KYIV — A few hours after the explosion Saturday that buckled Russia’s Kerch Bridge to occupied Crimea, a Ukrainian official named Mykhailo Podolyak described the attack as a “psychological” breakthrough for Ukraine and another sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing the war.
“Ukraine can’t take credit for it,” Podolyak,an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said of the assault. But “it shows that Russia does not control Crimea,” or other territory it has seized. His message was unyielding: no pause in Ukraine’s offensive, no negotiations until Russia agrees to withdraw its forces, no compromise with the invaders. “We need to humiliate Russia,” he told me.
Russia’s punishing retort came two days later, a day after my trip to Ukraine with a study group from the German Marshall Fund (of which I’m a trustee) had ended. The Ukrainian capital was pounded by a wave of rockets, landing on residential areas downtown, local infrastructure and other locations across the city. People took refuge in shelters for the first time in months in Kyiv. But given what we heard during our visit, this latest punitive assault will only harden Ukraine’s will to resist. “Putin is a terrorist,” a Ukrainian military official said in a statement Monday. “Ukraine’s decision not to hold any negotiations with him proved to be correct: no talks are conducted with terrorists.”
Podolyak spoke in the sandbagged offices of the presidential administration. This is ground zero for a nation at war. The surrounding streets are closed and heavily guarded. On the wall behind Podolyak was a photo of two military amputees on crutches, next to the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Nearby, just in case, were his armor and helmet.
Many Ukrainians repeated the same defiant message during a two-day visit here last weekend: We’re not afraid of Russian nuclear threats; we’ve suffered too much to make concessions; we want the world’s help in ensuring the defeat of Putin. A wall mural downtown summarized the public mood: “Be brave like Ukraine.”
What became clear after several dozen conversations here is that for Ukraine, there’s no middle ground. The resiliency and resolve I heard reminded me of Londoners during the Blitz in World War II. For Ukraine, there’s no turning back, and I was asked repeatedly why some in the West still talk about compromise with Putin.
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Ukraine’s determination to go all the way worries some in the Biden administration, who believe that the war must be settled through negotiations and that the United States has a responsibility to contain this conflict before it expands into something much worse. I share those concerns, but it’s hard to make arguments for conciliation to Ukrainians whose nation is being hammered by Russian attacks.
“It would be extremely difficult to explain to society why we need to sit down at the table with these terrorists and negotiate,” Oleksiy Danilov, head of the Ukrainian national security council, told us.
An example of this defiant spirit is Olga Datsiuk, a 33-year-old Ukrainian television producer. I met her in a glass-walled cafe in downtown Kyiv a few hours after the Kerch attack. She said she felt “joy” at the news of the explosion. “It should have been done a long time ago,” she said of this assault on Russia’s lifeline to occupied Crimea. “It feels like one of the first steps for Putin to be defeated.”
Ukrainians profess to be unafraid even of Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. The most popular question on a Ukrainian call-in network program the past two weeks has been how long can you wait before seeking shelter after a warning of a possible nuclear attack, according to Ekaterina Miasnikova, executive director of the National Media Association. There’s a joke circulating on social media that people should gather for an orgy on a hilltop called Shehakavstaya, near Kyiv, if there’s an attack.
Defiance has become a way of life here in the nearly eight months since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. The national pet is a bomb-sniffing dog named Patron, who has become a star on TikTok. A Russian-language radio station here has been replaced by one that plays patriotic Ukrainian songs. It’s called Radio Bayraktar, for the Turkish-made drones that have devastated Russian troops.
Wars bring solidarity to people under attack, and you sense that comradeship in the streets of Kyiv. Bracelets made from the last batch of steel produced at the Azovstal foundry in Mariupol sold out in a day. T-shirts and graffiti memorialize the pugnacious response of the Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island who were ordered by Russians to surrender: “Russian warship, go f--- yourself.” A hot pop-music song is a rock version of the traditional Ukrainian patriotic song “The Red Viburnum in the Meadow.”
Russia’s assault has drawn this often fractious and corrupt country together, under Zelensky’s iconic leadership. A group of 70 Ukrainian intellectuals met recently to assess how the country has changed since the invasion. Among the changes: increased trust in public institutions, greater tolerance and a spirit of cooperation in which “charity is a mass phenomenon,” according to a document produced by the group.
Part of the explanation for this intense public feeling is that Ukraine has been fighting Russia alone since 2014, when Putin seized Crimea and parts of the eastern Donbas region. On a long wall near St. Michael’s Cathedral are photos of those killed in the 2014 fighting and on the first day of Russia’s all-out attack in February. The somber display stretches for a block.
Ukrainians seem convinced that they’re winning. Children play atop captured Russian tanks in St. Michael’s Square at sunset, in the warm fall weather that Ukrainians call “grandmother’s season.” Datsiuk, the television producer, allows: “We will have to talk with the Russians sometime. But not now.” In a survey of the American Chamber of Commerce here, hardly an activist group, 92 percent said Ukraine will win the war, according to an American who talks with the chamber.
Military officials are more cautious. They know that there is still brutal fighting ahead, and they don’t joke about the nuclear risk. Hanna Maliar, deputy minister of defense, told us in measured tones that Russia is continuing to mount intense attacks in the Donetsk region, despite its disarray on other fronts, and that the Iranian-made drones the Russian army is using are “difficult to track and neutralize.” As for the nuclear threats by Putin, Maliar said, “We have no choice but to be ready for any scenario.”
Maliar had talked with me and an earlier German Marshall Fund group here a few weeks before the war started, and I asked her what had surprised her most in the months since. The biggest shock, she said, was how “barbaric” the Russian attacks had been — destroying kindergartens, maternity wards, homes for the elderly. “In our civilized world, no one assumed this could happen in the 21st century,” she said.
Ukraine fought back. Its citizens think they will be victorious. What they want from the West are weapons and money to fight Putin. A visit here left me with the feeling that steady, sustained military assistance to this astonishingly brave nation — despite Russian threats and for as long as it takes — is an investment in a safer and better world.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.