Six months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, billionaire Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk rather improbably succeeded in hosting Yalta European Strategy (YES), the annual political conference, in Kyiv last weekend. “Ukraine: Defending All Our Freedom” was the theme of the first major conference to take place in the capital since Russian paratroopers were repelled in March. YES is known to attract regional political heavyweights: Several hundred Ukrainian leaders, international elites, and journalists crowded into a secure basement conference hall in a five-star hotel. We were required to take COVID tests and to forswear, for security purposes, posting anything about the conference or photographs of its attendees online before the conclusion. Delivering his opening speech, Pinchuk compared the collapse of the Soviet Union to the protracted death of a dinosaur—it can take a very long time. At the same exact moment that Pinchuk was welcoming us and telling us that the Soviet empire was still dissolving in the form of a death rattle of revanchist Russian imperialism, the Ukrainian army was commencing its long-awaited counteroffensive against Russian positions all across the country.
Th now legendary riposte that President Volodymyr Zelensky rendered unto the American government upon being offered to evacuate as the Russians tried to sack Kyiv in February—“I need ammunition, not a ride”—was emblazoned on massive banners that were wrapped around the perimeter of the conference room. A massive screen arrayed behind and above the stage was composed of dozens of smaller television sets that depicted a blue or cloudy sky set over various European and American cities—as well as the 24 regions of Ukraine. Whenever an air raid siren rang out in any part of Ukraine—warning of an impending Russian missile strike—the screen for that region would turn black with the words “air siren” in red blinking over and over. The elites of the era of President Petro Poroshenko—whose attention everyone had once craved and had desperately tried to cultivate—could now be seen standing apart and looking forlorn. I took pity on a particularly lonely looking former prosecutor general and made small talk with her.
Zelensky opened the conference while wearing his trademark wartime olive T-shirt and khakis. He warned those of us in attendance that the winter to come would be a difficult one, and that the next 90 days in particular would be very hard. He explained that “doctors, medics, journalists, soldiers—they have now all become part of one profession, that of the Ukrainian. And his job is that of survival. There is no choice. The only choice is survival.” Immediately after his opening remarks, the CNN host and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria asked him the obvious question that was on the minds of everyone in room: Were we now observing a major Ukrainian counteroffensive in the occupied territories? Zelensky responded with his usual dash: “The counteroffensive began on February 24th.”
Many of the international guests present were regulars in years past; it was to their immense moral credit that they traversed the Ukrainian-Polish border to attend this year. Ukrainian airspace had been closed, and so arriving in the capital required a daylong journey by car or train. In between panels, I jocularly informed former Polish President Aleksander Kwasnieski—who ritually closes each iteration of the conference—that I had once tried to talk my way past a Polish bouncer at a nightclub in Paris by flashing a photo of me and the former president together at a previous YES conference, to which the bouncer responded that he had “never voted for that man” and that I would not be partying in his club that night. Kwasnieski commiserated with authentic feeling for my rejection from the nightclub, and apologized for failing me.
Some of the more interesting debates over the weekend involved structural tensions between Eastern and Western European views of reality. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki memorably informed us that, “It should not be the wisdom of the Eastern or Central Europeans but of all Europeans that if the house of a neighbor is on fire, yours is not safe either.” The new shape of Ukraine would emerge from the ashes: “You are fighting for your freedom and ours,” he pointedly intoned using the slogan of Soviet refuseniks and Polish anti-communist dissidents. He would next react defensively to Zakaria’s impish questions about the possibility of Ukraine causing Polish-style problems in Brussels in the event that Kyiv does join the European Union. “Go ask the European Commission such questions,” he responded, and followed that up by rather acidly calling on the CNN host to cease believing what he reads in “liberal” newspapers. The American historian Timothy Snyder noted to me that that last swipe constituted a de facto admission of loss in that argument. Latvian President Egils Levits also needled those Europeans who, to him, do not quite understand the gravity of the regional situation. “We, the Latvians and the Polish, will push for the European Union member status of Ukraine,” he said, before explaining that the price of European freedom has been borne largely by Eastern European sacrifices for Ukrainian freedom.
By the middle of the second day of the conference, last Saturday, it was becoming obvious that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east and the south was indeed going very well. Having long signaled that the offensive would begin in the southern region of Kherson, the Russians had reinforced their southern positions at the expense of fortifying their lines around Kharkiv and in the Donbas region (which the Russian Defense Ministry had previously claimed was a primary goal in this war). Having achieved success with a monthslong campaign of misdirection, the Ukrainians were also devilishly advancing in the Kharkiv sectors as well as probing Russian defenses in the south for weakness.
The Kharkiv offensive was based on the lightning quick deployment of lighter armor, which dashed through sparsely manned and unprepared Russian lines, smashing through secondary-quality Russian army and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) proxy formations. The Russian lines crumpled and fled in panic, despite the fact that the Ukrainian forces likely would not have won a prolonged engagement, not having deployed enough armor or artillery for that sort of operation.
The Ukrainian army eventually recaptured the strategic towns of Kupyansk and Izyum in the Kharkiv region after an offensive that constituted a total and unmitigated collapse of Russian forces in certain key sectors, with the sight of Russians fleeing in terror only serving to highlight the impressive Ukrainian thrusts and combined arms maneuvers. By Sunday night, the Russian Defense Ministry had been forced to tacitly confirm that Russian forces were abandoning (“regrouping”) its positions in the Kharkiv region in order to fortify positions in the Donbas.
Footage of Ukrainian flags being raised in towns previously occupied by the Russians, and of Russian troops hastily abandoning their weapons and equipment, provided both a complement and an odd sort of dissonance to the conference of international political elites ruminating on the future of the Ukrainian nation. Some of the scenes that went viral on social media were quite touching. A babushka in one small town got so excited when she saw Ukrainian servicemen outside her house that she ran back into her basement to find some leftover pancakes for them. Ukrainian troops also posted photos of themselves stomping on Russian flags they pulled off of occupied town halls and regional administration centers.
Alas, the astounding pace of the Ukrainian gains, especially in Kharkiv, also led to renewed questions about the stability of Vladimir Putin’s position within the Kremlin, and whether he will feel compelled to mobilize the entire country’s military-aged population to fight. How will Putin weigh the risks of a mass conscription-driven collapse in his personal approval among the Russian population at large versus the escalatory risks of threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?
While the Ukrainian counteroffensive looked set to break the morale of multiple Russian battalions in the east, moreover, the Ukrainian offensive in the south seemed to be much less successful—with plausible rumors circulating of very high Ukrainian casualties in the north of Kherson. Among some analysts, the nagging question remains of whether the rout in the Kharkiv region represented a temporary regional setback, the start of the terminal collapse of the Russian occupation army, or a series of ephemeral sectoral gains. When I ran into Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a previous defense minister in the Zelensky cabinet, he underlined that “these guys are losing control. They are getting nervous and they are getting upset and they are very, very disoriented.” Still, he admitted that the Russians had been prepared for the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south. I had been hearing from my sources in the southern cities of Odessa and Mykolaiv that regional hospitals had been flooded with Ukrainian wounded evacuated out of the Kherson offensive.
Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin informed me that he was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the conference in the midst of a war. “Intellectually, the conference this year was quite good, with excellent attendees, as rumors circulating that many would not be coming because of the threat of Russian missile attacks on Kyiv.” Klimkin was one of many of those in attendance who was both cautious in his optimism about the Ukrainian advance in the east, while also understandably giddy about the success of the counteroffensive. I inquired if he thought that the advances had been timed by the Ukrainian army to take place in tandem with the arrival of various elites to the YES conference.
“No,” he said, “it’s just sort of a happy match of events, a very welcome match but we are all extremely happy. What we need now is to make this advance sustainable and to create a sustainable drive, and of course that part is entirely about our tenacity. But it’s also about continuing the flow of weapons and the issue is to continue sustainable success in all directions. And counteroffensive is not about celebrating every day, it’s about winning the war. For me, it’s not about today, it is about the ultimate long-term success of the counteroffensive.”
Another highly placed member of the current Ukrainian government informed me that, “We are approaching the most frightening phase of this war, that is the ‘end phase.’ And nobody has any idea of the final outcome—so we should stay cautious and be careful without being overjoyed at this news because all of this seems too good to be true. You know, simply nobody was expecting it to happen so fast—a total collapse of Russian forces—but we have to hope that it is not some kind of sophisticated Russian plan to lure us further inside the east and move on us from Belarus or something of that sort.”
By the end of the weekend the Russian army had retaliated—taken vengeance, really—for the humiliating military defeat, with hateful attacks against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. The eastern Ukrainian power grid was hit with missiles, which caused cascading blackouts all across cities such as Poltava, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and Sumy. Zelensky declared the attacks, which killed at least one worker at the plants, to be “deliberate and cynical.” The million residents of Kharkiv had barely celebrated the success of the counteroffensive before being summarily plunged into total darkness, with disruptions to their water supply, and to the ICU units treating the wounded soldiers who liberated them.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.