In Ukrainian town, reality doesn’t match government boasts of victory over Russian forces

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
One of the many signs that warns of land mines along a road near Sosnivka, Ukraine.

MAKARIV, Ukraine — At first glance, the Ukrainian government’s report that its forces had pushed Russians out of this town seemed true: Armed Ukrainian soldiers stood guard at a checkpoint at the entrance to this rural enclave west of Kyiv, seemingly in full control.

Since Tuesday, top Ukrainian government officials had been touting what they called a key victory in their month-long war against invading Russians. They said Makariv, a key gateway for Russian forces to potentially surround and seize Kyiv, had been liberated from Russian forces — and that Ukraine’s flag was now flying victoriously over the town’s center.

Media around the world reported the news as the latest indication that Ukrainian forces were waging skillful counterattacks and defeating the Russians in vital locations.

But as a team of Washington Post journalists passed through the checkpoint on Wednesday, Ukrainian soldiers ordered them to quickly leave the town, warning of incoming Russian rockets or artillery. Minutes later, reporters heard the sound of shells falling. Black plumes of smoke rose over the houses. Soon, more blasts followed.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Smoke is seen in the distance March 23 near Makariv, Ukraine.

Makariv remains a contested front line.

“The military doesn’t control all of Makariv, only partially,” said Mayor Vadim Tokar, standing on the town’s outskirts shortly after the shells landed. “It’s 100 percent no-go for civilians to return.”

What happened here is emblematic of the two different yet intertwined wars unfolding in Ukraine: one taking place on the battlefield, the other in the realm of propaganda to shape public perceptions and bolster morale and support. Russia has been by far the more aggressive source of wildly inaccurate information — starting with Vladimir Putin’s false and historically inaccurate justifications for the invasion. But, as the Makariv situation illustrates, Ukrainian officials have also sometimes spread overly rosy information about the war.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
adim Tokar, Makariv’s mayor, wears his combat uniform on the outskirts of the Ukrainian town.

A visit to Makariv also opens a window into how much the fog of war is making solid information hard to come by. Journalists are increasingly finding it difficult to reach areas outside the capital to independently verify facts because of bombardments, rapidly shifting front lines and Russian military positions — even as Russia’s advance remains largely stalled.

On Monday, Andriy Nebytov, the chief of police for the Kyiv region, visited Makariv and in a Facebook post accurately described the situation there. “The city is under constant shelling of enemy artillery. Shattered roofs and windows burned by the flames . . . There are no people on the streets. Every second house is damaged or destroyed.”

On Tuesday morning, Nebytov posted a video of his visit, including inspirational battlefield music, and images of a Ukrainian flag that had been downed by Russian shelling but was once again defiantly draped over a municipal building.

By Tuesday evening, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry had seized on that image and declared that Makariv had been liberated. “Thanks to the heroic actions of our defenders, the state flag of Ukraine was raised over the city of Makariv, the enemy was driven back,” the ministry said in a statement.

Senior government officials have continued to declare that Makariv is no longer occupied by Russians. “From official sources, we received information that a small city, Makariv, and almost all of Irpin are already in the control of Ukrainian soldiers,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told reporters Wednesday.

Tokar, the mayor, said the reality on the ground was different. As of Wednesday, he said, Russian forces were still in control of roughly 15 percent of the town, an area they have held for nearly three weeks with little shifting of the front lines. There were no signs Wednesday that any of the roughly 15,000 residents who have fled since the Russian invasion began last month were returning to the town.

And despite Nebytov’s triumphant video, Tokar said the town was far from under control. “Since that video was made, three persons were killed here,” he said.

Tokar also put up the Ukrainian flag. On March 14, he said, a Russian shell landed near the municipal building and destroyed the flagpole but left the flag more or less intact. Two days later, he put the flag back when the bombardment subsided. It was a symbolic gesture, he said.

“We put up the flag not to show that Makariv is liberated but to raise the morale of the citizens and the soldiers who are defending Makariv,” he said. “It is part of our identity and we need to have it. All the Ukrainian cities have it, and only those which are occupied don’t.”

Even without the propaganda, Makariv, roughly 30 miles west of Kyiv, has in many ways been a success story for Ukrainian forces. The Russians are trying to use it as a possible entry point to topple the national government in the capital. And so far, as in other areas around Kyiv, the Russian advance has stalled because of the Ukrainian forces’ remarkably successful guerrilla-style tactics.

On Feb. 28, four days after the war started, Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers entered the town but were repelled by members of the Territorial Defense Forces, the mostly civilian militias that have risen up to defend Ukraine. Tokar said they used rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, shooting from their vehicles.

“The Russians didn’t expect to be ambushed in this way,” he said.

Two days later, Ukrainian military forces arrived, deploying artillery batteries, rocket launchers and pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns in the area to fend off the Russians.

“Makariv is in between two groups of Russian forces,” said Tokar. “If Ukrainians can hold this town, some of the Russian forces would be cut off from each other.”

But the human toll has been extensive. Over the past month, 12 members of the territorial defense units have been killed and 15 wounded, including three killed in a Russian shelling Tuesday as they were evacuating residents, Tokar said. About 30 civilians have died in the shelling or been fatally shot by Russian soldiers. While he didn’t have figures for Ukrainian military casualties, he said that most days “somebody is killed in the military.”

On Wednesday, fewer than 1,000 residents were still living in the town — out of a prewar population of about 15,000. Those whose houses were destroyed in the shelling are spending nights in the basement of the town’s hospital, Tokar said. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, shells that fell near the facility destroyed a few cars but did not cause any injuries, he added.

Tokar, a 39-year-old former lawyer, has had his own life turned upside down during this month of war. Days before the invasion, he had taken his wife and two small children to a nearby village as a precaution. But when the Russian forces arrived, they positioned themselves between that village and Makariv.

A few days later, Tokar and a friend sneaked past the Russians along a side road and rescued his family. He sent them 350 miles away to an area of western Ukraine that the fighting has not reached.

Tokar now spends his days in Makariv helping the remaining residents find food, water and medical care, or evacuating others from the town. He spends most nights there even though there is no electricity or running water in many parts of the town. He said shelling often intensifies in the darkness. He speaks to his family once a day wherever he can get cellphone reception. He keeps pictures of his two children, Anya, 6, and Zahar, 8, with him in his car. But he is not leaving.

Tall, burly and dressed in camouflage gear, Tokar became emotional when talking about his family and the town’s human losses.

“I was born here,” he said. “I grew up here. This is my land.”

Wednesday afternoon, as Tokar spoke with The Post, he was preparing to return to the center of Makariv with a Ukrainian military unit during a lull in the Russian shelling. But he told the soldiers to go ahead as he stayed to answer a few more questions.

On Wednesday night, he called to say the soldiers he sent ahead soon found themselves next to a house that was demolished by Russian shelling, killing an elderly man.