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Our Enemies Will Vanish by Yaroslav Trofimov: An excellent first draft of Russia’s war on Ukraine

This is a much-needed retelling of the first year of the invasion, even as the passage of time seems to favour the Russians

Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence
Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence
Author: Yaroslav Trofimov
ISBN-13: 978-0241655443
Publisher: Michael Joseph
Guideline Price: £25

War correspondents are rarely as dispassionate or as disinterested as their copy might indicate. Their sympathies generally lie somewhere. For the Wall Street Journal’s international affairs correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov, it was particularly difficult to extract his emotions while covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine, given it was the land of his birth that was being invaded. Trofimov, an Italian citizen who grew up in Kyiv, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2022 for his reporting on the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the following year for his reporting on Ukraine.

Our Enemies Will Vanish its title coming from the third line of Ukraine’s national anthem – covers the first 12 months or so of the war, with the events of much of 2023 summarised in an epilogue. Although it is not unusual for international journalists covering the war to speak Russian, and often Ukrainian too, Trofimov is a rare instance of a reporter having first-hand knowledge of the country’s history and culture, not to mention ready access to many of its institutions, notably the army and its various ancillary units. This is reflected in the vivid reporting from the front and the encounters with soldiers, politicians, refugees and others from Ukrainian territory, both unoccupied and liberated.

Unsurprisingly, Trofimov does not cross into Russian-held territory and, early in the war, as he and two companions, a Spanish photojournalist and a British security consultant, criss-cross Ukraine in random picaresque fashion in search of some action, he imagines that he would expect no mercy in Russian captivity.

Trofimov provides an excellent first draft of the war, much of the detail of which is already beginning to get lost in the mists of time. It is easy to forget that in the early weeks of the invasion, when few people inside or outside Ukraine expected the country to resist the Russians, the support from western governments for Kyiv amounted to little more than thoughts and prayers. It was only in mid-April 2022, after the massacres at Bucha made clear Putin’s genocidal intent, that the Biden administration approved the delivery of 155mm howitzers, the first Nato-grade artillery to be sent to Ukraine. The hesitancy of US and European countries to arm Kyiv with heavy equipment continued for much of the next 12 months.


Trofimov does not shy away from the darker aspects of Ukrainian nationalism in the 20th century

And yet Ukraine exceeded all expectations in its struggle against the invaders. This was largely, as Trofimov says, because it had thoroughly revamped its military since Russia’s invasions of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. The Ukrainian army also had thousands of battle-hardened veterans of the war in the east of the country, even if this clearly was not going to be enough. Savvy planning (rendering the runways at Hostomel airport inoperable by parking trucks on them most likely spared Kyiv), Russian ineptness and modern communications were key to Ukrainian success. The Ukrainian military relied on real-time intelligence from civilians on the advancing Russian troops, enabling them to be cut off and often routed. Drones, both military and commercial, also improved the accuracy of artillery and made reconnaissance more effective.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy emerged as an unlikely protagonist. Few would have expected the Russophone former comedian to embody resistance, but his and his government’s decision to stay in Kyiv in the early days of the war galvanised the country and he had a gift for rhetorical flourish, even as he sometimes irritated western allies with his haranguing calls for support.

Ukraine has not always enjoyed support in some quarters in Europe because of the history of Ukrainian nationalism. Some foreign readers might baulk at Trofimov’s summary comment that the Azov Battalion now has only a small cohort of neo-Nazis among its number but he presumably recognises it as such a self-evident truth that it need not be dwelled upon. Nonetheless, Trofimov does not shy away from the darker aspects of Ukrainian nationalism in the 20th century, to the extent that he praises Poland’s ability to park its long-standing resentment at the massacres of ethnic Poles in Ukraine’s Volyn region during the second World War in order to support its neighbour today.

Two years on, Ukraine continues to resist but the passage of time has favoured the Russians, who have been content to bed down in a war of attrition in the east and south of the country. There is also a worry in Kyiv that international attention will drift, and a very real danger that a return of Donald Trump to the White House could turn a steadfast ally into a hostile force. While Ukraine will survive, it may not do so entirely intact. Whatever happens, we will probably be seeing a sequel to this fine book at some point.

Oliver Farry

Oliver Farry is a contributor to The Irish Times