February 23, 2023
Coffee or Die Magazine
On the evening of Feb. 25 last year, I was in a bomb shelter in Kyiv. While a battle raged on the city’s outskirts, it was strangely quiet inside that underground space, even though it was crammed with hundreds of people, young and old, including many children.
Yet, one sound stood out from the silence.
It came from people’s smartphones, as they listened, over and over again, to a speech by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, declaring that he would not leave the city. In that moment, I knew that Russia had already lost, and that Ukraine had already won.
Even if the Russians had taken Kyiv. Even if Ukraine’s regular army had been defeated. Even if the West had never stepped up and armed Ukraine. No matter what, we would still be here today, commemorating the first anniversary of a war that has not ended.
Since 2014, I’ve witnessed how Ukrainians’ pursuit of their democratic dreams has laid the groundwork for their resistance to Russia’s full-scale invasion. This past year confirmed what I already knew — that Russia cannot destroy Ukrainians’ will to resist. And now, as we look ahead to 2023 — and what will surely be another tough year — it remains clear to me that Russia has no path toward achieving its political objectives in Ukraine. No matter what happens on the battlefield, the Ukrainian people will never submit.
Recent polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians reject making territorial concessions to end the war. But when it comes to victory, Ukrainians care about more than just lines on a map — they care about liberating millions of their fellow citizens who now live under Moscow’s brutal occupation. And each new Russian atrocity reinforces their resolve.
Ukrainians aren’t just fighting for their freedom — they’re fighting for their survival. And it’s hard to fathom making concessions to an enemy that is committing a genocide against your own people.
Ukrainians have the will to fight. They proved that nine years ago, when protesters braved sniper fire to set their country on an irreversible path toward democracy and a divorce from Russia. The 2014 Revolution of Dignity also kickstarted many of the societal changes that Ukraine needed to make in order to survive this past year.
The revolution propelled the development of Ukraine’s spirit of innovation, independent thinking, and entrepreneurship — qualities that transformed civil society, as well as the military, giving soldiers the agency to innovate new tactics and technologies, and to have the flexible mindsets needed to rapidly field a mix of Western weapons.
Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Donbas, and the ensuing eight years of limited warfare, also prepared Ukrainians for the full-scale war. After 2014, Ukraine’s military aimed to ditch the rigid, Soviet-style chain of command in favor of a Western model, which pushes tactical decision making down to front-line personnel. Those changes paid huge dividends this year, allowing Ukraine’s combat leaders — including its pilots — to make their own decisions based on battlefield realities, rather than taking play-by-play orders from some faraway commander.
The spirit of volunteerism among Ukraine’s civilians, which saved their country from disaster in 2014, also kicked into overdrive when the full-scale war began. Literally overnight, Ukraine’s civil society mobilized to support the war effort. In particular, Ukraine’s combat veterans were instrumental in holding the country together. Many rejoined the regular army. Others served in territorial defense units, or spearheaded volunteer operations.
On Feb. 4 last year, my friend Oleksandr Makhov, a journalist and combat veteran of the Donbas, told me, “My war never ended — it’s just been on pause.”
Oleksandr reported for active duty on Feb. 24, only hours after Russia’s full-scale invasion began, and died in combat near Izyum on May 4. His bereaved fiancée, Anastasia, later enlisted in the army and is serving on the front lines.
For years, combat was limited to the static front lines in the Donbas. But the full-scale war changed all that. No corner of Ukraine is spared from Russia’s invasion, and it’s an all-hands-on-deck effort to defend the homeland.
As a nine-year resident of Kyiv, and the proud husband to a Ukrainian wife, I’ve lived through this war alongside my friends and family. I’ve lost many friends who bravely defended their country, and I’ve met countless civilians who’ve endured unimaginable trials and tragedies.
One of the hardest parts of this past year has been the amount of time my wife and I have spent apart. The prolonged separation from Lilly because of Russia’s invasion has added an entirely new layer to my understanding of war and all its hardships. As an Air Force pilot, I learned about the combatant’s experience. As a journalist, I bore witness to war’s toll on civilians and soldiers alike. Now, as a man who lived in a war zone with his wife, I truly understand the struggles of innocent civilians, caught in the crossfire, whose lives are upheaved and sometimes destroyed by war.
In previous wars, I often traveled long distances to reach the combat zone. I’d board a C-17 and travel halfway around the world to reach Iraq and Afghanistan. Or I’d hop on a train in Kyiv and arrive, hours later, at the pre-2022 front lines in eastern Ukraine. In this year of full-scale warfare, I enjoyed no quarantine between the front lines and home. I listened to gun battles and artillery from my living room. I saw tracers cut across the sky from my balcony. And I had to grab my wife’s arm, pull her from bed, and sprint to a bomb shelter while Russian cruise missiles struck our neighborhood, just a few blocks away.
Above all, I’ll never forget the horrors I observed in Bucha, Irpin, and other areas around Kyiv right after the Russian retreat. The criminality of Russia’s war is clear. And so is the moral justice of Ukraine’s cause. For my part, I’m honored to be among Ukrainians and to stand on the side of the good.
Even at the ripe old age of 40, this year changed me more than any other. I’ve seen the carnage of Russia’s crimes, and now truly understand the darkness that lies in wait beneath the veneer of civilization. Yet, in the selfless heroism of the Ukrainian people, I’ve also seen proof that there’s goodness in the human heart and hope for us yet.
This war isn’t over, but its opening chapter has ended. Everything that happens next will happen because Ukrainians — inspired by values that we all share — bootstrapped a fighting force that defied Russia and won the world’s respect.
Ukraine will win. I’m sure of it. But now it’s up to us, in the West, to shorten the timeline of that victory — and save countless lives in the long run — by providing Kyiv with the weapons and hardware it needs today to get the job done.
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.