Western Ukraine Suffers Rare Russian Attacks


LUTSK, Ukraine — Men in camouflage, hardened by battle, sniffled as a Ukrainian Orthodox choir sang the haunting funeral mass. One man put his arm around another as tears welled in his eyes.

“The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished,” said the priest during the funeral rites on Saturday for two of the four soldiers who died when the city’s military airfield was bombed before dawn on Friday.

“For 30 years we were singing these words and saying we would suffer for our freedom, but we could not have imagined these words would become our reality, that we would have to send our sons to defend us against our neighbors,” Father Mykhail, the priest said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now in its third week. With the four deaths at the airfield, it arrived in Lutsk, a provincial capital only 55 miles from Poland. It was a rare attack in the West by a Russian military that has focused primarily in the South, North and around Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

For weeks, Western Ukraine has been a safe haven for millions of Ukrainians who have fled battle zones, as well as businessmen, journalists, diplomats and others. But with bombings in Lutsk and another Western city, Ivano-Frankivsk, early Friday, violence and death pierced the sense of security that many had taken for granted.

“There is no peaceful town in Ukraine any more,” said Myroslava Kozyupa, 43, who stood outside on the town square listening as speakers broadcast the funeral taking place in the Church of the Holy Trinity in front of her.

She acknowledged that for now they face less peril than other cities like Kharkiv, which has been under assault for two weeks, and Mariupol, the country’s most pressing humanitarian emergency, saying “we are pretty OK.’’ But she was distressed that Matvii, a blue-eyed, seven-month-old baby being carried by a woman next to her, “already knows what sirens are and already knows they mean we have to go to a bomb shelter.”

Ukraine’s vast western region has stirred more concern in recent days following intermittent reports that Belarus, only 90 miles to the north, might begin to commit forces to the war. That worried Lutsk residents because of Belarus’s proximity and the unpredictability of its autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

The region’s role as a corridor for weapons being delivered from Europe and the United States may also make it a target. On Saturday Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Russian television that he had warned the United States that convoys with weapons sent to Ukraine would be “legitimate targets” for the Russian military.

Some residents worry that in addition to the convoys, the Kremlin has its sights set on this territory.

“I believe his aim is to reach the border with Poland — the NATO border,” said Serhiy, a surgeon who declined to give his last name out of fear for his security, referring to Mr. Putin.

Ms. Kozyupa said that she is worried that Ukraine could soon lose its ability to protect its airspace.

“Our borders are being defended by border guards and our land is being kept safe by our defenders, but our sky is not protected,” she said, echoing calls for NATO to establish a no-fly zone above Ukraine.

Lutsk’s airfield was bombed on Feb. 24, the first day of the invasion, but it did not completely destroy the airfield and no one was killed. The city, like much of the country’s west, had not expected Russian military activity to escalate, at least not yet. On Friday, when the attacks occurred, an early warning system did not go off because the Russian rockets had flown “super slow,” said the mayor, Ihor Polishchuk. “I think this type of attack is to raise fear, increase the level of panic and to strengthen the position of the Russian Federation in possible negotiations with Ukraine,” he said.

Mariia Zolkina, a political and military analyst at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, said that Russia may move its troops westward, but that a full attack was still not possible — “just yet” — until Russian soldiers gain a stronger foothold in central Ukraine.

However, she predicted that Russian forces will continue attacking military targets in Ukraine’s west because even if other countries donate fighter jets, the country will not be able to use them if there are no airfields from which they can fly.

“It is important for Ukraine to receive support before Russia achieves its goals in the west,” she underlined.

Western Ukraine has a different history than the east, which has historically been closer to Russia and where more people consider themselves ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers — the people Mr. Putin has claimed are a natural part of Russia. In Lutsk, more than 90 percent of the population is composed of ethnic Ukrainians, according to the most recent census, from 2001.

Lutsk and the region of western Ukraine are now home to many displaced Ukrainians from the east and south; the population of Lutsk and its surroundings, which the mayor estimated at about 250,000, has grown by 10,000 alone. And it will play a crucial role on the corridor through which humanitarian aid will be disbursed, said Ms. Zolkina.

Lutsk’s residents have been getting ready for a potential arrival of Russian troops, whenever it may come.

“We have prepared to the max,” said Mr. Polishchuk. “We have been able to buy enough food in case of a humanitarian catastrophe. We have 40,000 cubic meters of water in our reserves. And our residents have made at least 25,000 molotov cocktails since the war began.” The mayor himself said he made “too many to count.”

A reserve battalion of 4,000 volunteers is ready to buttress both the military forces and the territorial defense, a loosely organized part of the Ukrainian Army that consists of various paramilitary groups.

Ordinary citizens are also learning what it means to live in wartime. At a basement classroom usually used as a chess club, 19-year-old Artem Kovalchuk was showing civilians how to shoot a rifle.

“Everybody wants to learn how to hold a weapon properly,” said Mr. Kovalchuk, who joined the Ukrainian army in 2020 and had been serving near Mariupol, which is now surrounded by Russian forces.

“God forbid we will soon face a similar situation as the one being experienced in eastern regions.”

At the training session, people asked questions about how far shrapnel from a grenade could fly. Then they took turns learning how to load five bullets into Kalashnikovs. The weapons are from the 1960s and ‘70s — too old for combat, but usable for training.

Mr. Kovalchuk said he also gives lessons about strategy, tactics, and first aid.

His presentation was preceded by a talk from a psychologist about relaxation techniques and coping mechanisms for dealing with panic attacks.

The classes are every day at 1 o’clock, said Yuriy Semchuk, a volunteer, and usually draw between 150 and 200 people every day. He was previously a coordinator in a youth center, where he organized lessons in patriotic education.

At the funeral on Saturday, the priest prayed to god for “victory over the enemy.”

“There is a Christian commandment, ‘Thou shall not kill,” the Father Mykhail said near the end of his sermon eulogy. But the Russian attackers “deserve to die here,” he said.

“And tomorrow we will defend our motherland so that we do not become slaves.”

Later in the day at Holy Trinity Church, in the evening, a soldier who was defending Lutsk’s airport planned to get married — a sign that life goes on amid the looming threat of battle.

Maria Varenikovacontributed reporting from Lviv, Ukraine.


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