How Ukraine saved its capital from Russian invaders

A Ukrainian soldier walks by a Ukrainian Mriya An-225 plane destroyed in the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces at Antonov Airport in Hostomel.
A Ukrainian soldier walks by a Ukrainian Mriya An-225 plane destroyed in the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces at Antonov Airport in Hostomel. (Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; Heidi Levine for The Washington Post; iStock)

A months-long examination by The Washington Post of the Ukrainian military’s successful defense of Kyiv is based on extensive interviews with more than 100 people, including many of the country’s top political and military leaders. Here are some key findings:

1. In the run-up to the war, Ukrainian political officials downplayed the likelihood of a full-scale Russian invasion, but the Ukrainian military was making critical preparations.

The Ukrainian military began preparing weeks in advance, moving equipment and personnel off bases and into the field — a critical move that allowed the force to survive an initial barrage of Russian airstrikes.

Still, some senior leaders in the Ukrainian military, including the commander in charge of the defense of Kyiv, doubted that Russia would launch an all-out invasion, including an assault on the capital, and thought hostilities would probably be confined to Ukraine’s east.

2. Russia directly and through an intermediary tried to get the Ukrainian government to capitulate in the initial hours of the war.

Shortly after the start of the invasion, the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, Dmitry Kozak, called the head of Zelensky’s administration, Andriy Yermak, and demanded Ukrainian capitulation, according to Yermak. Yermak swore at him and hung up the phone.

The defense minister of Belarus called his Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksii Reznikov, and presented himself as an emissary of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The Belarusian official offered to negotiate a capitulation to Russia, Reznikov said. Reznikov told him the only capitulation he would negotiate would be Moscow’s.

3. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not opposed to resigning or leaving Kyiv if it would end the war.

In the initial hours of the war, as Western officials urged him to evacuate, Zelensky told them he would happily leave or resign if it would end the war. He said he wasn’t concerned about losing his position but simply believed his departure would only help the Russians achieve their goal and worsen the situation for Ukrainians.

“I’m not trying to hold on to power,” Zelensky 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.”

While he believed some Western officials were truly concerned about his personal safety, Zelensky also suspected that some of his foreign interlocutors simply wanted the conflict to end as quickly as possible, with his administration effectively surrendering to Russia.

4. Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, used gruesome photographs of the war to persuade partners.

Yermak said he sent graphic photos of slain civilians and ruined buildings to the personal cellphones of top officials around the world, including Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, and Karen Donfried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

“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.”

5. For a few days in the middle of March, Ukrainian forces defending Kyiv almost completely ran out of artillery ammunition.

As they repelled the initial Russian assault on Kyiv, Ukrainian forces began to run low on Soviet-era artillery shells, reaching a crisis moment in mid-March.

Because Washington had assumed Russia would take over Ukraine quickly, US officials had prepared a pipeline of portable weapons such as Stingers and Javelins that could be used by an underground resistance and had not focused on large artillery equipment and ammunition. That caused a scramble after the Ukrainian defense exceeded Washington’s expectations, a senior US defense official said.

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