‘Our Enemies Will Vanish,’ a New Book on the Battle of Ukraine, Marks the Folly of Underestimating Ukrainians

They call their enemy ‘orcs,’ after humanoid monsters in ‘Lord of the Rings.’

AP/Emilio Morenatti
Women gather to mark a Day of Unity at Odessa, Ukraine, February 16, 2022. AP/Emilio Morenatti

‘Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence’
By Yaroslav Trofimov
Penguin Press, 400 pages

The lesson from “Our Enemies Will Vanish,” Yaroslav Trofimov’s absorbing new book on the first year of the Russia-Ukraine war, is key to understanding how the war unfolds this year. That lesson: it would be a mistake to underestimate Ukrainians.

As armchair editors write such headlines as “Is Russia Winning in Ukraine?” and “Putin’s Chances of Winning Ukraine War Look Bright,” Mr. Trofimov’s book serves as a reminder of this recurring fatal flaw to outsiders’ understanding of Ukraine.

Two years ago, President Putin underestimated Ukraine as he plotted his invasion. In Washington, “experts” underestimated Ukraine, predicting that the country would fold in days. Two years later, Russian generals still send armored columns to destruction, not believing that their Slavic “younger brothers” will actually put up a fight.

Born and bred at Kyiv, Mr. Trofimov is based at London as the chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. After 20 years of covering wars — Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan — he seems to be made for covering Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine. He knows the players, the history, the geography, the languages, and culture of modern Ukraine.

The result is a highly readable, authoritative, firsthand account of the first year of  the war, starting with reporting visits to Kyiv and regional cities — one month before the invasion. For those of us who have read Ukraine news daily for the last two years, Mr. Trofimov’s book offers eureka moments, in which readers exclaim, “So that was what was really going on.”

To use an old — and loaded — phrase, the image that emerges is of Ukraine fighting a “people’s war.” Ukrainians from all walks of life threw their shoulders to the wheel to protect their nation, their freedoms, and their way of life. Mr. Trofimov points out that Russia’s land grab in 2014 allowed Ukrainians to see the Russian threat clearly.

For eight years, Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the nation’s east had front-row seats into the disasters that are the two Kremlin-controlled “People’s Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

 The author neglects to mention that for eight years Ukraine’s youth were suckled on nationalist action films that glorified the anti-Soviet partisans of 1944-1954.

In 1975, when Vladimir Putin entered the 401st KGB School at Leningrad, there undoubtedly were trainers who had served in Ukraine between 20 and 30 years earlier. During that period, about 50,000 Soviet officials and security officers were killed in Western Ukraine.

Despite that history, Russia’s president sent his troops into what he thought would be a cakewalk. In the first two years, an estimated 350,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or maimed in Ukraine — five times the number during the Soviet decade in Afghanistan.

Mr. Trofimov’s one-year narrative is chronological and relies heavily on what he saw with his own eyes and on interviews with people from all walks of life. Not sparing the gore, he gives gripping accounts of re-visiting cities like Kharkiv and Mykolaiv after Russia’s indiscriminate bombings.

With Russian soldiers prone to murder and looting, Ukrainians call them “orcs” — after the humanoid monsters in “Lord of the Rings.” Looking at Mr. Putin’s aggressive imperialism coupled with state media commentators ranting about attacking Western Europe, readers see Mr. Trofimov’s Russians as more like rampaging Mongols of the Genghis Khan era.

With his experience covering wars, Mr. Trofimov understands the mechanics of war. He points out one little-known turning point in the war. By shelling the landing strip of Hostomel, an airport near the capital, Ukrainian defenders prevented Russians from flooding Kyiv with their war matériel. Accounts of  fighting around the airport often lament the loss of the Antonov An-225 Mriya, the world’s largest aircraft. Generally overlooked is the strategic impact of reducing a key landing strip to Swiss cheese.

The book’s title comes from the second line of Ukraine’s national anthem: “Our enemies shall vanish, like dew in the sun.” As a journalist in Ukraine for six years, I must have heard those lines sung 100 times, without really focusing on their meaning. By highlighting those words, written in 1862, Mr. Trofimov signals that Ukrainians are in for the long haul.

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Yaroslav Trofimov will talk about “Our Enemies Will Vanish” at 6 p.m. Wednesday January 24 at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 2950 Broadway, New York, NY. Sponsored by the Overseas Press Club of America, entrance is free. Reservations can be made here.


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