On the ground for nine months in Ukraine, where the conflict is far from over and the worst could still be to come
By MAC WILLIAM BISHOP
Nov 14, 2022
KYIV – Amid hundreds of joyous civilians pouring onto the streets of Kherson to welcome the soldiers who liberated them from Russian occupation, there is a man named Mykhailo.
A former soldier whose son has been serving in an elite unit in the Ukrainian military since 2016, Mykhailo – whom I agreed to identify by his given name only – refused to leave his hometown when the Russians invaded. He has been waiting for this day since Russian forces moved in, and he calls his son to tell him.
“They’re gone,” Mykhailo, who is in his late 60s, tells his son in a phone call. “The fuckers are finally gone.”
Mykhailo’s son is a paratrooper serving in the reconnaissance company of an Air Assault Brigade that’s been fighting for months in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. The paratrooper, who asked that I not reveal his name out of concerns about targeted reprisals, told me about his dad when we met back in June, saying that he has only been able to communicate with his father sporadically since the war began in February.
“My dad’s in hiding,” the paratrooper told me at the time, when his unit was fighting a desperate defense in the environs of Severodonetsk, shortly before it fell to the Russians. “He’s a retired soldier with a son in the ZSU [the romanized Cyrillic acronym for AFU, or the Armed Forces of Ukraine]. If the Russians find him, they’ll shoot him.”
Many relatives of Ukrainian servicemembers, who were stuck in Russian-occupied territories after the invasion, have been forcibly relocated to so-called “filtration camps” in Russia or summarily executed, according to numerous soldiers across multiple battlefronts with whom I have spoken over the course of the war.
Nine months into Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, and the conflict remains an abyss of sorrow. Scores of countries continue to be drawn into a conflict whose repercussions echo across the globe: worldwide economic instability; a growing food crisis for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations; the adoption of increasingly lethal technologies; and the destruction of the last vestiges of the international security framework put in place after the Second World War are among the progeny birthed by the desolation of this war. Amid growing public exhaustion in Russia, Ukraine and abroad; with both Western and Russian military resources becoming ever
more depleted; with neither side able to quickly achieve their strategic goals; the war is about to become entrenched as winter sets in.
Mykhailo has survived to see Kherson liberated. When Mykhailo called his son again after nightfall, the paratrooper said he could hear singing in the background. Videos coming out of newly liberated Kherson show why: jubilant civilians singing and dancing around bonfires in the blacked-out city, whose electrical grid was destroyed by the retreating Russians.
The song the Khersonites sing in one of the videos is a 19th-century march – Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow – that was banned for decades under the Soviets as an expression of Ukrainian nationalism, and was forbidden to sing during the recent occupation:
March forward, our fellow volunteers, into the bloody fray,
For to free our brother Ukrainians from Moscovite shackles.
And we, our brother Ukrainians, we will then liberate,
And, hey-hey, we shall cheer up our glorious Ukraine!
The language comes across as a bit archaic in translation, but to say that the song has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in Ukraine since February would be putting it mildly.
Kherson, the capital of Kherson province, was the only major city that Russian forces managed to capture on the winding Dnipro River’s right bank (the reference is from the point of view of the current’s flow). Only weeks ago, President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of the province after a series of sham referendums held at gunpoint in September. At the time, the Russian Central Election Commission claimed that 87 percent of the residents of Kherson voted in favor of annexation, and Moscow now officially regards the province as part of the Russian Federation. The deluge of videos showing thousands of Ukrainians taking to the streets with joy as their soldiers arrive to free them debunks this fiction eloquently – certainly no comparable scenes ever appeared when Russian occupiers seized Ukrainian towns.
No matter how it is spun, the loss of Kherson is another major defeat for Putin.
“Comrade Minister of Defense, after a comprehensive assessment of the current situation, we suggest taking defense along the left shore of the Dnipro River,” Gen. Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, can be seen telling Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a televised exchange announcing the retreat from Kherson. “Understand this is not a simple decision, but at the same time we will – most importantly – preserve the lives of our servicemen.”
“I agree with your conclusion and suggestions,” Shoigu responds. “For us, the lives of Russian servicemen are always a priority. We must also be taking into account the danger to the civilian populations.”
That the Russian military was the public face of the withdrawal – that there was no statement from Putin, or reference to him in the televised exchange – indicates he was meant to be insulated from responsibility for the obvious defeat. And despite the carefully scripted exchange
designed to show that the withdrawal from Kherson was a measured decision serving larger strategic interests, there were indications that this was not true.
Ukrainian officials estimate that thousands of Russian soldiers remain trapped in the area around Kherson.
“More than half of the Russian forces that were stationed on the right bank are still there,” Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy director of Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence, said in a briefing on Nov. 10th. “This is a force that was previously estimated at 20,000 personnel.”
Numerous social media posts from Russian soldiers described panic among retreating units, while Ukrainian journalists in Kherson shared photos to back claims that many of the invaders had discarded their uniforms in favor of civilian clothing.
Urban warfare is dangerous, destructive and costly. That Ukrainian soldiers were able to force the Russians out and liberate the city without engaging in brutal house-to-house fighting is a testament not only to a successfully executed strategy, but to the importance of Western military aid. Long-range precision artillery such as the HIMARS multiple-launch rocket system was instrumental in rendering the few bridges that cross the Dnipro in Kherson province unusable, and making it all but impossible for the Russians to build up adequate supplies and personnel to reinforce the soldiers holding on to the city.
Still, despite the sudden collapse of resistance over the past few days, the retaking of Kherson was not an easy task for the Ukrainian military – the counteroffensive there involved a coordinated campaign of strikes against “ground lines of communication” – i.e. supply routes – followed by ground assaults against Russian positions over several months. Hundreds of soldiers died in defense of Kherson before it fell in early March; it is likely that hundreds more died to liberate it.
It’s difficult to have confidence in estimates of the number of people killed in the war so far. But officials and independent analysts from multiple countries estimate the number of dead from Russia’s invasion in the tens or even hundreds-of-thousands. U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said on Nov. 10th that as many as 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded, with “the same thing probably on the Ukrainian side.” He also said that at least 40,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed.
Now, Ukrainians are celebrating the victory of their forces in Kherson, and the liberation of their countrymen. But as winter sets in, Ukrainians will need every ounce of resilience they can muster, because the price they must pay in lives to free their land and their countrymen will only continue to grow.
The distinctive buzzing of a so-called “kamikaze” drone is interspersed with the staccato whump-whump-whump of an anti-aircraft gun, likely 23mm autocannons on a Shilka self-propelled gun or a ZSU-23 towed system. Despite the efforts of the defenders, the flying bomb drops onto the city, its 100-pound warhead detonating on impact. It doesn’t hit a military target
or even any particularly important infrastructure – it hits a Soviet-era apartment building indistinguishable from dozens across Kyiv.
The explosion kills Bohdan and Viktoriya Zamchenko, both 34 years old. Viktoriya – known by the diminutive “Vika” – is a sommelier at a local wine shop. She is six months pregnant with the couple’s first child when she is slain.
The current war in Ukraine had already been raging for months when the couple decided to have a child, enlisting love and creation to defy the death and destruction unleashed upon their home. But love doesn’t stop war.
“Today, Vika’s body was found in the arms of her beloved husband Bohdan, along with their cat, in the house where a Russian drone hit. They were expecting a child,” said a message from Viktoriya’s employer, announcing her death to the wine shop’s patrons. “We loved Vika madly. We’re sure you loved her, too.”
The flying bomb that killed the Zamchenkos on October 17th in Kyiv wasn’t particularly advanced as modern weapons go – with minimal accuracy and payload, each such drone costs perhaps $20,000 or $30,000 to produce. Limited in their tactical utility on the battlefield, they’re instead being used as weapons of terror, sent in waves against Ukrainian cities and infrastructure to wreak havoc and destruction.
And that’s precisely the point. Russia has expended a large portion of its existing stocks of precision weapons – including advanced cruise and ballistic missiles – against Ukraine already, foreign intelligence officials say.
Now it’s relying on weapons supplied from a handful of countries willing to disregard economic sanctions and sell arms to the Kremlin, to carry out a campaign of economic warfare and thereby break the defenders’ spirit. Ukrainian and Western officials say suicide drones like the one that killed the Zamchenkos were provided to Moscow by Tehran – and that Iranian technicians are in Russian-occupied territory to assist with the employment of the weapons. The Iranian ministry of foreign affairs has denied this, saying only that it provided drones to Russia before the war began. But it makes no secret of its ongoing military cooperation with Russia.
The United States and its allies are also having to get creative about sources of aid for Ukraine as well – the burn rate for munitions and equipment in this high-intensity interstate conflict is orders of magnitude greater than anything the US saw during the decades-long “global war on terror.” Arms production capacity can’t be increased overnight, so the only option is to find third-party suppliers. Which is why Washington is pressuring South Korea to provide 100,000 rounds of much-needed 155mm artillery rounds to Ukraine – even as Seoul insists that it cannot provide lethal aid to Ukraine as a matter of policy.
Even traditionally non-aligned neutral countries are being pressured to get involved in the conflict. Last week, Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov urged Brazil to provide 35mm ammunition for a German-made anti-aircraft system called the Gepard – arguing that doing so would help Kyiv protect not only civilians, but also shipments of Ukrainian grain to developing countries.
“If you give us these munitions today, we will protect the sky from terrorist drones,” Reznikov said, calling air defense a “humanitarian mission,” “because we will save lives and people will not die of hunger in Africa and Asia.”
After months of war, most residents of Kyiv had become accustomed to living in a city under aerial threat, and had largely begun to ignore air raids – the alert system generally activates for an entire province, not a specific part of a city. So a lot of people prefer to take their chances, rather than spend hours in shelters any time air defenses detect a nearby threat.
Near Maidan Square one Saturday night in early October, I watch as bargoers begin cheering and clapping when an air-raid warning sounds, as if the evening’s entertainment was just taking the stage.
Such indifference largely stops being the case after October 10th, the start of a wave of aerial attacks against civilian targets and infrastructure using a variety of cruise and ballistic missiles and the so-called suicide drones, which are really just flying bombs with limited guidance. Many of these target power plants and other energy infrastructure, creating periodic blackouts and reducing electrical capacity in major Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv.
“The delivery and employment of these weapons has not affected Ukrainian resolve. But we are facing a very hard, cold Eastern European winter, and it remains to be seen how effective the Russian campaign might be,” Samuel Bendett tells me in a phone call. He’s an expert in unmanned and robotic military systems – and a member of the Russian studies program – at CNA, a federally funded research organization based in Virginia that focuses primarily on defense issues.
“If no further major military developments occur before both sides begin to entrench ahead of winter, it seems likely that the Russians will continue using drones like these to go after infrastructure and other economic targets.”
One of the reasons the Iranian designed Shahed-136 drone – called the Geran-2 by the Russians – is a particularly useful weapon is because it is made using widely available civilian technology and components. Moscow will likely be able to procure what is needed to produce them by learning from the Iranians, Bendett says, as Tehran has decades of experience working around sanctions.
And even if the drones are as easy to stop as the Ukrainians claim – saying more than 80 percent are shot down before they reach their targets – it takes a lot of resources to defend stationary facilities like power plants, and to protect civilian population centers.
This is part of why the most recent announcement of another $400 million in military aid to Ukraine from the U.S. included the Hawk and Avenger air defense missile systems – legacy weapons designed at the height of the Cold War to destroy enemy aircraft. These systems should have little trouble against unsophisticated munitions like the Shahed-136, but even the cheapest anti-air missile costs six or seven times as much as one such drone.
Neither side has unlimited resources, and the cost of the war will become more pronounced as fighting continues into 2023. Russia is throwing tens of thousands of additional conscripts into the fray – the mobilization ordered by Putin in September was designed to provide as many as 300,000 new soldiers to fight in Ukraine, although the real numbers are murky. Russian commanders will try to use the winter to reorganize their forces, consolidate defenses in occupied territories and develop new tactics with weapons systems like the Shahed-136. With revised tactics, even poorly supplied troops with minimal training will mean an increase in the number of casualties for both sides when large-scale fighting resumes in the spring.
In the interim, Ukrainian civilians are likely to bear the brunt of Russian attacks.
A week before the Zamchenkos were killed by a suicide drone, at the start of the terror campaign against Ukrainian cities, a wave of cruise and ballistic missiles struck multiple areas across Kyiv during rush hour. As I look at photos of the aftermath, I see pictures of the intersection of Volodymyrska Street and Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, where cars are aflame and several commuters have been killed. Only hours before, I had been sitting on a bench at the Kyiv Institute of Philology facing the intersection, making a video call. I know the area to be devoid of any government or military facilities.
Kyivites I speak to about the strikes are enraged – many had begun to hope that the worst part of the war had passed for their city. Over nine months of war, I have little doubt about the resiliency and determination of Ukrainians. But it’s easy to see, for anyone who knew Ukraine before February 24th, that the country has been indelibly and irrevocably changed.
The effects of the war are omnipresent across the country, and the capital is no exception.
Wounded soldiers with newly fitted prosthetic limbs weave their way through crowds of civilians down Khreschatyk Street in Kyiv, grim-faced harbingers of sacrifice that take the smiles from the faces of teenagers and college students exempt from the draft as they laugh and drink beer on cafe terraces that line the sidewalk.
In Mariinskyi Park, couples cling to each other on benches, as often as not one of each pair wearing newly issued camouflage fatigues, indicating they have been recently mobilized. You can’t walk through much of that part of town anymore: it’s packed with government buildings and offices, and roadblocks with bored soldiers bar the way to casual pedestrians.
On a weekend, the relatives of servicemembers captured by Russia or missing in action rally near the 200-foot tall monument to independence, topped with a statue of the Slavic mother-goddess Berehynia holding a branch of the Red Viburnum. They are there to beg the administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky and international organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross to do something – anything – to bring their loved ones home. Ukrainian officials say at least 2,500 prisoners of war are being held by the Russians.
“Give me back my father!” reads a sign held by a six-year-old girl, while the crowd of hundreds around her, each holding a picture of their loved one, chants “Freedom for the captured defenders of Ukraine!”
As you walk the streets, you come across the burned-out hulks of Russian armored vehicles gathering rust in the autumn rain, littered about the city as trophies. Passersby stop and take selfies or write insulting graffiti – or just stare at them bleakly. Even a derelict relic of battle is a physical reminder that the war is real; it’s here and now.
Something like normal life was starting to resume until recently nonetheless. You could still buy a hot cup of traditional Galician cherry liqueur at Piana Vishnya, or “Drunken Cherry” – a chain specializing in the beverage, with locations across the country – to take away the autumn chill while standing out in the street with your friends, right up until just before the 11 p.m. curfew.
The drone campaign has changed that: scheduled blackouts make it hard for restaurants and other businesses to offer normal services. With temperatures dropping, it’s difficult to enjoy a night out after work, even as the sun sets earlier and earlier as winter solstice nears. The mayor of Kyiv says that if attacks worsen, the city may face a winter without heat, water or electricity.
Months after the worst days in Kyiv, when it wasn’t clear if the city could hold off the invaders, grocery stores and shops still have most essentials. But the selection can be limited – one brand of toothpaste where there used to be dozens, for example. It’s a minor concern amid the wider war, certainly – but it’s as clear an indication that things are not as they were before the invasion as the bullet-hole riddled bus stops along the highway into the city, or the torn up asphalt that shows where tracked armored vehicles and tanks had been maneuvering on the city’s outskirts.
But the changes to Ukrainian society are deeper than reduced menus and limited nightlife.
One evening, a trauma surgeon strikes up a conversation after randomly meeting me in the street. It was only minutes before the conversation became an impromptu confession of the horrors he has seen.
The hospital he worked in was directly in the path of Russian invasion forces trying to fight their way into Kyiv, and the Territorial Defense Forces responsible for the area were too busy fending off the invaders to protect the medical facility.
Wounded men kept coming to the hospital, the doctor said, and it was easy to tell most of them weren’t Ukrainians – either because of their accents, or because the staff would ask them simple questions, such as whether they knew the words to Ukraine’s national anthem.
Faced with a flood of wounded Russian saboteurs and undercover special forces seeking medical treatment, with their homes under bombardment and the capital potentially on the brink of capture, the hospital staff started calling anyone they could reach for assistance. They didn’t know what to do with the Russians they triaged. Eventually, agents from the Security Service of Ukraine and the local militia showed up to take the wounded Russians away. Still, the doctor said, he watched nearly 200 people die over the first few days of the war – the bulk of them Russians.
“That part doesn’t bother me at all. They deserved to die,” he said. “You probably think I’m a terrible person for saying that. But I don’t care.”
Not long ago, a friend named Mykyta met me for lunch after attending the funeral of a young man who had been killed in action in Donbas. They had been in Plast, the Ukrainian youth organization akin to the Boy Scouts of America, together.
When I asked Mykyta how his family was doing, he told me that his seven-year-old son had started telling him about dreams he was having – dreams of killing Russian soldiers.
“He used to have dreams about playing football,” Mykyta told me. “Now he dreams about using hand grenades against our enemies.”