Western Ukraine suffers rare Russian attacks

LUTSK, Ukraine – Men in camouflage, tough after battle, sniffled as a Ukrainian Orthodox choir sang at the haunting funeral. One put his arm around another as tears flowed.

“The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not perished yet,” the priest said at Saturday’s funeral service for two of the four soldiers who died when the city’s military airport was bombed before dawn on Wednesday. Six.

“For 30 years we sang these words and said we would suffer for our freedom, but we could not have imagined that these words would become our reality, that we would have to send his son to defend us against our neighbours,” said Father Mykhail, the priest.

The Russia Invades Ukraine Now is the third week. With four dead at the airport, it reached Lutsk, a provincial capital just 55 miles from Poland. This is a rare attack in the West by the Russian military, which is concentrated mainly in the south, north and around the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

For weeks, Western Ukraine has been a safe haven for millions of Ukrainians who have fled the war zone, as well as businessmen, journalists, diplomats and others. But with the bombings in Lutsk and another Western city, Ivano-Frankivsk, early Friday, the violence and death pierced the sense of security many took for granted.

“There are no more peaceful towns in Ukraine,” said Myroslava Kozyupa, 43, who stood outside the city square, listening as the loudspeakers broadcast the funeral going on at the Holy Trinity Church.

She acknowledged that they now face less danger than other cities such as Kharkiv, which has been under attack for two weeks, and Mariupol, the country’s most pressing humanitarian emergency, saying “” We’re pretty good.” A seven-month-old baby with blue eyes, held by a woman, “knew what sirens were and also knew they meant we had to go to the bomb shelter”.

Ukraine’s vast western region has raised concerns in recent days following repeated reports that Belarus, just 90 miles to the north, could begin deploying combat forces. That worries the people of Lutsk because of Belarus’ proximity and the unpredictability of its autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

The region’s role as a corridor for arms moving from Europe and the United States could also make it a target. On Saturday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Russian television that he had warned the United States that arms convoys sent to Ukraine would be “legitimate targets” of the Russian military.

Some residents worry that in addition to the convoys, the Kremlin has attractions located on this territory.

Serhiy, a surgeon who declined to be named because of concerns about Putin’s security, said: “I believe his aim was to go to the border with Poland – the border of NATO.

Kozyupa said she was worried that Ukraine might soon lose the ability to defend its airspace.

“Our borders are being guarded by border guards and our land is being kept safe by our defenders, but our skies are not protected,” she said. ”, while repeating calls for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Lutsk’s airfield was bombed on 24 February, the first day of the invasion, but it did not completely destroy the airfield and no one was killed. This city, like much of the western part of the country, did not expect Russian military activity to escalate, at least not yet. On Friday, when the attacks occurred, an early warning system did not work because of the Russians Mayor Ihor Polishchuk said the missile flew “super slow”. “I think this type of attack is intended to heighten fear, increase panic levels and strengthen the position of the Russian Federation in possible negotiations with Ukraine,” he said.

Mariia Zolkina, a political and military analyst at the Foundation for Democratic Initiatives, said that Russia could move its troops west, but a full-scale offensive is not yet possible – “just that” not yet” – until Russian troops gain a stronger foothold in central Ukraine.

However, she predicts that Russian forces will continue to strike military targets in western Ukraine because even if other countries donate fighter jets, the country will not be able to use them without airfields. fly they can fly.

“It’s important for Ukraine to get support before Russia achieves its goals in the West,” she stressed.

Western Ukraine has a different history from the east, which is historically closer to Russia and where many consider themselves ethnic Russian and native Russian speakers – whom Mr. natural part of Russia. In Lutsk, more than 90% of the population is Ukrainian, according to the most recent census, from 2001.

Lutsk and western Ukraine are currently inhabited by many Ukrainians emigrating from the east and south; the population of Lutsk and its environs, which the mayor estimates at 250,000, has increased by 10,000 people alone. And it will play an important role in the corridor through which humanitarian aid will be disbursed, Ms. Zolkina said.

The inhabitants of Lutsk are ready for the potential arrival of the Russian army, whenever it may come.

“We have prepared to the fullest extent,” Mr. Polishchuk said. “We were able to buy enough food in the event of a humanitarian disaster. We have 40,000 cubic meters of water in our reserves. And our residents have made at least 25,000 molotov cocktails since the war began.” The mayor himself says he has created “too many to count.”

A reserve battalion of 4,000 volunteers stands ready to support both military forces and territorial defense, a loosely organized part of the Ukrainian Army consisting of various paramilitary groups.

Ordinary citizens are also learning what it means to live in wartime. In a basement classroom often used as a chess club, 19-year-old Artem Kovalchuk is showing commoners how to shoot rifles.

“Everybody wants to learn how to hold a weapon properly,” said Kovalchuk, who joined the Ukrainian army in 2020 and served near Mariupol, now surrounded by Russian forces.

“My God, we will soon be facing a situation similar to what is being experienced in the eastern regions.”

At the training session, people questioned how far shrapnel from a grenade could fly. Then they took turns learning how to load 5 bullets into the Kalashnikovs. These weapons date from the 1960s and 70s – too old for combat, but usable for training.

Mr. Kovalchuk said he also gives lessons on strategy, tactics and first aid.

His presentation was opened with a talk by a psychologist about relaxation techniques and coping mechanisms for dealing with panic attacks.

Yuriy Semchuk, a volunteer, said classes take place every day at 1 o’clock, and usually attract 150 to 200 people per day. Previously he was the coordinator of a youth center, where he organized lessons on patriotic education.

At Saturday’s funeral, the priest prayed to the gods for “victory over the enemy.”

“There is a Christian commandment, “You shall not kill,” Father Mykhail said near the end of his eulogy. But the Russian attackers “deserves to die here,” he said.

“And tomorrow we will defend our motherland so that we do not become slaves.”

At the end of the day at Holy Trinity Church, in the evening, a soldier guarding Lutsk’s airfield planned to get married – a sign that life goes on amid the looming threat of war.

Maria VarennikovaReporting contributions from Lviv, Ukraine.

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