On the morning of February 24th, the world woke to the news that after weeks of sabre rattling, Russia had invaded Ukraine. Since then, some four million people have fled the country, while others have opted to stay—to fight, to volunteer assistance, or to document the war. We spoke to three of the Ukrainian women who reluctantly fled their country for safety in Iceland, as well as an Icelandic photographer who chose to stay in Kyiv, about what this war has meant for them, and where it could lead.
Óskar Hallgrímsson–known as Skari to his friends–is a photographer who has been living in Ukraine for over two years now, and lives in Kyiv with his wife. Settling here after looking for some place “kind of cheap but kind of nice”, he has since made Ukraine his home.
“I just completely fell in love with this country and the people here,” Skari says. “It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been,” which is saying a lot for a person who has traveled all over the world.
He calls Ukrainians “a funny people. They’re like the Scots of eastern Europe. If you go to any other old Soviet republic, you don’t see a smile anywhere. But here, people are always smiling, laughing and joking.”
Today, there isn’t much smiling and laughter. Our conversation, taking place in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is briefly interrupted by an explosion heard outside. Skari is unshaken.
“I keep a pretty cool head in crisis situations, because of the nature of my job,” he says. “I’ve been in dicey situations before, though I’ve never been in a war. I’m pretty good at doing these risk assessments; what’s actually going to happen versus what your anxiety is telling you, not being controlled by your emotions.”
When the war began
“I was in my bed, and woke up to explosions,” Skari recounts. “It had been brewing for a few days at that point. We knew that Putin was going to attack somewhere, but most people thought he wouldn’t be stupid enough to try and take the whole country. All the analysts said that he didn’t have the money or forces to do that. Most people thought he would try to break away a land bridge between Donbas and Crimea. When he moved his entire force into that area, we thought he was just posturing. But then during the night, I woke up to these heavy explosions. I woke up my wife, and we were thinking of going to the bomb shelter, but I’m in with a group of journalists here that I work, and they got information that it was just the airport and that there were no ground forces.”
When it came to deciding whether to stay or leave, Skari and his wife tried to analyse the situation rationally.
“Every day, especially in the first days, my wife and I made a risk assessment,” he says. “We ask ourselves, ‘If we do this, what’s it going to cost us, and what are we going to gain?’ Where we are located in Kyiv, right next door is the OSCE building, which is heavily guarded. So we thought if there’s a ground invasion, at least we’ll be protected by those guys. We’re also surrounded by a lot of big buildings, so if there’s missiles flying, it’s kind of hard to hit us.”
“But we also saw what was happening with traffic,” he continues. “There were very long lines [leading out of Ukraine], we don’t have a car so we’d need to find that. The trains were completely packed, and a trip to Lviv is like 15 hours. Even if you get there, what’s next? You have to get yourself across the border, and get yourself out, and we didn’t know how long this conflict was going to last. We didn’t want to leave everything behind. This is our home.”
Skari felt it most of all necessary to document what was happening, and what was to come.
“I also saw this as an opportunity to document this conflict” he says. “And looking at Putin’s army, I just didn’t believe he had the might to do what he wanted to do. It’s just not big enough or strong enough. Then all the sanctions against Russia came, and we saw just how strong the Ukrainian army is versus the incredible shitshow that the Russian invasion is, that convinced me more to stay. And we’re very glad we did.”
“The mood of the city is hard to gauge,” Skari says. “Most people are inside. But in the first days, there was a lot of confusion and panic. You saw people rushing to their cars, rushing to the train station, running with their suitcases. There were long lines at the supermarket and empty shelves. Now, people that are staying, they’re probably going to keep staying. Most people are doing something to volunteer in some fashion; working for the territorial defense, making Molotov cocktails, doing whatever they can.”
The war is naturally having an emotional impact on people, especially as Ukrainians witness what Russia is doing to the cities of Kherson and Mariupol. That said, Skari believes Putin has miscalculated how Ukrainians would react to the invasion.
“Putin is making the bet that this is going to drag Ukrainians down and make them afraid, but I think it’s doing the exact opposite,” he says. “It’s only fueling them way more to resist. You can see it in the fighting. The death toll on the Russian side is ten times that of the Ukrainian side. Plus the amount of equipment that’s been lost by the Russians is just bananas.”
This, of course, is not the first time that ordinary Ukrainians have shown incredible resolve in the face of the odds.
“This idea of national unity, especially in Kyiv, that had happened recently before, in 2014,” Skari says. “They stood for four months, in the middle of winter, without any weapons, against a pretty brutal government that just shot them on the street and beat them. Those are the same people who are staying, volunteering, and fighting. You can feel that resolve growing.”
By all accounts, Russian forces have not been able to make any significant advances into the country. Drawing from both official and semi-official sources, Skari believes there are numerous reasons for this.
“I’ve had access to some semi-official sources, and what I have heard is that the main objective of the Ukrainian air force is to take out supply chains,” he says. “They haven’t been targeting the tanks and heavy artillery; that’s being done by these small groups that sneak up on them with Javelins. The strategy is that one gas truck destroyed is ten tanks without gas. And if you have hungry soldiers, they either stay hungry, or they leave their tanks behind to go somewhere to loot. We got kind of worried when we saw this big convoy heading west, as we thought they were going into attack position, but it turns out, no, they were just parking.”
In a lot of ways, Russia has been its own greatest enemy in the conflict. They have lost numerous generals to Ukrainian forces, in no small part because of another miscalculation by Russian authorities.
“The Russians are pushing the generals to the front because the communication lines have broken down,” he says. “The Ukrainians have broken into Russian encrypted communications. Also, the Russians built this encrypted cell phone entirely of Russian parts. They distributed it widely in their military. But it’s a cell phone. It uses cell service. So if you’re in the middle of a field somewhere in Ukraine, you don’t have any service. They effectively knocked out their own communications. As a result, they’ve brought their generals to the front to communicate with troops directly and try to boost morale, because morale is completely fucked.”
“At this point it’s not a matter of if Russia will lose, it’s a matter of when,” he continues. “That depends on the Russian willingness to sacrifice their men, and Putin does seem pretty willing. What people here are worried about is the next ten days. That’s going to tell you a lot about how this war will progress. It’s at this turning point right now. There’s no advance. There’s heavy shelling, but they’re not reaching any new ground across the battlefield from the south to the north, which is a big indication that the war is about to turn. The cables that I’ve read have changed their language from talking about the Ukrainian army holding positions to talking about the Russians being repelled. Meaning that the Russians started an offense, and the Ukrainians not only held it and also pushed them back. The casualty rate in the Ukrainian army has dropped. There’s been a lot of surrendering of Russian troops. They’re hungry, their morale is kaput. Their fourth general has been killed in two and a half weeks. That’s probably a record.”
The desperation grows
Being unable to make advances on the ground, Russia is relying heavily on attempts to demoralise the populace through bombardments. As mentioned before, Skari has seen this having the opposite of its intended effect.
“It’s pretty obvious now that the Russians are targeting civilians more than they are military targets,” he says. “You can see that in Kharkiv especially, as all the targets there are civilian targets. Not to mention establishing humanitarian corridors and then attacking those corridors. They’re trying to demoralise the civilian populations, but as I said, it’s actually doing the polar opposite. Targeting civilians is such a Russian tactic. They did this in Syria, and they did this in Grozny.”
Ultimately, Skari has a hard time seeing any graceful exit for Putin from the conflict apart from surrender.
“Nobody sees the off-ramp for Putin other than him just straight losing,” he says. “There’s some negotiations going on, with Zelensky saying Ukraine might not enter NATO, but I think that’s more of a tactic than anything else. Just to save lives, Ukraine might offer Putin the occupied territories in the east, but I don’t see that happening. I think Ukraine is going to take those areas back. They’ve said it, publicly, that they’re not going to give one inch to these aggressors. But there’s a lot of lives being lost, but that should be Russia’s incentive, because it’s their lives being lost the most. I have no idea how this is going to end. All I know is, Putin is running out of money, and Russia’s become a pariah.”
Closing the skies?
As the rest of the world watches the war move past its first month, the question everyone is asking is what can be done to bring an end to the conflict. Skari believes help can come from two fronts.
“There’s basically two things people outside of Ukraine can do to help,” he says. “You can do a humanitarian thing, or you can do a military thing. A humanitarian thing is doing something for the three million civilians who’ve left Ukraine, treat them humanely, and give them an opportunity to not be in danger. UNICEF in Iceland has the best distribution network for food of any humanitarian aid, which is the best bet for helping civilians here. On the military side, that’s more of a government issue. The Icelandic government has a vote in NATO, and it’s as strong as any other country in NATO. We could pressure NATO to do something in a military sense, for example, to close the skies. That would be amazing. That’s basically bringing in NATO, though, so it’s very risky.”
Skari admits that closing the skies would definitely be seen by Russia to be an escalation, possibly with dire consequences. At the same time, he believes there are few other choices given the current situation.
“It’s dangerous move to close the skies, but also, there’s genocide going on here,” he says. “If you come together in this resolve, you have to show it. I think the reason why they haven’t done it yet is because the Ukrainians are doing so well. This includes the weapons they’ve been getting from the UK and the US, the Javelins and the Stingers. So surface-to-air anything is going to help. The ground invasion is going nowhere, but the Russians have been firing off a lot of missiles. Iceland can use their political strength in NATO to pressure or vote on closing the sky.”
The nuclear threat
As dangerous as closing the sky might be, a nuclear retaliation is not something Skari sees Russia reaching for.
“Closing the sky would of course ramp up the risk of nuclear war and really put Putin in a corner,” he says. “But he’s losing anyway. We need to shorten the war. If Putin launched a nuclear strike, it would just be suicide. That’s just a fact. Even a tactical nuke, if you use a nuclear weapon, all the other nuclear nations would have to respond. The response wouldn’t even need to be nuclear; just the tactical munitions that NATO has, like thermobaric missiles. We would level Russia.”
Rather, Skari believes the next step in retaliation could be something Russia has used before.
“My worry is that a nuclear strike isn’t the next step in the escalation,” he says. “What people are missing, and what my worry is, is chemical weapons. He’s already targeting civilians, he’s already using cluster munitions, he’s already using thermobaric bombs, the next step is what he used in Syria, the chemical weapons. He wouldn’t be able to use them in Kyiv, but he could use them in Mariupol or Kharkiv.”
The less fucked thing
Despite the speculations of armchair generals across social media, Skari, from his position in the middle of the conflict, does not see any clean and abrupt ending to the conflict.
“When you’re dealing with war, there aren’t any good things,” he says. “There are just not as bad things. You can have one thing that’s fucked, one thing that’s way more fucked, so you choose the less fucked thing. There’s no magic answer to any of this. It’s always going to be a tragedy. Every decision here is going to cost something.”
That said, Skari remains optimistic. His view from the ground, and his closeness to the Ukrainian people, affords him a keen look at the resolve of the Ukrainian people, whose determination to halt the Russian invasion grows with each passing day.
“I’ve seen people stop and clap for Ukrainian soldiers they’ve seen on the street,” he says. “They’re heroes to these people. The morale here is amazing. Right now, it seems very likely that Ukraine is going to kick Russia’s ass out.”
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