‘Alternative to fighting is death’ – Ukraine gears up for counteroffensive4 min read
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Lera Burlakova has experienced plenty of Russian violence and come close to death on numerous occasions during her eventful life – and she’s still only 37. A combat veteran who served with Ukraine’s 46th Special Forces battalion, she was involved in fighting on the eastern front between 2014 and 2017, as Putin used pro-Russian separatists to try and seize the Donbas. She took part in the fierce battles for both Donetsk airport and Avdiivka, the latter inflicting a high number of casualties on Ukraine’s army.
Lera’s journey from journalist to mortar squad leader was as sudden as it was unexpected.
As a young reporter, she went to cover the Euromaidan protests in November 2013, which were sparked by then President Viktor Yanukovych”s decision to abandon forging closer ties with the EU in favour of strengthening relations with Russia.
The protests eventually turned violent, with a number of demonstrators shot dead by gunmen.
“I worked there as a journalist, was wounded by a light-noise grenade explosion, and also took it very close to heart as protesters were killed by snipers,” she recalled during a conversation with Express.co.uk.
“I felt like it would be more logical if I died, instead of some 17-year-old boys.”
When war broke out in eastern Ukraine, she covered the fighting from the frontlines, eventually joining the ranks of the Ukrainian army in December 2014 – something that had proved “quite difficult for a woman without combat experience.”
But she quickly rose through the ranks to become a junior sergeant operating grenade launchers.
For months now Ukrainians have had to endure unrelenting rocket and drone attacks on their towns and cities in an increasingly vicious and desperate attempt by Putin to break the public’s support for the war.
On Monday, Kyiv underwent its most intense bombardment yet, as Russia hurled hypersonic and cruise missiles at the capital following President Zelensky’s tour of European countries to drum up more military aid for his army.
Lera, though, is adamant that public morale will not be broken and that Ukrainians will endure as much pain as it takes to defeat Putin once and for all.
She references a video filmed in the immediate aftermath of a recent rocket strike on an apartment bloc in Uman. A woman covered in blood and crying shows the film crew around her destroyed flat, pointing out the place where her children were sleeping (they survived).
Lera explains: “And in the end, after showing all this, swallowing tears, she says ‘I hate you. I hate you so much, Russia’.
“She’s not crying ‘I want peace’, or ‘when will all this end finally’, you know, she says ‘I hate you…’
“Ukrainian public, in majority, has no alternative but to be supportive of the war. Our war and our victory means life for us. Russian occupation will mean death.”
The former journalist, whose war diary “Life P.S” received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021, believes that Ukrainians are used to living with the threat of airstrikes, pointing to her own four-year-old son as an example.
“My child was crying non-stop when he heard the first air raid sirens in his life,” she said.
“Later, he was already sincerely annoyed that a supermarket is closed during an air raid, and we can’t go and get doughnuts. People get used to everything.”
There has been much speculation about a Ukrainian counteroffensive and where Kyiv’s forces might strike.
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Like many military analysts, Lera, who now spends her time between Washington and Kyiv in her role as a Democratic Fellow for the CEPA think tank, predicts that Ukraine’s army will try to split Russia’s eastern and southern armies and isolate Crimea.
However, she has serious concerns about whether the army has enough material resources for a successful counterattack, given delays to the delivery of Western military aid.
She explained: “It’s all about the military help from the West at the moment, basically that is the only factor that can help us win or that can force us to step back somewhere.
“As far as I understand the situation, we do lack armoured vehicles, and you know the situation with providing modern aviation for Ukraine. But the alarm bell for me – meaning that we have critically little material resources – is the situation in Bakhmut.
“We see that in order to ‘set aside’ material resources for the counteroffensive, Ukraine has been desperately saving everything possible during the last months of defence. Bakhmut was and is often held with unsupported infantry, because of the critical shortage of ammo.”
Lera has gone through a lot of personal pain during the nine years of this conflict, having seen her fiancé and many friends killed in combat. The birth of her son in 2018 helped to soothe some of the emotional trauma, giving her “a reason to keep breathing,” as she puts it.
But she believes Ukrainians must brace themselves for more suffering when the counterattack finally gets underway.
“It means daily losing wonderful people, very often the nation’s best,” she said.
“During any counteroffensive we will have even more losses, even more civilian residential buildings or hospitals destroyed by desperate Russian rockets. This war brings nothing good to us, it hurts terribly, no matter what is happening.
“It’s just that we have no choice, because the alternative to fighting is death.
“And of course having all that pain while moving forward, while moving ahead to victory and freedom, is more effective than having all that happening while keeping defence on the same place.”
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