It was early in the evening of 21 February that it became impossible to ignore that Vladimir Putin was planning something truly terrible for Ukraine.
Up to that moment, exactly six months ago, many voices were urging calm in the face of increasingly insistent American and British warnings of a full-scale invasion. The French and German governments, Russian officials and even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy suggested Putin’s troop buildup was a bluff, and the warnings from Washington were over-egged.
Then Putin appeared on television, chairing a meeting of his security council in the Kremlin. Ordering his courtiers, one by one, to the microphone, Putin played at seeking their counsel, humiliating the few who hesitated to give the answers he wanted.Interactive
Ostensibly, the issue under discussion was whether Russia should recognise the “independence” of the so called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”.
But that was just a pretext. Afterwards, Russian television cut to a long and rambling address by Putin in which he belittled Ukrainian history and statehood.
Three days later, in the early hours of the morning, the Russian assault began, with missiles raining down on targets across Ukraine and ground troops pouring into the country from three directions.
That fateful decision has changed Ukraine, Russia and the world irrevocably over the intervening six months. Thousands of Ukrainians are dead and millions displaced, each case a tragedy for which the country’s impressive wartime spirit and unity are scant compensation.
Russia has also changed, with the regime dropping the last vestiges of democracy and embracing full-fledged militarism, while the west has recalibrated its relations with Russia and Russian money, and many countries have begun an unprecedented military aid programme to Ukraine.
The shock of those first hours of the war, when the unthinkable became reality, is a moment that is likely to stay with every Ukrainian for the rest of their lives.
In the chaotic first days, events moved incredibly fast. By the end of the first week, the country had already settled into a new reality in which roads were dotted with checkpoints run by locals carrying whatever arms they could get their hands on, mayors strutted around their towns in body armour organising the defence, and families endured separation from their loved ones, as millions of women and children rushed to safety abroad.
Split-second decisions could mean life or death. People whose friends had mocked them in previous weeks for hoarding food or making escape plans were now hailed as prophets. Countless families decided to leave Kyiv for the peaceful commuter towns to its west, hoping to sit out the expected attack on the city there, only to find themselves subjected to a month of terror from occupying forces, while the centre of the capital remained relatively unscathed.
In the southern city of Mariupol, those who decided to leave in the first days, when it was still possible, were able to find safety in other parts of Ukraine or abroad. Those who decided to wait and see ended up stuck, forced to endure weeks of bombardment during the long and violent Russian operation to take control of the city.
Their stories, of burying bodies in shallow courtyard graves, of sheltering in damp, freezing basements, of illness, miscarriages, starvation and deprivation, were reminiscent of the second world war.
Amid all the horror and trauma, an uplifting story emerged of a newly united country where previous divisions evaporated in the face of the existential threat from the east. The resistance began with Zelenskiy and his team, who stayed in Kyiv instead of fleeing, and was replicated at many levels of society.
“The Kremlin really hoped that we would be disoriented and would run away,” said deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk, who had been called several days before the invasion by the British ambassador and advised to flee the capital. Instead, she stayed, and worked inside Zelenskiy’s fortified compound in the centre of Kyiv, sleeping on a camp bed.
“Can you imagine if people found out that the president and his team, and the government, had run away? Of course, it would have demoralised everyone,” she said.
In most towns and cities, the local mayors also remained in place and helped organise the resistance.
“They didn’t expect this,” said Gennadiy Trukhanov, the mayor of Odesa, in an interview during the first weeks of the war. Trukhanov was indicative of a change among many Ukrainian officials in the south and east of the country, who had previously been perceived as pro-Russian, but now came down firmly on the side of Kyiv.
“They didn’t expect that there would be barricades in Odesa, and that people wouldn’t welcome them with bread and salt, that Kharkiv would fight, that Chernihiv would fight,” he said.
In the nearby Kherson region, where the Russian army was able to roll in without much military resistance during the first few days of the war, it is clear that some security officials collaborated with the Russians, and a number of politicians have agreed to work for Kremlin-run administrations.
But locals report that the Russians are now struggling to fill mid-level positions, and face a strong underground opposition from among the majority of locals who remain loyal to Ukraine.
Back in February, the stated goal of the “special military operation”, as the Kremlin calls it, was that it was all about protecting the Russian-speaking populations of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the meaningless goal of “denazification” of the country.
“They said they are going to free us from Nazis, I said very good, but during 33 years of living in Melitopol I never met one,” said Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, who was kidnapped and interrogated for several days before being released in a prisoner swap and sent to Kyiv-controlled territory.
At other times, Kremlin talking heads have said the conflict is about Nato, and the encroachment of the military alliance on Russia’s borders.
As the Russian advance on Kyiv stalled, Putin’s hopes of a swift operation that would install a new pro-Russian government in Kyiv, and keep Ukraine as a nominally independent state but inside Moscow’s orbit, were exposed as being based on a total misunderstanding of how Ukraine has changed in recent years.
That led to a change in rhetoric. Now, Russian politicians talk in the language of a naked land grab, of creating a “buffer” in Ukraine between Moscow and the west. The disdain for Ukrainian people, language and culture, always lurking in the background, has come more to the fore.
This mixed messaging could be seen in the school building in Novyi Bykiv, east of Kyiv, where a Russian Buk missile battalion was based for a month at the beginning of the war. After the withdrawal, the soldiers’ scrawled chalk messages on the blackboards showed the muddle of sentiments the Russians had experienced: some were apologetic, others abusive. In the classrooms, they had painted over the faces of Ukrainian historical and literary figures, a literal manifestation of the desire to erase Ukrainian culture.
Some of the troops appeared confused and tormented by their role as occupiers. “Listen, I’m sorry. We didn’t know it would be like this,” one tearful soldier told a woman whose beauty salon he was using as a base, during the occupation of the town of Trostianets.
But this confusion quickly turned to anger and hatred when the Russians were faced with a surprisingly fierce Ukrainian counter-attack and felt the anger of the local populations, instead of the gratitude they had been told to expect.
Throughout the occupied areas around Kyiv, Russian soldiers committed murder and other war crimes. There was widespread looting. When news of the horrors in Bucha and elsewhere began to seep out at the end of March, it only hardened Ukrainian resolve, and has left psychological wounds that are likely to fester for generations.
In Russia, initial horror at the invasion among political and business elites was followed by a recognition that it had fundamentally changed the dynamic between Russia and the west. Faced with a stark choice, most have chosen to stay quiet or to rebrand themselves as patriots.
“With the sanctions, people realise they have no chance of a life in the west any more, so they’re all rallying around the flag,” said one Kremlin-connected source.
Lower down the chain, many Russians have left the country, either for political reasons or because sanctions made their businesses impossible. Just as in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution a century earlier, cities close to Russia’s borders have filled up with tens of thousands of Russian exiles.
Riga, the capital of Latvia, has become the hub for independent journalists who have been criminalised and banned from working in Russia; Yerevan in Armenia is where thousands of tech professionals have travelled and now call home. Tbilisi in Georgia, the Turkish city of Istanbul, the Serbian capital Belgrade and Berlin all have new Russian exile communities.
On occasion, the insistence by Russian exiles that they, too, are victims has caused friction with the larger communities of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee the invasion.
Six months in, how it all ends is a question that is harder than ever to answer. In the early weeks of the war, the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich travelled to Kyiv on a Kremlin-sanctioned mission to broker peace talks between Zelenskiy and Putin.
In March, Abramovich felt he might be close to achieving something that could serve as a workable template for talks between the two leaders, according to those briefed on the discussions, but nothing came of it. Since the world found out about the crimes in Bucha and elsewhere, there has been little by way of substantive discussion.
Moscow is continuing its slow-moving offensive in the Donbas, but any plans to regroup and launch a new assault on Kyiv look unrealistic in the medium term. Even the referendums Moscow plans in occupied territories, to provide the thinnest of cover for annexation, look uncertain to take place as the situation on the ground remains too unstable. Ukraine has repeatedly promised a counterattack, though that is also fraught with difficulties.
“At this stage, I’m not sure if anyone knows what the endgame is,” said the Kremlin-connected source.
On 24 August, half a year since the start of the invasion, Ukraine will celebrate its independence day. In a twist on the traditional military parade, dozens of pieces of gnarled and twisted Russian military hardware have been brought to Kyiv’s central Khreshchatyk street.
It is both a recognition of the fact that Ukraine’s military is needed at the front, and a darkly humorous nod to the reports that Putin hoped to hold a victory parade on the avenue after swiftly conquering Kyiv; there were reports that some of his soldiers had even packed parade uniforms.
“Six months into the large-scale war the shameful display of rusty Russian metal is a reminder to all dictators how their plans may be ruined by a free and courageous nation,” said the country’s defence ministry.