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Opinion Ukrainians are rejoicing at victory — and awash in trauma and grief

Rescue workers and forensic police exhume bodies from makeshift graves at the Pishanske cemetery on Wednesday in Izyum, Ukraine. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Nataliya Gumenyuk, founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab, is a Ukrainian author and journalist specializing in foreign affairs and conflict reporting.

A video shows Ukrainian soldiers who have just freed the town of Balakliya from six months of Russian occupation. They tear down a Russian propaganda slogan from a billboard that declares, “We are one people with Russia.” To their surprise, another text comes to light beneath — a famous stanza from Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko, who was addressing an earlier generation of Ukrainians resisting Russian imperial rule: “Fight on and win! God himself will aid you.” Anyone who watches the scene can’t help but feel how the words resonate today — nearly 200 years after Shevchenko wrote them.

Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive has liberated at least 3,400 square miles of territory, mostly in the northeast, and cut off Russian supply routes. But its real significance might go beyond the merely military. It has given hope to millions of Ukrainians. It has destroyed Russians’ long-held belief in the invincibility of their army. And it has struck a dramatic psychological blow to the occupiers throughout Ukrainian territory.

Even though Kyiv’s gains on the Kherson front in the south are so far relatively modest, it has won politically. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement this week of a “partial mobilization” of reservists, designed to boost Russian troop numbers, is a tacit acknowledgement of Ukraine’s victories. Putin’s proxies in the occupied territories have announced a series of sham “referendums” aimed at legitimizing annexation of the areas by Moscow — but carrying them out is likely to prove a challenge. Kremlin propagandists had originally planned to carry out the votes much earlier but ended up postponing their plans until earlier this week. All these moves reek of desperation.

Ukraine’s capacity to regain its territory is making treason even riskier. Russian TV gave prominent coverage to one collaborator who received a Russian passport — just three days before Ukrainian forces retook his town. When he was later spotted at a train station in the Russian city of Belgorod — demonstrating that he had fled soon after collecting his passport — the images went viral.

Even before his latest speech, Putin had been resorting to less conventional means to shore up his army. A recently leaked video appears to show oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, owner of the private military company Wagner, recruiting prisoners for the front lines in Ukraine. Prigozhin, who did jail time himself in the 1980s for robbery, told the inmates that they’d “never have to go behind bars again” if they opted to serve. But if anyone deserted, he said, they would be “shot on the spot.” That tells you a lot about how desperate the Kremlin is becoming.

Ukrainians are not worried by Putin’s mobilization order, since they can see how unpopular it is. Russians who thought they would experience the war only through their TVs now suddenly face the prospect of seeing husbands and sons sent to the front. Yet Putin’s move does create an even greater sense of urgency for the Ukrainian armed forces, who know they could be facing a new wave of Russian recruits a few weeks from now.

In today’s Ukraine, the mood of society is largely defined by front-line troops. The video from Balakliya is just one example of Ukrainian fighters enjoying a welcome moment of triumph. Yet the sense of satisfaction mingles with awareness of the costs. Musician and environmental campaigner Pavlo Vyshebaba admonished his followers to “think about the price” when celebrating victories.

I began to hear concrete details of the success of the counteroffensive in early September, when I was on my way to cover a funeral ceremony for soldiers. While we were there, the people at the cemetery, who were all refugees from an area occupied by the Russians, were receiving the news that their villages had just been liberated. They were hopeful but also anxious, knowing that some of them might return home only to find their houses destroyed.

We had already heard many reports of tragedies occurring during the occupation. Residents of Balakliya started speaking out about the atrocities taking place there as early as March; now the liberators have found an alleged torture chamber in the town. For months, I followed a Facebook group where the wives of Ukrainian soldiers were searching for husbands who had disappeared near Izyum. So even though the recent discovery of the mass grave there horrified me, it didn’t come as a complete surprise.

According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, 388 towns and villages have been retaken since the counteroffensive began on Sept. 6. In the smallest, there are a few dozen residents who spent nearly seven months under occupation; some did not survive. So freeing even one town or hamlet means saving lives.

That makes it imperative for Ukrainians to take back as much territory as possible. It would help a great deal if Kyiv’s foreign friends were to actually deliver the weapons they have promised. The future depends not just on the bravery of the Ukrainian troops or their intelligence and discipline, but also on how many supplies and materials can be brought to the front. The faster that can be done, the faster Ukraine can retake its own lands.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.