Where Russia once triumphed, Ukrainians prepare to resist Putin

POLTAVA, Ukraine — A decisive Russian military victory here in 1709 allowed Moscow to rule much of that country for nearly three centuries.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin is to leave with the tens of thousands of troops he has amassed around Ukraine, he will have to reckon with people like 39-year-old archaeologist Anatoliy Khanko.

Mr Khanko is a veteran of the war that Russia started in eastern Ukraine in 2014 to prevent his neighbor from integrating into the West. As the United States and its allies worry that Mr Putin will order a powerful military push to put the brakes on Ukraine again, Mr Khanko plans to send his wife and small child west so that ‘he can wage a partisan war from the woods. around Poltava.

“Even if they get to Poltava, they won’t be staying here for long,” said Khanko, who sports a short haircut and a long black beard.

Anatoliy Khanko is a veteran of the war that Russia started in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Mr Putin described Ukraine as an artificial country stuck together by Soviet leaders and named Poltava, some 160 kilometers from the modern border, among historic Russian lands which he said have been wrongly separated from Moscow’s control. The city lies on the main road west from Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, to the capital Kiev.

But there are thousands of veterans in that region alone, and while the powerful Russian army is likely to invade Ukrainian forces, owning the territory would be very expensive, Khanko said. A recent national survey by a Kiev pollster showed that a third of Ukrainians are ready to take up arms if Russia launches all-out war.

“I know what I’m fighting for, but how will Putin sell it to the Russians when tens of thousands of graves appear across the country? Mr Khanko said. “Why?”

A statue of 18th-century Russian general Alexander Suvorov, which was moved to the Poltava Aviation Museum from outside a military school in Kiev in 2019.

Souvenirs and battlefield images for sale near the Poltava Battle Museum.

Western and Ukrainian officials say it is unclear whether Mr Putin is considering a major military offensive to secure Ukraine in his sphere of influence or is seeking to use the threat of war to wrest concessions from the West.

Russia has denied having invasion plans, but wants the United States and its allies to drop support for the Ukrainian military and withdraw their pledge to make Ukraine a member of the Treaty Organization. ‘North Atlantic. During his annual year-end media session on Thursday, Putin said Russia wanted to avoid conflict but demanded immediate security guarantees from the United States and its allies.

One thing Mr. Putin has been clear about is his great ambitions for Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that declared independence in 1991. Ukrainians and Russians, he has repeatedly said, are a single people torn apart by the Soviet collapse.

In a recent 7,000-word essay on the history of Ukraine, Mr Putin wrote about the Battle of Poltava in 1709, claiming that most locals sided with Moscow against Swedish forces and the Cossacks. led by a Ukrainian leader named Ivan Mazepa.

Yevheniya Shcherbyna, a 33-year-old tour guide at the Battle Museum, sees it differently.

The Cathedral of the Holy Dormition in Poltava housed food and clothing that was to be sent to the Ukrainian army at the start of the conflict with Russia in 2014.

A children’s choir singing Christmas carols at the cathedral during this month’s Saint Nicholas celebrations.

“Information warfare began 300 years ago,” she said, citing the production of paintings, engravings and statues glorifying the Russian victory.

The battle was a defeat for Ukraine, she said, but subsequent generations have continued to fight until today.

Last year, the museum opened an exhibition detailing what it calls Russian myths about the battle.

“For Putin, the mythology of the Battle of Poltava is the foundation of the idea that we are one nation,” said Oleh Pustovgar, a Poltava historian. “It is important that Russia does not let Poltava get out of the fraternal embrace.”

After Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said last month that his country could send troops on a training mission to Ukraine, the Russian Embassy recalled the battle.

“We would like to remind Mr Hultqvist that he is not the first military leader in Sweden to attempt to intimidate Russia with the might of his heroic army by planning to send his military to Ukraine,” wrote the embassy on Facebook..

Poltava, a peaceful provincial capital of around 280,000 inhabitants, experienced a wave of patriotic activism after 2014, sparked by a revolution that toppled a pro-Russian president and the war that followed.

Mr. Khanko led a unit of demonstrators in that city during the revolution in Kiev which resulted in dozens of deaths, including one of his group.

Protesters also took to the streets here, using a crane to bring down the city’s statue of Lenin.

Russia staged separatist protests in cities across southern and eastern Ukraine in 2014, but patriotic groups here quickly quashed the efforts of instigators who they said were not locals.

Ivan Petrenko is a retired army colonel who served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan.

As deliveries of fighters, commanders and weapons from Russia turned protests in the east into armed conflict, residents of Poltava sent aid to the threadbare Ukrainian army. Food and clothing piled up in an Orthodox cathedral here, soon filling an office, tumbling down a staircase and occupying about a third of the building, recalls Archbishop Fedir, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the region. .

“Ukraine has weak state institutions, but we can organize ourselves quickly,” he said.

Others like Mr. Khanko, the archaeologist, went to fight, many as part of volunteer units.

“Before, I knew how to dig,” he says. “But I learned to dig.”

Activists hoisted Ukrainian and nationalist flags atop a monument to the Russian victory in the city center. A statue to Mr. Mazepa, the defeated Cossack leader, was erected after years of delay. At the Aviation Museum, new exhibits have been added to commemorate the inhabitants killed in the current war, as well as exhibits about Soviet heroes.

There is some support here for ties to Russia, mainly among older residents with ties to the former Soviet air base.

The city’s mayor, Oleksandr Mamai, who mainly enjoys the support of elderly voters, caused a storm when he echoed the Kremlin narrative in a recent TV interview, saying the United States was fighting Russia in Ukraine, pitting “brother against brother”. Political opponents want him to be removed from office.

Oleksandr Koba has organized pop-up street museums and shows to present the history of Ukraine.


Anastasiia Vlasova for the Wall Street Journal

Oleksandr Koba, who helped topple Lenin’s statue, said elderly ladies cursed him in the days that followed. “You overthrew our Lenin,” he remembers saying. Mr. Koba organized street museums and pop-up shows to showcase Ukraine’s history and Soviet wickedness, including the Holodomor, a forced famine that killed millions of people in the 1930s.

The conflict caused some economic hardship. Exports to Russia collapsed, a process that began even before the war when Moscow banned milk imports from the region.

In the souvenir shop near the museum, a vendor complained that some of the artisans who make traditional trinkets and embroidered shirts have gone to seek work in European Union countries.

Russia has justified its interventions in Ukraine by asserting, with little evidence, that Russian-speakers there face repression.

Ihor Petrichenko, an MP for Mr Mamai from an opposition party, said many townspeople switched from Russian to Ukrainian after 2014, but he largely stayed with Russian to argue His point of view.

“I don’t need Putin to protect me,” he said.

After returning from the front lines, Khanko and other veterans opened camps to teach teens basic military tactics and survival skills, as well as patriotic history.

He acknowledges that the West would not send troops to help if Russia invades, but hopes for arms deliveries.

Ivan Petrenko, who helped create a motorized infantry battalion from scratch in 2014, said Putin underestimated the Ukrainians by then. A retired colonel who served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan, he said Russia had been supported by the recent United States flight from Kabul, but the Ukrainians would stand firm.

“We will not be a second Afghanistan,” said Petrenko. “This is our land, and we will fight for it.”

President Vladimir Putin described Ukraine as an artificial country stuck together by Soviet leaders.

Write to James Marson at [email protected]

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