If Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion were going to plan, Serhiy Volyna would be dead and Lilia Cheridnichenko would either have fled Ukraine or would be meekly submitting to Russian rule.
Instead, Major Volyna, who commands the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, the last Ukrainian unit inside the besieged port city of Mariupol, was still alive this week. From inside the ruins of the Azovstal steel factory, he was posting Facebook videos and sending letters to Pope Francis, calling on the international community to intervene and save his wounded soldiers and the estimated 1,000 civilians trapped with them.
“Hell on earth” is how Maj. Volyna described the situation inside Azovstal in a letter to the Pope. “Women and children are living in the bunkers under the factory. They’re cold and hungry. Every day under enemy fire. Every day, injured people dying because there’s no medicine, no water, no food.”
The future, for Maj. Volyna and for Mariupol, looks grim. But he and his unit of several hundred fighters have rejected repeated calls to surrender. By doing so, they have kept a large Russian force inside Mariupol, preventing it from redeploying elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, now the main front in this 57-day-old war.
More than 800 kilometres northwest of the siege of Azovstal, Ms. Cheridnichenko was carrying out her own, smaller act of resistance. On Thursday, the 54-year-old returned to Irpin, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv that saw some of the heaviest fighting during Russia’s ultimately futile attempt to seize the capital at the outset of the war, and set up a shoe stand in the town’s outdoor Easter market.
The market, which Ms. Cheridnichenko said was about half the size of those held before the war, was located in front of a bank that had had all its windows blown out and part of its roof damaged by heavy weapons fire. Shoppers stepped over, often without noticing, a blast mark in the pavement where a mortar round had landed.
Police said this week that they had recovered 269 bodies since Russian forces withdrew from Irpin at the start of April. Survivors said they felt the need to carry on – if only to spite Mr. Putin.
“Life! Irpin!” Ms. Cheridnichenko shouted, smiling broadly as shoppers began to arrive at the town’s first market day since Feb. 22, two days before the start of the invasion. Alongside Ms. Cheridnichenko’s shoe stall, a dozen other vendors tended to tables piled high with sausages, dried fruit, jams, pickles and other goods – even wallpaper. “I cried this morning when I saw my customers. I was so happy to see their faces again,” Ms. Cheridnichenko said.
The war continues to rage in the east of the country – where Russian forces that were withdrawn from the Kyiv region earlier this month have been redeployed – and air raid sirens remain a feature of daily life in and around the capital and other major cities. But for Ms. Cheridnichenko, just being out in the open air and among friends was a victory, after 38 days and nights hiding in a parking lot bomb shelter with her five grandchildren.
“I have no husband, but I have a warrior character. So I gave the example to my grandkids that everything will be fine. Even when I was scared, I smiled for my grandchildren.”
Mr. Putin, in a speech just before he ordered his troops across the border, dismissed Ukraine as an invented country, a land that was torn away from Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. But two-plus decades of his meddling in Ukrainian politics – first backing pro-Russian politicians, then igniting a proxy war in eastern Ukraine that he used eight years later to justify this full-scale invasion – have helped solidify exactly what the Kremlin boss said does not exist: a fierce, proud, unified Ukraine.
That determined national spirit, along with a growing supply of Western weapons, has allowed Ukraine to at least prolong a conflict that many analysts had predicted would be over almost as soon as Mr. Putin sent his troops into the country.
“Kiev in three days,” Sergey Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst, predicted to The Globe and Mail in a Feb. 26 WhatsApp message, using the Russian spelling of the Ukrainian capital. This week, Mr. Markov said the war would last “a few months.”
And it wasn’t just Moscow that got Ukraine wrong. On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden – who warned before the war that Russia would “sack” Kyiv – admitted that he has been “amazed” by Ukraine’s resistance. He said the country had proven itself “tougher and more proud” than he thought.
Mariupol, which has been under assault since the first day of the war – and where at least 18,000 people have died – epitomizes Ukraine’s rejection of the Kremlin’s plans for it. On Thursday, Mr. Putin announced that Russian troops would not try to storm Azovstal – which has been turned into a five-kilometre-wide fortress – but would instead seal it off so that “not even a fly” can enter or exit.
While he claimed “success” and said that Mariupol had been “liberated,” Ukrainian officials said the opposite was true. “They cannot physically capture Azovstal. They have understood this. They suffered huge losses there,” said Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko told The Globe that Mr. Putin, by assuming Ukrainians were the same as the Russians he has ruled since the turn of the century, had fundamentally misjudged the country he was trying to conquer.
“We will win this war for one reason: We Ukrainians are fighting and defending our families and children. The Russian army is fighting for the money. And I hope everyone can see the difference dying for money and dying for your children and the future of your children,” Mr. Klitschko said on the steps of Kyiv’s city hall, where he met Thursday with a visiting group of European politicians. “We never stay on the knee. We never want [to go] back to the USSR, the Russian Empire. We see our future as part of the European family.”
The European delegation, which was headed by former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, was the latest in a string of recent trips by Western leaders – and another sign of Kyiv slowly returning to its previous self. The city, which had a prewar population of more than three million, was a ghost town in the early weeks of the war, as most of its residents either fled or spent their days in shelters.
These days, the city has a half-awake feel, with some restaurants and shops operating, though traffic is still light even at what would normally be rush hour.
Despite the sense of relief in and around the capital, the war is far from over. Mr. Markov said “nobody knows” whether Russia’s war aims would end with the “liberation” of the southeastern Donbas region or whether Russia would try again to capture Kyiv.
The horrors of this war keep revealing themselves in places such as Irpin. On Thursday, seven fresh graves were being dug in the local cemetery. Still, the residents of this city, like the fighters inside Azovstal, were battling on.
“There is a desire to live,” said 54-year-old Pyotr Rudnik, whose home was badly damaged in a March 6 air strike that completely destroyed the house next door. He and his wife survived because they were sheltering in their basement.
On Thursday, Mr. Rudnik was among the first shoppers to arrive at the Easter market. “We’re not leaving,” he explained. “We live here.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.