Two from The Economist: “
Three years ago The Economist’s defence correspondent was sailing back to Odessa on the Hetman Sahaidachny, then the flagship of Ukraine’s navy. A plaque in its wardroom honoured its former captains. Two names were scratched out—they had defected to Russia when it seized Crimea in 2014. In late February this year, as Russian forces approached once more, the Hetman Sahaidachny was scuttled in Mykolaiv, complete with its 1943-vintage gun.
Now Ukraine seems to have had its revenge. On April 14th Ukrainian officials said they had used Neptune anti-ship missiles to hit the Moskva, a 10,000-tonne Slava-class cruiser which was 60-65 nautical miles (111-120km) south of Odessa. The Moskva, commissioned in 1982, is—or, perhaps, was—the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which has its headquarters in occupied Crimea. Itwas a “venerable, battle hardened, major surface combatant” which participated in Russian wars in Georgia in 2008 and Syria in 2015, notes Alessio Patalano, a naval expert at King’s College London. “This is one of the most severe naval losses since the Falklands war” of 1982, he adds.
Russia’s defence ministry first acknowledged that the Moskva was “seriously damaged”, claiming that a fire had caused ammunition to detonate, but that the ship stayed afloat—a fact corroborated by the Pentagon. But magazine explosions tend to be devastating. Later it admitted that the Moskva had sunk. A Western official was unable to corroborate Ukraine’s claim, but described it as credible: “I am not aware previously of a fire on board a capital warship, which would lead to the ammunition magazine exploding.”
The strike is rich with symbolism. The ship was built in Mykolaiv, then a Soviet city but now a Ukrainian one which has repelled Russian ground assaults over the past month. It was also one of two warships that attacked Snake Island, west of Crimea, on February 24th, the first day of the war. When it ordered the tiny garrison there to surrender, the alleged reply—“Russian warship, go fuck yourself”—became an icon of national resistance, emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps. The Moskva’s apparent loss was “a massively important military event”, said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, on social media. He cast it as the Russian navy’s biggest defeat since the second world war.
Of particular note was the weapon the Ukrainians used. The Neptune, though modelled on the Russian Kh-35 (or Kayak) anti-ship missile, was designed and built in Ukraine. It is not the first time that Neptune has been fired in anger. Oleksandr Turchynov, a former Ukrainian national security council chief, says that the missile was first used to hit the Admiral Essen, a Russian frigate, on April 3rd. The rockets entered the navy’s inventory only in January this year, after corruption scandals delayed their introduction. That the Moskva was parked so close to Odessa, well within the known range of the Neptune, suggests that Russia might have seriously under-estimated its threat. It is not the only example of home-made kit on the battlefield: local innovations in passive radar and helicopter technologies have also surprised the Russians, says Hanna Shelest, a security expert in Odessa.
The strike on the Moskva is more than just a symbolic act of revenge or a demonstration of indigenous prowess. It fits a pattern of bold Ukrainian attacks beyond the frontlines, known as deep strikes. On March 29th an ammunition depot in Belgorod, a key staging point in Russia, was blown up. Belgorod is vital to Russia’s effort to build up forces for an attack on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, now the focus of its war. A day later Ukrainian helicopters reportedly attacked a fuel depot there and, on April 12th, a railway bridge was destroyed. On April 14th Russia said that more Ukrainian helicopters had attacked its Bryansk region, which neighbours Belarus, causing seven injuries.
Such attacks—by helicopters, missiles and special forces—tie down Russian units that must defend rear areas. They also “add additional short-term strain to Russia’s already stretched logistic chains”, according to British defence intelligence. Russia’s defence ministry is evidently fed up: on April 13th it warned that it would target command centres in Kyiv if Ukraine continued to attack its rear areas.
Though the war’s decisive battles have played out on land, around Kyiv and other cities, the apparent loss of the Moskva is also an important moment in the naval contest. By and large, on the water Russia has had the upper hand. It has cut Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov and maintained a blockade of its Black Sea coastline. That has devastated Ukraine’s economy and choked off grain exports, with wider consequences for global food prices. But Russia’s control of the sea is not absolute. Ukraine has now struck at least four Russian warships, including the Orsk, a landing ship which was hit by ballistic missiles and sunk in the port of Berdyansk on March 24th.
Ukraine’s ability to put Russian warships at risk changes the dynamics of the war at sea, says Ms Shelest. Russia has three Slava-class cruisers but the Moskva was the only one in the Black Sea. Russia cannot replace it because of Turkey’s decision to close the Bosporus strait to warships not already in the Black Sea or based there.
Moreover, the Moskva was not just an offensive platform, but also provided command and control, and air-defence, for a number of other ships. They will now be more vulnerable to Ukrainian missiles or drones; several Russian ships moved away from Ukraine’s coast in the aftermath of the incident on the Moskva, according to an American defence official. The threat of anti-ship missiles already appears to have forced Russia to delay or abandon plans for an amphibious assault on Odessa, which was widely expected in the first phase of the war.
Ukraine only has a division’s worth of Neptunes, says Ms Shelest, probably a dozen or so missiles. The factories where its components are made have been subject to heavy Russian attack. Fortunately for Ukraine, more such missiles may be on the way. After Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, visited Mr Zelensky in Kyiv on April 9th, the British government said it would send anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. British officials will not say which ones, nor how many, but one possibility would be to improvise a coastal version of a ship-based missile—something that Argentina did, with success, with the French Exocet missile in the Falklands war 40 years ago. That would take time, training and ingenuity. But improvisation, it seems, is Ukraine’s strong suit. ■
All main roads in Kyiv lead to Maidan, the open space at the heart of the city—even if, at the moment, some of them are blocked by concrete barriers and tank traps. The central space is, most of the time, a busy urban miscellany. The metro station and a labyrinthine shopping centre wrestle for space below ground; the Stalinist buildings on the perimeter boast franchises like McDonald’s and one-offs like the jellyfish museum. And sometimes it is the heart of the nation.
It has had many names over the years: Dumskaya Ploshchad (Parliament Square), Sovetskaya Ploshchad (Soviet Square), Ploshchad Kalinina (Kalinin Square). When student protests demanding independence were first held there in 1990 it was still Ploshchad Oktyabrskoi Revolutsyi (October Revolution Square). It was only the year after, in the post-Soviet age, that it took its current name. No longer a Russian ploshchad, or a Ukrainian ploscha, it became a maidan—a Persian term introduced by way of the Tatars of Crimea which enriches the architectural notion of a square with the connotations of a communal meeting place. Specifically, it became Maidan Nezalezhnosti: Independence Square.
But nobody in Ukraine bothers with the qualifier. Since becoming the focal site of the Orange revolution, in 2004, and the revolution of dignity, in 2014, Maidan has not needed it. In the winter of 2013-14 it became a city within the city as diverse as the country itself, a place where tens of thousands of people cooked together on open fires, lived in tents, built barricades, pried loose cobblestones and died when fired on from the surrounding buildings. Today the name Maidan stands for independence in and of itself.
The identification of independence with a place for coming together gets to the heart of something very Ukrainian. Being Ukrainian is not rooted in a particular territorial claim, or a certain ethnic background, or an allegiance to a particular state and its institutions, or the profession of a given faith. It is instead about an ability to come together when you feel that you need to and to get things done. It is a way of depending on each other, rather than on institutions or hierarchies, whether over cold nights of winter protest or when pelting tanks with Molotov cocktails.
When Roman Romaniuk, a journalist for Ukrainska Pravda, declared that “This war against Putin is our final Maidan,” he was saying that, after two previous Maidans against Mr Putin’s placeman, Viktor Yanukovych, a battle against Mr Putin himself provided a fitting boss-level conclusion to the country’s struggle for sovereignty and democracy. But he was also saying that the self-organising spirit of those revolutions is animating Ukraine’s defence of itself. It goes a long way to explaining why a country which, when invaded, was widely expected to fold like a cheap suit has instead fought the aggressors to a temporary standstill.
Andrei Zorin, a professor at Oxford University, says that the unifying myth behind today’s resistance, the two Maidans and much more is that of the Cossacks of the Zaporozhskaya Sich. The Cossacks were, as Andrew Wilson, a professor at ucl, in London, writes in his book “The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation”, “‘Free men’ who took advantage of the ‘wild field’, the no-man’s-land in the open steppe, to establish autonomous farming and raiding communities beyond the reach of the formal authority of the main regional powers—Poland, Muscovy and the Ottomans.”
The Sich was the self-organised military democracy through which some Cossacks asserted their autonomy in the early modern era. Its capacities have been romanticised and lionised ever since. “[The Zaporozhian Cossacks] were not a standing army,” Nikolai Gogol wrote in “Taras Bulba”, a 19th-century novella. “But in case of war and general uprising, it required a week, and no more, for every man to appear on horseback, fully armed, and in two weeks such a force had assembled as no recruiting officers would ever have been able to collect.” In the 1920s Nestor Makhno, an anarchist who found common ground with peasants who hated all kinds of state control, created a similar army to resist all those who sought to claim the wild field between Donbas and Kryvyi Rih where the Zaporozhskaya Sich had once held sway.
Decentralised does not mean divided
Last year Arena, a project based at Johns Hopkins University and the London School of Economics, reported on what united Ukrainians after 30 years of independence. The researchers concluded that the most important things were not attitudes or values, but “shared, near-unconscious behaviours that have been shaped by the many centuries of Ukraine’s pluralistic history.” In his book “The Gates of Europe”, which has become a standard text in Ukraine since its publication in 2015, Serhii Plokhy describes a nation defined not by its people’s pre-existing identities as by its willingness to negotiate them, crossing and recrossing the “inner and outer frontiers” between regions, faiths and ways of life.
As well as distrusting states imposed on them by others, the Ukrainians have not been very keen on states dominated by any one faction within the country. Mr Plokhy, who teaches history at Harvard, points to the way that, after the fall of the Russian empire in 1917, the primacy some nationalists placed on the Ukrainian language and its associated culture lost them allies among Jewish and Polish minorities worried by such ethno-nationalism. In 1991, on the other hand, Ukrainian sovereignty was supported by all the country’s people. Soviet repression had forged an alliance between Ukrainian nationalists and Jewish dissidents, among others.
Attempts to make capital out of the country’s regional and ethnic differences since then have ultimately proved fruitless, whether encouraged by Russian provocateurs or by factions in Ukraine itself. When Viktor Yushchenko, the president who was brought to power by the Orange revolution, hailed the mid-20th-century nationalist, anti-Semite and sometime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera as a Ukrainian hero he alienated not just the Russian-speaking east but also the liberal intelligentsia across the country.
The war is laying all thought of division to rest: as Sergei Rakhmanin, a journalist and politician, wrote recently, it “has stitched us together without any anaesthetic”. Russian-speakers, Jews, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian-speakers are fighting as one for survival and their right to be who they want to be on their own land. It is Russian speakers in the south and east who, stalwart in resistance, are paying the heaviest price. The war which Mr Putin launched on the basis of a belief that Ukraine does not exist and should not exist is proving the opposite.
Military improvisation has always been part of Ukrainian self defence. The tachankas—machineguns on horse-drawn carriages—fielded by Makhno’s army were the forerunners of the armed Toyota pick-ups, or “technicals”, now seen in low-intensity conflicts around the world. In a Facebook post Anton Kolumbet, a fighter in Ukraine’s territorial defence force, described the self organisation of the defenders in today’s “wild field”:
In one small forest next to a village being fought over you can see the following: the Ukrainian army, the national guard, territorial defence units, the police, a few glorious patriotic fighters, military intelligence, the secret services, some other strange military professionals and some dodgy types jumping about with weapons…Whenever the enemy tries to enter the village, he is obliterated. When he is obliterated, dodgy-looking guys run under the shelling to get their hands on trophies drenched in blood. Some kick Russian helmets. Some take photos of the corpses. Others write combat reports. Suddenly, a tank appears and goes after three Russian armoured personnel carriers. It destroys them, and then trundles off somewhere else….Where are all these people coming from? How are they armed? Where are they headed? The people don’t know themselves…No military academy anywhere in the world can teach you how to fight such a thing.
“We are a very chaotic nation,” says Andriy Khlyvnyuk, “A nation of musicians and warriors.” The lead singer of a group called BoomBox, which is hugely popular in Russia as well as Ukraine, Mr Khlyvnyuk was on tour in America on February 24th. He immediately cancelled the rest of the tour and returned to Kyiv to join the territorial defence force. A viral video of him singing “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow”, a protest song from 1914, in front of Kyiv’s St Sofia cathedral, rifle slung over his shoulder, has been embellished in mash-ups by Lithuanian opera singers, a South African producer and satirist called The Kiffness and, in their first new song for 28 years, Pink Floyd.
Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comedian before he was elected president in 2018, fits the same “you do what you can” picture. “The first thing that I understood,” he said in a recent interview with The Economist, was “that we the people have agency. People are leaders and political leaders are losers, some of them.” (The Arena research found that politicians were the group Ukrainians like least.) As with everyone else, his wartime role has been to do what he does best—communicate with his people and with the world. He is not trying to run the country so much as letting the country run itself.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the army, where Valery Zaluzhnyi, a charismatic 48-year-old, enjoys free rein as commander-in-chief. Unlike older officers, General Zaluzhnyi never served in the Soviet army; on taking over last year he told his officers to “turn your face to the people, to your subordinates.” He has allowed local commanders to take a lot more initiative than is normal in post-Soviet armies; he listens to the advice of his senior officers.
How the self-organising spirit will fare after the war’s end will depend a great deal on what sort of end it is. If Mr Zelensky survives in office he is likely to be the most powerful politician for generations. The machinations of the country’s oligarchs, which have held the country back for 30 years, will matter much less. Giving in to the predilection to just let things sort themselves out once the crisis is over will look more culpable. That all argues for the possibility of reform.
But there will be a risk of backsliding on democracy and liberalism in a country which will be focused on its security as never before. “It is unlikely that Ukraine will have political elections in the next few years,” one observer of Ukrainian politics says. That may make eventual integration into the Europe of the eu harder. “Absolutely liberal, European—it will not be like that,” Mr Zelensky told journalists on April 5th. “It will definitely come from the strength of every house, every building, every person…We will become a ‘big Israel’ with its own face.”
The tank traps that have replaced occasional uprisings and everyday bustle on Maidan will in time be taken away. What the Ukrainian people will put in their place remains to be seen. ■