By Nicholas Kristof
Nov. 16, 2022
The New York Times
IZIUM, Ukraine — Inna Osipova pointed to the 30-foot pile of rubble that is all that’s left of her apartment building. She and her 5-year-old son narrowly escaped when Russian shelling destroyed the structure, but her grandmother did not and is interred somewhere in the wreckage. Osipova hopes her body will be found so she can be given a proper burial.
Her voice cracked with emotion, but she held together until I asked what she thought of Americans who say it’s time to move on from supporting Ukraine. “We’re people, you understand,” she said, and she began weeping. “It doesn’t matter if we’re Ukrainian or American — such things should not happen.” And then she was crying too hard to continue. “We’re people, you understand,” said Inna Osipova, in front of the ruins of her apartment building, which entombs her grandmother. “It doesn’t matter if we’re Ukrainian or American — such things should not happen.”
These areas in northeastern Ukraine, recently liberated after months of Russian occupation, show what’s at stake as some Americans and Europeans seek to trim assistance for Ukraine. There are bombed-out buildings, survivors cooking over open fires outside, children injured by land mines, freshly vacated Russian torture chambers — 23 discovered so far here in the Kharkiv region alone — along with mass graves of corpses with hands tied and shattered limbs. “Right now people are finding graves everywhere in the villages,” said Tamara Kravchenko, who runs the only funeral home still operating in Izium. “The Russians would often just throw dirt on bodies where they killed them. Every day we find someone.” “We will be dealing with this for a long time,” she added.
While President Vladimir Putin of Russia seems unable to break the spirit of Ukrainians, he is already shattering the will of some Americans and Europeans. “Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine,” says Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the firebrand Republican. The Republican leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, says that it’s time to end the “blank check” for Ukraine. A Wall Street Journal poll published this month found that 48 percent of Republicans believe the United States is doing too much to help Ukraine, up from 6 percent in March. On the American left and in Germany and France, there are also signs of impatience, though fewer. “I’m not afraid that Ukrainians will tire of being attacked by missiles but that people in other countries will say, ‘Enough. Time to turn the page,’” said Oleksandr Danylyuk, 47, a former minister of finance who signed up to be a soldier after the Russian invasion in February, was injured in June and is now recovering.
He’s right. Buck up, America and Europe! And take some inspiration from Ukrainians themselves. I see people here suffering enormous hardship — yet ever more determined to fight back.
Anastasia Blyshchyk, 26, was a television journalist whose boyfriend, Oleksandr Makhov, enlisted as a soldier immediately after Putin invaded. After reaching the front, Makhov proposed to her by video call, jokingly proffering a ring from a grenade. “Yes!” she said, and they giddily planned what to name their children.
Then Makhov was killed in May by Russian fire — and Blyshchyk signed up to be a soldier herself. I met her on an icy afternoon near her base. She may have felt shattered, but she projected strength, wearing body armor and walking carefully to avoid land mines. “Follow in my footsteps,” she advised. “Today is exactly six months since Oleksandr was killed,” she said, quivering but not teary. “I’ve promised myself I won’t cry.” I asked her why she enlisted to fight the Russians. “They killed the man I love,” she said simply. “Of course I’m here.”
There are long waiting lists for volunteers eager to serve in the Ukrainian military, and people pull strings to get called up sooner — a contrast to the hundreds of thousands of Russian men fleeing their country to avoid the draft.
Stymied on the battlefield, Russia is trying an alternative strategy: firing missiles to terrorize civilians and destroy the power grid and water supply. This targeting of civilians, a war crime, aims to inflict such brutal suffering on ordinary Ukrainians that they will want to cut a deal with Putin.
It isn’t working. Ukrainians aren’t wavering the way some Americans, French and Germans are.
I met Volodymyr Rusanov, a 72-year-old man living in a bombed-out apartment building near Kharkiv. He patched the blown-out windows, ran an extension cord from another building and sealed off other rooms so that he and his wife can survive the winter in their bedroom with a space heater when the power works. He hikes to a well half a mile away to fetch water and hauls it up the stairs to his 10th-floor apartment, and he showed me how he can cook borscht with a small stove using firewood. And he’s ready to take on the Russian Army himself. “My legs can still walk,” Rusanov told me. “My fingers still work well. I will take a gun in my hand and fight.”
What animates Ukrainians, and should animate Americans and West Europeans, is the brutality with which Russia wages war. There are lots of complicated issues in international relations, but this is stark: Russia has tried to annex part of a sovereign country and persistently commits crimes against humanity.
Mykhailo Chendey, 67, told me how the Russians arrested him and accused him (falsely, he said) of helping the Ukrainian Army. The first interrogation began with a beating that broke his arm so that the bone protruded through his skin, he said, and was followed by electric shocks. Chendey said he heard the screams of others being tortured, including women, and saw the bodies of two people who had apparently been tortured to death. After torture left Chendey vomiting blood and unconscious, a Ukrainian guard persuaded the Russians to allow an ambulance to take Chendey to a hospital. He was in a coma for three days there, his wife, Valentyna, said.
This is not to say that all Russian soldiers have been monsters. Ordinary Ukrainians who lived for months under Russian occupation told me that some Russian soldiers were well behaved and thought they were rescuing Ukrainians from fascists. There was looting and torture, villagers said, but this was not universal and varied by military unit.
Putin’s strategy in Ukraine seems an echo of his approach in Chechnya beginning in 1999 and in Syria in 2015: Inflict such pain on civilians that continued resistance is impossible. Oleksandr Filchakov, the chief prosecutor for the Kharkiv region, said his team is investigating 7,700 war crimes by Russians in the area, from executions to the targeting of schools. The liberation of Kherson in the last few days has led to similar reports of torture chambers uncovered there.
The atrocities provide a moral reason to support Ukraine, but there’s also a practical reason to do so. Many Americans and Europeans think that the West is doing Ukraine a favor by providing weaponry, but it’s actually Ukrainians who are offering themselves as a human shield in ways that benefit the West. “Ukrainian resistance provides extraordinary security benefits to Americans,” noted Timothy Snyder, a Ukraine expert at Yale. “The least we can do is be on our own side.”
United States military planners have long worried about a Russian attack on Baltic countries in NATO. But at enormous cost in lives, Ukraine has so degraded Russia’s armed forces that the risk of that today is far lower.
Ukraine’s resistance may also increase the possibility that Putin himself will be toppled. That might lead to the rise of aggressive militarists who would be more likely to use nuclear weapons, but it could also moderate Russia and lead to a safer world while ending the dictatorship in neighboring Belarus and the division of Moldova and Georgia.
The most important way in which Ukraine is arguably making the world safer is farther to the east. If Russia is defeated in Ukraine, China could take that as a warning and be less likely to move on Taiwan, reducing the risk of a cataclysmic war between the United States and China. Republicans hawkish on China should understand that one of the most effective ways to stand up to Beijing and support Taiwan is to back Ukraine.
But the bottom line is that we are all in debt to Ukrainians and we should continue to support David against Goliath. We can applaud Ukrainians for their courage and determination, which reminds me of English pluck during the Battle of Britain. (Ukrainians have the same thought: Gas stations sell biographies of Churchill.)
A simple slogan captures the dynamic: “If Russia stops fighting, there will be no war. If Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no more Ukraine.”
We should learn from Ukrainian resolve. In Kyiv, I met Senior Sgt. Dmytro Finashyn, 28, who was badly injured in fighting in May and separated from his unit.
For two days, he drifted in and out of consciousness, crawling toward his lines through a minefield when he was able, drinking from a swamp, wondering if he should cut off his mangled left arm. Ukrainian troops found him, half dead, and doctors amputated his left arm and a finger on his right hand. He is about to be fitted with a prosthetic arm — and then he plans to return to his battalion. “We have our backs to the wall,” he told me. “We have no place to run. We can only go forward.” Finashyn’s wife, Iryna, a banker, is not thrilled by his determination to return to war with an artificial arm. “I’m still working on her,” he acknowledged. Russian airstrikes on Kyiv recently took out the family’s electricity and water supply; the Finashyns are among the 4.5 million Ukrainians who have lost reliable electricity. So she is coming around. She doesn’t want to lose her husband, but neither does she want to lose her country.
I’ll give the last word to Alla Kuznietsova, 52, a chatty woman who is a senior manager in the Izium gas bureau. She said she had secretly communicated Russian positions to the Ukrainian side during the occupation, at enormous risk, although the Russians didn’t learn of that. “They would have killed me at once if they had known,” she said. In July, Russian troops arrested her and her husband for other reasons, including her tendency to speak openly around town about the prospect of liberation from Russian occupation. She said that for 10 days, she and her husband were held in separate cells on a Russian military base and subjected to electric shocks and repeated beatings with cables. Kuznietsova said she was also repeatedly stripped naked and raped by interrogators and sexually humiliated in an attempt to break her spirit. That almost worked: At one despairing moment, she said, she tried to hang herself by her bra but failed.
In the end, the Russians caved first. They found that they needed her to run the town’s gas supply and told her that they would release her. “I said, ‘I will not leave without my husband,’” she recalled, so they freed her husband as well.
Upon their release, they found that the Russians had stolen all the money from their bank account and looted their house.
Instead of helping the Russians with the gas supply, Kuznietsova made a daring escape with her husband in the only direction possible: to Russia. She talked her way through checkpoints and then crossed into Estonia and finally traveled through Poland to Ukraine. She just returned to newly liberated Izium after a month of outpatient treatment in a Ukrainian hospital for her torture injuries. I asked her about the West’s fatigue with the war. Kuznietsova, who showed such courage and sacrificed so much to stand up to Russia, seemed to struggle to come to grips with Americans’ fatigue with even a distant conflict. She told me she didn’t understand American elections, but her voice broke — in a way it did not when she recounted being beaten, shocked, raped and humiliated — as she expressed fear that the West might abandon Ukraine. “We are grateful to Americans, but we just ask, please don’t leave us halfway,” she said. “Don’t leave us alone.”
This is Nicholas Kristof’s first column since returning to The Times after leaving in 2021 to run for governor of Oregon.
Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can follow him on Instagram and Facebook. His latest book is “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” @NickKristof • Facebook