One month into the Ukraine war, a defiant nation is forever changed but adapting

Volunteers on March 18 carry sandbags that will be used to protect Odessa, Ukraine.
Volunteers on March 18 carry sandbags that will be used to protect Odessa, Ukraine. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

ODESSA, Ukraine — A month has passed since blasts woke Ukrainians at 5:07 a.m. on Feb. 24. The sounds of explosions still scare but don’t surprise. Each day since has brought the wail of air-raid sirens, the screech of breaking glass and numbingly frequent moments of silence for the dead.

A month of war with Russia has forced every fourth Ukrainian out of their home. It has shown that Moscow’s forces fire indiscriminately on civilians in their apartments, businesses, hospitals and schools. It has exposed weaknesses in Vladimir Putin’s military, which seems stunned and disoriented by the month-long fight. And it has focused the world’s attention on the unexpected ferocity and power of ordinary people uniting to defend their homes and nation.

To escape the war above, Ukrainian families have gone underground

Four weeks of explosions, fire and death have devastated Ukrainians and empowered them. Their “new normal” is always knowing where the nearest bomb shelter is while indulging in a cappuccino at a local coffee shop, or a visit to the barber. It’s martial law-imposed sobriety with a ban on alcohol sales. It’s asking the United States and NATO for a no-fly zone that could significantly damage Russia’s ability to attack from the sky — even as allies refuse, citing fears of touching off the world war that Moscow and the West have for so long managed to avoid.

It’s the population’s — and the world’s — growing belief that Ukraine’s military could actually win. It has already kept Russia’s massive and feared armed forces from the easy victory Putin seemed to expect.

“The aggressors planned three weeks ago to be in the capital, to be here because it is the heart of the country,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told journalists on Wednesday, as the now all-too-familiar sound of artillery shelling echoed in the background.

“Everybody is surprised,” he said.

Russia’s forces for weeks have made only marginal gains and have even lost ground in some parts of the country, revealing a flawed military strategy. The Kremlin’s plan, according to analysts, assumed a swift decapitation of the government and installation of a puppet regime, apparently based on Moscow’s view of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as likely to flee the same way Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did last summer when the Taliban closed in on Kabul. The logical first step — shock-and-awe attacks to knock out Ukraine’s air defenses, drones and air force — never happened.

Zelensky’s defiant, unshaven face in daily video addresses from Kyiv has instead inspired and rallied ordinary Ukrainians. A month ago, Volodymyr Marusiak was an attorney. Now his corporate law office in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv serves as a command room for the volunteer formation of the Territorial Defense Forces, which is made up of civilian volunteers. Doctors, construction workers, start-up founders — men and women — are now some of his fighters.

“A month ago, I was busy wearing a suit and tie,” he said, sitting in a dim conference room. “Now I command 140 people.”

How Kyiv’s outgunned defenders have kept Russian forces from capturing the capital

Putin, casting himself as a liberator, underestimated the Ukrainian resistance. Viral videos show farmers in tractors towing abandoned Russian military equipment down country lanes. Even in places now under the control of Russian troops, such as the southern port of Kherson, Ukrainians have stared down enemy soldiers while chanting pro-Ukrainian slogans during protests.

Moscow’s military missteps this past month, echoing its errors in Chechnya in December 1994, may foreshadow a similar trajectory: a long, punishing war with massive civilian casualties. The repeated bombardment of some eastern and northern Ukrainian cities has displaced millions of people and destroyed thousands of buildings — apartments, shopping malls and hospitals.

But in other cities, Ukrainians have adjusted to the daily grind of war. Yaroslav Rudakov, 27, reopened his sleek hair salon, Sprut, last week, one of two or three that are now open to customers in the capital. He did it to send a defiant message to the Russians — and to help Ukraine.

“This is my mission,” Rudakov said. “It’s not really big, but it helps. The message it sends is that people here are brave. They know the real history. The Russians want to destroy everything here and show that they are very powerful. … But now we see how it’s going.”

Three hairdressers work from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and see six or seven customers a day. Rudakov said all the money he earns is sent to a fund to help the Ukrainian armed forces. After each haircut, Rudakov asks customers how much they are willing to pay — full price, 20 percent less or half of the cost. He doesn’t charge the elderly. At least half pay full price, he said.

Those kinds of contributions have become commonplace. Dodo Socks — a popular designer sock brand — is donating all its profits to the Ukrainian military. CEO Marta Turetska said that has totaled more than $50,000 this month already. She said the company is switching a third of its production over to padded socks for soldiers and the rest to new designs with patriotic slogans, molotov cocktails or symbols of Ukrainian pride, including the Antonov An-225 Mriya, a Soviet-era cargo plane that was the world’s largest aircraft until it was destroyed by Russian bombs.

Dodo’s bright, high-ceilinged studio is one of the many makeshift shelters for Ukraine’s more than 10 million displaced people.

The company’s production facility in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, now largely occupied by Russian forces, had to shut down, and the new one on the outskirts of Lviv employs displaced people. But at least half of the employees from the city of Rubizhne, back in Luhansk, haven’t been able to escape.

“We don’t even know if they are alive,” Turetska said. “So what we are doing may be crazy, giving our company totally over to the war effort. But we are devastated. We wish every company in Ukraine would do it.”

The wait to hear news from loved ones in areas besieged by Russian forces has become a daily routine, too. Kirill Lisovoy, 32, is sheltering in Dodo’s studio with his two dogs and his wife. Her family is in Mariupol — the southeastern Ukrainian port city that has been the site of some of the most brutal bombing in this month of war. They haven’t been able to make contact with them in three weeks.

“It is impossible to think about anything else,” Lisovoy said, talking more freely when his wife left to do laundry. “And how not to feel guilty — we are safe, we have a kitchen to use, good people to help us. That is so much more than many, even here in Lviv, have. And then Mariupol, a destroyed city. Maybe everyone we know there is dead — we just don’t know.”

Amid war and brutality, Ukrainians are transformed and united

In Kyiv, repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure over the past month have made residents more defiant. On Sunday, shortly after artillery fire struck an apartment building in Kyiv, firefighters climbed into the charred remains of the building to search for survivors. Outside, two children played on a swing set.

Yuriy Gulevich, 45, whose apartment windows blew out early Wednesday morning when a barrage of rockets struck his neighborhood in Kyiv, said the attack only left him more angry with Russian forces — and more determined that Ukrainians will win. He and his elderly mother sheltered in the hallway and bathroom to avoid injuries.

“I’m angry they’re targeting civilians,” he said while waiting in line to report the damage to a police officer. “This war was created by one person only and millions of people are now suffering.”

Next to him, in a plastic bag on the ground, sat the remains of what the officer said was a rocket that came from a Grad multiple-rocket launcher. The attack Wednesday marked the first time such a system has been deployed in the capital since the war began, several police officers at the scene told The Washington Post.

Investigators exhumed 21 of at least 67 bodies suspected to be lying in a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine, April 8. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

But at a trendy coffee shop downtown, Artem Khomych, 28, and Sergii Dietkov, 29, sat across from each other playing chess. This was one of their favorite spots from before the war. Even after a month of brutal fighting, it remains so now.

“It’s home,” Dietkov said. “I feel safe here.”

Ian Panitov, 19, was born in Russia but moved to Ukraine when he was 5. On a recent afternoon, he sat outside the same coffee shop writing in his journal.

“I’m sure Kyiv will not be occupied,” he said. “We have a lot of weapons in the city, a lot of Territorial Defense, a lot of army, a lot of people who make molotov cocktails. And everybody is ready to just choke occupiers with their hands if they do not have weapons.”

The past month has felt like a lifetime — filled with cursing the Russians, asking “why” out loud and mourning all that’s already been lost in such a short time. Life’s new rhythms feel heavy — with sorrow, with responsibility, and with uncertainty.

Andriy Spirin is just 18, but he is the dzvonar — the bell ringer — at one of Lviv’s oldest Orthodox churches. His duties used to be simple: ring the church’s century-old bells on Saturday evening, Sunday morning and holidays. At the request of Lviv’s city council, however, every dzvonar must now ring their bells at 6 p.m. each day until the war is over.

For the new evening ritual, Spirin composed his own three-minute melody, a somber tune he has titled “The Bell of Peace.”

“We ring these bells to call upon God,” he said as the winter sun dipped past Lviv’s skyline of cupolas and clock towers. “If the West won’t close our skies, God will. Only He knows how long I will ring these bells. Only He knows how long it will take for us to be victorious.”

Bearak reported from Lviv, Ukraine. O’Grady and Raghavan reported from Kyiv. Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. Kostiantyn Tatarchuk in Kyiv contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

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.

Loading...
Loading...