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Kyiv’s war for independence The city is battling for European civilisation

When he's not fighting, he is a member of a Blue Brothers tribute act. (Photo by Murat Saka/dia images via Getty Images)

When he's not fighting, he is a member of a Blue Brothers tribute act. (Photo by Murat Saka/dia images via Getty Images)


June 15, 2022   7 mins

The square is an ocean of black and green tents flying yellow and blue flags. Their canvas openings flutter serenely in the breeze amid surroundings of organised chaos. Violence has come to this place. Torn up paving stones lie in piles next to mounds of rubber tyres. Photos of the dead, often garlanded with flowers, stud the walls and embankments; rickety stalls sell a variety of tat to the many foreigners that have descended on the city.

It’s April 2014 and Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) contains the remnants of the 2013-14 Euromaidan Revolution. Its inhabitants have lived here in these tents for months, refusing to leave the place that has given them a reason to get up in the morning. The square is now their home: they wash and dress and cook here. The revolution has given them not just a purpose, but like Ukraine, a nascent, and now burgeoning, identity.

Beyond the square, on Kreshchatyk, stands a tall makeshift tower built from scaffolding. Festooned with posters and banners, it is dominated by a large image of the man on everyone’s mind: Vladimir Putin. He has been photoshopped to make him look like Hitler.

Ukraine gained independence from the USSR in 1991, but, in 2014, national identity is still fractured. Some of the Western Ukrainians I meet revere the far-right war leader Stepan Bandera; those from the East generally revile him. Most people I meet speak Russian; some refuse to on principle. Sympathy with Moscow, especially among the elderly, does exist. But two things everyone here can agree on: they do not want to be a part of the Russian state, and, above all, they despise Vladimir Putin.

***

That revolutionary detritus is long-gone from the square. But the city today is the nerve centre of an all-out war with Russia. “Ukrainian Resistance” reads a poster on a wall near McDonalds. A couple of soldiers walk past. A new Europe — and a new century — is being born, and at the centre of it all is Kyiv. This city sits at the heart of Putin’s efforts to recreate a mythical identity of a Greater Russia based on a fraudulent reading of the past.

When Putin went for Ukraine this year, it was Kyiv, the home of ancient Kievan Rus, the “mother of all Russian cities”, that he wanted above all else. The Ukrainians beat him back. But now Russian rockets pound the city once more. Putin cannot let Kyiv go. But neither can the people who live here. Kyiv is not just a city; it is the essence of this conflict, which is one not just about land, but about history and geography and, on a fundamental level, about the identity of both these countries.

***

“My surname is Kozhemiaka and from that alone you know my family are Kyiv natives. There’s a street in Podol [in the city centre] that is called Kozhumiatska — we are originally from there. I have photos of my great grandfather and grandmother there from 1881.”

Angelina sends me six yellowing photos, two of which are of a solemn but kind-looking couple: he with an austere, clipped moustache; she with hair conservatively pinned back. I’ve known her for eight years but it’s the first time I’ve heard about the etymology of her name.

I think back to our first meeting late summer 2014 in Maidan, when I caught sight of her, threading her way through the square’s tents and stalls and crowds. Angelina was running a social media advertising agency (and does stuff with monetising websites that I don’t understand) and I wanted to speak to her about how social media is being used to spread propaganda.

Always stylishly dressed and immaculately made up, Angelina likes nice hotels and foreign travel and has a keen interest in fashion. With her small toy dog (a Spitz called Preston Pit) she perfectly fits the clichĂ© of the apolitical cosmopolitan class. But – like so many people I have met here – Angelina is different. She has been jolted into an awakening of political – and inescapably national —consciousness.

“It started with Euromaidan,” she tells me. “I went there twice. Once before the government started shooting on the protestors, and then after it was all finished. I saw the burned-out wreckage in the streets, and even traces of blood. People had started laying flowers to commemorate the dead.”

Angelina wanted to be what she calls a “witness” — to try to get some sense of what really happened there. “What struck me was a Ukrainian unity I’d never seen before. It was like that Ukrainian archetype that is so popular here Cossack Republic of 1918-1920.  I saw that brought alive: the sense of complete freedom but among a mix of different people in the square. It didn’t matter who you were, they were all united by one goal – and that was Ukraine.”

She remembers seeing the destruction and the death on TV. “I was shocked,” she says. “I realised then what it took to be free, to become a nation.”

When Putin ordered his armies into Ukraine on 24 February this year, he was determined that it would under no circumstances ever be allowed to be a functioning nation. The very thought was bogus. So he sent his troops straight for its capital: he knew that in order to destroy the very idea of Ukraine, you must take Kyiv. Forces travelled south to encircle the city, while Special Forces (Spetsnaz) were also reportedly sent to infiltrate Kyiv but were quickly chewed up by the Ukrainians. Attempts to seize the airfields of Antonov and Vasylkiv were also unsuccessful, though troops did almost cause a nuclear incident when they took the town of Chernobyl. As they failed to make tangible military progress Moscow switched tactics: the goal was now to level as much territory as possible.

Ukrainian forces counterattacked and by 25 March they had retaken large swathes of the area surrounding Kyiv, eventually liberating Bucha on 1 April, where they discovered mass graves and evidence of widespread Russian war crimes. The Russian high command said their goal was now to “liberate” the Donbas. Putin’s dream of regime change and “restoring” Kyiv, the “Mother of all Russian Cities”, to his country was, for the moment, over.

But he won’t give up. For as long as Kyiv remains proudly Ukrainian, the Kremlin will never annex Ukraine to Russia. In early June, Russian warplanes strike the city from the Caspian Sea. Moscow says it will strike new targets if the United States starts giving Ukraine longer-range missiles. The Kremlin says Ukrainians are merely confused Russians; that Kyiv is not Ukrainian but simply the source of Greater Russia. And it is determined to bomb and kill them until they remember this fact.

Ukrainians resist. They want to be something else. In Podol, I watch hipsters edit graphics on laptops in coffee bars; they are self-consciously western. Europe, not Russia, is their collective dream. Vadym Halaichuk, a Deputy in the national parliament, agrees: “Culturally, we’ve always been Europe,” he says. “Obviously, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union for a long time and that has had a tremendous impact on how culture here has developed. But even those 70 plus years did not erase our European identity. So when Ukraine gained independence back in 1991 – or regained it – Ukrainians quickly began to realise how different we are from Russia and from what many Russians stand for.”

He continues. “There was still a lot of Soviet influence in the country and our corrupted communist elites did a lot to support that historical misconception that we are the same people.”

Putin, though, would drag Ukrainians eastwards, and back in time. Until then, he is content to sacrifice them at the altar to his own, mad, dreams.

***

It’s winter, 2014, the war is several months old, and there are parliamentary elections. Angelina has volunteered as an election observer. In the western city of Vinnitsa, she stands in a school and watches people casting their votes, to ensure the process accords with international standards. It isn’t much, but in a country legendary for its almost surreal levels of political corruption it is indicative of the new Ukraine that, though not yet born, many here are trying to midwife into existence.

Eight years later, Solomiia Bobrovska, the former acting governor of the Odesa region and a Rada Deputy, drinks coffee with me in Kyiv and tells me about the difficult birth of this new Ukraine. “We technically got independence in 1991 but for the majority of Ukrainians the nation was born, in fire in 2014, and the process is still continuing today,” she says, leaning across the table at me. Her white T-shirt is emblazoned with the Ukrainian trident (Tryzub) and she wears a blue and yellow wristband on her left arm. Bobrovska was born in December 1989, after the Berlin Wall came down. She has only ever known Ukraine. Now she is its future.

“Finally all Ukrainians understand what war means,” she tells me. “When you have funerals almost every day, when almost everyone has lost someone in their families, be they warriors or children, and how much it hurts.”

It is through this hurt that Ukrainian defiance has been forged. If Putin thought he could terrorise Ukrainians into submission he made a grave miscalculation. “After Bucha, there will never be any compromise with these people,” my friend Kirill tells me later that day. “Let them come and try to take my city again. We are waiting for them — and we all have guns now.”

***

The lady is 200 feet tall. In her right hand she holds a sword and in her left a shield. She stands in the Pechersk neighbourhood in central Kyiv. The Motherland Monument is probably the most famous statue in Ukraine. Throughout a large chunk of 2014 I lived in the city, just off Kreshchatyk. Every morning I would walk through central Kyiv to get breakfast, and there she would be.

I walk past it again more on my way to meet Angelina. We haven’t seen each other for several years but have been in constant communication since the invasion. In that time much has happened.

By mid-April 2022, the Ukrainian army has beaten the Russians back from Kyiv. Greater Russia remains a Putinist fantasy. Instead, something else has emerged that, when we meet for drinks a few weeks later, Angelina wants to tell me about. “This is our war of independence,” she tells me. “Never have we been so united. We all understand what our country is now. We all know that we are Ukrainians. We all know that we will never be Russians. We all want the West not the East.”

What Angelina and I saw in Euromaidan in 2013 and 2014 has only grown since then: the slow-motion birth of a nation. The gradual evolution of a post-Soviet state into the flawed, troubled, but undeniably culturally and politically independent Ukraine that exists today. Self-knowledge is painful. This is a nation that has been forged in the crucible of Putin’s stupid, pointless and bloody war.

This speaks to a larger truth about all conflict — and geopolitics: the Law of Unintended Consequences. Putin has, thus far, achieved almost the exact opposite of everything he intended. He wanted Ukrainians to identify with Moscow, he made them despise it. He wanted to put an end to Ukrainian national feeling, he galvanised it. He wanted to merge Ukraine with Russia; Ukrainians are dying to ensure he can’t. He wanted Ukraine to demilitarise, he made it more militarily capable than ever before. He reveres Orthodox Brotherhood; he pushed the Ukrainian Church to break from Moscow. He wanted to divide Europe, he united it (at least for the moment). He wanted to show the world the might of the Russian army, he exposed it as a paper tiger.

Just before dusk on my last evening in the city I go to my Airbnb overlooking Independence Square. Here in 2013 hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians risked their lives to protest their corrupt leader and in so doing set off a chain of events that brought me to this building today. Kyiv abides in my heart. It is a city of legend for me too, and it is where so many things began; both for Angelina, and for me, and, most importantly of all, for Ukraine.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

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Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago

“He wanted Ukrainians to identify with Moscow, he made them despise it. He wanted to put an end to Ukrainian national feeling, he galvanised it…”

He wanted a land bridge to the Crimea, he’s got one. Let’s not lose track of that (or the situation in the Donbas) amidst all this rhetoric about paper tigers and a nation born in fire. The lack of total victory is not the same as defeat.

zee upītis
zee upītis
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

It’s not like Putin simply got SOME of what he wanted. He also LOST and so far has been losing big.. Let’s not forget about Finland and Sweden joining NATO etc. If this was always just a cheap ‘n cynic land grab, then sure.. Oh wait, except not so cheap either. On the other hand, of course, he made others lose too, so it may still all play into his hands. Of course, it’s far from over.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  zee upÄ«tis

But that’s exactly it – he’s got some of what he wanted. For any outcome short of the total destruction of the Russian state and him swinging from a lamppost, you can only talk about winning or losing relative to the next-best alternative; without the invasion he’d have got none of what he wanted. I’m sure the cost has been higher than they’d hoped, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still ‘worth it’ from the Russian point of view. It is indeed far from over.

Also didn’t Turkey outright veto Fin/Swe joining NATO because of their support for Kurdish groups that it considers terrorist? News has been pretty quiet on that front for a while, not sure if there’s been any movement since.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Land bridge to Crimea, Donbass, Odessa.
He got the first one, sounds like they are chewing up the best units of the Ukranian army en route to objective 2.

And yes, Ukraine do get to keep Kiev, keep those corrupt politicians and get to despise the evil Russians. Just like North Korea or Pakistan, it’s only reason for existing will be to hate their own brothers, while ending up as a puppet for foreign powers and a failed, basket case of a nation.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

He’s used up a huge percentage of his military forces to get what he’s got, so he’s lost big time against Europe/NATO; he’s undermined his allegiance with China, so lost big time with the USA.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I don’t think you actually believe this absurd analysis, utterly contemptuous as it is of any notion of people deciding their own destiny. I think you might find just for starters that Russia is more corrupt than Ukraine, but unless you consider (I expect you do not) that the United States is entitled to overthrow governments based on some corruption index, it is utterly irrelevant anyway.

I’m not sure exactly what WOULD constitute ‘evil’ in your world, clearly not mounting a full scale invasion of a nation you signed a binding treaty with only 30 years ago, levelling entire cities, carrying out atrocities against civilians etc etc. This by the way started in 2001 and has been part of Putin’s playbook ever since.

The ‘Russians’ aren’t evil, and their history doesn’t bode well for the prospect of a government that spends a bit more time building its own economy, and not sacrificing it’s sons in endless wars of aggrandisement for its rulers’ vanity. Even by its standards, Putin’s awful (not to mention kleptocratic) and ever worsening government represents a tragic low point.

Peter ‘the Great’ by the way, gets quite a good press in the West but was one of the most bloody and ruthless tyrants of all time – tens off thousands of slaves dying to build his new capital, flaying his own son to death and much, much worse. If he is Putin’s hero, God help the Russians and their neighbours.

William Adams
William Adams
1 year ago

Such a pleasure to read David’s intelligent, incisive and very informative reporting. More, please.

John Hicks
John Hicks
1 year ago
Reply to  William Adams

Surprising that your pleasure in another thoughtful, people connected, article from this particularly courageous journalist is shared by so few other commentators. Once upon a time a War of Independence against a similarly oppressive foe, (also righteously confident of their own territorial ownership), resulted in the unqualified support of all Free People – together with a gift of “Liberty” by the French. Today the French President and German Chancellor visit Ukraine to request an end to the War! Quite what happened to the “Independence” bit? has been reduced to hushed tones along the corridors – no longer for polite conversation. Perhaps the author, Angelina and the people of Ukraine represent the end of Caucasian heroism exhibiting passions for Freedom that was once an ideal for and of life in the “West?”

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
1 year ago

If the author’s intention was to convey the passions and hatreds of the western Ukrainians then he succeeded. What he failed to convey was the hard fact that their polity is not very bright/intelligent.

The one defining reality in the world is that power prevails. If a country/region is less powerful and its polity is bright enough to realise that fact it is often amazing how much freedom the prevailing hegemon will allow. However, if a country mistimes it’s challenge to the local hegemon a heavy price will always be paid.

Talk about sovereignty, rights, morality is just so much waffle. POWER PREVAILS ALWAYS. The bright understand that brute fact and by accommodating themselves to that reality can often live in relative peace and prosperity.

By acting as a local proxy for another faraway hegemon – the mortal enemy of Russia – Ukraine will pay the full price for it’s pride and naivety.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

POWER isn’t exactly having a straightforward time PREVAILING in this instance though, is it? When the Ukrainians PREVAILED at Kyiv, where did the POWER lie? It’s almost as if POWER is determined by events as much as vice versa. Who had the POWER when Persia marched on Athens, when France cornered Henry V at Agincourt, when Suleyman the Magnificent besieged GĂŒns? By your definition, we’re bound to say Athens, Henry and Nikola JuriĆĄić. I very much doubt you’d have given those answers beforehand.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

I was thinking the same and recalling when China decided to “teach Vietnam a lesson” .. the Red Army, so powerful, didn’t come off too well. Also thinking of President Marcos (the first) – when the demonstrations against him started he had the power of the army on his side, but when a big demonstration was fronted by a line of nuns, and the army wouldn’t fire on them, it was game over – the power had shifted to the nuns.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

Vietnam (and the US), Iraq, Afghanistan all fit the same pattern.
What might make the difference this time is the appetite or otherwise of Russia to wage total war

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

What utter nonense. Really.
Ukraine is defending itself from an unprovoked and unjustified invasion. As an independent country, it is entitled to choose its own friends and allies.
If “power prevails always” as other comments have said, how did America lose in Vietnam ? If it does, then Russia’s certainl;y going to get a kicking from the US … but your theory is clearly too simplistic.

P Branagan
P Branagan
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Blah, blah, blah. Waffle, waffle, waffle

Last edited 1 year ago by P Branagan
Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

“What has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth.” Boris Pasternak, Russian writer, Doctor Zhivago (1957)

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago

David’s brilliant war reporting reminds me of Martha Gelhorn: terrific reporting, terrific writing.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
1 year ago

Why should such a corrupt country be fast tracked to join the EU ?

M. Gatt
M. Gatt
1 year ago

Ukraine. The poorest and most corrupt country in Europe that has the 2nd largest army. This country was built for one reason – war against America’s enemy Russia. This writer is such a deluded fool it is hard to grasp the depth of his blindness.

Neven Curlin
Neven Curlin
1 year ago

This is yet another piece of laughable propaganda. But hey, Patrikarakos is after all winning the information war.

M. M.
M. M.
1 year ago

David Patrikarakos wrote, “It wasn’t much, but in a country legendary for its almost surreal levels of political corruption it was indicative of the new Ukraine that, though not yet born, many here were trying to midwife into existence.”

Most reports about Ukraine in the Western media omit mentioning the corruption and incompetence of the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians themselves omit mentioning that their corruption and incompetence resulted in Ukraine’s lacking the resources to build an adequate military force, thus leading to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s begging for weapons from the West.

How horrible is the corruption and incompetence? The gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of Ukraine in 2019 was actually less than the GDP per capita (at purchasing-power parity) in 1991. (See the reference.)

Ukraine is the Hispanic nation of Europe. Like the Hispanics (in Latin America), the Ukrainians refuse to admit responsibility for wrecking their own nation.

The current crisis in Ukraine is an opportunity for the German government to show leadership. Berlin should demand and obtain assurances (from Volodymyr Zelenskyy) that the Ukrainians will modernize their nation. IF Zelenskyy refuses to provide these assurances, then Berlin should cease providing military or economic assistance to Ukraine.

Get info about another area in which Berlin can show leadership.

Last edited 1 year ago by M. M.
Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 year ago
Reply to  M. M.

Zelinsky was voted in on a platform of modernising and removing corruption from Ukraine. His government was working on this until Putin’s invasion caused their attention to be focussed elsewhere.

Olga Timofeeva
Olga Timofeeva
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Zelensky is an actor full with his own success, unable to grasp reality

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

He was the creation/prodigy of an oligarch who used his wealth, influence and power to put him in office driven by concerns that his own corrupt business activities were under threat from the authorities.
Sound like text book corruption to me.

zee upītis
zee upītis
1 year ago

No, he absolutely wasn’t and if you were ever following the elections, knew how Zelenskyy himself built his film business, or Kolomoisky’s history of meddling with the politicians, you’d knew that. Then again, even if it was then there’s no oligarch that can control Zelenskyy now. BTW, Kolomoisky has been in hiding since the war started and have made no statements. You may also be surprised to learn that Ukraine has one of the lowest Gini coefficient in the world but then again if you compare e.g. Ukrainian and Russian lists of billionaires then it quickly becomes clear why is that — and which country’s citizens have been robbed more.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Roger that Judy

.still
..let’s fast track the Albanians
..that way their already rooted mafia in Europe could have a field day.
Cheap sentimentality has no place here.
I have no qualm admitting I do not like this Zelynski bloke. I do not easily cash in when he goes on insulting parliaments in countries that do their darn best to help him and at the same time see to it that Putin doesn’t turn the planet in a radio active ruin.
As far as I am concerned he can shove his membership application where the sun doesn’t shine.
Being at war with Russia is not enough. Why didn’t we take Tchechenia into Europe before they were levelled by Putin ?
Muslims ? also are the Turks Tony Blair wanted to see join.
Here is what the Austrian Kanzler has to say about this
Kanzler Karl Nehammer hingegen sagte WELT: „Was einen möglichen EU-Kandidatenstatus anbelangt, so möchte ich festhalten, dass es klare und etablierte Kriterien gibt, die ohne Wenn und Aber einzuhalten sind. Es darf keine Doppelstandards oder gar Beitrittswerber erster und zweiter Klasse geben.“

Last edited 1 year ago by Bruno Lucy
Jeff Andrews
Jeff Andrews
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

He was told immediately by his real bosses that he’d end up hanging from a lamppost in Kiev if he didn’t do what he was told. That may still be his fate unless Britain can organise his rescue, since nobody else will try.

David NebeskĂœ
David NebeskĂœ
1 year ago
Reply to  M. M.

No German leadership in this case. please. Everybody knew that the only purpose of Nord Stream is harming Ukraine and Poland and enabling future Russian attack on Ukraine. And what Germans did? They even helped NSII. Germany not only refused to sell arms to Ukraine before the war, but blocked (and continue to block) the supply of originally German arms from third countries. Of the few 40-50 year old weapons Germany gave Ukraine after the invasion, most were unusable. Later it supplied absolutely nothing and lies about the alleged agreement of NATO countries not to supply tanks to Ukraine. Now they are promising 7 howitzers and, by the end of the year, 1 or 2 anti-aircraft complexes – weapons to defend one small district town. Germany has no moral right to demand anything from Ukraine. Ukraine would be much better off if Germany did not exist.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

Germany comes behind Poland and the UK in absolute terms of material support for Ukraine but ahead of Italy and France. Not great but not what you’d imagine from the headlines.

N T
N T
1 year ago
Reply to  M. M.

I’m still waiting for Germany to make any move that can be regarded as positive vis-a-vis NATO or this war.
Pledges and action are not the same, are they?

Tommy Abdy Collins
Tommy Abdy Collins
1 year ago

‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.
However I am delighted to see that UnHerd has cancelled Arnaud Almaric, whose recent controversial remarks were well ‘beyond the pale’.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Ray Bradbury’s got a nice little firefighter suit for you, Mr. Delighted Cancellation Guy.

Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
1 year ago

Arnaud Almaric was pompous and arrogant, however I am surprised he has been cancelled, what did he say?