1. The Sunflower Babushka
On the day of the invasion, this video was a viral sensation:
The transcript of the exchange:
WOMAN: Who are you?
SOLDIER: We have exercises here. Please go this way.
WOMAN: What kind of exercises? Are you Russian?
WOMAN: So what the fuck are you doing here?
SOLDIER: Right now, our discussion will lead to nothing.
WOMAN: You’re occupants, you’re fascists! What the fuck are you doing on our land with these guns? Take these seeds and put them in your pocket, so at least sunflowers [Ukrainian national flower] will grow when you all lie down here.
SOLDIER: Right now, our discussion will lead nowhere. Let’s not escalate this situation, please.
WOMAN: What situation? Guys, guys. Put the sunflower seeds in your pockets, please. You will lie down here with the seeds. You came to my land. Do you understand? You are occupiers. You are enemies.
WOMAN: And from this moment, you are cursed. I’m telling you.
SOLDIER: Now listen to me—
WOMAN: I’ve heard you.
SOLDIER: Let’s not escalate the situation. Please go this way.
WOMAN: How can it be further escalated? You fucking came here uninvited. Pieces of shit.
This town remains in occupied Kherson oblast, so we have no idea what’s happened to her. But the video communicated to other Ukrainians and to the world that they would not quietly submit to the Russian invaders. It was among the earliest signals that Russia would struggle to subdue the lands it was invading, and that they, as this babushka declared, would be “cursed.”
Related: “Russan warship, go fuck yourself”
2. Zelenskyy (maybe) tells Americans, ‘I need ammunition, not a ride’
Russians were streaming over the border and social media was reporting a lack of Ukrainian resistance. Russian rockets and missiles were striking all over the country. This was mere weeks after the Afghan government fled Taliban advances, leaving the capital Kabul at first sign of danger. It was not unreasonable to fear the same might happen in Kyiv. Yet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy never wavered, projecting calm resolve in myriad videos to his people (and the international community as well).
Interestingly, there is no video of that famous Zelenskyy quote, “I don't need a ride, I need ammunition.” It first shows up in an AP story, as quoted by a single American official.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was asked to evacuate Kyiv at the behest of the U.S. government but turned down the offer.
Zelenskyy said in response: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation, who described Zelenskyy as upbeat.
I’ve written in the past about the power of myth, and this quote has literally defined Zelenskyy’s war narrative. Yet for all we know, it was invented by the “senior American intelligence official” as part of the information war. Isn’t that part of the CIA’s portfolio? That official doesn’t even claim to have been present at the conversation, just had “direct knowledge” of it. So maybe that individual read a transcript, or was told about it in a game of telephone. The Biden administration denied it ever offered Zelenskyy a ride out.
Still, the quote was a sensation, spreading quickly on social media, and the Ukrainian government quickly ran with it. How could it not? It birthed the Legend of Zelenskyy. Whether he actually said it or not (and I believe he did, because it sounds like him), it gave Ukrainians an inspiring, unflappable, and defiant president to rally around. And for people like me, watching very closely, it communicated that this wasn’t Afghanistan, and if Ukraine could resist the initial Russian shock-and-awe campaign, arming its defense wouldn't be a wasted effort as we saw in Kabul.
3. Twitter and Telegram help Ukraine win the information war
For a country so skilled in the information war that it helped Donald freakin’ Trump win the presidency, it was breathtaking seeing Ukraine run laps around Russian efforts to control the “info space.” Take a look at what I think is one of the most iconic videos of the war’s initial hours:
This was northwest of Kyiv, in a critical intersection. We see multiple destroyed Russian armored vehicles held off by Ukrainian armor and defenders carrying Western anti-tank weapons. The star of the video is a fearless Ukrainian soldier carrying his British NLAW anti-tank rocket and strutting toward the sound of gunfire.
Check the date: Feb. 26. This is still within the first 48 hours of the war, when people questioned whether 1) Ukraine had the will to fight, and 2) whether Ukraine could hold off the Russian juggernaut. This video by itself answered both questions while also communicating to Ukraine’s allies the value of their donated gear.
Within the next days and weeks, social media would be flooded with hundreds of videos of burning Russian tanks and other armored vehicles. Unlike the artillery battles that would later dominate, this was up close and personal, the purest form of battlefield valor. And Ukraine’s Western allies knew that their assistance mattered, it was making a difference, and that it was worth investing in additional weapons deliveries.
Russia had nothing to counter this in the information space. With rare exceptions, they still don’t.
4. Kherson is betrayed
Russia captured a single regional capital this entire war, and it did so with relatively minimal resistance. It was certainly odd in the first few days of the war, watching Russian and Ukrainian armor fighting on the Antonovsky Bridge near Kherson.
A drone view of that battle:
Ukraine’s failure to blow that bridge wasted the sacrifice of one of its engineers, who gave his life in order to blow the other bridge connecting southern Kherson oblast to Kherson city.
So what happened? Treachery and treason.
[D]efensive plans included both flooding the region, as was done near Kyiv, as well as blowing the two major bridges over the Dneiper on the south side of Kherson. “The Dnieper, the Antonovsky bridge, keeps to the last, if anything, it explodes, and Kherson seems to be out of hostilities,” Google translates the former governor as saying. “[T]here is no bridge, we are just guarding the water line. Fuck him who will cross, the Dnieper.” ...
According to Gordeev [that former governor of Kherson oblast], all of these defenses could’ve been deployed in a single day. None of them were. Instead, the newspaper reports that “Incumbent Governor Gennady Laguta, according to colleagues, on the first day of the [special operation] put the keys on the mayor's desk with the words: "I do not participate in this" - and left the region.” Furthermore, “Together with him - on the first day of the special operation - the leadership of the police, the prosecutor's office, the courts left, and a little later SBU officers were evacuated.” (SBU officers are Ukraine’s intelligence officers.)
Kherson officially fell March 3. Imagine what the war might have looked like if the Antonovsky bridge had been blown. Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih would’ve been spared much shelling and destruction. The agricultural steppe in the region wouldn’t be fertilized with thousands of dead Russian and Ukrainian soldiers. Ukraine would’ve been able to concentrate its defenses in other approaches.
On the flip side, Russia would have likely shelled Kherson out of spite, particularly at a time when Ukraine lacked serious counter-battery capabilities or HIMARS to strike supply depots deep behind enemy lines. And of course, Russia would have been able to amass forces in other fronts. All those dead in Kherson oblast would possibly be dead elsewhere. But still, one feels that on balance everything would have been better off without that betrayal.
Still, it could have been worse, and that leads to the next item on this list:
5. Russia failed to buy off (most) Ukrainians
Putin was convinced by his intelligence agencies that the Russians were so beloved that Ukrainians would surrender, switch sides, and greet the Russian invaders with rose petals. We’ve all seen reports of Russian officers packing their dress uniforms as they crossed into Ukraine that first day. They thought they’d be parading in Kyiv later that week. But over the following months, we learned just how deep that Russian intelligence failure went.
On top of the billions in wealth transfer between Russian and Ukraine, there was an irrational belief in the attractiveness of being Russian. Reports suggest that Putin was told that a third to half of Ukrainian troops would defect to the Russian side in the first days of the war, with Russian commentators admitting as much mid-March.
“The military operation is, no question, tougher going than had been expected,” said Sergey Markov, a pro-Kremlin commentator who appears frequently on state television. “It was expected that 30 to 50 percent of the Ukrainian Armed Forces would switch over to Russia’s side. No one is switching over.”
War criminal and ultra-nationalist Russian critic Igor Girkin claims Russia avoided bombing Ukrainian barracks the first three days of the war, treating them as friendly forces before realizing that mass defections weren’t happening. He considered that a massive missed opportunity to generate early massive casualties on Ukrainian troops. (Other reports say that Ukraine emptied those barracks given American warnings, and Russian missiles would have hit empty buildings regardless.)
It sucks that Russia succeeded in buying the surrender of Kherson, but Ukraine’s ability to resist the rest of those billions saved them a great deal more disasters in the overall picture.
6. Ukraine launches first successful counteroffensive at Voznesensk
Oh, this was a treat. March 17: Russia was trying to complete its “land bridge” connecting mainland Russia through Mariupol, Melitopol, Kherson, and Mykolaiv, all the way to Odesa, then connecting with its occupied Transnistria region in Moldova. However, Russia was stuck at Mykolaiv, well protected behind the Southern Bug river (its bridges appropriately blown), so it stupidly decided to snake its way north and around the Bug, bypassing Mykolaiv and trying to get to Odesa the long way.
Russia got as far as the town of Voznesensk, where that Russian vanguard got spanked by local farmers and some territorial defense forces, then thrown back all the way back to around Mykolaiv—a lightning counteroffensive that retook 75 miles of Russian territory and left hundreds of Russians dead, their equipment littered along the route.
From a military standpoint, this victory had limited effect. It would take another seven months or so before Kherson oblast north of the Dnipro river would be liberated. And that effort to snake around the Bug to get to Odesa never stood a chance in hell. But this was the first time we saw Ukraine on the counteroffensive, and it didn’t just feel good—it signaled to Russia that merely taking territory would no longer be enough. Ukraine now had the ability and will to retake territory. It was also, not coincidentally, Russia’s high-water mark everywhere except the Donbas:
I have no doubt Russia’s failure in the Battle of Voznesensk led to Russia’s subsequent retrenchment and the abandonment of its efforts around Kyiv. Speaking of which ...
7. Ukraine wins the Battle of Kyiv
In the subsequent histories of the Battle of Kyiv, we know Ukrainian artillery played a decisive role from the very beginning. For all the videos of NLAW and Javelin missile strikes on Russian armor, it was the very artillery that reigns supreme today that held back the Russian hordes north of Kyiv, around Kharkiv, and pretty much everywhere else.
The first time I wrote about it in any real sense was March 17, “for the first time all war, we’re seeing Ukrainian artillery being put to use, and the results are amazing.” I was right that it was the first time we’d seen it, but it certainly wasn’t the first time it was put to use.
Suffering defeats down by Mykolaiv, stymied in the northwestern outskirts of Kyiv and around Chernihiv, and getting nowhere in the Donbas, Russia had enough and began retreating from Kyiv on March 29. At the time I wondered about Russia’s true intentions, not entirely convinced they were pulling out. I certainly didn’t think they’d call it quits at Chernihiv as well. But in hindsight it makes sense: The whole point of Chernihiv was to push down that highway and pressure Kyiv from multiple sides. Without that objective it made little sense for Russia to keep anything in the area, and it fully retreated from Ukraine’s north all the way to Kharkiv in order to reinforce other areas of advance. (At the time, that mostly meant Izyum.)
It was the first of many Russian “goodwill gestures” to come.
8. Sinking of the Moskva
On April 13, still relatively early in the war, we got news that the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet had been hit by Ukrainian missiles.
There were 12-24 hours of uncertainty as Russia claimed it was but a scratch, yet the warship sunk being towed back to port.
For all of Russia’s bluster as “the world’s second army,” it had already been defeated at the Battle of Kyiv and was struggling to find its foothold anywhere else in the remaining active fronts. On top of those indignities, those damned Hohols (Russian derogatory slang for Ukrainians), those impetuous children, had taken out the pride of Russia’s navy. And they didn’t even need NATO weapons to do so—it was sunk with Ukrainian gear and ingenuity.
In the coming days, we would discover that most of the Moskva’s radar arrays were nonfunctioning, that its defenses likely failed to engage, and that Russia had lied about the extent of the damage in the hours and days following the attack. It was another example, and the highest-profile one, of how Russia’s culture of grift and corruption had likely cost them dozens (if not hundreds) of lives, as well as serious combat capabilities. This wasn’t just a symbolic victory—the Moskva’s radar array (theoretically) peered deeply into southern Ukraine, bolstering Russia’s front-line air defenses. And any amphibious assault on Odesa would need its capabilities, both defensive and offensive (not that I ever thought that would happen).
In the end, this was the practical end of Russia’s naval engagement in the war, with Russia moving a significant portion of its naval assets out of Sevastopol to more protected Russian ports far from the conflict.
Meanwhile, the public relations value was incalculable. Sure, Ukrainians were bolstered by the news, obviously. But more importantly, it was the first time I remember Russians looking at each other in utter shock, whether on their Telegram channels or state television. It was the first time a battlefield setback penetrated their propaganda machine, providing hints that perhaps things weren’t going as well as the Russian government claimed.
9. HIMARS arrives
“No weapons system is a game-changer,” we all said. Then HIMARS arrived, and … it was a game-changer.
Ukraine’s problem had been that its longest-range artillery could only strike, using rare and expensive guided shells, about 40 kilometers. Most of its guns topped out at 25 kilometers. That meant Russia could mass its ammunition at train depots just out of range, behind the front lines. We had seen Russia consistently struggle to push out beyond 25 kilometers anywhere on the map, so keeping those depots close at hand was integral to any hopes of Russian advances as well as active defenses.
Enter HIMARS (and M270 MLRS), with its 80-kilometer range, and everything changed nearly overnight.
Despite a limited supply of rocket ammunition, Ukraine systematically destroyed key bridges, including the Antonovsky Bridge in Kherson (finally!) and the dam bridge at Nova Kakhovka. Russian forces north of the Dnipro in Kherson oblast could now only be reinforced and resupplied by barge.
Ukraine also targeted both command and control centers, decimating not only Russia’s officer corps, but those key supply depots and railheads. It forced Russia to move its main supply hubs beyond that 80-kilometer range, immediately stopping any Russian offensive actions anywhere outside of the corner of Donbas adjacent to Donetsk city (where the supply lines are literally single-digit kilometers long).
Eventually Russia has adjusted, distributing its ammunition in smaller dumps throughout the front lines, ending the pyrotechnic joys of HIMARS o’clock. Still Russia’s logistical challenges continued unabated, leading to the eventual abandonment of northern Kherson oblast and Kherson city. And to this day Ukraine continues to use HIMARS to “shape the battlefield,” softening up entire corners of the front lines in anticipation of Ukraine’s coming winter offensive.
10. Dovhen’ke is liberated
Just kidding. As much as I obsess over Dovhen’ke, its liberation was a side effect of ...
10. Kharkiv oblast is liberated
Do you remember on the first day of the war how some Russian Spetsnaz special forces unit just randomly drove into Kharkiv, seemingly got lost, then was eliminated by Ukrainian defenders? Here they are entering the town:
An hour later:
More video of the battle here and here. Well, that was the last time Russia ever even sniffed the inside of Kharkiv city, even though it thought it would be easy pickings because it was “Russian speaking.” Eventually, Russia bypassed the city and occupied most of Kharkiv oblast, pushing down into Izyum.
Turns out Russia didn’t need Kharkiv to supply its northern approach from Berdiansk, in Russia, through Vovhansk and Kupiansk. Meanwhile, that Izyum salient was the northern pincher which, together with a southern pincher from the Donetsk city area, would encircle Ukrainian defenses in the Donbas.
Russia put everything into that Izyum salient. When it retreated from Kyiv, where did the surviving units go? Izyum. Yet Russia’s advances stalled not far from the town, pretty much at 25 kilometers. Its southern push was stymied by the fierce defense of Dovhen’ke, a farming community with a pre-war population of 700. Russia wasn’t just failing at capturing Kharkiv (population 1.4 million), it couldn’t even handle a few silos and a pig farm.
Ukraine spent the summer promising an autumn offensive in Kherson. I mean, they literally couldn't shut up about it. We all looked at Kherson, looked at the tenuous supply situation (two bridges, now covered by HIMARS), and said “duh, it’s a trap. No one is so stupid as to fall … for … it ...” Russia fell for it, rushing tens of thousands of troops to region, building several rings of defensive trenches radiating out from Kherson city. Ukraine even sold it, making several feints in August. Russian Telegram was in orgasmic bliss, bragging about the massive losses supposedly suffered by Ukrainian forces.
Yet on Sept. 6, Ukraine launched its massive push in what had seemed to be its forgotten front—Kharkiv, and the stunning success of the offensive came into clearer focus on Sept. 7 and, even more so, on Sept. 8. By Sept. 11, thousands of square kilometers, including Izyum (and Dovhen’ke), had been liberated. By Oct. 1, the city of Lyman was liberated.
Even better, Russia’s panicked retreat gifted Ukraine hundreds of pieces of armor, artillery, and other equipment—a veritable gold mine, and Russia’s greatest lend-lease contribution to the Ukrainian nation.
As of now, something like 98% of Kharkiv oblast has been liberated. Ukraine is now focused on liberating next-door Luhansk oblast.
11. Kherson City is liberated
I’ve already set the table for Kherson’s liberation—the HIMARS rockets that degraded Russian ammunition stocks, pushed out logistical depots past the 80-kilometer range, and rendered the two bridges into the oblast inoperable. There was the information subterfuge that conned Russia into flooding the area with troops, thus leaving Kharkiv ripe for the taking.
And then a new general took control of Russia’s war effort: General Sergey Surovikin. In a surprise to most, he used his first announcement on Oct. 18 as he took command to declare that “difficult decisions” would have to be made regarding Kherson. On Oct. 22, Russia ordered the evacuation of Kherson city. The entire time Ukrainian forces pushed hard against Russian defenses, breaking through several lines as reports of dwindling Russian artillery abounded. Turns out it was hard to support Russia’s hungry artillery guns with barges.
Three weeks later on Nov. 8, Surovikin requested permission to retreat from Kherson, on TV, from Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, who immediately agreed. It was weird showmanship for sure. At the time, Russian troops were almost already all gone. It was all made official three days later on Nov. 11 as the last Russian forces melted away in the night. Kherson city was liberated.
Unlike the chaotic Kharkiv retreat leaving behind valuable weapons and ammunition, the Kherson retreat was orderly, efficient, done quietly, and apparently secret (or Ukraine lacked the means to do anything about it), with little equipment and ammunition left behind.
Yet despite it all, Ukraine had retaken the one regional capital lost the entire war and done so without firing a single shot in the city. Logistics for the win. And could there have been anything more infuriating for Russia, which had proclaimed that “Kherson is Russia,” than seeing Zelenskyy cheered in the streets with zero worries about his personal safety?
12. Kerch Bridge damaged
OMG yes, these videos were some of the most exciting of the entire war:
While some road traffic has resumed, Russia doesn’t expect the roadway to be fully repaired until March. Even more importantly, the rail component supplying the entire southern Ukraine part of the war effort was knocked out, and remains knocked out to this very day. I may have missed it, but I haven't seen Russia provide any date on its repair. To do so would require it to admit that it is out of commission, which it also hasn’t done.
The severe damage to the rail section may have contributed to the decision to retreat from Kherson, which already faced a difficult logistical situation.
The attack also struck at one of Putin’s greatest joys: the connection of Russia to occupied Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Asked recently to justify his attacks on civilian Ukrainian infrastructure, Putin claimed it was justified because Ukraine “started it first” … by hitting the Kerch bridge on Oct. 7.
Well, that's my dozen biggest moments of the war. What are yours?
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