A year ago on 24 August – the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence – a new generation of pilots were leading the Ukrainian air forces flying over Independence Square in Kyiv. The fighter jet column was headed by Anton Lystopad, who was recognized as one of the country’s best pilots. He was 30 years old, born in the year of independence. Almost a year later, in August 2022, Lystopad received the Order for Courage from the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. A few days after the ceremony, he was killed in combat.
Lystopad’s story may sound almost too symbolic, but Ukrainians have become used to such tragic symbolism. Six months on from the start of the Russian invasion, with its indiscriminate bombardment of peaceful towns, the atrocities and horrors of Bucha and Mariupol, but also the solidarity, resilience and sacrifices we have experienced, everything feels sharper and deeper. The bitterness of losses and the joy of survival.
Even before the full-scale war, for Ukrainians, Independence Day was the most important holiday of the year, the brightest day, when we thought not about the death of tyranny and the Soviet empire, but the rebirth of the state and of freedom. Amid the war, a military parade in the capital is not an option – soldiers and equipment must be on the frontline. A civilian gathering may put people in danger. There are concerns that Vladimir Putin’s airstrikes will punish those celebrating something he wants to destroy. But doing nothing would feel like defeat. Not letting Russia destroy our usual way of life is a form of protest. The installation of destroyed Russian military equipment along Kyiv’s main street, Khreshchatyk, has been applauded by many. It offers an ironic commentary: on 24 February, Moscow wanted its armored vehicles trundling into central Kyiv.
After Russia’s defeats in Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, and later its slow advance in the Donbas, the Kremlin changed its strategy. Instead of battles, Moscow makes random missile strikes on peaceful towns such as Kremenchuk in June, where 21 people were killed in a shopping mall, and Vinnytsia in July, where 27 lost their lives.
Many of us have got used to air-raid sirens; some have even stopped hiding in foundations. But this possibility of attack at any place or any moment is cruel. It remains invisible to foreign visitors, who are often surprised by how normal life in Kyiv or Chernihiv has become.
Yet we still hope Independence Day will be a perfect sunny day. The start of a new season, when many return after a summer break. Many Ukrainian women and children will return home from their refugees abroad. For some, the financial means to be out of the country are exhausted, while others just want to go back to their homes. Unless, of course, they are places under occupation such as Mariupol or Severodonetsk.
I used to have my concerns about military parades and public demonstrations of military pride. But not today. I am no longer worried about a burst of militarism. Those on the frontline dream about returning to their families and careers. Their service reminds me more of the duty of firefighters or rescue workers.
Half a year has turned out to be enough to understand the war: to see its ugliness, but also its banality. It is not a force of nature, and it’s not inevitable. Victory depends not just on heroism or might, but on strategy and the capacity to use resources wisely.
Independence Day also feels like a watershed: we need to consider what has happened and what to expect next. Major battles will be impossible in winter, so the next three months will be decisive – a chance to counterattack and liberate as many towns as possible before the stalemate starts.
That’s another reason why these days our thoughts are mainly with those who are on the frontline. There will be other days to mourn the fallen. Myself, I think first of a friend – a former publisher of a glitzy lifestyle magazine, with whom I reported on Kharkiv in March, and who was mobilized this summer. Now he commands a paratroop company. He ca n’t leave his gun even while asleep on his post by him in Donbas, for fear of saboteurs.
During a recent phone conversation, I asked how his fellow soldiers felt these days. He said that despite many battles and great exhaustion, their determination was strong. Everybody understood what they were doing there: while they held the line, the invaders wouldn’t enter their home towns. Recent attacks on military targets in Crimea have cheered people up – both in the capital and on the frontline.
I also think of the 8,000 Ukrainian prisoners of war. If the Kremlin can’t hurt Ukrainians at home, PoWs may become a target. My thoughts are with two friends captured this summer in the battles in Ukraine’s east, whose stories can also tell the story of the country. The first – I wo n’t publicize his name for security reasons – has spent the past eight years in conflict resolution talks in the Donbas, talking to his Russian counterparts and to separatists, genuinely hoping for a breakthrough. In vain. Then, after February 24, I decided to take up arms.
The second, Maksym Butkevych, is a known anti-fascist, a pacifist who believed in nonviolent resistance, a human rights defender who fought against any kind of discrimination and supported people displaced from the Donbas. For this he was labeled “neo-Nazi’ by Kremlin propaganda, and called a spy – because he worked as a journalist for the BBC and UNHCR. Despite his history of pacifism, he came to believe that fighting was the only remaining way to defend human rights when his country was under attack.
We had not heard from him since June, but he recently appeared in a Russian propaganda video of PoWs captured in Luhansk. He looked disturbed and worried, thin, grey, silent. But still this video was welcome – he’s alive. I want another video of him. Archival footage exists of Maksym in 1990, still a pupil, calling for Ukrainian schools to support the student movement for independence. Back then it sounded like a dream, but our experience from the past 30 years, including eight years fighting in the east and six months resisting an invasion, shows that we reach our goals not because we hope but because we work and fight, exhausted but determined.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism