The commander’s name was Johnny Dragan, and he smoked each cigarette as if it were his last.
Dragan was bolstering a blocking position north of Kyiv at a crucial junction. Dragan and his soldiers would have to halt the Russians if they broke through. Behind him, a two-lane highway led straight to Kyiv.
At a café on the crossroads that Dragan had taken over as his headquarters, off-duty troops were eating and resting. The lunch was filling, and they neatly put their firearms next to their tables in conical mounds.
The active shift was working outside on another very cold day, with snow falling on their shoulders. A tank was stationed nearby. A lethal-looking artillery piece was positioned to fire straight at anyone coming down the road that Dragan deemed a danger, over open sights.
He stated, “We’re coming to annihilate the enemy brigades.” “The occupants who have arrived in our nation – and are on their way to us.”
A crane on the back of a builder’s lorry was dropping slabs of reinforced concrete, which it had previously used to convey housebuilding supplies. Since then, there has been more destruction than creation. Today, it felt more pressing near the frontlines. Checkpoints are being reinforced into barricades by Ukrainian forces both within and outside Kyiv.
Dragan’s soldiers were within striking distance of Hostomel, a tiny yet strategically significant town. Since the first morning of the conflict, when Russian airborne soldiers arrived via helicopter to take a cargo airfield as a bridgehead, fighting has continued there.
Tanya and Ivan, a couple in their sixties who had been trekking for three hours to get out of Hostomel, were picked up by us. They claimed it took them 13 days to summon the courage to escape their frigid cellar.
Before they escaped below, Tanya related what they had observed on the first day of the conflict. “We observed tanks and a vehicle with soldiers ahead of the column when our people blew up the bridge, but our guys didn’t let them leave… The bridge was blown up, along with the automobile and everything else.”
Everything had changed as they emerged before daybreak after nearly two frightening weeks to travel towards Kyiv, approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) distant. Tanya shed a tear as she remembered her time in Hostomel. “It used to be such a beautiful location to call home. However, there was no home, street, or town when we awoke this morning.”
Many adjacent communities, not just their own, are in ruins.
There are a few vestiges of past lives remaining in buildings that are still burning; smoking kitchens where families must have dined, argued, and loved. Dogs forage for food beside the ruins, waiting for owners who have abandoned them.
Russian tactical and military errors, along with well-organized and resolute opposition, have given the Ukrainians enough time to prepare for whatever comes next. That will not continue eternally.
The bombardment of international sanctions aimed at Russia is showing no signs of changing President Vladimir Putin’s stance. His public statements appear to confirm his desire to complete the task of destroying Ukrainian independence, which he claims is an essential step for the Russian people to preserve themselves and their country.
It’s difficult to overestimate the intensity of the invasion’s dilemma, and the years of tension that preceded it. It is very dangerous due to Russia’s and Nato’s drastically differing perspectives on the security and direction of those that were formerly securely in the Soviet Union’s orbit.
Above and above the battle in Ukraine, the participants to the larger struggle are equipped with nuclear weapons capable of annihilating us all. Despite Mr Putin’s decision to boost the degree of readiness of part of his arsenal, the prospects of this battle being nuclear are exceedingly slim.
However, conflicts cause uncertainty and misinterpretation, and the threat of escalation is always present.
I can’t forget the relief I felt when the Cold War ended, or the delight I had when I turned on the television on November 9, 1989, and saw Germans dancing on the Berlin Wall, as can most individuals who grew up during the Cold War.
It’s hard to imagine that more than 30 years later, I’ve spent the day reporting about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequences of everyone’s inability to construct security that would prevent Europe from returning to its old ways.
Ukrainians were prepared to flee a hospital that had been treating the injured just a few kilometres from the Russians in Hostomel. They’d been moved away from the fighting, and hospital director Dr. Valerii Zukin was overseeing personnel covering delicate medical equipment in clingfilm bundles. The beds were ready to be picked up and hauled away.
Dr Zukin informed me that my ship was sinking, and as captain, I would be the last to evacuate.
He raised his voice as he stated that Ukrainians do not want food help. Instead, they demanded weaponry and a Nato-enforced no-fly zone.
“Only the language of power is understood by the Russians. I’d like to quote Golda Meir, Israel’s previous Prime Minister, who stated it was difficult to talk with someone who came to murder you.”
Until we approached the suburbs of Kyiv, it was a lonely and stressful journey through the snow. Ukrainian forces had buried themselves into the bushes and were waiting.