Russian strikes killed at least eight people in eastern Ukraine in 24 hours and the death toll from an apartment complex hit by Russian rockets grew as well, local officials said on Monday, a chilling reminder of the devastation Russia has inflicted on civilians, even as its military pauses its drive to seize Ukrainian territory.
While the Russian military regroups and resupplies, its attacks on civilian targets and morale have intensified in recent days. In one town after another in eastern Ukraine, a hail of seemingly random Russian strikes, delivered by warplanes, artillery and missiles, has killed, maimed and terrified residents.
The attacks have ramped up in particular in Donetsk, an eastern province increasingly in Moscow’s cross-hairs after Russian forces seized the last major city in neighboring Luhansk Province this month.
In the town of Chasiv Yar, in eastern Ukraine, emergency crews were still finding bodies on Monday from a single attack over the weekend. A missile strike hit an apartment complex late Saturday, and the death toll rose to 30 people killed, the Ukrainian State Emergency Service said. Nine people had been pulled from the rubble and rescued so far, it said.
In eastern Donetsk province, which includes Chasiv Yar, at least 10 cities and towns were hit, bringing the civilian death toll in the province to nearly 600 since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, according to the region’s military governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko.
Russian forces have used a lull in their ground offensive to help recover, in line with President Vladimir V. Putin’s order last week that some troops rest after the capture of Luhansk Province, military analysts said on Monday. But behind the front lines the rain of devastation continues, and many residents expect that it is a mere overture to a renewed, all-out assault.
Ukrainian and Western analysts expect that Mr. Putin will order a new offensive to conquer the remaining Ukrainian-held territory in Donetsk, anchored by the cities of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut — if not more.
And on Monday, Russia signaled it might be seeking to establish permanent control of the Ukrainian territories now occupied by Moscow’s forces: Mr. Putin signed a decree that offered a simplified path to Russian citizenship for all Ukrainians.
About nine miles from Chasiv Yar, in the city of Bakhmut, officials said that on Sunday, Russian troops had fired incendiary munitions, limited by international law and designed to set fires or cause burn injuries, in one neighborhood. Bakhmut, an important military stronghold for Ukraine, is less than 10 miles from Russian lines and a likely target for its planned advance through the eastern Donbas region.
Neighbors in shorts and sandals frantically pulled garden hoses toward a burning house. They hurled buckets of water at the flames as the rafters and tiled roof of a house cracked and popped. “I worked 20 years down the mines and this is what I get,” said a retired miner, Viktor, 67, watching and weeping.
Russia launched attacks in the northeast as well.
In the north, at about 3:40 a.m. on Monday, a Russian missile destroyed a school building in the Slobidske district of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, though no one was hurt, Oleh Sinehubov, the head of the Kharkiv regional administration, said on the Telegram messaging app. He said a six-story apartment building in the city was hit 20 minutes later. Emergency workers rescued an 86-year-old woman from the rubble.
“Only civilian structures — a shopping center and houses of peaceful Kharkiv residents — came under the fire of the Russians,” Mr. Sinehubov said.
The recent attacks appeared to differ, military analysts said, from Russia’s earlier tactics in the war, such as its failed blitzkrieg on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and then its concentrated, weekslong bombardment of major regional cities. The latest attacks hit a variety of targets without a corresponding attempt to advance inch by inch.
DONETSK REGION, Ukraine — Between the cracks of mortar fire and the metallic bangs of Russian self-detonating mines, Yurii, a Ukrainian Army medic, readied an intravenous line for the soldier sprawled on the stretcher below him.
The soldier looked to be in his mid-20s. His face was smeared with dirt and fear.
“Do you remember your name?” Yurii asked.
“Maksym,” the soldier whispered back.
Earlier that morning Maksym had been under a Russian bombardment at the front in eastern Ukraine that had left him severely concussed. Yurii and other Ukrainian medics were tending to him at an aid station barely removed from what has come to be known as the “zero line” where the shelling is relentless.
several anti-vehicle mines around the road and aid station where Yurii and his crew were treating Maksym. Even if the mines are not disturbed, they are set to detonate on a daylong timer.
Ukrainian forces had cleared some of the soda-bottle-shaped explosives, one soldier said, pointing to a video taken on his phone in the predawn darkness that showed troops shooting at a mine until it exploded. But mines were still in the bushes, waiting to detonate.
Yurii and the other medics tried to keep their focus on the wounded soldier. But the immediate demands stretched beyond their checklist of treating intense bleeding or assessing the airway. How to comfort the wounded? How to reassure them that they have survived and made it away from the front? How to give hope even if dozens of their friends have died?
“Don’t be afraid, my friend. You’ve arrived,” Yurii said soothingly as Maksym wormed around on the stretcher, his eyes wide and frantic.
It was clear that in Maksym’s mind, the shelling hadn’t stopped. He was breathing hard, his chest rising and falling in rapid bursts.
“Don’t worry. I am putting the needle in the vein. You’ve arrived, it’s a hard concussion,” Yurii soothed again.
The soldiers who carried Maksym to the aid station piled back in their truck to drive the roughly two miles back to the front line. They were returning to the same task their friend had been carrying out before he was nearly killed: waiting for a Russian attack or for an incoming Russian artillery round to find them.
As they departed, a soldier beyond the trees yelled “Fire!” A Ukrainian mortar launched a shell toward Russian positions. Smoke drifted up from the firing site.
The artillery war in Ukraine’s east is seemingly never-ending. Even without either side attacking or counter attacking, the shelling is constant — wounding and killing and driving those soldiers cowering in trenches and foxholes slowly insane.
At the sound of mortar fire, Maksym lurched on the stretcher once more.
“It’s all good! Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. It’s all fine. All fine. These are ours. These are ours,” Yurii told Maksym, assuring him that he wasn’t being shelled again.
Maksym’s breathing slowed. He covered his face with his hands and then looked around.
The first complete thought Maksym organized and communicated was a string of expletives directed at the Russians.
“Go on, talk to us. You got a wife? You got kids?” Yurii nudged, seizing the opportunity to bring Maksym back among the living.
“The shrapnel,” he muttered.
“Shrapnel?” Yurii asked. He was surprised. Maksym was clearly concussed, but showed no signs of other wounds.
“He’s got shrapnel right here, and here,” Maksym said, his voice trailing off. The medics quickly realized that he was talking about his friend who was wounded when the Russian artillery struck earlier.
“He’s been driven away, taken to the hospital,” Yurii said, though the medic had no idea what had happened to Maksym’s friend. He was just trying to keep his patient from panicking again.
“Is he alive?” Maksym asked cautiously.
“He has to be,” Yurii replied, though he didn’t know.
For Yurii’s ambulance crew and other medics assigned to the area, these types of calls are common. Some days they wait a few miles from the bus station-turned-aid station, the determined pickup point between the front lines and safety, and their 24-hour shift ticks by uneventfully: Yurii calls his wife several times a day. Ihor sleeps. Vova, the son of an armorer, thinks about how to modernize Ukraine’s Soviet-era weaponry.
Other days the casualties are frequent and the medics are left with a constant rotation between the hospital and the aid station as they place bloodied men with tourniquets strapped to their extremities in the back of their ambulances.
Yurii stared down at Maksym, encouraged by his newfound ability to communicate.
“You’re not hurt anywhere else?” Yurii asked.
Maksym put his hand behind his neck and pulled away, looking at his appendage, almost expecting blood to be there.
“We were all covered by shelling,” Maksym said quietly.
“It’s all good, you’re alive,” Yurii said, trying to change the subject. “The main thing is you did well. Good lad.”
As Yurii readied the stretcher and Maksym for the ambulance, an aging red sedan, a Russian Lada, pulled up to the aid station. The Soviet-era staple came to an abrupt halt, practically skidding on the churned up pavement.
The dust settled. In the distance artillery thudded in a familiar rhythm.
A man in a baggy gray T-shirt, clearly distraught, jumped from the car’s driver seat. The passenger opened his door and yelled: “The woman is wounded!”
She was an older woman named Zina, they would soon learn, and she was facedown in the back seat.
Another group of medics would take Maksym to the hospital while Yurii’s crew handled the newly arrived patient in the sedan, the medics decided.
The two men who had driven Zina to the aid station — her husband and her son-in-law — had asked Ukrainian military positions near their home where to take her after shrapnel from an artillery blast struck her head. The troops had directed them to Yurii’s aid station.
In the Lada, Zina’s blood had begun to pool on the fabric. She seemed to be at least in her 50s, unconscious, another civilian wounded in the four-month-old war, like so many who have been caught between the guns.
“Get the stretcher!” Yurii called.
It was not quite 11 a.m., and another of the Russian-strewn mines suddenly exploded near the aid station.
TRANSCARPATHIA, Ukraine — Beneath dark clouds unleashing a summer rain, officials in a southwestern Ukrainian border village gathered silently, slowly hanging wreaths on branches to commemorate the destruction of a nation.
The wreaths were not decorated with the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag; they were laced, instead, with the red, white and green of Hungary’s. And the nation they honored this month was not their besieged country, but a homeland from their collective history, torn up more than 100 years ago.
Transcarpathia — now a hardscrabble region of Ukraine bordering Hungary — has been home to as many as 150,000 ethnic Hungarians who, through the complex horse-trading, conquests and boundary adjustments of over a century of European geopolitics, ended up within Ukraine’s borders.
war with Russia, the yearnings of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority were mostly brushed off as benign nostalgia for a time when they lived in one nation with other ethnic Hungarians.Now, divided loyalties within the tiny community — which has soaked up Hungary’s ambivalence toward Russia’s invasion — are being seen as something more worrisome by their fellow Ukrainians, some of whom fear they are susceptible to pro-Russia propaganda from Hungary.
Viktor Orban, is able to cause for his neighbors, in this case by playing on ethnic Hungarians’ feelings of discrimination by their government. And it adds another layer of complexity for Ukraine’s leaders as they try to keep their sprawling, multiethnic country united in the face of a brutal Russian invasion, even as they struggle to win allegiance from minorities including ethnic Russians and Hungarians.
tensions have risen as Mr. Orban has increasingly sought to bring ethnic Hungarian enclaves in Ukraine and elsewhere under his sway. Among other things, he has encouraged Hungarians beyond the country’s borders to claim citizenship, which allowed him to win over new voters to keep him in power.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
In this poor region of Ukraine, along the Hungarian border, he doled out funding to run schools, churches, businesses and newspapers, winning gratitude — and helping fan resentments. The ceremony for a lost homeland did not exist before Mr. Orban came to power.
The feelings of otherness intensified as Ukraine, under constant threat by Russia, passed a law that mandates more classes be taught in Ukrainian in public schools. The law was mainly meant to rein in the use of the Russian language, but for the conservative Hungarian community where many still learn, and pray, almost exclusively in Hungarian, the law was seen as an unfair infringement on constitutional rights.
tried to block European Union sanctions on Russian energy imports, on which Hungary relies. And he declined to give weapons to Ukraine, or even allow them to be shipped across Hungary’s borders.
That wariness has seeped into the ethnic Hungarian community, fed by Hungarian television channels close to Mr. Orban’s governing party that broadcast into Hungarian-Ukrainian homes along the border. Hungarian broadcasters cast doubt on Ukraine’s position that Russia invaded to steal Ukrainian land, instead sharing Moscow’s perspective that it invaded to protect Russian speakers — a minority with a different language, not unlike the ethnic Hungarians.
“I think this is the main reason for the war, not what Ukraine says,” said Gyula Fodor, a vice rector at the Transcarpathian Hungarian Institute, chatting over traditional plum schnapps after the ceremony for the lost homeland. The institute, a private college, has received Hungarian funding, and Mr. Orban attended its ribbon-cutting.
As the war has dragged on, relations between Mr. Orban and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine have grown increasingly frosty.
In the border towns, suspicion is in the air. Some ethnic Ukrainians claimed during interviews that in the first days of Russia’s invasion Hungarian priests had urged the faithful to hold out hope that their region would be annexed to Hungary after Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, fell, though there is no documentary evidence to substantiate those assertions.
In towns with ethnic Hungarian majorities, some people reported being harassed with mysterious text messages in Ukrainian: “Ukraine for Ukrainians. Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!” They said the messages ended with a threat using another word for ethnic Hungarians: “Magyars to the knives.”
Ukrainian intelligence officials publicly claim the texts came from a bot farm in Odesa using Russian software, and labeled it a Russian attempt to destabilize Ukraine, but they did not provide evidence.
Tensions in Transcarpathia erupted publicly after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Right-wing nationalists marched through the streets of Uzhhorod in recent years, sometimes chanting “Magyars to the knife.”
And a Hungarian cultural center in the city of Uzhhorod was set ablaze twice in 2017. In both cases, authorities said the perpetrators had pro-Russian links. Dmytro Tuzhankskyi, the director of the Institute for Central European Strategy in Uzhhorod that promotes Ukraine’s alignment with the West, says he believes Moscow was behind other local provocations. Moscow would like to sow discord between Hungary and Ukraine, he alleged, as a way of causing more trouble for the Western alliance that has lined up against Mr. Putin.
Hungarian and local officials, he worried, could unwittingly fall prey to such designs: “They might think: One more little provocation — it means nothing. That’s a very dangerous mind-set.”
Yet for many ethnic Hungarians, Ukraine is not blameless.
László Zubánics, the leader of the Hungarian Democratic Union of Ukraine, said locals watch Hungarian television partly because no Ukrainian cable channels reach the border areas, something he saw as a form of political neglect. But he acknowledged that ethnic Hungarians often choose to tune into Hungarian, and not Ukrainian, satellite channels.
Many ethnic Hungarians say they are only able to afford to stay in the region of family vineyards and farms because of Hungarian funding. That makes many ethnic Hungarians skeptical of Ukraine’s claims that it wants to help integrate them into society, Mr. Zubánics said: “Most kids and parents say, ‘Why do I need the state language? I don’t see my place here in this country.’”
Although the Soviets repressed and exiled Hungarian nationalists, some ethnic Hungarians have started to look back on Soviet rule as a time of relative cultural freedom as well. It was a time, according to Mr. Zubánics, when Hungarians recall holding prominent official positions, unlike in modern Ukraine.
Nostalgia for Soviet times stirs the ire of local right-wing nationalists such as Vasyl Vovkunovich, once a political ally of Hungarian nationalists in the final days of the Soviet Union. In 2017, he said he led a march of supporters down the streets of Berehove, ripping down Hungarian flags raised over many churches and buildings.
“These Hungarians are not worthy,” he said. “Their ancestors would roll over in their graves if they knew Hungary was siding with Russia.”
For local residents like Zoltan Kazmér, 32, the present feels more complicated. He feels loyal to Ukraine, he said. But it was Hungarian funding that allowed him to turn his family’s century-old winemaking tradition into a business.
“When we go to Hungary, we feel like Ukrainians,” he said. “When we are in Ukraine, we feel like Hungarians.”
Smoke hung over the gray streets that day in Kyiv, where protesters had piled tires, furniture and barbed wire to barricade themselves from security forces. Torn blue and yellow Ukrainian flags whipped in the wind, and candles left on sidewalks marked where people had been gunned down. A drawing of a reviled president depicted as a pig was tacked to a lamp post.
And yet there was a feeling of hope in Kyiv in March 2014, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with survivors of a violent crackdown on demonstrations. He commended the Ukrainians for their bravery in confronting a Kremlin-backed leader and promised that the United States would support the new government.
But Russian forces had moved into Crimea, Ukraine’s peninsula on the Black Sea, and Mr. Kerry warned: “It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further.”
Eight years later, with Russian troops obliterating Ukrainian cities and towns, Mr. Kerry’s words seem eerily prescient.
Through the administrations of three American presidents, the United States has sent mixed signals about its commitment to Ukraine. All the while, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia watched Washington’s moves, biding his time.
“We’ve been all over the place on Ukraine,” said Fiona Hill, a Russia and Eurasia expert who advised the three administrations before President Biden. “Our own frames have shifted over time, and our own policies have shifted.”
“I think we need to re-articulate why Ukraine matters,” she said.
Now, two months into Mr. Putin’s war, the United States is at the center of an extraordinary campaign to foil him, casting the military conflict as a broader battle between democratic values and authoritarian might.
“It’s nothing less than a direct challenge to the rule-based international order established since the end of World War II,” Mr. Biden said in Warsaw last month. “And it threatens to return to decades of war that ravaged Europe before the international rule-based order was put in place. We cannot go back to that.”
The United States has rushed weapons and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and imposed sanctions intended to cut off Russia from global markets. This past weekend, Mr. Biden sent Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to Ukraine as affirmation of Washington’s support.
After a secret train ride from Poland, the two spoke with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Sunday about military aid. Mr. Austin said the Pentagon would expand training for Ukrainians on weapons systems; Mr. Blinken said Mr. Biden was nominating Bridget Brink, currently the ambassador to Slovakia, as his ambassador to Ukraine, the State Department said in a readout. The department is sending American diplomats back to Ukraine this week.
In many ways, officials said, Mr. Biden is trying to make up for the years of U.S. indecisiveness toward Kyiv. Those who wavered earlier include top Biden aides who had worked in the Obama administration as well as officials in the administration of Donald J. Trump, who undermined U.S. policy on Ukraine for personal political gain, according to current and former officialsand a review of records.
The Roots of War
Since the earliest days of Ukraine’s independence, in 1991, American officials have recognized the country’s strategic value as Russia struggled to find its footing after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, wrote in a March 1994 essay. “But with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
Two months earlier, under pressure from the United States, Ukraine had reached an agreement to destroy its nuclear arsenal. President Bill Clinton heralded the pact as “a hopeful and historic breakthrough” to improve global security. But Ukraine’s leader, President Leonid Kuchma, warned that it would make his fledgling country more vulnerable.
“If tomorrow, Russia goes into Crimea, no one will raise an eyebrow,” he said that year.
At the time, Moscow was already goading a separatist movement in Crimea, even as Mr. Clinton predicted that Ukraine would become a major European power.
Yet over the next decade, experts said, NATO left out Ukraine to avoid angering Russia, which some members saw as an important economic partner and energy supplier and hoped would evolve into a more democratic and less threatening power.
The Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, and four years later, President George W. Bush publicly backed Ukraine’s ambition to follow. But Western European nations were reluctant. Today, Ukraine is neither a NATO member nor a part of the European Union, and officials cautioned as recently as this month that its inclusion in either was far from likely.
Years after Mr. Bush’s show of support, a new Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, tried to move the country closer to Russia, sparking mass protests in November 2013 when he refused to sign a long-planned agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union.
That led to the crackdownin Kyiv’s streets in 2014.
Security forces opened fire on protesters in central Kyiv in February that year, killing dozens. Protesters held their ground, attracting public support in Europe and the United States. Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia.
“In the hearts of Ukrainians and the eyes of the world, there is nothing strong about what Russia is doing,” Mr. Kerry said during his visit to Kyiv.
Within days, Mr. Putin ordered the invasion of Crimea, and he soon formally recognized it as a “sovereign and independent state.”
A slow-burn war in eastern Ukraine followed, with Kyiv battling a separatist movement supported by Russian weapons and troops. An estimated 13,000 people were killed over the next eight years.
Mr. Putin’s swift actions caught President Barack Obama off guard.
Mr. Obama vowed the United States would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and imposed economic sanctions, but his aides said in later accounts that he was skeptical of Ukraine’s corruption-ridden government.
And Mr. Obama said in a 2016 interview that a showdown with Mr. Putin over Ukraine would have been futile.
His administration gave more than $1.3 billion in assistance to Ukraine between 2014 and 2016, but Mr. Obama said no when his national security team, including Mr. Biden and Mr. Kerry, recommended sending weapons to Kyiv.
Among Mr. Obama’s defenders was Mr. Blinken, then the deputy secretary of state and now America’s top diplomat.
By sending military aid to Ukraine, “you’re playing to Russia’s strength, because Russia is right next door,” Mr. Blinken, then the deputy secretary of state, said in early 2015.
Any aid, he added, “is likely to be matched and then doubled and tripled and quadrupled by Russia.”
Neither the Obama administration nor its key European allies believed Ukraine was ready to join NATO. But tensions in the alliance were growing as Europeans sought to maintain trade ties and energy deals with Russia.
The division was captured in a phone call in which a senior State Department official profanely criticized European leaders’ approach to helping Ukraine. A leaked recording of the call was posted on YouTube in February 2014 in what was widely believed to be an attempt by Russia to stir up discord between the United States and Europe.
Yet as much as anything else, Ukraine was a costly distraction to Mr. Obama’s broader agenda.
“It was hard to reconcile the time and energy required to lead the diplomacy on Ukraine with the demands on the United States elsewhere around the world, especially after ISIS took over much of Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014,” Derek H. Chollet, a senior Pentagon official at the time, wrote in a book about Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.
Mr. Chollet is now a senior counselor to Mr. Blinken at the State Department.
‘Do Us a Favor’
Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential elections in April 2019 after campaigning on an anti-corruption pledge.
Once in office, he turned to ending the war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine through negotiations with Mr. Putin.
The new Ukrainian president “knew he needed the backing of the United States and the American president,” said William B. Taylor Jr., who started his second tour as ambassador to Ukraine that June after his predecessor, Marie L. Yovanovitch, was pushed out on Mr. Trump’s orders.
Mr. Zelensky tried to arrange a meeting with Mr. Trump at the White House. But Mr. Trump had negative views of Ukraine even before he took office, influenced partly by his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who had made more than $60 million consulting for a Ukrainian political party backed by Russia.
Mr. Trump’s opinions were reinforced in meetings with Mr. Putin, whom he publicly admired, and Viktor Orban, the autocratic prime minister of Hungary.
And close associates of Mr. Trump, in particular Rudolph W. Giuliani, then his personal lawyer, were urging the president to get Mr. Zelensky to open two investigations: one into Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump’s main political opponent, for actions in Ukraine related to his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings; the other based in part on a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 election, to help Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump embraced the theory because it undermined the finding of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had interfered to help him.
But U.S. policy had been on a notably different track. Earlier, in December 2017, under pressure from his national security aides and Congress, Mr. Trump agreed to do what Mr. Obama would not: approve the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
But in mid-2019, the White House froze $391 million in military aid to Ukraine, including the Javelins, to build leverage for Mr. Trump’s demands, congressional investigators later found. The move hobbled Ukraine’s war effort against Russia-backed separatists.
“For it to be held up, they couldn’t understand that,” Mr. Taylor said.
That set the stage for a fateful July 25 call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky. “I would like you to do us a favor,” Mr. Trump said. He requested the two investigations.
Mr. Zelensky and his aides were confused. “The rest of the U.S. government was very supportive of Ukraine,” Mr. Taylor said. “But from the top, the president had a different message and set of conditions.”
Mr. Zelensky scheduled a CNN interview for September to announce one or both of the investigations that Mr. Trump had requested to satisfy the American president. But the interview never happened because journalists had begun reporting on the hold on military aid, and lawmakers sympathetic to Ukraine had persisted in asking the White House about the suspended aid. On Sept. 9, three House committees announced investigations into the pressure campaign after reviewing a whistle-blower complaint citing the July call.
The Trump administration released the aid on Sept. 11.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv on Jan. 31, 2020, the first cabinet official to do so since the announcement of an impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump the previous September. The Senate trial was underway.
Just days earlier, Mr. Pompeo had blown up at an NPR reporter in an interview, asking her to identify Ukraine on an unmarked map and yelling, “Do you think Americans care” about Ukraine? — using anexpletive before “Ukraine.”
Yet in Kyiv, Mr. Pompeo stood next to Mr. Zelensky in the presidential palace and said the U.S. commitment to support Ukraine “will not waver.”
But the damage had been done, and Mr. Zelensky was unconvinced that the United States was a trusted ally, Ms. Yovanovitch said in an interview last month.
“Trying to use our national security policy in order to further President Trump’s personal and political agenda was not just wrong, but it was really detrimental to the bilateral relationship,” she said. “It colored how Zelensky handled foreign policy.”
With all the disruption, former U.S. officials said, Mr. Putin no doubt saw weakness in Washington.
Biden vs. Putin
Consumed by the pandemic and the economy, Mr. Biden did not prioritize Ukraine at first. But Mr. Blinken visited Kyiv in May 2021 with a message of support.
During a steady rain, Mr. Blinken joined Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, on a walk to the Wall of National Remembrance, where photos of soldiers who had been killed in combat with Russia in the Donbas were displayed outside St. Michael’s monastery.
But he also went to Kyiv with some tough love, determined to press Ukraine to make political and economic changes — a core issue for Mr. Biden when he oversaw relations with the country as vice president.
Just before the visit, Mr. Zelensky’s government had replaced the chief executive of the largest state-owned energy company, whom Western officials had praised for his transparency. The State Department had chastised the move as “just the latest example” of Ukrainian leaders violating practices of good governance. In Kyiv, Mr. Blinken told reporters that he was urging Ukraine to strengthen itself by “building institutions, advancing reforms, combating corruption.”
Such concerns paled in the face of Russia’s growing military threat, which Washington was watching “very, very closely,” Mr. Blinken said. Mr. Putin had begun amassing troops along Ukraine’s borders. By fall, the number approached 100,000.
This past January, Mr. Blinken rushed back to Kyiv for more consultations before a hastily arranged meeting in Geneva with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in a last-ditch attempt to avert war.
But Russia would not be deterred, and high-level contacts between Washington and Moscow have been severely limited ever since.
By contrast, Mr. Blinken speaks frequently to Mr. Kuleba to convey American support that, at least in terms of aid, has been greater than at any time in the three decades since Ukraine declared independence.
“The world is with you,” Mr. Blinken told him on March 5, stepping into Ukraine just a few feet beyond Poland’s border.
“We’re in it with Ukraine — one way or another, short run, the medium run, the long run,” he said.
Mr. Kuleba referred to an “unprecedented, swift reaction” to Russia’s invasion and thanked Mr. Blinken for the support.
WASHINGTON — As Russian troops retreat from northern Ukraine and focus operations on the country’s east and south, the Kremlin is struggling to scrape together enough combat-ready reinforcements to conduct a new phase of the war, according to American and other Western military and intelligence officials.
Moscow initially sent 75 percent of its main ground combat forces into the war in February, Pentagon officials said. But much of that army of more than 150,000 troops is now a spent force, after suffering logistics problems, flagging morale and devastating casualties inflicted by stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, military and intelligence officials say.
There are relatively few fresh Russian troops to fill the breach. Russia has withdrawn the forces — as many as 40,000 soldiers — it had arrayed around Kyiv and Chernihiv, two cities in the north, to rearm and resupply in Russia and neighboring Belarus before most likely repositioning them in eastern Ukraine in the next few weeks, U.S. officials say.
The Kremlin is also rushing to the east a mix of Russian mercenaries, Syrian fighters, new conscripts and regular Russian army troops from Georgia and easternmost Russia.
Whether this weakened but still very lethal Russian force can overcome its blunders of the first six weeks of combat and accomplish a narrower set of war aims in a smaller swath of the country remains an open question, senior U.S. officials and analysts said.
“Russia still has forces available to outnumber Ukraine’s, and Russia is now concentrating its military power on fewer lines of attack, but this does not mean that Russia will succeed in the east,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said on Monday.
“The next stage of this conflict may very well be protracted,” Mr. Sullivan said. He added that Russia would probably send “tens of thousands of soldiers to the front line in Ukraine’s east,” and continue to rain rockets, missiles and mortars on Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Lviv and other cities.
U.S. officials have based their assessments on satellite imagery, electronic intercepts, Ukrainian battlefield reports and other information, and those intelligence estimates have been backed up by independent analysts examining commercially available information.
Earlier U.S. intelligence assessments of the Russian government’s intent to attack Ukraine proved accurate, although some lawmakers said spy agencies overestimated the Russian military’s ability to advance quickly.
As the invasion faltered, U.S. and European officials have highlighted the Russian military’s errors and logistical problems, though they have cautioned that Moscow’s ability to regroup should not be underestimated.
The Ukrainian military has managed to reclaim territory around Kyiv and Chernihiv, attacking the Russians as they retreat; thwarted a ground attack against Odesa in the south and held on in Mariupol, the battered and besieged city on the Black Sea. Ukraine is now receiving T-72 battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons — in addition to Javelin antitank and Stinger antiaircraft missiles — from the West.
Anticipating this next major phase of the war in the east, the Pentagon announced late Tuesday that it was sending $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles — roughly several hundred missiles from Pentagon stocks — to Ukraine, where the weapon has been very effective in destroying Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.
American and European officials believe that the Russian military’s shift in focus is aimed at correcting some of the mistakes that have led to its failure to overcome a Ukrainian army that is far stronger and savvier than Moscow initially assessed.
But the officials said it remained to be seen how effective Russia would be in building up its forces to renew its attack. And there are early signs that pulling Russian troops and mercenaries from Georgia, Syria and Libya could complicate the Kremlin’s priorities in those countries.
Some officials say Russia will try to go in with more heavy artillery. By focusing its forces in smaller geographic area, and moving them closer to supply routes into Russia, Western intelligence officials said, Russia hopes to avoid the logistics problems its troops suffered in their failed attack on Kyiv.
Other European intelligence officials predicted it would take Russian forces one to two weeks to regroup and refocus before they could press an attack in eastern Ukraine. Western officials said that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was desperate for some kind of win by May 9, when Russia traditionally celebrates the end of World War II with a big Victory Day parade in Red Square.
“What we are seeing now is that the Kremlin is trying to achieve some kind of success on the ground to pretend there is a victory for its domestic audience by the 9th of May,” said Mikk Marran, the director general of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service.
Mr. Putin would like to consolidate control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, and establish a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula by early May, a senior Western intelligence official said.
Russia has already moved air assets to the east in preparation for the renewed attack on the heart of the Ukrainian military, and has increased aerial bombardment in that area in recent days, a European diplomat and other officials said.
“It’s a particularly dangerous scenario for the Ukrainians now, at least on paper,” said Alexander S. Vindman, an expert on Ukraine who became the chief witness in President Donald J. Trump’s first impeachment trial. “In reality, the Russians haven’t performed superbly well.Whether they could actually bring to bear their armor, their infantry, their artillery and air power in a concerted way to destroy larger Ukrainian formations is yet to be seen.”
Russian troops have been fighting in groups of a few hundred soldiers, rather than in the bigger and more effective formations of thousands of soldiers used in the past.
“We haven’t seen any indication that they have the ability to adapt,” said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired C.I.A. officer.
The number of Russian losses in the war so far remains unknown, though Western intelligence agencies estimate 7,000 to 10,000 killed and 20,000 to 30,000 wounded. Thousands more have been captured or are missing in action.
The Russian military, the Western and European officials said, has learned at least one major lesson from its failures: the need to concentrate forces, rather than spread them out.
But Moscow is trying to find additional forces, according to intelligence officials.
Russia’s best forces, its two airborne divisions and the First Guards Tank army, have suffered significant casualties and an erosion of combat power, and the military has scoured its army looking for reinforcements.
The British Defense Ministry and the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that analyzes the Ukraine war, both reported on Tuesday that the Russian troops withdrawing from Kyiv and Chernihiv would not be fit for redeployment soon.
“The Russians have no ability to rebuild their destroyed vehicles and weapon systems because of foreign components, which they can no longer get,” said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, a former commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe who has been involved with Ukrainian defense matters since 2016.
Russian forces arriving from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two secessionist statelets that broke away from Georgia during the 1990s and then expanded in 2008, have been conducting peacekeeping duties and are not combat ready, General Repass said.
Russia’s problems finding additional troops is in large measure why it has invited Syrian fighters, Chechens and Russian mercenaries to serve as reinforcements. But these additional forces number in the hundreds, not thousands, European intelligence officials said.
The Chechen force, one of the European intelligence officials said, is “clearly used to sow fear.” The Chechen units are not better fighters and have suffered high losses. But they have been used in urban combat situations and for “the dirtiest kind of work,” the official said.
Russian mercenaries with combat experience in Syria and Libya are gearing up to assume an increasingly active role in a phase of the war that Moscow now says is its top priority: fighting in the country’s east.
The number of mercenaries deployed to Ukraine from the Wagner Group, a private military force with ties to Mr. Putin, is expected to more than triple to at least 1,000 from the early days of the invasion, a senior American official said.
Wagner is also relocating artillery, air defenses and radar that it had used in Libya to Ukraine, the official said.
Moving mercenaries will “backfire because these are units that can’t be incorporated into the regular army, and we know that they are brutal violators of human rights which will only turn Ukrainian and world opinion further against Russia,” said Evelyn N. Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration.
Hundreds of Syrian fighters are also heading to Ukraine, effectively returning the favor to Moscow for its helping President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war.
A contingent of at least 300 Syrian soldiers has already arrived in Russia for training.
“They are bringing in fighters known for brutality in the hopes of breaking the Ukrainian will to fight,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But, she added, any military gains there for Russia will depend on the willingness of the foreign fighters to fight.
“One of the difficult things about putting together a coalition of disparate interests is that it can be hard to make them an effective fighting force,” she said.
Finally, Mr. Putin recently signed a decree calling up 134,000 conscripts. It will take months to train the recruits, though Moscow could opt to rush them straight to the front lines with little or no instruction, officials said.
“Russia is short on troops and is looking to get manpower where they can,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va. “They are not well placed for a prolonged war against Ukraine.”
One of the paradoxical things about Vladimir V. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule of Russia was how relatively open society always remained.
For all the state’s control of media, people could read or watch what they wanted, including foreign newscasts like BBC and CNN. The internet was largely unfettered, a portal to the rest of the world. Unlike, say, China, you could criticize the president with some assurance that the police would not knock at the door.
As the war in Ukraine grinds on, Mr. Putin has strangled the vestiges of a free press to justify an invasion that has been almost universally condemned — and with that moved closer to the stultifying orthodoxy of the Soviet Union. The result will be to isolate the country, as Mr. Putin has isolated himself, leaving it with a one-sided view of the world no longer subject to debate.
Two of the remaining flagships of the country’s own independent media — Ekho Moskvy, the liberal radio station, and TV Dozhd, or Rain, a digital upstart — went off the air last week, hounded by the authorities for reporting accurately on Ukraine. Access to Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, platforms pulsing with opposition to Mr. Putin’s war, have been blocked, as have other online sites in Russia.
Many foreign news organizations have withdrawn correspondents or stopped reporting in Russia after Mr. Putin on Friday signed into law a measure to punish anyone spreading “false information” with up to 15 years in prison.
“Just two weeks ago it was not possible to imagine how quickly most of it would get closed,” said Nina L. Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York City. “And yet it is.”
Beyond the immediate impact on Russians’ ability to learn about the war next door, Mr. Putin seems to have crossed a threshold in the country’s history. He is sequestering Russian society to a greater extent than at any time since the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, launched a policy in 1986 called glasnost, which became known as “openness” but more precisely means “the act of giving voice.”
Access to foreign news reporting and independent voices on social media have challenged the Kremlin’s monopoly on state media — as Mr. Gorbachev’s effort broke the Soviet monopoly on truth. Independent outlets have, at great risk to reporters’ personal safety, uncovered abuses during Russia’s war in Chechnya, repression of political and human rights, and the extraordinary wealth of people close to Mr. Putin — all taboo subjects in state media.
The impact of silencing them could be much broader and last much longer than the war, pushing the country from authoritarian rule to something worse.
“Putin is trying to turn Russia back into a totalitarian dictatorship of the pre-Gorbachev days,” said Michael McFaul, the former American ambassador to Russia who is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “He will eventually fail, but he will do great damage to Russian society in trying.”
The Kremlin’s propaganda and restrictions have already disconnected ordinary Russians from the horrific violence ravaging cities across Ukraine — even those with relatives on the ground telling them otherwise. They have covered up the Russian military’s difficulties, as well as the human costs to Ukrainians that Mr. Putin claims to be defending.
Those who watch Russian television instead see the country’s troops taking part in a largely bloodless “special military operation,” to protect Ukrainian civilians from a neo-Nazi government. In this alternate reality, Russian troops are distributing aid to civilians or helping evacuate them to safety; Ukrainians are fabricating reports about Russian military setbacks — or even shelling their own cities.
The result has been to create a blinkered view of the war that few dare pierce. Not a single deputy in the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, voted against the bill criminalizing “fake news.”
“There is less and less access to accurate information from the West amid the relentless pounding from increasingly hysterical state propaganda, which admittedly, is having its effect,” said Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Europe.
Mr. Putin was a lieutenant colonel in the K.G.B., serving in the former East Germany, when glasnost was introduced. He later said that he, too, recognized the need for the Soviet Union to become more open. Only up to a point, though.
From the start of his presidency in 2000, he understood that the media — especially television — had the power not only to shape his political image but also to help him govern. He moved quickly to regain control of the main television networks from two oligarchs, Vladimir A. Gusinsky and Boris A. Berezovsky, who championed agendas not always in line with the Kremlin.
But printed media faced less direct pressure, and the internet burst with new outlets, making Russian and foreign sources widely accessible. Independent media like Ekho Moskvy were mostly left alone, serving as quasi independent sources of news and debate, at least for the educated elite. The station was itself a child of glasnost, founded in 1990 by frustrated employees of state radio who wanted a platform for genuine political discussion.
Russians attributed the station’s survival to its savvy editor in chief, Aleksei A. Venediktov, and the Kremlin’s need for both a safety valve for liberal debate and a source of information separate from its own propaganda. It was there that opposition figures long barred from state television could give interviews, and anchors could debate the impact of Kremlin policies on regular people.
Before it closed last week, the outlet promoted voices critical of the war and of Mr. Putin himself. Russia’s prosecutor general accused it of spreading “deliberately false information.”
As in many spheres of Russian life, tolerance for contrary or unorthodox views in the media has been eroding for years. Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University and a fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington, said there has been a “qualitative change” in Mr. Putin’s government.
She dated it to the protests that shook Mr. Putin’s ally in Belarus in 2020; the poisoning of the Kremlin’s arch critic, Aleksei A. Navalny, and his subsequent imprisonment; and the constitutional changes enacted last year allowing Mr. Putin, now 69, to extend his presidential terms to 2036.
All generated significant opposition in Russia that seeped into the public discourse, despite the Kremlin’s effort. Mr. Navalny became famous for investigations devoted to exposing corruption, including a 143-minute documentary on YouTube after his arrest that accused Mr. Putin of secretly building a palace on the Black Sea coast.
“I always refrained from calling Russia totalitarian, but I think the military situation, the war, has pushed the authorities toward that,” Ms. Snegovaya said from Bulgaria where she was assisting Russians who fled the country in recent days.
A more severe step would be creating an analog to China’s Great Firewall, which restricts access to foreign websites on the outside and strictly controls what is allowed inside. Russia calls its vision for a sovereign cyberspace the RuNet, though it has so far stopped short of imposing total control.
In today’s digitally connected world, Mr. Putin could have a difficult time cutting off Russia entirely. Even in the Soviet Union, information flowed back and forth over borders. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, that allow people to evade internet restrictions by disguising which country they are logging in from, can help spread information the way samizdat, illegal copies of censored books or articles, circulated clandestinely in Soviet times.
“It will be difficult for the Russian government to block all outside information,” Jamie Fly, the chief executive of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the U.S.-financed network founded during the Cold War, said after the announcement that it, too, was ceasing operations inside Russia. “History shows that people will go to great lengths to seek out the truth.”
Those who do so now will be a small minority. As Mr. Putin’s rule continues, critics fear he will take even stronger measures to maintain the Kremlin’s uncontested grip on power.
“We have a long way to go before we get to 1937,” Mr. Radchenko said, evoking the year of Stalin’s Great Terror, “but for the first time the road is clear. You can see far ahead, like on a cold, crisp winter morning, and there, in the distance, you can just about make out the outlines of the guillotines.”
Russia clamped down harder Friday on news and free speech than at any time in President Vladimir V. Putin’s 22 years in power, blocking access to Facebook and major foreign news outlets, and enacting a law to punish anyone spreading “false information” about its Ukraine invasion with up to 15 years in prison,
The crackdown comes as the Kremlin scrambles to contain discontent over the war and to control the narrative as Russia faces its most severe economic crisis in decades as a result of this week’s crushing Western sanctions. Fearing prosecution, more independent Russian news outlets shut down on Friday, and the B.B.C. said it had suspended all of its operations in Russia.
Mr. Putin signed a law that effectively criminalizes any public opposition to or independent news reporting about the war against Ukraine. Taking effect as soon as Saturday, the law could make it a crime to simply call the war a “war” — the Kremlin says it is a “special military operation” — on social media or in a news article or broadcast. Announcements that the law was coming had already pushed Russian independent media outlets to shut down in recent days, and more followed on Friday.
In addition, the government blocked access inside Russia to the websites of major Russian-language outlets that are based outside the country, and to Facebook, the social network popular with the Westward-looking urban middle class where many have posted fierce criticism of Mr. Putin’s war.
Facebook, Russia’s internet regulator claimed, had engaged in “discrimination against Russian news media” by limiting access to pro-Kremlin accounts, including that of the Defense Ministry’s television channel. The decision was a blow to internet freedom in Russia, where Western social networks have remained accessible despite Mr. Putin’s creeping authoritarianism.
For now, popular Russian social networks like VKontakte remain accessible, along with Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. But analysts expect a further crackdown, heightening the importance of the messaging and social networking app Telegram, which the Kremlin tried and failed to block in 2018.
Russian officials claim that journalists writing critically about the war — or calling it a “war” or an “invasion” — are undermining the national interest, even referring to them as traitors.
The lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, passed the law criminalizing “false information” about the armed forces on Friday by a unanimous vote, and Mr. Putin signed it later in the day. Vyacheslav Volodin, the Duma speaker, said that under the new law, “those who lied and made declarations discrediting our armed forces will be forced to suffer very harsh punishment.”
The text of the new law offered few details about what constituted an offense, but Russian journalists and Kremlin opponents take it to mean that any contradiction of the government’s statements on the invasion could be treated as a crime. Besides criminalizing the sharing of “false information” it makes “discrediting” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calling on other countries to sanction Russia or protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine punishable by fines and years of imprisonment.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the law would apply to people inside Russia — such as foreign correspondents — producing content in a language other than Russian. But another senior lawmaker said that citizens of any country could be prosecuted under it, and the BBC — which has a large Russian-language service in Moscow as well as an English-language bureau — said it was halting its operations inside the country.
“This legislation appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism,” Tim Davie, the director-general of the BBC, said in a statement. “It leaves us no other option than to temporarily suspend the work of all BBC News journalists and their support staff within the Russian Federation while we assess the full implications of this unwelcome development.”
Mr. Putin was silent on those developments on Friday. Instead, he held a televised videoconference with the governor of the Kaliningrad region, a Russian exclaves sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, in which he tried to exude a sense of normalcy amid crisis.
“We don’t see any need to exacerbate the situation or worsen our relationships,” Mr. Putin said. “All of our actions, if they occur, they occur exclusively, always, in response to ill-intended actions toward the Russian Federation.”
Mr. Putin’s comments sounded unreal with the war in Ukraine raging, but they appeared to be a message to his domestic audience to show that he was not the one escalating tensions.
The tensions were felt this week, among others, by Russia’s community of independent journalists, who found ways to publish and broadcast content harshly critical of the Kremlin despite Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism.
On Thursday, the pillars of Russia’s independent broadcast media, the Echo of Moscow radio station and the TV Rain television channel, shut down under pressure from the state.
Then, on Friday, the government said it would block access to Russian-language media produced outside the country: the websites of the Voice of America, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the popular Latvian-based news outlet Meduza. The reason: the systematic distribution of what it called false information about the “special military operation on the territory of Ukraine.”
Russians will still be able to reach blocked media through the Telegram messaging app, where many news outlets have their own accounts. Some can also use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to bypass restrictions.
But independent news outlets based in Russia saw the dangers as so great that increasing numbers shut down. Znak, an independent news outlet covering Russia’s regions, shuttered its website on Friday, with a statement saying: “We are suspending our operations given the large amount of new restrictions on the functioning of the news media in Russia.”
Others tried to stay alive by telling their readers they would no longer cover the war. Russia’s last major independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, said it was deleting its content about the war in Ukraine. The Village, a digital lifestyle magazine that moved its operations from Russia to Poland this week, said it was retroactively editing its articles to change any mention of the word “war” to “special operation.”
Until recently, Russia’s mostly uncensored internet had provided an outlet for Russians to express dissent and to read news reports outside the Kremlin propaganda bubble that envelops much of the country’s traditional news media. But amid the war in Ukraine, which has touched off protests across the country and an outpouring of opposition from Russians online, the Kremlin appears to see the internet as a newfound threat.
Echo of Moscow, a radio station founded by Soviet dissidents in 1990 and acquired later by the state energy giant Gazprom, said on Friday that it would delete all corporate social media accounts and turn off its website as part of a “liquidation” process. By the afternoon, its popular YouTube channel was gone. More than one million people had tuned in to listen to its programs each day, according to the radio station’s longtime editor in chief, Aleksei A. Venediktov.
“Echo is my home,” said Irina Vorobyeva, a journalist who worked at the radio station for more than 15 years, in an interview on Thursday. “It’s home for a huge number of journalists, and it’s home for a huge number of our guests, who came here to talk about their opinions, to talk about things the world didn’t know.”
The situation was also a sea change for Novaya Gazeta, the 29-year-old independent newspaper that has endured the murder of six of its journalists and whose editor, Dmitri Muratov, shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
In an email newsletter on Friday morning, Nadezhda Prusenkova, one of the newspaper’s journalists, wrote that it was hard to see many routes for the publication to continue to exist.
WEE WAA, Australia — Two years ago, the fields outside Christina Southwell’s family home near the cotton capital of Australia looked like a dusty, brown desert as drought-fueled wildfires burned to the north and south.
Last week, after record-breaking rains, muddy floodwaters surrounded her, along with the stench of rotting crops. She had been trapped for days with just her cat, and still didn’t know when the sludge would recede.
“It seems to take for bloody ever to go away,” she said, watching a boat carry food into the town of Wee Waa. “All it leaves behind is this stink, and it’s just going to get worse.”
Life on the land has always been hard in Australia, but the past few years have delivered one extreme after another, demanding new levels of resilience and pointing to the rising costs of a warming planet. For many Australians, moderate weather — a pleasant summer, a year without a state of emergency — increasingly feels like a luxury.
Black Summer bush fires of 2019 and 2020 were the worst in Australia’s recorded history. This year, many of the same areas that suffered through those epic blazes endured the wettest, coldest November since at least 1900. Hundreds of people, across several states, have been forced to evacuate. Many more, like Ms. Southwell, are stranded on floodplain islands with no way to leave except by boat or helicopter, possibly until after Christmas.
La Niña in full swing, meteorologists are predicting even more flooding for Australia’s east coast, adding to the stress from the pandemic, not to mention from a recent rural mouse plague of biblical proportions.
pregnancies on pause, shows that the El Niño-La Niña cycle has been around long enough for flora and fauna to adapt.
more than doubled since the 1970s.
Ron Campbell, the mayor of Narrabri Shire, which includes Wee Waa, said his area was still waiting for government payments to offset damage from past catastrophes. He wondered when governments would stop paying for infrastructure repairs after every emergency.
“The costs are just enormous, not just here but at all the other places in similar circumstances,” he said.
60 percent of the trees in some places. Cattle farmers culled so much of their herds during the drought that beef prices have risen more than 50 percent as they rush to restock paddocks nourished (nearly to death) by heavy rain.
Bryce Guest, a helicopter pilot in Narrabri, once watched the dust bowls grow from above. Then came “just a monstrous amount of rain,” he said, and new kind of job: flights to mechanical pumps pushing water from fields to irrigation dams in a last-ditch effort to preserve crops that had been heading for a record harvest.
On one recent flight, he pointed to mountains of stored grain — worth six figures, at least — that were ruined by the rains, with heavy equipment trapped and rusting next to it. Further inland, a home surrounded by levees had become a small island accessible only by boat or copter.
“Australia is all about water — everything revolves around it,” he said. “Where you put your home, your stock. Everything.”
The flood plains in what is known as the Murray-Darling basin stretch out for hundreds of miles, not unlike the land at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The territory is so flat that towns can be cut off with roads flooded by less than an inch of additional rain.
That happened a few weeks ago in Bedgerabong, a few hundred miles south of Narrabri. On a recent afternoon, a couple of teachers were being driven out of town in a hulking fire truck — equipment for one disaster often serves another. Across a flooded road behind them, three other teachers had decided to camp out so they could provide some consistency for children who had already been kept out of school for months by pandemic lockdowns.
Paul Faulkner, 55, the principal of the school (total enrollment: 42), said that many parents craved social connection for their children. The Red Cross has sent in booklets for those struggling with stress and anxiety.
“Covid has kept everyone from their families,” he said. “This just isolates them even more.”
He admitted that there were a few things they did not discuss; Santa, for one. The town is expected to be cut off until after the holidays as the waters that rose with surging rains over a few days take weeks to drain and fade.
In Wee Waa, where the water has started to recede, supplies and people flowed in and out last week by helicopter and in a small boat piloted by volunteers.
Still, there were shortages everywhere — mostly of people. In a community of around 2,000 people, half of the teachers at the local public school couldn’t make it to work.
At the town’s only pharmacy, Tien On, the owner, struggled with a short-handed staff to keep up with requests. He was especially concerned about delayed drug deliveries by helicopter for patients with mental health medications.
Ms. Southwell, 69, was better prepared than most. She spent 25 years volunteering with emergency services and has been teaching first aid for decades. After a quick trip into Wee Waa by boat, she returned to her home with groceries and patience, checking a shed for the stray cats she feeds and discovering that only one of her chickens appeared to have drowned.
She said she wasn’t sure how much climate change could be blamed for the floods; her father had put their house on higher stilts because they knew the waters would rise on occasion.
All she knew was that more extreme weather and severe challenges to the community would be coming their way.
“The worst part of it is the waiting,” she said. “And the cleanup.”
Widespread flight cancellations. Excruciating waits for customer service. Unruly passengers.
And that was all before the holiday travel season.
Even in normal times, the days around Thanksgiving are a delicate period for the airlines. But this week is the industry’s biggest test since the pandemic began, as millions more Americans — emboldened by vaccinations and reluctant to spend another holiday alone — are expected to take to the skies than during last year’s holidays.
A lot is riding on the carriers’ ability to pull it off smoothly.
“For many people, this will be the first time they’ve gotten together with family, maybe in a year, year and a half, maybe longer, so it’s very significant,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot who is a spokeswoman for FlightAware, an aviation data provider. “If it goes poorly, that’s when people might rethink travel plans for Christmas. And that’s what the airlines don’t want.”
The Transportation Security Administration said it expected to screen about 20 million passengers at airports in the 10 days that began Friday, a figure approaching prepandemic levels. Two million passed through checkpoints on Saturday alone, about twice as many as on the Saturday before last Thanksgiving.
lengthy note to customers last month.
His apology came after Southwest canceled nearly 2,500 flights over a four-day stretch — nearly 18 percent of its scheduled flights, according to FlightAware — as a brief bout of bad weather and an equally short-lived air traffic control staffing shortage snowballed.
Weeks later, American Airlines suffered a similar collapse, canceling more than 2,300 flights in four days — nearly 23 percent of its schedule — after heavy winds slowed operations at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, its largest hub.
American and Southwest have said they are working to address the problems, offering bonuses to encourage employees to work throughout the holiday period, stepping up hiring and pruning ambitious flight plans.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing roughly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, gave the carriers good marks for their preparations.
“First and foremost, we are getting demand back after the biggest crisis aviation has ever faced,” she said.
“I think there has been a lot of good planning,” she added. “And barring a major weather event, I think that the airlines are going to be able to handle the demand.”
Flight crews have had to contend with overwork and disruptive and belligerent passengers, leaving them drained and afraid for their safety.
Helene Albert, 54, a longtime flight attendant for American Airlines, said she took an 18-month leave by choice that was offered because of the pandemic. When she returned to work on Nov. 1 on domestic routes, she said, she saw a difference in passengers from when she began her leave.
“People are hostile,” she said. “They don’t know how to wear masks and they act shocked when I tell them we don’t have alcohol on our flights anymore.”
begun investigations into 991 episodes involving passenger misbehavior in 2021, more than in the last seven years combined. In some cases, the disruptions have forced flights to be delayed or even diverted — an additional strain on air traffic.
gathering storm systems were threatening to deliver gusty winds and rain that could interfere with flights, but for the most part, the weather is not expected to cause major disruptions.
“Overall, the news is pretty good in terms of the weather in general across the country cooperating with travel,” said Jon Porter, the chief meteorologist for AccuWeather. “We’re not dealing with any big storms across the country, and in many places the weather will be quite favorable for travel.”
Even so, AAA, the travel services organization, recommended that airline passengers arrive two hours ahead of departure for domestic flights and three hours ahead for international destinations during the Thanksgiving travel wave.
Some lawmakers warned that a Monday vaccination deadline for all federal employees could disrupt T.S.A. staffing at airports, resulting in long lines at security checkpoints, but the agency said those concerns were unfounded.
“The compliance rate is very high, and we do not anticipate any disruptions because of the vaccination requirements,” R. Carter Langston, a T.S.A. spokesman, said in a statement on Friday.
With many people able to do their jobs or classes remotely, some travelers left town early, front-running what are typically the busiest travel days before the holiday.
TripIt, a travel app that organizes itineraries, said 33 percent of holiday travelers booked Thanksgiving flights for last Friday and Saturday, according to its reservation data. (That number was slightly down from last year, when 35 percent of travelers left on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, and marginally higher than in 2019, when 30 percent of travelers did so, TripIt said.)
Among those taking advantage of the flexibility was Emilia Lam, 18, a student at New York University who traveled home to Houston on Saturday. She is doing her classes this week remotely, she said, and planned her early getaway to get ahead of the crush. “The flights are going to be way more crowded,” she said, as Thursday approaches.
Robert Chiarito and Maria Jimenez Moya contributed reporting.
The intense rains and heavy winds that descended last week on British Columbia, the Canadian province known for its mountains, coastline and majestic forests, forced 17,000 people from their homes, emptying entire towns and inundating farms.
Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest city, lost its road and rail links to the rest of the country, cut off by washed-out bridges and landslides.
It was the second time in six months that the province had endured a major weather-related emergency, and experts say the two disasters are probably related to changes in the climate.
British Columbia has been besieged this year by record-breaking heat, wildfires and floods. The disasters have killed hundreds — including three people in the recent rains — and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. The impact has rippled across Canada after hobbling the province and the port of Vancouver, which is vital to the country’s economy.
record temperatures as high as 121 degrees Fahrenheit brought drought and uncontrollable wildfires. The heat, which was concentrated in the province’s interior, killed 595 people from June to August, and fire consumed an entire town.
North America’s first carbon tax. It has also taken physical measures. The port in Vancouver, he said, has been lifted by about three feet to accommodate rising sea levels.
But province’s mountainous nature, he said, limits what is possible and will make rebuilding a difficult and prolonged process.
“To try and make everything resilient is very hard,” he said. “We don’t have many options for routes coming through the mountains.”
The delays in reopenings will most likely significantly affect all of Canada since Vancouver’s port connects the country to Asia, both for imports of consumer goods and economically vital exports of resources like grains and potash for fertilizers. While a rail line to the port in Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia remains open to the east, Professor Prentice said that the port could not physically handle all of Vancouver’s traffic on top of its normal operations.
While it may be possible to beef up the transportation network during rebuilding, Professor Prentice said that the only long-term solution remained dealing effectively with climate change.
Ms. Smith of Clean Energy Canada said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government had a credible and ambitious climate plan but that the country had yet to rein in its oil and gas industry, particularly oil sands operations based largely in neighboring Alberta.
“We need to reduce the emissions from the oil and gas sector; it is one of Canada’s biggest challenges,” she said. “All of these other good policies, we need to see them implemented without delays. There’s a lot of inaction that gets disguised as flexibility, and we’re past that time.”
While the water has started to recede in most flood zones, it is unclear when evacuees will return home or abandoned cars will be returned to their owners. And more danger may be ahead for British Columbia. Forecasts predict another batch of heavy rain this week.