In the wake of other (somewhat distracting) events over the past seven days, footage that has snuck largely under the radar nevertheless glaringly highlights the contradiction in the narrative the Kremlin has been pedalling ever since the Russian military encroached into sovereign territory earlier this year. Fancy that! Yes, some may recall the fairy stories of ‘Far-Right Nazis’ running riot through the former Soviet outpost that the Ukrainian people begged to be liberated from (fairy stories served-up as one element of the justification for invasion), though the reaction of the Ukrainian people via videos posted on social media as Ukrainian forces stormed into town and retook territory didn’t necessarily portray a terrified populace bereft at losing their Russian liberators. In many respects, the footage evoked archive of the French people reacting to Allied Forces recapturing Paris in 1944 – with little old ladies in headscarves tearfully embracing Ukrainian troops and giving every impression they were actually pleased to see the ‘Nazis’ back in town.
The disorientated Russian units fleeing the land-grabs seized in the first flush of invasion have employed a variation on the old ‘scorched earth’ policy on their way out: They’ve bombed civilian infrastructure, targeting power-plants, electricity substations and water supplies as they exit with their tails between their legs, provoking blackouts in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions en route. Just yesterday, cruise missiles hit a reservoir dam of no military value in Kryvyi Rih, flooding hundreds of homes. Even as the tide momentarily appears to have turned in this conflict, Russia’s achievement in exterminating centuries of kinship and shared cultural ties between the Russian and Ukrainian people – something even the disintegration of the USSR couldn’t eradicate – is arguably as significant as any military loss; Putin’s war machine has managed this in just six months. The legacy of the damage done will probably linger a little longer, however, though at least the impressive victory of the Ukrainian counterattack has humiliated the supposed, superior military might of the motherland and strengthened Ukraine’s spirit in the process.
Unverified stats from the Ukrainian Army claim 20 villages were taken back in less than 48 hours, though indisputable territorial gains for Ukraine in the past week have undoubtedly put a massive dent in the Russian armour that appeared impregnable when the operation began. The State flag has been raised again in the city of Izyum and Russian troops are reported to have spurned orders from Moscow by shedding official uniforms and resorting to donning civilian threads in order to save their individual skins in a manner that has uncomfortable echoes of the actual Nazis during the period when the death camps were being liberated over 70 years ago. Reports suggest considerable Russian ammunition has been abandoned in the evacuation of the north by the retreating regiments; clearly, unlike the carcasses of the US military hardware that littered the countryside of Vietnam for decades, Ukraine is making use of what its uninvited guest left behind. The actions of the Ukrainian military have also shown that being able to call upon the assistance and support of every Western nation will pay off as long as you have the tactical nous to use their weapons wisely – and the bulk of American weaponry hasn’t even been delivered yet.
Ukraine claims it has recaptured 1,158 square miles of occupied land from Russia and even some Russians in Ukraine are going on the record by stating the Ukrainians outnumber them by eight to one in the key regions following the Kharkiv counterattack. It can at least be verified that in a matter of days, 70 kilometres of Ukrainian soil that was in Russian hands has returned to its rightful owners. The institutionally corrupt Russian Army appears to have overstretched itself in certain strategic quarters of the country and the Ukrainians have expertly exploited their enemy where it was at its weakest. Yes, around a fifth of Ukraine remains occupied, but it seems the momentum is currently firmly with the invaded rather than the invader. Needless to say, anyone who thinks it’s all over will no doubt be in for a long wait before they can cry ‘Is it now!’ But recent gains by Ukraine have been a significant reversal of Russian fortunes that deserve noting. A canny strategy by the Ukrainian forces to spread rumours of an attack on vulnerable Russian troops in the south via social media sent Russian reinforcements pouring into the region, only to leave the Russians exposed in the north, which is how the Ukrainians were able to launch their successful counteroffensive in that part of the country. Clever.
The morale-sapped Russians are even attempting to step back from the borderline genocide-speak some espoused early on by romanticising the traditional connections between the two nations that the invasion has severed with such ruthlessness; but it’s too late. Reports of brutality beyond the rules of engagement have emerged in the wake of the towns and villages being liberated, including the Kharkiv city of Balakliya, where a six-month occupation by Russian troops saw the police station used as an interrogation centre by the occupying forces. Grim accounts of torture involving electric shocks have been relayed to the outside world by those who suffered in the temporary Russian HQ and by those who heard the cries of the tortured ringing across the neighbourhood – something the Russians made sure were broadcast by switching off the loud ventilation system in the building. The liberation of many towns has also revealed hundreds of civilian corpses, atrocities representing the final nail in the coffin of Russian/Ukrainian ‘brotherly love’.
The contrast between defender and attacker in terms of their approach to this conflict is perhaps best highlighted by how Russia is pretending it’s not engaged in a war – after all, Vlad insisted he was ‘liberating’ Ukraine from those pesky invisible Nazis, not perpetrating an act of aggression against an independent neighbour; the majority of the Russian people, spoon-fed propaganda by state media, have accepted this premise and haven’t been mobilised onto a war footing. Their perception of the truth being shaped by this platform for Putin has also enabled the great dictator to avoid the kind of resistance he anticipates should he exhibit actual honesty. The Ukrainian forces, on the other hand, have recognised Russia’s actions for what they are and have risen to the challenge, galvanising the entire nation into fighting back against an almighty aggressor. Russia might have begun the war with the superior hardware, but the dysfunctional structure of its Army means it was ill-prepared for a prolonged conflict. In part, it’s almost reminiscent of how the British Army once was, with its incompetent aristocrats leading regiments simply because they bought a commission – before the worst calamities of the Crimean War belatedly brought about some much-needed change.
Thankfully, six months of this hasn’t anaesthetised outsiders to the horrors inflicted upon the Ukrainian people; the sheer visceral revulsion provoked by some of the images that have made it to Western screens hasn’t descended into the fatigue the American public allegedly experienced when Vietnam was recognised as the first televised war in the late 60s. Some of the snippets I’ve caught on TV or online have stayed with me for days, as I’m sure they have millions of others – mainly the footage of town centres peppered with people trying to go about their daily business as missiles hit and the carnage unfolds in real-time. Such images strengthen convictions that what Russia is doing is wrong, convictions that will remain strong. Yes, of course, propaganda is not a tool invented by (or exclusively used by) Russia in times of war; but they’re so much better at it than anyone else because Putin has excelled in its usage to justify every crime he and his regime have committed for years. However, if you happen to find yourself in Russia and point this out, probably best to make sure you steer clear of standing near a window in a tall building.
© The Editor