Back in Ukraine, under nuclear terror

The new wave of Russian bombings in Ukraine this week took me back to Europe to continue coverage of the war on the ground. After five months of writing War Games in the security of the city of São Paulo, crossing the border from Poland to Ukraine on Friday (14) was a difficult experience, which brought much fear.

A lot happened between September and October in the conflict: the Ukrainians liberated a vast area invaded by the Russians in the northeast and south of the country and took the initiative in the war. President Vladimir Putin decreed “partial mobilization” and recruited more than 220 a thousand soldiers, who have already begun to be sent to the battlefield little by little.

There are one week, the bridge connecting the Crimean peninsula (under Moscow’s control since 2014) to Russian territory was dynamited and partially destroyed. The Kremlin blamed Ukrainian forces and, in retaliation, carried out bombings across Ukraine for four days in a row – which left 30 dead.

The conflict clearly is going through an escalation of intensity.

But the most disquieting factor materialized in the statements of Putin and his advisors: the possibility of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons against the Ukrainians. NATO (Western Military Alliance) responded by saying that, if that happens, it will launch a large-scale conventional attack to sweep Russian forces out of Ukraine.

It was the first time since the end of the Cold War that one power actually threatened to use nuclear weapons. The United States lost the Vietnam War and did not use nuclear weapons. The Russians were defeated in their military campaign in Afghanistan and did not break the so-called “nuclear taboo”.

Like most Brazilians, I was shocked by the possibility of a nuclear war. thousands of kilometers from the battlefield gave this threat a certain impression of warmongering rhetoric, with little possibility of materializing.

But this perspective completely changes when you are about to cross the border into Ukraine.

The possibility of air strikes anywhere in the country has always existed in this war and, in many moments, Russia did not distinguish between civilian and military targets. I can say this with certainty, because in April it was in a press car identified in English and Russian that was hit by shrapnel in the Zaporizhzhia region. Fortunately, no one was hurt at the time.

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But the fact is that facing the theoretical possibility of massive annihilation by means of a tactical nuclear bomb provoked a physical reaction, nausea, in the days leading up to my trip to Ukraine. And that feeling still hasn’t passed.

Crossing the land border is always scary. The first time, on March 1st of this year (the war had started five days earlier), I entered Ukraine on a refugee train. It went from Lviv to Poland carrying hundreds of Ukrainians and then returned almost empty – taking only volunteer fighters and journalists.

Last Friday, I took a bus in Lublin, Poland, bound for to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. The trip started at dawn. On the bus, most of the passengers were women and children returning to their country. From the beginning of the war, men were forbidden to go out. They have to stay to defend their homeland.

That is, even with the new wave of attacks, these people would return home to meet with family members. Their courage motivated me to get on the bus too. After all, this is what journalistic coverage of a war is all about: showing what happens to the civilian population, portraying their sufferings and hopes.

The trip started with the bus in almost absolute silence – broken only by American music that the driver was listening to softly. A young woman sitting nearby said she left Ukraine a few months ago, but now her relatives have said it is safe to return to Kyiv. She traveled alone. Like me, she was trying to get information about the security situation in Kyiv through a mobile phone messaging app. A few rows of chairs behind, a group of ladies consumed a snack prepared to withstand the 14 hours of travel.

A few kilometers from the border , I counted more than 550 trucks waiting to enter Ukraine. They transported cars, agricultural machinery, and possibly a host of goods that the battered Ukrainian economy is no longer capable of producing.

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President Volodymyr Zelensky said that if the war ended now, it would take US$ 14 billions to rebuild Ukraine. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the country will need to receive between US$3 billion and US$4 billion in monthly aid in 2023 to continue functioning.

The verification process of passports and bags on both the Polish and Ukrainian sides of the border took about four hours, but it went by normally.

In the middle of the night, Ukrainian barricades began to appear on the highway as that the bus was moving. All of them covered in weather-beaten camouflage nets – which now resemble rags. Soldiers warmed themselves on bonfires lit inside diesel cans. On the bus thermometer, 7ºC outside.

At the entrance to Zhytomyr, south of Kyiv, Ukrainian troops placed anti-tank guns on the barricades.

At dawn , the Ukrainian camps were covered by a heavy fog. For a journalist interested in war matters, it is impossible not to think of his greatest theorist, the Prussian Carl Von Clausewitz. In a free interpretation, he said that in a war even the simplest things are difficult to accomplish. And these difficulties accumulate and generate more and more friction.

Thus, even the simplest things, such as moving around the city, buying groceries and working, have to be well planned. In the event of an air attack, you must be close to a shelter or bunker. In recent months, many people sometimes ignored the attack sirens, but that changed with this week’s bombings.

The fog – formed by gunpowder on the battlefield – was Clausewitz’s reference to the war is the terrain of uncertainty.

Although the fog has dissipated with the arrival of the sun on Friday, uncertainty about the future of the country remains in Ukrainian hearts. It is not possible to say whether there will be a nuclear attack, whether Russian troops will advance over more Ukrainian terrain or whether peace is still within reach.

Back in Kyiv, I noticed that many barricades and checkpoints had been taken off the streets compared to the last time I was here in May. Crossings once interrupted by networks of trenches now give way to a large flow of vehicles, as in any large city.

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In the capital, citizens no longer seem to fear an invasion with armored vehicles and troops. The threat comes from the sky, in the form of cruise missiles and suicide drones. NATO now promises new and modern anti-aircraft defenses, such as the Iris-T, a German long-range anti-aircraft battery system, which promises to protect cities from Russian missiles.

But by themselves such systems do not solve the problem – as they must end up saturated by the amount of rockets and drones fired by Russia at the same time. NATO then says that it will send “jammers” to the battlefield, devices that disable drones with electromagnetic waves.

Upon arriving in Kyiv, I went to the glass bridge, one of the main tourist attractions in the capital It connects the Khreshchaty park with the hill of Saint Volodymyr. It was targeted by one of the 75 missiles fired by the Kremlin against Ukraine on Monday (10) – when the attacks were more intense.

A missile missed the bridge structure and destroyed a pedestrian crossing below it. When I arrived, I saw that the crater of the missile was already filled with earth and a small wall had been restored, but soot marks were still present on the bridge.

Student Anita Nikivorolova, who went with a group of friends to see how the bridge turned out, explained the feeling of the Ukrainians: “This bridge was built with steel from Azovstal”, he said, referring to the steel mill that for three months was the bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol.

“It is important for her to be on her feet. I think this is very symbolic, because it shows that the Ukrainian people are as resistant as the steel of this bridge”, he said.

I began to understand then that the courage that these people showed at the beginning of the war did not let up. , not even after so many nuclear threats and missile showers.

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