Ukraine Isn't Like What You've Seen on TV. It's Much Better... and Worse.
There’s a similarity between far-western L’viv, where I live, and a city like Mykolaiv that’s only a short slow drive from the line of contact. As one of my volunteer connections puts it, Mykolaiv is the second most “shelled” big city continuously under Ukrainian control; the first being Kharkiv. L’viv, conversely, is really rather untouched by the physical damage of the war. So the fact that both places have a rather blase response to the air raid alarms might surprise you.
In the case of L’viv, it’s that fact that we’ve experienced only a few missile strikes in 220-some days, but yet the alarms are still regular enough that people largely ignore them. It’s not that we want the alarms to stop – people understand the necessity – it’s just impractical to spend a few hours a day in a basement or shelter when the risk is so apparently small. I do see dozens of people still use the pedestrian underpasses for shelter during the duration of a midday alarm, but it’s fair to wonder if they would do the same for a 2:00am alarm.
In Mykolaiv, where the impact missile strikes is nearly daily and a these are no small explosions, the flashes and booms come before the alarm. The sounding of the alarm is not the end of the explosions either, but the missile strikes are usually done before you can get dressed/organised and down to a shelter. Effectively, there is no warning. The modified S-300-fired missiles are traveling a short distance and faster than the speed of sound, so even if you’re near the impact area, you’re not going to hear anything before you feel it. I find that thought a little bit terrifying but mostly liberating.
The last couple blog entries of mine on this site have been analysis; one on the economic future and the other on military progress. I felt there was a necessity for both, but also I didn’t have much to personally report from western Ukraine. Life has normalised so much in places like L’viv and Kyiv that there isn’t much “need” for humanitarian assistance. Well, there’s need, no doubt, but it’s not much more than before the war.
So after spending a little time at my home in histroic L'viv after months of guests/refugees staying there, I started out on a little survey of the conditions across Ukrainian cities and towns. The goal was to get to “hot” places like Kharkiv and Mykolaiv to contrast the situation against what I’ve come to know and what most Ukrainians experience. This blog entry is my brief update – and brief is relative to the precedent of its predecessors – of what I’ve found and how that has opened some new doors for contribution.
I also have been assembling video clips from around Ukraine to make a YouTube video that will better represent what I am not capturing in words. I think there’s a big gap between what the peephole of television media is showing and how we experience life around Ukraine. I’m not accusing these big media outlets of being misleading – CNN, BBC, Australia’s ABC, SkyNews, Germany’s DW, and France 24 – I just know that they’re not going to build and sustain viewers with shots of me grocery shopping, riveting as that might be. (You get to see that in my video!) Hopefully my untested video editing capabilities make these clips watchable. Netflix will not be calling me.
A Nation at War is not all Experiencing the Violence of War
Until this war came and settled on top of us with the weight of its unpredictable destruction, I was always perplexed by how war movies set in 1940s Berlin or London showed stylishly dressed women going about a usual day. Of course, those ordinary people are seen just before the air raid sirens sound and the bombs start to fall, and so those people seemed willingly ignorant of the danger that is so tangible to the movie-goer. Now, I get it.
If there’s not a rifle for you to hold, or a post to man, then your job is to get on with your day, supporting the economy and sustaining the parts of the economic engine that are still running. For many Ukrainians, the best thing they can do is work, pay their bills and taxes, and spend as much as they can manage, and typically look good while doing so. Even where the water isn't suitable for cooking, and leaves something of a film behind after a shower, few Ukrainian women are going to stop looking their best while keeping the home fires burning.
So if you see that aforementioned video of mine, you’re going to see a lot of scenes that could look like something I shot anytime in the last eight years. Prior to the war, there was the odd moment where you saw someone in uniform on the streets while they were on rotation from the long-running Donbas war, but that was unusual. In a city like L’viv or Kyiv, it’s common now. People will look at your shoulder if they see patches there, perhaps wondering where you’re serving, but no one makes much notice. In Mykolaiv today, it seems like almost half the men are wearing olive green and camouflage fashions, but it’s probably closer to a quarter of the men on the street. This includes a number of foreign fighters.
Another big difference between, say, Mykolaiv and Odesa and cities out of UAV (drone) range is how dark those cities are at night. All the street lights are off in Mykolaiv and it’s really surprising to me how dark that makes a city. I guess I’m used to persistent artificial light, but even with minor glows from store signs and residential windows, I needed my flashlight to walk confidently. In Odesa, it’s only the critical infrastructure like the passenger rail station that goes dark. It’s a strange feeling walking among those massive machines, humming and vibrating as they do, with hundreds of people passing by, being unable to see each other’s faces. Black outs aren't helpful in cities where the long-range missiles are using geolocation, but the UAVs use visual cameras, among others, connected to remote pilots who typically aren't more than a couple 100 miles away.
Most of the strikes on Mykolaiv seem to come at night and the explosions can be terrible. You can be a football field away from the blast site, but if your windows catch the shock face-on, it’s going to shatter and blow shards into your home. For this reason, you’ll see painters’ or packing tape on windows or clear plastic taped to the pane. It won’t save the window – that’s when you see the plywood over the window – but it will reduce the spray of glass into the house. Even a blast a kilometer away can shake the windows. They certainly woke me up.
For the latter half of September and now into October, Odesa and Zaporizhzhia have been targetted by those loitering-munition UAVs (Kamikazee drones) coming from Iran that you may have heard about. (If there's any doubt about the intentions of the Iranian regime, the month of September should have cleared those up for us all.) The explosion of their impact travel more with the thud of a punch than the bang of a supersonic missile. In this way, it sits more in the audible range of out-going 155mm artillery round; powerful but not so rattling.
It's easy to get to know the sound of the various munitions on either side of their menacing journeys, but I haven't heard enough of the smaller rounds going out to tell you like what other volunteers can tell you.
Still, you’re not going to find wrecked buildings up and down Mykolaiv's commercial thoroughfares, and with the exception of a few districts on the southeast of town, you really have to seek out buildings that were hit by missiles. I think that’s something that the mass media doesn’t capture, and for good reason. Who wants to see video of all the buildings that weren’t hit? Still, the way it’s presented has the viewer extrapolate the disaster over a swath of urban landscape like it was after Hurrican Ian in Florida.
To my mind, this history of civilian structural damage from missile strikes raises an interesting question: What do the Russians think they are targeting and achieving with these strikes? They certainly aren’t breaking the spirits of Ukrainians; the resolve is as strong as ever. Why launch a S-300 9M83 missile that costs $100,000s to have the not-so-high chance of killing civilians and rendering a small vacant office building useless? (When it comes to long-distance kalibr cruise missiles, the price tag is much higher and the success rate even lower.) By doing so, Russian hasn’t degraded its enemy’s ability to counter-attack and repossess large swaths of Ukrainian land. As of early October, the evidence is abundant that targeting civilians has strengthened Ukraine’s case and has turned most Russian-sympathists inside Ukraine against Putin.
I have the suspicion that much of the haphazard targeting is partly due to bad intelligence, and possibly intelligence that is being intentionally sullied by Ukrainian counter-intelligence. This ties in with the reason that you won’t see geo-specific information in my videos, at least in a meaningful way. You’re not going to see the military checkpoints that I need to go through in Kyiv, despite the fact I’m sure Russian intelligence knows where they are, and right now doesn’t care much about Kyiv.
I also suspect that there is such disorganisation among the Russian ranks that the orders coming down to the artillery command units effectively say,”just fire at something. Make it look like you’re doing something.” I also wouldn’t be surprised if someone somewhere in the ranks is choosing meaningless targets, as well, particularly now that it’s obvious that Russia is going to lose and that a large part of the world will be looking for war criminals soon here-after. I hope that conscience and humanity is not entirely absent within the Russian ranks. It must also be difficult for them knowing there is a good chance they’ll die in this war and never feel the sting of animus toward Ukraine. They're giving their lives for something they never believed in. That's not all of them, but you know there are quite a few. Morale must be awful.
On that note, people often ask me what I think of the chances of Putin using nuclear weapons on Ukraine. My answer is that I anticipate the use of tactical nuclear weapons, but I don't consider it likely. It's more a matter of mental preparation. The scary part of the nightmare that we're living is that none of the choices that Putin is making now is about "winning in Ukraine" but rather about his political and actual survival. Moreover, there is no long-term planning, but just how to survive from one week to the next. So despite tactical nukes being of no battlefield importance and certainly would turn the world on Russia, if that's the only card he has to play, he may do so to buy himself time by being the disrupter. Why would tactical nukes not change much of anything in the outcome? They sure can kill thousands of soldiers (Ukrainian and Russian) and civilians in between, but they exist to open holes in defenses and send troops through. Well, Russia doesn't have the manpower to send anyone through anywhere in a meanigful way, and likely won't until the middle of the winter. Hopefully NATO's response would be swift so Ukraine isn't suffering staggering losses until a response is organised. It also is important to realise that both biological and chemical weapons should also be in our minds as a real threat as well.
As we watch the disaster of Putin’s mobilisation and stop-loss policy unfold in Russia, and recognise that the losses are magnificent, there indeed is yet another tragedy unfolding in Russian history done unto itself. BUT! But, as you watch the millions of Russians flee Russia these days, remember these people are not fleeing the atrocity their nation has visited upon their neighbour, Ukraine, but to save their own ass. Remember that.
Remember that, when a Russian or a Belarussian tells you he/she is powerless against the corruption of his/her government, that he could be tortured and she could be raped by government thugs, remember that it was Ukrainians by the tens of thousands who rose up against Yanukovich in 2013. It was Ukrainians who faced down police bullets, and who died in the 100s to assert that their nation would not go down THAT authoritarian path. It was their people who took the risk to set the course of freedom against tyranny, and it is because of THAT that Ukraine found itself invaded in 2014 and at war with Russia now. Russians and Belarussians have their point, but it should never be forgotten that Ukraine chose the path less traveled by, and that has made all the difference, as it should to the international community.
If you haven’t been reading my blog long enough, it deserves to be reiterated that NATO expansion has nothing to do with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. There are still commentators and academics out there who level that charge, and from all I can tell, most of these voices are motivated by a disdain for historical aspects of American foreign policy. As valid as some beefs might be, it doesn’t warrant the myopia that ignores the liberties of those tens of millions living in the shadow of Russian imperialism and militarism for centuries. In fact, this may be the best foreign policy opportunity that the people of the US have to stand up for in my lifetime. Do not dismiss this opportunity to do the right thing because you haven't taken the time to see how different this is from Iraq or Afghanistan.
Getting Back to Aid Work :)
While I was in Mykolaiv in September, I connected with a great group of volunteers who call themselves “Rebel Volunteers”. They have a logo and a brand that reflects, I think, their recognition that all aid organisations are enterprises. Interestingly, I see this experience helping a lot of these young Ukrainians to understand the varied challenges of commercial enterprises. It’ll be interesting to see where a lot of these 20 and 30yo will be in twenty years. How many of Ukraine's future political leaders and CEOs will have been up to their elbows in aid/volunteer work during this war? I suspect it will be many.
Like a lot of small aid organisations – you may recall my German acquaintances at Alex21 who are still busily plugging away across Ukraine following the line of contact in Kharkiv and Luhansk – Rebel Volunteers is also doing varied things. While I got to participate in abandon-pet aid, which is basically feeding dogs and cats within earshot of m777 howitzers, more of Rebel Volunteers’ time is spent on medical supplies to hospitals and directly to soldiers.
My buddy Vahif (or Vagif in Russian, though it’s an Azerbaijani name) is often the team’s utility player. He’s the guy they call when they need a driver who takes members of the press to combat areas, or when there’s a delivery of food, water, and generator diesel to villages under fire. In just about every village, there are a dozen old folks who have chosen to live out of a communal basement (like a school's basement) in their village rather than go somewhere civilized. (The community will have been without electricity and water for most of the war.) It's the exact opposite of what most of us would do, but I don't think it surprises any of us that there are those people. We all know some, I suppose. Still, it means someone has to run the gauntlet of incoming fire to bring them water, food, and generator diesel.
In working with the foreign press, one of Vahif's observations from the early months of the war was that it was better to look as civilian as possible when driving within enemy firing range. So his car isn't painted up in the camouflage drab like the cars I bought earlier in the war. It also means he doesn't pu “PRESS” visibly on his vehicle, as that likely attracts more Russian fire than it deters. You'll find plenty of videos online of press being fired upon by Russian troops even after having identified themselves as press.
October Donation Drive
I was impressed by the group's organisation and the breadth of people involved. It was the kind of organisation that I like to support because it’s locals trying to do their part for their community and their country. They’re also tried, tested, and legit. So, I’ve already contributed a couple grand to the organisation to go toward village assistance and medical supplies for troops.
Those medical supplies are specifically to go into a soldier’s IFAK, which is his Individual First Aid Kit. I carry one and most people going into mildly dangerous situations should have their own. They’re about the size of a stand-up box of tissues, and clip onto a soldier’s MOLLE system on his body armour or rucksack. Despite their compact size, an IFAK carries many life-saving tools, some of which the soldier can use on himself to save his own life, like a tourniquet. Others that are in the kit are there for another soldier or medic to use to save his life, like compression bandages, chest seals, and decompression needles that are used to reinflate a collapsed lung.
Ukrainian IFAK content: Things I add to mine: IFAK MOLLE pouch & red cross badge Medical tweezer bag Gloves, scissors, duct tape, & "Sharpie" Pain meds, usually prescription opiates Hemostatic gauze Finger splint (& larger if it fits) "Israeli" compression bandages Anti-anxiety meds (like Paxil or Zoloft) Nasopharyngeal tube & lube Occlussive chest seal Burn dressing Decompression needle Foil blanket Alcohol prep pad Wrap dressing Injury Card (for further treatment)
From what I can tell from the limited information online, there's a history of soldiers carrying their own medic supplies with them in modern warfare, but not one that really seemed to get traction up until this century. In WW1, fr example, US soldiers did have medical belts, but the quality of the supplies and the conditions of the war rendered many of those items useless quickly. They didn't have the blessing (and curse) of packaging like we know today. Similarly, the MOLLE system I mentioned above is also an innovation that got huge traction in the last thirty years, and so there's no doubt a soldier will have a smart place to put his IFAK.
Apparently much that influences what we use here in Ukraine today, as in Afghanistan and Iraq earlier this century, came out of limited studies in the first Gulf War and out of recent Special Forces operations. The modern IFAK on a MOLLE system is one of those things. (Thanks to my buddy and US Marine veteran Ted for also kicking in some info on this.)
Unfortunately the ZSU doesn’t have enough IFAKs for all the new recruits and, similarly, they’ve proven extremely valuable in saving the lives of existing troops during these intense counter-offensives. That is, they’re getting used and need to be replaced. (We're really not supposed to talk about how much they're getting used, but you get the picture.)
So what I'm proposing to all of you reading this is to donate by yourself, or as a team, $125 toward the creation of your very own IFAK that we will give to a soldier with your name(s) and city on a card in the IFAK. The soldier will see that it's from you (hopefully just once). This makes it personal, I think.
Please contact me on how to make cash donations to L'viv Alliance that I will send through to Rebel Volunteers. (You'll send me USD, EUR, AUD, ot GBP, and I'll send the UAH (hryvnia) via my Ukrainian banks). PayPal, Revolut, Zelle, and mailed paper cheque are all options.
Upcoming YouTube Video and Closing Thoughts
In that YouTube video that I'm slowly slopping together -- I'm really trying to manage any expectations you might have -- I try to show you that living in Ukraine right now, for most people, very much resembles normal. Even in a city that gets hit with missiles almost daily, where the water is undrinkable, and the streets are pitch-dark when the sun sets, people go to the gym, they eat sushi together, and they brew beer (with imported water). The human spirit isn't only resilient, but it's in our nature to live not only by the beating of our hearts, but to live with our hearts. We all prepare, to varying degrees, for bad things to happen, but beyond that... well nothing reminds us more to live full lives than a war on our doorstep.
That said, and this is the part that is worse than what you see on CNN or the BBC, there are hundreds of mostly young to middle-aged men dying on the rich soil of Ukraine every day. Some are invaders and some are heroes, but no matter that status, it's a violent and unforgiving death. Both the mass graves uncovered in Izyum and the torn up bodies of Russian soldiers littering the road out of Lyman for miles and miles, both of these kinds of images remind us of the terrifying violence of war, which is a reality for all too many sleeping rough in Ukraine tonight. It is a reality that only ends, when those who came to conquer Ukraine go to leave Ukraine, and allow it to remake its future and find peace and prosperity. There isn't a more simple solution than that.