Photo Essay

Ukraine’s War—in Photos

A haunting look at six months of Russia’s war in Ukraine in pictures.

People grieve at the gravesite of a soldier in Dnipro, Ukraine.
People grieve at the gravesite of a soldier in Dnipro, Ukraine.
The father and fiancee of a soldier killed three weeks before his wedding and the end of his contract grieve at his grave in a military cemetery in Dnipro, Ukraine, on Aug. 20. Emre Caylak photos for Foreign Policy
By , a Turkish American photojournalist based in Istanbul, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

On Feb. 24, lonely Ukrainian border patrol officers stood guard at Crimean border posts. These posts had marked the unofficial line that had stood between Ukraine and Russia for nearly eight years, since Russian forces had forcibly annexed the peninsula. As the world watched, and Russian bombs began to ring out, Moscow’s army began barreling through the checkpoints.

As air raid sirens went off all over Ukraine, U.S. and Western officials feared the worst. For weeks, across Ukraine, there had been stone-faced calm as American official after official—up to President Joe Biden himself—took to the White House podium nearly 5,000 miles away to warn of an impending Russian attack. But Russian President Vladimir Putin raised those warnings to a fever pitch. Within minutes of Putin announcing a “special military operation,” Russian troops that had been uncoiling to strike for weeks surged over Ukraine’s border, from all directions. Missile strikes laced into Ukraine’s biggest cities: Odesa, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Dnipro. U.S. intelligence officials believed that Kyiv could fall within the week. In the wake of the Taliban’s lightning sweep through Afghanistan just months earlier, American officials didn’t know whether Ukrainian troops would stand their ground or flee their posts. And a back-and-forth fight was breaking out over Hostomel Airport in Kyiv’s suburbs that could have given Russia an air bridge to control the capital.

Just days later, the same officials who had wondered if there would be a Ukraine after the Russian assault at all were wondering if the war-torn country had masterminded a new style of warfare. The seeming Russian blitz suddenly wasn’t. The invasion of Kyiv turned into a 40-mile-long traffic jam that ensnared thousands of Russian vehicles, leaving them sitting ducks for Ukrainian-operated Bayraktar drones from Turkey and over-the-shoulder missiles from the United States and United Kingdom. Ukraine’s sub-NATO-grade air defenses have held for six months. And then, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—the former comic, the man who said he survived multiple assassination attempts from Russian agents—walked outside of the presidential palace flanked by a suite of advisors and announced to the world that he was still alive. 

People grieve at the gravesite of a soldier in Dnipro, Ukraine.
People grieve at the gravesite of a soldier in Dnipro, Ukraine.

The father and fiancee of a soldier killed three weeks before his wedding and the end of his contract grieve at his grave in a military cemetery in Dnipro, Ukraine, on Aug. 20.Emre Caylak photos for Foreign Policy

On Feb. 24, lonely Ukrainian border patrol officers stood guard at Crimean border posts. These posts had marked the unofficial line that had stood between Ukraine and Russia for nearly eight years, since Russian forces had forcibly annexed the peninsula. As the world watched, and Russian bombs began to ring out, Moscow’s army began barreling through the checkpoints.

As air raid sirens went off all over Ukraine, U.S. and Western officials feared the worst. For weeks, across Ukraine, there had been stone-faced calm as American official after official—up to President Joe Biden himself—took to the White House podium nearly 5,000 miles away to warn of an impending Russian attack. But Russian President Vladimir Putin raised those warnings to a fever pitch. Within minutes of Putin announcing a “special military operation,” Russian troops that had been uncoiling to strike for weeks surged over Ukraine’s border, from all directions. Missile strikes laced into Ukraine’s biggest cities: Odesa, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Dnipro. U.S. intelligence officials believed that Kyiv could fall within the week. In the wake of the Taliban’s lightning sweep through Afghanistan just months earlier, American officials didn’t know whether Ukrainian troops would stand their ground or flee their posts. And a back-and-forth fight was breaking out over Hostomel Airport in Kyiv’s suburbs that could have given Russia an air bridge to control the capital.

Just days later, the same officials who had wondered if there would be a Ukraine after the Russian assault at all were wondering if the war-torn country had masterminded a new style of warfare. The seeming Russian blitz suddenly wasn’t. The invasion of Kyiv turned into a 40-mile-long traffic jam that ensnared thousands of Russian vehicles, leaving them sitting ducks for Ukrainian-operated Bayraktar drones from Turkey and over-the-shoulder missiles from the United States and United Kingdom. Ukraine’s sub-NATO-grade air defenses have held for six months. And then, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—the former comic, the man who said he survived multiple assassination attempts from Russian agents—walked outside of the presidential palace flanked by a suite of advisors and announced to the world that he was still alive. 

Even as the Russian drive on the capital ran out of steam, Putin’s forces showed little regard for civilian lives. Russia’s drive into Ukraine’s south, arguably the most successful leg of the multipronged invasion, stalled outside of Mykolaiv. But as Russian troops vacated the suburbs ringing Kyiv, occupied for well over a month after the start of the war, the scenes evoked the brutality of Srebrenica and Chechnya: All around the world, magazines were filled with pictures of Ukrainians dead in the roadside, including a 52-year-old makeup artist, slain with her unfurled hand clutching at the earth. And Putin’s campaign, which he said was aimed at protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine, did not spare them: In the Russian-speaking city of Mariupol, the Kremlin’s air force bombed a theater housing hundreds of refugees, part of a scorched-earth fight for the city that left tens of thousands of Ukrainians dead, according to local officials. Some bodies were lost in the rubble of rocket strikes, and some residents were forced to bury their loved ones in their front yards. 

Now, the war is entering a new stage, with both sides licking their wounds from the high-intensity combat of the early days and Zelensky keen on taking back swaths of territory seized by Russia since February. The battle lines have mostly frozen over the last two months. Ukraine—which has blocked draft-eligible men from leaving the country—has shipped out thousands of citizens who have never fought before to training grounds in Britain and Eastern Europe, hoping to turn citizens into soldiers. But all around them, the Ukrainian flags, the twisted remains of Russian tanks, and the makeshift monuments of battles freshly fought are constant reminders of the cost of six months of war—and the brutal days to come. Here is what it looked like, through the lens of one of the photojournalists who’s been there since before it started.

Remnants of a village near Mariupol, Ukraine, lie abandoned ahead of Russia's invasion.
Remnants of a village near Mariupol, Ukraine, lie abandoned ahead of Russia's invasion.

An abandoned village on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, on Feb. 4, ahead of Russia’s invasion.

Protesters stand outside a theater in Mariupol, Ukraine.
Protesters stand outside a theater in Mariupol, Ukraine.

Protesters gather in front of the Donetsk Regional Theatre of Drama in Mariupol after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to formally recognize Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent on Feb. 21.

People stand at the train platform in Mariupol, Ukraine.
People stand at the train platform in Mariupol, Ukraine.

Destined for the capital city of Kyiv, people leave the Mariupol train station at the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

A man stands in front of his house, which was destroyed by a Russian airstrike in Nikopol, Ukraine.
A man stands in front of his house, which was destroyed by a Russian airstrike in Nikopol, Ukraine.

On Aug. 17, Eduard stands in front of his house, which was destroyed by a Russian airstrike in Nikopol, Ukraine.

A man walks by a destroyed building that was hit by a Russian rocket strike in Nikopol, Ukraine.
A man walks by a destroyed building that was hit by a Russian rocket strike in Nikopol, Ukraine.

A man walks by a destroyed building that was hit by a Russian rocket strike in Nikopol on Aug. 17.

Colorful flowers at a cemetery memorialize soldiers from Nikopol, Ukraine.
Colorful flowers at a cemetery memorialize soldiers from Nikopol, Ukraine.

Colorful flowers at a cemetery memorialize soldiers from Nikopol, Ukraine, on Aug. 17.

A mother grieves at the gravesite of her son, a soldier, in Dnipro, Ukraine.
A mother grieves at the gravesite of her son, a soldier, in Dnipro, Ukraine.

Lena, the mother of Denis Mikhailovich, grieves at his burial site in the Dnipro military cemetery on Aug. 20. Mikhailovich, a 26-year-old soldier, was killed while fighting Russian forces in Ukraine’s Luhansk region in May.

Emre Caylak is a Turkish American photojournalist based in Istanbul who covers social and environmental topics around the world.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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