Media around the world reported the news as the latest indication that Ukrainian forces were conducting skilled counterattacks and defeating the Russians in vital places.
But as a team of Washington Post reporters passed through the checkpoint on Wednesday, Ukrainian soldiers ordered them to leave the city quickly, warning of incoming Russians. rockets or artillery. A few minutes later, reporters heard the sound of grenades falling. Black smoke flags rose over the houses. Soon more explosions followed.
Makariv remains a controversial front line.
“The military does not control all of Makariv, only partially,” said Mayor Vadim Tokar, who stood on the outskirts of the city shortly after the grenades landed. “It’s 100 percent no-go for civilians to return.”
What happened here is emblematic of the two different but intertwined wars that are taking place in Ukraine, one taking place on the battlefield, the other in the field of propaganda to shape public perceptions and strengthen morale and support. Russia has been by far the more aggressive source of wildly inaccurate information – starting with Vladimir Putin’s false and historically inaccurate justifications for the invasion. But as the Makariv situation illustrates, Ukrainian officials have also sometimes spread overly rosy information about the war.
A visit to Makariv also opens a window into how much the fog makes it difficult to obtain solid information. Journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to reach areas outside the capital to independently verify facts, due to bombings, rapidly changing front lines and Russian military positions – even though Russia’s advance has largely stalled.
On Monday, Andriy Nebytov, the police chief of the Kyiv region, visited Makariv and described in a Facebook post exactly the situation there. “The city is under constant fire from enemy artillery. Broken roofs and windows burned by the flames … There are no people on the street. Every other house is damaged or destroyed.”
On Tuesday morning, Nebytov posted a video of his visit, including inspiring battlefield music and images of a Ukrainian flag that had been shot down by Russian shelling, but which was again defiantly draped over a municipal building.
On Tuesday night, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense had seized the picture and declared that Makariv had been liberated. “Thanks to the heroic actions of our defenders, the state flag of Ukraine was hoisted over the city of Makarov, the enemy was driven back,” the ministry said in a statement.
Senior officials have continued to declare that Makariv is no longer occupied by Russians. “From official sources we received information that a small town, Makariv, and almost the whole of Irpin are already under the control of Ukrainian soldiers,” Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko told reporters on Wednesday.
Tokar, the mayor, said the reality of the place was different. On Wednesday, he said, Russian forces still had control of about 15 percent of the city, an area they have held for nearly three weeks with little shifting of the front lines. On Wednesday, there were no signs that any of the approximately 15,000 residents who have fled since the Russian invasion began last month were on their way back to the city.
And despite Nebytov’s triumphant video, Tokar said the city was far from under control. “Since that video was made, three people have been killed here,” he said.
Tokar also hoisted the Ukrainian flag. On March 14, he said, a Russian grenade landed near the municipal building and destroyed the flagpole, but left the flag more or less intact. Two days later, he set the flag back as the bombardment subsided. It was a symbolic gesture, he said.
“We are raising the flag not to show that Makariv is liberated, but to raise the morale of the citizens and soldiers who defend Makariv,” he said. “It is part of our identity and we must have it. All Ukrainian cities have it, and only those who are occupied do not have it.”
Even without the propaganda, Makariv, about 30 miles west of Kiev, has in many ways been a success story for Ukrainian forces. The Russians are trying to use it as a possible entry point to overthrow the national government in the capital. And so far, as in other areas around Kiev, the Russian advance has stalled due to the remarkably successful guerrilla-style tactics of the Ukrainian forces.
On February 28, four days after the start of the war, Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers entered the city, but they were repulsed by members of the territorial defense forces, the mostly civilian militias that have risen to defend Ukraine. Tokar said they used rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles and fired from their vehicles.
“The Russians did not expect to be attacked in this way,” he said.
Two days later, Ukrainian military forces arrived, deploying artillery batteries, rocket launchers and pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns in the area to ward off the Russians.
“Makariv is between two groups of Russian forces,” Tokar said. “If Ukrainians can hold this city, some of the Russian forces would be cut off from each other.”
But the human number has been extensive. Over the past month, 12 members of the territorial defense units have been killed and 15 wounded, including three killed in a Russian shelling on Tuesday as they were evacuating residents, Tokar said. About 30 civilians have died during the shelling or have been fatally shot by Russian soldiers. Although he did not have figures for Ukrainian military casualties, he said that most days “someone is killed in the military.”
On Wednesday, there were still fewer than 1,000 inhabitants in the city – out of a pre-war population of about 15,000. Those whose houses were destroyed in the shelling spend nights in the basement of the city hospital, Tokar said. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, grenades that fell near the facility destroyed a few cars but caused no damage, he added.
Tokar, a 39-year-old former lawyer, has had his own life turned upside down during this war month. Days before the invasion, he had taken his wife and two young children to a nearby village as a precautionary measure. But when the Russian forces arrived, they positioned themselves between that village and Makariv.
A few days later, Tokar and a friend snuck past the Russians on a side road and rescued his family. He sent them 350 miles away to an area of western Ukraine that the fighting has not reached.
Tokar now spends his days in Makariv helping the remaining inhabitants find food, water and medical care or evacuating others from the city. He spends most nights there, even though there is no electricity or running water in many parts of the city. He said shelling is often intensified in the dark. He talks to his family once a day where he can get cell phone reception. He has pictures of his two children, Anya at 6 and Zahar at 8, with him in his car. But he does not leave.
Tall, powerful, and dressed in camouflage gear, Tokar became emotionally charged as he talked about his family and the city’s human loss.
“I was born here,” he said. “I grew up here. This is my country.”
On Wednesday afternoon, as Tokar spoke to The Post, he was preparing to return to the center of Makariv with a Ukrainian military unit during a break in the Russian shelling. But he asked the soldiers to move on while he stayed to answer a few more questions.
Wednesday night, he called to say that the soldiers he had sent in advance were soon next to a house that was demolished by Russian shelling and killed an elderly man.
Siobhán O’Grady of Kiev, Ukraine, and Volodymyr Petrov of Makariv contributed to this report.