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24 February 2022 reconstructed. Episode 4. Russia's invasion: fronts, people and cities

Monday, 16 October 2023, 05:30
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No one was sleeping in Chonhar at 03:00 on 24 February 2022. 

Since the evening, the soldiers from the 137th Separate Marine Battalion who guarded the administrative border with occupied Crimea had been feeling a war coming. 

"On the 23rd there were already some movements by Russians on the peninsula. Everyone was waiting, and we were a bundle of nerves. Nobody slept, just maybe napped a bit," Ivan Sestryvatovskyi recollects in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.


This 48-year-old marine was on duty on the border with Crimea on the night of Russia’s invasion. And he was entrusted with one of the most important tasks – to blow up the bridges across the Chonhar Strait that connected Crimea with mainland Ukraine:

"We were woken up at around 03:00. Everyone was in position. The commander, senior officer at the position, and I went to connect the devices to blow up the bridges. I stayed behind, and he was engaged in managing the personnel. Everything began with mortar shelling from Crimea. They struck our positions and the positions of the border guards.

Sappers developed a special plan: there were envelopes that would be opened if necessary, and those envelopes contained instructions for connecting the explosive devices. We ran that connection, and I was left to carry out the explosions.

There was no communication, as our radios did not work. The commander was engaged in managing the personnel, running from one position to another to give orders. Explosives were already detonating. It was very loud, so you would not be able to hear anyone.

Therefore, I made up my own mind and took the decision personally to blow up the bridges.

I tried to blow them up, but there was no explosion. I'm not a sapper, but there are two possible explanations. Either a sabotage group had arrived, or the demolition wires were damaged by mortar strikes. I tried to reconnect the charge. Reconnected, tried again. I did this three times, but there was no explosion."


Sestryvatovskyi had no choice but to try to catch up with his unit in an old civilian car. But after a few hours of chasing, he was captured by the Russians. 

The same ones who would literally flood the Kherson steppes with their convoys of heavy armoured equipment across the unexploded bridges in Chonhar in a matter of hours.

*    *    *

This is the first part of the final episode of Ukrainska Pravda’s podcast 24 February Reconstructed, in which Ukrainska Pravda tried to recreate the military events of the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion: how the fronts emerged and moved, who heroically stopped the Russians’ advance and how they did so, how Ukrainian cities and the country as a whole recovered from the first shock and prepared for defence.

Previous episodes:

24 February 2022 reconstructed. Episode 3. Facility No. 1, or All power in Zelenskyy's bunker 

24 February 2022 reconstructed. Episode 2. Zaluzhnyi’s office, meetings at Zelenskyy’s, evacuation of the Cabinet of Ministers

24 February 2022 reconstructed. Episode 1. Preparing for the Russian invasion

*     *    *

At 04:00 on 24 February, there were still shaky hopes that it was not a full-scale war. 

In an interview with Ukrainska Pravda, Major General Andrii Sokolov, who has been the commander of the Southern Group of Forces since October 2021 and covered the Crimean front, recollects the last hope he held onto in his headquarters that morning:

"On the first day of the war I was at my command post in front of the monitor with a Virazh Tablet opened. This is a program which tracks the flights of all the aircraft around you.

We were there with the head of the air defence, the operative on duty. First, at about 04:00-05:00, we saw a massive amount of aircraft take off in Crimea. We tried to count them, but lost count at the thirtieth aircraft.

They circled over the territory of Crimea at first. There was still hope that they would fly a little way and then land at their airbases, since it wasn’t the first time this had happened.

But they flew in different directions over the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and carried out a mass missile launch. First, missile attacks were launched on almost all the location points of our units, command posts, starting positions and air defence command posts, as well as on the airbase in Melitopol. Almost all the facilities located in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts were attacked."

On that dark morning of 24 February, there was simply no room for hope.

"The intelligence was very clear that Putin was planning something stupid. And by the time 23 February came round – you know, we were intercepting, I’m sure this is no secret now, we were intercepting a lot of signals, a lot of chat. That was clearly Russian commanders telling their people, the battalion tactical groups: ‘Move forward to your positions.’ And this was even before 23 February. So it was clear that something appalling was about to happen," Boris Johnson, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as of the end of February 2022, recounts in a conversation with Ukrainska Pravda.


Kyrylo Budanov, Chief of Defence Intelligence of Ukraine (DIU), said to Ukrainska Pravda that in late February, Russia changed the date of the invasion several times, but on 23 February, everything became clear:

"The Russians kept postponing the date. For the last two weeks there, they kept pushing it back and forth by a day, or two. But on the 23rd, at around 14:30, it seems, we received clear information that the start would be at four in the morning and exactly how it would start.

This information was passed to the president. He gave the order. But just count it – there was not much time left until four in the morning.

I moved in here, and on 23 February, my wife and I were already living in the office.

We went to a grocery store in Petrivka [a neighbourhood located in Kyiv's Obolonskyi district] in the evening. I remember it well. We bought groceries there, my wife and I. We moved into my office, went to bed, talked and waited. Then I dozed off for a while. And the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine called me at around 03:30 and said: ‘Well, it's already 03:30, and everything seems calm. Maybe it won’t  happen?’

I said: ‘Well, let's hope for the best, but I doubt it.’ And so we talked with him until almost four o'clock.

For me, you have to understand, this was also a challenge. Because if I, as the head of the special service, had given an incorrect report, it would be shameful for me.

In reality, the first attacks were at around 04:20 because the missiles were already in the air, and they kept flying for some time. That's it, I exhaled; now we need to start working on the next issue."

And there were so many of these "next issues" at that moment that some countries have never experienced such an avalanche of events in their history. 

The so-called second army of the world launched a full-scale military invasion along 2,000 kilometres of common border, which at one point turned into a front line. It is the largest front line in history since World War II.

Ukraine, its people, army and president had to instantly switch from thinking about whether there would be a war to addressing the most important question of all: how to survive and defend the country and the state?

Putin's blitzkrieg: the plan

"On the morning of 24 February, I woke up, I mean, it was about 4 o’clock in the morning, maybe a bit earlier, I got a message from the national security advisor and one of my senior officials – and I was on a call with him and a couple of other senior guys who’d been with me to see Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv quite recently before then. 

They said: ‘Putin’s invaded, and it’s started, it’s happening.’ And I apparently said something terrible in English, which I won't repeat, but I allowed a profanity to pass my lips," Boris Johnson recollects. He was one of the first to speak to Volodymyr Zelenskyy that morning and remembers exactly what Ukraine's partners were afraid of.

"Then I talked to President Zelenskyy, a little bit later. He said they were invading from all sides; he described what was happening in the east, in the north. You’ve got to remember that at this stage, people really thought that Ukraine would not last very long," Johnson added.

The fact that Ukraine had no chance of surviving Russia’s invasion was not just an assumption by "someone in the intelligence community". As of February 2022, it was a non-public consensus of elites that united both Ukraine's friends in the West and its enemies in Moscow. 

Awareness of this reality can explain a lot. It explains why the partners limited their assistance to a rather decorative one before the invasion, and why Putin launched his operation, even though he lacked the forces to take over such a huge country.

But the Russian president did not care. His main goal was not to capture or destroy Ukraine. In his sick imagination, this was just a tool. The main goal was different: a stunning blitzkrieg in Ukraine, with Russian troops reaching the borders of Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, was to turn the geopolitical game in Europe upside down in an instant.


Putin's victorious army was to pave the way for its leader to rise to the heights of world domination, where he would once again, like Stalin, dictate his agenda to the entirety of the Old World, at least.

In the words of Putin's own war-themed address, Moscow wanted to make up for its losses in the Cold War and return the world to the state of affairs after its so-called victory in World War II.

"The Soviet Union weakened in the late 1980s and then collapsed.... 

We just lost confidence in ourselves for a while, and that was it – the balance of power in the world was disrupted.

After the collapse of the USSR, the redivision of the world actually began, and the established norms of international law – the key, basic ones were adopted as a result of World War II and largely consolidated its results – began to interfere with those who declared themselves the winners of the Cold War."

Putin himself was so convinced of his own plans that he did not even seem to see the overthrow of the government in Kyiv and the occupation of independent Ukraine as a problem. 

On the contrary, he saw this as an almost fait accompli. That is why, in addition to "denazification," his address contains a few equally absurd appeals to Ukraine, which can be summarised in two words: "surrender" and "go home":

"... I am also addressing the citizens of Ukraine.

Our actions are self-defence against the threats posed to us and against an even greater disaster than what is happening today. However difficult it may be, I ask you to understand this and call for cooperation in order to turn this tragic page as soon as possible and move forward together.....

I must also address the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

You took an oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people, not to the anti-people junta, which is robbing Ukraine and mocking this very people.

Do not follow its criminal orders. I urge you to immediately lay down your arms and go home."

Indeed, what else would an army do in the face of an enemy invasion but march home?

In the meantime, the Russian army crossed the border into Ukraine to implement its leader's crazy idea. 

In general, Putin's plan was impressive in its scale. At first, the large-scale missile and bomb attacks, due to their unexpectedness, were supposed to completely destroy Ukrainian air defence systems and military aircraft.


Having thus gained complete air dominance, Russian forces were to move to the next stage – massive airborne landings at airports around Kyiv, the deployment of attack groups with equipment using heavy military aircraft and the move to capture the Ukrainian capital.

Meanwhile, two enormous groups of troops were to march to Kyiv through Chornobyl and Chernihiv to ensure the capital’s encirclement and capture.

In the south, the Crimean strike group had to march across the isthmuses and, dividing into western and eastern groups of troops, capture the entire coastal territory of Ukraine.

The eastern group, in parallel with the landings of the Black Sea Fleet along the coast, advanced through Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odesa to Transnistria. The western group went through Chonhar to Mariupol.

After that, with simultaneous breakthroughs through Kharkiv and from the south, Russian troops were to meet near Dnipro and surround the most combat-capable forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, concentrated in Donbas in the Joined Forces Operation zone.

This plan seemed too fantastic even for Putin. Boris Johnson thus recalls his scepticism about the inevitability of Russian triumph in Ukraine:

"The military intelligence people were telling both me and our friends in Washington that Ukraine would not have the ability to hold out for very long. But I want you to know something: I didn't think they were right. Because I didn't understand how they could be right. I’d been to Ukraine and I knew it was a huge country, and I knew that the Ukrainians would not want to be conquered by the Russians.

Obviously I’m not a general, I’m not a tactician, I’m not a military man. But my instinct was that they’d made a mistake. So I was desperate to make sure that we got you guys everything that you needed as fast as possible."

"We knew the plan": how the offensive on Kyiv stalled in Hostomel

On the morning of 24 February, it was quite obvious that there was no more important political goal for Russia than the capital of Ukraine.

It was on Kyiv that Putin's greatest focus was directed, not least because, in fact, the words "special military operation" were appropriate only for Kyiv.

"Why did they call it a 'special military operation'? They called it absolutely right; they never planned it as a war; they planned it as an operation.

The operation was as follows: no later than on the third day, enter the centre of Kyiv, and raise the flag in the Presidential Administration, the Verkhovna Rada, and so on.

And no later than the tenth day after this third day, that is, the 13th or at most the 14th day, extinguish the "focal resistance", if there was any. They were not even sure of it.

When people say that "the Russians are stupid; they came without a supply of fuel, ammunition, food and so on", the fact is that they counted on exactly three days. And they had everything with them for that time.

That was our logic. To hinder the Russians as much as possible in the first three days up to and including the 14th. I said that if we withstood all 14 days, it would become easier. Much easier," explains Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s Intelligence.

But to hold out even one day was, without exaggeration, a feat. From the first minutes of the great war, Kyiv and its surroundings were to become a demonstration theatre of hostilities, where Russia would demonstrate all its power with very expressive special effects in the form of missile attacks, large landings and rapid armoured breakthroughs.

Kremlin propaganda from the very first minutes declared that Ukrainian air defence had ceased to exist.

That is why, on the morning of the 24th, a group of Russian Mi-35 helicopters with the elite of the Russian landing force calmly flew into the territory of Ukraine from Belarus and over the Kyiv Sea, heading to seize the airfield in Hostomel.


How surprised they must have been when Ukrainian defenders opened fire on them in the first stages of their flight, forcing one Mi-35 to switch submarine mode by making an emergency landing into water and the other to make an emergency landing near the forest.

When the Ukrainian combat aircraft appeared, the Russian paratroopers probably finally understood that not all the messages from their Ministry of Defence should be taken on trust.

Russian elite special forces managed to capture the airfield on the morning of the 24th. However, the Ukrainian command knew that Hostomel was the bottleneck through which Putin's adventure could stall. Therefore, no one was going to hand it over just like that.

"What destroyed them was that we had a design, their plan. And so all their hope of surprise action was destroyed on that first day when they could not land any planes.

Believe me, if they had landed the airborne component that was in the air, in the planes, they would have succeeded here. Their plans were destroyed by what we clearly knew - the heart, the key to their operation, lay in Hostomel," Budanov explains.

So the main thing was to disrupt the airborne operation.

"On the 23rd, one of our special purpose groups, which had previously conducted a reconnaissance in Hostomel, arrived here at the Chief Intelligence Directorate. And as soon as the first rockets were fired, they immediately advanced to the airfield.

The task was clearly outlined for them: to delay as much as possible, to make the landing of airborne units impossible. And they managed to do this.

They bought time, during which the first unit of the regular army had already arrived, deployed artillery, and had the airfield under certain direct control within their firing range. After all, you see, the task was accomplished. Not a single military transport plane ever landed," recalls the head of Ukraine’s Intelligence.

As various sources said, about 20 transport IL-76s with landing forces and equipment were already circling in the sky over Pskov. However, Putin's generals did not dare to launch their Il-76s into Ukrainian airspace. Thanks to the fact the 4th brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine, which was based in Hostomel together with other defence forces, managed to first knock out the Russian landing force from the airfield and then bombard the runway with their artillery.

Later, Russian reinforcements would allow the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to seize the airfield in Hostomel. But it would not perform its main function, turning exclusively into a graveyard for Russian equipment and personnel.

The only "victory" of the Russians would be the destruction of the unique Ukrainian aircraft An-225 "Mriia", which the pilots did not have time to take out of the airfield hangar.

Despite this, the defenders of Hostomel fulfilled their key mission - they prevented the Russians from quickly building up their strike forces for the attack on Kyiv and gave the capital time to organise its defence.

"The Russians became a victim of their own propaganda," says Taras Chmut, head of the Come Back Alive charitable foundation. "They acted somewhat by the book from the point of view of the operation: capturing airfields, then landings from the air, build-up and so on. They missed the fact that we would not fall apart. They didn't expect total resistance. They didn't expect that the first strike, the main strike, wouldn't destroy our air defence.

If they had gained full control of the air, things would have been much worse."

You could see how much worse it was in the first days of the fighting in Borodianka, where Russian bombers flew in and where whole streets of high-rise buildings were turned into ruins.

"They did not destroy the air defence system. Yes, there were losses: some people and some equipment. But they were really small against the background of what could have happened. The air defence system started working from day one.

They did not expect that our air defence would be quite strong. It's old, Soviet, but it's strong: both the old "Buk" and the old "S-300" continue to shoot normally," explains Chmut.

It is simply impossible to overestimate the importance of the fact that Hostomel did not become a large-scale landing point and that the Ukrainian air defence system survived.

Russian forces, instead of quickly flying into Ukraine, were forced to rush to Kyiv in long convoys through the thick Polissia forests. And what is especially important - without cover from the air.

General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who at that time was responsible for the defence of Kyiv, recalls several curious military moments of the Russian advance caused by haste:

"They thought that this issue would be resolved in three days, and then it would be just a matter of bringing in the troops that would bring in the equipment. The convoys were 50-70-100 units long. They started up, were guided by a limited number of crews and calculations, and went without air cover.

We saw how our Bayraktars destroyed Buks. At first, it was strange to us why this Bayraktar would actually hover over a convoy and destroy a Buk, which could hit them 20 km away. And the situation was like this because they had not made any calculations; in fact, it was just commanders and mechanics who were transporting this equipment. This was their main mistake."

The defence for which Syrskyi was responsible was not, to put it mildly, fully ready on the morning of the 24th. On the one hand, as Syrskyi said, the decision to create a Kyiv defence headquarters was made a week before the start of the invasion:

"We began to prepare; time was limited. At that time, no one wanted to believe it. Or wanted to believe that there would not be an invasion after all. But the process was set in motion, and we began to prepare: we identified the elements of the plan, carried out preparatory measures, decided on the troops, and conducted reconnaissance.

The day before the invasion, I gathered all the leaders of the security sector who had the strength and means and, according to the plan, were included in the defence of Kyiv. We gathered the leadership of the city, the purpose of this defence operation was explained, the operation was organised, and all the heads of the sectors that had been created were introduced."

On the other hand, if we take into account the shortage of military forces that Kyiv faced, the city did not look completely protected, not to say not covered at all. General Syrskyi recalls:

"It was a daunting task. Firstly, the city was completely unprepared. Secondly, there were no forces and means for the defence of such a city and such an agglomeration.

The 72nd brigade, which formed the basis of the group for the defence of Kyiv, was determined in the last few days. At the same time, this brigade was not enough; it covered only one quarter of our needs – the minimum needs – for defence.

Therefore, I decided to create rifle battalions on the basis of higher educational institutions to create consolidated artillery units using training centres. Consolidated units of the National Ground Forces Academy were involved, and the Zhytomyr Institute, which formed two battalions, was also involved.

We began to involve the National Guard, which was stationed in Kyiv, and police units, and the territorial defence force, which was being formed and which was supposed to ensure the formation of the inner ring of defence."

Andrii Malinovskyi, the head of the Rocket Forces and Artillery Department of Ground Forces Training Command, recalls that on 22 February, an order was given to advance joint military units and artillery closer to Kyiv. On the day of the invasion, the troops were on the march.

The big problem was that there was practically no artillery in Kyiv – most of the forces were concentrated in the east. The fate of Kyiv was in the hands of one division of 2S7 Pion self-propelled artillery, which almost accidentally stopped near Kyiv. Major General Malinovsky recalls:

"The consolidated artillery for general support began to defend Kyiv. It was part of one division of 2S7 of the 43rd Artillery brigade, consolidated because the main forces of this division were in the east of the country.

The main non-standard solution was as follows in our country – the Interdepartmental Centre for Rocket Forces and Artillery had a so-called D30 salute battery consisting of 12 guns. And during the preparation of the operation, we suggested to the commander that he create a combined division armed with these D30 guns."

The advantage that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had for the first time was also that the Russians had not had time to bring up their artillery - it was still moving in convoys from Belarus. Malinovsky recalls:

"There was no enemy artillery fire on us at that time. That is why we had one division that practically solved all the issues. D30 and a consolidated 2S7. With these forces, we started the defence operation of Kyiv. Then the Central Committee made a decision – the distribution of artillery assets –we were reinforced with an Uragan (Hurricane) rocket battery , but that was later."

Once the Russian artillery reached the outskirts of Kyiv, things got tougher. As expected, Russia had orders of magnitude more artillery at its disposal than Ukraine – though the Russians had issues with accuracy.

"I’m grateful to God that their artillery forces didn’t seem able to aim particularly well. It’s not that they were slightly off – they were off by a lot, they had trouble determining our coordinates, where our artillery systems were, where our forces were. That was to our advantage. Despite the fact that ours was a unit cobbled together from several others, the guys worked well together," General Malinovskyi says.

*     *     *

While the defence line was being constructed around Kyiv, the residents of the capital were grappling with the fact that the war had begun – as were people all over Ukraine.

Every minute brought more news and it was hard to know what was true and what wasn’t. Did Russian Navy landing forces land in Odesa – or Russian air assault troops in Lviv?

Lviv Mayor Andrii Sadovyi recalls:

"That was when we got a report that a Russian landing force had landed in one of Lviv Oblast’s districts. I got the report, so I shared it. It caused mass hysteria. Everyone who had any sort of strength started calling district administrations, joining volunteer forces. Everyone started making Bandera smoothies. ["Bandera smoothie" is a reference to the Molotov cocktail, which gets its name from Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, one of the architects of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on the eve of World War II; Stepan Bandera, in contrast, was a Ukrainian nationalist activist and politician – ed.]

There were boxes [of "Bandera smoothies"] in almost every household. I started to worry: ‘Dear God, what if something happens, and all of this stuff blows up.’ The whole city was armed – with whatever people had in their homes, shotguns, rifles – and ready to shoot at [Russian] tanks, if they came, from their windows, to throw Bandera smoothies at them."

Not only did everyone in Ukraine want to help Ukrainian forces, but many people also rushed to uncover Russian agents and collaborators, seeing Russian sabotage and reconnaissance groups everywhere: in street tags, suspicious individuals, unfamiliar cars, a strange pink light in someone’s window. Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for the Eastern Group of Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Ukrainska Pravda that the Russians wanted to take advantage of the people’s panic once they saw it, but it wasn’t part of their "brilliant" plan:

"Unfortunately, it’s normal for that to happen in the beginning of a war – any war, when people are trying to figure out who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, to get used to what the war entails, and the large numbers of uniformed people. Well, and the fear of the sabotage and reconnaissance groups is part of that.

Territorial Defence Forces (TRO) were being recruited before people’s eyes. People who’d never served before were joining. We didn’t just have the TRO where some people did actually have some sort of military training, but also Volunteer Units of Territorial Hromadas (DFTG), groups of volunteers, we needed lots of them even from the point of view of the information [war]; they were very effective. We pushed this narrative – that [the Russians] will be met by a torrent of fire, with grandmas waiting on them with axes and women with Molotov cocktails – as much as possible.

This hysterical state didn’t last long. It was localised fairly quickly after the [full-scale] war started. But this happens even in the most advanced armies, they have to adapt to new circumstances. We had a lot of challenges. That’s why we had to put tape on our arms [Ukrainian forces often use blue and yellow tape to distinguish themselves from Russian troops - ed.], and create passwords and a series of checkpoints."

Taras Chmut recalls:

"Back then, getting from Ivano-Frankivsk to Kyiv took two days, 1,038 checkpoints, including four where you’d be shot at, eight where you’d be made to lie with your face on the ground, and 24 where they’d take something from you.

We developed a good relationship with patrol police, they accompanied our cars when we went from Ivano-Frankivsk to other oblasts. We still got shot at when entering Kyiv. The driver got really lucky though [and wasn’t hurt], so that’s good.

This happened to us on a few more occasions in Kyiv. On the second or third night we were on a TRO mission and were shot at [by Ukrainian forces]. We decided to never go anywhere at night from then on."

The Prytula Foundation faced similar issues. No one shot at their cars, but their drivers were frequently detained at checkpoints.

Serhii Prytula recalls:

"We were trying to iron out our logistics in and around Kyiv, to centralise aid distribution. It was rather tricky. Every day the guys leading the convoys would be made to lie face first on the ground.

We had a funny incident when the guys from Ukraine’s Security Service asked us to use our drone to help them gather some intelligence. Everyone’s resources were stretched at the time, but we had experienced drone operators. They went to launch the drone, and were met quite violently by a DFTG.

I was given the phone number for that group of armed people. I texted and called them – no response. I recorded a video: ‘Dear Liutyi [Furious], I am sincerely grateful for your vigilance’ – you have to say you’re grateful before asking for something – ‘but please let them go!’ Something like that would happen dozens of times every single day."

Sometimes incidents like that were rather less comical, with numerous deaths caused by someone taking a friend for a foe. 

"This happened in Kyiv’s Obolon district in late February 2022. A truck with Ukrainian soldiers approached a checkpoint from the Hostomel direction. The driver missed the narrow passage between concrete blocks and skidded a little. A TRO fighter opened fire without warning. One of the soldiers who was in the truck was killed, another had his leg injured. I was a combat medic at the time and treated the injured soldier.

Even back then I knew that it was unlikely that a truck full of orcs [Russian soldiers] would just get into Kyiv and drive around. It was fright that made all those people who were holding weapons in their hands for the first time do things like that. Hysteria in the information space made them see saboteurs everywhere," Dmytro, an officer and a military psychologist, recalls.

During the first days of the full-scale invasion, communication failed even between units who shared an area.

"Another issue that came up at the time was that coordination among the military was faltering. Sometimes we had to create group chats in messenger apps to introduce two battalion commanders who ended up in the same area," Taras Chmut says.

Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence Chief Kyrylo Budanov stresses that there was a real threat of sabotage and reconnaissance groups, and the tough measures in the first hours and days of the full-scale invasion helped inhibit them:

"Let’s talk about why they didn’t succeed. Because very tough measures were put in place.

I know these were tough measures, but they worked. They curbed the activity of sabotage groups. Yes, sometimes innocent people would get caught up in this, but they would eventually be able to go back to their lives. But [these tough measures] made it impossible for sabotage groups to operate.

We knew the broad strokes, let’s put it that way. The Security Service had some information at their disposal, so did the National Police and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They had a lot of it. Tough measures were adopted from the first days – countless checkpoints, patrols that would inspect anyone that looked suspicious, and so on. Whether they had the right to do so or no, at the time, this was justified and the right thing to do."

*     *    *

Another aspect of Ukrainian resistance Putin couldn’t foresee was the spirit of unity. The Russian dictator believed that his army would fight the Ukrainian army, but instead it met the resistance of the entire Ukrainian people, united against the enemy.

The volunteer movement, which has been growing since 2014, is probably the best example of this grassroots resistance. There are no parallels to the transformation it underwent on 24 February 2022.

Serhii Prytula recalls:

"I raised around 52 million hryvnias (approximately US$1.4 million) in the eight years before the full-scale invasion. In eight years. I think I got about the same amount on the first day of the full-scale invasion, and my card was blocked.

It wasn’t PrivatBank [a Ukrainian bank] [that blocked it], though it was also shocked by what happened; their system wasn’t prepared for individuals – even volunteers – to get so much money on their card so rapidly. The card was blocked by VISA or MasterCard.

It was madness, people were saying their payments didn’t go through. I have mobile banking on my phone, and it was just a constant stream of notifications of failed payments.

What’s the point of comparing? We’ve raised 52 million hryvnias over the past eight years, and now 4.1 billion hryvnias (approximately US$112.7 million) over just this past year."

Taras Chmut, a fellow volunteer, says that was the time when you could find and get anything on Twitter; he sounds somewhat ironic:

"On 24 [February] we bought pretty much every drone in Kyiv. We started buying everything we could get our hands on and then bringing it to the office. We’ve had lots of people come in, talk to us about stuff, help with stuff.

So you post on Twitter ‘We need a million dollars’ and you get a million dollars. You say ‘I need a helicopter’ and you get a helicopter."

There were two types of people: those who had something, or had ways of securing access to it, and those who needed those things – vast quantities of them. The morning of 24 February turned the offices of the Prytula Foundation into one enormous conveyor belt for volunteers:

"You have to understand, we’d have 600-800 – even up to 1,000 – military personnel come to us every day. It was like a river that wouldn’t dry up. People would come in, then they’d leave and new people would come, vehicles would come and go, and everything we could get each day would be gone that very same day. It didn’t matter what it was – everything from sleeping bags to Kevlar helmets, from medicine kits to multi-packs of water – everything would be gone.

There were even some people working for the foundation we used to call the ‘They’re gonna f***ing hit us’ sect. They used to say: ‘If I was a Russian [military] analyst in front of a screen, watching how hundreds and hundreds of military personnel come to one and the same spot in Kyiv each day – and it’s easy to figure that out – I’d hit that place with a missile.’

At times all this wasn’t much fun at all. Communication failures in the military resulted in conflicts with us. At some point – when a car full of armed men dissatisfied with what they thought was the foundation’s failure to help their unit showed up [at our offices] – it was just no longer funny. They were from a famous unit, a combat unit, a really heroic one. When five men with guns show up at your office, all in a very sour mood, you start to get a bit tense.

But then word for word… We laid out all of the transfer and acceptance certificates for their unit in front of those guys. They scanned the surnames of people on the receiving end and verified that yes, they were all from their unit. They apologised, we embraced, the guys went to fight and we sighed out: ‘Okay, no friendly fire today’," Serhii Prytula recalls.

Taras Chmut says that to avoid a situation like that the Come Back Alive Foundation made a decision to no longer operate as an "open" foundation – helping fulfil requests from anyone asking them for help – on the first day of the full-scale invasion:

"We made three strategic decisions at the time. First, we decided we were not an open foundation, so don’t come to us; we’re not handing things out, we’re not waiting for you. We will take care of finding those whom we should help, taking into account what’s needed so as to not lose the war. For us that was all about Chernihiv and Kyiv.

Kyiv will stand as long as Chernihiv stands. As long as Kyiv stands, Ukraine keeps fighting. If Kyiv fell, the president wouldn’t have left Kyiv. Commander-in-Chief [of the Armed Forces of Ukraine] wouldn’t have left Kyiv. So if Kyiv fell I think everything else would’ve crumbled.

So we focused on the defence forces in the north, in Chernihiv. Chernihiv was encircled, we had to break through [enemy lines] to get there… Each time we managed, we’d send as much as we could [to the soldiers] there."

This is how Ukrainian forces defended Kyiv. Tune into the next episode to hear about what was happening in Chernihiv, the defence of Kharkiv, and why Russian forces were able to break through the Ukrainian defences in southern Ukraine.

The podcast was made by:

Script: Roman Romaniuk and Fedir Popadiuk

Sound engineers: Yevhen Klymuk and Oleh Labinskyi

With help from Anna Khivrenko and Dmytro Volkovynskyi

Translation: Myroslava Zavadska,Yelyzaveta Khodatska and Olya Loza

Editing: Susan McDonald

A special thanks to the Ground Forces Command for giving Ukrainska Pravda access to the interviews with Oleksandr Syrskyi, Andrii Malinovskyi, Oleksandr Pavliuk, Oleksandr Pyvnenko and Petro Vitushko recorded as part of the Battle for Kyiv and Battle for Kharkiv documentaries.