The United Nations confirms 677,000 Ukraine residents have fled to neighbouring countries. ‘No one is going to break us,’ says President Volodymyr Zelensky. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ukrainians resist as Russian forces continue to advance

A Ukrainian civilian throws a Molotov cocktail
A Ukrainian civilian learns how to throw Molotov cocktails in Zhytomyr this week.
Credit: Reuters / Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Putin’s invasion plans

Russia’s military – the world’s second-strongest – has 13,367 tanks, 1328 aircraft and 478 attack helicopters. Ukraine’s military – the 22nd strongest – has 2199 tanks, 146 aircraft and 42 attack helicopters.

Yet the early stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not go as planned. 

American and British intelligence assessments this week both concluded Russia had been forced to delay its advance towards Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, after experiencing logistical problems, partly due to strong Ukrainian resistance.

Michael Kofman, an expert on Russia’s military at the United States-based defence research institute CNA, said Russia had erred by sending small detachments forward that were “easily cut off and likely to abandon their gear”. But, he said, Russia was expected to end this “shambolic effort” and instead launch artillery attacks and air strikes as it prepares to seize Kyiv. “Sadly, I expect the worst is yet ahead, and this war could get a lot more ugly,” he said in a tweet.

At talks this week on the Belarus border, Ukrainian officials refused Russia’s demands to for the country to disarm and abandon its bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The talks lasted almost five hours and achieved no breakthroughs, but the two sides agreed to hold a second meeting.

Western nations this week rejected calls by Ukraine to set up a no-fly zone, which would require them to engage in combat with Russian aircraft. Instead, they have sent massive shipments of military aid to Ukraine, prompting Vladimir Putin to place Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on “high alert”.

Putin’s move was seen as a warning to Western leaders rather than a prelude to deploying his nuclear arsenal. Russia has 5977 nuclear warheads, more than any other country; Ukraine has none. 

The world responds

In 1950, European officials formed a new six-nation economic group that was designed to unify the devastated continent and make another major war “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.

This group eventually transformed into the European Union, which has since grown to include 27 nations, whose differing outlooks have often hindered its ability to play a commanding role in global affairs.

But the invasion of Ukraine by the largest deployment of troops in Europe since World War II has led to a remarkable turnaround. Abandoning its traditional emphasis on peacekeeping, the EU has for the first time financed the purchase and delivery of military equipment to a country under attack.

Announcing a decision to send €500 million worth of arms to Ukraine, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said: “Another taboo has fallen. The taboo that the EU was not providing arms in a war; yes, we are doing it.”

Countries across Europe and the world, including Canada and Australia, have rushed to supply Ukraine with equipment such as anti-tank launchers, field rations, helmets and body armour. Germany lifted its restrictions on arms exports and is sending missiles and anti-tank weapons, and has announced a massive boost to its own defence spending.

The EU, along with the US and several other countries, has also imposed sanctions on Russian officials, politicians and tycoons, and removed Russian banks from the SWIFT financial payments system.

Switzerland, a neutral country that is not an EU member, agreed to join the EU sanctions, as did Monaco, a non-EU country that is a base for numerous wealthy Russian oligarchs. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is close to Putin, also agreed to back the sanctions.

The sanctions have led to a collapse of the rouble and prompted Russia’s central bank to close the stock exchange and lift interest rates from 9 per cent to 20 per cent.

In South-East Asia, where countries tend to avoid intervening in foreign disputes, Singapore this week backed the international sanctions. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post: “If international relations are based on ‘might is right’, the world will be a dangerous place for small countries like Singapore.”

Ukrainians flee

The war in Ukraine has prompted a mass flight by Ukrainian residents to neighbouring countries such as Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia.

On Tuesday, the United Nations said 677,000 of Ukraine’s 44 million residents had fled abroad, including about 150,000 in the previous 24 hours. Another million people were displaced within Ukraine.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters: “We are looking at what could become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.”

The EU is expected to offer Ukrainian refugees permission to stay and work for up to three years. Britain signalled it will take 200,000 refugees, and countries outside Europe have also offered places to Ukrainians.

The refugees, who are mostly women and children, have queued for up to 60 hours to cross the border, often in freezing conditions. Most have entered Poland. Ukraine has barred men aged 18 to 60 from exiting to enable them to join the military.

Anya Siemiechkina, who fled from Ukraine to Poland while her husband stayed to fight, told The Washington Post this week that she and her 12-year-old son spent 33 hours on trains before arriving at the border. She said she had no friends or family in Poland and was not sure where she would go. “Every moment I spend thinking about what is happening to my husband,” she said. “We thought this would just be a few days, a few weeks.”

Volodymyr Zelensky rallies nation

Before the war, Volodymyr Zelensky was largely known outside Ukraine as the comedian who won a presidential election after starring in a popular television show about a teacher who accidentally became president. But the 44-year-old has been thrust into the international spotlight and has received widespread praise for his efforts to rally the nation and the world behind Ukraine’s defence against Russia.

Zelensky rejected a US offer to evacuate him and remained in Kyiv, even though he is – as he said – “target No. 1”. Appearing in a series of videos posted on social media, often wearing a khaki T-shirt, he has defiantly pledged to strengthen and protect Ukraine.

He told European leaders in a conference call that it “might be the last time you see me alive” – a message that reportedly persuaded several of them to strengthen their offers of support.

“No one is going to break us,” he said in an address this week, as his official translator could be heard breaking into tears. “We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it’s a fair one.”

On the eve of the war, Putin, who views Ukraine as an illegitimate state that is part of Russia’s “spiritual space”, described the Ukrainian government as a gang of drug addicts and ultranationalists that has been committing genocide against ethnic Russians, saying he wanted to “de-Nazify” the country.

Zelensky, who is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust, responded: “How can I be a Nazi?”

A survey this week found 91 per cent of Ukrainians support Zelensky, up from 31 per cent in December. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Ukrainians resist as Russian forces push towards Kyiv".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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