The last stroke of Vladimir Putin
By Will Cathcart
Will Cathcart and Robert Cooper in Mariupol, Ukraine, in March of 2022, as the Russian invasion commenced. Photo provided by Robert Cooper.
My wife, Tika, would like to cordially announce my retirement from journalism effective immediately. To be fair, the 20 hours I spent freezing in a shoddy concrete structure 100 km north of Crimea while the Russians dropped bombs around us was hell for her too. On the map that indicated my phone location, the structure we were in barely even registered, as if we were sitting in a field off the highway watching a war unfold around us. We might as well have been. As Tika pored over news and social media feeds in three languages and reached out to family and friends for help, she had to imagine all the worst-case scenarios. There were a great many. I only had to react — or, perhaps more importantly, to not react.
In a town called Kherson, we hid for 18 hours caught in the middle of a horrific battle. Russians attacked a vast line of Ukrainian tanks, transport vehicles and personnel carriers from two directions. When a tank we passed was hit by an explosive projectile, we ditched our car. We ran from one place to another only to be turned back by rockets and artillery. We jumped into the bed of an old Soviet transport truck and hid among stacks of tires. Bullets whizzed by above.
As the explosions grew closer, we took out our phones and recorded videos saying good-bye to our two-year-old sons and our families. When I watch this video now, I am overcome with shame and loathing at the person in the video who put himself in this position.
In front of us was a dilapidated concrete structure. We ran for it, crawled beneath and hid in the dirt like rodents. A truck driver and a farmer followed us. We spent the night freezing in the room above, uploading and deleting videos, photos and interviews from our 14-hour embed the day before with the paramilitary team Third Force on the front near Mariupol responsible for killing hundreds of Russian soldiers, FSB agents and separatists. We had bonded with these men, and this was evident in the photo. Had we been caught, we feared we would not be treated as journalists. And we feared for the lives of these men.
So when Russia invaded, we booked it west as fast as we could. That drove us straight into the middle of the worst battle Ukraine has seen in a long time.
There were no windows or blankets in that concrete structure. The farmer found a moldy bed lining for us. And though mesmerizing orange flames reached into the sky in every direction, there would be no fire for us. It was the longest and coldest night of my life. When I do sleep, I dream of the dismembered, mutilated bodies of Russian soldiers we passed on our way out of that place, which the Ukrainians left out as a warning to the Russians who would soon return.
How did I end up in the middle of all of this with Robert Cooper, a gentleman from south Texas colloquially known as Right-Hand Rob? Simple. I told Rob I was headed to Ukraine in two days. He replied that he would be on a plane out of Corpus Christi in the morning, no questions asked.
Our tale begins on a high note and goes straight down from there. We are at the Fitz, in Odessa. It’s named after F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda is just down the street — and yes, it is crazy.
Somehow the looming Russian Invasion had been almost normalized — simply the delusion of a semi-lucid president who cried “bear” one too many times. He spoke loudly, but he carried no stick. Yet silence would have been far worse.
The Fitz is decorated like a place where Gatsby would have hung out. The bartenders of the Fitz wear pink tuxedos. The place looks like a chaotic, clothed Victoria’s Secret runway. We are well-behaved gentlemen — clean living, pure hearts, and so forth — but regardless, we were stunned.
Right-Hand Rob put it like this: “There were so many of ’em, man. It’s like when you shoot at an entire flock of doves instead of picking just one and you miss — except they were angels.”
That night our biggest problem was that the bartenders didn’t know how to make a Vieux Carré. Rob taught the bartender how to make a Chilton and explained its nuanced Texas origins, but the Ranch Water was a bridge too far for the esteemed mixologist.
Things began to go south while we were headed east on our 20-hour Soviet coal-heated train to Mariupol that seems like a metaphor for our fate. Putin recognized the breakaway territories Donetsk and Luhansk — the front line to which we were headed. The next day he announced that Ukraine did not exist and was a part of Russia, then gave himself permission to go to war abroad, which doesn’t quite make sense. However, nothing about his logic does.
On the train, we weren’t sure what would happen when we arrived in Mariupol — if we would be detained or find ourselves beneath artillery fire. But Mariupol — for that brief moment — was the same calm, balmy place it was in 2015. The next day we embedded with an almost mythic team of 15 fighters called Third Force.
The commander goes by the code name Groz. He knows that even guerrilla warfare, perhaps most of all, is a war of hearts and minds. It is the first thing he tells us and the last. Without a balaclava this large man looks almost cuddly, like Baloo from The Jungle Book. He makes dirty jokes that aren’t divisive. Sure, he’s a stone-cold killer originally trained as a sniper; he shows us videos of his boys killing convoys of FSB officers by remotely detonating homemade Claymore-style mines larger than microwaves or boom boxes — pun intended.
Will with “Groz,” a member of the Ukrainian special forces team he and Robert shadowed at the start of the Russian invasion. Photo by Robert Cooper..
Back in Mariupol, the Third Strike team took us in. In 2021 business was slow: Ukraine had only 200 confirmed kills for the entire country the entire year. Still, those 15 men killed 50, 25 percent of all confirmed kills. I have no doubt they exceeded that figure weeks ago. Groz recently sent me video showing two Russian tanks they had taken out the previous night. One of his men had been wounded but was recovering.
At the time of our visit, Ukraine had been at war for about eight days. These guys have been at war for eight years, mostly out of Mariupol. They showed us drone video of dozens of kills using remotely detonated mines, loitering IEDs and VR-operated hovering drones dropping creatively rigged impact-detonation fuses on vehicles and individuals. They showed us everything: their methods and tactics, their improvisation, their tech campaigns, their tremendous ammo, weapons and caches, their RPGs and their mines, anti-tank and anti-personnel.
That morning as we rushed to leave, Rob asked a journalist sitting outside our hotel in Mariupol why he didn’t seem concerned. He said, “Well, I’m Indian. They don’t care about me, but you are an American. They catch you, they are going to put you on a pole.”
I feel very prayed for and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Because the people I left behind, right now in Ukraine, need both prayers and anti-tank mines to have any chance of making life hard enough for Russian troops to question their resolve. Putin already has placed two intelligence chiefs on house arrest for not giving him an accurate picture of the Ukrainians’ resolve. There is dissent among some of the Russian forces, who realize that Putin is likely off his rocker. The problem is that 10,000 Chechens also are roaming about the country, and for them, the Geneva Convention is a punch line.
Still, the Ukrainian soldiers we met are ready to fight to the last man to defend their homeland. Their heroic president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, stands with them.
America was always late to the party but somehow we always came through. I want to believe that this has not changed — that we are still that country and those people of courage who protect. Otherwise, very soon many more people in Ukraine are going to die. Putin hoped to weaponize civilians by creating a refugee crisis in Europe. So far millions of Ukrainian refugees, particularly in Poland, have not changed European leaders’ minds. It has had the opposite effect.
Indeed, this war is that it has galvanized the West against Putin. Putin’s problem is that he assumes everyone thinks like him. Lately, though, I’m not sure he is thinking at all and his former puppet president, Dmitry Medvedev, seems to be picking up the slack of spitting poison at the world. The once cool, calculated intelligence agent seems driven by irrational anger. Putin’s arguments and justifications make little sense. They make even less sense coming from Medvedev.
Division in the West is what Putin has always wanted. Some even say it’s his actual objective. Personally, I don’t think Putin has an objective — just a God-sized void in him that makes him want to punish the world for his existence.
It’s been a long time since one man held the Free World hostage with its own self-serving pragmatism. Now he threatens to destroy the earth if we don’t let him eliminate a nation. This is terrorism, plain and simple. And that’s how Putin should be treated: as an unhinged terrorist with a nuclear arsenal.
The good news is that Xi Jinping seems to have realized this, even if the disinformed Russian people have yet to. Analysts are correct that China is watching this conflict closely. Fortunately, 24-hour news coverage of a Taiwanese farmer stealing a Chinese tank is probably among Xi’s greatest fears. Taking Taiwan is meant to be China’s debut as a global military power. Ukraine has shown the world how that could result in global humiliation.
Robert and I saw two different Ukraines. The Odessa we entered was a roaring 1920s paradise. The one we exited felt like the morning after Black Tuesday. It seemed there was no escape, only a surreal exit through the Russian-occupied enclave Transnistria, where their “KGB” politely interrogated us and seemed to eventually conclude that we were insane, stupid or both. They may not be half wrong.
Rob carries his camera and lenses in a bright yellow pelican case. When they opened it up to find a bottle of vodka in there, they nodded in respect.
It has been a long time since the U.S. had a hostile military adversary. This requires coming to terms with the limits of American military power and relying on allies, as well as defending them. This does not mean direct conflict or the start of a world war, though it may be the only way to prevent one.
Putin does not have a monopoly on uncertainty. And he has proven unfit to helm a nuclear arsenal. The Russian people must see this. As Putin deprives 44 million people of their humanity and their allies of our honor and integrity, the least we can do is deprive him of his.
For 25 years the West has been reacting to Vladimir Putin. Attempts to alter this dynamic have ultimately failed. Putin has managed to be a problem without becoming the enemy. Yet he is crystal clear in his designation of the U.S. as Russia’s existential enemy. It’s more than just rhetoric.
Putin is also correct that the West does not take Russia seriously. At most, it’s an occasional adversary unworthy of engagement as an enemy force. Because of its innate military supremacy and its ethical obligations as sole superpower, the U.S. believes it must check its own might and impose restraints on its reactions to ensure they are commensurate. The allows Putin to dictate the rules of engagement, monopolize escalation, draw the line and decide when to cross it. Civilians are dying in Ukraine because of American arrogance.
Putin wants to be remembered as the man who restored Russia to greatness, but he is destroying his dynasty. He is a Pete III at best. I pray he dies by a Ukrainian fired round manufactured in the USA — surely we can give men like Groz what they need to liberate Putin from his existence — or perhaps, one day the Russian mothers of the boys he has sent to death will “Gaddafi him” in Lenin Square. When he dies, the greatest retribution will be condemning him to the ambiguous obscurity of crackpot dictators like Nicolae Ceaușescu.
I do not want Putin to be forgiven. I’ve spent 17 years of my life studying that dead-eyed bastard. I do not want to understand.
Passing through Bucharest seemed appropriate, on the final leg of an unending journey back to the Russian-occupied country I call home.
As for the Russian boys pulling the triggers or pressing the red buttons on the missile systems rolling into Kyiv that destroy entire apartment buildings, I pity them. And I wish them long lives of remembering what they’ve done with no vodka in sight to blunt the memories. May all their sons and daughters marry Ukrainians.