The Road to Donbas
Road warriors, unimaginable yellows, loads of boxes and laughter, and a Ford named Fury (Chapter VI)
Returning Home to a Hotel
I returned to L’viv overnight on Friday/Saturday, desperate for a shower and more eager for a proper bed than I realised. I almost slept through breakfast at the hotel the following morning. When I heard the air raid siren, I wasn’t sure if it was either the one that marks the end or the beginning of an alarm, and the easiest answer would have been to just go check the restaurant entrance and see if it was open. That kind of reconnaissance, however, would have required getting out of bed. The only thing that was going to persuade me to do that was the ongoing internal conversation I was having with my bladder.
I’d say the whole of our voyage to the front lines in Donetsk and back over the previous few days was about 3000km (1900mi), and a good portion of that was on very rough roads. By rough, I mean the kind you pass over at about 15kph as if it’s a combined slalom/moguls ski course. Other stretches of road were pleasant, and many of those have been improved during the recent Zelenskiy and Poroshenko presidencies. Still, there’s no Interstate- or Autobahn-style freeway system in Ukraine. There are a handful of grade-separated interchanges, but not many. So general speeds over any distance in Ukraine are much slower than in the US or Germany.
Some of the roughest roads are recently made detours created to bypass bridges that the Ukrainian forces have wired with explosives for fast demolition should there be a sudden (and now surprising) Russian advance. (Interestingly it was just the Russians who blew up some bridges to slow a Ukrainian counter attack outside of Kharkiv this week.) Others rough stretches were back roads near the front that are now the most direct routes outside of occupied territory. Previously preferred routes now pass partially through occupied territory.
Many of you will be familiar with my own “road warrior” years, but for those who are not, I’ll just summarise by stating that I’ve driven from one coast in the US to the other more than 40 times. That's not coast-to-coast equivalents, that's actual trips from Philadelphia that went through Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, or maybe all three. I’ve done 20-hour drives and 1000-mile days, but my more-preferred modus operandi was to do about 700 miles with stops for meals and power naps when necessary.
I slept in all my various vehicles over the years, but rarely for more than one night in a row. I actually made it rather comfy to sleep in the back seat, even when it was February or at snow-embanked high elevations later in the spring. So I look back on those mornings waking up to views out across the desert, or over Lake Tahoe, or even at the Freightliner idling nextdoor with some romantic warmth in my heart. What a great way to experience and learn the continent. I specify "continent" because I did drive across much of Canada, as well, but it’s a more expensive route that is slower and honestly not as interesting as the Lower 48. There are some absolutely beautiful stretches in Canada, but there’s even more seemingly endless tedium.
That preface is made so I can credibly tell you that the two men with whom I travelled to Donetsk -- Vitaly and Dmytro – are two of the most remarkable “road warriors” I have ever met. It was an absolute honour to serve with them on the supply runs. I use the past tense because I’m not eager to slog out another 3000km fending off falling boxes and sleeping in contorted postures any time soon. Still, I wouldn’t have traded for any comfort to miss the opportunity to witness ever-day Ukrainians in action like I saw with these two. And done with so much warmth and humour. OK, there were times they argued like a married couple, but they did that with everyone they knew, and usually followed soon thereafter with laughter.
Vitaly, Dmytro, and that Ford named “Fury”
On the return leg heading west, we were loaded almost to capcity with soldiers from the front lines who were on rotation, along with their gear, and their firearms. Still, that was the most comfy part of the trip; it just came after the several cold nights of sleeping in the van and being knocked about by potholes and sudden stops, and so I was spent.
Days earlier, when I was fresh and eager for a change of scenery, we were packed to the ceiling with all sorts of homey packages and practical supplies for the troops serving in Donetsk Oblast. Imagine a load of boxes with pastries, dumplings, beef stews, my very own Hryada energy bars, as well as truck tyres, car jacks, cans of lubricating oil, rolled up tarps… you get the picture. And well beyond the scope of my role in this voyage, Vitaly and Dmytro knew where everything was going and how to get to those places all over Ukraine. (OK there were a couple times when they seemed to find a box they didn’t recognise and just handed it off to whomever was standing there, but that was maybe twice among a hundred boxes.)
There wasn’t much conversation for me, just the occasional GoogleTranslate-assisted chitchat, but they were interested in my motivation and dedication to the cause. In answering "Why Ukraine?" I said it actually started with L'viv. It was one of the places I stumbled across and immediately asked why I hadn't heard more about it. Then, after traveling to all corners of Ukraine over the years, I started to develop an pretty sophisticated understanding of Ukraine, much better than their European neighbours, I think. Their response was one of the few times my thoughts and efforts truly seemed appreciated. These are good guys.
When we stopped somewhere unannouced, I just got out when we all did, often loitering ion strange street corners not knowing for whom or what we were waiting. There was something liberating about not having to be the planner and organiser once you realise you’ll just get in the way. Any opportunity to lift something was a welcome opportunity to feel productive. On the few moments that I got to pay for something, like diesel and coffee, I felt more like I was earning my keep.
Vitaly and Dmytro are both 30-something fathers and husbands who have known each other for decades. They have now completed a dozen transport runs from northwestern Ukraine to the southeast over the course of the war. Each is out of work while the war is on-going, or at least in the current state of the war. I do wonder if this becomes a war of attrition as some expect, will something more normal return to all those parts of Ukraine at some distance from the front.
Vitaly owns his own small construction company and Dmytro is a trained architect, and they often work together on remodels and other small projects, mostly in their hometown of Lutsk. The decision to make these aid runs came to them very quickly as the need was obvious in the occasional chats they had with friends mobilised in the territorial guard.
The risks of these delivery runs are exactly what you’d think. They had rocket artillery land about a quarter mile from them in late April, but to my mind, it’s really the commitment to the hours and hours on the road, and an often unforgiving road that it is. To minimise their time away from home, and to speed the delivery, they rarely stop and rarely sleep.
Fuel Shortages & Long Lines
There’s a new complicating factor on these trips, as of the last few weeks: fuel shortages and the associated rationing. If you remember the missile strikes on L’viv oil storage facility a couple months ago that got the foreign journalists in L'viv all excited, that wasn’t an isolated event around Ukraine. Lots of supply went up in flames as did the capacity to store future supply. That's on top of the reality that a lot more petroleum is required to run a war effort of this scale, so now the average Ukrainian is limited to 5-10 litres per week.
A litre is about the same as a quarter, and if you’re unfamiliar with the British Imperial measurement system, there are about 17 quarts in a gallon. I’m joking. There are four quarts in a gallon, but not enough is written in protests about how dumb the British Imperial measuring system is. I'm doing my part for the cause of metric and sanity.
Five litres (1.25 gallons) per week is not a lot of gasoline for folks dependent on it, and there are some exemptions out there for cargo carriers and busses. Ukraine has chosen this route rather than let the market pricing work its magic, and so we saw fuel lines that were dozens of cars long, and one that may a have been a kilometre long.
Hungary has done the same thing with fuel prices – not letting the market determine the price but rather capping them to keep prices artificially low – and so therefore not creating an incentive for consumers to conserve and that’s killing their economy right now as well as many businesses. (It’s an important point: Inflation spikes when demand outpaces supply, and if you cannot bolster supply, the only way you can reduce inflationary pressure is by reducing demand. The best way to reduce demand is raise prices until demand falls long enough for supply to start catching up.)
Our van “Fury” has an exemption, but it wasn’t like we skipped every line and could fill the tank. The most we could get was 50L, and that came after waiting 30min for others with exemptions. I've heard folks here in L'viv say they waited four hours for 5 litres of gasoline lately.
“Fury” is the name Vitaly gave to the van, and done authentically with a UA vanity plate put in the windscreen above the dash (photo to the left). It’s a reference to his favourite film (2014) of the same name that stars Brad Pitt as the commander of a WW2 M4 “Sherman” tank with the name painted on the barrel of its 75mm cannon. Out-gunned and under-armoured against some of the late-model Tiger tanks of the Wahrmacht – which were really quite limited in the winter/spring of 1945 – Fury works against the odds to fulfill its mission.
So what was Donetsk like?
I do follow global news on YouTube, and so I see what a lot of you see on CNN and the BBC etc. It’s often informative and the analysis is useful, but you don’t get quite the big picture shots when the cameras search out the disaster shots, so reality isn’t much like you’d expect.
Coming out of Dnipro, heading east toward the city of Donetsk and the surrounding oblast, I was immediately impressed with the quality of the road. Road traffic was moderate and a little more than I had expected. Lots of heavy trucks. We had seen some flatbeds with T-72 tanks from Poland rumbling toward the front, but those seem to travel mostly at night. Oh, and just west of Donetsk we saw a military cargo plane flying near the road and only about 40m off the deck. Quite wild to see while you're driving along the road in an otherwise normal setting.
What struck me, as we rolled smoothly along on the cleanly finished and well painted divided highway, was the beauty of all the spring colours. The bright yellow fields stretching out in all directions – canola crops flowering in the spring – ribbons of green wrapping their edges, and a blue blue sky that makes you wish the day could last forever. There it is, folks, that’s your Ukrainian flag laid out in real time, across the world before you: bright unimaginable yellow under the truist blue.
Then there would be a farmer in his tractor doing what necessity requires knowing full well that the rumble of war is going on only a few clicks away over a couple low ridges. We could see some far-off distant plumes, but the road from Dnipro wasn’t under any sort of fire when we were making our run.
There were, however, trenches cut cleanly into the dark rich soil. These were the fallback positions for the advance troops, should they need it, and the air raid bunkers for the guards at the multiple checkpoints. I’d say a usual roundtrip voyage by Fury heading to Donetsk goes through a couple dozen checkpoints, and none of them seemed interested in the Yank in the van. The greatest interest to them was checking the arms and documents of the soldiers on our way out. Make a note: don’t take your AK or sidearm out of the zone of contact without the proper documentation, or you’ll end up in the clink.
As we approached Donetsk, the blue sky did transition into more of a white haze, a function more of the mining, power plants, and factories nearby than anything war related. I’d imagine it also had much to do with the warming of the day, given that it had just passed noon when we left Dnipro. We were in a bit of a pinch making our deliveries because they all really needed to be done before dark.
The roads within Donetsk were bad, the unfortunate reality of any bad stretch of road was that you were going to have to traverse it on the way back. Unloading all our goodies and gear was really one of the best parts. The recipients weren’t necessarily gleeful, but they were always sincere, and camaraderie was always brimming if not overt. More than once, the impression was left that so long as we stick together, there’s no way we’re losing this fight.
The Triumph of the Many via the Toil and Vision of the Few
Over the last nearly-three months, the world has been impressed by Ukraine and Ukrainians. Guys like Vitaly and Dmytro are already the champions of 2022. Unless he does something truly out of character, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is going to be “Man of the Year” on magazine covers, perhaps only challenged by the fighting forces of the ZSU.
The praise hoisted upon the president, members of the Rada, and all the way around to ordinary Ukrainians like these two road warriors and my friend Olya is deserved. I suspect that magnitude is amplified, however, by how little outsiders knew about Ukraine prior to 2022. It’s not one of Europe’s high-profile countries and certainly doesn’t see the number of international visitors that France and Italy do. Indeed many stereotypes of Ukraine emerge from the well acknowledged trouble it has with corruption, the stories of hackers, scammers, and false mail-order brides. Even in the sporting arena, Ukraine makes a marginal impression internationally, especially when you consider its size relative to its Balkan Slavic cousins. (We should quickly note, too, that Ukraine does not have Russia's on-going problem with state-sponsored doping.)
Understanding doesn’t necessarily improve with proximity either. Obviously Russians have a now highly distorted view of Ukraine, but I’ve found a lot of residents of EU and NATO states have had poor perceptions of Ukraine for a long time. I think I’ve gone into Ukraine’s “PR problem” that predates the war before, and so here, suffice it to say that most people haven’t recognised the clarity of national view and cohesion that has grown throughout Ukraine since independence 30 years ago. Perhaps the assumption simply was that in a place that has been so victimised by kleptocrats and mired in the bureaucratic bog that engulfs much of former-communist Europe there would be so little social cohesion and purpose. It’s probably a realistic assumption, if not applicable here.
And in this is perhaps the thing that most folks abroad really don’t get: there is a strong and unbending will by a significant number of Ukrainians to usher their country into a much better future. Some friends of mine can see a future where Ukraine is the quintessential European democracy. I see it in the creative arts, entrepreneurship, and now in the last two presidential administrations. They’re not interested in being a less gloomy and corrupt version of Russia, but rather a model “western” country with a free-thinking, open society that is admired for its ingenuity and talent.
Of course there are many, many members of Ukrainian society that do not live up to this high standard, and many who are looking for an exit to opportunities abroad. Those who speak most unkindly of Ukraine are often those Ukrainians who have contributed the least, and often from a lack of trying. Be it Ukraine or the United States, we shouldn't expect any country to be built entirely of heroes, and even among the most successful societies there will be dole-bludgers and slackers, and miscreants of all magnitudes. Hell, within our own lives, we should be allowed to stumble and slumber so long as we never lose sight that someday we may have the opportunity to serve and sacrifice for a better society.
Many of the strong, able, and willing contributors to Ukraine’s growing triumph in this crisis have epxressed to me more than once their disappointment with their countrymen who aren’t doing their share. Indeed, they’re deeply concerned that many of them are just living off the largess of their neighbours and serving as poor ambassadors of Ukraine abroad. This is likely true, but it’s to be expected anywhere. Still, I’m sure there are many who are doing more than we know.
I was just hit with a recollection of Syrian refugees amassed outside of Kelleti palyaudvar in Budapest in 2015, in what looked more like a clean Sziget music festival than anything insidious. I was trying to get in the station at the very moment that they were making an announcement about the current travel restrictions, and so it was hard to get to the doors through the huddling masses. A few young Syrians recognised I was a bit challenged by the throng and quickly pointed out to me, in perfect English, how to get around their mob. They were sincerely aware that they were guests (unwelcomed by many Hungarians) and needed to be cognizant of the effect they were having on the lives of the locals.
In all of this, I just ask that we don't take every individual case and extrapolate it out to the larger population. I'd suggest that all any reform movement needs is the example of a few herois moments, and a marginal improvement of the masses to follow such examples. I hope and suspect we will see this out of Ukraine in the coming years.