I’ve seen the fragility of our way of life, how precious is peace and the need for constant vigilance against tyranny

Published by The Daily Mail (14th November, 2022)

On the outskirts of Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv lies a suburb of Soviet-era apartment blocks that were once filled with families who enjoyed comfortable lifestyles after coming home from local factories, offices and schools.

Today, most families have fled, the factories are destroyed, the schools lie mainly in ruins and precious few children are around to enjoy the brightly coloured swings and slides in the playgrounds.

Saltivka — with its blackened homes and blown-out windows — offers a stark illustration of the nihilistic stupidity of war. It is the hardest-hit area of a cultured European city that has seen at least a third of its buildings destroyed.

Kharkiv’s regional government office — on the fringe of Freedom Square, where Ukraine’s biggest statue of Lenin once stood — was wrecked by a cruise missile. Even the children’s hospital was hit three times, cluster bombs shredding wards where young cancer patients were treated.

After spending 25 weeks reporting on this nation’s struggle for survival over the past year, I have seen too many places such as Saltivka bearing grotesque witness to the savagery of Vladimir Putin. I have spoken with too many distraught people, heard too many disturbing stories, seen too many distressing scenes.

And as I return home to London from this war-torn land, I reflect on the chaos and carnage, the courage and cruelty, that I have observed.

Some conversations linger in the memory for their horror — and some for their profundity in exposing the issues that lie beneath the surface of this epic tussle between democracy and dictatorship.

We must remember what is at stake here, as talk grows of ‘Ukraine fatigue’, with support wearing thin among some key allies of Kyiv due to fears over the cost of protracted war. Such defeatism plays straight into Putin’s hands, confirming the despot’s view that democracy is inherently divided and weak.

Besides, it is hard to see a viable peace deal ceding land that Ukrainians could accept after the atrocities and war crimes they have suffered — especially after their latest battlefield success in retaking Kherson, the only regional capital captured by Putin in the war.

The joy of liberation is, as ever, tempered by the legacy of Russian occupation with booby traps, collaboration, destruction, hunger, killings, pillaging and torture.

So let me tell you about Pavlo, an affable man I met six months ago in that battered suburb of Saltivka where I had gone to interview people emerging from basements and returning to their homes after a Ukrainian push forward.

The 52-year old pointed out his family’s flat on the seventh floor of an apartment building. It was easy to spot — a green blind billowed though windows shattered when a missile hit his neighbour’s flat, which was burned out. ‘I was lucky my apartment did not catch fire — it was just 10cm away,’ he said.

Pavlo took me to see the cracked walls and to smell the acrid smoke still clinging to his family home. He pointed out the place in the yard where a young woman had been smoking a cigarette when a shell landed, killing her before her husband’s eyes.

Given his close-cropped hair and ramrod posture, I was not surprised when Pavlo said he had been an army officer, retiring last year due to diabetes. He showed me with pride a photograph from his officer training in the former Soviet Union.

Then I saw tears in his eyes as this dignified military man told me how his nephew was killed by Russian machine-gun fire from an armoured vehicle as he waited at traffic lights in his car at 10am on February 24. It was less than six hours after the first shots were fired in this foolish war — missiles I woke to hear 300 miles away in Kyiv as Russian troops crossed the border.

Later that day, Pavlo received phone calls from former Soviet classmates, one of them even ringing from Siberia. Now senior Russian officers, they were offering him a plum job under Moscow’s occupation and protection from torture if captured.

‘They were so brainwashed by television propaganda they thought Ukrainians needed to be liberated,’ he said as we stood among shards of glass in his abandoned living room. ‘I told them, ‘Are you out of your mind? Don’t ever call me again and forget this number’.’

Pavlo’s story highlights the delusion behind Putin’s invasion — the fantastical idea that Ukrainians, especially in Russian-speaking eastern regions, were so repressed by their government that they would greet the arrival of Moscow’s tanks with joy.

This was one of the fallacies that led the Kremlin to launch a war it expected to be over in days. Instead it has dragged on for months, exposing Putin’s arrogance and Russia’s military incompetence.

Visiting Kharkiv shortly before the invasion, I was struck by how much Ukraine had strengthened as a nation following the despot’s theft of Crimea and the illegal annexation of parts of Donbas — events that I witnessed in 2014.

Many people told me of their readiness to resist — including Maksym Bilyk, a computer geek in his 20s. When Russian soldiers arrived in his city, he fled in fear. But he then returned, signed up for the military and helped to liberate his own mother who was living in a border village.

One taxi driver droned on to me about his admiration for Putin, his hatred of politicians in Kyiv and how life had been better in Soviet times. He played patriotic Russian rap music in his car. Yet when I asked if he would like his city to switch sides, even he dismissed the idea, stating firmly that his city was Ukrainian.

Today, there is pure loathing. Putin, threatened by a democracy blossoming on his doorstep, proclaimed an historic mission to save his fellow Slavs in cities such as Kharkiv from ‘Nazis’ in Kyiv. But the reality of his ‘salvation’ can be seen in the spilled blood, burned flats and broken windows of Saltivka and hundreds more places.

I will never forget the charred bodies in Bucha and the women who had been raped in Izyum, nor the man who told me his chilling story of crawling out of a shallow grave where he had been buried with his two brothers, after miraculously surviving an execution when he was shot in the head.

It is always the living human wreckage, not the corpses or smashed buildings, that is most disturbing. Typical was the deeply traumatised truck driver who had joined the army and briefly returned from the frontline to celebrate his wife’s birthday in Dnipro last month — only for the building where they lived to be devastated in a missile strike.

Yet even now, after so many horrors and so much agony, it is still hard to accept that this is a major conflict between two military forces in the heart of Europe — and that one of them is openly threatening use of nuclear weapons.

Even in Ukraine — after nine months of war and eight years of tussling with Russia in the Donbas region — people keep telling me how they still struggle to comprehend the enormity of the nightmare that has befallen them.

One woman in Kyiv lamented how her friends — who used to enjoy foreign holidays in the sun at this time of year — were fighting on the front-line or were refugees forced to flee elsewhere in Europe.

On that fateful first day of full-scale invasion, I met a young journalist from Kherson who is now in Milton Keynes after a kind Mail reader saw a snap of her with her cat in the paper, taken amid the crowds at Kyiv bus station, and invited her to stay. Her father was later captured and tortured; her mother and younger brother have just been liberated.

Another young professional from Kharkiv, who spent 80 days hiding from bombs and missiles in a subway, spoke emotionally to me about the grim turn that her life had taken. ‘I could never have imagined such things could happen to me,’ she said.

‘All my friends and former classmates are scattered around the country. Some have taken arms in their hands to defend the motherland, some were captured and tortured by Russians.

‘We should be going out partying, doing things we enjoy, but instead we call each other to see if everyone is alive. It should not be like that.’

She is right, of course. This conflict shows the frightening fragility of our way of life, the preciousness of peace, and the need to be ever vigilant against anti-democratic regimes such as Russia and China.

Pavlo, that retired Ukrainian paratroop officer in Saltivka, told of his disbelief that Russia would ever launch a full-scale invasion and of his nation’s deep gratitude for Britain’s support — something that I have heard often over these past months.

Like so many Ukrainians, he struggled most with the fact that Russia — a fellow Slavic nation with deep historic, personal, cultural and commercial ties to his own country — had unleashed a hail of atrocities on his country.

When the missiles and shells started striking Saltivka’s flats and setting buildings ablaze, he assumed they were missing military targets. But as the onslaught continued, he realised that his former army comrades were deliberately intending to murder Ukrainian civilians.

‘People could not believe our so‑called brothers would be killing us. Then everyone realised they don’t care and they’re not really our brothers,’ he said. ‘It felt like they were taking revenge on us for not greeting them with flowers.’

The disbelief infected even the highest levels of government and intelligence, where many senior figures discounted US and UK intelligence warnings that Putin was planning a major invasion as his forces built up on three sides of their country.

It makes Ukraine’s response all the more remarkable as its people united with such rapidity around President Volodymyr Zelensky and the armed forces, which reacted with incredible heroism to Russia’s attempt to extinguish their nation’s freedom and independence.

The determination of almost every citizen to do everything possible to support their nation has been profoundly moving — from the soldiers risking their lives to the shops donating profits to the military, and the women I met in one western city who spent seven hours a day after work making medical kits for their troops.

I was struck also by the desire to help refugees flooding through their city, whether it was the official calling around to find 10,000 mattresses one night or the rail staff insisting their station must stay spotlessly clean and that no one taking shelter would have to sleep on the floor. And I have been met only with kindness and hospitality from people seeing their lives fall apart, whether sharing their stories — or sofas when there was nowhere else to stay — or simply brewing up tea on open fires as the enemy closed in.

Amid the hell of war, we see a reminder of the strength of humanity with its values of family, community and public-spirited respect that we should all hold dear — and which often seem lost in our own complacent and divided society.

Have no doubt that if Putin wins and is allowed to cling on to any stolen chunks of Ukraine, he will rebuild Russia’s forces and continue to torment democracy.

If he loses, I suspect Ukraine’s intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov will be proved right when he told me that Moscow’s hold on its empire might collapse, with republics breaking away.

Ukrainians know they face a bitter winter as blood continues to flow, buildings are bombed and power systems wrecked by Russian attacks. Many are exhausted and impoverished by economic fallout. But their spirit remains remarkably strong.

Even in Izyum last week — a devastated town that has seen at least 1,000 deaths, almost nine in ten buildings devastated and where one man said they were living in ‘caves’ — I found only steely desire to rebuild their town and resist Russia.

The bigger question is whether the West will show the same fortitude in this most important fight of our age — or whether Putin and his despotic allies are right that we are too weak and too easily fatigued to sustain a costly struggle against dictatorship.

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