The Ukrainian Counteroffensive Looms
The next phase of the war is important but it won't end the conflict
KYIV — While walking up the hill near St. Andrew’s church in the Podilskyi district, I came across a man who showed me what he claimed were pieces of a drone he’d found on the street. The small shards of what looked like black plastic had been “falling like rain,” in the area the night before, he claimed.
There were certainly more all around, he told me, if I were to look. And, true enough, not far down the street, I found more of the same material.
I didn’t expect to find a souvenir from Iran in Ukraine, but you can’t be surprised by anything nowadays.
Nearly two months have passed since I arrived here, a period of time that someone who’s been here for a year told me has been the quietest since the launch of the full-scale invasion. But that interlude of calm seems to be over as the preliminary skirmishes of the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive are now getting underway.
In the restaurants and bars of the city, talk of that counteroffensive, which has been repeatedly promised by Ukrainian government officials and military leaders, is widespread.
The Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz, said in his book On War that, “war is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”
Ukraine is currently shrouded in this fog of war, which prevents anyone outside of a small group of leaders–and perhaps a few spies–from knowing what is coming next. But there are signs, like the drone whose fragments I picked up from the streets of Kyiv.
The past week has seen attacks on this city every other night, either small fleets of Iranian-made Shahed drones or barrages of ballistic missiles. For an entire week, the air defense managed to hold them off and shoot down everything that came at the city.
That was due in no small part thanks to the new the Patriot and Iris-T air defense systems that arrived from Germany and other allies of Ukraine last month.
But then on the night of May 7, they finally broke through, hitting a high-rise residential building and injuring five people. According to the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, it took 36 drones to do it.
This is the Russian military’s mentality in this war at its finest: if something doesn’t work the first time, just bang it again harder.
And that’s not even going into the cities and towns on the front line, where shelling is a daily occurrence.
Ukrainian cities and infrastructure aren’t the only places getting hit. While everyone has heard about the now-famous drone attack on the Kremlin in early May, it did no real damage, despite the eye-catching images. The real blows in Russia and occupied Crimea are being struck on railroads, fuel and ammunition depots, and other military infrastructure.
There's been a string of these kinds of attacks in recent weeks, which come sometimes in the form of aerial strikes, other times through partisan-esque sabotage. Ukrainian officials aren’t claiming responsibility for them, but analysts say they are just the type of actions that an army about to launch a major attack would undertake.
In Kyiv, the strikes apparently aren’t as bad as they were this past winter, when there were no Patriot batteries and many Russian missiles and drones were able to hit the electrical infrastructure.
Someone here told me that he was without power for up to 12 hours a day on some days in November and December, forcing him to live in darkness and making it impossible for him to heat his apartment or run his water.
You can still see the aftereffects of that wave of attacks here. My first stop in Ukraine back in mid-March was in the Lviv Central Station, where I arrived in the middle of the night. The platform was shrouded in darkness and the corridors were barely lit.
The lobby and hallways of my first hotel in Kyiv were likewise suffused with gloom. A lot of buildings here still keep their lights low, and I’ve seen signs not to take elevators to reduce the use of electricity.
A Ukrainian acquaintance asked me what I found most surprising about being here, and I told her that it was how quotidian everything was, despite the war. People adapt to whatever situation they’re put in, she told me.
Her partner, who I’ll call Bogdan, said that after everything Ukrainians are going through, they need to be able to relax and enjoy the small pleasures of everyday life, like having a coffee or a beer or enjoying a nice meal.
Bohdan is in the military. A few days after I met up with him and his girlfriend, he was sent on deployment. I met them at a club in Kyiv, a hip basement space where people danced to a DJ spinning tunes and bartenders wearing bow ties made elaborate cocktails.
The girlfriend, who is originally from east of Ukraine, had fled to a neighboring country at the outbreak of the full-scale invasion. She works remotely and could live anywhere but returned to Ukraine to be with Bohdan. They’re just one of countless Ukrainians whose lives have been upended by the Russian invasion.
Of course, no one knows what will happen next, and the Russian still army vastly outnumbers and outguns the Ukrainian one. But Ukraine surprised the world last year when they fended off the Russians in many parts of their country. Now that they’ve got hundreds of new Western tanks from their allies, thousands of freshly trained troops, and other equipment, it doesn’t seem impossible that they’ll be able to do it again.
But whatever happens, it’s crucial to remember that the counteroffensive is just one part of a larger struggle against a revanchist Russia that determined to engage in a brutal imperial war of conquest. Since February of 2022, more than 8,400 Ukrainian civilians have been killed and 14,000 injured, while over $140 billion (US dollars) in damage has occurred in Ukraine due to Russian attacks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, American President Joe Biden, and various academics and experts have all said that acts of genocide are being committed here. I’m not an expert on the subject, but after having traveled to front line cities and formerly occupied regions and seen the destruction exacted by Russian forces on civilian infrastructure like schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings, it seems to me that a form of genocide is likely taking place now in Ukraine.
At the very least, it’s clear from reports that war crimes, such as the removal of children, torture, rape, and targeting of civilians, have occurred and are ongoing here. Already, Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, have been charged by the international criminal court in The Hague for the “unlawful deportation” of Ukrainian children. “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is one of the acts listed in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
All that means that when this spring and summer are over, Ukraine is going to continue to need the support of its friends in order to remain free of Russian occupation and oppression. That is a battle that will be fought in the parliaments of its allies and in the sphere of public opinion, and one that won’t be over when the winter arrives here.
Note: This post has been edited from its original version to clarify my views on genocide and war crimes in Ukraine.
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