When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in the early morning hours of February 24, 2022, my colleagues and I were expecting it. We were taken by surprise anyway. Some changes are simply too large for the rational mind to accommodate. Three days earlier, a Russian-born friend of mine had told me, “D says it’s coming in the early morning of the 24th.”
My friend, an enterprising former inhabitant of Israel’s intelligence community, had taken the precaution of cultivating a number of senior Ukrainian sources in the previous months as the crisis worsened. D, an individual with contacts in the senior reaches of the Ukrainian government, was one of these. He had in confidence supplied the date and time.
A great deal of misdirecting noise put out by the Russian government and its dupes and mouthpieces was filling the information space at that time. D’s information proved good. It didn’t change the urgent sense of shock that February morning. Then again, as is well known, Volodymyr Zelensky’s government hadn’t believed its own intelligence either regarding the coming invasion.
A collective failure of the imagination. We had all been born long after the days of land invasions in the heart of Europe. We had assumed we would live out our days in their absence. The rational mind knew it was coming. The irrational mind, by contrast, knew it could not. The latter, unsurprisingly, proved the stronger.
So I went to my desk in the first hours of light that day, and I hurriedly wrote to a number of friends in Kyiv. Some had already left the city, to avoid what they assumed would be the imminent arrival of the Russian army. One, who had stayed, told me that Ukrainian sovereignty was now at an end. He added that I should not come to try to report on it. The danger, he said, would be too great.
I didn’t take his advice. Rather, I immediately began to make plans to get to Kyiv, cursing the foresight of those colleagues who had already found their way there. Once the initial plans had soothed my conscience, I wrote an article that morning saying that Vladimir Putin had just driven a stake through the heart of the rules-based international order. I arrived in Kyiv a week later.
The phases of the Ukraine War
IT IS NOW a year later. The war in Ukraine has passed through a number of identifiable phases. Many of my own predictions, and those of many others, fell wide of the mark.
I stand by this central observation, however: February 24, 2022, was the day that the post-Cold War world, in which the US exercised unchallenged domination of the international stage, decisively ended. Since that day, we have been living in a world in which an emergent, armed challenge to this order is underway.
Due modesty requires that I note my wrong predictions all the same. Even as I made for Kyiv, I assumed that the city must surely fall to the advancing Russians in the days and weeks ahead. The notion of a Russian army heading to a neighboring capital and then failing to conquer it was unfamiliar. Berlin 1953, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968. Everyone knows the history.
The Ukrainians had decided, improbably, not to follow the script. The Russians failed to envelop the city. Their advance airborne force was cut off and destroyed in Hostomel. The harrying of their columns coming in from Belarus depleted their capacity.
They had come expecting a walkover. There was, as a result, insufficient manpower to sustain a fight for the city, street by street. This was what the Ukrainians were preparing for them.
I remember the civilians, filling sandbags in the bitter March cold, all along the main streets of Kyiv; the casualty clearing stations, ready for the wounded expected when the fight for the city began; the “Czech hedgehogs,” anti-tank obstacles, strewn along all the main streets, with firing positions in the adjacent buildings. They were ready.
But at the end of March, the Russians pulled back from the outer suburbs of Kyiv, and the immediate threat to the Ukrainian capital passed.
Demonstrations in Kyiv
AS I WALKED among the anti-tank obstacles in the Maidan Nezaleshnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv, I remembered covering the demonstrations there eight years earlier, when the series of events began that would in the end lead to the Russian invasion.
Then, the fervor and determination of the Ukrainians not to be drawn into Putin’s deadly embrace had been made clear. The general Western perception of independent Ukraine as a place of corruption, cynicism and decay received its first jolt.
The young volunteers on the Maidan – women handing out plastic cups of borscht to the demonstrators against the freezing cold, and shaven-headed men from farther west showing the consignments of baseball bats and fire extinguishers that they had prepared in their tents in anticipation of an attack from the riot police, then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s feared “Berkut” anti-riot police force – did not suggest a nation incapable of rising to its own defense.
And still, did we know then that we were witnessing world history? Was there something in the air that indicated that this was one of those pivotal moments – like Gdansk in 1980, like Petrograd in 1917 – on which the axis of history turns? Apparent mainly in retrospect.
In the summer of last year, the fighting was most intense in the Donbas as the action shifted east. We made our way to the salient-facing towns of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, at that time the point of greatest pressure on Ukrainian forces.
The situation facing the residents of Lysychansk was dire in the extreme. The remaining inhabitants, without electricity, fuel or gas, huddled in the basements of apartment blocks as the Russian artillery hammered away. They buried those caught in the bombardments in improvised graves in patches of open ground close to the buildings. Lysychansk fell two weeks after we were there.
Many thought that a slow Russian grind forward was now inevitable. Few predicted the early Ukrainian counter-offensive that came in September. Still fewer foresaw the dimensions of its success.
A smart disinformation campaign led the Russians to concentrate forces in the south, around Kherson, anticipating an attack there. Instead, the push came on September 6, in the north, from Kharkiv, preceded by the first deployment by Kyiv of the newly acquired M142 HIMARS rocket launchers. The Ukrainians broke through, capturing 3,000 sq.k. by September 11.
With winter, the lines solidified, and an artillery-led battle of attrition began. And now, as spring approaches, there are reports of an upcoming massive new Russian offensive. Still, prediction in the Ukrainian context, as my own bruised record shows, is a risky business.
Moscow is not alone
NEVERTHELESS, it seems that the main point stands. The helicopters bringing the airborne forces to Hostomel Airport on the morning of February 24, and the columns that set out from Belarus shortly afterward, mark a pivotal point in global strategy. Since then, we have seen the emergence in clear sight of a new strategic alliance against the US and its allies.
Moscow is not alone. Tehran’s drones have made possible the Russian assault on civilian targets and infrastructure in Ukraine during the winter. Russia is no longer a portal to the west for Iran, Tehran no longer an ally of local convenience for Moscow.
A factory for the Iranian Shahed 136 drones is now under construction in the town of Yelabuga, 950 km. east of Moscow. Iran, once a junior partner in Syria, is now the main supplier of Russia’s military effort in Ukraine.
Two further developments should be noted. The surprise visit to Kyiv by President Joe Biden this week suggests that the US administration retains its understanding of the nature and gravity of the moment. United States training and support have been crucial to everything that has taken place in Ukraine during the last year.
And finally, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke this week at the Munich Security Conference of indications that China is preparing to supply “lethal” military aid to Russia in Ukraine.
Should such provision take place, it would complete the process, already apparent, by which the Russian invasion of Ukraine launched a year ago has ushered in a new era in global strategic affairs. All changed, changed utterly.”