On a visit to Kherson, I see why the Ukrainians will win — with our support
Russia is going to lose this war. And Ukraine is going to win it. How can I say that with confidence? Because yesterday I was in the city of Kherson and saw Russia’s defeat with my own eyes.
Kherson is part of the south of Ukraine that was invaded and occupied in March this year. In September it was one of the four regions which the Kremlin gave a “vote” to in order to pretend that the regions really wanted to be part of Russia, not Ukraine. These “plebiscites” were meant to validate the occupier. But the whole thing was a sham, with results not seen since Saddam Hussein held “elections” in which he regularly received over 100% of the vote.
The Kremlin thought it was playing a clever game in “making official” its gobbling up these vast regions. But all the time Ukraine — backed by military provisions sent from the West — fought a far cleverer and braver war.
In recent days the consequences have been paying off. Last week the Ukrainians managed to take back the city of Kherson and much of the surrounding region. And they did it with barely a fight. So swift was the Ukrainian advance that many Russian soldiers didn’t even get the memo that they were meant to have fled the city.
One Russian soldier went into the local shop in the morning to get vodka and turned around to see two Ukrainian soldiers behind him. He is now among the prisoners of war that both sides are collecting in preparation for any final peace deal.
Yet although the Ukrainians took back the city, as I saw myself the locals have paid a terrible price. As you drive the towards Kherson you pass village after village that has been decimated by the Russians. Simple rural houses all have their roofs and walls blown off from shelling or from being burned in the resulting fires. They are ghost villages, with nothing moving and no one left.
The Russians also like to leave parting gifts as part of their war-tactics. All the main roads, and many side-tracks have been mined, so that cars have to pick their way through as precisely as they can through the same tracks as the cars in front. In Mykolaiv, where we stopped, the main administrative building was so filled with mines and booby traps that the Ukrainians blew up the whole thing themselves.
Still, the Russians got out of Kherson so fast that the main thing they left was a desperate civilian population overjoyed to be freed from Russian forces.
The population’s hope began in October when — in news that went around the world — the Antonivsky Bridge was blown up. This bridge was the last major crossing for Russia to send heavy artillery from the Crimean peninsula to the south of Ukraine. With that route down the Russians began to flee, in some places with barely a fight.
One of the soldiers who liberated the city told me, “It was something I’ll never forget. It was crazy. You could see all the Russian propaganda billboards still and then everyone who had a Ukrainian flag was waving it, waving at us, jumping up and down with relief.”
But of course the local population is traumatized from months of Russian occupation, including the torture and certain killing that are part of the Russian way of war. The city’s airport is completely destroyed, with live artillery and RPG cases still lying around. Some of the main municipal buildings were burned down by the Russians as they left.
But on Friday in the central square there was only gratitude and tears — both of joy and grief.
There is no electricity in Kherson and in the bitter winter weather this and the lack of food makes for the most miserable conditions. Thousands of locals were queuing patiently in the main square for the rations that were being handed out by the authorities. As I walked around the square speaking to people many were overcome with emotion. One young 28-year old woman — Alexandra — just came over, hugged me and burst into tears. “You are the first foreign person that I have met for a long time. It’s been a long time” And what of being free again? “Ah – it is hard to say. It is very difficult” she said and burst into tears and held me again.
Other residents of the city had a simpler message, if never a simple story. I told every single person who I met in the square that I am from Britain and America — two of the countries which have done the most to arm the Ukrainian forces with the munitions they have used so effectively. The Ukrainian people know that a big part of their success is because friends and allies have come to their aid. Without exception everybody said the same thing. “Spasiba.” “Thank you.” Some shook with emotion as they said it, others with quiet dignity. But I do not think I have been hugged by so many women, young and old, in my whole life. All had quiet or flowing tears in their eyes as they tried to express their gratitude to America and her allies for being with the Ukrainian people.
One 6-year old girl came running over to me to hug me and have her mother photograph us. “We were dreaming that the Ukrainian army would come,” her mother said, “so she could go to school again.” Living on the 8th floor of one of the city’s apartment buildings, the mother said she had not slept all of these months. Now they were free.
Of course it is mainly women queuing because their sons and husbands are still off fighting. The liberation of all of Ukraine is far from complete, though the liberation of Kherson will undoubtedly form a turning point in the conflict.
Though even here the violence of war is not over. As we stood in the main square we heard explosions continuously from a variety of distances. Many of these will be mines either being exploded deliberately to clear the roads or having done what the Russians hoped them to do. But later, as my group, including my French friend, writer and film-maker Bernard-Henri Levy, traveled down to the river where the blown-up bridge lay, it became clear that though the Russians have abandoned Kherson they have not yet left it alone.
As our car drove towards the Dnipro River a Russian missile fired in the sky ahead of our car, and was intercepted by a Ukrainian missile-defense system. After one of the sharpest U-turns of my life we got into body armor and headed more cautiously down to the river. Soon the Russians began sending over a range of weapons. There were drones certainly — simple spy drones sent in order to locate targets, including people. Then there are killer-drones, mainly sourced by the Russians these days from Iran. And then there are the various rockets and missiles that they have at their disposal still on the other side of the river and on the route to Crimea, which they have occupied since 2014.Some or all of these started to come in over heads.
Soon the whoosh and bang of the explosions became a barrage. Looking to at least see the destroyed bridge my party managed to attract the attention of a Russian sniper on the other side of the river who took a shot and missed. But it was warning enough.
It is a reminder of Russia’s continued malice. But it is not a demonstration of strength. Just as this war has shown the Ukrainian people to be strong so it has shown the Russian military to be corrupt and inept. Not that Russia cannot display brutality. Up the road in Mariupol they have flattened the city and as many as 80,000 civilians are believed to have been slaughtered.
Today as the people of liberated Kherson try to get back in touch with the world they have questions of their own.
Generators have been set up in a couple of places in the center of the city. Mobile phone chargers inevitably pile high from the sockets. The people of the city are speaking to the outside world again and it is a mixture of joy and grief. One huge Russian man is sobbing and eventually tells me he and his wife had just managed to speak to his mother in Germany for the first time in months and reassure her that they were alive. An elderly woman in a wheelchair broke down when we spoke, describing how the Russians three times raided her apartment and on the third time her brother died of a heart attack in terror in front of her.
Worse stories will come. Kherson, like all other cities that the Russians occupied, will have bodies — including mass graves — not yet discovered. The authorities became very nervous when I asked them about the locations of any graves they had found. The people of the city do not yet know which of their sons were taken by war and which were taken, tortured and murdered like people everywhere the Russian forces have occupied. Hundreds of civilian bodies were found in a mass grave in Izyum only recently. The graves will be discovered in Kherson, but the families must know about them first.
In the meantime the Russians will keep trying to add to the casualties. On the road out of the city there were reports of Russian drones dropping cluster bombs on the road we were taking out. The only way to avoid them is to drive as fast as possible along roads littered with the debris of tanks, shells, empty cases of ammunition and more. It should make anybody think.
What has happened in Ukraine is a 20th century war, taking place in the 21st century. At the places of fiercest fighting, which is nearly everywhere, there are trenches and dugouts that look like something from World War I.
As a debate on the funding of the Ukraine war comes up in front of the newly Republican dominated House of Representatives a question continues here at home. Is this our war?
There are many of the left who think not. They see it as just a war between white people, without the racial tones that are the only thing that produce horror in the modern left. But the modern right has its own objections. They point not just to the undoubted corruption that has existed in Ukraine but endlessly make the point that we are spending money abroad that we should be spending at home. As though anyone honestly believes that a Republican or Democrat administration that stopped sending arms to Ukraine would immediately use that cash to build a wall at the southern border of the US?
There is a dishonesty and a frivolity in such claims.
Had Vladimir Putin succeeded in his aims of overrunning Ukraine we know other countries would have been next. Nobody now believes that he can swallow up the Baltic States or Moldova; he is looking stretched to even defend Crimea. And the Chinese Communist party and other hungry powers have learned something, too. They have learned that the civilized world means it when we say that there are some atrocities so appalling, some crimes of war so terrible that they cannot be permitted.
We talk about “never again.” In Ukraine the West has shown that it is a promise we can act on.
As I hear the newly formed House debate the wisdom of arming the Ukrainians I will have other sounds in my ears. Not just the sounds of war. But the sounds of freedom. The sounds of a free people, weeping with gratitude that America, Britain, France and others did not free them, but rather helped a proud and courageous people to free themselves.