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24 February 2022 reconstructed. Episode 5. Chernihiv and Kharkiv on day one of the Russian invasion

Thursday, 19 October 2023, 05:30
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"Kyiv will stand as long as Chernihiv stands. As long as Kyiv stands, Ukraine keeps fighting."

This quote from Taras Chmut, founder of the Come Back Alive Foundation, captures the essence of the predicament of the Ukrainian defence forces in Chernihiv on the morning of 24 February 2022. Convoys of Russian military vehicles and hardware, stretching out over dozens of kilometres, are easy to spot on satellite images of Russian territory just the other side of the Ukrainian border on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

On the morning of 24 February, all of that hardware was unleashed on Ukraine, where it was met by the 1st Tank Brigade, all on its own bar several smaller units. But somehow the Ukrainian forces were able to engage and indeed stop the Russian army.


The Kharkiv defence forces undertook a similarly miraculous effort to stop the Russian invasion on the eastern stretch of the northern front.

Ukrainska Pravda presents part two of the final episode of our series 24 February 2022 Reconstructed, which tells the story of day one of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

This article recounts how Ukrainian troops, far outnumbered by the Russian occupation forces, managed to hold the cities of Chernihiv and Kharkiv and the Donbas front, yet the Ukrainian defences in southern Ukraine crumbled under what appeared to be very similar circumstances.

Previous episodes:

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

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

Chernihiv: the locked gateway to Kyiv

If Russian forces had captured Chernihiv, the defence of Kyiv would have been impossible. The fates of the two cities were entwined as they united in the fight against the common enemy, as in the days of Kyivan Rus, when Kyiv and Chernihiv were among the most powerful principalities in the 9-13th centuries.

The Russian forces were hoping to turn Chernihiv into their logistics hub. Oleksandr, an officer at Operational Command Pivnich (North), told Suspilne about the city’s importance.

"Holding Chernihiv allowed us to maintain control over the main approaches to Kyiv from the north and east. There’s the consideration of the distance from which military supplies are delivered to combat units. The Brovary group of [Russian] forces, which advanced from Konotop and through Stepkino, had to have supplies delivered from 300 km away. You’d need a lot of vehicles to get enough stuff for a 15,000-20,000-strong group of forces with 3,000 or 5,000 or 6,000 units of equipment to carry out intensive combat operations. Capturing Chernihiv would have cut that distance in half. If they’d controlled the E95-M01 road, they would have been able to act more effectively around Kyiv."

As on the other fronts where Russian forces were advancing, here the Ukrainian forces – both personnel and equipment – were far outnumbered. Leonid Khoda, commander of the 1st Separate Sivershchyna Tank Brigade, told Suspilne that this forced his unit to resort to some creative tactics.

"We were able to deviate a bit from the defence plan, thank God. However hard it is to admit this, we weren’t fit or equipped to fight against such a huge horde, such numerous enemy forces. They would’ve just crushed us and entered Chernihiv."

"That’s why we had to force them to disperse and fight where we wanted to fight them," Khoda said. "Yes, they were bombing Chernihiv, but we needed them to get further away from the borders and closer to us. When the enemy is that powerful, you have to fight them on your territory and even surrender some of it. [You have to] get them out [of their comfort zone] and inflict damage on smaller groups here and there, gradually depleting their combat units."

That’s what Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief, meant when he told Time that "spilling [the Russians’] blood" was one of Ukraine’s strategic goals early in the Russian invasion: "We could not allow Kyiv to fall. And, on all the other vectors, we had to spill their blood, even if in some places it would require losing territory."

In other words, the aim was "to allow the Russians to advance and then destroy their columns in the front and supply lines in the rear," Time wrote.

That’s why the fighting on the Chernihiv front took place so close to the city of Chernihiv.

Viktor Nikoliuk, Commander of Operational Command Pivnich (North), who was in charge of Chernihiv’s defence, recounted the first day of fighting in an interview with Suspilne.

"The first battles commenced… I was in Konotop [a city in Sumy Oblast, northeastern Ukraine – ed.], where they [the Russians] started to advance. That’s where [Ukraine’s] 1st Tank Brigade was based. They were supposed to go to Ripky [35 km north of Chernihiv – ed.] but didn’t make it in time; they ended up in Khaliavyn [10 km north of Chernihiv – ed.], where the first battles took place. We damaged five enemy tanks straightaway, and several pieces of our equipment were damaged as well. The enemy tried to encircle a company on the left flank, but they got out.

The brigade commander made the right decision. He saved people’s lives by getting them [the Russian forces] to come several kilometres closer and then carrying out a counterattack. We lost two or three pieces of equipment, but the enemy sustained losses too: we neutralised up to a company’s worth of personnel and equipment. The enemy retreated, but then they started to attack again. That’s how it went," Nikoliuk explained.

Nikoliuk, who was directly involved in the fighting over the next few days, says Ukraine’s 58th Motorised Infantry Brigade was waiting for the Russians on the main road not far from Hlukhiv.

"We’d inflicted damage [on the Russian forces], but the enemy convoy was still continuing to advance. We stopped them near Konotop. Tanks and infantry got involved, and the 58th Brigade sustained losses and was forced to retreat.

The 1st Tank Brigade, on the other hand, got entrenched near Chernihiv and remained there."

Civilians contributed enormously to the city’s defence. Nikoliuk recalled several incidents particularly vividly.

"And of course, I have huge respect for the locals who shared important information with us, who broke road signs so that enemy forces couldn’t tell where they were going, who blocked roads and made Molotov cocktails, and who drained petrol [from cars and petrol stations]. I’ve got a story about that. We’d get reports about groups of enemy forces appearing here and there. That allowed us to target our attacks and inflict real damage [on Russian forces]. Once we were told that a train carrying around 20 tanks [of petrol] had pulled into one of the stations and wasn’t being guarded. They said they could drain the fuel. Well, I gave the order.

And I told them to at least capture it on video. They sent me a photo – there were around a hundred people there, some on tractors, some in horse-drawn carriages, some on motorbikes. They were all smiling as they drained that fuel," Nikoliuk said.

Ukraine’s pre-war plans had envisioned that Chernihiv’s defence line would run along the Ripky-Horodnia axis, about 35 km from the border with Belarus. However, the Russian troops’ rapid advance meant that they weren’t stopped until they got to the Velyki Osniaky-Sedniv axis, only 20-25 km from Chernihiv. 

However, although the Russian forces captured most of Chernihiv Oblast, they were not able to capture the city, its administrative centre. Chernihiv survived horrific bombardments and relentless artillery shelling, but after one month, one week and two days, the Russians were pushed back from the city. Their forced retreat was one of Russia’s first so-called "goodwill gestures" towards Ukraine.

Kharkiv: Ukrainian forces hold the line and destroy Russian convoys

The Russians had assumed that Kharkiv Oblast – and the city of Kharkiv itself – would be easy prey.

Oleksandr Pivnenko, Commander of the National Guard of Ukraine, who was the commander of the National Guard’s 3rd Rapid Response Brigade when the full-scale invasion began and took part in the defence of Kharkiv, said the Russians weren’t expecting to meet resistance.

"We intercepted an OMON convoy [OMON are riot police units within Russia’s National Guard – ed.]. They had batons and shields in their trucks. Where did they think they were going? They thought everyone would surrender and come out to greet them with flowers. That didn’t happen."

Lieutenant Colonel Petro Vitushko from the 92nd Brigade said the Ukrainian military started to think about the defence of Kharkiv Oblast after Valerii Zaluzhnyi was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in July 2021.

"I was promoted to officer before his appointment, and I was very glad to see the changes that came in with Zaluzhnyi’s arrival. It was the first time anyone had considered the defence of Kharkiv Oblast."

Russian forces had carried out frequent false-flag operations on the Russian-Ukrainian border in Kharkiv Oblast even before the full-scale invasion. The Armed Forces of Ukraine were forced to respond to their attacks, even just to indicate their presence in the area, though there were not enough forces to cover the entire 100-km stretch of the border.

Vitushko recalled: "Mechanised battalions would form convoys and drive back and forth near the border so that it would look as if there were a lot of us and we were on the move, manoeuvring. We were training in areas that we now know enemy forces would march into just a week or two later."

The 92nd Brigade started preparing for the worst-case scenario – a Russian invasion – before it started.

Vitushko recalled: "All the equipment from the bases that were hit on the very first day [of the full-scale invasion] was moved beforehand. The vehicles were loaded up with personnel and ammunition. We got to the frontline command post well ahead of time. The battalions took up their positions as determined by the brigade commander. We anticipated the Russians’ actions, but we didn’t know when it [the full-scale invasion] would begin.

We needed at least three days to fully prepare for the events that eventually unfolded, to take up defensive positions. Unfortunately, we ran out of time. The brigade commander ordered us to rig the bridges between us and the [Russian] border with explosives a day, maybe a day and a half before [the Russian invasion]. That was a very timely decision. We were also ordered to deploy mechanised battalions – squads or platoons – to strengthen the bridges’ defence. Those were the first guys [to meet the Russian forces]. They were the ones who held them back."

Vitushko says that as of 24 February, there was no plan for the defence of Kharkiv.

"All of us in the operational unit, as well as the officers with combat experience from 2014-15, presented our plan to the Kharkiv city government, but they didn’t approve it. We took into account Kharkiv’s large garrison, its rivers and streets, and the fact that the shortest route to Kharkiv was 25 km long. We were interested in coming up with a plan, but no plan existed on 24 February. The beginning [of the war] was chaotic."

Even the bold plans prepared by the military proved insufficient in the face of the Russian forces advancing on Kharkiv from Russia’s Belgorod Oblast, just over the border.

"Enemy forces were advancing en masse. We weren’t expecting that. We thought they might advance on the Kupiansk front, closer to the Joint Forces Operation demarcation line. We couldn’t imagine the scale of the invasion, that [enemy forces] would advance on the Kharkiv front via Lyptsi, via Bohoduhiv and Zolochiv. We had battalions there, we had artillery, we had various units. But they [the Russians] advanced at such a pace that we couldn’t stop them. In some places they would just barge through our combat formations. It all happened really fast," Vitushko says.

[Joint Forces Operation (JFO) is a term used by the Ukrainian government and the OSCE to identify combat actions against Russian military forces and pro-Russian separatists in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. It replaced the term Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in 2018 – ed.]

Twenty thousand soldiers were advancing from Russia towards Kharkiv. They planned to occupy the city in two days. The 92nd Mechanised Brigade, which was defending the city, had to be destroyed. The first Russian missiles were targeted at the brigade's base in the city of Chuhuiv. Although they were outnumbered, the fighters of the 92nd Brigade held a 100-km-long front.

Vitushko recalls: "If the enemy had realised how weak we were, how few of us there were, and how little equipment and personnel we had, they would have pressed on. But we conducted decoy actions. We made our presence felt even though there were only 150 of us. We had no weapons but steadily fired 82-mm bombs from the one mortar we had... It’s a pretty poor weapon, yet the enemy fled."

The Russians attacked Kharkiv from several fronts at once, and the numerically smaller Ukrainian garrison encountered them almost everywhere.

"The first place the enemy swiftly reached was the district road, and they set up a checkpoint there. And the 22nd Motorised Infantry Battalion, led by the battalion commander, deputy and chief of staff, with a small number of fighters – 20 people and two tanks – recaptured the checkpoint, wiped out the enemy, forced them to retreat from Kharkiv to a distance of 1-1.5 km, and then kept the enemy at a distance for many months," Vitushko recalls.

In some areas, the Ukrainian Armed Forces faced serious problems. One unit near Lyptsi, a village close to the Russian border, was surrounded. A company commander from the 92nd Brigade whose alias is "Best" told us: "I was informed that our company had been encircled. I decided at around 11:00 to withdraw from our positions, regroup, and break through to the outskirts of Kharkiv to prevent the enemy from advancing further and basically stop the enemy from entering the city. As we were withdrawing, we came upon an enemy convoy, and battle ensued. We didn’t leave with the entire company, only two vehicles. The Russians captured our other two vehicles. When I heard this, there was only one thing to do – go and rescue our boys."

Oleksandr Pivnenko recalled another revealing episode that happened that day.

"We got a message from the duty officers that the Russians had attacked the northern part of the city with a Smerch [multiple-launch rocket system]. An advance group was there monitoring the north and the road leading to [the village of] Hoptivka. We told the instructors, group commanders and their soldiers to change into civilian clothes and tasked them with heading north to see where the combat zone and the enemy were, so I could get an idea of how much time I had."

Pivnenko says the situation was already "pretty good" in the north of Kharkiv Oblast. The soldiers from the 92nd Brigade took up positions and began their defence near the settlement of Kozacha Lopan on the border with Russia. Pivnenko ordered the soldiers to investigate the situation around Kharkiv and all fronts of the possible offensive.

"Just then I received a command from the chief of the Eastern Territorial Administration to help some of our tanks in [the village of] Tsyrkuny," Pivnenko recalls. "I took three 4E Bucephalus armoured personnel carriers, an aerial reconnaissance vehicle, and a Cougar command car, and our convoy sped over to the crossroads on the Tsyrkuny front. We drove at 100-110 kph (about 65 mph); we were just coming up to the crossroads... At the time I thought they were ours."

But it was the first tank of the Russian advance group, which would have been followed by a convoy of Russian vehicles.

"And we sped straight over to their checkpoint. Our armoured personnel carriers didn’t let us down either. The first one destroyed the tank, and the next ones destroyed all the combat equipment. The enemy fled in the direction it had come from. And that’s how we stopped the first tanks from entering the city," Pivnenko says.

Despite their massive advantage in terms of manpower and equipment, the tense situation, and even having broken through the defence on the approaches to Kharkiv, the Russians did not break into the city on 24 February.

The tanks and sabotage groups that did manage to enter the city in the following days of February, as they’d wanted, stayed in Kharkiv for good. But there was a catch.

Unable to occupy Kharkiv, the Russians began to destroy it, launching daily artillery and missile attacks.

Horrific as this was, Taras Chmut says, the critical thing here was that the city did not surrender.

"Kharkiv is 30 km away from the border, or 50 if we are counting from the city centre, and the Russians hadn’t been able to enter it. The 92nd Brigade, the National Guard, border guards, cadets, students and [local] people burned 20,000 of their convoys, destroyed them and so on. Yes, there were significant losses, but Kharkiv held out.

They didn’t expect the front line and the troops in the east, in Kherson Oblast, in the north, to stand firm and stand to the last. They weren’t able to take any city immediately, apart from Kherson."

The Russians' Crimean breakthrough

The story of Ukraine's defence on 24 February is a conversation about how just one more day was needed for preparation, and how small heroic units can stop a whole horde.

A small mobile defence was able to overcome the Russian convoys in the north, the strip of Polissia forests and the Prypiat marshes, because of the terrain and their local knowledge.

But the defence forces of the south, finding themselves in the same numerical ratio but in the middle of the bare Kherson steppe, essentially had no chance.

"When the invasion happened, we’d just come back from a work trip to Kherson," Serhii Prytula recalls. "And when I was in Kherson, I jumped into the car with my boys in the morning and drove along the administrative border with occupied Crimea to see what was happening.

And I talked with the border guards. I asked them: ‘What’s the situation, guys?’ ‘Everything’s fine. We don't see any movement from their side. But we’re ready.’ And I said, ‘What have you done to get ready?’ Because there were no trench systems or fortifications. I asked: ‘Is there anyone else, or is it just you?’ They told me which intelligence unit was deployed there; I knew which other units there might be and how far away they were. But it was clear that a military force that could have stopped this invasion was just not there.

And later, when I talked with the guys from Special Operations Forces, they said, "We just sit and watch as four rows of Russian tanks speed along this road from Simferopol to Melitopol. And we realise that there’s no way to stop them."

The man in charge of Ukrainian defence on the Crimean front was Major General Andrii Sokolov. Sokolov was appointed commander of Operational Command Pivden (South) in the autumn of 2021. He tried to provide combat training and coordination for both the headquarters staff and the personnel available to him. But this wasn’t enough even for real operations in line with peacetime plans, never mind repelling a full-scale invasion.

"Operational Command Pivden (South) was founded on a rotational basis," General Sokolov said in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.

"So some people would come, then others would replace them. If we take the total number of combined military units, there were about 1,500 people at the time of the invasion.

In particular, the 59th Motorised Brigade had approximately 1,300 personnel. Why so few? Because the brigade had left the Joint Forces Operation area just before the invasion, some time in December, and was restoring its combat capability. That recovery process had yet to be completed when they were assigned to our group.

They were moved to the Oleshky Sands training ground. The brigade was about 60% staffed."

Sokolov said the artillery was also understaffed because two divisions were training at Divychky [a training ground in Kyiv Oblast – ed.] and the engineering support group, i.e. sappers, were training in Kamianets-Podilskyi.

"In addition, there were about 250 people in the 137th Separate Marine Infantry Battalion, which was also at 50% strength. Some of those 250 people were conscripts engaged in stabilisation operations on the border with Crimea.

What are stabilisation operations? They were stretched out over an area up to 200 km long, at observation posts along the entire border, and monitoring the enemies’ activities to ensure there was no illegal crossing [of the border].

And only a tiny part of them – about one platoon [up to 45 people – ed.] – was located at the strong point directly in front of the Chonhar Bridge.

Before [you got to] the platoon, there was a strong point near the Kalanchak checkpoint, too. Another platoon strong point was located near the village of Kairy, at the Chaplynka checkpoint, opposite the Titan [chemical] plant.

Three strong points: that was what the enemy first encountered on day one," Sokolov says.

This obviously wasn’t sufficient even for stabilisation operations.

During escalation, the plan was to have up to two brigades: one on the Kherson front to carry out tasks and stabilisation activities, and one on the Melitopol front. And one battalion was to stand directly on the border as a forward unit.

"But I didn't even have those forces," General Sokolov explains. "I only had one brigade. There were no forces on the Melitopol front at all. I sent my reserve there, a tank company, to cover it somehow.

The two brigades were assigned to us for so-called stabilisation operations, in the event of a situation where the enemy began to act from Crimea as it did in Donbas in 2014: using civilians as a shield, sending in sabotage and reconnaissance groups and some detachments under a foreign flag."

In the event of a full-scale escalation, Sokolov said, they had an even more powerful plan.

"We had a separate plan for defence. That involved four brigades: two mechanised or combined arms brigades and two Territorial Defence Forces (TDF) brigades. You see: four brigades in the plan and one brigade in reality. That obviously wasn’t enough.

I didn't count on the TDF at all, as we never got them. There were supposed to be two brigades: Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. They weren’t even staffed at the beginning of the war. The brigades existed, they’d been formed, but there was never an order for them to be staffed, sent to us and deployed.

I assumed command of the Zaporizhzhia 110th TDF brigade at the end of the day on 24 February."

"You can certainly debate about the Kherson region, but we’ve been on this front since the summer and tried to work with the military there. There really were very few personnel," says Taras Chmut of the Come Back Alive foundation.

"Why was there a lack of personnel? Because there weren’t enough people in the army. Whatever anyone says, there was only one brigade there, although the 137th Brigade did have a lot of additional personnel and reinforcements.

We physically did not have enough people to hold such an immensely long line. And increasing the army to 300,000-350,000 would have meant a significant increase in the budget. But the president had a different vision. That's why what happened happened.

But we would have been totally defeated if the military had not prepared."

Sokolov recalls that his 59th Brigade received an order to leave the training ground in Oleshky on 23 February, but on the morning of the invasion, most of it was still there. The brigade attempted to organise a defence in Oleshky, but the Russians advanced with such force and speed that there was no chance to defend it, and the brigade retreated toward Kherson.

The Russian troops had gained operational space for a considerable advance.

Their convoys came to a halt that evening on the approaches to Melitopol, presumably because they’d simply run out of fuel.

At this point, General Sokolov made one last attempt to save the day.

"By the end of the 24th, we were given reinforcements: a National Guard regiment, a public order patrol unit, and the 110th Brigade of the Territorial Defence Forces. We tried to gain a foothold. No one was controlling Melitopol at the time, so enemy troops were able to approach the outskirts of the city.

We managed to fire on some [Russian] convoys; our Uragan (Hurricane) multiple-launch rocket systems did a good job, firing on an enemy convoy. At night we marched from Vasylivka and entered Melitopol. Unfortunately, the forces we had – two incomplete National Guard battalions – were not enough. The 110th Brigade didn’t enter Melitopol because they didn’t even have any equipment.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to hold Melitopol. Control over Melitopol was, as they say, there for the taking – anyone could have picked it up. There was no organised resistance, no defence.

The enemy entered Melitopol, and the National Guard units had to withdraw from the city. We later organised the defence on the Vasylivka-Tokmak axis, but we couldn’t hold it with the forces we had. So we retreated further, to Kamianske, I think [a village slightly further upstream from Vasylivka – ed.], where we finally gained a foothold."

At about the same time, Russian convoys were approaching Kherson, taking control of two key crossings of the Dnipro River: the Antonivka Bridge and the Nova Kakhovka dam.

*     *    *

The failure of the defence of the south created threats on another front – in the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) area and near Mariupol. This was perhaps the only part of the front where Russia’s full-scale offensive was actually expected and well prepared for, as Ukraine had some very capable units deployed there.

General Oleksandr Pavliuk, then commander of the JFO forces, recollects: "We expected that there would be an offensive. We thought that if there was, it would primarily be against the Joint Forces Group – the most combat-ready units on the territory of Ukraine at the time. And we were preparing for that. 

Three months before [the full-scale invasion], all positions were equipped and fortified, barriers had been built on all roads, and measures had been taken to withdraw troops from under attack. We were all dispersed. All the reserves had changed positions, all the command posts had too, and a lot of false strong points had been set up." 

According to Taras Chmut, the Ukrainian army prepared for the war with the personnel it had. 

"Zaluzhnyi and I saw each other every three days, every two days, as if we were working together," he recounts. 

"There were plans, there was detailed intelligence information on enemy groups: what, where and where from. The military was preparing its personnel to counteract potential scenarios. 

The question was, which scenarios? I'm not sure that everyone believed in the scenario that actually happened. An attempt to enter at the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts was the most obvious one. They’d been fully ‘incorporated’ into Russia, so now something was bound to start. 

So JFO Commander [Oleksandr] Pavliuk, a Hero of Ukraine, was one of the appointments we were very lucky to have. He was preparing to hold a solid defence there and fight," Chmut says.

"We realised there would be a strike on the flanks, a pincer movement, so we concentrated our main reserves on the Mariupol and Luhansk fronts," General Pavliuk says. 

"It worked out as planned. That's why day one – the first large-scale attacks they planned – did not go well. I mean, even the first missile strike that hit my command post: all the people were in shelters, we didn't lose control, only the buildings were destroyed," he adds.

Pavliuk said that the rest of the units also performed their tasks very well, even though Luhansk Oblast was surrounded on three sides, and many units were at risk of being encircled. But everything was quickly regrouped.

"Our group was cut off and encircled, and then destroyed. So the strike overwhelmed and disarmed us. And that was the strike towards Mariupol: they launched everything they could in between Mariupol and Volnovakha. We destroyed most of the Russian corps there.

But the strike from the west [from Melitopol] still managed to cut Mariupol off from the main forces. 

We regrouped and prepared one brigade for a counterattack to create a corridor, but... This saved the whole south, because they [the Russians] took the entire group that was going to attack Mykolaiv and Odesa and sent it to stop us breaking through to Mariupol," Pavliuk recollects.

The name Mariupol was destined to become a symbol of untold suffering, unprecedented war crimes, and the incredible resilience of the Ukrainian army. 

What makes all the horrors that this city and dozens of others have suffered even more horrific is the realisation that the Ukrainian command had accurately anticipated Russia's plans.

General Sokolov recounts: "We were expecting it, because we had considered the possibility of an attack from the south during our training for commanders and military exercises. They acted in line with our expectations: their first objective was to capture the bridges and crossings over Dnipro; their second objective was [to capture] Melitopol and advance on Mariupol, to create a land corridor. They did exactly what we expected them to.

We didn’t have enough personnel or resources. We only had our peacetime staff when the war started. No additional military groups were created. We just had what we had."

*     *    *

Perhaps one of the most horrifying things about the war that engulfed the whole of Ukraine on 24 February was the fact that there seemed to be no safe place left in the country, vast though it is. 

Many people, especially those who faced the threat of imminent occupation, felt that the only way to escape was to go to the west of the country. Chernivtsi, Zakarpattia and Lviv oblasts began to accept and accommodate hundreds of thousands of people on an emergency basis. 

From the morning of 24 February, Lviv railway station became a symbol of day one of the full-scale invasion. A Babylon of many faces, a place everyone wanted to get to, and a place from which everyone is trying to escape to somewhere else, somewhere safer.

Lviv Mayor Andrii Sadovyi recollects: "We completed the reconstruction of the square in front of the railway station before the [full-scale] war. If that hadn’t been done, the square would have been like Armageddon. There was plenty of space to put the necessary points so that people could get information. 

We also scaled up the work done by the staff at the station itself. The station manager is a young man who hasn’t been completely infected by the Ukrzaliznytsia (Ukrainian Railways) system. So flexible solutions were adopted quickly enough to allow people to wait for their trains for Poland to arrive.

There was also a connection to Poland via bus routes. Many people stayed in Lviv, so people knew where to go. The system worked. To give you an idea, more than five million people passed through during this time."

Various international organisations that were set up to help in situations like this simply disappeared from view for a long time. When things got tough, Ukrainians had to save themselves without any outside help – both on the battlefield and in the rear.

"That’s the initial impression we got from February and March 2022 onwards – that all the international organisations had fled Ukraine," says Sadovyi. "Especially those that were supposed to help in difficult times, including helping refugees. We were constantly giving briefings here in the courtyard of the Town Hall, and I addressed one of those briefings exclusively to the international community. I said: ‘Hello, where are you? You’re funded by the United Nations, by various international organisations. Come over, we are waiting for you, we need you.’ 

And some time after that, they did start to appear, but only gradually, because the international community was not ready. They all thought it would be over very quickly somehow and there would be no need to deploy any staff."

*     *    *

On a small rocky piece of land in the Black Sea near Odesa, no war was expected on 22 or 23 February. There were no suspicious movements by Russian forces on Zmiinyi (Snake) Island on the eve of the invasion.

"Nothing much was happening then. I remember that a Russian military aircraft flew very low over us about two weeks before, but nothing unusual had happened since," Bohdan Hotskyi, the commander of the border guard post on Zmiinyi, recounts.

The full-scale war came to the island at around 03:00 on 24 February with the voice of a Russian warship. The Russians were claiming that the area around Zmiinyi Island was mined and demanding that civilian vessels change course.

It wasn’t until 06:00 that the Russians addressed the defenders of Zmiinyi Island for the first time. The voice of the Russian warship called on them not to take part in the "fratricidal war" and to choose the "right side", promising a social safety net and life in one "great united country".

"Make the right decision, stay alive. All you have to do is declare your consent on Channel 16 and follow our further instructions. Unload your weapons and cut off communication with your command," was the message broadcast over the international open channel for vessels.

Some time later, once the Moskva cruiser appeared on the horizon, the tone began to change and everyone on the island was threatened with death. 

At that moment, Zmiinyi Island was perhaps the most vivid illustration of the situation in which the whole of Ukraine found itself: face to face with the enemy in the middle of a sea of uncertainty and doom. 

But despite this, at around 18:00, all the anger and contempt that had been building up during the day spilled over into the famous "message" to the Russian ship.

A message that was destined to become one of the most inspiring slogans and a true symbol of this war. 

A message that will be heard on day one on every piece of Ukrainian land, wherever the Russian occupiers set foot:


The podcast was made by:

Authors: Roman Romaniuk and Fedir Popadiuk
Narrator: Ben McBride
Producer: Alina Poliakova
Co-producer and AI engineer: Dmytro Volkovynskyi

Soundproducers: Yevhenii Klimuk and Oleh Labynskyi

Assistant: Anna Khivrenko
Translators: Myroslava Zavadska, Yelyzaveta Khodatska, Tetiana Buchkovska, Artem Yakymyshyn and Olya Loza
Editors: Monica Sandor and Ben McBride

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.

The podcast contains several excerpts of interviews from the Suspilne Chernihiv documentary Battle for Chernihiv and an excerpt from the film Battle for Kharkiv. A Thin Burning Line by Military Television of Ukraine.