprawl. Instead, it is relying on the width of the Dnieper and the fortifications on the main bridges to defend the right bank. Defences on the Darnytskyi and Pivdennyi bridges seemed to be growing more substantial by the day.
In central Kyiv I visited the headquarters of the new paramilitary ‘rapid respond squad’, which was for the time being in a bar close to the Maidan. The men were stacking boxes of ammunition, cleaning rifles and charging radios. The first thing their captain said to me was: ‘Hello, Tom, what do you need: whisky? sluts?’ In fact they weren’t drinking. The men had the rough appearance of US special forces and were keeping themselves and their kit in good order. The chief of the Kyiv patrol police, Yuri Zozulya, was leaving as I arrived. He and the captain, Alex, had been discussing the western defences. Alex said the Russian operations in Brovary were likely to be a test. He expected the main push to come from Irpin in the north-west and from Myla on the western route into the city from Zhytomyr. That was where he and his men expected to fight. ‘The Russians are beginning to adapt their tactics, and this will cause us problems, but in the end I think we will crush them.’ The small bar was full of weapons and ammunition and they had a Javelin. The captain was a Russian speaker with a Russian mother. He seemed to believe what he was saying.
Before the invasion, analysts talked up the sophistication of Russian information warfare, but the Ukrainians have had the upper hand in the propaganda war. The Ukraine Crisis Media Centre is funded by the US embassy and other NGOs. The central figure here is Liubov Tsybulska, a graduate of the US State Department’s leadership programme, who now advises the Ukrainian foreign ministry and the general staff of the army. Tsybulska was responsible for the story of a Ukrainian woman downing a Russian drone with a jar of cucumbers. By contrast, Russian TV channels have had limited success in persuading people in the Donbas of Russia’s position. I met a woman from Luhansk whose parents still live in the occupied territories. Her father supported Russia’s invasion but her mother didn’t. She blamed Russian television for her father’s views.
Russia’s general strategy has been clear since 2008: to reassert influence in the former Soviet states around its borders. Between 1999 and 2009 Nato expanded into Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia. Russia under Putin perceived this enlargement as a defeat, and has sought to bring it to a stop. In Georgia, the Caucasus, Crimea, Belarus and Kazakhstan, Russian operations were small-scale. The Kremlin was cautious in the run-up to the 2020 elections in Belarus, though in the end persisted with its long-standing support of Lukashenko. Ukraine was a different proposition. Russia was surprised and disappointed by Zelensky’s pro-EU and pro-Nato turn in 2020, but the chances of an invasion seemed slight. There was a slow, albeit very visible, military build-up. After talks between the US and Russia last April some Russian troops were withdrawn from Ukraine’s borders, though plenty remained. In September, the US and Ukraine signed a ‘strategic defence framework’. The rationale for the invasion is difficult to establish. Did Putin and his advisers believe the US would agree to a favourable settlement with Russia on Ukraine’s status in order not to distract from its strategy on China? Or did they always plan to go in regardless?
In Kyiv’s Osokorky district I met Vasyl Kremen, who was deputy head of the administration under Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, and a member of the Central Committee in Moscow during the Soviet Union’s final decade. In Kremen’s view, Moscow saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a debilitating loss of derzhavnost: great power status. Russian leaders have refused to accept this loss of rank. For Putin and his advisers, a riposte against Western power in general, and Western influence in Ukraine in particular, was imperative – which means there is little chance that any faction within the siloviki will challenge Putin on the war. Kremen said that during the negotiations for the Budapest memorandum in 1994, Kuchma had been warned by Mitterrand that Western promises to protect Ukraine couldn’t be trusted. Since their pledges on Ukrainian security may have played a role in preparing the path to war, he felt that the US and its allies should atone by supporting Ukraine to the fullest. He argued that any settlement should both deny Russia its objective of dominating Ukraine and allow Putin to save face. ‘I believe Zelensky will be willing to compromise and perhaps declare neutral status in the Austrian mould,’ he said. ‘Putin should accept that too, otherwise Ukraine will become a quagmire for Russia.’
On 28 February, negotiations between Russia and Ukraine began in Belarus. They have been fraught. On 5 March, a member of the Ukrainian delegation was shot dead in circumstances that remain unclear. Ukraine is handling the negotiations, but the US and several European countries are necessarily involved. On 25 March, the Russian military claimed its main goal was ‘the liberation of the Donbas’. This may be a signal of Russia’s approach to ceasefire talks. Meanwhile, a constant stream of supply trucks is entering the country from Poland. Germany has pledged a thousand anti-tank weapons and delivered hundreds of anti-aircraft missiles. The UK has sent more than 3500 NLAWs, and has promised to send six thousand more missiles. The Scandinavian countries have provided nearly ten thousand anti-tank weapons. The Financial Times has called this ‘the biggest arms push since the Cold War’. Critically, the US is also providing live intelligence. Schemes to transfer Polish fighter aircraft to Ukraine are a distraction: the US has already given a billion dollars’ worth of arms to Ukraine over the past year, and has pledged $800 million more. On 10 March, it began positioning Patriot missile batteries in Poland. It has also flown B-52 strategic bombers, taking off from British airfields, over Polish airspace. Nato forces are being redeployed to Slovakia.
A general overview is sufficient to demonstrate the present danger: Russia has launched a war of aggression in Ukraine; the US and Europe are supplying weapons to the resistance and enforcing a financial blockade. There hasn’t been a conflict in decades with this potential for escalation among the nuclear powers. Three of the four major Cold War arms control treaties have been allowed to lapse. The risks were high enough already, but Russian missile strikes on former Nato training facilities near the Polish border have increased them. Some in the Anglosphere seem to relish the chance of escalation. Posing as supporters of Ukraine, they insist on more direct military intervention and champion outcomes – including regime change in Moscow – more extreme than even ardent Ukrainian nationalists would contemplate. Former Nato officials have advocated strikes on Russian positions in Ukraine. It’s unreasonable to expect Ukrainians to take wider strategic concerns into account: of course they demand all the help they can get. But Western agitators for a Nato-Russia war – among the most prominent are Tobias Ellwood, Adam Kinzinger and Philip Breedlove – are making themselves heard.
The list of atrocities continues to grow. The bombing of a theatre in Mariupol where hundreds were sheltering is one example among many of the war’s cruelty. Reporting from Kharkiv, where shelling has been severe, a BBC journalist displayed a diagnostic clarity that tends to be absent in its coverage of American or British war crimes. ‘Russia destroys cities,’ Quentin Sommerville said. ‘It bombards them, besieges them, terrorises them.’ Rocket strikes on residential areas have done terrible damage. The Russian military, like its American and British counterparts, does many things simply because it can. If the army feels its progress is too slow, it has the capacity to increase the severity of its attacks. Russian forces near Kyiv have made little progress in the past week, but are dug in at their positions. In Mariupol and Kharkiv Russian forces chose encirclement and bombardment over the occupation of city centres. It is hard to imagine the imposition of a pro-Russian regime even if Russian forces were able to occupy the capital. But the encirclement of two million people, with shelling from every quarter, would be just as devastating an outcome.
Updated on 25 March, originally published on 17 March.
Listen to Tom Stevenson discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.