KYIV — Acts of unthinkable bravery by Ukrainian citizens have already ascended into legend across the country, boosting morale and galvanizing a nationwide resistance that has already proved formidable in the face of Russia’s massive and experienced military.
Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is only several days old, and examples of spirited defiance are piling up: A group of border guards who defied a Russian warship order and were captured or killed. A military unit that took on 34 Russian attack helicopters and dozens of paratroopers during a battle for a key airport. A Ukrainian soldier who rigged a bridge to blow up in order to stop a Russian advance on Kyiv and sacrificed his life to ensure the blast was successful. Civilians lying down in front of rolling Russian tanks and berating occupying troops to their faces. Tens of thousands of civilian volunteers taking up arms and rushing to the frontlines.
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Though many examples of heroism have been documented by videos and photos, some are hard to verify, and there are already a few that seem to be urban myths. Perhaps the most famous early example is the viral tale of “The Ghost of Kyiv,” a single pilot who some believe single-handedly shot down six Russian fighter jets.
But all these stories, combined with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s popular and defiant videos where he stands firm in Kyiv and exhorts all his fellow citizens to take up the fight, add up to a national narrative of bravery for a people who have fewer soldiers and fewer weapons than Putin’s forces.
“When you see all that, you feel like the whole nation is against this aggression. And it’s really hard to fight the whole nation,” Maria Popova, a Ukrainian communications professional in Kyiv, told BuzzFeed News. “The general feeling is that we are ready to fight here, and we are really angry.”
A senior US administration official told reporters on a briefing call Friday that Russia had only committed about half of the troops it has massed around Ukraine, suggesting that the Kremlin is far from finished with its brutal campaign. But if the initial Russian plan was a blitzkrieg operation to immediately take over key cities and force the central government in Kyiv to surrender or else be overthrown, it has largely failed. A Ukrainian military that has grown to more than 220,000 active-duty soldiers, plus tens of thousands more National Guard troops, police, reservists, and Territorial Defense Brigades of civilian volunteers — still dwarfed by Russia’s million-person-strong military — has downed 27 Russian planes and 26 helicopters, destroyed 146 tanks and 706 armored fighting vehicles, dozens of other military equipment, and killed more than 4,300 soldiers, according to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry.
In doing so, the Ukrainians have beaten back Russian forces trying to reach the seat of government and the office of Zelensky, who counts himself as Russia’s “target No. 1.”
“It is the third day when we all made sure how powerful and unbreakable is the Ukrainian Spirit!” Ukrainian Parliament Chair Ruslan Stefanchuk wrote Saturday.
That evening through early Sunday morning, Ukrainians fought pitched battles across the country as Russian forces continued to bombard Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities with air strikes and artillery fire. Zelensky, whose leadership and defiance many Ukrainians have looked to in this defining moment, said that the fate of the Ukrainian nation is “being decided right now.”
Among those helping to decide the country’s fate is Alexander, a 50-year-old who on Saturday was armed with an American-made Remington shotgun and guarding a checkpoint built of sandbags and concrete blocks on the outskirts of Kyiv. Born in Russia, he moved to Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, when he was 8 years old and lived there until 2014.
“I always felt like a Russian, but in 2014 I said that I’m a Ukrainian, because I saw [Russia’s] aggression, because I saw what Russia was trying to do with Ukraine, and I said to myself, ‘No, that’s it, I’m not Russian,'” he told BuzzFeed News, referring to Putin’s undeclared invasion of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. “I became Ukrainian that day.”
The former owner of a women’s fashion shop described his new profession as “a hunter of Russian occupants.”
Alexander had never fought in a war or fired a gun before this week, but he said he was ready to defend Ukraine against his country of birth. “Of course, if it’s a tank, in this terrain there’s nothing we can do and we need to run. But if it’s anything less than a tank, we will fight.”
Ukrainians are used to being counted as the underdog, having lived in Moscow’s shadow for decades with a significantly smaller army. But as they fight for their very existence against their former imperial ruler, they are punching well above their weight.
“There clearly is a big moral and spiritual idea uniting Ukrainians against the invasion. Of course this idea goes back centuries. There are so many examples of resistance of Ukrainians in their fight for independence,” Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher and chief editor at the news site Ukraine World, told BuzzFeed News.
Yermolenko cited as examples Ukrainains’ fight for independence against the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s, and Ukrainian nationalist forces’ guerrilla warfare campaign against the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Ukrainians have more recent examples, too: the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine also brought out feats of heroism that resonated across the country and beyond.
As Russian forces arrived in southern Ukraine last week, one Ukrainian sailor, Vitaly Skakun, is said to have blown himself up with a bridge to prevent Russian forces from advancing further. The 25-year sailor volunteered to place mines on the bridge on Feb. 24 but did not have time to leave, according to a statement by his brigade. The statement said that he significantly helped to slow Russian forces and allowed the unit to move and reorganize its defenses.
Skakun was one of the first nationwide heroes of Ukraine’s struggle to repel Russia’s invasion. Zelensky posthumously awarded Skakun the title of Hero of Ukraine on Friday and his deed is being talked about on social media across the country.
The next day brought another sensational story of Ukrainian military valor. Ukrainian border guards defending a strategic island off its Black Sea coast told an approaching Russian warship to “go fuck yourself” before being bombed.
A video of the exchange went viral after it was obtained by Ukraine’s most popular website Ukrainska Pravda. The Russian warship demanded the Ukrainian border guards surrender. The Ukrainians can be heard briefly discussing among themselves before one says, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
Whether this was the last thing they said before dying for their country turned out to be unclear: The Ukrainian border guard service reported that the guards might still be alive after the island was captured by Russian troops.
Several videos of Ukrainians stopping tanks have been shared around the world as the spirit of defense has gathered momentum. One video shows a man standing in front of an approaching Russian tank, reminiscent of China’s Tiananmen Square resistance movement. The man can be seen standing in front of a Russian APC vehicle, gesturing, forcing the vehicle to swerve to avoid him.
Another video shows a man physically trying to push a tank back and a middle-aged woman throwing herself at the tank in the Chernihiv region north of Kyiv.
A third video shows dozens of unarmed Ukrainian self-defense volunteers in puffer coats marching toward a Russian tank in the same region near the Russian border.
In another incredible video, a Ukrainian man can be seen carrying a mine with his bare hands — he reportedly allegedly removed it from a bridge in southern Ukraine — all while smoking a cigarette.
Ukraine’s airports are one of Russia’s primary targets. A battle is still raging over the Antonov airport in Hostomel, northwest of Kyiv. Just before dawn on the first day of the invasion, the Russians bombed the cargo airfield owned by the famous Ukrainian airplane manufacturer Antonov. Dozens of Russian military helicopters, reportedly carrying personnel, were filmed flying low over residential homes and trying to land at the airfield. Thousands of horrified Ukrainians watched the video. It was one of the first to show Ukrainians the scale and shocking speed of Russia’s invasion.
Though Russian control of the airfield seemed like a foregone conclusion, Ukrainian forces launched a counterattack. Ukraine’s armed forces claimed they shot down three of the helicopters. Some Russian special forces were forced to run into the forest where they were hunted down by Ukraine’s National Guard, according to Timur Olevsky, a Russian journalist from the Insider, who witnessed the event.
One of Ukraine’s presidential advisers claimed Ukraine regained control of the airport at 10 p.m. on the first day of the attack but later deleted the post. The fight has been ongoing for three days.
Shortly after the invasion, rumors began spreading about a so-called Ghost of Kyiv, a tireless Ukrainian fighter pilot who had shot down several Russian aircraft. The press service of Ukraine’s parliament posted a picture purportedly of the pilot in his MiG-29 after a 30-hour flight in which they claimed he shot down six Russian Falcon fighter jets. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has only alluded to the pilot and not revealed his identity, leading many to suggest that he may be a fictional hero or urban legend.
Meanwhile, Zelensky has transformed his image at home and abroad from an inexperienced political actor to a wartime leader.
Since the invasion started, Zelensky has regularly posted videos of himself on the square outside the centrally located Presidential Administration to prove that he is still in Kyiv and telling Ukrainians not to give up.
The US offered to evacuate Zelensky, according to a tweet by the Ukrainian Embassy in the UK, but he told them, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
“This is all kind of in Ukrainian DNA,” Yermolenko said. “Ukrainians are very good at resisting authoritarian rule, tyrannical rule.”
As he stood with some 20 other civilian volunteers armed with pistols labeled “made in Russia,” hammers, and Molotov cocktails, Alexander, the 50-year-old civilian who signed up to fight, said they were fighting for nothing less than to be free.
“I cannot live in a place like the Russian Federation where there are no freedoms and there is so much evil in people,” he said. “They brought evil to [eastern Ukraine]. And I don’t want them to bring it here.”