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Opinion Ukrainians are bracing for the next Russian onslaught

Residents of Dnipro, Ukraine, on Jan. 15 carry their belongings from a building destroyed by a Russian missile strike. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP/Getty Images)

Iuliia Mendel is a journalist, the author of “The Fight of Our Lives” and a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

As the anniversary of the Russian invasion approaches, Ukrainians are bracing themselves for the next escalation. This time, the Ukrainian leadership is talking about it openly. President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his traditional video address at the beginning of the year that “Russia is now gathering forces for another escalation. Together with our partners, we must make it clear to the ‘owners’ of Russia that no escalation will help them. The defeat of Russian aggression must remain without alternative.”

With its latest massive attack on Jan. 14, Moscow effectively confirmed the widely held view of Ukrainians that a victory for Kyiv is the only option. A Russian missile hit an apartment building in the eastern city of Dnipro, killing 46 people and injuring more than 70. The images from this tragedy once again demonstrated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unbridled brutality for all the world to see.

Russian propaganda continues to insist on its own twisted version of events. Day in and day out, Russian media calls for the complete destruction of the Ukrainian state, vows war with NATO or threatens the use of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Moscow presses ahead with covert and open mobilization, the training of soldiers, the accumulation of weaponry and the massing of troops along the border. All of this suggests that Russia, like a wounded beast, might be preparing for a new attack.

This year, Ukrainians no longer take statements about the war lightly. They know the danger is real. Even after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, most Ukrainians feel exhausted. There is no respite from enemy attacks. Every week or so, Moscow launches new waves of drone and missile strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure. Even if many people and houses remain undamaged, almost everyone ends up enduring periods without lights or heat.

My aunt Antonina, who is 67 years old, cries into the phone from her village in Kherson region, which was retaken by Ukrainian troops in November. “I thought it would be easier after we were liberated,” she told me. “But the Russians just go on shooting. How can they be so inhuman?”

She takes Putin’s threats very seriously. She finds it hard to credit the reports that Russia is running out of missiles and ammunition. She faces shelling and airstrikes every day.

My friend Maryna Nibak, 36, who works in IT, lives in the Kyiv region. She says that she isn’t afraid of possible escalation. She is confident that the Russians won’t be able to conquer Kyiv if they try again. They failed in their previous attempt last year, and Ukrainian forces are better prepared now.

“They don’t have good equipment, they just send in lots of people to die,” Maryna told me. “This is not a war with spears — the advantage belongs to those who have modern equipment. We have strengthened and fortified Kyiv, and we’re getting modern equipment from the West. We have no reason to panic.” I don’t believe that Maryna, the mother of a 3-month-old daughter, ever thought that she would one day be offering expertise on military matters. But circumstances have forced all Ukrainians to adapt.

Preparing to counter this possible aggression, Ukraine has been pleading for modern tanks and more weapons. At least three European Union countries have publicly declared their willingness to supply Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine – but they can’t do so without approval from Germany, which manufactures the tanks. Leaders in Kyiv worry that the resulting delays might not leave enough time to prepare for fresh Russian attacks. Though 74 percent of Europeans approve of E.U. support for Ukraine, some fear becoming directly involved in a military conflict.

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Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.

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Some recent polls in the United States are making Ukrainians anxious. A new CBS News-YouGov poll shows that 52 percent of Republicans want their member of Congress to oppose further Ukraine funding. And support for military aid for Ukraine among Republicans has dropped from 80 percent in March to 55 percent now.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, many of whom were running their own businesses or working in offices a year ago, now risk their lives every day in muddy trenches under Russian shelling. They have no choice but to protect their families and homes.

The last call I made was to Hryhori, a major in the army whose battalion has just been taken off the line near Soledar and Bakhmut. He does not want his identity revealed for security reasons, but says that everyone there is “hellishly tired.” Hryhori said the conditions were very difficult. Fighting in temperatures close to zero degrees Fahrenheit, some of the men ended up spending from eight to 12 days straight in the trenches.

“If the Russians have some successes, it is only because of their World War II-style tactics, when they simply send in waves of attackers to be killed,” Hryhori said. “We sometimes just mow them down. But we also have significant losses. We need time to recover.” But then he caught himself, not wanting to sound self-pitying. Despite the general sense of exhaustion, he said, “the army will stand.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

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.

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.

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