‘End of Putin’s reign is the only chance of ending this hell’

It’s exactly a year since my encounter with Vladimir Putin’s invading army and I still play the recording over and over. The crackle of gunfire. Hurried footsteps along a potholed road. Screeching car tyres. More gunfire. My colleague shouting: “They’re Russians! Russians have taken over the airport!”

It was February 24 last year and I was in Kyiv for BBC Panorama. I had left my phone recording in my pocket as we stumbled upon Putin’s opening military assault: the attempted seizure of Kyiv’s Hostomel airport and, with it, the capital city.

Early that morning, we’d been woken by the distant rumble of explosions from the north of the city. A hotel Tannoy had urged us to hide in the bomb shelter where the manager had addressed staff and journalists. After telling us there was enough food and water for a long campaign, he looked to the heavens and declared in a sombre voice: “May God bless us all.”

Soon after, I was in a car speeding through a forest towards Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv about 10 miles from the city centre, where there’s a small, strategically important airport. We all assumed that morning’s attack had come from the air.

Our mission was to film the damage and any casualties. It seemed inconceivable that there might be Russian soldiers on the ground. I remember veering off the road onto a muddy track, driving across a field, and then arriving at the perimeter of the airport to see a plume of black smoke rising into the grey February sky. The road was eerily deserted. Up ahead I saw movement in the trees.

Suddenly a squad of soldiers fanned out across the track. They dropped into crouching positions, trained their guns on our
vehicle, and made ready to shoot.

I assumed they were Ukrainians and began waving frantically to indicate we were friendly. My colleague shouted in Russian: “We are from the BBC, is it okay to film?” The commanding officer poked the muzzle of his gun into our car. “Niet,” he said, “F*** off!”

It was only as we reversed away that we realised their tunics carried a thin orange and black stripe along the seams: the ribbon of St George, a symbol adopted by Russian separatists in Crimea and Donbas in 2014 and now favoured by Putin’s army. We’d inadvertently run into an advance guard of a helicopter-borne operation to seize Kyiv and make Ukraine a Russian puppet state.

A year on, it’s easy to forget that, in those opening hours of the conflict, there was a strong expectation Putin’s forces would quickly triumph. In the hotel that night, seasoned correspondents debated urgently whether they should stay or go.

Kyiv would be overrun within days, if not hours, they agreed. Most of Ukraine’s under-resourced army was in the east, committed to defending what was left of occupied Donbas. Kyiv, it seemed, had been left vulnerable to attack.

Three days later, a 40-mile-long column of Russian tanks, armoured vehicles and self-propelled artillery was spotted on satellite images approaching the capital from the north-west.

The plan seems to have been to create a land bridge from the Belarus border to link up with Russian troops at Hostomel. Many observers assumed the convoy would soon encircle Kyiv, starve its inhabitants into submission, and smoke
out President Volodymyr Zelensky and his cabinet.

Instead, the air assault of Hostomel faltered. The men we came across on that first day were almost certainly among the dead or captured. Their unit, the elite 31st Air Assault Brigade, were pushed back into the airport by rookie Ukrainian troops and many were killed. That bloody counter-attack minutes after my own face-to-face encounter with the invaders undoubtedly prevented a swift seizure of Kyiv.

Outside the capital, the Russian convoy became bogged down in winter mud. Supply lines faltered. Food and petrol ran out. The column soon looked more like a traffic jam than a carefully coordinated strike force. Ukrainian pilots and, on the ground, special forces, using Western-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles, began picking off tanks. And, after a humiliating fortnight of zero progress, the Russian soldiers quietly dispersed.

Putin had overreached himself. His rag-tag army of forced recruits had neither the stomach nor the expertise to seize a thriving European city of three million citizens, let alone take the entire country.

The Russian president was in sole control of his army. All that was happening was a result of his hubris. A year on, with Russia having lost around 150,000 soldiers to injury or death, a climbdown would almost certainly be fatal for his presidency.

By springtime, I was reporting from the eastern fighting front in Donbas. This is where Putin’s army had reassembled after retreating from the corpse-strewn streets of Bucha and Irpin in northern Kyiv at the end of March. They were making slow but bloody progress. On our first day in the near-empty city of Sloviansk, the ground shook as a Russian cruise missile slammed into a key strategic rail bridge.

Russian artillery rained down indiscriminately upon towns and villages. Terrified pensioners were loaded into makeshift ambulances and waved off to hospitals beyond the reach of shells. Mothers hugged their children and covered their ears from the sound of bombs. Evacuees arrived from the frontline with harrowing stories of entire streets engulfed by fire.

In the courtyard of a decaying communist block, shielded from incoming artillery, we came upon a lonely figure struggling along on crutches, dog at her side. Her name was Valentina, 83 years old with a shock of grey hair and defiant, shining eyes.

She left her sixth-floor apartment only to exercise her dog. Our BBC team was welcome company. Everyone else had gone. “Why should I leave?” she asked. “My whole life has been spent in Sloviansk.”

Cradling her beloved terrier, she told me how her father had fought in the Red Army in the Second World War and how she had won the Soviet Union’s top medals for singing and acting when she was a youngster.

Suddenly a loud explosion ripped through the afternoon air. Valentina jolted instinctively forward. Her eyes welled up and she gripped my hand. Valentina is exactly the kind of Russian-speaking Donbas resident Putin claims inspired his invasion of Ukraine in the first place. He said he wanted to “liberate” people like her, who’d struggled with low pensions and decaying infrastructure and who were now facing what he called the “Nazificaton” of Ukraine.

But the bloody seizure of towns and cities like Mariupol, and the torture, rape and execution of civilians has lost Putin any small support he once had.

She was eventually evacuated but, if Valentina had ever considered her life might be improved by Donbas falling into Russia’s orbit, that thought is now buried deep under rubble and broken bodies.

I had walked those same Sloviansk streets in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took over the town hall. Back then I’d encountered many who wished for Moscow’s intervention. They viewed the regime in Kyiv as corrupt, inept and responsible for increasing levels of poverty.

Then the separatists began beating and killing opponents and the mood changed. By last spring, I was unable to find a single Ukrainian in Sloviansk who openly supported President Putin.

Today, on this tragic anniversary, Putin’s best chance at victory, it seems, is to retain control of some of Donbas and Crimea, and to make this a forever war – one he hasn’t won, but neither has he lost.

In the meantime, it seems increasingly likely he might choose to distract from his failures in Ukraine by shifting his attention to Moldova, the tiny country squeezed between Ukraine and the European Union where Russian speakers make up a small but vociferous minority.

As a former republic of the Soviet Union, Moldova is viewed by Putin as a lost piece of the jigsaw. There are already signs he’s out to retrieve it.

Last year he dramatically cut gas supplies to Moldova, which until then had been entirely reliant on Russia for energy. As a result, inflation soared, and the seeds of discord were sewn. Earlier this month, intercepted intelligence reports suggested that the Kremlin was dispatching military-trained agitators to incite insurrection.

The country’s pro-European president, Maia Sandu, has announced she believes Putin is plotting a coup. Only last weekend, during a pro-Russian demonstration, people were heard calling for Russia to come and “save us” – a chilling echo of what I saw in Crimea in 2014.

We know what happened there. Adding to the threat is the sliver of eastern Moldova known as Transnistria – a region of half a million people frozen in a Cold War stand-off that’s not been resolved.

Transnistria is a self-declared state unrecognised by the international community, but its president wants to be part of Russia and hosts 1,500 Russian “peacekeeping” soldiers on Transnistrian soil.

It is not unthinkable that Putin might use it as a staging post to assemble troops from the Black Sea, 50 miles away, before sweeping into Moldova from the east.

Whether it comes in the shape of a Kremlin-inspired coup or military intervention, Moldova could well be Putin’s target in the near future, a distraction from his military failures elsewhere and another attempt to test the resolve of the West and destabilise the world order.

The West, though, is not for backing down.

President Biden’s historic visit to Kyiv earlier this week is confirmation of that. If we are to avoid a second anniversary of this
terrible war, something will have to give. My money says any compromise will be found only when Putin is no longer in power.

  • Paul Kenyon is a BBC Panorama journalist and author of Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania

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