Diary from the Ukraine front
By Will Cathcart
Robert Cooper, a hardened Ukrainian guerrilla fighter and Will Cathcart in the Donbas region of Ukraine during the first days of the Russian invasion. Image provided by Robert Cooper.
On February 21, journalist Will Cathcart left his home of Tbilisi, Georgia, and traveled to Ukraine. He and his friend and colleague, photojournalist Robert Cooper, spent the next two days documenting the resistance of the Ukrainian people and the danger and brutality of war as it came into civilian territory. Will has provided us the following diary of events, compiled from real time social media posts across various platforms, along with excerpts from an interview and a column he authored. These posts have been edited for length and clarity. — Charleston Mercury
February 21: Russia is invading Ukraine. This is it. Donbas is Ukraine. Now is Ukraine alone in this or not? NPR: It’s time to cease with qualifiers and equivocations like “Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to conduct “peacekeeping” operations there, raising fears that Russia is paving the way for an attack in Ukraine.”
February 22, Mariupol, Sea of Azov, Donetsk Region: “Mariupol is Ukraine” rally here less than an hour after Putin gave himself permission (via Parliament) to use military force outside of the country as if he were not already doing so. This peaceful #mariupolisukraine rally feels more like a heartfelt church service than a reaction to Russia’s denial of Ukrainian statehood and simultaneous declaration of war against it. And that says everything about the people of this small coastal town who have already been through so much in the last eight years and who are bracing for far more.
So I have a question. If Ukraine isn’t “a real country,” as Putin claimed last night, and it is actually part of Russia, then why does Putin need permission from Parliament to use military force “outside of Russia?” A lot of cognitive dissonance is floating around.
Fourteen years ago, as Russian troops poured into Georgia, Putin gleaned that the U.S. would never stop him. Saakashvili’s flouted plea still rings true: “If the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital.” Here they come.
February 24: Ukrainian Forces are stacking up sandbags and fortifying positions along roadside and around town square of Mariupol.
Robert Cooper: Hey guys, Rob and Will here we’re heading west out of Mariupol, final destination to be determined. We’re passing several columns of armored vehicles heading into Mariupol to presumably make some sort of stand there. We are passing areas that are being bombed right now, and we really don’t know where the safest place —
Will: We’re trying to avoid those areas being bombed.
Robert: The farther west we get, the safer we’ll be, is the idea.
Will: So we’ll keep you updated.
February 24: Since leaving Mariupol at 11 a.m., these are the first missile systems/multiple rocket launchers we’ve seen headed west to what I’m guessing will be Kherson or Mykolaiv where we have reports of heavy clashes and unfortunately through which we will be passing.
Will Cathcart interviews a member of the Ukrainian special forces team fighting the Russian invasion; his face is concealed for obvious reasons. Image by Robert Cooper.
February 24: Excerpt from a translated interview with Radio Echo of the Caucasus, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty project that broadcasts in Russian in Georgia and the self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia:
“These are people who know how to kill an enemy,” said Will Cathcart and Robert Cooper, correspondents for The Daily Beast. They spent 14 hours with former members of the elite unit of the Ukrainian special forces before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Robert Cooper: Yesterday we spent 14 hours with a volunteer group of former Ukrainian special forces — the Third Strike Force. About 200 Russians were killed in 2021, and 25 percent of those were killed by this group of 15 people — the people for whom fighting the Russians became the main target, the people who know how to kill an enemy crossing the border into Ukraine. … They make Claymore-type anti-personnel mines, which we have never seen before, and then blow them up by radio technology. These people will not trust anyone and the Russians should be afraid of them.
Will Cathcart: For the last 20 years, Putin has been dictating what we want, and we, the West, are just reacting. Sanctions are also a response; the West is trying to talk to Russia with its arguments of the civilized world, but Putin understands only one argument — power.
Cache of weapons used by this special forces group, including anti-tank mines, RPG rounds, mortar rounds and various rifle rounds. Image by Robert Cooper.
February 25, Hlinaia, Stînga Nistrului, Moldova: One last very thankful proof of life! Moldova, you are beautiful. We are on European soil. We made it out, and through Transnistria of all places. Thanks to Eugin Harabare and Iri Kurtanidze for saving our asses with a marvelous extract. We ended our escapade with a lovely interrogation with the Transnistrian KGB whose suspicion went from curiosity to bafflement. It feels wrong to be happy right now. I am shattered for the Ukrainians who are unable to leave or those who are stuck in between. And I wish an awful fate upon about 185k Russians who still are there pulling triggers. Unless they change course, many will not come home. The Ukrainians are fighting for something real and we saw it, perhaps a bit too close for comfort. But that point needs to be crystal clear. Rob and I are so grateful to everybody who has reached out with understandable concern. Let’s focus that concern into rage at the one man who is killing Ukrainian people and destroying hope over some twisted geopolitical inferiority complex. Putin will not stop unless we make him. Rarely is evil so cut and dry.
February 26: Excerpt from Air Mail article “From Russia with Blood”:
Hiding in a barn in Crimea in the midst of the fighting, Will wrote for Air Mail: “As jets flew overhead, dropping bombs that shook our shelter, I had the strange sensation of hoping that the fighter jets were Russian, because, at that moment, we were on Russian-held ground and less likely to be targets. … That night, sitting in darkness as the others slept, typing my story out on my phone — I feared the glow of my laptop might draw sniper fire — I felt like a wet rat. I’d never been less human.”
February 27: Will Cathcart and Charles Waring speak via cell phone
airWill explains to CWW that the guy on the front page is the leader of the special forces group that has been giving the Russians hell for eight years. Will is speaking to him unmasked in another photo as a translator responds by cell phone. He explains that the shelling was extremely intense and that he has not slept for two days. CWW suggests to Will that he needs to get some well-deserved sleep. Will knows he needs to rest and responds that we have to stop Putin. He is determined; he always has been. The reporter mirrors the courage of those who fly the yellow and blue and stand up to oppression.