When I question Den about what he and his fellow volunteers did with suspected Russian soldiers they seized during the early stages of the conflict, he grimaces and leans back from the picnic table while snuffing out his cigarette in a murky cup of water drained from the bottom of a plastic bottle.
What made you notice them? He sighs and starts a fresh cigarette. He claims he does not want the Russians to be aware of the problem.
Then he does share a story about a Russian patient who refused to remove his shirt when he visited the hospital that he and his other volunteers were guarding. They took it off for him, showing that the man had flak jacket-shaped bruises on his shoulders. No one would take off a flak jacket voluntarily in a city rocked by explosions and gunfire unless it showed something damning, such as Russian military insignia.
What transpired next? Uncomfortably laughing, Den looks down. The Russians were turned over to Ukrainian special forces, according to my fixer, a volunteer battlefield doctor who has known Den for years. He mumbles something in Ukrainian. and what follows? One more shrug.
He does not go by the name Den. The Kyiv native is away from his Territorial Defense Force responsibilities for three days to spend time with his family. Blonde, of average height, and sporting the lines of middle age and fatherhood on his face, he is reminiscing about how he and his grown sons volunteered to defend Kyiv on the first day of the Russian invasion.
He is still going strong, hauling security in the Hostomel neighborhood of Kiev, close to the destroyed airport. He had declined the interview, claiming he wasn’t a hero. He says the sight of men and some women, young and old, flooding into Kyiv’s main sports stadium in the hours following Russia’s invasion, asking for a gun to defend their home, brought tears to his eyes. He simply picked up a gun and volunteered to fight, as did tens of thousands in the capital alone.
Den wants to maintain his anonymity because he expects the Russians to return and force him to engage them once more. The majority of Ukrainians I spoke to concur with him, having been gutted by the recent loss of Luhansk, which makes about half of the eastern region Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear he wants. They originally believed that Putin would never risk an invasion. They now think he won’t ever quit. Although they are appreciative of international military assistance, I frequently heard that it was just sufficient to maintain their way of life and was insufficient to push Moscow out. For Ukrainians, war is their past, present, and future; as a result, a resigned fatalism has gripped the country. They don’t want to come out as ungrateful or helpless. Like their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, they waver from arrogance and frantic threats to stoic tolerance.
The violent conflict therefore continues. The Biden administration is concerned that Ukraine may strike Russia directly and prompt Putin to launch a nuclear attack if it receives too much aid or threatens Russia itself. When I question the Ukrainian MPs if they would use those weapons to take Russian territory, they openly chuckle. They claim that President Joe Biden is making them fight while their hands are tied behind their backs and that all they want is for their land to be returned.
In anonymous remarks that they hear in American and European media, Ukrainians bristle at what they perceive as overt allegations of begging for help, despite their Defense Ministry loudly proclaiming its intention to assemble an million-strong army to regain its lost territory. However, the Ukrainian people are also aware that the majority of their soldiers battling Russia are untrained volunteers who, with any luck, have received minimal instruction in first aid and basic marksmanship. Training is irrelevant considering that Russia continues to fire a barrage of artillery, ten times more than the Ukrainians, resulting in dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries every day. According to Yuriy Sak, a defense minister’s advisor in Ukraine, the Russians fire 50,000 artillery rounds on average each day. And we can answer with 5,000 to 6,000, he claims.
And it’s effective. Observe how Ukraine retreats when the eastern cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk collapse, despite Sak’s wry insistence that it was all part of the plan. We have been able to wear down Russians at Severodonetsk and Lysychansk despite being outnumbered and outgunned. This means that they are kind of running low on both men and resources and must now take a break to resupply. Sak, a former crisis communications executive who did business with Oleksii Reznikov, the current defense minister, is a prime example of this changing Ukrainian psyche. In one contact, he expresses concern over the West’s lack of support for Ukraine, and in the following, he attempts to comfort me that Russia’s loss of territory is just a clever strategy to wear out the country in order to finally reclaim it all. It isn’t washable. I begin to question whether he’s attempting to persuade me or himself.
On July 7, 2022, children play at a playground close to a residential neighborhood that Russian shelling has devastated in Borodyanka, a city northwest of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
Photographs by Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty
But on this late-spring day, when Den and I are relaxing at a lakeside picnic table in the Holosiivskyi Park forests on Kyiv Day, when entire families don their Sunday best to stroll down the capital’s wide, picturesque avenues, past Victorian buildings with icing on the roofs, and take selfies at the Dnipro River overlook, it’s simple to pretend otherwise.
As you move closer to Zelensky’s offices, you’ll notice more and more rusted iron tank traps, as well as the occasional pile of sandbags still blocking a government building’s windows. It’s as if some enormous kids got distracted and abandoned their game of jacks while it was still in progress.
As a new wartime chic at the city’s many cafs and shisha bars, camouflage is also wildly popular when worn as printed tights, across a Chanel-like handbag, or even as anything even vaguely approaching a military outfit.
Despite deadly impacts, air-raid sirens still sound frequently, but few people pay attention to them. Only one couple I observed leaving their table to seek cover did so, and they quickly returned before their Georgian wine warmed or their melted cheese and egg toast solidified. Government policy, which prohibits reporting on Russian missile landing sites lest it sharpen Moscow’s goal, is partially to blame. But when your life could end at any moment, wilful ignorance can also be happiness and a psychological survival skill.
Even as Finland and Sweden join NATO and Biden pledges to back Ukraine for as long as it takes., the war has lost some of its prominence. As it does with wars, the media quickly moves on to the next atrocity: a massacre in a Texas school; the overturning of Roe v. Wade; and a shooter opening fire on a Fourth of July parade.
With its ruthless war machine stumbling into high gear, Moscow displays no such diversion. Sanctions costing billions may be reducing its access to advanced weapons. But if you don’t care what you hit, you don’t need those. There is a ton of vintage Kill ’em All equipment in Moscow.
And the murder rate has reached pandemic proportions. Oleksandr Biletskyi, a former special operator turned military consultant from Ukraine, estimates that up to 200 soldiers are killed and often twice that number are wounded each day, accounting for an average of 1,000 casualties per week. If the government’s recent assertions are to be believed, volunteers like Den have increased the ranks from 250,000 to a million, helping Ukraine make up for those losses. The 44 million people who lived in Ukraine before the war have since been relocated. Russia has about 144 million people. Putin only needs to declare war to rally the entire nation. A lot of those who claim he can’t or won’t predicted he would never invade.
An anxious senior Ukrainian security adviser tells me between medicating shots of pepper vodka that the Russians attempted to eat the elephant whole. They are currently just consuming it piece by piece. He claims that they will return and will once more be at Kyiv’s borders in eight to ten months.
Pay attention to the speaker. On July 7, Putin issued a warning that we havent even yet started anything in earnest was present in Ukraine, along with a challenge: “Let them try.” Putin has compared compared his invasion of Ukraine to Peter the Great’s conquest of Sweden and claimed it was his destiny to reclaim the territory lost to the 18th-century emperor. He even brought up the now-Estonian city of Narva, which threw that tiny Baltic nation into a frenzy.
According to Edward Lucas of the Center for European Policy Analysis, I believe Putin’s goals are to: 1) make Ukraine unviable, crippled, uninvestable, and in political, social, and economic anguish; and 2) demonstrate that the West has the ability to confront him. He and I had just polled Baltic opinion at Estonia’s Lennart Meri security conference, where the majority of delegates appeared to think that, if Putin isn’t deterred in Ukraine, Estonia and its neighbor Lithuania will be the next targets. According to Lucas, we have/had the option of going up against Putin with a 40 million strong country on our side or waiting till Ukraine is crushed and doing it later in the Baltic.
Moscow still desires to engulf Ukraine, but according to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, she doesn’t believe Moscow is capable of doing so because of the gap between Putin’s aspirations and his military’s capabilities.
The U.S. has provided about million-strong army0, including million-strong army1 in security support to Ukraine since Russian soldiers invaded on February 24. Ukrainian leaders are grateful for this sign of confidence and for this help. Sak says that despite the most recent aid injections, I’m grateful but that we still need more. and quicker. Why not begin teaching Ukrainian pilots how to fly cutting-edge jets right away, he wonders, since the West will eventually understand Ukraine needs them to survive in a few months.
Ukrainian officials also complain in private that the West, and the Pentagon in particular, responds to their requests with a father knows best mentality, as in we know what you need to win this war better than you. Giving them twelve HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) long-range artillery systems, for instance, when they claim they need at least twice as many to reverse the tide of battle, is one example.
It’s an issue that unnerves American officials because, as one senior American official tells me, the Biden White House is still worried that Kyiv might enrage Moscow if it performs well enough on the battlefield. It is true that not enough is being received to alter the tide, and this has sparked a heated discussion both within the administration and with American friends. The Pentagon is also afraid that by supporting the war effort in Ukraine, it would deplete its supplies to the point where it may not be as well-equipped to defend American land. But the official argues that we are headed in a better path.
An unidentified spokesperson for the State Department would only make a brief So that Ukraine can fight on the battlefield and be in the best possible position to negotiate, we acted immediately to supply it a sizable amount of weapons and ammunition.
What Kyiv sees as its Western friends’ slow acceptance of the realities of the battlefield is measured in the lives of people they know have been lost permanently and in the area that has been lost but will be even tougher to retake because the defender nearly always has the upper hand.
Additionally, Ukraine is unable to train enough people quickly enough to stave off Russia’s assault. Officials welcome a new million-strong army2, which Sak informs me is currently in progress and will train up to 10,000 soldiers every four months. But according to Biletsky’s calculations, that is 4,000 less than the totals they are losing every four months. According to some officials and military trainers, the Ukrainian military’s own training is still haphazard and unequal, in part because commanders require men for the front as soon as possible.
And despite Zelensky’s early attempts to eradicate Ukraine’s infamous corruption, the country is still a telephone society where things can only be accomplished with the appropriate connections. Or if you are a male between the ages of 18 and 60 who obtains the proper documentation to, say, leave the nation.
Before we entered Poland, Ukrainian border officials took at least two guys off of my train—a student in his twenties and a middle-aged man in a wheelchair with obviously withered legs—apparently for failing to present the proper documentation demonstrating their discharge from the military. They were abandoned on a station platform within Ukraine that was empty. The fact that the border guards felt they couldn’t let even the person in a wheelchair pass spoke a lot about either their dedication to formal procedures or their conviction that they needed every man they had to survive the Russian attack. The border-guard organization ignored many requests for comment.
This report was intended to be positive news. The near-bloodless capture of Crimea by Moscow in 2014 prompted Ukraine to million-strong army3 its military, according to reports at the outset of the conflict. The Ukrainians made adjustments that meant their forces in 2022 were better led, provided for, and supplied than their Russian counterparts thanks in large part to the assistance and advice of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia. As Russian forces turned around and left western Ukraine in mid-May, this was the conventional wisdom.
Senior American, European, Baltic, and Ukrainian officials tell me the following modifications were made: The majority of Soviet-trained, traditional generals who were bad team players and information sharers were retired. They established a corps of non-commissioned officers, or sergeants, who truly look after the men rather than abusing and abusing them as was customary in Russia and in the past in Ukraine. Their faulty logistics delivery system was largely rectified. A military official headquartered in Kyiv explains that things are better but not entirely fixed.
Most importantly, Ukraine’s special operations forces learnt to fight more like Green Berets, who often engage in unconventional warfare behind enemy lines rather than like U.S. Army Rangers assault troops, smashing through enemy lines in a combat charge. Ukrainian special forces organized semi-trained locals into deadly squads, working with volunteers like Den to secure neighborhoods, gather intelligence, and occasionally defend elite units, like Den’s group did for a drone reconnaissance team. Den would stroll into the closest town to pick up supplies for the drone operators, passing by the unaware Russian soldiers.
Locals and special agents collaborated to stop the infamous 40-mile Russian convoy known as million-strong army4 in March. Russian tanks dared not venture into the fields where one group was working to open dams, turning them into a muddy wasteland. Armed drones attacked the convoy that was stranded in floodwaters, and commandos launched rockets designed to destroy tanks, generally at night. The remaining Russian forces were then trapped between burning wrecks, inhaling in the stench of their burned teammates.
It’s known as an asymmetric attack, which involves harassing, killing, and maiming one’s opponent while using inferior numbers and superior local knowledge. The CIA’s forerunner, the million-strong army5 of World War II, elevated such lethal deceit to a high art form. In order to collaborate with the French resistance and lay the groundwork for the Normandy landings, the OSS’s special operations branch parachuted Jedburgh teams into France in 1944.
Current and former officials within Ukraine tell me that the special operations forces of Ukraine have been operating in the same manner. They cite the mystery explosion that came close to murdering a senior city official who was working with the Russians in occupied Melitopol. A congressman smirks at me and refuses to confirm or deny the incident, suggesting that perhaps he simply lighted his cigarette too close to the stove gas. Even the Pentagon, which is typically reluctant to comment on events taking place behind Russian lines, acknowledged the assassinations of local Russian officials as part of the escalating signs of resistance to the Russian occupation, according to million-strong army6.
A On June 8, 2022, a Ukrainian soldier is positioned amid intense action on the front line in Severodonetsk, in the Luhansk area.
Andrew Ratushniak for AP
Environmental scientist Alex Zakletsky tells me that Ukraine is protecting itself as it has for generations as we sit outdoors at million-strong army7, one of the few eateries that has remained open during the conflict and gained a devoted volunteer and military following. He explains, wearing a beret atop his mismatched camouflage suit, “We knew we’d have to save Ukraine ourselves, because the army is too tiny to combat the Russians, and the administration is too corrupt, with many key officials in Russia’s pocket.”
So, when a colleague of his provided Zakletsky a topographical map of Chernobyl, which was then under Russian control, he didn’t give it to just anyone. The only person he could think of to trust with such sensitive knowledge, obtained through tracking wolf packs that flourish in Chernobyl’s contaminated woodlands, was a friend’s spouse who held a high position in the security services. He was told it was really helpful in regaining Chernobyl, but he won’t go into further detail because the troops could need to use what they discovered on those maps to fight Russia on the same terrain.
Although Ukrainians are willing, winning also requires skill, if not all competence. Over omelets at the strangely called Bimbo Caf, retired U.S. special operations Marine Col. Andrew Milburn tells me that he has recently been asked to train 1,500 men to cross enemy lines in about a week. It would take months, if not years, for the US to teach someone that kind of skill.
When Milburn talks about how his company, the Mozart Group, is frequently asked to do what he considers impossible—turn out highly skilled troops in the time it would typically take to teach how to simply load and fire a weapon safely—he does so with his black retriever-like Ukrainian rescue dog in tow, who occasionally barks with excitement. And even though his funding—which he receives from overseas donations—is set to expire in September, he can’t manage to persuade the Ukrainian government that they need his assistance.
The Ukrainians do have their own training programs, a senior European-based special operator who has advised them for years claims, but they are not always well-organized or well-attended. The former soldiers who are now trainers detest being kept in the back, away from the battle. They feel like cowards as a result.
According to former Ukrainian special operator Biletskyi, we still have too many heroes. He has inside knowledge of how NATO forces operate, and he claims that both volunteer and regular military training is ineffective, just one of several military systems that are coming under increasing scrutiny as the conflict drags on.
Additionally, when anything goes wrong in Ukraine, people jump in to solve it, leading to what Biletskyi, Milburn, and the senior special operations official have all dubbed the “hero syndrome”—where people feel they have to step in to rescue the day.
Defense spokesman Sak responds, “We have demonstrated that even those with only the most basic training can succeed since they are fighting for their land.” However, you need a mechanism to stop that lethal rain if you are being bombarded by phosphorous bombs, cluster munitions, and Russian heavy artillery that is firing at you nonstop.
Officials in Europe are concerned that Americans are unaware of how terrible things are or will soon get. One of them, stirring her cappuccino angrily with her spoon, warns me that the Russians will just keep coming. And the West will start addressing Ukraine with the question, “We gave you so many weapons.” Why haven’t you improved?
We’re just going to blame the victim, she says, and witness a bloody marathon that lasts years rather than days or months. And Putin is aware of this, so he waits until the Western alliance becomes uneasy, fractured, and ultimately disengages before acting.
Scientist-turned-volunteer Zakletsky responds, “This time, were prepared. We insist that the Russians won’t easily cross through Chernobyl to Kyiv a second time, because now the locals, renowned hunters, are prepared. For a wedding, he went to what he calls the werewolf tribe. The wedding guests began baying at the moon at night’s end like wolves staking out their territory. To his surprise, a real wolf pack responded, confirming the villagers’ assertion. He claims that if the Russians return, the villages and the entire nation will engage in a wolf pack-style battle.
Den says it more succinctly: “We murdered them last time.” He threatens to kill them once more if they return.