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I’M HEADING FOR UKRAINE TO LEARN IF IT CAN SURVIVE PUTIN’S AGGRESSION

I want to talk to Ukrainians about their fight to prevent Russian aggression against their country and the West.

by Trudy Rubin

July 10, 2022

The Inquirer

When you read this column, I’ll be on my way to Ukraine.

It will be a vastly different trip than the one I took in February just prior to the Russian invasion. Only five months ago, I was able to wander the attractive streets of downtown Mariupol, visit the yacht club, take a photo in front of the historic drama theater.

Today, the city of Mariupol no longer exists, all its buildings razed or damaged, 500,000 citizens dead or scattered, the theater deliberately bombed despite having 1,000 civilians within its walls.

What many Americans don’t realize is that Mariupol’s fate is being replicated across huge swaths of Ukraine, as Vladimir Putin’s army decimates cities, villages, and towns with long-range artillery, bombs, and missiles. This is a viciousness unseen in Europe since Adolf Hitler’s destruction of Warsaw.

I am returning to Ukraine to get a sense of how long its brave citizens can continue to withstand such punishment if the West fails to send the long-range anti-plane and anti-missile systems the Ukrainians need to stop Russian advances. So far only a dribble of such weapons is arriving.

Yet, if NATO lets Putin get away with mass murder in Ukraine, he won’t stop there.

The military situation is getting much worse than many Americans realize, despite the amazing skill and talent shown by Ukrainian forces. The terrain in the east, where the Russians are advancing, is very different from around Kyiv. It is endless expanses of flat ground, no longer muddy as in spring. The Russians have learned they can’t rely on ground troops, so they are firing rockets and missiles from afar, with indifference to civilian destruction.

“The Ukrainians are outgunned 12-1, and are running out of heavy equipment,” I was told by Ihor Kozak, a Canadian defense expert and retired military officer who just returned from Ukraine. “They are losing up to 200 soldiers every single day, plus civilian casualties, plus all the destruction all over the country. It can easily get worse in short order and it can drag on for a long time.”

Yet, young Ukrainians from every walk of life are banding together in networks to deliver aid to refugees inside Ukraine, along with those still living in destroyed villages and towns. They are already starting to rebuild schools and hospitals in areas from which the Russians have been pushed back. Their mantra is to reach out to trusted connections and find the volunteers and materials to repair damage quickly.

I want to watch these volunteers in action. They are being helped by U.S. groups such as Ukraine TrustChain, founded by Ukrainian American Daniil Cherkasskiy, which raises money for rebuilding projects that I will visit outside Kyiv. “If the government does it, it would be a much higher cost, and not with the same urgency,” Cherkasskiy told me by phone from Chicago. “That’s where volunteer organizations step in.”

The sense of patriotism shown by the members of these widespread networks, including many women who previously worked as real estate agents, florists, or any job you can imagine, reflects a sense of patriotism that can help Ukraine revive — if Russia’s destruction can be halted. I will be looking for details about how ordinary Americans can help.

I will also be traveling south to Odesa, the historic port city whose grain exports have been halted by Russia’s blockade, which is creating a worldwide famine crisis. Putin tried and failed to seize Odesa in 2014. With Russian successes in the east, they may be tempted to retry an effort to seize or damage Odesa. As is their brutal strategy, they have recently fired missiles into civilian targets.

If the Russians can take Odesa, it would complete Putin’s strategy of occupying nearly all of Ukraine’s coast, crippling its exports of grain and industrial products.

I want to talk to local military and civilians about what they see ahead.

I also will visit Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, near its northern border with Russia, which Putin’s invaders have already partially destroyed. A major industrial and intellectual hub, known for writers and artists and fine universities, it is mainly composed of Russian speakers, many of whom have relatives in Russia.

Yet Putin has no compunction about murdering Ukraine’s Russian speakers, even as he proclaims he invaded their country to save them from Ukrainian “Nazis” who want to kill them. I want to learn about Kharkiv’s efforts to survive Putin’s Big Lies.

Most of all, I want to portray Ukrainians who continue to fight back against terrifying odds — whether soldiers or volunteers who rescue the endangered — because they refuse to live under Putin’s dictatorial rule.

As American democracy slides backward, the Ukrainian “fight for freedom” is humbling, because that fight is real, not a politician’s slogan.

What is also real is that the United States and NATO will pay a huge price if Ukraine loses this fight. If Putin achieves his goal — after NATO’s pledges to stop him — his appetite for conquest will only grow. A “united” NATO will be revealed as a paper tiger; Putin may not believe its pledge to defend all its members.

The danger of miscalculation will soar. China and authoritarian leaders will take notice.

Yet NATO’s humiliation is looming unless Germany, France — and Washington — act with redoubled urgency to arm Ukraine. “Unless the West starts providing real military aid in sufficient quantities,” says Kozak, this could well happen. “The bravery and professionalism of

Ukrainian troops is second to none, as is the resolve of the entire nation, but it is certainly not enough to stop Putin’s hordes.”

I want to hear from Ukrainians whether they can hold out until the U.S. and its Western European allies finally recognize that Kyiv is fighting for their freedom, too.

 

Trudy Rubin writes the Worldview column that tries to make sense of the world’s chaos and conflicts as they affect Americans at home.