In four decades covering wars, I’ve never seen anything like Ukraine

It was a war plan no one even tried to keep secret.

In July, when I visited Ukrainian troops near the southern front lines, outside the bomb-blasted city of Mykolaiv, soldiers told me how eager they were to start a long-rumored counteroffensive. Their goal was to retake the strategic Black Sea port of Kherson, which would block Moscow’s plan to annex the entire south, including the embattled port of Odesa. It would also pave the way to eventually retaking nearby Crimea.


That campaign has begun, slowly. But the hype the Ukrainian military gave it was a ruse.

The southern push concealed the army’s true objective: a lightning counteroffensive over the weekend in the northeast that sent Russian troops fleeing back to their own country. Those forces had been depleted when their commanders sent crack units south to defend Kherson. They got conned.

The Ukrainian blitz broke the dangerous stalemate that still existed when I visited in July, and threatened to drag on for months or years. It marked a new phase of the war, in which Ukraine has gone on the offensive, and is retaking Russian-occupied territory.

It also produced the greatest Ukrainian military victory since the Russians were driven out of the capital, Kyiv, in March — giving the whole population a desperately needed morale boost.

The war is far from over. Russia still occupies roughly one fifth of Ukrainian territory. As I witnessed firsthand, Vladimir Putin’s forces commit outrageous war crimes daily, bombing civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, markets, and housing, along with water and power systems.

Yet the Ukrainian military proved this weekend that it has the skills and professionalism to defeat Putin’s flailing army, if the West will give it the critical weapons systems it needs, in sufficient numbers, to defeat the Russians.

On my July trip to Ukraine, I witnessed the courage of individual soldiers and civilians that helps explain how Ukrainians have been able to withstand the Russian onslaught and are now reshaping this conflict — with the real potential to win.

Molotov cocktails and camouflage nets

There is no easy way to get to Ukraine in wartime.

The airports are all closed, and all international and domestic transport is by road or train. So when I set out for Kyiv from Krakow, Poland, I first traveled three hours by car to the train station at the small Polish border town of Przemysl, where tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees had poured in at the beginning of the war.

Now the flow moves both ways, with hundreds of Ukrainians boarding the overnight train from Przemysl to Kyiv each day. (For some reason — with a few horrible exceptions — the Russians have chosen not to bomb the rail infrastructure that crisscrosses Ukraine, and the trains are crowded.)

Passengers waited outside on the train platform in the freezing cold — the lobby was overflowing — for an 11 p.m. departure that was delayed by four hours. The snaking queue included parents who had been visiting daughters and grandchildren who had fled the fighting. (Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country.)

The line also included refugees returning to Ukraine for medical treatment, Ukrainian students at Polish universities who were headed home to visit, and lonely female refugees bringing their kids home despite the danger.

I had long conversations at 2 a.m. with Ukrainians who didn’t know how to plan their lives beyond the next few weeks, since no one knows when the war will end.

Then we filed onto the train for the 15-hour journey to Kyiv, sitting up the whole way because there was no sleeping car. Passengers bring their own food and pay the car attendant the equivalent of 3 cents for a cup of tea.

Returning to Kyiv was disorienting. I had visited the city in February and left just before the Russian invasion, which targeted the capital in an attempt to kill or capture its leaders and install a pro-Russian puppet government.

Back then I was trying to gauge the readiness of Ukrainians for war.

This time, I came to measure the steadfastness and morale of soldiers, citizens, and cities battered by Russian rockets and missiles in a deliberate effort to break the will of the population and the troops.

Never, in four decades of writing on conflicts, have I covered a war where a nuclear-armed superpower attacked a smaller neighbor with the goal of destroying and annexing that country — using deliberate massacres of civilians and threats of nuclear war, as tactics.

I returned to Kyiv to try to gauge how long Ukraine could hold out before the West recognized it could not afford to let Ukraine lose — or let Vladimir Putin win.

When I finally reached Kyiv, the center of the city appeared little different, except for “hedgehog” antitank barricades and sandbags at some key intersections, and a display of captured Russian tanks in front of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral.

But the people had changed. The unthinkable had happened.

None of the many locals I had met in February had believed Putin would launch an attack on their city.

None had imagined they would spend months in shelters, often deep in the lowest levels of the subway system, as the Russians battered parts of the city with missiles and rockets, until the Ukrainian military forced them to retreat.

One of my Kyiv translators on my February trip had slept for two months in a subway bomb shelter along with her mother, before the Russians were pushed back from the outskirts of Kyiv. Another Kyiv helper left for her in-law’s village house where she and other volunteers worked making Molotov cocktails and camouflage nets for the army.

Some of my acquaintances volunteered for the army (one from Odesa had been killed) or were doing civilian volunteer work rebuilding houses and schools in destroyed suburbs and villages around Bucha and Borodyanka.

My new Kyiv assistant, Alex Babenko, whom I found and interviewed on a Telegram channel for fixers, translators, and photographers, was a recent university graduate who had returned again and again to the contested Donbas region with foreign journalists.

He was determined to expose the suffering of Ukrainians who were trapped there. (I decided, however, to visit the northern and southern fronts, which were heating up, as the fight for the Donbas settled into a stalemate).

Alex hustled to find me body armor, which was being loaned out by a local office of the international humanitarian group, Reporters Without Borders. The lightweight ceramic plates available now are a far cry from the heavy steel plated vests I wore in Iraq and Afghanistan when I covered wars in those countries.

The Inquirer provided me with a top-notch helmet — an item in shorter supply in Kyiv. That equipment was unnecessary for our work in Kyiv, but it was essential for reporting from the front lines.

The citizens of Kyiv were learning to live with constant anxiety about the future. At an appointment with Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova, air raid sirens suddenly went off. She calmly and quickly escorted me down several flights of stairs to a basement shelter.

It turned out Russian cruise missiles were sailing over Kyiv on their way south toward the contested region of Zaporizhzhia, where Russia’s military has seized control of a Ukrainian nuclear reactor. All the while, Dzhaparova never stopped deploring the plight of her fellow ethnic Crimean Tatars, who are being severely repressed under the Russian occupation of Crimea.

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