KYIV — Three months ago I met Vyacheslav Zadorenko, a community leader from the Kharkiv region. From the relative safety of Derhachi, he told me about how his village, a settlement on the Russian border, had been occupied in the first days of Russia’s invasion. His mother didn’t manage to escape. “My personal victory,” he said, “would be when I can return to my family house.” In midsummer, as Russia consolidated its gains and slowly secured more, that seemed a sad, impossible dream.
But now it’s come true. A video posted on Telegram shows Mr. Zadorenko reunited with his mother. “I’ve gathered all your things, my dear son,” she says, running toward him excitedly. “I knew you’d come to liberate me; I was waiting.” Bending down to hug her, he replies, “Mom, you’re as beautiful as ever.”
It’s a remarkable scene, one no doubt played out across the thousands of square miles of territory the Ukrainian forces have recaptured in recent days. A striking counteroffensive that liberated, according to the government, around 150,000 people, it has altered the shape of the nearly-seven-month conflict, delivering to Ukrainians a renewed sense of hope and a body blow to Russia.
It has not delivered ultimate victory, of course. But the significance cannot be denied. As a frontline reporter, especially one who documents possible war crimes, I’m used to seeing tragedy, pain and sorrow in people’s eyes. But what I observe these days across the country, in shaky videos and on calls with friends, is pure happiness, on a scale I rarely see. After months of great sorrow, Ukraine has cause for joy again.
Beginning in earnest in the last 10 days, the counteroffensive in the country’s northeast seems to have taken the Russian troops — their attention perhaps distracted by a monthslong buildup of Ukrainian forces in the southern Kherson region — by surprise. Rather than fight, they fled, leaving behind hundreds of vehicles, ammunition and documents. In Izium, for example, a friend of mine who commands a division of paratroopers found 10 handwritten resignation letters from Russian soldiers requesting “to resign from the Russian military forces on the Ukrainian territory due to the physical and moral exhaustion.”
This wreckage of defeat puts paid to the notion of Russian military excellence. But it also ought to reframe how the war is viewed. For the past few months, Western experts have been asking the same question: how to deal with Ukraine’s fatigue amid a war of attrition. Besides annoying Ukrainians — no matter how tired you are, you can’t resign from defending your country — the fretting was pointless. A counteroffensive, Ukrainians knew, was a matter of time. The question was whether it would succeed.
It did, and the world now has a vision of Ukrainian victory, not just valiant resistance. Discussion of negotiations and a deal — despite Vladimir Putin giving not the slightest sign he would play along — will surely now subside, in favor of renewed support. Compassion and empathy are excellent motivators, but trust and belief are better ones. Now, within the country and among its backers, there’s talk of victory and what it would take to get there.
Yet the real significance lies within Ukraine itself. If the northern Kharkiv region — now reclaimed but for a few villages — had remained occupied, there would have been a constant threat of Russian forces encircling the Ukraine-held territory in the Donbas. Claiming back the northern areas gives Ukrainian forces more chance of repelling and ultimately reversing Russia’s advances in the east. What’s more, it allows them to concentrate anew on the southern Kherson region.
More profoundly, the counteroffensive showed that the Ukrainian army is capable not just of defense but also of attack. This is a major change. After all, the entire premise of the war effort so far has been to defend the country against invaders — often, as around Kyiv, Chernihiv and Odesa, with great success. Now the army, supplied with high-grade weaponry, has proved its ability to attack, and can regard its task with renewed confidence. That President Volodymyr Zelensky felt safe enough to visit Izium, a town barely 10 miles from the frontline, just four days after its liberation is a marker of the optimistic mood throughout the country.
But there is sadness, too. In the wake of liberation, there will be tragic reports — perhaps confirming our worst fears — of what Ukrainians experienced under nearly seven months of Russian occupation. As in the aftermath of Russia’s retreat from Bucha, we will likely learn of terrible, shocking things. Meanwhile, the hail of Russian missile attacks ensures we can never forget we remain at war.
But for now I’d like to cherish this moment of happiness, hope and joy. After months of pain, it’s something to savor — and to spur on us Ukrainians.
Nataliya Gumenyuk (@ngumenyuk) is a Ukrainian reporter, director of the Public Interest Journalism Lab and a co-founder of the Reckoning Project, an outlet documenting war crimes.
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