LifestyleUnyielding Ukraine: unraveling the unparalleled mobilization against Russian invasion

Unyielding Ukraine: unraveling the unparalleled mobilization against Russian invasion

Ukrainians effectively resisted the Russians.
Ukrainians effectively resisted the Russians.
Images source: © Press materials | Paweł Pieniążek
3:20 AM EST, February 1, 2024

On February 24, during the early hours of the Russian assault, the situation in Ukraine appeared to be grim. Many didn't think the country would hold out for over three days. Yet a year has passed, and the Ukrainians' resistance and will to fight seem anything but diminished. Can you explain this phenomenon?

War correspondent: In the initial days, the trajectory of the war was ambiguous. The Russians had a massive advantage, attacking from three sides, and the ensuing chaos made it challenging for people to comprehend what was happening. Although the tension was palpable before, and many were anticipating an attack, the scale of it left people in shock.

However, when the initial shock subsided, a remarkable phenomenon occurred - an unparalleled Ukrainian mobilization. Possibly the largest demonstration of commitment from a society under attack in modern history. A united front built on resistance and faith in victory materialised like never before. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons why the Russian army has not yet attained its intended objectives in Ukraine.

One of the heroes in your book, a jiu-jitsu player named Bohdana Hołub, said that everyone has their own front to fight. Can you elaborate on the different fronts ordinary people are engaging in?

Bohdana's front was penning a letter to the world's top Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters, calling for solidarity and aid. This helped bring international attention to the situation in Ukraine. In addition, she continues to purchase necessary military equipment and organizes fundraisers to obtain the funds for it.

What stood out to me the most was that regardless of who I spoke with, everyone emphasised the importance of being of service. A considerable number of people wanted to contribute in any way possible. Ukrainians did not just line up in droves at the draft commissions, but also actively took part in civilian resistance. Whether big or small, every act had significance.

People organised fundraisers for the army and other civilians, procured uniforms, sewed camouflage nets, built volunteer networks, cooked meals for soldiers and the needy, established medical support, assisted in creating posts and barricades, welded anti-tank barriers, and prepared Molotov cocktails. This legion of individuals who participate in the war, even without holding a weapon in their hands, made the resistance effective.

The next character in your book, Tetiana, criticised her hometown Kharkiv on numerous counts and considered migrating. However, when the Russians attacked, she decided to stay and do everything in her power to make the Russians, whom she disparagingly refers to as "Rusnia," retreat. Is it anger that propels Ukrainians to fight?

Yes, and along with anger, there is a profound hatred. These feelings are now accompanying many Ukrainians, and each subsequent missile attack or crime only intensifies them. They place blame not only on Putin for the current situation, as you sometimes hear from outside Ukraine, but on all Russians. Ukrainians harbour resentment against Russians for their silence and lack of protest, which they view as sanctioning Putin's actions.

How did the Ukrainians react when the atrocities committed by Russians in cities like Bucha and Irpin were revealed?

Those who were indecisive about leaving their homes were prompted to decide to move inland or go abroad. For some, it was a catalyst to engage more deeply or act more assertively. The closer you are to the wall, the more fiercely you fight, knowing your life hangs in the balance.

Ukrainians united in the fight against the invader.
Ukrainians united in the fight against the invader.© PAP | SERGEY VAGANOV

You lived in Ukraine for many years and had the chance to get to know its inhabitants quite well. Were you surprised by their reaction after February 24?

I wasn't surprised by the extensive social mobilization, given that I've followed this process since the 2013 protests in Maidan. What I was sceptical about were surveys indicating that up to 60% of Ukrainians were prepared to fight. I considered these to be purely theoretical considerations and that they wouldn't translate into real actions when push came to shove. Time proved these declarations to be true.

I was also taken aback by how the railway was operating during the war. Ukrzaliznycia, the Ukrainian equivalent of Poland’s PKP, was not known for its speed, responsiveness, or adaptability. However, almost from day one, it evolved into an institution that rescued hundreds of people, becoming the primary logistical and humanitarian resource. Despite being under fire, the trains evacuated people from war zones and ensured the transportation of humanitarian aid workers to the front lines. They were also responsible for delivering the necessary supplies.

I witnessed a significant change in police operations. In 2014, in Donbas, a large portion of police officers defected to the side of the separatists and Russians, thereby symbolizing betrayal and a lack of loyalty. But by 2022, I saw how many of them risked their lives, transporting people under fire.

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You mentioned that Ukrainians have never been more united. However, resistance in eastern and western Ukraine looks different.

I would caution against drawing rigid lines between the east and west, or applying stereotypical labels, as these overly simplify reality and can be misleading. Ukraine is far more diverse, as is the eastern region on its own. Areas like Dnipropetrovsk oblast are completely different from Donetsk or Luhansk. That being said, we can observe a higher level of patriotism and attachment to Ukraine in western oblasts. In regard to the east, it's there that we find the majority of Ukrainians who declare support for Russia, despite their number being low overall.

Residents of eastern regions are noticeably war-weary, dealing with a conflict that didn't just start a year ago, but has been ongoing for nine years. Donbas has taken the brunt of the assault from the outset. There were not as many people queuing at the draft commissions in the eastern region as there were in the west. While many there are supportive of Ukraine, there's a greater level of passivity, with civilian activity lesser but still significantly higher than in 2014.

Has the war that has been raging in Ukraine since 2014 contributed to a more efficient societal self-organization?

Undoubtedly. The protests that took place in Maidan were a precursor. The outbreak of war in 2014 was the next stage - networks were established as a result, which enabled quicker organization now. Everyone had a connection who could contribute. Many volunteer groups were still active, so they could start working on a larger scale almost instantly and rapidly expand. Compared to the events of 2014, social involvement is now tremendous. If a war of this scale had erupted nine years ago, Ukraine might not have been able to defend itself.

The extraordinary self-organization of Ukrainians somewhat mirrors how Poles reacted to the war, immediately offering aid and establishing support networks.

Indeed, the assistance from Poles was immeasurable, although I gleaned most of it from media reports, being in Ukraine at the time. I can affirm, however, that Ukrainians are profoundly grateful to Poles for their aid. This comes up a lot in conversations. While my relations with Ukrainians have always been positive, I perceive a welcome change. They feel more than just gratitude; they say that they now recognize who their real ally is. Polish-Ukrainian relations have advanced to an entirely new level.

Paweł Pieniążek - war correspondent and journalist working regularly with "Tygodnik Powszechny". He's reported on events from Afghanistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. He's the author of the books: "Resistance: Ukrainians against the Russian Invasion", "Greetings from Novorossiya", "The War That Changed Us" and "After the Caliphate: A New War in Syria". He's a recipient of the MediaTory journalism award.

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