The battle for Kyiv revisited; the children stuck at camps in Crimea
Every week we wrap up the must-reads from our coverage of the Ukraine war, from news and features to analysis and opinion.
Dan Sabbagh and Isobel Koshiw revisited the battle for Kyiv. Six days before Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, a small group of western intelligence officers were briefed on the Russian military plan. On a quiet table, in an unfashionable chain restaurant in London, an astonishing strategy was recounted: a blitzkrieg to surround Kyiv and Ukraine’s other big cities, followed by a “kill list” operation run by Russian FSB intelligence to eliminate Ukraine’s national and local leaders.
Western intelligence was certain of the Kremlin’s intentions. But many of the Russian soldiers about to start the biggest war in Europe since the second world war had no clear idea what was to come. Bored troops, nominally on exercises in Khoyniki, Belarus, 30 miles north of Ukraine, were selling their diesel fuel in the week before the invasion and passing the time by drinking.
On Christmas Eve, as Ukrainian Catholics gathered to celebrate in the Latin Cathedral in the western city of Lviv, the electricity was off, the consequence of the recent waves of Russian missile strikes on the country’s power grid.
One of the congregants, Oksana Mykhailivna, 50, said Christmas was going to be “simple and more casual” this year. “We’re not is in the mood for a big celebration. Usually at work we’d be sharing recipes with my colleagues,” she told Artem Mazhulin.
“Now we’re only talking about missile strikes. It kills the mood. But we’re still going have supper on the 24th and in the 6th so the family can all gather. But it’s not going to be like before.”
Following Vladimir Putin’s invasion in February, the Orthodox church of Ukraine is allowing its congregations for the first time to celebrate Christmas on 25 December, in a move away from Russia and towards the west.
It was once a superstition only among Ukrainian aircrew, Peter Beaumont writes: the word “last”, especially in the context of a last or final meeting, should be avoided as it denotes a premonition of death. In its place aircrew would say krajne, which translates very roughly to English as “on the edge”.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, krajne has gained far wider usage, employed by soldiers and some civilians in a country where everyone knows someone who is serving at the front.
The conflict is spawning a new lexicon. Some of the words and phrases that have entered wider usage in Ukrainian society date back to the beginning of the war in 2014, others to military usage in the Soviet era or military slang that has become popularised again, and others are entirely new.
Pjotr Sauer covered the moment three Russian servicemen were declared dead after a Ukrainian drone attack on a crucial airbase deep inside Russian territory.
According to Russia’s defence ministry, a Ukrainian drone was shot down on the approach to Engels base early on Monday morning but falling debris killed three service personnel.
The strike was the second recent attack on the airbase, located about 300 miles away from the Ukrainian border and more than 450 miles south-east of Moscow.
It once again exposed Russian air defence gaps and demonstrated Kyiv’s ability to penetrate hundreds of miles into Russian airspace.
Kherson city was liberated by Ukrainian forces in November. But for some, the horrors of the Russian occupation are still not over. Nadia (her name has been changed) sent her 14-year-old son to a Russian-run summer camp in Crimea – occupied by Moscow since 2014 – in October. He was meant to return after two weeks. It has now been more than two months.
In late November, he forwarded her a series of chilling voice messages from his camp leader telling him he would not be allowed back to Kherson because of his pro-Ukraine views.
“You are in Russia! You shouldn’t be doing different [types] of weird bullshit,” the camp leader in Yevpatoria, Crimea, said in the voice messages, which have been forwarded to the Guardian. “I don’t know who is going to deal with you now, but you are not going back to Kherson, that’s 100% [certain] … You can thank your mother for that.”
Like many parents, Nadia did not see sending her child to such a camp – known as summer camps even at other times of year – as making a pro-Russia statement. Parents often decided to send their children because their classmates were going and they were being offered a free holiday by the sea.
The Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko recalls a quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck: “Wars are not won by generals, but by schoolteachers and parish priests.” It’s a country’s taught collective memory, its shared sense of its own history, that are the decisive instruments for mobilisation, and are as important on the battlefield as weaponry.
Few conflicts have been so shaped by the chief actors’ sense of their own national story as the Ukrainian war that began in February, Patrick Wintour reports. It is the competing grand narratives of the past, not just in Russia and Ukraine, but in Germany, France, Poland, the Baltics, the UK, the US, and even the global south, that make this war so hard to resolve.
Indeed, sometimes this war feels less like the end of history and more like the revenge of history.
In the weeks after the Russian invasion, the Guardian spoke to Ukrainians who had fled to find refuge across Europe. As these families prepare to spend their first Christmas in their new homes, they describe the range of emotions that come with beginning a new year without the loved ones who stayed, as well as what the reality of a new life feels like.
Sam Jones, Beatriz Ramalho da Silva and Megan Clement revisit three families first interviewed in March after fleeing Ukraine to find safety in Spain, Portugal and France.