Ukrainians wake up to war on all fronts

"Everyone knew it was imminent but no one believed," a local Ukrainian journalist said, comparing the invasion to how Israel might have felt before the Yom Kippur War.

 People walk at the border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Medyka, Poland, February 24, 2022.  (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
People walk at the border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Medyka, Poland, February 24, 2022.
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)

Ukrainians have been hearing warnings of war for weeks. The nightmare scenario finally unfolded on Thursday as airports were closed, martial law declared and news of Russian airstrikes was announced.  

“The Russian operation hit all military infrastructure including Lviv and attacked airfields,” according to Anton Skyba, a local journalist and expert on the situation. Skyba has many years of experience covering the conflict, especially in the Donbas where Russian-backed separatists took over two breakaway areas in 2014. Today, he is a local producer for media. 

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Skyba says that while there are no reports of civilian casualties yet, when we spoke at 9 a.m., the military strikes across Ukraine were concerning. Russia reportedly used cruise missiles to carry out the attacks, which began between four and five in the morning.

“A lot of people have seen the Ukrainian military trying to get to their locations and there is martial law," he said. "Many people are quite relaxed but there are multiple reports that highways are full of traffic.” Video from Kyiv this morning showed endless traffic leaving the city that was at a standstill. 

The journalist said that while people are not demoralized, some are worried and many are going to ATMs to get money to stock up for the coming days. “Some facilities are not working,” he said. Indeed, other reports point to a great sense of shock across Ukraine where many people did not think a war like this would break out.  

“Reports say they [the Russians] are trying to break through to Kharkiv and to get to Kiev; there are [so far] no reports from the army about efforts to resist on the ground, although there were reports of [Russian] warplanes and a chopper being shot down without specifying locations; it doesn’t mean Ukraine is letting them come in,” says Skyba.  

 Cars drive towards the exit of the city after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022. (credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS) Cars drive towards the exit of the city after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022. (credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)

Other Ukrainians said that the world must hear their cries for support. In Marinka, a town on the frontline in Donbass, local activist Alina Kocce said her hopes are with God. “we have a war; tell the world [Marinka] is in danger.” The town has been on the frontline for years; when I was there in 2017, her house had sandbags to prevent glass shattering or shrapnel entering from shelling.  

Skyba says the attacks show that the invasion was pre-planned. “They knew where to hit and when.” He says he spoke to one academic who compared the feeling in Ukraine to how Israel might have felt before the Yom Kippur War, a feeling that war was coming but denial that it would actually happen. “Everyone knew it was imminent but no one believed” it would actually happen.

THE RUSSIAN use of cruise missiles was designed to neutralize Ukrainian air defenses. I asked Skyba why Ukraine appears to have been surprised by this scenario. “it’s an issue of technology, and they have said many times that anti-aircraft is the weakest point.” Ukraine did close airports hours before the attacks and put out notifications that appeared to foreshadow what was coming next, warning that aircraft or missiles could be intercepted.  

The whole of Ukraine’s northern border appears to be threatened and reports have indicated possible Russian strikes from Crimea as well as airstrikes as far west as Lviv. While previous conflict was concentrated in the Donbass, this is unprecedented. Skyba says that Ukraine is striking back, but the issue is that in the first twenty-four hours, many places feel disconnected from one another. “I believe a lot of people don’t have illusions. If they were illusioned, this is the time to wake up.” 

Ukraine has support from Western countries. But the question is whether the West will actually do more than just put out statements. “If they stand for Ukraine, it should be a hard response; if they won’t send soldiers they should send resources,” Skyba said.

“I believe there should be no limits, Putin has crossed the line, beyond the borders. He is not pretending anymore; it’s open war in the heart of Europe, not using proxies,” he said. This is a reference to the fact that the Russians previously pretended in Donbass that it was only “separatists” in Ukraine fighting against the Ukrainian army. But now Russia is openly on Ukrainian soil. “It’s not like 2014. West, East and even the native town of the president were attacked; it is multiple targets.”

Ukrainians I spoke to often compared this invasion to Hitler’s invasions of the last century. One noted that Operation Barbarossa began at four o’clock in the morning and that Russia planned its attack for the same time. Another said that Putin is the “Hitler of the 21st century.” But Putin has also claimed that he is fighting “Nazis” in Ukraine, an illustration of how both sides recall World War II in this current war.