What turned out to be the most difficult thing for both the citizens and the journalists in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine? How has the situation in Kyiv changed over the year? Do people still feel the same fear that they had in the beginning? Should Ukraine prepare for a new Russian offensive and can we predict when the war will end? Novaya Gazeta Europe spoke with Marc Santora, a journalist for The New York Times who has been based in Kyiv since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We would like to sum up the war in Ukraine and the actions of the Russian troops by the end of the year of the war. And first of all I’d like to get to know you more.
How long have you been working in Ukraine already? How did your attitude to the atmosphere there change? What are the difficulties now living there?
I’ve been with The New York Times for more than 20 years now. I’ve lived in Central and Eastern Europe for a number of years as the Warsaw bureau chief before the war. But I had never been to Ukraine until two weeks before the invasion.
There’s a lot we could talk about in terms of how much the country has changed. We can talk about the first couple of weeks. I think everyone did not know exactly how things would unfold. We watched as embassies left and people started to move out. And there was this deep uncertainty. And then February 16th came and passed — there was this notion that this was going to be the date of invasion. Then there was kind of this sense, okay, maybe this won’t happen.
But on the night of the 24th, we all saw Russia’s invasion. We had been guessing — would it be a small-scale thing in the East? Or would they try to launch this massive invasion to take the whole country? And they chose the latter. So there was a lot of uncertainty, obviously a lot of confusion.
But what I also saw very quickly — I then went from Kyiv to Lviv, and I spent weeks there watching as basically baristas, janitors, accountants, lawyers all joined together pretty quickly, got over the shock and started to think about how do we fight back.
For me, the biggest impression I took in those first weeks was this remarkable transformation of a country that might have had divisions and its own issues to unite against what was an existential threat and how quickly that sort of happened. I remember the prohibition on alcohol, and stores stopped having bottles so they can be used for Molotov cocktails. You know, the curfews and people generally accepting them. But I didn’t find a lot of people who were trying to find a way to escape (but I’m sure there were some), the majority of people were looking for a way to help in those early weeks.
Residents of Kharkiv take refuge in the subway, February 24, 2022. Photo: MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES
What was the most difficult thing during this year as a journalist?
There’s different periods, and different journalists have covered different parts of the war. I have not done too much reporting, for instance, in Donbas. And I think that we as a newspaper have had reporters there, and I think they would probably describe something different. For me, spending a lot of my time in Kyiv, particularly as the air strikes on infrastructure increased over the winter, again this sort of uncertainty crept back up. And certainly this time was different. The uncertainty was: “Will I have power in the morning, will the lights work, how do I go about my daily business?”
And there was this period in November, December, where it looked like Russia could disable the grid. And again, it’s still winter, so I don’t want to get too far out ahead, but I think another amazing thing has been the ability of the utility workers here to keep the country working.
Did you work in the occupied territories? What difficulties do journalists face there?
No, we can’t. I mean, obviously, I think one of the under-told stories of the war is what’s happening in Mariupol, Melitopol, or other places like that. Obviously the minute the Ukrainians go in and retake these places, like Izium, Bucha, Irpin, we can then go in and try to understand what the Russian occupation was like. But it is impossible for us to cross that front line and we don’t go on orchestrated trips. I think the Russian journalists, they bring journalists in, but we don’t do that.
We can’t independently verify a lot of what we hear about what’s coming out of there, which is frustrating. So we try to talk to people on the phone if we can. It’s dangerous for them to talk to us.
And there’s other ways we can better understand what’s happening in the occupied areas. But honestly, I think it’s one of the stories that are the hardest to tell.
Today, everyone is talking about a possible new Russian offensive. Do you think Russia is really capable of a new offensive with the combat power that it has now?
I will say what military analysts, Ukrainian officials and Western officials have told me. Russia obviously is unsatisfied with the territory it has. It has a lot of manpower. It has lost as much as 200,000 troops killed and injured. It currently has more than 300,000 in Ukraine in some capacity and another 150,000 or more ready to come in. But according to military analysts, manpower alone is not going to be enough for Russia to make the kind of large, sweeping gains it might hope to.
American officials, Pentagon officials, and others say there’s still no evidence that they can perform the kind of military manoeuvres that would allow them to overtake very well-fortified Ukrainian positions en masse.
I think it’s likely we will see small gains by the Russians over the next few weeks: whether it’s Bakhmut and other places. But the war is not one battle. And it is important to understand what Ukraine wants to do next, which is launch their own offensive.
If Ukraine can defend and allow minimal gains or gains that are not terribly strategically important while draining Russia of its resources, it puts them in a better position for when they want to go on the offensive. But there’s a lot of unknowns, and probably the top unknown is if Russia can, for instance, acquire ballistic missiles from Iran or if there are some other things that could change the calculus here with the pace of weapons coming in from the West. So, Russia might want to make sweeping gains, but it’s unclear how they would be able to make that happen.
Russian military tanks and armored vehicles advance in Donetsk, Ukraine on February 23, 2022. Photo: Stringer / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
The Russian army is trying to seize the initiative, the Ukrainian one is trying to keep it. The parties went to positional battles. What does the pause mean and what can happen in the future?
I think predicting the future is always a dangerous business, but I think we know what both sides want to do. The Russians, you know, their immediate objective is to seize the whole Donbas and protect their land bridge to Crimea. The Ukrainians want to have enough of the new Western weapons, including long range artillery in place to launch their own offensive. And again, one of the key goals of that will be to break the Russian land bridge. So, we know what both sides want to do. The big question is what are they both capable of doing? And I think we’re going to see that play out in the coming months. And I think — a lot of people think — that the next six months or so will be the defining period in what this conflict ends up looking like. But I can’t predict.
Is Putin ready for a long war, what do you think?
Putin seems to be preparing for a long war, but there’s only so many people he can send off to this war before there’s some domestic backlash. We’ve already seen evidence of that because of his hesitation to declare full mobilisation or a second round of mobilisation, which the Ukrainians think is already kind of happening anyway. As for Ukraine, I think they know that the Western support is deep right now and they’re united. But how do we deal with a long term frozen situation? And a lot of people I speak to, military analysts, don’t think it’s going to be frozen.
They think that the fighting of the next six months will maybe be able to answer that question better. Is this a long forever war or something else?
The Russian and Ukrainian sides are now losing a lot of people near Bakhmut. Also the Ukrainian military claims that Russia almost completely lost the elite 155th Marine Brigade in Vuhledar. What is this city’s strategic advantage? Will one of the sides manage to take control of the cities in the next month?
Vuhledar sits at the nexus of the eastern and southern fronts. It is quite near a major rail line leading from Donetsk to Crimea through southern Ukraine — all of them occupied by Russia. That transportation, logistical route is very important for Moscow, and at the moment it’s very close to Ukrainian positions. They can fire on it and interfere with it. Obviously, the Russians would like to provide a bigger buffer to secure that. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians want to keep that line under pressure at the very least. And so that’s the strategic importance. In terms of what’s happened there over the past two weeks, I think we’ve seen growing evidence that the Russian assaults, at least in late January, early February, failed pretty spectacularly. They lost — it’s hard to put numbers on things, but by some estimates — an entire brigade trying to assault this position. So they haven’t had success so far. But again, there’s no indication that they’re going to stop trying.
A fire broke out on a building after Russian shelling as military mobility continues within the Russian-Ukrainian war in Bakhmut, Ukraine on February 15, 2023. Photo: Marek M. Berezowski / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Ukraine and Russia are now attacking each other with drones. What is the likelihood that the war will drag on for so long and become a war of attrition?
It’s just the Russian way to try to grind forward through attrition. But I also think it’s been a war of strategy and moves and countermoves. And Ukraine’s most successful moments have come when they fought differently than the Russians and not just going head on, smashing each other with artillery. I think we’ve seen in this war that drones are used in ways we have never seen, and we are likely to see that going forward in wars in general. And that’s their importance for surveillance, for attacking, for reconnaissance, for a whole host of things.
For the Ukrainians, one of the biggest concerns is Russia being supported by Iran, and Iran bolstering Russia with drones. And I think the Ukrainians have gotten better at shooting them down. But also the Ukrainians have used drones to great effect, including long range drones to attack targets as far away as Crimea. So, you can’t underestimate the importance of drones.
Kherson and the Kharkiv region have shown an example of de-occupation. What are the prospects for the de-occupation of the remaining territories in Ukraine? Will Ukrainian forces continue to stage counter-offensive operations?
I don’t know what happens there. I have no idea and can’t predict. But I can tell you what they want to do. Obviously, Ukraine wants to drive the Russians out of all of the occupied areas, the Russians don’t want to be driven out. But I think one of the things that was striking over the course of the year was the list of atrocities we saw in every place that Russians had occupied and then were forced out. The incontrovertible evidence of war crimes and other things done in these places makes you very worried about what’s happening in the places that are still occupied.
I think one of the goals for the Ukrainians is to drive forward enough so that they can target Russian positions in Crimea. And if we get to that point in the war, that’s a huge change. And then we’ll see what that change does.
What is the likelihood that Belarus can take an even more active part in the war?
We know Belarus played a very significant role in allowing Russia to stage its initial invasion. We know that it continues to play a very active role in allowing Russians to train there and use their airspace. But as to the question, does Belarus officially join the war and send its own troops? I think nobody knows the answer to that. There’s a lot of speculation. I think it’s something the Ukrainians don’t think is likely soon. But I don’t think anyone will dismiss the possibility completely.
Summing up the results of the year, is it possible to say which side gained the most during this war, and which lost the most?
The Ukrainian losses are all tragic. Ukraine has lost their cities, lost their children, their civilians, their infrastructure. So their loss is obviously deeper. But in terms of purely military, Ukraine has now taken back more than 50% of the territory Russia once held. And the next phase is going to be really hard.
In your view, what is the mood in Ukraine right now about the fact that Putin can start a new large-scale campaign?
Ukrainians stopped being scared of Russia a long time ago. These words and things don’t scare them. I think obviously they don’t want to lose more of their people and they want this war to end. But I don’t find anyone here who is very particularly scared of words.
I think what the people here feel now is that Russia’s done everything it can or tried to. So what is there to be scared of anymore?
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