5 viral images and videos that define Ukraine’s fight against Russia

Europe’s first major war in decades is taking place in a far different digital place than its predecessors: one in which always important information warfare is more accessible, more ubiquitous and arguably more important.

As The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell and Rachel Lerman wrote two weeks ago, this has turned regular people into social media combatants. It has also revealed, in real time, the brutality of the Russian invasion and often the courage of the resistance.

But as the viral videos and poignant moments have proliferated — many of them unfortunately unverified or unverifiable — a number of the verifiable ones stand out.

A Russian journalist’s on-air protest

Marina Ovsyannikova burst onto the set of Russia’s state TV flagship program on March 14, holding a poster that read “stop the war.” (Video: Channel One, Photo: Channel One)

Throughout the invasion, we’ve seen some extraordinary scenes of Russians protesting the war, the kind of dissent that you rarely see in Russia because of its heavy-handed intolerance of it and the jeopardy dissenters put themselves in. But Monday brought one of the most powerful scenes to date.

A woman who has been identified as an employee of a Russian state TV news channel burst on to the station’s flagship evening news program to call for an end to the war and to inform viewers that they were being fed propaganda — right before Channel One quickly cut to other footage.

The woman, whom a human rights group identified as Marina Ovsyannikova, also recorded a video with a call to action.

“It is only in our power to stop this madness,” she said. “Take to the streets. Do not be afraid. They can’t jail us all.”

Marina Ovsyannikova posted a video message to social media on March 14, calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “crime.” (Video: Marina Ovsyannikova, Photo: Marina Ovsyannikova)

The human rights group’s lawyers initially said they were unable to locate Ovsyannikova following her detainment. Russian state media have indicated she might face charges, though for now she has merely been fined for inciting protests. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed her actions as “hooliganism” and said the station was “dealing with this.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, praised the woman’s defiance.

While plenty of Russians have risked their freedom to protest the war — the European Commission estimates more than 14,000 Russian citizens have been detained in over 140 cities — Ovsyannikova presents the kind of individual rallying cry and potential cause celebre that can be significant in such situations. Her message echoes that of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who in an Instagram post on Friday urged people to take to the streets in what is “definitely not a futile fight.”

Russia’s handling of the case will surely be widely watched. Russia has a long history of treating dissidents poorly, including through poisonings and imprisonment. And Ovsyannikova’s method of protest was about as in-your-face as it gets.

This still stands as perhaps the most significant audio evidence of Ukraine’s resilience in the face of overwhelming Russian force — even as it turned out differently than we were initially told.

According to a recording that was verified by a Ukrainian official, border guards on desolate but strategically important Snake Island were told by a Russian warship to lay down their arms or be bombed. “Russian warship,” they replied, “go f— yourself.”

Zelensky later announced that 13 guards had been killed and would be given the title “Hero of Ukraine,” the highest award he can bestow. But Ukrainian officials later said the guards may have survived and then that they were “alive and well.”

The message to the Russian warship has still been used as a rallying cry by Ukrainians, appearing on signs throughout the country. An image depicting the situation has been turned into a Ukrainian postage stamp.

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Hassan reported recently that the sunflower, which is Ukraine’s national flower, has become a symbol of solidarity — both within Ukraine and globally.

In a moment that set the stage for the effort, a video obtained by the BBC showed a Ukrainian woman confronting a heavily armed Russian soldier about why he has come to her country. She offers him sunflower seeds, while telling him, “Take these seeds so sunflowers grow here when you die.”

The video and the women’s sentiment recalls Ireland in the late 1700s. Irish rebels are said to have carried barley in their pockets as a cheap means of sustenance, with the crop later growing from their gravesites.

The pregnant woman in Mariupol

Perhaps the ugliest scenes of the three-week-old war have taken place in Mariupol, where as The Post’s Greg Jaffe details, we’re suddenly getting a handle on the devastation inflicted upon Ukraine by Russia.

Exemplifying that was Russia’s bombing of a maternity hospital, which Jaffe reports has yielded “some of the most searing images of the war.” And so far one image stands out: the one of a pregnant Ukrainian woman being stretchered away from the wreckage. “Kill me now!” the woman is reported to have said, as she feared losing her baby.

The image quickly spread far and wide. And now the Associated Press, which captured the image, reported Monday that the woman and her baby have died.

Harwell and Lerman highlight a number of familiar scenes apparently posted by regular Ukrainians on social media:

In the days since, videos have helped transform local stories of bravery into viral legends — and exposed a war Russia has fought to keep concealed. Ukrainians have posted videos of themselves thwarting tanks, guarding villages, making molotov cocktails and using them to turn Russian vehicles into fireballs.

The scenes of Ukrainians apparently trying to stand in the way of Russian tanks are multiple, as Ukrainians attempt to rekindle the “Tank Man” scene in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The example they link to, from Bellingcat’s lead Russia investigator, shows someone trying to push back on and kneeling in front of a tank.

Another video which has been verified by The Post shows a Ukrainian climbing on a moving Russian tank and waving the Ukrainian flag.

Similar videos show Ukrainians attacking Russian vehicles with molotov cocktails, after Ukraine’s defense minister called on citizens to assemble them. Both further the idea that regular Ukrainians can supplement the war effort in small but courageous ways and stand up to a much more powerful adversary.