Ukraine forges national identity in a year of pain and death

kyiv, Ukraine (HPD) — In the final hours before the Russian invasion, a last-ditch push for peace. Soon Russian troops would pour across the Ukrainian borders and Russian missiles would fill the skies, claiming Ukrainian lives in the biggest land, sea and air attack on Europe since World War II. But at the edge of the war, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy once again urged reason to prevail.

In a last-minute video taken in the middle of the night, Zelenskyy looked directly into the camera to plead for the invasion to stop, warning Russia that the consequences would be “an abundance of pain, dirt, blood and death.”

“War is a huge calamity,” Zelenskyy said in what turned out to be one of his last appearances in a suit before turning to military-style casual wear. “This calamity comes at an enormous cost, in every sense of the word.”

It was February 24, 2022, a catastrophic day for Ukraine that changed the course of Russia and the history of the entire world. Since then, every hour of every day has confirmed the truth in those words.


As a milestone, the first anniversary of the invasion, which falls on Friday, is as grim as it is infuriating. It is a full year of death, destruction, loss and damage felt far beyond the borders of Russia and Ukraine. The price shock associated with the war is just one example. But the date also raises an unsatisfactory question because it doesn’t have an answer yet: how long until this is over?

“Too much” could be one answer, with no prospect of a peace deal any time soon. The Russian invasion enters its second year of carnage and neither side is anywhere near its stated objectives.

It is hard to put into words the misery of 365 days of violence and the scale of the global repercussions. Russia had not been so isolated since the Cold War. Western nations unite to defeat Russian President Vladimir Putin, betting that the former KGB spy will not create a nuclear conflict. China takes notes in view of its dispute with Taiwan.

And how to measure all the tears? How to adequately describe all the suffering and atrocities? Or even the broken heart of just one of the children who lost loved ones and future ones?

The numbers are staggering: hundreds of thousands of Russian men fled abroad to avoid being thrown into battle, millions of Ukrainians uprooted from their homes, tens of billions of dollars invested in weapons that make war ever deadlier, billions more estimated dollars in losses to the global economy. And even these figures do not do justice to the economic and social costs.

Of the death toll – certainly the most important tally, but one that is not shared by either side – all that can be said with certainty is that it is appalling. Western authorities estimate it to be in the many tens of thousands and growing inexorably.

But Ukraine is still there. That alone is already a defeat for the Kremlin. Putin seemed to believe that his forces and secret services would have turned Ukraine into a puppet state by now. The invasion plan included liquidating, purging or persuading resisting Ukrainian officials to cooperate, according to a study by a British think tank based in part on seized Russian documents.

Instead, the threat of extinction as a free nation has brought Ukraine into an even closer orbit with the European Union, the United States and the West in general, precisely what Putin wanted to avoid. Each additional delivery of NATO-standard weapons, billions of dollars in other Western aid and pledges to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes” are tight ties that would have taken years in peacetime.

Ukraine, which gained independence from the former Soviet Union only in 1991, has grown as a nation during the war. The struggle to remain Ukrainian has imposed clarity on what exactly that means, defining national identity.

In what have become daily video messages to share news from the front and boost morale, Zelenskyy sometimes dons black hoodies emblazoned with the words “I am Ukrainian.” Many Ukrainians have done like the president and abandoned Russian for Ukrainian as their first language. Russian statues are torn down, street names are changed, and Russian history is taken out of textbooks.

“Putin did something for us that nobody else had done. He helped us become a free nation,” said Olena Sotnyk, a lawyer and former legislator.


Ukraine has also gained support abroad, as evidenced by the blue and yellow flags flying over town halls and foreign fighters risking – and sometimes losing – their lives on Ukrainian battlefields turned into ghostly landscapes grimly reminiscent of World War I. World.

“No one will confuse Ukraine with Russia (again),” said Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelenskyy’s closest advisers. “No one will say ‘it’s something over there, near Russia.'”

Ukrainians claim that by resisting Putin, they have also done the world a favor by exposing him as a cruel and dangerous enemy. The Russian leader who won over George W. Bush (“I looked the man in the eye. He seemed very direct and trustworthy,” the then US president said in 2001) and who was given a ride in a cart by the French president golf through the gardens of Versailles, has become a pariah for Western rulers. But others remain close, notably Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Although he did not win a quick victory, Putin retains a firm grip on power. The protests were crushed and the majority of Russians appear to support the campaign. Even so, Russia is making sacrifices previously unimaginable.

In battle, Putin has increasingly had to turn to mercenaries from the notorious Wagner Group, a private military company that has recruited fighters from prisons and thrown them into battle, with high casualty rates. Putin is also losing energy leverage over Europe, which is giving up Russian gas and most Russian oil. Western sanctions weigh on the Russian economy. Some fear that as Putin is pushed into a corner he may turn to other forms of attack, perhaps with more nuclear threats or worse.

But history is written by the victors of the war. At this time, the outcome of the invasion is far from clear.

One of Putin’s early mistakes was trying to conquer a country the size of France with a force that by Western estimates was slightly larger than the Allied army at the Normandy landings in World War II. And the mission of June 6, 1944 was much more limited: storming five French beaches and opening a gap through which the Allies later advanced into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Now Putin is pouring more equipment and personnel into a problem of his own making, with 300,000 troops mobilized for a new offensive that Russia has not announced but that Western and Ukrainian authorities say is already underway in eastern Ukraine.

“Don’t be seduced by ‘brave little Ukraine’ because Russia is so much bigger. It could just overwhelm Ukraine,” warned retired Brigadier Major Edward Stringer, a former senior British Air Force officer. “He could force Ukraine to run out of bullets by putting a Russian in front of every bullet until Ukraine runs out of bullets before Putin runs out of Russians.”


Of course, Podolyak noted, time is not in Ukraine’s favor. Quite the opposite.

“A prolonged war is the slow death of Ukraine,” he said. But the one-year anniversary of the invasion, she insisted, “means we’re on the right track.”

“It means that we have a different Ukraine,” he said. “It looks completely different.”

So different that life before the invasion is an increasingly diffuse memory. So the statues in the capital, kyiv, had not disappeared behind walls of protective sandbags. People didn’t need to fill their bathtubs when the air-raid sirens sounded so they would have water if Russian attacks cut off the supply. They didn’t download apps on their phones that set off shrill alarms when killer drones and Russian missiles were on the way.

Those same apps did not issue the message “The anti-aircraft alert has ended. May the force be with you” played by “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill in his Luke Skywalker voice to announce that the danger has passed. Surreal.

Sotnyk, the former lawmaker, remembers the panic that gripped her when Russian missiles began hitting kyiv a year ago. She called her mother and told her to pack up. Now Sotnyk knows that it’s not a good idea to run through the city during an air raid.

“It’s not that we’ve gotten any braver,” he said. “We only became more aware of what it means, war.”

Before the invasion, February 24 had not been a very defining date in world history. Then-Prince Charles and Diana announced their engagement that day in 1981. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was born on February 24, 1955. In 1938, the first nylon-bristled toothbrush was introduced, the “miracle toothbrush.” from Dr. West.”

But in 1920, in Germany, it was also the day that Adolf Hitler presented the 25-point program of the new Nazi Party. So, the public listening to Hitler could not have known that his speech in a Munich beer hall would turn out to be a step towards World War II. had they known, would they have turned their backs on him?

February 24, 2022 has not led to World War III – “not yet”, the pessimists might add. But the last year, as Zelenskyy predicted, was one filled with pain, dirt, blood, and death.

And ahead is a sad abundance of more to come.


Paris correspondent John Leicester has reported from more than two dozen countries for The Associated Press since 1993 and is on his third trip to Ukraine since the invasion.

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