A few miles on from the roadside shrine to the Ukrainians killed in Stalin’s Great Terror — bleak metal crosses, a slab of granite, birch trees sliding into a dark past — lies the last Ukrainian Army checkpoint.
The last, at least, for us.
We are ordered back toward Brovary, the satellite town made famous some days back when the Russian Army’s tanks huddling toward Kyiv were blasted to pieces by the defenders. The site of the tank ambush lay ahead, but a Ukrainian soldier is firm: “Go back.”
To enforce his argument, a big blast sounds, outgoing, coming from the forest to our right. It is not close, but it is not so far away. You learn to tell the difference between outgoing and incoming. Outgoing, there is one bang and the air pressure doesn’t change. Incoming, you can feel it through your boots.
We get in the car, drive back a little bit, hang around at a roadside picnic area, listen to more blasts, see black smoke scribbling lazily against the cold blue sky. Every now and then an ambulance screams down the four-lane highway, heading for Kyiv.
A couple walk toward us, toward the war, and we have a brief chat. Vanya and Natasha are middle-aged, composed, purposeful. Before the war he traded in seafood; she grew cucumbers and salad.
“I’ll have a smoked salmon sandwich with cucumber.”
Another blast from the woods to our right.
“I’m sorry; that’s not available right now.”
The Ukrainian sense of humor is a wonder to behold. Natasha is still stern.
“I’m going to give you a poor review.”
She laughs too and, for a moment, the war is forgotten while we enjoy our joke and enjoy life. I’m working with Vlad the driver, who picked me up when I hitchhiked to the TV missile attack in Kyiv in the early days of the war, and Eugene, the world’s worst translator, who wore a hair band when we went to the mosque. Coming along for the laughs is Emile Ghessen, a filmmaker from London who, in another life, was a sergeant in the Royal Marines.
Where are Vanya and Natasha going?
“Home, the next village along, a mile and a half away.”
“Is it in Russian hands?”
“And the next village, under Russian or Ukrainian control?”
“No one is sure.”
The Russians are close, maybe 10 miles away, maybe less.
We drive back some more and stop at a gas station for a coffee on the east side of Brovary.
Denis, a thick-set taxi driver, is helping a couple shift their stuff out of their war-damaged car into his vehicle. Most of the front of the car is gone; how it made it to the gas station is one of those miracles of war. The man is grim-faced, silent, the woman wretched, crying. A phone rings and the woman starts a long phone conversation. While this happens Denis takes a drag on his cigarette and talks to us.
I’d heard reports that the Russian Army was not just stalled but that here, on this, the eastern claw of its pincer attack on Kyiv, it was going backward.
“Have the Russians moved?”
“No,” says Denis. “They are staying in the same place, neither moving forward or back.”
“How are they?”
“The villagers say that they are begging for food. They’re so hungry, they come to the villagers and ask for something to eat. The villagers say they are not aggressive. Their commanders want them to fight, to be harsh. But they are too busy asking for scraps to eat.”
So that bit of my reporting was on the money. The other day for New Lines I retold a Reuters story from 2011 that a Russian Army officer was sacked after complaining his boys were fed dog food in tins labeled “prime quality beef.”
The dog food army may not be going backward, but it is not going forward, either. It is more worried about what’s for dinner than besieging Kyiv, and that is not good news for Vladimir Putin.
Nor would the president of Russia fancy face time with Cmdr. Muslim Chiberloevsky. He is fighting against the Russian Army. He has been doing it for a while, since 1991, he tells me in a Georgian restaurant in Kyiv. He’s the leader of a Chechen brigade fighting with the Ukrainians and for a free and independent Chechnya. I ask him what he thinks of Putin’s pet Chechen, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The commander’s stern face grows another inch of ice while Eugene translates.
“Kadyrov is not Chechen. He is a traitor.”
The commander’s sense that the war is going badly for Russia was backed by someone else, my friend Johnny Mercer, Tory member of Parliament for Plymouth, former defense minister and, again in another life, an officer in the 29th Commando Regiment Royal Artillery. In British Army speak, a (not that dumb) dumb gunner. When in town, he asked the press corps to keep quiet about his presence until he got back, lest he be accused of starting World War III. He’s back in Britain now, so I can share with you how he thinks Putin’s war is going.
Mercer was the former officer I quoted as saying: “Any army that doesn’t look after its dead doesn’t tend to win.” He believes that “Kyiv is too big for Putin’s soldiers to take.” He was fascinated to hear the fragments of information I had picked up, supporting his hypothesis.
The Russian army suffers low morale. It doesn’t look after its dead. Its generals are corrupt. It gives the boys dog food to eat. Its leader is a fearful paranoiac. And his overtures of peace are nonsense. As French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said, the “Russian logic is based on the usual triptych: indiscriminate bombardments, so-called humanitarian ‘corridors’ designed to then accuse the adversary of not respecting them and talks with no other objective than to pretend to negotiate.”
Back in 2000 I reported how the Russian military bombed a white-flag convoy of refugees in the Chechen village of Katyr Yurt, killing dozens of civilians.
I met an 8-year-old girl with a cruelly burnt face, both hands burnt and bandaged, a broken right leg swathed in plaster, and a left knee pinioned by iron bolts and internal bruising. Yet she wanted to tell us what happened. Her family was squashed into the family’s black Volga saloon, seven of them. She explained how the convoy left Katyr Yurt for what they hoped was safety. “There was a white flag on our car, flying from a wooden stick,” she said. “Then two planes came and they hit us and my dad and mom were sitting in front of us and my brother and [I] were sitting in the back seat. Then we were blown up. I fell to the mud in the ground.”
Everyone else was killed as they traveled through the Russian Army’s safe humanitarian corridor.
Twenty-two years on, nothing has changed.
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