Putin Picked the Wrong Country to Mess With

PRZEMYSL, Poland — For months, Ukraine worried and agonized about a potential invasion. But in just over one week of hellish war, Ukrainians revealed themselves to be some of the bravest people in the world. Against Russia’s full-scale assault, civilians across the country have been courageously, even terrifyingly, defiant.

There’s the man who stood in front of a Russian tank, pushing against it to stop it from advancing. And the man who picked up an unexploded mine from the road with his bare hands and carried it deep into a forest, with a cigarette in his mouth.

There’s the woman who walked up to a Russian soldier and told him to put sunflower seeds in his pockets. That way when he dies on Ukrainian land, she explained, flowers will grow. And then there’s the already legendary story of the 13 Snake Island defenders who, when asked to capitulate, refused in gloriously colorful terms. (The phrase they used has become something of a rallying cry for proud Ukrainians, including government officials.)

Yet these heroic displays barely scratch the surface of Ukrainian resistance. From sharing food to taking up arms, Ukrainians across the country are united in repelling the invaders — and protecting our homeland. President Vladimir Putin was apparently confident that Russia would defeat Ukraine in two or three days. But he picked the wrong nation to mess with.

The Ukrainian Army, destroying enemy tanks and intercepting missiles, has been remarkable. And behind it stand legions of Ukrainians who have made camouflage netting, dispatched humanitarian aid and raised funds. The sums, for a country under attack, are astounding: In one day, Ukraine’s most-trusted military aid nonprofit, Come Back Alive, raised over $680,000 — a donation larger than the amount raised in all of 2021. The National Bank of Ukraine, which opened a special account to raise funds for Ukraine’s military, received nearly $10 million in just the first day of the war.

Some stories, like that of 8-year-old Alisa Zhuk from Kyiv, are especially touching. The little girl is selling her drawings for $20 and up, donating all proceeds to the army — to make sure that Ukrainian soldiers have enough food and clothes, she said. “Our children,” her mother told me, “will grow up proud of Ukraine.”

Many citizens have gone a step further in their support and joined territorial defense units. As of Feb. 26, two days into Russia’s invasion, 37,000 Ukrainians were signed up. Now journalists, artists, musicians, TV hosts, comedians and thousands of others are patrolling the streets. Using conventional arms and Molotov cocktails — which have become something of a revered national weapon — they have apprehended saboteurs, shot down drones and stopped enemy tanks. In the defense of our country, they have been indispensable.

Ivan and Danylo Stolyarevskyi, brothers from Kyiv, wanted to join them. But because resources could not keep pace with the overwhelming number of volunteers, they were turned down. So the brothers joined Ukraine’s resistance online instead.

Ivan, 27, now spends his time writing Google reviews for Russian cafes and restaurants. But they are no ordinary reviews. “Russian troops have been bombing Kyiv and its peaceful residents for 4 days,” one reads. “Go out in the streets — stop the deaths of children.” By flooding places where Russians are congregating online, Ivan and the hundreds of others writing similar messages hope to spread the truth of the Kremlin’s atrocities.

Danylo, 30, plays a different role. He’s part of the “I.T. Army of Ukraine,” a group chat with over 285,000 participants on the messaging app Telegram. There, web developers from all over the country coordinate cyberattacks on Russian and Belarusian websites. The method is quite simple. Regular websites in Russia and Belarus aren’t equipped to handle large numbers of visitors, so to destabilize them, a group of people reload the web page many times. Dozens of strategically important websites have been struck down, including that of the National Bank of Belarus. “It is a drop in the ocean, but you feel your small contribution to the common cause,” Danylo told me.

That’s something every Ukrainian is doing, in ways big and small. Even under bombardment, people have lined up to donate blood, providing vital assistance to the country’s hospitals. Volunteers take food and supplies to underground shelters where hundreds and sometimes thousands of people are gathered. People look out for one another and acts of kindness are the norm. In Kharkiv, which has been under heavy bombardment for days, an English-speaking Ukrainian girl walked dozens of international students through Metro tunnels, helping them get on a train to evacuate.

That support extends to those who leave as well as those who stay. For the roughly two million people who have either fled the country or are traveling within it, volunteers help to arrange accommodation and, where possible, transport. Ukrainians abroad, mainly in countries along the border, have been collecting truckfuls of humanitarian aid to support arriving refugees. No matter where they are, Ukrainians have the support of their compatriots.

That doesn’t lessen the tragedy of the situation. After over a week of war, the Kremlin’s aim appears to be to encircle and capture major cities, heedless of the death and destruction Russian forces leave in their wake. Already, the toll is heavy: In the first week of conflict, according to the United Nations, 227 civilians were killed and 525 were wounded. The Russian Army, loaded up with artillery, is going to continue its brutal bombardment of the country. For Ukrainians, in flight, fight or shelter, there will be no respite.

But we are defiant. With every act of bravery and courage, Ukrainians show that we are ready to pay the highest price for democracy — ours and the world over. In this battle, we will not surrender and we will not capitulate. Because our freedom is immutable.

Anastasiia Lapatina (@lapatina_) is a national reporter at The Kyiv Independent, a Ukrainian news site.

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