Ukraine’s Extraordinary Courage Under Fire Challenges Putin’s Deadly Ambition

by | Feb 27, 2022 |

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When Russian troops began to amass near the Ukraine border in mid-winter 2021, the world started to wonder why. Russia called it “military exercises,” but it looked like it might be the beginning of a replay of Russia’s attack on Crimea on February 23, 2014.  

The world just waited. Even in Ukraine, people didn’t really believe that Putin would actually authorize an attack. Although President Joe Biden warned of the coming of a bloody war, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, begged him to tone back his rhetoric, and urged his own people to remain calm. Most Ukrainians heeded their president and went on about their daily lives. 

But then, on February 23, 2022, precisely seven years after Russia took over Crimea, Russian tanks rolled into the Donbas region of Ukraine, where Putin immediately recognized two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states, separated from Ukraine. That night, Russian tanks also rolled into Ukraine from the north and the south, and the sound of explosions were heard in the capital city of Kyiv. Was this a replay of Crimea?

But then, a strange thing happened. While the world waited for Russia to carry out its threat to “decapitate” the Ukraine government and take over the country, the Ukrainians fought back – fiercely – and refused to give the Russians a victory. In the first three days of fighting, the Russians lost 350 tanks, 250 armored personnel carriers, 15 fighter jets, and 15 attack helicopters. Ukrainians also shot down two IL76 transport planes, each carrying two battalions of Russian soldiers. 3,000 Russian soldiers died in those first three days.  

This was no repeat of Crimea. The President of Ukraine, Voladymir Zelenskyy, made several announcements. He ordered all Ukrainian men from the age of 18 to 60 to remain in the country to fight for their homeland and protect its sovereignty. He also made it clear that he – and his family – would be staying in Ukraine with them.

Even when President Joe Biden offered him the opportunity to leave Ukraine with his family to the safety of a third country, Zelenskyy said, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” and he refused to leave. When he made that announcement, Zelenskyy set the example for the Ukrainian courage that we would see over and over again, even though, as he said, he was Number 1 on Russia’s hit list, and his family was Number 2.

Now, in the middle of the fight that the world thought would be a rout, the Ukrainians are showing a level of courage that we have seldom seen in the 21st century. And it is succeeding.

Stories of incredible heroism and resolve, tales of overcoming the odds for love and brotherhood. (AP/Reuters/PTI)

The stories of individual bravery are many, and they are biblical:

  • 13 Ukrainian soldiers found themselves staring down a Russian warship on the Black Sea on the first full day of the new Ukraine-Russia war. The Russians gave them the choice to either surrender or die. The Ukrainian soldiers shouted into their radio, “Russian warship, go f*** yourself.” They did not survive, but for those few minutes, when they stood bravely in a face-off with Russia’s navy, they were national heroes, and they will be remembered for their courage, defending their country against a much greater enemy. 
  • One of the most challenging places to protect in Ukraine is the Crimean intersection, where the Henichesk bridge connects Crimea with Ukraine. A Ukrainian marine battalion was deployed to blow up this bridge, and Marine battalion engineer Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrovych volunteered to place mines on the span. When a column of Russian tanks appeared, Volodymyrovych realized that he would not have time to both finish the job and get to safety. He opted to finish the job, and he made the ultimate sacrifice when the bridge exploded. But it was destroyed, and the column of Russian tanks was stopped in its tracks. A statement released afterward read, “Our brother was killed. His heroic act significantly slowed down the push of the enemy, allowing the unit to relocate and organize the defense”. Volodymyrovych will long be remembered as a national hero.
  • As Russian troops continued their assault on Kyiv, Ukraine’s defiant president proclaimed, “We survived . . . and we are successfully fighting off the enemy attack . . . .Ukrainians are showing their true heroism . . . . Like our ancestors before, they are charging into battle. Russia continues to expect that our forces will grow tired, but we will not tire.”

Russia may have vast numbers of tanks and fighter jets, but Ukraine has defensive weapons from the United States that are far superior to Russian armaments. Where the Russians fight with the old RPGs that bounce off the sides of armored tanks, the Ukrainians are fighting with American FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles, considered to be among the most advanced man-portable, fire-and-forget guided missile systems in the world. These missiles can penetrate and destroy any Russian battle tank, and even bring down low flying helicopters.

On Saturday night, it was reported that Putin had asked for 10,000 troops from Belarus to move into northern Ukraine, but along with that report came another that Russian troops were starting to desert to the Ukrainian side. And Putin has already begun to make comments about a possible negotiated settlement. 

The war began on Wednesday. By Saturday morning, at least 200 Ukrainians had been killed, but more than 3,000 Russians had also died. It should be very clear that the responsibility for this war and the growing death toll lies squarely with Vladimir Putin. His growing insanity, as he tries to recapture the decadent power of the old Soviet Union, has drawn all of Russia and much of Europe into a war that he is likely not going to be able to win. His insufferable hubris is now the source of death and destruction in Ukraine. As European countries rally to supply Ukraine with weapons and support, his chances for success are growing increasingly dim. 

Putin thought that Ukraine would fall in a few days, but like dictators before him, his hubris may well be his undoing. The outcome of this conflict is far from clear, and Putin is not likely to accept defeat easily. But if the alternative is a growing war that spills beyond Ukraine’s borders and brings NATO countries into the conflict, Putin may not have too many choices.

The great courage and indomitable will of the Ukrainian people, who willingly give their lives to defend their homeland – and the support that they are now getting from NATO – may become the undoing of Putin and finally put an end to his raging madness and deadly ambition. 

Sic semper tyrannis – Thus always to tyrants.

Ilana Freedman

Ilana Freedman is a veteran intelligence analyst with more than thirty years in the field. She was trained in Israel, where she lived and worked for sixteen years. After returning to the U.S., she served as CEO of Gerard Group International in Massachusetts, providing major corporations and government agencies with intelligence-led support for their homeland security programs. Her global network of specialists and field assets has provided her with an ongoing resource of critical, real-time intelligence and domain expertise. Today, Ilana is an independent consultant and author of hundreds of articles on terrorism and the geopolitical landscape. She has written four books on Islamic terrorism, and is currently working on a comprehensive book on China - past, present, and future.

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