LONDON (AP) — Amid the death and destruction war leaves in its wake, there are powerful dynamics and narratives: domination, besieged populations, occupation and their counterparts, resistance, freedom and liberation.
Vast swaths of Western and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union knew this well at various points of the 20th century: Paris, Leningrad, Sarajevo. Iraq and Syria more recently in the 21st century.
In Russia’s nearly nine-month war in Ukraine, the names of towns and cities like Mariupol,Bucha, Kharkiv and Kherson have been seared on the global consciousness as they witnessed the full spectrum of wartime horrors and more recently, jubilation.
Since Friday, striking scenes of unbridled joy and images from Kherson have shown troops being greeted as heroes as Ukrainian flags fly over liberated areas. As far as resounding inflection points in the war go, Russia’s flight from the city of Kherson under prolonged Ukrainian assault is unmistakable.
Liberation and victory on the battlefield are also powerful incentives for allies like the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom to keep a steady flow of military aid that directly helps Ukraine’s advances.
“Momentum is an important factor in war. Ukraine has it now. Kyiv and its partners must make the most of it,” the Institute for the Study of War said in an assessment.
Concerns about wavering support from Washington if the Democrats lost power on Capitol Hill to the Republicans seem unfounded now that U.S. President Joe Biden’s party has maintained control of the Senate.
Chinese President Xi Jinping could also be less inclined to support Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as major losses pile up. Ukraine was one of several key issues when Biden and Xi held an in-person summit in Asia on Monday. Putin won’t attend the Group of 20 nations gathering in Bali, Indonesia, this week, his global isolation at its peak now during his more than 20 years in power.
From massacres of civilians to occupation ending in villages, towns and cities, the war grinds on. The question of what happened, what was mined and booby-trapped, the ongoing bombardment and punishing lack of water and electricity, rebuilding, the prosecution of potential war crimes and what comes next are at the fore.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Saturday that “we will see many more such greetings” of Ukrainian soldiers liberating Russian-held territory. Ukraine’s retaking of the city of Kherson was a huge setback for the Kremlin and the latest in a series of battlefield humiliations. It was the only provincial capital that had been under Russian control since the early days of the invasion.
Late Sunday, Zelenskyy accused Russian forces of having committed “the same atrocities as in other regions of our country” before they were forced to pull out of Kherson and its environs. On, Monday he visited the liberated city himself. He described the whirlwind events as “the beginning of the end of the war.”
For Kyiv, and its allies, it’s straightforward — a neighboring aggressor invaded, killed and destroyed, and is being driven from its territory even as it illegally annexed regions it loses control over day-by-day.
Moscow itself claimed that these eastern and southern areas were being “liberated” as part of Russia. That they were assimilating Russian-speaking Ukrainians in their embrace. But that’s a similar argument to that which Nazi Germany used to march into Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1938 and the Free City of Danzig, later Poland’s Gdansk, in 1939.
In August 1944, France’s wartime resistance leader Charles de Gaulle delivered these lines in the capital: “Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!” It was a key inflection point as the Allies pushed on from the west and the Soviet Red Army from the eastern front to Berlin to extinguish the Third Reich within the year.
When Iraqi forces vanquished the barbaric Islamic State group in Mosul in July 2017, after the extremists had brutally held large parts of the nation, that also needed to be a bitter fight to the end that would shatter the aggressor, degrading them to a ramshackle force.
There are no such paths lying ahead in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia may well be defeated on the battlefield, but it will remain a power to contend with one way or another. And the threat of the Kremlin’s use of nuclear weapons hangs over the conflict, and the world.
The key question now is whether Ukraine can build on its Kherson city victory — a chunk of the region is still under Russian occupation — and expand its southern counteroffensive to other Russian-occupied areas, potentially including the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014.
The liberation of Crimea would be the greatest victory in the war for Ukraine, an unspeakable defeat for Russia, and even Putin’s own hold on power could then hang in the balance.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Tamer Fakahany, deputy director for global news coordination at The Associated Press, has helped direct international coverage for the AP for 20 years.
Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tamerfakahany