A tour of frontlines and liberated cities during Zelensky’s great counteroffensive revealed a country ruined, ravaged, and on the brink of victory
By BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY
Sept. 22, 2022
It’s a nice gray train that takes under four hours to cover the 500 kilometers from Kyiv to Kharkiv.
But, on this morning of Sept. 9, the day after the extraordinary counteroffensive launched by President Volodymyr Zelensky, it’s almost empty.
We are alone in our train car, along with the slight Ukrainian escort that has joined us in Lviv.
Kharkiv station, in the dusty light of this prolonged summer, is also deserted.
On first view, the city appears to be one of the most battered by the war.
There were the bombings in March, when the Russians thought they could terrorize it and make it fold in three days.
Those in May, when the Russians found themselves blocked in the northern suburbs and took their vengeance by blindly shooting up the apartment blocks.
And there are those of these last hours, launched from the retreat zone, 30 kilometers to the east, to which the counteroffensive has pushed the Russians: an eviscerated administrative building; a day care, with its multicolored playground where a swing still sways in the wind; and the power station whose destruction will leave whole neighborhoods and a hospital in the dark.
And yet, the city lives.
It’s empty, but it lives.
And even in this ravaged suburb where we meet only a strange, haggard young woman, dressed in a field jacket, pushing a rickety stroller with a child too old for it and having spent the last two months without leaving her basement amid the ruins, there is something—a silence? a calm? the gaiety of the three soldiers who, at the edge of the playground, on a bench, tell me about the stampede of Russians throwing down their weapons, in a panic swapping their things and uniforms for civilian clothes—that suggests that the city is breathing again, that it is free and that the nightmare is coming to a close.
General Oleksandr Syrskyi is the commander in chief of the Ukrainian ground forces and the architect, in the field, of this eastern offensive.
We meet, on the road to Balakliya, in the lot of one of the rare gas stations still open.
After a few minutes, everyone jumps into their cars amid walkie-talkie chatter warning, I imagine, that he has been spotted and is not safe from drone strikes.
We stop, a dozen kilometers down the road, along the edge of some woods and a large harvested field.
He has the head of a young centurion.
An athletic silhouette, sporting the camouflage-colored sweatsuit of men in his troop.
He is laconic and precise.
When in need of any information, he has nearby a young female officer, very Lee Miller, 1944, her hair pulled into the beige bonnet of the National Guard.
At times, he closes his eyes and is quiet as if listening to echoes from afar, beyond the river and through the trees. At times he gets caught up in his account of the rout of the Russians, and with a funny way of expressing himself, as if showing his own surprise, the bright smile of victory widens the thin lines of his gray eyes.
In principle, he gives no interviews.
But, of what he told us, in the milky and surreal light of the evening, I retain two things.
The staggering incompetence of the Russian soldiers, their inglorious flight beyond Balakliya.
And, on the Ukrainian side, the skillful operation, ripened in the greatest secrecy and with an eye to saving lives, not just of civilians but of soldiers too.
Didn’t the brilliant defense minister of Ukraine, Oleksii Reznikov, whom we met the day before yesterday in Kyiv, tell us—between appreciations of the effectiveness of the French Caesar howitzers—that General Syrskyi was doubly qualified, at least, to lead this offensive? Hero of the battle of Kyiv, which he had organized and planned. But also, seven years prior, hero of the battle of Debaltseve, that besieged city in Donbas where he managed to exfiltrate the last 2,475 defenders caught in the trap.
In Lyman, 20 kilometers to the east of Izyum, in the heart of the Sviai Hory national park, the Russians have hardened into position.
But the Ukrainians would not relent.
We’re there, with them, between Raihorodok, in the Sloviansk district, in a brushy landscape cut by a network of trenches and traps, dug out of the black earth, which it takes us an hour to cross.
Hard to appreciate, in such a short time, the scope of the forces.
But we can see a salvaged cannon. Mortars. Light armored vehicles camouflaged in leaves. Men, gathered, forceful, their faces blackened and muddied by the dirt, who keep watch, every 30 meters, in groups of two or three, automatic weapons over their shoulders, behind earthen banks.
The trench line is interrupted in two places. We climb a bald hill, overlooking the Russian position and, in principle, quite vulnerable. There are men there. Some in log cabins. Some in iron cylinders that are moved at night to confuse the location. And others discovered. All seem more ready to launch an attack than to suffer one.
They are “border control.” In French we would call them sentinels. I know that the Ukrainian border guards are real soldiers. And I listen to their leader, Colonel Yuri Petriv, explain to me, at the bottom of a dugout where, sitting on munitions cases, we eat pickles and pour local alcohol, that they are, their peaceful looks notwithstanding, one of the elite corps of the army.
There is another sign there. They fight the war without loving it, facing the dogs of war. And the fact is that this quiet strength, initiative, and faith make the difference.
In Bakhmut, farther south but still on the eastern front, we come looking for Mozart.
That is, Andrew Milburn and his 30 or so “international brigade” members, often veterans of Anglo-American special forces, who have given themselves the noble task of going to seek out, in the most difficult zones, the lost and vulnerable civilians in need of evacuation.
We meet, at the foot of a railroad bridge crossing, in a restaurant that serves a good borscht and stale potato chips.
Milburn shares how he created the NGO. His decision to call it the Mozart Group in opposition to the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary assassins. The time where he led some of the most high-risk evacuations from Azovstal in Mariupol. Or the network of correspondents who, today, let him know of an invalid or elderly person in this or that village, or of a homeless person who would like to flee but has neither anywhere to go nor the means to pay a guide. And Milburn offers me the chance to join him on the day’s operation.
But there’s a problem. My Ukrainian escort, expecting imminent enemy action and judging me too exposed, is against it. I listen. Then rethink. We decide, with my photographer Marc Roussel, to catch up with the two Mozart Humvees. But too late: They’re too far. They’ve cut off their telephones. And we find ourselves, after the last Ukrainian checkpoint, alone in the heart of Bakhmut, in the silence of the empty city, at the train crossing that was the only landmark from Milburn’s briefing that we can recall.
After a half hour, we hear an explosion. Then another. A third. The Ukrainians were right. They are targeting and trying to assassinate Mozart. Yes, Mozart’s humanitarian mission, aimed at by three deadly drones, which narrowly miss.
In Bakhmut, that’s what the Russians are left to do. Beaten fairly and soundly, they try to take their revenge on brave and peaceful unarmed volunteers who have come, while risking their lives, to save the meekest of the humble. What a disgrace!
In Zaporizhzhia, we saw a city terrified by Vladimir Putin’s blackmail of positioning his artillery and his troops inside a nuclear plant.
We slept in Kryvyi Rih, where a hit on a dam just a few hours after we left had flooded Lyoubov Adamenko and left part of the city without electricity.
Hence the strategic importance, in this battle for energy launched by the state terrorist Putin, of coal mines in Donbas, and today, of the Pavlograd mine into which we are going to descend.
Here the frontline passes 245 meters underground. Accessed through a metal elevator cage, narrow and rickety, that plunges into the bowels of the earth. Then wagons take us 3 kilometers farther, to the end of a poorly lit gallery held up by steel beams and rusty iron mesh. This is the extraction zone, with its lateral piercings, no higher than a meter at best, where you have to crawl, sometimes on your belly, to see the miners, in the lung-clinging dusty air, attack the vein with jackhammers.
You think, even if the security conditions maintained by DTEK, the owner company, are optimal, of gas explosions. Of blackouts, always a threat, causing short circuits in the ventilation systems, blocking the fire sprinklers, stopping the conveyers that move the precious black gold. It’s impossible not to think of a strike causing a cave-in and blocking exits. So the black faces cross themselves, as if heading to the front, before the gilded wood icons at the entrance to the last gallery. We sing the Ukrainian national anthem, four hours later, on our way back up, before resurfacing into the fresh air.
The battle of coal, in France in 1945, ended the odyssey of the Resistance.
Here in Ukraine, the miners are epic heroes, on the front lines of a war that is waged on the ground and underground.
In all reporting, even the most challenging, there are always moments of unexpected but intense joy.
Here, it was in the south of Zaporizhzhia, on the frontline, in the company of the magnificent bad boy I called Scarface in my film Pourquoi l’Ukraine, who tells us three bits of good news.
The first: In June, we had left him in Huliaipole, birthplace of the anarchist Makhno—but he is well beyond that now, and even if I am prohibited from disclosing his location, I can say that he has progressed several dozen kilometers.
The second: His advance has come with minimal losses—and we are finding, unchanged by victory, the same ruined tanners, fishermen, and merchants, more determined than ever to return and retake Mariupol and Crimea.
And then, most of all, he has a surprise for us: Recalling long nights where Gilles Hertzog had told his men the story of France’s liberation, Scarface has gotten the Ukrainian high command to allow him to rename his troops—the 197th of the A7363 Brigade—the Charles de Gaulle Battalion.
The ceremony takes place, in the humid country calm of his HQ camp, around a toast served on the hood of a 4×4.
With our friend and fellow teammate Serge Osipenko, he has had a large blue, white, and red flag made, the exact size of the battalion’s flag, and a row of men deploys the two standards at arm’s length, as if they were one banner.
Together, Ukrainians and French as one, we sing our two national anthems.
There is only one hint of darkness. On the road back, toward the south, they point out a drone shot down the night before.
It’s a giant white bird with its guts ripped out. And looking carefully we can see electronic parts stamped “Made in France”.
Tolstoy held that it is impossible, in war, to totally encircle an army. Tolstoy was wrong. The proof is in Kherson.
As military secrecy dictates, we agreed not to reveal what we saw of the Ukrainian forces around the southern port of Kherson, which was at the start of this dirty war, the only regional capital to fall into Putin’s hands.
Suffice to say that we drove from Bereznehuvate to Yavkine, Bilozirka and Kiselivka. We went through crisscrossing roads whose potholes threatened to break our axles at every bump. And we saw the arc that encircles and besieges the city.
We saw mortars, many of them, in the thickets.
Armored reconnaissance BRM-1Ks from the Soviet era, as well as Uragan self-propelled multiple rocket launchers, buried between villages.
A Sukhoi overhead, above the cheers of villagers, hitting a munitions depot in the suburbs of Kherson and returning a few minutes later, under the radar and without enemy reaction.
Inhabitants who, a few hours after the Russians bombed the Bereznehuvate bridge over the Inhoulet river, come to haul away the exploded tar and, with tape measures, survey the size of the holes and the task of reconstruction ahead of them.
We interviewed, in a rear-guard platoon, Sergeant Andrei Loussenko, who fought in Mariupol, where so many of his brothers had died under a Russian missile, and the soldier Serguei Serhiyenko, who wore a patch identifying himself as “poet” on his uniform, and who wrote the hymn of his battalion.
In short, a people at war. With still insufficient munitions, but closer to the strategic parity Zelensky was aiming for by the end of summer. A vise closing on an occupying army cut off from its rear and exhausted.
Tolstoy held that it is impossible, in war, to totally encircle an army. Tolstoy was wrong. The proof is in Kherson.
In Mykolaiv, farther to the west, on the road to Odessa, the situation is less clear.
Last night, a missile launched from the Black Sea hit an old factory shared, before the war, by artisans and small businesses.
Another fell today, a few hours later, at dawn, on a school in the administrative quarter where the first day of classes had, thankfully, been pushed back.
And the governor of the Oblast, Vitaly Kim, who is, along with President Zelensky and the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, one of the most popular figures in the country, tells us while surveying fresh ruins and the grand avenues still under threat of the Iskanders: “Our regional geography, with its lakes and waterways, was at the start of the war, the enemy of the Russian attackers—but now for the same reasons, it makes the counteroffensive difficult.”
Only here’s the thing. There is a big difference between today and the start. Missiles may fall. Alerts may follow alerts. Sirens, at midday, may ring out continuously from loudspeakers warning of maximum danger and that all must seek shelter. But the citizens aren’t afraid anymore. They no longer heed the loudspeakers nor the sirens. And on the tree-lined, deliciously southern Maidan where we took a break on the terrace of a sushi restaurant, the old men continue to play chess as if nothing was happening, the old women lay out in the sun, the adolescents flirt, and the “hero of Ukraine” we are interviewing carries on narrating his exploits.
Only the dogs panic, running among the trees and crying out in a deathly fashion.
It was in Odessa that, six months ago, I began my engagement with this new Ukrainian war.
And it’s here in Odessa that it finds its provisional outcome!
For, deep down, it’s all right here. The city of Babel and Pushkin was, back then, a besieged Troy. It knew not if it would be Teruel or Guernica, if it would live or die. No traveler could have predicted back then that Putin “wouldn’t dare” turn the most European of Ukraine’s cities into another Mariupol.
Today Odessa breathes. It is reborn. Like in Mykolaiv, the old cafés on Deribassovskaya Street timidly begin to reopen. And even if the bronze statue of the French founder of the city, the Duke of Richelieu, is still buried under its mountain of white sandbags, the walls that barred access to the Potemkin stairs and the port have come down.
We climb aboard one of the patrol boats of the Ukrainian navy.
Some 30 meters long, carrying a 30 mm cannon, its mission is interception and surveillance. It is responsible for scouring the sea, night and day, for any sign of hostile presence. A ship like it probably calculated the target coordinates that allowed a cruise missile to sink the Russian Navy ship Moskva, which remains one of the signature Ukrainian military exploits.
Today, no suspicious activity.
No enemy ships, the crew tells me, until at least Snake Island.
And though this Ukrainian army was attacked six months ago on land, air and sea, we must bow to the evidence: Just as they control the skies over Kyiv and have begun to retake land lost in the Donbas, in Odessa they appear to be queen of the seas again.
I am not saying that the match is over. And Putin, like all cornered dictators, could well go all-in to avoid the debacle, surrender, and international courts.
But it’s the law. In the end, when Goliath is spineless and David valiant, victory will be David’s. And the moment always comes when the machines of war and death seize up.
Ukraine is winning the war—and saving Europe along with it.
Translated from the French by Matthew Fishbane.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.