There Are Only Two Options Left In Ukraine

a field of flowers
'Victory Will Come Because It Must'Author

A Soul in Bakhmut

Victory is now much more than a word in Ukraine. It’s a conviction, an aim to be willed into existence. Even the bitter fighters, even the most dejected know it’s victory or death. But what it’s costing to get there transcends any quantifiable figure or metric. Numbers lose their meaning quickly, at any rate. Personal stories are the only measures that don’t fade.

And measures in wartime are whole lives.

Valerii Fedorchuk, a Ukrainian soldier who carries himself with both assurance and stirs of sadness, points toward the valley below us, where a row of ruined buildings scars the horizon. Heavy artillery rumbles from that direction, followed by plumes of smoke. Wherever the shells end up landing, it’s not where we stand, in the hills surrounding the Bakhmut front in eastern Ukraine. It’s a bright August afternoon and he’s taken me here to provide a panorama of the battlefield. Ukraine’s counteroffensive against entrenched Russian defenses is underway and moving. It’s going slower than many Western observers predicted or hoped, but it is moving. And every meter of land matters in a war that many of those same observers believed would be over in seventy-two hours last February, with the Kremlin in control of their proud, smaller neighbor.

That didn’t happen, in large part because of people like Fedorchuk. Fifty years-old, barrel-chested with a trim salt-and-pepper beard, his call sign of “Soul” neatly fits his disposition. He strikes me as the kind of father who, in peace time, would be at every one of his kid’s soccer games, encouraging yet not afraid to let the referee know when a foul is missed. He’s not in peace, though. And as an artilleryman with the 3rd Assault Brigade, he’s resolute in what must be done in the weeks, months, perhaps years to come. “Victory will be achieved when we kick the enemy out [of Ukraine] and make them realize we don’t need them, that they should stay where they belong.”

a man with a beard
Valerii Fedorchuk strikes me as the kind of guy who, in peace time, would be at every one of his kid’s soccer games.Benjamin Busch

“Bakhmut used to be a beautiful city,” he continues. “Now it is like a cancer, how it looks, how it feels. And like any cancer, we must kill it to save the body. It is the result of the Russian world [coming into it]. Anything the Russian world touches turns to that.”

Outgoing rockets fired closer to our position answer the artillery. This machinery, this industrial violence, sounds with fantastical dissonance in the countryside it emerges from, green trees and yellow hills and indolent blue streams that belong in a painting. Such is life in the Donbas in 2023.

Like so many now serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Fedorchuk never thought he’d become a soldier. Once a professional weightlifter, Fedorchuk was coaching college-aged athletes and running a human-rights nonprofit when Russia invaded last year. After some discussion, he and his family decided to leave their home in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, for the relative safety of western Ukraine. Days later, Irpin came under heavy shelling and temporary Russian occupation, leaving up to 300 of their neighbors and friends dead.

He spent the initial months of the war running supplies and aid from the Polish border to frontline villages. As Western attention waned, so did the amount of aid, causing him to wonder what more he could do. So he decided to enlist, in part to represent his family, he says. He has two sons and a younger brother with serious health issues. This matters in Ukrainian society, to have a brother or son or mother or sister in uniform. It matters a lot.

We walk through some reserve trenches dug in case the Russians mount another advance. Fedorchuk stresses they’ll never have to use them, but their presence suggests that someone somewhere has considered otherwise. They are deep and narrow and tight, which helps limit the impact zone of munitions dropped from drones.

“The Russians now, they fight pretty good,” Fedorchuk says, explaining that the enemy’s tactics have evolved since the disastrous attempt to seize Kyiv last spring. Russian suicide drones like the Lancet, a cheap, single-use weapon, and the Chinese-made Mavic 3 quadcopter, are particularly feared by Ukrainian fighters. “But as we push them back, we hear their excuses over the radio. They say it has to be Americans or Poles, all of NATO … it’s too embarrassing to admit,” he says, his voice deadpan, “that it is only us.”

Fedorchuk’s unit, the 3rd Assault Brigade, has made its name fighting in Bakhmut, holding the city through the winter and into much of the spring through terrible, World War I-like conditions. Formed last January, it emerged from veterans of the Azov Regiment, which has a reputation in the West for its founding far-right politics, but many in Ukraine now primarily associate it with military ferocity. They held out for months in underground steelworks during 2022’s Siege of Mariupol, an act of bravery that had a profound effect on Ukrainians’ views of the regiment. There’s a war for memory going on, and Fedorchuk is mindful of it.

“I joined 3rd Assault because they were ready to fight,” he says plainly. “They had real, relevant military experience.” And what about the other thing? Are Azov, well, Nazis?

“I love our allies,” he says, putting his hand on my shoulder. “They do much for us. But if it were not for Americans, the idea of ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ would not be a thing.”

(That’s not quite accurate—Azov’s old insignia featured an inverted Wolfsangel, after all—but he’s got a point. I think of an acquaintance who worked as a journalist in Ukraine for the decade preceding Russia’s invasion, who once said to me that in those years, sometimes the only way to get Western readers to care about a story was to have an extremism angle in it. So whatever the truth of that angle, whatever its relevance, it became magnified to those reading about Ukraine from faraway.)

We emerge from a trench and stake a claim on a nearby grassy hill. There’s more artillery from over there, then there’s more rockets from over here. Fedorchuk goes on to say that most in his unit are people who suffered from the Russian world, from eastern Ukraine, the sort of men Putin says want to be proper Russian citizens. He himself speaks both Ukrainian and Russian but admits he’s still more comfortable with the latter.

“I am old but I try hard to change,” he says with a laugh when my interpreter compliments his Ukrainian. “My sons speak perfect Ukrainian. This is important to me.”

His eldest son is twenty, studying international politics elsewhere in Europe. The son keeps asking to return to fight alongside his father. The father keeps telling him no.

Only now do I realize the depths of what he meant by serving to represent his family.

“I fight now so he has purpose,” Fedorchuk says. “He’ll be needed after the victory.”

The rubble of Hotel Druzhba, Pokrovsk, eastern Ukraine

A stratum of broken window glass crunches under my boots. There’s police around and the Red Cross and recovery crews and Polish TV news and no one anywhere seems in any particular hurry. Time passes differently, I suppose, in aftermath.

This residential block was obliterated by two Russian Iskander ballistic missiles two dinnertimes ago, the weapons staggered apart by forty minutes to ensure first responders were struck during the second attack. It’s called a double tap.

a car with a tarp over it
a car with a tarp over it

Rubble in Pokrovsk.Benjamin Busch

In Ukrainian, Druzhba translates to “friendship.” This is one of those dark ironies that only the stupidity of war can ever account for. Nine people were killed in these strikes. More than eighty were wounded. There’s nothing like a legitimate military target anywhere close.

Residents say the hotel was popular with journalists and aid workers. This is happening more and more across the central and eastern parts of the country. Deliberate targeting of voices with reach. Down the street, I watch a young man on the fifth floor of an apartment building sift through the remnants of his bedroom while looking up at the hole he once called a ceiling. He argues with his mom, standing a couple feet away in her own open silo. On the ground level beneath them, a bicycle remains chained to a fence. It’s somehow untouched, pristine. It holds a basket with drooping pink flowers in it.

Forest War

Some 260 miles northwest of the Bakhmut trenches, beyond the scarred city of Kharkiv, through a winding stretch of highway pockmarked by craters, past ceaseless fields of tall, fading sunflowers and harvested corn, there’s another type of war being fought. It’s quieter, defined by its dense forest terrain instead of urban combat. But there are still bullets and drones and mortars and minefields, not to mention the toils of daily life in a machine that may well, at any moment, require you die for it.

Media and Yarko are soldiers I befriended during my previous trips to Ukraine. (They both requested pseudonyms be used for this article so they could speak freely.) They’re serving in Sumy Oblast, in the same special intelligence company. Sometimes their missions are straight reconnaissance, sometimes they’re more unconventional. Sometimes they conduct offensive operations across the Russian border. Their main enemy in recent weeks has been a Spetsnaz unit (Russian special forces) probing Ukrainian infrastructure in the region and ambushing solo vehicles driving forest roads. Stopping those efforts has become a new priority.

“It’s a lot of cat and mouse in the woods,” Yarko says, describing a type of warfare NATO recon soldiers have trained for over decades, with minimal opportunities to do it for real. Over our lunch conversation, Media and Yarko describe privately-donated drones that have saved them from ambushes, carved-out RPG shells they turn into homemade aerial bombs with 3D-printed fins, and hand-me-down munitions acquired from sources they couldn’t even begin to guess at that include an honest-to-Christ Mk 2 “pineapple” hand grenade that must have first been issued to a soldier sometime around the outbreak of the Korean War. The Western world expects Ukraine to fight like a NATO country without quite outfitting it as one.

Media is thirty-nine, and worked in government in western Ukraine before the invasion. He enlisted in June 2022 as a combat medic and had the continual misfortune of proving himself capable. Recently he earned a battlefield commission, was promoted to lieutenant, and now leads the equivalent of a platoon. He hates it, he says, because he feels like he’s always letting someone down, even when he makes the only correct decision available.

“Hating it is proof that you’re the right man for the job,” Yarko offers.

The Ukrainian man nods in a way that doesn’t necessarily signify agreement.

Yarko, forty-one, is an American and veteran of the US Air Force. He first came to Ukraine as a volunteer military trainer last spring. After spending “several months” thinking it over, he enlisted in the Armed Forces of Ukraine two months ago. While there’s possibly a couple thousand Americans serving across Ukraine’s international legion, or in small, patchwork legion-like units, Yarko believes he’s one of the few Westerners with an official AFU-contract.

“It was time to do something where it was structured, had some support elements,” he says, pointing out that in addition to all the ethical reasons he had for joining, he now has medical coverage for the first time since coming over. He’s taught himself Ukrainian and is now conversational in it. Though his own military background wasn’t exactly this, he’s found similarities.

“Brotherhood is brotherhood,” he says. “You still have the same dynamics and personalities. You have the really smart guy. You have the two jocks that lift weights all the time.” When I ask what’s not alike, he echoes the refrain of damn near every Western vet I’ve encountered in Ukraine since last March: “This is just way, way different … there’s no question that you're fighting for good versus evil. It's not any question as to why you're in the war, which was usually the case for us [in Iraq and Afghanistan].”

Both Yarko and Media spent much of the winter in Bakhmut, part of a mass defense of the war’s nexus before Russia’s Wagner Group finally—and ultimately temporarily—seized control of the city in late May. Media worked with reconnaissance teams during his months there, and slides away from my probing questions about the experience. “We were protected by God,” he says. “That’s all I know.”

Yarko shares a bit more. He was charged with helping train new arrivals during his months there, right before they went off to the trenches. Many of them were draftees. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life,” he says. “The hell of holding the line in Bakhmut will be something that no words could ever actually truly depict … they would typically send BMPs [infantry fighting vehicles] and groups to just come through [the] tree line and assault wave after wave after wave after wave after wave … it was no strategy, or I should say no tactics. It was just [human] waves.”

His face drops. The words end there.

Media opens up, too, eventually. Leaves are translated to “vacations” in Ukraine, and Media’s on his way back from one. I ask what coming and going from this war is like.

“My mind was still here,” he admits. He refuses to go into his home city in western Ukraine. He finds it too jarring, and doesn’t like how he feels about the civilians going about their normal lives, even though he intellectually understands that’s part of what he’s protecting. “I cannot stabilize. I cannot feel the ground,” he says. He met his family at a cottage in the Carpathians instead.

He didn’t find much solace until the last day. “We spent the whole time in the water. And I guess the water just made changes with me. I washed everything away with the waterfalls and swimming with children in their pool. And the water is the only thing that made an effect that positive.”

There’s much sadness in his voice. There’s much resolve in it, as well. I ask him how this ends.

“I’m not pretending anymore.” The once taciturn Media cuts loose. “I am deeply sure there will be no victory. There will just be the finish. That's the stop of the war, of the active phase of war. And then the war will be moved to another phase, like a mirror of 2014.”

He pauses, unsure if he should keep going. He does.

“A new generation in the Donbas has grown up already, children who lost their parents, their fathers, fighting the Ukrainian enemy, and they're watching the TV, and that's the main source of influence on their brain. So they are thinking another way. And that might take a great source not only from Ukraine, but from the world, to make them change.”

Media has had it with war, as only a good soldier fighting one can.

“There’s too many bombs,” he says. “Too many mines, too much dirty territory. There’s just too much.”

A gas station, frontline adjacent, somewhere in southern or eastern Ukraine

An American fighter warns us: do not linger at a particular gas station near the front. That strip’s been shelled before, he says, but still, damn near every Ukrainian commander in the area goes there to shoot the breeze, use a real bathroom, eat hot dogs.

We go anyway, though try not to stay long. As we’re about to depart, my interpreter’s phone rings. A public-affairs official in Kyiv is frustrated with us because I filled out some paperwork wrong. So we wait in the parking lot of the gas station while he figures it out. Something with a rocket engine flies directly over us. It sounds like a small plane but faster, louder. Every hot-dog eating soldier in the parking lot takes cover until the monstrosity in the sky clears out. The noise of nothingness returns.

Enemy of the Kremlin

We meet Olena Bilozerska, a senior lieutenant in the Artan Battalion of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence (DIU) in a sleepy village in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. There’s a clean after-rain smell in the air, and kids clamber up a World War II tank monument in the central square. We’re two hours late because the direct route was being shelled by Russian artillery across the river. So much of Ukraine is now like this. The line between war and peace can fade quickly.

“It’s a unique possibility to defend your country with a weapon in your hands,” Bilozerska says about why she serves. Now forty-four, she first joined the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps in 2014 and went to the frontline that spring. The particular weapon in her hands tends to be the Zbroyar Z-10, her sniper rifle of choice. Though self-taught, she soon proved herself an excellent marksman and was assigned as her unit’s sniper. She detailed her experiences there in a memoir published in 2019, Diary of an Illegal Soldier, including a memorable scene in which she kills two enemy combatants and wounds another.

Her book, and subsequent public profile, caused much consternation across the border. Kremlin propagandists have made bogus announcements of her death on multiple occasions, and also accused her of being a war criminal, or fraud, or somehow both. None of it bothers her. “We have a saying in Ukraine,” she says. “The dog which is barking is not biting. So let them do that.”

a man wearing a camouflage shirt and sunglasses
Olena Bilozerska is a senior lieutenant in the Artan Battalion of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence. She returned to service after demobilizing in 2020, when Russia invaded.Benjamin Busch

A native of Kyiv, Bilozerska became an officer after her initial stint, and later spent time as an artillery platoon leader. She demobilized in 2020, resuming life as a civilian, writer, and veterans’ advocate. “But I knew every day,” she says, “that if a full-scale invasion appeared, or [there was] any kind of possibility that Russia would attack us more intensively, I would return.”

Slender, with strawberry-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, Bilozerska exudes a professional-military cool under a camouflage hat and behind aviator sunglasses. Though she may once have been an anomaly as a Ukrainian woman in uniform, Bilozerska stresses that she no longer is. She estimates that about 5,000 women soldiers now serve along the front doing various jobs.

I ask what her country needs more of. The former artillery platoon leader does not hesitate. “The great problem in the Ukrainian army, the main thing we need more of, is artillery shells,” she says. This is something I hear across regions, across different sections of the front, across rank and background and specialty. But no one makes the case for more artillery more firmly than Bilozerska. “Even more than jets and planes, this is how we will win. It affects everything, where we advance, how quickly.”

Later I ask Bilozerska what I ask most every Ukrainian: how does she believe this ends? For her, peace is possible only through Ukrainian victory.

“Any peace document that the Russians can sign is worthless,” she says, “because they will not implement it, they will not abide by it. I want [Western readers] to know that Russia will use excuses just to restore themselves and attack again.”

The rubble of Ria Pizza, Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine

From amidst the wreckage of a pizzeria in the small industrial city of Kramatorsk, I begin to realize the extent to which Russia is willing to go to exterminate its neighboring country. Thirteen people were killed here while out at dinner in late June, including three teenagers. Russia wants more than just to occupy Ukraine, I see. It wants to end it. As a place, as an idea.

“No words are needed after a tragedy, all words slide into a whirlpool,” the Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina once said. “Perhaps it is justice that is needed in such moments.”


Thirteen people were killed here in Kramatorsk, while out at dinner in late June, including three teenagers.


Amelina was among those killed here in Kramatorsk, thirty-seven years old and only beginning to find the international readership her work deserved. We spot a framed photo of her at a nearby memorial for those murdered in the strike. I close my eyes and search for the words to convey what this all is, and means, and what is lost when we turn away from it.

Twenty Days in Mariupol

It’s been almost seventeen months since Mykyta Leutskiy fled his home city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine. He’s still not sure why he was spared when so many of his friends and neighbors were not. “Our destinies were side by side,” he says. “Until they weren’t.”

Twenty-four years old, Leutskiy is big and bashful and keeps looking away to the ground as he rummages through what he calls his “damaged memories.” He lives in Dnipro now, a vibrant riverfront city located in the hard center of Ukraine that’s become both a hub for various aid organizations and a sanctuary for displaced civilians fleeing the battles and occupiers.

Last February, like many Ukrainians, like many across the world, Leutskiy thought normalcy would endure, that peace, or something like it, would hold. “We just didn’t believe that anything like that would happen to us. That's not usually what you plan for in your life.”

But Russian artillery began pounding Mariupol the first day of the invasion, February 24, 2022. About forty friends and coworkers gathered at a German pub near the city center that Leutskiy managed because it had a large basement and plenty of frozen foods they could share. Most in the group believed whatever the Russians had planned would soon pass by them, like a summer rain.

a man with a beard
Mykyta Leutskiy is still not sure why he was spared when so many of his friends and neighbors were not. “Our destinies were side by side,” he says. “Until they weren’t.”Benjamin Busch

Twenty infernal days of bombardment and siege followed.

“Every day was different,” Leutskiy says. He can rattle them off one by one. There was the day they heard their childhood school had been destroyed. And the day the windows shattered on the first floor from a nearby explosion, which led to a mass sickness from the cold. The endless rumors of parents and siblings missing, some found, some ever-missing. Then there was the day they ventured out for more supplies and saw neighborhood kids dead from the shelling, strewn across the street separate and alone, an image Leutskiy knows he’ll carry with him to his own last moment.

The Russian army surrounded Mariupol in full on March 2. The siege of the port city would continue for weeks. On March 16, the theatre house was razed by Russian airstrikes, killing as many as 600 people sheltering there. The day after, Leutskiy’s father insisted it was time to go.

This was no easy choice. There had been reports of Russian military firing on civilian vehicles. And it was a dice-roll if Russian checkpoints would even let them pass, particularly military-age males like Leutskiy. But to stay in their native city would be to accept becoming part of what would soon be known Mariupol’s “caravan of death.”

Their small convoy of three vehicles left Mariupol on March 17, joining a large flow of traffic heading west. There were a lot of children in their group, and Leutskiy thinks they, and a man with shrapnel in his spine who needed medical attention, are why the Russian soldiers waved them through the checkpoints.

More than a year later, “I’m still surprised at how people act regular here,” he says, gesturing toward a bustling commercial strip. Leutskiy’s settled in well—an owner of an area restaurant was joining the Ukrainian army, and upon taking a liking to the young Leutskiy, put him and a colleague in charge of his business.

But Dnipro’s not home. Mariupol is. Leutskiy’s not sure he’ll ever return, though.

“I feel like it will never be the same [there],” he says. As candid and open as he’s been, he’s avoided eye contact much of our conversation. Only now does he look up and hold against my scrutiny. “But I really do want to go back.”

Restaurant in a cellar, Derybasivska Street, Odesa

It’s Saturday night in the party district of Odesa and we manage to find the one guy here who wants to talk about the war. He finds us, rather, as a Ukrainian cover of “Come Together” plays and while a waitress fetches him beer after beer. She’s Koryo-saram, a descendent of Koreans forcefully deported to the fringes of Soviet empire in the 1930s by Stalin. I want to talk to her more about it, but the drunk man won’t allow it. He’s a soldier, infantry, home on leave for a few days. Are we CIA Navy SEAL Ranger Biden advisors or what, he wants to know. Even as he grins, there’s violence on his face.

“I want a good helmet,” he says. He’s shouting now. “A soldier’s helmet.” He pantomimes the one he’s been given, a single-strap steel pot that never keeps on his head when he runs. We stay for a while, but as we rise from our table to leave, he clasps my forearm, hard. He’s a big man. I wouldn’t want to encounter him in a trench.

“Please,” he says. His voice is half-sloppy rage, half-drunken clarity. “Please help.”

I look down into the hollow black of his eyes to find a man already certain of his own death.

New Veterans

In Lviv, the gateway city in the far west that’s about as removed from the battles as anyplace in Ukraine can be, I meet Orest Krykovskii, a fifty-four-year-old historian and photographer who volunteered for military service right after the invasion. He’s beginning to tell his journey of going from citizen to soldier to wounded veteran when a young woman sitting adjacent to us in a coffeeshop leans over and says, in Ukrainian, “Дякую вам за службу.” It’s the equivalent of “Thank you for your service.”

But it’s nothing like when an American says it. There’s no throat-clearing, or veiled political tribalism. She says it because she means it from the bottom of her soul. Then she departs. Krykovskii tears up and is quiet. “I feel that it helps remind me what I was fighting for,” he eventually says.

a man taking a selfie
Orest Krykovskii is a historian and photographer who volunteered for military service right after the invasion.Benjamin Busch

Krykovskii served as an infantryman with the 103rd Territorial Defense Brigade. A quiet, contemplative man, he joined because he couldn’t shake a hard question: If not me, then who? Little training followed, he says, though he did already know how to fire weapons. He was sent to the Donbas, in May 2022, a little more than two months after he’d enlisted.

It was the first time he’d been to that part of his country. “If I’m being honest,” he says, “I was amazed because it always felt like enemy territory [before]. But being there, in the hills, the beauty of the terrain, I felt the Cossack spirit for the first time. It was just perfect. I knew then: it is real Ukraine.”

His first experience in combat came via heavy artillery. “I know that fear. How it feels like when it’s falling somewhere near you.” He points out, politely, that none of the Western trainers he encountered before being sent east had prepared them for this. I don’t interrupt though I know why: none of them, none of us, ever experienced anything like it.

Only a few days after, before a massive Russian offensive in the area, artillery struck the abandoned school his platoon had taken for temporary quarters, near the small village of Bilohorivka. Ten were killed in the blink of an eye.

“We had a father and son serving together in [that] platoon,” Krykovskii says. “After that shelling, the son died. So the father was left alone. And he was an example for us, how we should act. If he was holding strong, why should we be weak?”

Another Lviv-area infantry veteran, Fedir, spent eight days on the front before getting wounded. (Fedir is a pseudonym so he can speak freely.) After being drafted last autumn, he was sent to the Donbas after one month of training. “I’m lucky,” he says. “Before, people were sent to the close-combat areas with only one or three days.”

In his early thirties and a car mechanic in his past life, Fedir doesn’t resent his military service, but he does speak with the reckless honesty of a soldier who’s over telling half-truths. He describes the trenches as “a different planet.” He talks about the one-kilometer walk from his unit’s command post to the trenches like it was the path to hell itself. The days began with heavy shellings every dawn. At night came the phosphorous bombs, but at least then, he says, you could risk a piss.

He laughs when I ask about Ukrainian artillery support. “Basically, we had only just rifle and that's it,” he says. “We felt the full dominance of Russian forces in the air, on the ground, because there is nothing you can do with just a rifle.”

He describes a common Russian tactic as sending human waves at the Ukrainian lines, using their “cannon meat” to detect where the heavy Ukrainian guns were. Then artillery and mortars would be called upon those positions.

“You will stay on the frontline until you be[come] 200 or 300,” Fedir says. These are the codewords for killed in action and wounded in action, respectively.

The harsh January winter was slowly killing him. Until it saved him. In -20 Celsius degrees, during a bitter storm, his feet froze. Medics rendered him combat ineffective and, thinking of his young son the entire way, Fedir popped a handful of painkillers and hobbled six kilometers to the casualty-collection point. He’s dealing with lingering neurological damage but knows he’s better off than many. As he continues physical therapy, he awaits a military medical commission that’ll determine his future. It’s possible he’ll be sent back to the trenches in the months to come.

I think I have Fedir pretty well pegged: the brave but furious soldier populates every army worth a damn. Then he surprises me when I ask if he resents the politicians who often bring up “Victory” but seem to never explain what that will entail.

“I'm completely alright with it because I have to separate the political speech from the war,” he says. “All wars have this in common. Because the politicians, they are supposed to say that, right? The citizen is supposed to believe.”

Across the city, Krykovskii also awaits a medical commission. On September 27, a bit after nine in the morning, four long months after losing half his platoon at the school, a Russian drone caught him and a colleague out in the open. They’d been sent on a mission to establish communication with headquarters, and “someone had to go.” An artillery round landed soon thereafter. There was a flash and an explosion. Shooting pains in his left leg and hip let him know he was alive but hurt badly. His friend was somehow unhurt, helping him first with the tourniquet and then to a friendly pickup truck sent to investigate.

“I was just lucky, I felt God behind my shoulders,” Krykovskii says. “Probably it was my mother’s prayers.”

Doctors would pull seven distinct shards from his leg and hip, though two remain and “will stay with me forever.” One struck a large nerve and now he wears a black compression sleeve on the length of this leg. He’s not sure he’ll be able to walk much in the future. He joined in 2022, he says, in part because he’d regretted not doing so in 2014, when Russia first seized Crimea and entered the Donbas. He’d long wondered what if. Now he knows. He’s completed the soldier’s cycle, is back home in Lviv, glad to be alive yet uncertain of what it meant, and even more uncertain of what awaits.

I ask how he now feels about going to fight.

“I did my part,” he says.

And what of yesterday? What about his life before?

“Now that,” he says, “feels faraway.”

Header image by Benjamin Busch.

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