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A Small, Stubborn Town: A book about Voznesensk, a reminder never to underestimate Ukraine

A Small, Stubborn Town: A book about Voznesensk, a reminder never to underestimate Ukraine
Daily Maverick foreign affairs journalist Peter Fabricius, left, interviewed veteran BBC foreign correspondent Andrew Harding about his new book A Small, Stubborn Town: Life, Death & Defiance in Ukraine, during a Daily Maverick webinar on Wednesday, 18 October 2023. (Photos: Leila Dougan and Supplied)

Wednesday’s Daily Maverick webinar showcased veteran BBC foreign correspondent Andrew Harding’s book A Small, Stubborn Town, which tells the story of the battle for Voznesensk and the ‘defiance’ that has become ‘a hallmark of Ukraine’s war effort’.

“There’s every reason, I think, to be both hopeful that there can be some sort of breakthrough and some sort of strategic change on the battlefield which could then have some repercussions in Russia to change the politics; to change the war, but also to fear that it could just drag on and on and on,” British journalist and author Andrew Harding, said at the Daily Maverick webinar onWednesday, 18 October. 

Harding, who is the author of A Small, Stubborn Town: Life, Death & Defiance in Ukraine, joined Daily Maverick foreign affairs journalist and webinar host Peter Fabricius, to discuss his new book, which tells the story of a pivotal moment in Ukraine’s war – the battle for Voznesensk. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine

A Small, Stubborn Town, according to Harding, is about what happened in the farming town of Voznesensk, in southern Ukraine, over the course of a few days, “through the memories of a handful of local characters” – including the mayor, a local villager, volunteers, a lawyer and one of the attacking soldiers. 

“As soon as I got to Voznesensk and I started meeting some of the locals involved, it was clear to me – not only that this was a great news story, which we did for the BBC – but that this had the makings of a kind of moment that you could capture in a book that could tell a wider story, because the battle of Voznesensk was about that defiance that has become such a hallmark of Ukraine’s war effort,” he said.

“Most of the Ukrainians were focused on protecting Kyiv, the capital, and places like Voznesensk were really … no one was answering their calls. But nonetheless, the town made this decision [that] we’re gonna make a stand. They began preparing their defences, they began basically building protections and fortifications along the river [and] they began trying to block off roads to channel any Russian military advance into ambushes,” he continued.

Speaking to Fabricius, Harding said he hoped A Small, Stubborn Town captured Ukrainian’s defiance “but also the complexity of identity of the people on all sides”.

The battle for Voznesensk – which saw local volunteers and the military fight off Russian troops and win – took place in March 2022, a week after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. Voznesensk was considered a strategically important town for the Russians – who expected to take it easily – because it would have enabled Russian forces to move further west towards the port of Odesa, and towards a major nuclear power plant. 

A Small Stubborn Town webinar

Ukrainian refugees arrive in Poland after crossing the border at Shehyni-Medyka in March 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. (Photo: Miguel A Lopes/EPA-EFE)

Decisive battle

“I think it was clearly a very important battle,” Harding said.

“Most of the other Ukrainian commanders that I spoke to were adamant that this was a decisive battle and that it may have saved – and probably did save — southern Ukraine.

“Local people very much took control of their own decisions to defend their town – they didn’t wait for orders elsewhere. And you get that sense across the front line that Ukrainians – Ukrainian military, Ukrainian volunteer units – are operating very much under their own kind of steam, their own motivation,” he said. 

When asked by Fabricius whether he believed that the Ukrainians would ultimately prevail and expel the Russians or whether they’re going to have to settle for a messy partition deal, Harding said that while there had been delays – particularly in western supplies – and progress had been limited, Ukrainians were still making progress and had made “significant headway” toward places like Tokmak, a Russian-occupied town in southern Ukraine. 

“Then again, it’s still very possible that the Ukrainians will make the kind of breakthrough that they have been pushing for. We always underestimate the Ukrainians, and it’s very difficult to assess and calibrate the role of courage and determination. Because while the Russians in some places are determined, in some places are well-trained, and in some places are adapting skilfully to changing situations, they are fundamentally a top-down conscript army that is suffering enormous losses of men and materials,” Harding said. 

He said that when he spoke to Ukrainians about the country’s ongoing war effort, they said, “it’s frustrating, we’re very worried, we’re under no illusions now that this is going to be a slow, difficult, painful fight. But we have no other option”.

In response to a question from a webinar viewer, about whether the US could still continue to support Ukraine to the degree required given the conflict in the Middle East, Harding said it was “a big worry for Ukraine”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East Crisis News Hub

“Fundamentally, Europe – with some exceptions – seems to believe that it will continue backing Ukraine to the end. But the big money, the bulk of the money, comes from the US – there’s no denying that and there’s no way around that. 

“I think there’s no doubt that for the next year the Americans, Nato as a whole and Europe will continue to supply Ukraine with weapons, but they’re going to have to be making some big strategic breakthroughs quite quickly if this isn’t to turn into the kind of frozen conflict that Russia specialises in … Remember Russia doesn’t see these wars like we tend to in the west, which are as things that must come to an end. Russia has deliberately kept wars alive … that has been part of its diplomacy in destabilising their near abroad. And they would be quite happy to sustain an unresolved conflict in Ukraine for years,” he said. DM


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