Ukrainians pin hopes on counteroffensive against Russia

Support for the army grows across the country as officials promise attacks will liberate territory.

People take shelter inside a metro station during an air raid alert amid Russia's missile attacks on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine May 5, 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko
People take shelter inside a metro station during an air raid alert amid Russia's missile attacks on Ukraine, in Kyiv on May 5 [Alina Smutko/Reuters]

Kyiv, Ukraine – On February 24 last year, the first day of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the blood-curdling thud of explosions woke Kyrylo Borysenko up before dawn.

Within hours, and then for more than four weeks, the 24-year-old volunteer helped repel Russian attacks on his hometown of Brovary, north of the capital, Kyiv.

And while Western governments expected the Ukrainian capital to fall within days and urged President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government to flee, Borysenko never doubted his country’s eventual victory.

These days, camouflage-clad Borysenko collects donations for the military and is confident that Kyiv is ready and willing to start a long-awaited spring counterattack.

“By the end of the year, we will liberate all our territories,” including the Crimean Peninsula Russia annexed in 2014, Borysenko told Al Jazeera.

Sixty-eight percent of Ukrainians want the “complete” liberation of all occupied territories, even if the war lasts longer and Western support dwindles, according to a poll by the Kyiv Sociology Institute released in early March.

Ninety-five percent of Ukrainians believe their nation’s military triumph is all but certain, according to another survey by the pollster Rating released in late February.

The polls showed a stark difference with pre-war opinions. Only 56 percent of Ukrainians believed in a then-theoretical victory over Russia in January 2022, just weeks before the war began.

Since then, the overwhelming feeling among most Ukrainians is that enemy forces, while brutal towards civilians, are disorganised and poorly supplied.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks next to a fighting vehicle, outside Kyiv.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks next to an armoured vehicle outside Kyiv, Ukraine [File: Vadim Ghirda/AP]

And many lionise their own armed forces.

“Whatever happens, we’re with the boys,” Olha, a “two-time refugee”, told Al Jazeera.

She withheld her last name because she has relatives in the separatist-controlled eastern city of Makiivka.

Olha fled that rust-belt city in the Donbas region with her husband in 2014 after Moscow-backed rebels battled against the central government and carved out two breakaway “people’s republics”.

The couple settled 300km (186 miles) north of Makiivka in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

They rented an apartment in the Saltovka district, where two-thirds of the residential buildings would be damaged by incessant Russian shelling after the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour last year.

On the war’s first day, amid panic and explosions, the couple packed up again and left for Kyiv.

They lived through months of shelling and blackouts as Moscow began to target power, transmission and heating stations and other critical infrastructure.

But to Olha, there is a silver lining: The war has spurred a strong sense of national unity.

For the first time in their post-Soviet history, Ukrainians overcame their regional, political and linguistic differences, she said.

“Everyone is united in opinions and views. Everyone is for the victory,” Olha said.

Zelenskyy’s government is not detailing its counteroffensive plans, but military analysts told Al Jazeera that there are two possible directions.

One is via the partly liberated region of Kherson to bisect the “land bridge” of Russian-occupied territory that links Crimea to Russia while the other one lies eastwards, towards heavily fortified separatist and Russian positions in the Donbas.

Ukrainian officials say the counteroffensive is close but have stopped short of officially announcing its beginning.

But a series of explosions that has destroyed fuel depots, power transmission lines, cargo trains and military buildings in annexed Crimea and western Russia in recent days signals that it is already under way.

“This is preparation work ahead of a wide, full-scale offensive everyone is expecting,” defence ministry spokeswoman Nataliya Humeniyk said in televised remarks on Sunday about a fire near the southern Crimean city of Sevastopol that destroyed 10 reservoirs with fuel for Russia’s Black Sea navy.

Even the staunchest supporters of Russia’s war admitted that the Ukrainian counteroffensive’s first steps have been effective.

“A pre-planned destruction of our fuel depots ahead of the Ukrainian army’s strategic counteroffensive is under way,” Viktor Alksnis, a former lawmaker in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, said on Telegram on Thursday.

The most symbolic attack took place on early Wednesday when two drones exploded over a Kremlin building.

Moscow called it a “terrorist attack” and an “assassination attempt” on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Ukrainian leaders denied they were behind the explosions, and air force spokesman Yuri Ihnat mockingly blamed them on “UFOs”.

A military analyst said, however, that the drone attack was part of Kyiv’s ploy to force Moscow into wasting cruise missiles on the Ukrainian capital, where they would be shot down by US-supplied Patriot air defence systems and Iris-T surface-to-air missiles.

“Undoubtedly, for [Zelenskyy’s government], it’s beneficial to lure a new batch of Russian cruise missiles towards Kyiv,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University told Al Jazeera.

He said an “army” of Ukrainian drones will destroy power stations, oil refineries, fuel depots and chemical plants in and around Moscow and show average Russians how limited air defence capabilities are, even over the capital.

But to some Ukrainians, the drone attack on the Kremlin sent a wrong signal.

“Whoever did it is an irresponsible adventurist,” Ilya Rodchenko, a manager at an electronics shop in central Kyiv, told Al Jazeera. “It alienates the tiny number of Russians sympathetic to us.”

The number is not insignificant, according to Russia’s last independent pollster.

Sixteen percent of Russians “don’t support” the conflict while 75 percent are pro-war, according to the Levada Center’s poll conducted in April.

Sixty-two percent of Russians “are afraid” of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the survey found.

Despite the Kremlin-controlled propaganda machine’s titanic efforts, 52 percent of Russians think the “main difficulties” related to the war in Ukraine are “yet to come”, the poll showed.

Source: Al Jazeera