In the context of modern warfare it’s rare for U.S. and Russian intelligence analysts, often on diametrically opposed sides, to come to the same conclusions. Nevertheless, in late February both intelligence services reported to their respective commanders in chief that Ukraine’s capital would fall within days of Russia’s full-scale ground invasion.
Despite this consensus and the overwhelming odds against Ukraine, after 37 days of war, the entire Kyiv oblast (province) was liberated from the control of Russian invaders on April 2. In Kyiv at least, David had slain Goliath, pulling off one of the most impressive military victories in modern history, one that even Ukraine’s closest allies thought impossible. Russia’s primary objective in this war was not only to capture Ukraine’s capital but also to topple its government and install a client dictatorship subordinate to Moscow. In less than six weeks, the likelihood that Russia would fulfill its goal went from inevitable to nearly impossible.
But there are no celebrations on the streets of Kyiv, and the people here are under no illusions about the situation they still find themselves in. They continue to fight a war for their very existence against a much more powerful enemy that still occupies a significant part of territory in the south and east of the country.
As the last of the springtime snow melted and Ukrainian forces drove their Russian counterparts across the Belarusian border, the horrors exposed in the wake of their retreat have shocked the world and serve as a brutal lesson to those who still hesitated over calls to provide Ukraine with military aid.
In my visits to the newly liberated territories over the past week, two clear pictures have emerged.
The first is one of unfathomable Ukrainian bravery in the face of one of the most powerful military forces ever assembled. On the outskirts of Irpin, just outside the village of Dmytrivka, the burned-out shells of 13 Russian tanks and armored vehicles were still smoldering when I arrived. In a daring ambush 48 hours before my arrival, two Ukrainian tanks had wiped out an entire Russian military convoy, the charred and unrecognizable corpses of the tank crews still inside some of the vehicles. The Russians were fleeing north back toward Belarus when the ambush occurred, and given the scale of the devastation, it’s hard to imagine there were many survivors. These were no hapless conscripts either. The prominent “V” signs painted onto the vehicles left no doubt that their occupants belonged to Russia’s elite VDV airborne and Rosgvardia (National Guard) divisions.
The fact that Ukrainian forces were significantly outnumbered in Dmytrivka and risked engagement even as the Russians were in full retreat says everything about the courage and resolve of Ukraine’s resistance.
In Bucha, a similar pattern emerged, this time from the opening days of the war when the Russians advanced quickly on Ukrainian soil in an effort to bear down on the capital. On Vokzal’na Street, a long and narrow residential road in the heart of Bucha, the chassis of 22 Russian tanks and armored vehicles lie rusting in the sunshine. Seeing these scenes of utter devastation, it makes sense how Russia failed to advance much further than the suburbs of Kyiv oblast. It’s evident that some of the vehicles in the convoy tried to break formation to escape from the carnage, but the confines of this street made that impossible, and the vehicles were picked off one by one. The spent ammunition and anti-tank munitions that litter the ground are yet another indication of the sheer bravery and determination of Ukrainians.
In sharp contrast, the second picture to emerge from these liberated areas is one of Russian brutality, barbarity and cowardice.
As we drive into the town of Irpin, the body of an elderly man who had been riding his bicycle lies on the road. Evidence of war crimes surrounds us at every corner, and every village and town within miles bears the scars of Russian bombardment, apartment blocks and houses pummeled into ash and rubble.
In the center of Bucha, the beautiful St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church, its golden domes glistening in the sun, belies what hides behind it: a mass grave loaded with civilian corpses, some in body bags, some still underneath the earth and clay. The JCB digger that was used for the mass grave lies abandoned in the courtyard of a residential tower block several hundred yards away from the church.
The Ukrainians have begun to remove the bodies of civilian men that had been lying in the streets for weeks before Bucha was liberated. Most were of fighting age, their hands bound behind their backs with point-blank bullet wounds to their heads. Images of the burned corpses of women and children have also emerged from Bucha and other areas formerly under Russian occupation.
To date, Ukrainian officials have said that 410 civilian bodies have been recovered from Bucha and the surrounding areas of Kyiv oblast.
As Ukrainian soldiers, outmanned and outgunned, ambushed and destroyed the armored columns invading their country, Russian soldiers killed, raped and looted their way through Ukrainian territory, sparing their brutality for Ukraine’s civilian population. The pictures emerging from this war portray the ideals of the opposing sides: courage vs. cowardice, bravery vs. brutality and democracy vs. darkness.
What took place in Bucha, Irpin and the areas under Russian occupation was not an aberration: It was part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s premeditated plan to systematically punish, subjugate and slaughter Ukraine’s population into compliance. The war crimes and crimes against humanity were not the work of rogue Russian soldiers; they were a core element of the operation to erase the Ukrainian national identity and destroy its fledgling democracy in the name of Russian revanchist totalitarianism.
These liberated areas reveal horrifying truths about Russia’s intentions. And Ukrainian defiance and sacrifice are the only reasons we are able to document and bear witness to these atrocities. Russian troops were supplied with instructions on how to dig and fill mass graves; their units were accompanied by mobile crematoriums and were equipped with tens of thousands of body bags. There can be no room for doubt: If Russia wasn’t expecting to burn the corpses of its own troops, whose corpses were they planning to burn? The scale of what Russia was planning to do in Kyiv and beyond can no longer be ignored: Putin was planning to destroy the Ukrainian people, both metaphorically and literally. If Kyiv had fallen, how many mass graves would be dug today on the banks of the Dnipro River? And how long will Russia spend licking its wounds before it tries to take Kyiv again?
Very few in the international community seem willing to answer these questions, despite the truth has been exposed for all to see.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was correct in his assertion that Ukraine was not only fighting for its own survival; Ukraine is fighting for the free world against autocracy. How much more Ukrainian blood must be spilled before the free world answers Ukraine’s call for aid?