Tetyana Ogarkova and Volodymyr Yermolenko on How Artists Are Responding to the War in Ukraine
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Eighteen months into the invasion of Ukraine, Tetyana Ogarkova and Volodymyr Yermolenko, hosts of the podcast Explaining Ukraine, return to talk to co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan about how the war has affected Ukrainian artists and how they’re responding. They talk about the actions of deeply engaged writers and intellectuals they know, like Yaryna Chornohuz, a young poet who’s an activist and has joined the army as a paramedic. They also give an update on what’s happening at the front and the possibility of the formation of an international war tribunal to investigate crimes of the Russian Federation.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: We’re going to get to the way that Ukrainian writers and artists have been responding to the war in just a minute, but I wondered if you could first update us on what’s been happening. There’s been a lot of reporting here in the U.S. about the Ukrainian counter offensive. Is it happening? Is it going too slowly? And now, most recently, there seems to have been some important progress by Ukrainian forces along the frontline near the city of Zaporizhzia. So where do things stand as of mid-September?
Tetyana Ogarkova: Well, in fact, the situation is quite difficult on the frontline. The counter attack on the Ukrainian troops has been underway for a couple of months already. But there are a lot of problems with this because a lot of territories are really mined by Russian troops. That’s precisely why Ukrainian troops had to change their strategy to advance without destroying their own troops. That explains why the advances are slow—quite slow on the ground. They’re careful. But the most important issue they have is to continue moving forward. Even if they’re not moving hundreds of kilometers, they’re sometimes moving about hundreds of meters per day or kilometers per week, still advancing in the South.
In the East, the situation is even more difficult because in some places like Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region—northeastern Ukraine—Russians are trying to attack once again. There are a lot of troops in this direction trying to get what they lost one year ago. Let me remind you that last September, this brilliant military operation of Ukrainian troops for the Kharkiv operation took place, and they managed to liberate huge amounts of Ukrainian territories, but now, Russia is still trying to attack in this region. So the situation is really very tense. And Ukrainian society understands now that it will take a lot of time to liberate Ukrainian territories.
Volodymyr Yermolenko: That may also be because we had—both in Ukraine and in the outside world—exaggerated expectations. And it was like in a football match or a computer game where you are looking at some soldiers that are trying to liberate certain territories. Of course, in real life, it’s a little bit more complicated because Russians have been preparing for this counter offensive in the South, and they built three lines of defense. They astonish the mind with a lot of things.
We are talking about hundreds of kilometers of very dense minefields. But despite all that, the Ukrainian army succeeded in breaking these lines. And now, near the city of Zaporizhzhia and more to the south near the town of Robotyne, Ukrainians are really breaking through the first line of defense, which is very tense and complicated. We gradually see their little advance, which actually—if Ukrainians break through this corridor, the first line of defense, second line of defense, and the third line of defense, it is quite probable that they will build the actual corridor in the South and Russians will be in a very difficult situation because Ukrainians will be able to reach Crimea, for example, with strikes.
So I think we need to understand that obviously, the war will be longer than some expected, and we Ukrainians were saying this from the very beginning to not have the illusion that this will be just a series of brilliant blitzkriegs, and we should be prepared for a longer fight. Here, the question of technologies is very important and the question of drones in the air is very important. Who will actually conquer the air? This is very important. But also, we should not have the impression that this is an endless war. Russians are weakening, and they are actually exhausting their resources. They’re not helped by big supplies from the outside world. Instead, the solidarity with Ukraine is huge, we really appreciate it, and it’s important that it lasts.
Whitney Terrell: Well, that breakthrough that you’re talking about with these lines of defense seems very important—I read in the German news service, DW, that Russia has committed 60 percent of its available resources to that first line of defense, right? So the reason that the break in the first line, around Zaporizhzhia and another place that you mentioned, is important is because according to DW, they’ve only put 20 percent of their available resources to the second and third lines of defense. So I’m wondering, now that this first line has been broken in a couple of places, does that mean there’s a chance for Ukraine to make faster advances?
VY: I do think that there is a chance, but we should be very careful and understand that it’s also a battle of resources. And Russians are also learning, so it’s wrong to believe that this is a stupid army. Of course, they made a lot of mistakes, and Ukrainians are smarter, I think. But at the same time, we need to understand that this is a war that is increasingly going into the air and increasingly dependent on technologies. We should understand that many things are really done by infantry—by individual soldiers who are very carefully going through these really dense mines and losing their lives. And of course, we have this inhumane dimension of the war where we’re losing many, many soldiers. And the only way to decrease the suffering is to supply the Ukrainian army with better technologies that will help to better demine, target Russian artillery, and fight against the Russian drones, etc, etc. So we really need to understand that Ukrainians are paying a huge price for these but at the same time, we do need more weapons, technologists, and more smart technologies.
TO: I would also like to add an important comment about time and evaluation. So the evaluation was about 60 percent effort for the first line and 20 percent for the second line. It might be true. It’s only an evaluation and time plays against Ukrainians once again. During the time Ukrainian troops were busy with the first line, Russians had some time to prepare. The second line or the third line happened last year when Ukrainian troops were preparing their counter offensive in the South. Russians never lost a single minute of preparation time.
Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief for the Ukrainian army, was asking for weapons to use for the long months of autumn 2022 and spring 2022 to prepare the defense lines. So what military experts say is that if you enter a territory it is really heavily mined now. If you compare what is happening now to what was happening during the Second World War in the Soviet Union—because Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union—you can compare the level of mining. They have five to ten times more mines today than during the Second World War. So imagine the effort it took to have Ukrainian troops advance and also the effort it will take to demine all these territories for after, because this is a war, not a game of football. It’s not about who wins or who loses, it’s about having a place to live. And to get life back into these territories, you need to demine them. So it will take time and a lot of effort and a lot of resources from both the Ukraine and hopefully from our international partners.
VVG: So I think you’re both giving us some useful metrics to think about what exactly progress in this war looks like. And I’d like to keep talking about that. I also feel like podcasts aren’t a visual medium, but I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the geography and about the map of the war as it stands. We’ve been talking about Zaporizhzhia. Can you explain why progress there is particularly important, and if Ukrainians are about to advance further, where will they go next?
TO: Well, Zaporizhzhia is a key direction now for a simple reason. If you start from Zaporizhzhia and advance to the south, you may hopefully arrive in Melitopol. Melitopol is situated close to Azov. And the main plan of the Ukrainian army is to divide the Russian troops that are now occupying eastern Ukraine, southern Ukraine and Crimea. If they succeed, going to Melitopol and then later to Donetsk, they will reach the Sea of Azov. And when the Ukrainian troops reach the Sea of Azov, it would mean that Russian troops are divided in two parts. And given that Ukrainian troops are already partly able, they will be even more ready later to control the so-called Crimea bridge—the bridge which Russia constructed after the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula back in 2014.
So they will be cutting off the logistics of the Russian army from the territory of the Russian Federation, and they will encircle all of these Russian troops in the part of Crimea, and in this tiny part of southern Ukraine. It will facilitate things for the Ukrainian army to fight further, to liberate, and to make Russians leave Crimea, and from this part of southern Ukraine. It will also facilitate things in eastern Ukraine. But in eastern Ukraine, it will be, in a way, more difficult to get Russians out because they still have a broader borderline with Ukraine. I mean—Donetsk region, Lugansk region, all these territories are close to Russia, so they will still be able to have these logistic chains, for weapons, for infantry, for artillery, for everything. This is why the southern direction is a key direction now. And a huge amount of Ukrainian efforts are concentrated in this area.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Mikayla Vo.
Tetyana Ogarkova and Volodymyr Yermolenko:
Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 6, Episode 2: “How Dostoevsky’s Classic Has Shaped Russia’s War in Ukraine, with Explaining Ukraine’s Tetyana Ogarkova and Volodymyr Yermolenko” • Yaryna Chornohuz • “Being a poet and a woman on the frontline – with Yaryna Chornohuz” (Explaining Ukraine) • Timothy Snyder • “Timothy Snyder: Freedom as a Value and a Task – a Talk in Kyiv” (Explaining Ukraine) • Joseph Heller • Thomas Pynchon • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque • “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso • “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” by Wilfred Owen • “Remembering Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, killed by a Russian missile,” by Joanna Kikissis • Kateryna Kalytko