Correspondent to Carnage

REVIEW: 'Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine's War of Independence' by Yaroslav Trofimov

March 3, 2024

It's often the case that the most hard-bitten war correspondents write the most heartbreaking books. That's because they go to dangerous battle-zones—with their carnage and destruction—to which the more timorous correspondents hesitate to take themselves. And as a consequence, these toughest of reporters see things that others don't see—others, that is, who aren't themselves trapped in these zones, whether as soldiers in the thick of battle or war-locked civilians on the brink of death. And in telling us about them these reporters rend our hearts.

Our Enemies Will Vanish, by Yaroslav Trofimov—an account of the first year of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and of "Ukraine's war of independence" (as the author describes it)—is just such a distressing book, doubly so as we read it now, in the war's present state, and on its second anniversary. Vladimir Putin's invaders appear to be clawing back to a position of parity, even one of strategic advantage, after taking a prolonged and unexpected pounding from the highly motivated and patriotic Ukrainian armed forces. These men and women (augmented, as Trofimov tells us, by "legionnaires" from numerous countries, including the United States) fight for the very survival of Ukraine as a sovereign state against Russian troops (including press-ganged conscripts, non-Slavic minorities, and criminals freed to serve as cannon fodder) who've never really understood why they are in Ukraine in the first place. Many were hornswoggled into believing, in the war's earliest months, that the Ukrainian population would welcome them as liberators.

This welcome never happened, of course. The Russians were greeted with guns, not roses, and even in those parts of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine where they could have expected to be embraced by kindred locals, they came to be despised for their brutality and violence. A young mother who survived the Russian incursion into central Ukraine—a woman representative of many Russophone Ukrainians who didn't fear Russia before the war—tells Trofimov: "I hate the Russians with all my heart and I wish them all the worst things in the world because of what they have done to us. I didn't used to feel that way about them."

In this passage, toward the very end of the book, we learn this woman's name: Anastasia Lisnychenko. She appears only once in the story, but we are told what she is called. And we are grateful to the author for this meticulous recording of her identity—and of that of so many others in the book who appear only once. Trofimov may be an old pro who's seen it all, but he has an almost ferocious sense of humanity. Not for him the erasure of Ukrainian civilians by a resort to anonymization: Civilians who talk to him are always named (unless to do so would put them at risk).

Who is Yaroslav Trofimov? He's the chief foreign correspondent of the Wall Street Journal (where I write for the editorial page). This means—in our benighted century—that he's spent more time covering wars than he has on cataloguing the less violent transactions between nations. Since 9/11, he's reported on combat and conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Somalia, Georgia, and the Sahel (during the worst marauding by Boko Haram). Born and raised in Kyiv, he was named after Yaroslav the Wise, the grand prince of Kyivan Rus—primordial Ukraine—from 1019 to 1054. When Trofimov was a schoolboy, his mother worried that he'd be teased if his grades ever showed him to be less than wise. An accomplished linguist, he speaks eight languages, ranging from his native Ukrainian and fluent Russian to Italian and Arabic. It's a safe bet that he's the only staffer on an American newspaper who speaks Malagasy (the main language of Madagascar).

Trofimov was in the Ukrainian capital city on the day the war began: February 24, 2022. The day before, "Kyiv was still a city at peace," although girding its loins for a war that everyone knew was about to begin, since intelligence sources were screaming that fact out loud. Trofimov happened to meet Petro Poroshenko on Feb. 23. The former president of Ukraine—the predecessor of Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom his animosity was "visceral"—Poroshenko warned Trofimov that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was "going to be tomorrow after four a.m." and counseled him to "rush to the airport and hop on a flight out of here." Trofimov did not do so, of course, staying faithful to his calling as a correspondent of unusual courage.

Instead, he spent much of the next year in towns and cities over which the Russians and Ukrainians fought each other to the death: Mariupol, Dnipro, Kherson, Kharkiv, Chernihiv (in the north, near the Russian border). In every place to which he goes he witnesses pitiless destruction by the Russians, accompanied by savagery against civilians, including widespread evidence of sadism, sexual abuse, and torture. In Bakhmut, in the eastern Donbas region, he observes how "the city, home to 72,000 people before the war, was being wiped off the face of the earth" by cluster munitions, rained down by troops loyal to Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin's former chef who came to command the Wagner Group of mercenaries. Prigozhin, who scorned the generals of Russia's own army as "bitches," was bumped off by Putin on August 23, 2023, after he sought to challenge the Russian president's authority in a mutiny that transfixed the world.

Our Enemies Will Vanish is as much a tale of noble Ukrainian men and women as it is an account of places ravaged (perhaps irreparably) by the Russians. Trofimov sweeps into his narrative embrace a stirring cast of courage. Foremost is Zelensky, that improbably Churchillian Jewish ex-comedian-president who has come to embody Ukrainian defiance. But the secret behind Ukraine's ability to resist Russia's raw and ruthless power is the resilience that runs all the way down from the very top to the humblest soldier. Particularly wonderful, in a roster of some of the finest people you could hope to have in the trenches against monsters like Putin and Prigozhin, is Valentyn Koval, Ukraine's HIMARS [the U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System] battery commander, whose leg was blown off just below the knee minutes after he joked—in an area heaving with Russian mines—that "it will be a pity if one of us loses a leg."

In Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, Trofimov tells us, Ukraine was blessed in having an army chief who knew his enemy's weaknesses as well as his own side's strengths—without ever being blind to his own debilities and his enemy's undeniable power. In other words, the perfect blend of humility, pragmatism, and never-say-die. And yet, Zelensky replaced Zaluzhny earlier this month, reportedly because he disagreed with the general's urgent call to draft 500,000 more men. (In this, military strategists say Zaluzhny is right: Ukraine is desperately undermanned.) And yet, proof that Ukraine is a democracy that accepts civilian control over the military, even in war, can be seen in the absence of widespread protest over the replacement of Zaluzhny. As Trofimov tweeted on Feb. 8, "As unhappy as many Ukrainians may be with Zaluzhny's dismissal, everyone—including the general—recognizes the elected President's right to do so."

Ukraine remains resolutely democratic, even under the most urgent wartime pressure. How sad it is, then, and how infuriating, that our own democracy should be so niggardly, so picayune, so Know-Nothing, and so misguidedly ideological in its support for that nation in its fight to stave off vassalage to Putin. Let us give every member of Congress a copy of Our Enemies Will Vanish. And let us scorn every member who fails to read this powerful, eloquent book.

Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine's War of Independence
by Yaroslav Trofimov
Penguin Press, 400 pp., $32

Tunku Varadarajan is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a writer for the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.