One year in, Ukraine fights on for its independence and for the security of the West
It’s not an anniversary anyone wants to celebrate.
It recently turned a year since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine — an act that changed the world more than most Americans fathom — all because of Vladimir Putin’s delusion that he could seize control of the country in a matter of days.
He was wrong, and not just because the West, led by President Joe Biden, delivered weapons (often too little, too late) to Kyiv. Putin failed to understand that this is the 21st century, not the 19th or 20th centuries, when small countries could be carved up by adjacent empires.
The Ukrainians refused to meekly return to misery under Stalin’s Soviet Union … oops, I mean Putin’s Russia. They refused to be forced into a police state where any opposition is met with jail, torture or murder — as has already happened in Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia. And Ukrainians are prepared to pay the ultimate price for their freedom.
Putin wants to revert to a time when major powers divided the globe into spheres of influence and fought over the boundaries. China’s Xi Jinping and other despots are watching closely. If Western democracies fail to help Ukrainians push the Russians out in 2023, they will likely be paving the way for a new era of imperial wars.
To understand where this battle is headed, consider the story of a Protestant pastor from Mariupol named Gennadiy Mokhnenko. For two decades, he ran an orphanage in the port city that rescued thousands of street kids, many of them addicted to drugs. It was the largest rehabilitation center for children in the former Soviet Union, and Mokhnenko’s work is movingly depicted in the 2016 documentary “Almost Holy,” coproduced by U.S. filmmaker Terrence Malick (you can watch it on YouTube).
Nowhere is the contrast between freedom and despotism conveyed more starkly than in Mariupol, which I was lucky enough to visit just before the war started. Back then, it was a thriving city, with beaches, a new marina, a city council that promoted tourism and new hospitals, and a lovely, historic drama theater in the main square. Now the city is destroyed, as Russian occupiers bury their crimes by shoveling tens of thousands of murdered civilians into mass graves, including hundreds who died when Russian planes bombed the theater.
Yet Putin claims to be saving Russian speakers from Nazi persecution and promoting Christian family values, a blasphemy that is swallowed whole by some populist conservatives in Europe and the United States.
To further illustrate the absurdity of Putin’s war, Mokhnenko recounted how he had once been hailed as a hero by Russian television, when he bicycled across the country with some of his children as part of an effort to promote adoption. After the occupation of Mariupol, Russian TV claimed the orphanage had been a terrorist camp.
Over the years, the pastor and his wife formally adopted 35 of the street kids in their care and had three children of their own. With donor funds, they had just completed a new building that could house hundreds of destitute children. Then the Russians invaded the city. “We evacuated all my kids (from the orphanage) at the last minute,” Mokhnenko told me recently. “The army called me and said, ‘You have exactly 40 minutes to get the kids out.’ ”
Shortly after, he got word that his 27-year-old adopted daughter, who had not managed to flee, was killed by tank fire directly into her apartment. “She was an amazing girl, a young mother,” the pastor said. “I adopted her when she was 10 years old.” A neighbor managed to send Mokhnenko a message that he had found a piece of her body and buried it in a small grave.
Eleven of the pastor’s adopted and biological kids are now on the front lines as soldiers or volunteer workers. Recently, he got a call that one of his sons had lost his left hand in the battle of Bakhmut, while a piece of metal had penetrated his eye.
Now a military chaplain based in Zaporizhzhia, three hours northwest from Mariupol, the pastor travels regularly with other military chaplains to the front lines. Under heavy rocket fire, they deliver supplies to soldiers and elderly civilians who won’t evacuate. On a recent trip, an S-300 missile landed close to his car but failed to explode.
“I am sure we will de-occupy my country,” Mokhnenko told me. “We have to show that in the 21st century it is not a good idea for a dictator to occupy a country and kill people. This would give an amazing lesson to other dictators.” He paused, then added, “I don’t know how much of a price we will pay.”
To grant Putin’s wish for some kind of victory on the war’s anniversary, Russia has freed thousands of convicts from prison to use as cannon fodder in a major offensive in the east. Defense ministers from Western nations are scrambling to provide tanks and air defenses they should have sent months ago, in time to rebuff the Russians.
If Western nations cut back support for Ukraine — whether they buckle under Putin’s nuclear blackmail or their own internal political divisions — they will solidify Putin’s and Xi’s conviction that democracies are weak and declining. Down that path lie more and more dangerous military conflicts.
It is critical that Biden and the leaders of Western allies do better in explaining to their publics why it is essential for Ukraine to drive Russia out of occupied lands in 2023, and not settle for a stalemate. As Mokhnenko put it: “They destroyed my amazing city and turned it into a cemetery. They are KGB killers, and we must stop the Russians like we stopped fascism.”
The pastor swiftly rejected the idea that Ukraine should concede territory to Russia in negotiations. “Imagine someone kills your children and stays in their room and says we want peace? No.” I would add that history has shown Putin only uses negotiations to regroup his army and solidify his gains, before restarting the battle.
The coming year will reveal whether the West has the strength and the foresight to enable Ukrainians to win a war they are fighting for our security, as well as their own freedom.
If the West waffles and delays, Ukrainians will keep up their existential struggle, but the casualties will be even more horrific.
When I told Mokhnenko that I hoped I’d see him soon in Zaporizhzhia, he replied pensively: “If I am still there.”
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.