The end of 2021 closed out a very busy year for the actors at the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol. As celebrated by the city’s tourism site, the theater building, constructed from blocks of stone quarried in Crimea and decorated with neoclassical arches and sculptures, had just celebrated its 60th anniversary. Audiences that year had enjoyed plays by Russian playwrights Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, but also by French author Molière and by some guy named William Shakespeare.
In addition to plays, the building was the venue for rock concerts, art shows, folk music productions, student works, and classical music performances. It played a role in many festivals, but then, Mariupol is the city of festivals. It’s right there on their tourism page. A page you can still access today.
That page will tell you everything you need to know to prepare for your visit to the beautiful city of Mariupol. It features a seemingly endless list of lovely parks, intriguing museums, art galleries, ancient churches, and of course, sandy beaches featuring the warmest waters in Ukraine. It’s filled with unique local restaurants serving an incredible variety of cuisine, and with places to stay that will immerse you in “Ukraine’s grand capital of culture.”
Just over two hours drive to the north, the city of Bakhmut also welcomed visitors to tour its historic and labyrinthine mines for rock salt. When guests returned to the sunlight, they could sit down for a glass of sparkling wine at the Artemivsk Plant, enjoying wine produced from locally grown grapes where the high levels of gypsum in the soil were thought to produce a unique flavor.
While in the city, visitors to Bakhmut could also stop by one of the oldest churches in Ukraine: the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, a saint known for his gentle demeanor, for halting the execution of men condemned to death, and for shaming officials who ordered such executions. There are two bell towers on the church, an older one ordered up by a Russian ruler and a newer one built by local donations.
The city is also home to what might be the best local museum, or at least the one with the best name: the Bakhmut Museum of Local Lore, with 30,000 exhibits ranging from ancient pottery to new paintings created by local artists, all of it dedicated to a unique city by a populace deeply proud of their home’s long and complex history.
In the capitol in Kyiv, the first week of December 2021 wasn’t exactly festive. Sure, there were a lot of people in the streets, and there were a lot of Ukrainian flags flying. However, those people were out in in thousands to protest the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian president had suggested in the previous month that Ukraine might conduct direct negotiations with Russia over the status of Crimea and the occupied portions of Luhansk and Donetsk. For many Ukrainians, this was a sign that Zelenskyy was going to be too soft on Russia, and that he was considering giving away parts of their country at the stoke of a pen. So they did what people in democratic countries do: They protested.
Still, as the end of the year approached, more attention was focused on the coming holiday and the year ahead. Parents searched for last-minute Christmas gifts along busy streets. Christmas fairs offered up local crafts alongside factory made goods. Children went sledding and ice skating in local parks. And at the heart of the city, traditions went on, just as they had year after year.
At the end of the year, Russian forces were gathering around Ukraine in the east and in Belarus to the north. The United States was warning the government in Kyiv that even though Russia had staged many such buildups in the past only to withdraw forces after getting a moment of attention on the world stage, this was different. American satellites could see that Russia was bringing in the supplies it would need for sustained combat and ordering its forces for invasion. This wasn’t just another false alarm.
Still, most people in Kyiv ended 2021 under the assumption that 2022 was going to be a good year. A year of growth and improvement for Ukraine.
When the war came, it came exactly on schedule and exactly as expected. Russian forces moved out from the border between Kharkiv and Belgorod, from the already occupied regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, and up from occupied Crimea. In a single day, the story of the war seemed to be everywhere.
There was that long convoy—20 kilometers? 40?—pressing down from Belarus and capturing the corrupted “red forest” around the wreck of Chernobyl. There was the desperate effort to dislodge Russian forces that had captured Hostomel Airport, and to prevent the landing of large planes carrying troops and armor straight to Kyiv—a fight that had it been lost might have ended the war almost as quickly as Vladimir Putin had expected. There was the fighting over the long Antonivsky Bridge, at Kherson with Russian forces that had pushed up from Crimea—fighting that was only decided when an official on the Ukrainian side betrayed his own forces and ordered the defenders back from the place they had held to that point, allowing Russian tanks and troops to pour across a bridge that would be absolutely critical to Russia’s ability to sustain their position west of the river.
Another bridge went down, this one in Irpin right outside of Kyiv, as Russian forces closed on the Ukrainian capital. That long convoy of Russian armor had been harassed and picked off by small groups of soldiers carrying the man-portable anti-tank systems that would soon be declared unofficial “saints” of the early fighting, and the first disorganized groups of Russian vehicles that reached the suburbs of Bucha and Irpin were met with the first real armored resistance the invasion had seen. But the Russians kept coming, overwhelming places that were easily close enough to central Kyiv that the sight, sound, and smell of battle washed across the city.
By the time the first week of the war was over, the level of destruction that Russian forces were bringing to Ukraine was already hard to comprehend. Missiles had lanced through skyscrapers in Kyiv, artillery was arching daily into Kharkiv, bombs were already pounding Mariupol. In the suburbs north and west of the capital, the first scattered Russian forces had been replaced by a longer stream of forces. Tanks driving through the streets of Bucha and Irpin blasted families fleeing in cars and sent shells into homes and businesses. As packed evacuation trains left the station in Kyiv, those who had tried to remain outside the city were desperately trying to get in, making their way over bridges that had been collapsed by bombs, weaving their way past barricades. Many did not get out at all.
But even as Russian forces seemed to be everywhere and Ukrainian cities appeared to be falling by the day, something else was obvious: The Russian forces were not 7 feet tall. They were not some well-oiled murder machine, an unstoppable tide of terminators sweeping over Ukraine. Where Ukraine could muster pockets of organized resistance, Russian forces could be slowed, or even sent back in disarray. Those long convoys were shedding trucks, tanks, and APCs with rotten tires and empty fuel tanks. Military analysts kept claiming that Russia was still holding back its best, because clearly this couldn’t be it. This couldn’t be the “second most powerful army in the world” that had generated so much fear over so many years. This couldn’t be all that Russia had … could it?
When the first day of the new month rolled around, the only April fool to be found was Vladimir Putin. On that day, the Ukrainian military made an announcement that followed a week of collapse and retreat by the Russian forces that had seemed so close to crushing Kyiv: “Russian military presence northwest, west, and east of Kyiv has ceased to exist.” The Battle of Kyiv was, incredibly, over.
Russia seemed better able to move in reverse than it ever had when driving forward, and Ukraine hurried them along, chasing Russian forces back out of not just Kyiv, but Sumy, Chernihiv, and along the highways to the city of Kharkiv. Every single day brought a fresh catalog of towns and villages as the Russian tide rolled back across thousands of square kilometers.
In the wake of that retreating tide, Russian forces left behind almost 2,000 vehicles. Some were destroyed, others were simply abandoned when they ran out of fuel or suffered some mechanical failure. Many would eventually find themselves in a Ukrainian army for which Russia remains the biggest supplier. But the other thing that was revealed as Russia retreated were incredible scenes of atrocity.
The Battle of Kyiv and the Russian occupation of northern Ukraine may have lasted only a few weeks, but in that time the horrors that Russian forces carried out seemed unlimited. In towns like Bucha and Irpin, bodies lay strewn along the street, uncollected for weeks. In many places, homes had been converted into torture chambers, and mass graves marked the locations where people who had survived Russia’s approach did not live through the days of their occupation. The end of the first great battle of the invasion revealed to the world a level of cruelty and barbarism so great that many still want to pretend it wasn’t real.
Throughout the first two months of the war, Ukrainian forces in Mariupol had conducted an incredible defense against Russian forces that had ringed that city from the opening weeks. Against overwhelming odds and a rain of both artillery and aerial bombs, those forces held a perimeter and did their best to preserve a city and its populace, even as they were being torn apart.
But by the end of April, the area that Ukrainian forces were able to hold was shrinking. The whole city had become a vast prison camp, short on food, no electricity, no water, and seemingly no escape. In spite of some genuinely astounding efforts to resupply forces in the city—including running helicopter routes right under Russia’s nose for weeks—the remaining Ukrainian forces were increasingly being forced back, and increasingly unable to save their home.
On the fourth day of the month, more than 600 children were gathered in the basement of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater. The historic theater had been selected as a bomb shelter, a place of safety in the midst of all the destruction going on across the city. Outside, large signs had been painted on the streets to indicate that children were sheltering within. Those signs were made to be read by planes passing overhead. A Russian pilot saw those signs … and bombed the theater.
As many expected, spring in Ukraine had seen the return of a familiar opponent on the battlefield: General Mud. As rains spread from Kharkiv to Kherson, Ukrainian forces spent much of May and early June engaged in small offensives. There was a race for the last intact bridge over the Siverskyi Donets river above Kharkiv with hopes that Ukraine might be able to interfere with the big Russian supply depots at Vovchansk. There was an offensive northwest of Kherson that saw Ukrainian forces slip in below a town named Davydiv Brid.
But in other areas it was Russia on the offense. In the last week of May, the town of Popasna—reduced to the point where not a single building still remained to shelter defensive forces—was finally overrun by Russian troops. That began a series of movements west and north, with Russia capturing small towns and villages in the Donbas. In the middle of the month, we were forced to say this:
There’s no way around it. In spite of taking heavy losses. In spite of an artillery exchange that at the moment seems to seriously favor Ukraine. In spite of bad organization, bad logistics, bad leadership, bad training, and bad maintenance … Russia is still putting enough forces into place in eastern Ukraine to slowly grind their way toward the objective of capturing critical sites in Luhansk and Donetsk.
In the first weeks of June, that largely meant the battle for Severodonetsk. The fight for that city was the first great effort of Ukrainian forces to hold against Russian forces pressing in from three sides. For more than three incredible weeks, the fighting there was so overwhelming that it seemed impossible it could continue a moment later. But it did. Until June 25, when the last Ukrainian forces hurried to escape across a makeshift bridge, leaving the broken remains of Severodonetsk to Russia.
As summer came on, Russia seemed to have regained its footing. It wasn’t taking Ukraine with the kind of blitzkrieg Putin had expected—neither its forces nor its leadership were up to any kind of large coordinated effort. But the pattern of pushing artillery forward to pound the next target into dust while advancing small knots of infantry under the cover of that fire proved to be sufficient to take town after town. Lysychansk, which looked to be the next Ukrainian stronghold after Severodonetsk, held out for not even a week.
And another name was becoming a bigger factor in Russia’s slow advance across Donetsk oblast.
By the end of June, Russian forces that had pressed through Popasna had advanced far enough that they began to shell their next big target: a city called Bakhmut. As Russian troops massed east of that location for a predicted big advance, the Wagner Group mercenaries appeared to take charge of the effort.
Meanwhile, across the Dnipro River, Ukrainian forces stepped up the tempo in Kherson. Fighting was going on around towns like Snihurivka and Zolota Balka, but more importantly a new word had entered the vocabulary of the war. That was because on July 11, a newly arrived HIMARS system reached across the river to spectacularly explode a Russian ammunition depot in Nova Kakhovka. It was absolutely a sign of things to come.
By the middle of August, things were beginning to turn again. The same tactics that allowed Russia to begin advancing again in the east following the rout in northern Ukraine turned out to have their own weakness. Given a supply of M777 and other comparable artillery, Ukraine didn’t have to just retreat before the press of Russia’s big guns. In fact, the precision of the new weapons allowed Ukraine to reach behind Russian lines and take out supply depots and massed forces before they could be deployed at the front. “Large artillery depot explodes” became a daily event … until Russia learned to move back those ammo supplies.
That included Ukraine firing back into Russian bases near the town of Belgorod, across the border from Kharkiv.
Across the east, the lines of battle had become more static. Russia was already pounding on Bakhmut, but efforts to extend the fighting south from Russian-occupied Izyum failed again and again. So did efforts to close the “pocket” of Ukrainian control in the east. Even Putin’s greatly reduced goal of capturing all of Donetsk seemed to be spinning its treads.
As Ukraine demonstrated an ability to hit targets from Crimea to Russia, there was only one question on the mind of Russian forces and Russian military bloggers: “What is air defense doing?”
At the end of August, daily updates were heavily focused on Ukraine’s bridgehead across the Inhulets River in Kherson and the capture of a few small villages southwest of Davydiv Brid. That was still the case on Sept. 6, when reports of a Ukrainian breakthrough near the town of Balakliya in Kharkiv Oblast were just one in a list of Good News! reports for the day. Sure, Ukrainian forces had taken a small village, but then, villages were being exchanged almost every day. On that same day, Ukraine had taken villages in Kherson, made a counterattack into Zaporizhzhia, and captured two locations in the northern part of Kharkiv. Balakliya seemed like one bullet point on a long list (and in fact, that’s exactly that it was in that morning update).
Only by the end of that day, it was clear that something different was happening in Kharkiv. Ukrainian forces weren’t just moving, they were going pedal to the metal across Kharkiv Oblast, tearing past Russian defensive positions and ripping into the supply lines that sustained the whole salient that reached out of Luhansk Oblast and down to Izyum. It took two days for Ukrainian forces to push all the way across Kharkiv Oblast to Kupyansk. It took one day more before Russian forces were in full flight everywhere in Kharkiv, leaving behind their gear, scattered groups of soldiers who would be picked up as prisoners, and Ukrainian cities suddenly liberated after months of occupation.
If there has been a more feel-good moment in any conflict than watching people run into the streets to greet Ukrainian liberators—some of them on hand to free their own home towns—that archive has not yet surfaced.
The most incredible thing about Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive was how long they were able to sustain it. By Sept. 23, Ukrainian forces had made bridgeheads across the Oskil River in three different places and were continuing to press Russian forces that were trying to reform a new line of defense. Early on in this advance, it seemed like Lyman would be swiftly added to the list of cities liberated in a counteroffensive that had already freed over 10,000 square kilometers. But in the last five days of September, busses in the area began to unload thousands of fresh Russian forces—the first of the conscripts called up by Putin’s “partial mobilization.” They were poorly trained, poorly led, and poorly armed, but they were present in large numbers. Bolstered by those new troops and by forces that had retreated from the area around Izyum, Russia created a new defensive line around Lyman.
Ukraine’s lightning movement across Kharkiv turned into a careful day-by-day advance, liberating small villages, dealing with the return of General Mud, and gradually encircling Lyman while forces to the south kept up a drumbeat of probing assaults. It wasn’t until the first of October that Ukrainian forces actually entered Lyman. When that was done, they successfully drove east out of that city and in the next days all the various bridgeheads across the Oskil River were connected as Ukraine cleaned up locations and reconnected its forces on the east side of that river.
The next goals were in sight: Take Svatove and Kreminna, then move east to Staroblisk and south to Severodonetsk. But General Mud and masses of Russian forces were ahead and the once-concentrated Ukraine forces in Kharkiv were spread out over a long front. Even as the conflict in the north was pressing into Luhansk, it was coming to a standstill, and to the south human wave attacks were leaving literal piles of bodies in the streets of Bakhmut. The bright days of September seemed to be getting buried under the mud of October.
But back on Aug. 26, Ukraine had taken an action that would soon trigger another massive victory. That was the day it first used HIMARS to strike the Antonovsky Bridge leading across the Dnipro River at Kherson. More attacks followed, both on this bridge and on the bridge across the Kakhovka Dam to the north. Russian attempts to build a new bridge were regularly taken out as fast as they could be put up. Russian forces were being forced to supply their troops west of the Dnipro with barges, and even those were subject to being hit by precision rocket strikes or pesky drones.
In the first week of October, Ukraine began a press from the north of the Russian-occupied area west of the river. Towns that had long acted as “hard points” in the Russian line collapsed under the renewed pressure, and for the next week Ukrainian forces literally strolled over much of the area, often with little to no resistance. But even as Russian authorities were announcing a general evacuation of the area and those who had assisted Russian forces in Kherson, Russia appeared to be digging in, refusing to give up the city of Kherson and the surrounding towns.
At the end of October, there were numerous reports that Russian forces were looting their way across southern Kherson and that many of them were leaving on the chains of barges moving across the river. Ukrainian forces might have pressed the attack at this point, and there were several heavy exchanges as Ukraine probed at Russian positions in the south.
But for the most part, Ukraine seemed content to wait and trust that the strategy of cutting Russia’s supply lines would continue to do the job. And it did.
On Nov. 9, Russia announced that it was withdrawing its forces from the area west of the Dnipro. At that point, it became a question of whether Russia would be allowed to withdraw intact, or whether Ukrainian forces would pursue them in an effort to capture both men and materiel that would be denied to Russia in the future. The answer turned out to be a little of both. Ukraine did harass units in villages north and south of Kherson city but, sensitive to the idea of firing into the city, largely let Russian forces simply load onto barges and go.
(A Ukrainian soldier returns to his own home in Kherson and finds his grandmother)
And maybe there are scenes even better than those from the counteroffensive in Kharkiv.
With the city of Kherson liberated and the counteroffensive in Kharkiv caught in the mud west of Svatove and Kreminna, much of the attention in Ukraine returned to the east and to the incredible long-running combat around Bakhmut.
But even as the forces there were fending off endless wave attacks from Wagner’s prison “recruits,” other areas of Ukraine were seeing a much more pleasant end of the year. In Bucha and Irpin, burned out Russian armor was dragged off the streets, temporary bridges opened to restore connections to Kyiv, and an incredible number of shops, restaurants, and stores reopened—in spite of shortages of power and large areas of unrepaired damage.
By the second week of December, reports were pouring in that the situation in Bakhmut was “critical,” with some reports that Ukrainian forces were fleeing the city. Except they didn't.
Two weeks after Russia first claimed that Bakhmut had been totally destroyed and that Ukraine had abandoned the location, Zelenskyy came to the city to thank the defenders. Bakhmut stood then. It still stands today.
All through October and November, as Ukrainian forces wallowed in the mud along the western edge of Luhansk, everyone waited for the cold weather to set in so that vehicles wouldn’t be restricted to trying to move along roads. Only the cold weather failed to appear. Across Europe, the winter of 2022-2023 brought record high temperatures, and along the front lines in Ukraine, there was never the long period of consistent cold weather that would turn fields into tank highways.
For Ukraine’s efforts to capture Kreminna and Svatove, this was a frustration. Meanwhile, Russia continued to attack Bakhmut.
But the mud that slowed Ukraine at the end of its Kharkiv counteroffensive also served to gum up the works when Putin pressed Russian forces to try and turn the tables in January. That meant that Russian forces trying to move west from Kreminna found themselves swimming in the same sea of gunk that had made it nearly impossible for Ukraine to approach along the same route. Russia was able to make advances near Bakhmut, but these were mostly restricted to waves of raw infantry, with little armored support, advancing through the method of simply not giving a damn about thousands of casualties.
However, in the south, Russia did try to make a big armored advance. They chose a location near the town of Vuhledar, but they had no choice but to line up their tanks along the single road into the town. Then they gave a great demonstration of why Ukraine never tried to push such an attack.
Obviously, this review of the last 12 months barely touches on events in Ukraine. Enough has happened in every month—in every week—to fill books. Those books will get written. There will be tomes about Russia’s disastrous attempt to build a bridge at Bilohorivka, military textbooks looking at the tactics employed in both Kharkiv and Kherson, and endless discussion of the intelligence failures that led to Russia’s amazing series of initial mistakes.
It’s not just the battles at Bakhmut, Severodonetsk, and Mariupol that are bound to become feature films. Every town and village has its own story. They all deserve to be told.
Unfortunately, it’s not just Bucha and Irpin that revealed atrocities in the wake of Russian departures. The mass graves, torture chambers, and discarded bodies found there were just a preview of horrors found all across Ukraine. And along the way, tens of thousands of Ukrainians were forced into labor camps in Russia while thousands of their children have been kidnapped.
This has been just the lightest gloss over a year of war in Ukraine. It is not possible to give what has happened there justice in even an article of this length. The best way to give them justice is to see that this war ends quickly. We never have to do such a compilation again.
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