In the Russia-Ukraine war, the contest for Kyiv continues

BEHIND THE LINES: Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine’s capital intensifies as the city’s defenders prepare to defend it.

 PEOPLE HELP evacuate a wounded resident of a building destroyed by Russian shelling in Kyiv this week. (photo credit: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)
PEOPLE HELP evacuate a wounded resident of a building destroyed by Russian shelling in Kyiv this week.
(photo credit: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)

Three residential buildings in Kyiv were struck by Russian ballistic missiles on Tuesday morning. Two people were killed and an unknown number were injured. There are no indications that a military target of any type was located in the vicinity of these buildings. The attacks come in a week that has seen the first deaths of foreign and Ukrainian journalists in the war. 

The three journalists were killed in the area of Irpin, to the north west of Kyiv. Irpin, along with neighboring Bucha and Hostomel have formed the main point of clashes between the Ukrainian defenders of the city and the Russian army that has been making its way southward from Belarus in the direction of the Ukrainian capital since February 24. 

There is no great mystery as to what is beginning. There has been much criticism of Russian tactical performance in this war. Vladimir Putin’s army, including some of its most prestigious units, has been revealed as clumsy, flailing, sometimes astonishingly inefficient. Still, the general direction of the conflict is clear. The Russian goal appears to be to surround the major cities of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River, and to render them uninhabitable. 

This process is currently at its most advanced in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. There, around 2,200 people, overwhelmingly civilians, have been killed by Russian aerial bombing and missile fire over the last two weeks. The city remains defiant, and is being destroyed. 

 A satellite image shows burning apartment buildings at Zelinskovo street, in the western section of Mariupol, Ukraine March 12, 2022. (credit: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS) A satellite image shows burning apartment buildings at Zelinskovo street, in the western section of Mariupol, Ukraine March 12, 2022. (credit: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS)

Regardless of the mistakes, mishaps and absurdities, the Russian forces appear to be operating according to the dictum attributed to Josef Stalin that “quantity has a quality of its own.” Meaning, regardless of errors, the sheer size and capacity of Russia’s forces when compared to Ukraine’s must eventually deliver victory. 

Kyiv is the main prize for Russia. Its capture would represent the effective eclipse, temporary or permanent, of Ukrainian political independence. But Russian progress toward the commencement of a siege of the city has been slow and erratic. Ukrainian resistance remains determined. The city is still not encircled, though it is now closed in from the north, west and east, with only the southern exits still open. 

The 60 km.-long Russian convoy that had been making its way from Belarus since February 24 has this week begun to disperse around the city. Howitzers are being deployed in firing positions. Armored units are deploying in starting points north of the capital, at Antonov airport and other locations. The battle for the Ukrainian capital is thus now on. The bombardments this week were its opening phase. 

If the Russian strategy is brutally simple, the Ukrainian response is equally plain. The largest movement of population seen in Europe since 1945 is currently underway. But the flight of Ukraine’s refugees westward does not represent a general retreat. Rather, the intention is for those most vulnerable or unable to take part in the fight to be removed as far as possible from danger. The element charged with national defense remains in place, organized, and determined to resist. 

IN A REPORTING trip to Kyiv last week, I had the opportunity to observe the Ukrainian capital, as it prepares to meet the Russian onslaught, and to speak to some of its defenders. 

The city is on a full war footing. Most shops are closed. Only food stores and some pharmacies remain open. The infrastructure for urban warfare is in place. “Hedgehogs,” made of carved-up rail track, have been placed at the city’s major crossings. They are intended to impede the passage of Russian armor down the broad thoroughfares of Kyiv. Firing positions made from sandbags have also been assembled. It is safe to assume that similar positions have also been prepared within buildings across central Kyiv. 

Conversations with the city’s defenders indicate that morale is high, even as the Russian effort to close off the city continues. The forces waiting to meet the invaders are a mixture of regular troops and volunteers of the “Territorial Defense” structures. These latter auxiliary groups, whose existence was formalized in 2014, are an effort by the Ukrainian authorities to make use of the volunteer spirit and patriotic sentiments that have characterized Ukraine since the Maidan protests of that year, and the Russian incursions that followed. 

I visited an improvised casualty clearing station prepared by the volunteers in north Kyiv. In what had been a private hospital prior to the war, the volunteers have established a facility that will be responsible for administering the first medical response to fighters wounded in combat.

In the courtyard of the building, as we entered, volunteer fighters were training with quadcopters. These tiny drones proved a key element in urban combat in the Middle East over the last decade. They will be providing tactical surprises too for any Russian force that seeks to enter the Ukrainian capital.

Dr. Alexander Sikorski, 40, is the commander of the medical facility. In civilian life a clinical oncologist at Kyiv’s National Cancer Institute, he now commands a team of 17 doctors, along with paramedics and nursing staff. 

Speaking fluent English rapidly, rushing between meetings with his staff, Sikorski is blunt in his assessment of the situation. 

“We’ve been at war with Russia for the last eight years. Doctors who are in the city now are here to help Ukrainians to stand on their land, and to protect their ‘mothership’ from Russia. That’s what we’re doing here. We hope it won’t be necessary. But we’ll be ready if it is.” 

In another facility of the Territorial Defense a few blocks away, Taras Topol, 34, a volunteer medic, embraces me when he hears that I have arrived from Israel. 

“We have an Israeli-made bandage here that helps to stop bleeding,” he tells me. “Many Jews have stayed in the city. And a lot of Jewish people are resisting with us.”

In civilian life, Topol is a singer. His band Antityla (Antibodies) is well known in Ukraine. “People here know that Israel has a long history of defending independence, living close to the enemy,” he says. “That everyone there is in the military, everyone training, so I hope that with Ukraine, after this war, it will be the same.” 

The medical equipment, the beds, the medications, all are ready. They are elements in what is perhaps the most notable aspect of events in Ukraine since February 24: namely, the durability and non-collapse of the Ukrainian state, and the spirit of volunteering and national mobilization that has taken hold in Ukraine, contrary to many predictions. 

So as Putin’s convoy finally deploys around Kyiv, and the shelling intensifies, the positions of the defenders are prepared. On the streets and in the buildings. Anti-tank defenses, sniping positions and drones in place. The volunteers, Kyiv’s armed singers and doctors, are poised and ready too. 

Vladimir Putin’s army has proven a severely flawed instrument so far in this conflict. The unanswered question is whether Moscow can still achieve at least part of its objectives through the application of overwhelming, indiscriminate force. 

The Kyiv counter-mobilization, perhaps ironically, is reminiscent of the words spoken by a wounded soldier to Pierre Bezukhov in Leo Tolstoy’s great novel of an earlier Russian war: “They’re not so particular nowadays. They mean to throw the whole nation against them… and to make an end of it.” The end remains to be seen.