opinion | Ukrainians are happy, but overwhelmed by trauma and sadness

Nataliya Gumenyuk, founder of the Public Interest Journalism Labis a Ukrainian author and journalist specializing in foreign affairs and conflict reporting.

A video shows Ukrainian soldiers who have just liberated the city of Balakliya from six months of Russian occupation. She cut off a russian propaganda slogan from a billboard that reads, “We are one people with Russia.” To their surprise, another text comes to light – a famous stanza by the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko, which addressed an earlier generation of Ukrainians who opposed the Russian imperial rule: “Fight on and win! God Himself will give you help out.” Anyone watching the scene can’t help but feel how the words resonate today – nearly 200 years after Shevchenko wrote them.

Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive has liberated at least 3,400 square miles of territory, mostly in the northeast, and cut off Russian supply routes. But its real meaning could go beyond the mere military. It has given hope to millions of Ukrainians. It has destroyed the long-held belief of the Russians in the invincibility of their army. And it dealt a dramatic psychological blow to the occupiers throughout Ukrainian territory.

While Kiev’s gains on the Kherson front in the south have been relatively modest so far, it has won politically. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement this week of a “partial mobilization” of reservists to increase the number of Russian troops is a tacit recognition of Ukraine’s victories. Putin’s proxies in the occupied territories have announced a series of mock referendums to legitimize Moscow’s annexation of the territories – but carrying them out will likely prove challenging. The Kremlin’s propagandists originally planned to conduct the votes much earlier, but eventually postponed their plans until earlier this week. All these moves reek of despair.

Ukraine’s ability to reclaim its territory makes treason even more risky. Russian TV gave prominent coverage to an employee who received a Russian passport – just three days before Ukrainian troops recaptured his city. When he was later spotted at a train station in the Russian city of Belgorod – showing that he had fled shortly after collecting his passport – the images went viral.

Even before his final speech, Putin had resorted to less conventional means to bolster his military. A recently leaked video appears to show oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the private military company Wagner, recruiting prisoners for the front lines in Ukraine. Prigozhin, who went to jail for robbery himself in the 1980s, told the inmates that they would “never have to go behind bars” if they chose to serve. But if anyone deserted, he said, they would “be shot on the spot.” That says a lot about how desperate the Kremlin is getting.

Ukrainians are not worried about Putin’s mobilization order because they can see how unpopular it is. Russians who thought they would only see the war through their TVs are now suddenly faced with the prospect of seeing husbands and sons sent to the front. Still, Putin’s move creates an even greater sense of urgency for the Ukrainian armed forces, who know they could face another wave of Russian recruits in a few weeks.

In today’s Ukraine, the mood of society is largely determined by frontline troops. Balakliya’s video is just one example of Ukrainian fighters enjoying a welcome moment of triumph. Yet the feeling of satisfaction goes hand in hand with the realization of the costs. Musician and environmentalist Pavlo Vyshebaba admonished his followers to “think about the prize” when celebrating victories.

I started hearing concrete details about the counteroffensive’s success in early September, when I was on my way to cover a funeral ceremony for soldiers. While we were there, the people in the cemetery, all refugees from an area occupied by the Russians, received word that their villages had just been liberated. They were hopeful but also anxious, knowing that some of them might return home to find their homes destroyed.

We had already heard many reports of tragedies that occurred during the occupation. Residents of Balakliya began speaking out about the atrocities taking place there as early as March; now the liberators have found an alleged torture chamber in the city. For months I followed a Facebook group where the wives of Ukrainian soldiers searched for husbands who had disappeared near Izyum. So while the recent discovery of the mass grave there horrified me, it came as no complete surprise.

According to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, 388 towns and villages have been recaptured since the counter-offensive began on September 6. In the smallest case, there are several dozen residents who have spent almost seven months under occupation; some did not survive. So liberating even one town or hamlet means saving lives.

That makes it necessary for Ukrainians to take back as much territory as possible. It would help immensely if Kiev’s foreign friends actually delivered the weapons they promised. The future depends not only on the courage of the Ukrainian troops or their intelligence and discipline, but also on how much supplies and materials can be brought to the front. The faster that can be done, the faster Ukraine can recapture its own country.

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in a speech to the nation on Sept. 21, interpreting the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that wants to use Ukraine as a tool to ” divide and destroy Russia”. .” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in recent days has forced a major Russian withdrawal in the northeastern region of Kharkov, as troops fled the towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war, leaving behind large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Organized referenda, allegedly illegal under international law, will take place from September 23 to 27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. From Friday, another phased referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed government in Kherson.

Photos: Photographers for the Washington Post have been on the scene since the beginning of the war – here is some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways people in the US can help support the Ukrainian people and what people around the world have donated.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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