Battle for Kyiv: Ukrainian valor, Russian blunders combined to save the capital
The Washington Post August 24, 2022
KYIV, Ukraine — A hail of shrapnel from kamikaze drones ripped through the tent where off-duty Ukraine border guards were sleeping near a crossing with Belarus, three hours north of Ukraine’s capital.
Viktor Derevyanko woke to scalding pain, his body burning. Blood spilled from his hand as he tried to wipe his face. A piece of metal had traveled through his arm and stomach and into the muscle around his heart.
“I couldn’t get my bearings,” said Derevyanko, the deputy head of the unit. “Only on the third explosion did I manage to fall out of bed and try to find at least someplace to hide, because the explosions weren’t ending.”
It was around 4:15 a.m. on Feb. 24.
Hours earlier, Derevyanko and the other guards had been joking dismissively about President Joe Biden yet again warning of a Russian invasion. Now they were its first target.
Within minutes, Russian missiles began soaring out of their launchers. They pounded Ukraine air defenses, radar batteries, ammunition depots, airfields and bases, filling the early morning with the sounds of war.
At almost the same time, Ukraine Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky woke to the ringing of his cellphone. In recent days, he had experienced a rush of relief every time he opened his eyes to the morning light, realizing that the arrival of a new day meant Russia hadn’t invaded. This time, it was still dark. Ukraine’s border guard chief was on the line and told him that his units were battling Russians across three of the country’s northeastern regions.
This wasn’t the limited invasion, isolated to the country’s east, that many top Ukraine officials had been expecting.
Monastyrsky hung up and dialed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“It has started,” Monastyrsky told the Ukrainian leader.
“What exactly?” Zelenskyy asked.
“Judging by the fact that there are attacks underway at different places all at once, this is it,” he said, telling Zelenskyy that it looked like a full-scale invasion bearing down on Kyiv.
“In the first minutes, they delivered terrible blows to our air defense, terrible blows to our troops in general. … There were 20-meter craters, the likes of which no one has seen in their lifetimes,” Monastyrsky later recalled.
The question everyone faced at that moment, Monastyrsky said, was: “How far can the enemy go with that enormous fist?”
If the Russians could seize the seat of power in Ukraine, or at least cause the government to flee in panic, the defense of the country would quickly unravel. Moscow could install a puppet government.
That was the Kremlin’s plan.
Instead, what transpired in and around Kyiv in the ensuing 36 days would represent the biggest foreign blunder in the 22-year rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His assault on the city instantly reordered the security architecture of Europe against Moscow and isolated his nation to a degree unseen since the Cold War. To the surprise of the world, the offensive against the Ukrainian capital would end in a humiliating retreat, which would expose deep systemic problems in a Russian military he had spent billions to rebuild.
Despite the flaws that would emerge in Russia’s war planning, the outcome of the battle for Kyiv was far from predetermined. This account of how Ukraine forces defended, and saved, their capital is based on interviews with more than 100 people — from Zelenskyy and his advisers, to military commanders, to volunteer militiamen, as well as senior U.S. and European political and military officials.
A reconstruction of events shows that even as Ukraine’s political leadership had downplayed the likelihood of a full-scale invasion, the military had taken critical steps to withstand Russia’s initial assault. Commanders had moved personnel and equipment off bases, despite in many cases their own doubts about what was to come.
Ukraine forces lacked sufficient weaponry, ammunition and communications equipment. But what they did possess was a profound will to fight — one that would extend beyond soldiers to ordinary civilians and, most important, to the president himself.
The defenders would also take advantage of terrain around the capital — dense forests, narrow roads, winding rivers — that favored their guerrilla tactics, as well as weather short of freezing that thawed the land and bogged down Russian vehicles. In particular, the Irpin River, a waterway that marked the line of defense on Kyiv’s western edge, would help protect the capital when Ukrainian forces released dammed water to flood its banks.
Those fighting to save Kyiv also benefited greatly from key miscalculations by the Kremlin, which set in motion a plan to invade Kyiv based on poor assumptions about the mettle of the Ukraine military, the durability of the Zelenskyy government and the determination of the Ukrainian people to resist. In the end, Russia wouldn’t take any territory inside Kyiv’s city limits, instead remaining stuck for weeks on the capital’s periphery before the retreat.
The Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment.
As the war began, Putin was some 475 miles away in Moscow. Seated at a wooden desk in a black suit and maroon tie, he appeared on television to announce what he called a “special operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. Moscow had been left with “no other opportunity to protect Russia other than the one we will be forced to use today,” Putin said.
As the speech finished, booms resounded across Kyiv. Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, said she turned over in bed to find an empty space where her husband had been sleeping. She got up and walked over to find him putting on a charcoal gray suit and white shirt. No tie.
“What is happening?” she asked.
“It has started,” Zelenskyy replied. He looked at the faces of his children, ages 17 and 9, before leaving for his office. Zelenskyy said he couldn’t help thinking that Russian missiles were flying “over my children, over all of our children” — that an unthinkable number of Ukrainians were about to die.
The choice Moscow had made, after months of pretend diplomacy, victim-playing and lies on the international stage was beneath all dignity, Zelenskyy thought. He felt certain that Ukrainians shared his fury, that they would fight.
Zelenskyy convened a meeting of his top advisers. They decided that part of the cabinet — including those responsible for police and defense — would stay in Kyiv, as others relocated to western Ukraine. Officials watched wide-eyed as border surveillance cameras captured hundreds of Russian tanks and other armored vehicles flowing into Ukraine in columns reminiscent of a World War II advance. From Belarus in the north. From Russia in the east. From Crimea in the south.
“The whole map was red and required attention,” Monastyrsky said.
The Russians pressed into the hazardous zone around the defunct Chernobyl nuclear plant, where the head of the Ukrainian border guard sector, Vitaliy Yavorskiy, would later find evidence that they had dug trenches in radioactive soil and eaten contaminated deer they shot in the nearby woods.
The goal of the invaders was to penetrate and seize Kyiv, the centuries-old metropolis topped with golden domes above the Dnieper River. Declared the “Mother of Rus Cities” by Oleg of Novgorod when he seized it in the Middle Ages, the city shares a past with Russia that Putin had seized upon to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty. Putin had characterized Russians and Ukrainians as one people separated by Soviet contrivance and Western interference, building a case for going to war to reset history.
As morning broke over Kyiv, Zelenskyy began to work the phones, speaking with President Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other leaders to ask for help. Within hours, he sat down at a desk and self-recorded a video to the Ukrainian people — millions of whom had considered an assault on Kyiv an impossibility and were now waking up to explosions and piling into their cars in shock.
“Today I ask you, each one of you, to remain calm. If it is possible, please stay home,” Zelenskyy said. “We are working. The army is working. The entire security and defense sector of Ukraine is working.” He promised to appear later in the day and stay in regular contact, assuring Ukrainians that they would remain strong. “We are ready for anything. We will defeat anyone,” he said. “Glory to Ukraine!”
Inside the government complex in central Kyiv, the head of Zelenskyy’s administration, Andriy Yermak, looked down at his ringing cellphone. It was the Kremlin.
The former entertainment lawyer, a permanent fixture at Zelenskyy’s side, at first couldn’t bring himself to pick up, he said. The phone rang once, then again. He answered. He heard the gravelly voice of Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin deputy chief of staff, who was born in Ukraine but had long ago entered Putin’s inner circle. Kozak said it was time for the Ukrainians to surrender.
Yermak swore at Kozak and hung up.
Bookish and pensive, Gen. Col. Oleksandr Syrsky is the kind of seasoned military officer who plans for all contingencies — even the scenarios he deems highly unlikely.
The notion that Kyiv — where urban warfare would vex even the most sophisticated military — could be Putin’s primary initial target defied belief for most of the Ukrainian elite, even within the armed forces.
“To think the leadership of Russia would unleash such brazen, large-scale aggression, honestly speaking, I could not even imagine it,” recalled Syrsky, who had fought Russia and its separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine and was tapped to lead Kyiv’s defense just before the invasion. “It seemed to me that if active hostilities were to start, they would most likely start in the east, around or within the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“But we’re the military,” said Syrsky, one of several top Ukrainian military and political officials who spoke at length about the battle for Kyiv, some of them, like Syrsky, in their first extensive interviews. “Therefore, regardless of what I believed or didn’t believe, how it all seemed, I still carried out the activities required.”
Given the array of Putin’s forces along Ukraine’s borders, Syrsky had determined that if the Russians did attack Kyiv, their columns would advance along two or three major highways on what they foresaw as a fast, decapitating drive to the government quarter in Kyiv. The Kremlin battle plan assumed the city would be left defended by only weak Ukrainian forces, disoriented by the political chaos as Zelenskyy and his ministers fled.
To protect the city, Syrsky had organized two rings of forces, one in the outer suburbs and one within the capital. He wanted the outer ring to be as far from the inner ring as possible to protect the downtown area from shelling and keep the Russians fighting on the approaches to Kyiv.
Syrsky divided the city and the surrounding region into sectors and assigned generals from the military education centers to lead each area, creating a clear chain of command to which all Ukrainian military units and security services would answer. Tactical decisions would be made immediately by officers on the ground without having to consult headquarters.
About a week before the invasion, the Ukraine military had moved all command posts into the field toward the probable axes of a Russian advance. Syrsky had also issued an order to move the army’s aviation assets, including helicopters and jets, off major bases, putting them well away from obvious airstrike targets.
When it came to tank power, however, only one mechanized brigade, the 72nd, was available to defend the capital — clearly insufficient for such a large city. As a fix, Syrsky said, he ordered all the military education centers to create special makeshift battalions and had the artillery systems normally used for training brought to the capital area.
Some of those systems came from the Divychki training center southeast of Kyiv, where Ukraine years earlier had brought back into service heavy Soviet-era tanks known as 2S7 Pions, or Peonies. Juggernauts of artillery warfare, each weighing 46 tons and carrying 203mm howitzers, they can fire shells of over 240 pounds more than 20 miles.
Syrsky ordered his artillerymen to take up defensive positions outside the city, to the northeast and northwest, the areas likely to face a Russian onslaught.
That single move turned out to be critical, according to Kyiv’s mayor, former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, because Russia targeted the bases where those systems were normally housed in the very first hours of the war.
“The leadership of the country said there wouldn’t be a war, but the military knew,” Klitschko said.
The Ukrainians largely kept their preparations to themselves. A senior U.S. defense official said Washington knew more about Russia’s plan to invade than about Ukraine’s plan for defense, fueling doubts about how Kyiv would fare. U.S. officials suspected that the Ukrainian military was wary of sharing war plans while its political leadership was downplaying the likelihood of war, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said he was one of the leaders who didn’t believe an all-out assault was coming.
European officials had been assuring him they didn’t see the same threat the United States and Britain did. According to Ukraine’s own intelligence assessments, Russia also didn’t have enough forces amassed over the border to capture or occupy a city the size of Kyiv.
On Feb. 22, Reznikov had spoken over the phone with his counterpart in Belarus, Viktor Khrenin, who promised that Russian forces on Belarusian territory would not invade — offering his word as an officer, the Ukrainian defense minister said.
“And he was a liar,” Reznikov said.
Two days later, after the invasion had begun, the two men spoke again. Reznikov heard a nervous and uncomfortable voice on the other end of the line. The Belarusian minister said he was conveying a message from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, Reznikov recalled: If Ukraine would sign an act of capitulation, the invasion would stop.
Reznikov said he replied, “I am ready to accept the capitulation from the Russian side.”
Attack on Antonov Airport
The Russian helicopters swept low over the Dnieper, their rotor blades slicing the moist winter air in the fold of the river valley. They flew south out of Belarus to a place where the river widens into a placid expanse that locals call a sea, then banked to the suburb of Hostomel, 22 miles northwest of Ukraine’s government quarter.
The Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters in the group took the lead, opening fire on their target below — Antonov Airport, a cargo and testing facility with a major runway. Putin’s chosen bridgehead for his assault on Kyiv was the very airport CIA Director William J. Burns, during a Jan. 12 visit to Kyiv, had warned Ukraine that Russia would try to seize.
Vitaly Rudenko, a commander at the national guard base just outside the airport gates, looked up in disbelief. “Until the final moment, I didn’t believe it. Maybe I didn’t want to believe it,” he said.
In Kyiv, Ukraine’s military leadership had descended into a fortified shelter. Defense communications aides hurried down the hallway in pursuit of Lt. Gen. Yevhen Moisiuk, the No. 2 officer in Ukraine’s armed forces, to ask him what message they should deliver to Ukrainians as Russian forces entered their towns.
Moisiuk stopped walking and spun around.
“Tell everyone: ‘Kill the occupiers,’“ Moisiuk said. “Kill the occupiers!”
There were early setbacks at Hostomel. Some of the air defenses the Ukrainians had set up around the airport were hit by strikes before Russia sent in its troop carriers. An employee of the airfield whose son had been recruited by Russian intelligence had revealed their positions, Syrsky said.
The most combat-ready personnel on the base had deployed weeks earlier to Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, along with their equipment, leaving the airport and base with about 300 soldiers, including draftees who were serving out Ukraine’s mandatory military service. Many had never seen combat.
The helicopters were circling like a kettle of vultures over the airport, whirring against an overcast sky already black with smoke from missile strikes.
“They opened fire at anything within reach, all the buildings, at any people they saw moving around, regardless of whether they were military or civilians — they didn’t care. They were just firing wherever they detected movement,” said a national guard platoon commander whose radio call sign is Malysh, or Kid. Like others, he withheld his name for security reasons.
As the first helicopters reached the airstrip, Serhiy Falatyuk, a 25-year-old national guardsman, propped an Igla surface-to-air system dating to the Soviet Union on his shoulder, peered through the sight and fired a missile.
Falatyuk reloaded, turned his sights on another Russian helicopter and fired again, according to Rudenko. The missile struck the helicopter. Falatyuk screamed in delight.
The small victory electrified the Ukrainian forces, boosting the spirits of Malysh’s draftees. “It was actually possible to shoot [them] down, to do it,” everyone thought, according to Malysh. “The fighters’ morale increased. They grew more persistent. … Regardless of whether they were conscripts, they were fighters.”
Several Ukrainian air defenses had been moved the day before the invasion, so they remained undisclosed to the Russians and spearheaded a counterattack within minutes, Syrsky said. The Russian pilots struggled under the heavy fire of surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery, particularly after a direct hit downed one of their leaders.
“They were shooting from all sides. In the first attack, we immediately lost the leader of our group,” Capt. Ivan Boldyrev, one of the Ka-52 pilots, told the Russian state-run defense TV channel Zvezda. Boldyrev had to make an emergency landing after his helicopter suffered damage.
Dozens of civilian employees across the airport ran for the bomb shelter under the cafeteria. Others hid wherever they could, including in the sewers.
“People … looked at one another, understood what was happening, but didn’t understand why,” said Vyacheslav Denysenko, one of the Antonov employees.
Outside, Russian forces streamed out of transport helicopters and fanned out to an adjoining small forest and a complex of buildings at the airport.
The Ukrainian soldiers came under constant fire. Outgunned and outnumbered on the grounds of the airport, and facing elite Russian units with far more experience, national guard fighters began to run low on ammunition. “I gave the command … to retreat,” Rudenko said.
The exit was chaotic. Rudenko ordered the air defense units and scouts to leave by hopping the fence. Guardsmen close enough to vehicles jumped in and sped away. Others ran on foot. Some of the guardsmen were taken prisoner by the Russians.
After the retreat, however, Ukrainian forces opened fire on the airport with heavy artillery they had deployed outside the airport perimeter, blasting the runway to prevent future landings. In addition, late on Feb. 24, two Ukrainian Su-24 bombers swept over the airport and bombed the runway, causing more damage.
Still, the Russians had their bridgehead.
The Ukrainian equivalent of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, called Col. Oleksandr Vdovychenko, commander of the 72nd Mechanized Brigade, the only such unit in the Kyiv region and the main force defending the capital.
“We have to retake Hostomel,” Zaluzhny said.
“Mr. Commander in Chief, with all due respect, I don’t have enough forces to take Hostomel,” Vdovychenko recalled responding.
“We should try,” Zaluzhny replied.
Along with elite Ukrainian units, the 72nd Brigade’s troops contested the airport for days, firing artillery barrages and blocking Russian forces struggling to move out of the facility. Moscow had been planning to bring in heavy equipment and more troops on Il-76 cargo aircraft to aid the advance, according to Ukrainian officials, but couldn’t immediately do so.
“That they were able to storm the airfield and take control of it in the course of a few hours, on the one hand, played a negative role [for us],” Syrsky said. “But on the other hand, the artillery fire aimed at the runway and disembarkation sites delayed the landing significantly and frustrated the plan to capture Kyiv, because we know now that in principle the enemy allocated a maximum of up to three days for the capture of Kyiv.”
Later, however, the Russians were able to bring in reinforcements to Hostomel via aircraft, Vdovychenko said.
Over subsequent days, Russian forces already on the ground spread out — into the neighboring suburbs of Bucha and Irpin and the town of Hostomel itself — as they sought to find a route into Kyiv. But a week after the landing, they were still fighting on the streets of Hostomel. A 40-mile-long resupply convoy heading to Hostomel from Belarus ground to a halt north of Kyiv, exposing Russia’s logistical problems.
One 31-year-old Hostomel resident, Masha Maas, had been taking cover in the bunker of a glass factory in the center of the town when she saw three Russian soldiers arriving on March 6, after Ukrainian forces had retreated.
“I said, what should we do?” she recalled. “If we close the doors from the inside, they could think someone is left in here and break it or flood it — who knows? If we leave them open, they can shoot us. Take your pick. We decided not to close the doors.”
The first Russian soldier who walked in had blond hair and dark eyes with giant pupils, she recalled. “Why are you looking at me like I’m a fascist?” Maas recalled him saying. “I’m not a fascist. It’s your Ukrainian soldiers who are fascists.”
By March 7, the Russians had occupied the bulk of Hostomel and were using the airport as a hub.
Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian military’s top officer, again spoke to the commander of the 72nd Brigade and ordered him to hold an agreed-upon line on Hostomel’s outskirts and prevent the Russians from advancing any closer to the capital.
“Not one step back,” he said.
The Ukrainians for days blocked the Russian troops from proceeding down the highway toward Kyiv. Frustrated, the Russians tried to find another way into the city. Their best hope: breaking through a forest in the village of Moshchun at the edge of the capital.
Several hours into the invasion, deep beneath Kyiv’s government quarter, Zelenskyy was breathing the stale air of a bunker that had been built in the Soviet era and hardly touched since.
The head of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, had laid out the situation for the president. “The simple issue is that all of our partners are telling us it will be very hard for us, that we have almost zero chances to succeed,” Danilov told him.
“We will not receive much support in the first days, because they will look at how we are able to defend the country,” he continued. “Maybe they don’t want a large amount of weapons to get in the hands of the Russians.”
Danilov also issued Zelenskyy a personal warning. There was credible information that the Russians had set in motion a plan to kill or capture him. At a minimum, Zelenskyy must ensure that anyone around him with a weapon was a known, loyal person. Whether he should evacuate, Danilov added, was up to him.
To make that decision, “you have to look deep inside,” Danilov told the president, without making a recommendation one way or the other. “The stakes are too high.”
Others were urging Zelenskyy to leave. His presidential guard advised him to relocate to a secure location outside the capital and possibly later to western Ukraine, according to Oleksiy Arestovych, a military adviser to the Ukrainian leader.
“Your office is a target,” the presidential guard warned, according to Arestovych, who added his own recommendation that Zelenskyy should leave Kyiv. “There are going to be rockets hitting it and saboteurs will attack.”
Even the bunker wasn’t safe. “There was talk of them barricading the exits and releasing gas,” Arestovych said.
Dark warnings had been emanating from Moscow for years, but this possibility seemed especially twisted. Russian units were approaching Kyiv to “liberate” Ukraine from alleged “Nazis” by threatening the life of its first Jewish president — possibly, his advisers feared, with deadly gas.
The Kremlin had reason to expect Zelenskyy might leave. Eight years earlier, Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president backed by Moscow, had escaped to Russia after a pro-Europe uprising in Kyiv. The U.S.-supported president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, had fled the country in 2021 as the Taliban surrounded Kabul. Russian leaders saw Zelenskyy, a 44-year-old former comedic actor, as a lightweight who would crumble in the face of tanks.
As the day went on, Arestovych became convinced the Ukrainian military would not be able to defend the capital and told the president as much. “People who understood military things went up to him and said, ‘We’re not going to hold,’“ Arestovych said.
Zelenskyy eventually erupted. He was staying.
“This is the last time I am going to hear this,” Arestovych recalled him saying. “I don’t want to hear it again.”
Zelenskyy told Danilov to stop annoying him with constant warnings about threats to his life, asking the National Security and Defense Council chief whether he had anything else to say — anything more important.
“Listen, I am a living person. I don’t want to die, like any other person,” Zelenskyy said. “But I definitely know that if I think about that, then I’m already dead.”
In the first hours and days, he lived with a constant sense of acute tension, his palms sweating like they would when he was a kid taking exams, he said. Reznikov, the defense minister, would eventually need to see a therapist, he said, because he was so emotionally and physically exhausted.
Zelenskyy also received appeals about the need to maintain continuity of government from U.S. and European officials, in some cases with offers to help him leave the capital. By ensuring his own security, the officials reasoned, he could prevent a power vacuum.
He saw the situation in exactly opposite terms — if he fled, he would be ceding Ukraine’s power center to the Russians without a fight, and it would result in the immediate collapse of the government. How would members of the Ukrainian military feel on the front lines if the president was gone? Zelenskyy said this wasn’t about him clinging to the presidency.
“I’m not trying to hold on to power,” Zelenskyy said he explained to the Western officials. “If the question is that I leave, and that will stop the bloodshed, then I am all for it. I will go right now. I didn’t get into politics for that — and I will go whenever you say, if it will stop the war.”
Zelenskyy suspected that some of his foreign interlocutors simply wanted the conflict to end as quickly as possible, with his administration effectively surrendering to Russia.
“Of all those who called me, there was no one who believed we would survive. Not because they didn’t believe in Ukraine, but because of this demonization of the leader of the Russian Federation — his power, his philosophy, the way he advertised the might of the Russian army. And so [they thought], with all due respect to the Ukrainians: They won’t bring it, they’ll be finished off in two or three days, maybe five, and then it will all end.”
From the first hours, his chief focus became marshaling the support Ukraine would need to survive — from Ukrainians, who needed to resist, but also from foreign leaders, who needed to send Kyiv weapons and raise the costs for Russia.
In one video call with European leaders, he said, “This may be the last time you see me alive.” Ukrainian mothers are watching their children die in pursuit of European values, he told them. It left some of the European officials in tears.
Zelenskyy’s outreach proved to be equal parts inspiration and shaming. As much as he spoke to a given country’s leaders, he also appealed to its people, sometimes by serving up blunt truths to their governments in public. He urged German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to “tear down this wall” — a reference to President Ronald Reagan’s call to remove the Berlin Wall — arguing that Russia once again was trying to divide Europe. He told German politicians they must do what they could, “so that you will not be ashamed of yourselves after this war.”
Yermak, the head of the presidential administration, said that over the subsequent weeks, he regularly texted photos of slain Ukrainian children and ruined Ukrainian homes to the cellphones of officials around the world, including Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser; Karen Donfried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs; and members of Congress.
“I confess these were ghastly photos that were keeping me up at night,” Yermak said. “Ninety percent of the people who received them, they reacted, they called back and they started doing even more.”
Ukrainians of all ages who had never held a gun rushed to take up arms after officials decided within days of the invasion to hand out weapons and arm a potential guerrilla resistance. Ukrainian military leaders bristled at the decision, and later said it caused friendly-fire incidents and interference with their force’s operations.
Monastyrsky, the interior minister, called it an “important deterrent,” to Russians but also to potential Ukrainian turncoats. Any Ukrainian mayor thinking of betraying the nation would understand that 20 people with guns were waiting outside, Monastyrsky said, and that “he and his family would be first.”
The visible determination of ordinary citizens underscored that Ukraine couldn’t be forcibly removed from Europe the way the Kremlin wanted, Zelenskyy said.
“For the Russian Federation, we were like an appendix that needed to be removed, but they didn’t understand. They thought we were an appendix, but we turned out to be the heart of Europe,” Zelenskyy said. “And we made this heart beat.”
On the night of Feb. 25, as gunshots were heard in downtown Kyiv and rumors that Chechen fighters were coming to kill him circulated, Zelenskyy emerged from his bunker and went out on the street in front of the presidential office to show on camera that he wasn’t going anywhere.
Standing behind him in the muted light of the streetlamps were his prime minister, the head of his political party, his chief of staff and another top adviser. The prime minister held up his phone to show the date and time.
“We are all here,” Zelenskyy said. “Our troops are here. Civil society is here. And we are here. We are defending the independence of our country. We will continue to do so.”
Russians enter Moshchun
Ringed by a pine forest, a river and a lake, and with a prewar population of just 1,500, the village of Moshchun was a picture of exurban life — a mixture of affluent professionals with weekend retreats and longtime locals in modest cottages.
But when Capt. Roman Kovalenko, a company commander in the 72nd Mechanized Brigade, entered the village with a small group of fighters on Feb. 27, homes were on fire, villagers were running to escape and an aircraft was falling from the sky.
Within minutes, a platoon commander in one of the vehicles ahead of Kovalenko was shot in the face and killed. Russian scouts had just entered Moshchun. Days into the war, the village had few defenders except for a handful of Ukrainian militiamen, even though it was a strategic prize: Just beyond Moshchun lay the capital.
The dense forests dotted with pillboxes from World War II and the waterway gave the Ukrainians a natural landscape to exploit. The Irpin River separated Hostomel from Moshchun, and the Russians struggled to move men and materiel across it in the face of hit-and-run attacks from small Ukrainian units and punishing artillery strikes on their pontoon bridges.
At the center of the fighting was Kovalenko, who just weeks earlier had followed in the footsteps of his identical twin, Dmytro, and become a company commander in the 72nd Brigade. For years, the 36-year-old twins had fought in the country’s eastern Donbas region. Now they had ended up on opposite edges of Kyiv — Roman in the northwest, Dmytro in the northeast.
The shelling and fighting along the Irpin continued for days. On the morning of March 6, Russians troops finally began to force their way across the river in numbers. Kovalenko and his soldiers counterattacked, launching grenades and firing from infantry fighting vehicles in close combat.
“Keep firing, nonstop!” Kovalenko ordered.
But with his soldiers running low on ammunition, he ordered them to retreat to the village center, with Russian soldiers close on their heels. There, Kovalenko and his men regrouped with arriving Ukrainian special forces and other troops — some of them armed with U.S.-supplied Javelin antitank missiles — and foreign volunteers.
Russian Grad rockets, artillery fire, mortar rounds, airstrikes, drone-directed attacks and helicopter strafing bore down on their trenches. Russian jamming cut off communications and made Ukrainian drones inoperable. Kovalenko lost contact with the rest of his company, left stationed in a village six miles to the north.
The Ukrainians kept fighting, Kovalenko said, preventing the Russians from steamrolling through the area. “You get so exhausted that by night you are just passing out,” Kovalenko said. “You don’t care about the shelling anymore, whatever is flying, you just need to sleep for an hour or two. You don’t care if it’s freezing, snowing, raining, if there’s mud around you. You just lie down.
“Many couldn’t cope mentally,” Kovalenko continued. “It’s hard not to break down. Sometimes I would break down myself.”
Kovalenko tried to reach the artillery units to ask them to open fire and stop the constant Russian barrages for at least a few minutes.
At the time, the fighting all along the Kyiv front had grown so intense that for a few days Ukrainian forces around the capital risked running out of 152mm artillery ammunition, according to top Ukrainian officials.
The United States had armed Ukraine with portable weapons such as Stingers and Javelins that could be used by an underground resistance, assuming that the Russians would overcome the Ukrainians quickly, according to a senior U.S. defense official. Equipment and ammunition for artillery were limited, forcing the United States and its allies to scramble to restock Kyiv.
On March 11, the Russians stormed Moshchun from all sides.
“On that day, I felt like I got hit with a hammer on my head at least eight times, because everything was falling right next to us,” Kovalenko said. “A great number of our troops got concussions. Many got hit by debris. Everything they had — aviation, artillery, Grads — it was all firing at our trenches to get us out of there.”
The Ukrainians brought tanks and more experienced fighters into the village to rebuff the onslaught. Kovalenko was sent to the hospital for head trauma from the blasts as his men rotated out. Tears fell down his face as he called his brother on the road to Kyiv.
“We held them back,” he said. He couldn’t believe he was alive.
By then, the Russians were facing fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces and Territorial Defense militia units in the nearby city of Irpin and other areas west of the capital. Unable to break Ukraine’s defenses there, the Russians decided to concentrate on pushing into Kyiv through Moshchun.
Looking at drone and thermal-imaging footage, Syrsky, the general in charge of the capital’s defense, had seen rows of Russian equipment on the other side of the Irpin River, all lined up in battle formation. Moshchun was about to break.
“This was probably the most critical moment, when I thought, ‘Well, is this really going to be it?’ “ Syrsky recalled. “Because [taking] Moshchun means entry into Kyiv.”
Part of the solution rested in an oddity of the Irpin, which flows to a dam 15 miles north of Moshchun and is then lifted up by pumps into a reservoir on the Dnieper River. The Soviets had constructed an elaborate system of sluices along the Irpin’s 101-mile course to make the contiguous land arable.
Early in the war, the Ukrainians blew up part of the dam with artillery to force a deluge from the reservoir down into the Irpin, running counter to its current, as a barrier against the Russians. Special forces units with Ukraine’s military intelligence service sneaked behind enemy lines to rig other parts of the dam with explosives, said Kyrylo Budanov, the military intelligence chief.
Syrsky — relying on the intricate knowledge of a local agricultural businessman whom officials had started referring to as “The Diver” — said a targeted explosion at one of the sluices helped increase the level of the water even further around Moshchun.
The explosion at the dam was just one example of how Ukrainians savaged their own infrastructure to create obstacles for the Russians, destroying roads, blowing up bridges and ruining rail tracks.
“The water flowed and flooded the Russians, and we later found the place where the Russian marines had to throw off all their body armor and swim to stay alive,” Syrsky said.
But later, around the third week of March, the Russians landed paratroops on the Ukrainian side of the river near Moshchun, according to Vdovychenko, the commander of the 72nd Brigade.
He informed Zaluzhny that Ukrainian forces might need to retreat from the village because they no longer had the strength and means to hold it.
“We will look for strength and means,” Zaluzhny replied.
Vdovychenko changed tactics. He began rotating forces in for no longer than three days and brought in a new battalion. “Because of the density of the shelling and the cold, it was impossible to stay longer,” he said. His troops blocked Moshchun on two sides and began bombarding with heavy artillery fire the places where the Russians were crossing or concentrating.
The Ukrainians pushed the Russians back across the river, as Moscow’s offensive began to crumble.
In the hospital, Kovalenko fielded calls from the loved ones of his lost soldiers. Three of his platoon commanders were gone. Many of the soldiers he had left in the town six miles north of Moshchun had been killed as well. The toll weighed on him. Some subordinates questioned his decisions.
“You did everything you could, as you thought best,” his twin brother, Dmytro, told him. “If people didn’t listen to you, that’s another question. These were all completely new people, everyone just mobilized, practically no one knew each other.”
After he was discharged from the hospital, Kovalenko returned to Moshchun to gather his company’s dead from a trench where they had fought. Russian artillery continued to target the village, forcing the Ukrainians to take cover amid the corpses of their comrades. When the firing eased, Kovalenko and his men carried the bodies out on foot — one by one.
Lt. Gen. Anatoliy Kryvonozhko, head of Ukraine’s Central Air Command, was in a hospital bed in Kyiv, recovering from a bad coronavirus infection on Feb. 24. As the first missiles began to hit his people at military airfields and radar stations, he pulled out his IV tube and called a driver. He was needed at his base.
“The coronavirus probably just disappears in these kinds of situations,” he said.
While in isolation, Kryvonozhko had been working remotely and preparing for a possible Russian attack. Many Ukrainian fighter jets and ground-to-air defenses had been relocated. As a result, when the first missiles hit, the Russians were often pounding empty spaces. Some jets, he and others said, were already in the air when the strikes happened — another tactic to save the fleet.
“We created fake targets for our enemies,” recalled Reznikov, the defense minister.
Kryvonozhko gave his units about 90 minutes to gather themselves after the shock of the first bombardment. In some cases, Russian missiles successfully hit their targets that morning. The barracks of the 138th Radio-Technical Brigade was destroyed, though the 50 people who had been sleeping inside miraculously survived. The siren to alert them to seek shelter had failed to turn on.
The younger pilots took rocket-propelled grenades and staked out positions to defend Vasylkiv Air Base — a runway that remained in use about an hour south of Kyiv. The older, more experienced pilots stepped forward to fly, knowing the missions were likely to be their last.
“I wouldn’t call this tradition, but it was a rule that if there was a really, really dangerous bad mission, the older guys jump in the jets,” said a Ukrainian fighter pilot who uses the call sign Moonfish. “The older guys took responsibility, like, ‘Hey, I have grown kids.’ “
Kryvonozhko said some pilots flew three to four sorties a day to engage Russian forces. They often skipped preflight checks and took off from shortened runways that had been bombed and then repaired overnight. That Ukraine was fighting back at all seemed to surprise the Russians and cause them to change patterns, Kryvonozhko said, noting that after the initial waves, fewer Russian jets were flying into Ukraine and Moscow instead began to use more of its limited supply of precision munitions.
Ukrainian fighter jets still flying days after the invasion became symbols of a fierce resistance that was enduring — and played a pivotal role in blunting the Russian onslaught.
“Everybody, especially Russia, believed our air defense would last only a few days,” said Lt. Col. Denys Smazhny, chief specialist in the antiaircraft missile troops training section. “If not a few hours.”
On the ground, Ukrainian air defense units fired at Russian targets and immediately moved position, enabling them to survive for longer than many expected, even as they struggled against extensive Russian jamming. Col. Yuriy Perepelytsya, the commander of the 138th Radio-Technical Brigade, said his forces are never supposed to be in range of Russian artillery, but sometimes operated within 10 miles of the front line.
“We would violate all doctrine,” he said. “Putting ourselves at risk, we were increasing our chances to destroy targets.”
Air defenses remained the top target for the Russians, and Perepelytsya worried constantly about saboteurs revealing his location.
Officials with the SBU, Ukraine’s main internal security service, said Ukrainian collaborators marked some locations with paint that would be visible at night — a signal for where to direct airstrikes. In other cases, they would send coded messages containing coordinates to their Russian minders. A text with red flowers indicated a civilian infrastructure object. Green flowers were for a military installation. The text messages were signed as being from “babushka,” or grandmother, the officials said.
“The Russians had been told there wouldn’t be any air defense systems,” Perepelytsya said. “They’d enter the airspace impudently and we would destroy them.”
Standing in Russia’s way
As his comrades were scrambling to stop the Russians west of Kyiv, Col. Leonid Khoda, commander of Ukraine’s 1st Tank Brigade, was mobilizing to the northeast of the capital in Honcharivske.
By the time the first Russian missile hit his base on the morning of Feb. 24, Khoda had prepared for the worst. He had moved ammunition, fuel and food to camouflaged safe areas and dispersed his troops away from base into the field. He had discussed with his deputies how to slip away and form an underground resistance. He had prepared to say a final goodbye to his wife.
Hours into the war, it looked like the worst was happening.
Russian troops that would ultimately number close to 30,000 were flowing over the border from three directions toward the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. Their plan, according to Ukrainian officials, was to rapidly take the city of 280,000 people and press southward along the eastern side of the Dnieper River into Kyiv within three days. Along with the forces landing at Hostomel and spreading to the western side of the capital, they would form a pincer movement on Kyiv.
Standing between the Russians and the capital’s eastern flank was Khoda, his brigade of about 2,000 troops.
“It is psychologically difficult to accept when you hear a column is coming with 10 tanks. Another column is coming with 30 armored vehicles. Behind them another column of 12 vehicles is coming,” Khoda said. “There were these waves.”
Khoda left the base and sped north to Chernihiv to establish a forward command post. Waiting beside the highway north of the city, his companies ambushed and destroyed the first Russian column, firing at the formation with artillery at such short range that the Russians had no time to react. A second Russian column fell in the same way.
The attack stalled the advancing force and gave the Ukrainians critical time to erect defenses and gather their own troops.
What ensued over the next five weeks was an underdog fight against the Russians that would play another critical role in preventing Moscow from succeeding in its “lightning strike” on the Ukrainian capital.
The Ukrainians tried to force the mass of Russian troops into narrow stretches of terrain — dirt roads that were impassable, thawing fields or swamps that would ensnare vehicles and force greater fuel consumption. Vehicles that stayed on asphalt were targeted by fast-moving Ukrainian troops. Bridges and crossings were mined and blocked.
“We would force them to take certain routes, where we would then blast them and cut them off,” said Maj. Gen. Viktor Nikolyuk, the top commander for Ukrainian forces in the northern part of the country.
The strategy drew admiring plaudits at the Pentagon.
“Coming down that avenue of approach was something like 30 battle groups. A single Ukrainian brigade stopped them. I don’t know who that commander was, but he stopped them in their tracks,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, later said.
“They couldn’t get off the road. Their junior officers didn’t have any initiative,” Milley said of the Russians. “This guy was like a buzz saw, just chewing them up.”
The old Soviet way of war — in which commanders gave officers little leeway to make decisions and sought to overwhelm the enemy by sending lumbering masses of forces — remained the Russian signature, Nikolyuk said.
“We would kill two or three people, and then others would show up in their place. The first ones are still lying there, and these guys are advancing,” he said. “It’s simply 1941, where the lives of the personnel don’t mean anything to the commanders.
“The problem [also] is that they are self-confident. They think that Ukraine is small. ‘We will just override them,’ “ he continued. “ ‘We’ll roll through with tanks, and that will be that.’ “
On the Ukrainian side, commanders who had been leading troops in the country’s east since 2014 had learned from Western partners about pushing decision-making power down the chain of command and ensuring that lower-level officers knew they had to act based on what was happening in the moment, without the crutch of headquarters.
Initiative, in any case, was forced on the officers. As had happened west of Kyiv, the Russians completely jammed the Ukrainians’ communications and satellite networks, leaving Khoda and others without a link to front-line soldiers. Ukrainian commanders moved around to their troops’ positions to communicate and issue orders.
“Military communications were completely paralyzed,” Khoda said, noting that his forces also drew on the local population. “We had to work through informants. I’m not going to put all the cards on the table, but we knew with 95% accuracy even their smallest movements through other means. This was all locals.”
The Ukrainian will to fight against all odds was highlighted on a hill northeast of Chernihiv that had a commanding view of the city and surrounding area. Hold this ridge, Khoda said he ordered the fighters, because otherwise the Russians will have Chernihiv “in the palm of their hand.”
For days, Ukrainian fighters defended or contested the hilltop despite savage Russian bombardment from tanks, multiple rocket launchers and, ultimately, high-explosive FAB-500 bombs that destroyed much of the ridge itself, Nikolyuk said. Nearly all the Ukrainians involved died and were found later in a makeshift grave with a cross on top, Nikolyuk said, but they didn’t surrender.
“You understand that people are prepared to defend what’s theirs and there’s no way back,” Nikolyuk said. “When you see that, you understand that you already don’t have the moral right to act in any other way.”
Many of those who died were part of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces — volunteers who signed up by the thousands in the first days of the war. Though the majority were inexperienced fighters, they took on crucial and dangerous roles, providing critical extra manpower.
After six months, Ukraine has lost some 9,000 troops in all and seen more than 7,000 troops go missing, according to official Ukrainian statements, though the numbers could be higher. Russia has lost more than 15,000 troops, according to comments in late July by the head of the CIA, who said it was difficult to ascertain an exact number.
Khoda said Zelenskyy’s decision to stay in Kyiv spurred the troops. “Imagine there’s a war and you’re told the president has run away somewhere ... that’s demoralizing.”
The Russian air force at first dominated the skies over Chernihiv. Only in mid-March would Khoda’s brigade receive Mistral and Stinger portable antiaircraft missiles from the United States and European allies, finally enabling them to shoot down Russian aircraft, he said.
With brute force and sheer numbers, the Russians by then had managed to sweep across the south of Chernihiv and nearly encircle the city. Ukraine’s 58th Motorized Infantry Brigade joined the fight, moving in below the city to help the 1st Tank Brigade.
The fighting culminated in a village called Lukashivka.
The Russians gathered an entire battalion tactical group of about 750 troops and piled ammunition between the white walls of an old Orthodox church, Khoda said. Russian armored vehicles flooded the village — some seven tanks, 19 infantry fighting vehicles, and 12 or 13 armored personnel carriers, in addition to trucks, he said.
If the Ukrainians didn’t push back at Lukashivka, they risked losing their last “road of life” in and out of Chernihiv.
But the Russian decision to mass troops had been a mistake. Open fields and a patchwork of tiny streams separated Lukashivka from villages held by the Ukrainians, Khoda said, leaving the Russians exposed.
“Using small groups, we went out and destroyed one or two tanks, one infantry fighting vehicle, some personnel — and simply little by little started to cut off their logistics,” Nikolyuk said.
The artillery did the rest. Much of the Russian equipment was torched.
At that moment, Khoda said, he knew the Russians would be defeated. They had lost too many people, tanks and fighting vehicles — and they no longer had sufficient forces to advance into the city of Chernihiv itself. Their logistics had been overstretched by counterattacks, time and distance.
By then, the Russians had already reached Kyiv’s eastern edge another way.
Russia’s new gambit
It was brazen — and also foolish.
By mid-March, with its forces struggling on either side of Kyiv, Russia tried a new gambit, sending a line of tanks 225 miles westward across the center of Ukraine from the Russian border. As the bunched-up column approached the capital’s city limits, the Ukrainians struck, ambushing the tanks with artillery fire.
Nineteen vehicles were destroyed and about 48 retreated, a battalion commander in the 72nd Brigade later said. Drone footage released by the Ukrainians showed 20 Russian tanks scrambling to turn around in the mud by the highway, as the column retreated. In an intercepted call released by the Ukrainians, a Russian soldier reported numerous losses, including the regiment’s commander.
The blow to the Russians came during weeks of combat for Dmytro Kovalenko’s battalion in the villages along Kyiv’s eastern edge.
While fighting, Kovalenko remembered the words of his late grandfather, who had survived Joseph Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine in the 1930s and served in the Soviet military during World War II: Never trust Russians or Communists.
“They have brought a lot of suffering to my family,” he said. “Now I hate them.”
After the tank debacle, the Russians failed to regroup and never launched a major assault on the eastern edge of the capital. As the days went on, Ukrainian commanders monitoring Russian communications began to hear a change of tone among enemy soldiers. What had been enthusiasm had turned to panic and disappointment. Kyiv was holding and Russian woes were mounting.
Russia cut its losses and announced in late March that its troops would refocus on eastern Ukraine. Within days, they began to retreat.
“They suddenly got together one day and left,” said Kovalenko, who celebrated with his twin brother, Roman.
“First of all, it was people standing up for one another and saying, ‘No, we won’t surrender,’ “ Roman said. “It was the power of their spirit.”
By saving Kyiv, Ukraine protected its independence as a sovereign state. But Russia would go on to contest the boundaries of that state in a second, more demoralizing stage of the war in the country’s south and east.
‘That feeling that this is death’
On April 4, Zelenskyy traveled to Bucha, the Kyiv suburb where Ukrainian officials would find 458 bodies. More than 400 bore the markings of gunfire, torture or bludgeoning.
Every day, over the previous six weeks, Zelenskyy had been briefed on the numbers of dead and wounded, the families separated and scattered across the country and Europe.
Though he had visited troops, stayed awake amid the sounds of nighttime artillery attacks and airstrikes and endured threats to his own life, he had mostly been confined to the presidential office.
Soldiers sat on the floor throughout the many corridors. Snipers were posted near the windows. Zelenskyy had gotten used to all of it, he said, but nothing shook him as much as the visit to Bucha.
“That feeling that this is death — when there is silence and silence, and there is nothing left living,” he recalled.
Corpses lay on the street. Buildings were burned out. Officials showed him bodies of people who had been subjected to horrific abuse.
“This feeling is scary,” he said. ‘Everything is destroyed and now what? This could be the way it is everywhere. This is how they work.”
Before Bucha, he said, he had been so entangled in trying to secure more weapons, approving battlefield decisions and negotiating with foreign leaders that he hadn’t slowed down to fully ponder what had been lost in the victory of Kyiv.
“That moment of consciousness comes,” Zelenskyy continued, “of what is happening, what they have done, that irreversibility, that it isn’t possible to go back.”
Wounded, missing or killed
By June, Roman and Dmytro Kovalenko were in the country’s east in the Donbas coal-mining region, where Russia had unleashed an artillery war reminiscent of World War I, leaving outgunned Ukrainian soldiers pleading for more-advanced Western weapons.
Over a month and a half, more than two-thirds of Dmytro’s company ended up wounded, missing or killed — most of the survivors left with traumatic brain injuries.
Dmytro visited his brother’s position and saw how Roman, too, was suffering, wearing earmuffs to soften the reverberations of the blasts.
Within a few days, Roman was back in hospital, where he stayed until deploying again in recent days.
Earlier this month, Dmytro packed to go back to the eastern front after spending a few days outside Kyiv with his parents and his 10-year-old son. His son understands where he is going.
Dmytro said he struggles with how to say goodbye:
“I say that everything is good, that I’ll be back soon. Just wait.”
The Washington Post’s David L. Stern, Liz Sly and John Hudson in Kyiv; Loveday Morris in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Sudarsan Raghavan in Moshchun; Mary IIyushina in Riga, Latvia; and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.