The war was not a big surprise. The majority never believed it would happen, but our little household north of Kyiv was well prepared. Since January, my partner Kostiantyn and my mother Kathrine have been stocking up. We bought food, water, candles, soap, petrol, firewood, and coal, plus a few absolute essentials, like tea and chocolate. Unfortunately, there was no legal way to acquire a couple of auto-turrets, so we had to give up that idea. Meanwhile, President Putin sent his famous peacekeepers, previously known as little green men of Crimea and responsible for a number of ‘mostly peaceful’ bombings in Georgia and Syria, into the eastern regions of Ukraine.
On the 24th of February, we stayed up until the early morning, as we usually do. But our chat was suddenly and very rudely interrupted by the thunder of artillery several miles away. It was about 4 a.m, and the historical irony did not escape us. (On 22 June 1941, Hitler’s forces attacked the Soviet Union, bombing cities in Soviet-controlled Poland. Technically, that attack began at about 3:15 a.m., but there was a famous broadcast by the foreign minister Molotov that indicated 4 a.m. as the hour when the invasion began.) Mother immediately contacted her friends; apparently an air raid had taken place, leaving them somewhat agitated. As she continued to talk, I decided that the most exciting part of the night was over and went to sleep.
Several hours later, I was woken by the sound of approaching helicopters; five of them flew right over our roof, keeping low and spitting out heat traps. As we learned later, they were a part of a larger group carrying the landing troops to Hostomel, a cargo airport near the capital. One was shot down over the town of Vyshgorod, spectacularly crashing into the Kyiv Sea. Thus the invasion began.
My late great grandmother was a survivor of the Second World War. She told us stories that could now be put to use: windows had to be reinforced with adhesive tape, curtains had to be closed, and the light was not to be turned on unless absolutely necessary. We teamed up with our neighbours, ready to fight off any looters who might set foot upon our property, and watched the situation unfold.
News quickly arrived; the Russians had attacked from all sides except the west. It was a sound strategy, but Ukraine had eight years to prepare. Fighting took place around Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Kherson, as well as in the east. In the north, the Russian army occupied the Chernobyl area, the infamous site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, and used it as a foothold to strike at the capital. But their advance was quickly checked. “Welcome to hell!” announced the Ministry of Defence; main bridges were blown up, planes took off, armoured vehicles moved into positions, and long queues formed at the local recruitment offices. The government behaved in the best possible manner: calm and collected, it radiated confidence and was not above posting a few memes while doing its job. Regular updates were published in both traditional and social media, along with the Molotov cocktail recipe. Before these events, I did not have a particularly high opinion of President Zelenskyy and was pleasantly surprised by his performance.
Some instances of fierce resistance soon became legendary, including the wide-known story of the Snake Island, a tiny and flat piece of land in the Black Sea, defended by a token force of thirteen border guards. A Russian cruiser and her escort showed up, offering them to surrender or be destroyed, to which the border guards replied: “Russian warship, go f— yourself.” The island was bombed, and its defenders presumably killed (though it was later confirmed they had actually survived), but the phrase became iconic, repeated not only by the ordinary people but also by companies and even the government. It was indeed representative of the new Ukrainian image: no longer a poor victim, but a nation of proud daredevils, who would stand their ground and crack a few jokes as they aim their rifles.
The situation attracted immense international support; Europe and America assured Ukraine of their friendship, sending funds and weapons to support the war effort. The sky was closed toRussian planes, and many ports no longer welcomed their vessels. New, stricter sanctions were introduced, probably crippling Russia’s economy for years to come. Many businesses, large and small, pulled out of the Russian market or cut their ties to Russian partners. Protests took place across the major cities, and the Ukrainian army received numerous donations. However, NATO’s position remained cautious, perhaps overly so: they made it clear that they would not do anything to become directly involved in the war—to avoid an uncontrolled escalation in Europe. Yet they overestimated Russia’s military potential, even counting its nuclear weapons. The truth is, countries of NATO are much more technologically advanced and capable of countering any threat, especially since Ukrainian forces proved themselves capable and ready to defend Europe from a ground assault. Now, should the Alliance intervene? It is widely believed in Ukraine that we will stand our ground regardless. But the West must realise that by refusing to intervene, it is making itself irrelevant, and its restraint is seen as weakness—by Russia, most of all.
It was the second night of war when a distant sound of a plane prompted us to scurry downstairs to the safest place of the house. Several loud discharges above made our windows tremble, and then everything was quiet again. The rockets hit the wooden house in a nearby village, setting it ablaze. Apparently, it was an accident caused by the pilot’s attempt to avoid the anti-aircraft fire, as our area was not targeted specifically. In any case, this was a minor occurrence compared to what was happening in some other parts of the country.
The Russian artillery started shelling Ukrainian cities.
Kharkiv and Mariupol were among the hardest hit, withstanding enemy fire for days. Russian columns advanced again and were stopped by the Ukrainian army. Buildings and streets were destroyed, civilians spent most of the time in shelters. Entire towns were covered in rubble—but also in the smoking remains of heavy transports, marked by white letters. Civilian homes and infrastructure were bombed, and in some places, including the capital, explosions were so massive they lit the night sky.
But the Ukrainians were not easily scared. They were angered. And Ukrainian anger, as the invaders soon learned, is a very scary thing. Columns were burned on the roads, artillery fired by night and day, and fighters of the Air Force counterattacked, one of them allegedly piloted by a mysterious race known as the Ghost of Kyiv, who downed about 30 enemy planes. While none of the speculations regarding his identity have proved true, the legend certainly boosted Ukrainian morale. So did the government’s call to arms; the nation answered, more united than ever. Russian vehicles were destroyed in the streets and stopped by unarmed citizens on more than one occasion. Intelligence was readily provided to the Ukrainian forces. Russian troops suffered heavy losses; more soldiers were killed during the first two weeks of conflict than during both Chechen wars. Many surrendered or deserted, leaving their transports in the fields, to be found by local farmers. Viral videos show tractors dragging away their trophies—after all, should a functional machine just rust in the mud? Local Gypsies joined the hunt, hijacking a tank and a few missiles. The tax year was nearing its end, so the government issued a proclamation saying none of those had to be declared. Conventional warfare has recently been out of fashion, but Ukraine gave it a new look—quite literally, as most of it was photographed and filmed. It also appears that Ukraine has finally discovered a remedy for COVID-19; a full-scale invasion tends to give one a sense of perspective.
Russia grew more aggressive by the hour as its plans continued to be thwarted. Hundreds of homes were bombed, along with hospitals and schools. Some towns like Volnovaha in the east or Bucha near the capital were almost completely destroyed. “Green corridors” for the evacuation of civilians were not respected, nor was the press. The broadcasting tower in Kyiv was targeted and damaged. I am aware of at least two direct and deliberate assaults on international journalists. And on the 4th of March, Russian forces attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, and prevented the fire brigade from accessing the burning administrative building. Fortunately, the catastrophe was avoided; it should be noted that since Chernobyl, nuclear power plants are built to withstand a significant amount of damage, but the invaders’ recklessness was nonetheless surprising. The international community was, as always, very concerned. Russia’s actions were condemned, but since Twitter and Facebook are no longer available there, President Putin might not be able to recognise the extent of the displeasure of the Western countries.
Russia’s views on the war (or special operation, as it is called by the Kremlin) are very peculiar indeed. The official position is as follows: Ukraine is governed by neo-Nazis, who terrorise the people and are preparing to attack Russia with the help of their evil NATO allies. The newest propaganda also suggests that there are secret laboratories where plague and cholera are kept as a bioweapon along the border. Also, Ukraine is but a part of Russia and did not exist as a nation before the communist regime. As a result, Russian forces must intervene to save both countries. While demonstrably false, these claims sound convincing enough for many Russians, who continue to support their leadership despite the financial hardships.
It may be hard to understand how they can be so blind. But for them, truth does not matter. President Putin’s words are the only truth they need, and even if he said tomorrow that Ukraine is helped by a horde of demons from Hell, that would not change this. Their obedience is instinctive, as is their silence. Not all Russians fit this description, of course, but many do. And so, their government provides a convenient story for them to consume.
As for Putin himself, it is not as simple. Ridiculous myths aside, he is very clear about his goals: he wants his zone of influence back. The price of his wish will be high, not just for him and for Ukraine but the entire world. However, some of his calculations are correct. He knows well that the ideals of the West are but an illusion; that the Western minds are, nevertheless, captivated by it, poisoned by their belief in progress; that they have a significant technological advantage but lack vigour and moral courage to use it. And a sword that always remains sheathed does not make much difference in a fight.
As I am writing these words, I can hear a battle raging on the other side of the Kyiv Sea, where Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel are defending against the Russian forces. The worst thing about living close to the front line is not knowing where the next missile will land, but we are determined to carry on with our lives for as long as possible. Colours still fly over our house. And the valour of our armed forces still keeps it safe.
Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.