Paul Wood

‘Help us, before it’s too late’

Ukrainians say their fate is being decided now – and the West must not delay in sending arms

‘Help us, before it’s too late’
The aftermath of Russian shelling in the city of Chernihiv (Getty images))
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Western Ukraine

Outside a military recruiting centre in Lviv, Egor Grushin, one of Ukraine’s most famous classical pianists, was waiting in line to join up. He was tall and slim with a wispy beard, long delicate fingers and large brown eyes that gazed into the middle distance. In other words, he was – as he would admit – no one’s idea of a soldier. He knew he would not be accepted into a frontline unit because, as he explained, so many people were volunteering that there weren’t enough guns to go round: only those with military experience could join the regular army. Instead, he would be part of Lviv’s civil defence forces, ‘hunting saboteurs’ and waiting for the Russian – or Belorussian – tanks. He spoke matter-of-factly about his willingness to die for Ukraine: 

‘We want to live in peace. We want to live in freedom. We won’t give up our land and our freedom for anything.’

We were standing on one of Lviv’s quaint cobbled streets. This is Ukraine’s most beautiful city, full of pastel-coloured neo-classical buildings dating from the Habsburg Empire. Today, the elegant boulevards are still crowded, everyone coming and going almost as if things are normal. The war is not here yet, though there are many signs of its imminent arrival. Sandbags are piled up outside the doorways of official buildings and from time to time the wail of an air raid siren can be heard across the city, sending people to their basements. (So far, these have all been false alarms.) A note from our hotel’s concierge asks for our ‘understanding of certain inconveniences’, including a late start to breakfast because of curfew. The note asks us to notify reception or the police if we see ‘suspicious’ individuals. It’s signed: Slava Ukraini! Heroyam slava!’ Glory to Ukraine! Glory to our heroes!

Egor Grushin

People say this in Lviv these days instead of ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. It’s the Ukrainian army’s official slogan but it was used in the 1930s and 40s by the nationalists known as Banderites, after their leader Stepan Bandera. Once during this visit, I spotted the red and black flag of Bandera’s guerrilla army, which was accused of murdering Jews and Poles. After I saw the flag – adorning a bus stop on a quiet country road outside Lviv – I did not see it again. And for most Ukrainians, ‘Glory to Ukraine! Glory to our heroes!’ is a simple expression of pride, not a statement weighed down by history. Still, Vladimir Putin says his armies are in Ukraine to fight ‘Nazis’ and save Russian speakers from ‘genocide’. So I asked Egor, the piano player, if he hated Ukraine’s Russian speakers.

‘No,’ he said, he had been brought up in a Russian speaking household. His parents still spoke Russian; so did his sister, though he hoped they would all start speaking Ukrainian, like him. I asked what would happen to the Russian-speaking separatists in the east of the country if Ukraine won the war (wondering silently if they would be expelled). He replied: ‘There is no simple answer to that. We will need to work with them. We need to re-integrate them [into Ukraine].’ Just then, our translator Olesia interrupted. Small, intense, with long, blonde pigtails in the traditional Ukrainian style, she wanted to correct my question. ‘It’s not if Ukraine wins the war,’ she said fiercely, ‘it’s when Ukraine wins the war.’ Egor laughed and agreed. ‘We will send the Russian troops home – then we can solve all the problems here.’

I heard the same confidence in victory many times in Lviv and then – often in the same breath – a contradictory declaration that the country would fight ‘to the last drop of Ukrainian blood’. Sometimes, cracks appeared in the speaker’s resolve. During a break in our interviews, Olesia, the translator, sat down next to me, hunched over with anxiety. She was 31, she said, an engineer by training and also fluent in English – and that would be useful in the war effort. But she was torn about what to do. She had a son of 12 and twin girls aged ten and she was trying to resist the urge to run, to take them out of Lviv and into the countryside, perhaps all the way to Poland. She started to weep as she said this, turning away for a moment, then gathering herself. ‘But I don’t want to be a refugee. I have the feeling that if we leave our home here, we will never be back.’ So she and her husband would stay and wait for the bombs to fall, frightened but determined.

How to assess Ukrainian morale? The defiance – in the face of overwhelming odds – is partly bravado, partly what people think they should say to foreign journalists. But on the whole, it seems genuine. Outside another recruiting office, I met one of the famous Ukrainian fighting grandmothers. Uliana was 57, a lawyer in the city prosecutor’s office with carefully plucked eyebrows and a sensible black leather handbag. She had ‘many children and grandchildren’ as she told me and – her papers in hand – she was crestfallen to be turned away by the soldier at the door and told to try the civil defences forces instead. ‘It will be enough to fight,’ she told me, ‘to participate somehow.’

There’s always a rush to join up at the start of any conflict: it’s as if a jolt of energy and purpose runs through the entire population. These are only the first days of the war in Ukraine, before the electricity and the water are cut off, before the hunger and the cold, before the casualties mount and the doubts set in. But the Ukrainians have already astonished the world – and perhaps President Putin too – by holding out this long. If the Russian leader thought he could panic Ukrainians into fleeing at the sight of the first tank, he was wrong. As generals everywhere know, the will to fight may be the most important factor in war. The Russian leader faces a stubborn citizens’ army – of pianists and grandmothers, taxi drivers and shopkeepers. The question now is what can they fight with?

I spoke about the weapons question to a senior official from Kiev. He did not want me to identify him, not even to say which part of the government he works for, but he is one of the people running this war. His mobile phone rang constantly until one of his assistants took it away. He had the pallid complexion and tremulous hands of someone getting far too little sleep. 

‘Every hour counts,’ he said, ‘this is the time that will decide if we survive.’ I told him I couldn’t understand why the Ukrainians were not attacking the 40-mile-long military convoy advancing on Kiev. Russian tanks and armoured vehicles were nose-to-tail on a single narrow road, the vehicles often running out of fuel or stuck in the mud. The column was vulnerable. It was certainly much easier to destroy on the road than once it was spread out around the Ukrainian capital. ‘We can’t,’ he said, ‘We don’t have anything left for the attack.’

This was shocking. The shortage of arms for inexperienced volunteers like Egor or Uliana is partly caused by the rush to join up – a problem of success. But the failure to turn the Russian convoy into smouldering metal shows how little the regular Ukrainian forces have. The official had a long list of what was urgently needed for the Ukrainian war effort: MiG fighter jets from Poland – because Ukrainian pilots knew how to fly the old Russian planes – Buk anti-aircraft missiles from Finland – ‘four divisions…Russian aircraft are destroying all our air defence systems’ – Bulgarian S300 missiles – ‘a division’– anti-helicopter rockets from Greece – Bayraktar attack drones from Turkey – Grad rockets from anyone who had them – and lots of machine guns and ammunition: ‘because the whole nation, including the children, will take the guns.’ Some of these things had been promised but not delivered; others the Ukrainians were still pleading for. ‘If there is procrastination even for two weeks, there will be no one to give the weapons to.’

The EU and Britain have promised more than $500m (£380m) worth of arms; the US $350m (£260m). Some of that has already been sent: Stinger shoulder-launched missiles from the US, Javelin anti-tank weapons from Britain, sniper rifles from the Czechs. All of these weapons will make the Russian invasion of Ukraine very costly for the Kremlin. But the official said that what had arrived so far was nowhere near enough: everything was running out. ‘We’re fighting with Molotov cocktails against tanks.’ His government wanted a Ukrainian version of lend-lease, the American programme to support Britain during the Second World War. The arms could be airlifted to Poland and then brought across the border in a steady flow…if Ukraine was given air defence weapons to make a safe corridor, protected from Russian planes. ‘We’re not asking others to fight. We fight ourselves. But everyone in the West must understand that the Russians will be after you next. We are fighting for the whole of Europe.’

In fact, some citizens of Nato countries are in Ukraine to fight. They are members of the new International Brigade the Ukrainians are recruiting at their embassies. The senior official told me that so far around 3,000 foreigners had signed up. A unit 500-strong had already been formed inside Ukraine, he said, ‘ready to go – except there are no weapons’. I thought these numbers might have been propaganda but it appears that the figures are roughly accurate – and more recruits are arriving all the time. There are apparently a number of British volunteers so far. I managed to speak to one of them, a retired major named Ian Cunningham.

At the age of 74, Major Cunningham has the distinction of being the oldest member of the International Brigade. He served in the Coldstream Guards and was also a part of a Territorial Army infantry regiment, the 1st Wessex. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he flew to Poland and then took a taxi to Ukraine. He was among the very first British group to join the International Brigade. He sent me a photograph of them all at Warsaw airport. He told some of his former colleagues in the Household Division what he was doing, sending emails written in code. Ukraine is Malta:

‘It still looks as though I am off to the Head office of Fortnum & Mason in Valetta to work on the MD’s staff…If I go, it will be hard hat time as things are being thrown about rather a lot. Pistols w b drawn & cocked. It’s a very disagreeable bar-room brawl, which is terribly upsetting for the natives…I think that they are overwhelmed by (1) what is happening to their v beautiful island… & (2) the astonishing response of 98% of the world & (3) people pouring in in their thousands to help sort out said brawl. My guess is that the numbers have been tipped now in Malta’s favour…Hug the mems very tightly tonight. The Bear may try and x the Channel in a week or two’s time.’

Major Cunningham won’t be given a field command because of his age. Instead, as he writes above, he expects to get a headquarters job, helping to buy the desperately needed weapons. He had once been an aide to the British Chief of the Defence Staff and so knew ‘which doors to knock on’. I wasn’t able to meet the major in person because the Ukrainian authorities are afraid Russia wants to attack the International Brigade’s base and so access for journalists is difficult. But we spoke by phone, using the encrypted app Signal, which the Ukrainians believe the Russians have yet to crack.

Major Cunningham (left) at a Ukrainian military base with Lieutenant Colonel Martin Podpora, a former Polish paratrooper

When he arrived in Ukraine, last Monday, he had to sign a contract to join the Ukrainian armed forces. All new recruits to the International Brigade do this: the aim is to give them the protection of the Geneva Conventions. Many different languages are spoken on the parade ground, but English has become the Brigade’s main and official language. So far, the major told me, everyone he’s met has ‘very good military experience...[there are] very few cowboys as I can make out. I mean, who the fuck knows, but on cross-examination, all these people are making sense.’

He's become ‘room-mates and instant friends’ with the second oldest member of the Brigade, a Polish colonel, Martin Podpora. ‘Huge man. Parachutist.’ He’s also met a Finnish airline pilot who’s had 2,000 hours on Jumbos and A380s and who wants to fly MiGs. He told the major: ‘Give me 30 minutes’ training in a flight simulator and I’ll go straight up and knock those fucking Russians clean out of the sky.’ ‘Gosh,’ the major replied. I asked him if this wasn’t Dad’s Army. He said that the Ukrainians were ‘desperately short of experience’ and ‘we have that experience – first hand and first class.’

In any event, 90 per cent of the volunteers were in their 20s, he said. The first of his ‘very punchy and extremely tough new best friends’ had already gone to Kiev ‘to do their very, very worst against Putin’s mob'. It seems that the International Brigade isn’t just something the Ukrainians created for propaganda reasons (though it has that role, too). The Brigade is also a great and unexpected gift for old soldiers like the major, a chance for one last adventure. He said: ‘One's here for the duration. It could end in two days. It could end in two years. Who knows?

How does this end? I put that question to Colonel-General Ihor Smeshko. He replied with a smile: ‘That is the question not to the general, but to the astrologer.’ 

Smeshko is technically retired, and now a politician not a military man but, as he says, no one is really retired now in this time of national emergency. He is a former head of Ukrainian military intelligence, a former head of the country’s domestic security service, the SBU – successor to the KGB – though he looks more like a university professor (another post he has held) than a secret policeman. Speaking to him is always an education: his table talk sweeps over Volodymyr the Great, Kiev-Rus, the Rurik dynasty, Charlemagne, Voltaire and Marx, because ‘Putin is an uneducated man’ and he wishes to correct the Russian leader’s errors about Ukraine. ‘We are a fully European nation.’ Smeshko could rightly claim to be one of Ukraine’s leading strategic thinkers. But just as in my conversations with ordinary Ukrainians, he veers between optimism and dread, certainty in the inevitability of victory and fear that Putin’s war will destroy Ukraine.

The first British contingent to the International Brigade, Ukraine, arrives at Warsaw airport, on their way to the war zone. Major Cunningham is fifth from right

He had come straight from Kiev and he looked a little shaken by the journey. The Russians had almost completed their encirclement of the capital, he said. Russian tanks were in the fields; Russian special forces in the forests. There was still a way out, to the south, but it was narrowing. It had taken him and his driver two days to get here, to Lviv, because they had to be careful of what he said were fake checkpoints, Russians wearing Ukrainian uniforms. He would have to return to Kiev soon and he showed me the small, snub-nosed Beretta he carries so he cannot be taken at one of these checkpoints. He told me: ‘If ever we were occupied, I would be killed – number one.’

We met in a traditional Ukrainian restaurant, with white tablecloths and – incongruous with the subject of our discussions – tweeting birds in a brass cage. I couldn’t offer him a drink because you can’t buy alcohol now, a measure to help the war effort. But we had a good lunch of borscht and salo, pork fat on rye bread. I asked him why the Russian air force was not carpet-bombing cities, as in Syria; why Russian artillery had not been used to flatten whole neighbourhoods, as in Chechnya. The reason, he said, was that president Putin had told the Russian people this was not a war but ‘a special operation to liberate a brother people from Nazis’. Escalating would make it difficult to maintain that fiction. But Smeshko worried that if the Kremlin leader thought that his ‘personal life and his personal future’ was at stake – more than the fate of his government and the country – then anything was possible, the ‘full craziness of escalation’: total war on Ukraine.

He told me that the Ukrainian military’s estimate of Russian losses was that six-and-a-half thousand soldiers had been killed. This was in the first couple of days of the invasion: Russia was losing men at many times the rate during the failed Soviet adventure in Afghanistan. My meeting with Smeshko was last Tuesday and when I phoned him yesterday, he said the Russians had now lost more than 10,000 men. I am not sure whether to believe those figures, any more than the Russian government’s statement that ‘just’ a few hundred soldiers have died. But Russian losses are certainly rising – and this is what will threaten Putin’s ‘personal future’, to the extent that the Russian people hear about what is happening here.

So as the Russian loses increased during the week, there was a steady increase, too, in reports of Russian rockets and artillery turned on Ukrainian civilians. But for all the stories of heroic Ukrainian resistance, Russia is only just beginning the ‘special operation’: the forces that General Smeshko saw outside his capital are still getting into position, the worst yet to come. Could this be stopped with a peace agreement? There have been several rounds of talks but neither side seems to be putting much stock in them. Interestingly, General Smeshko told me the problem wasn’t just Russian bad faith. ‘The difficulty is the Ukrainian people, because right now, they will not stop so easy.’ I spoke about this by phone to the commander of a small frontline unit in Kiev, a former lawyer and citizen soldier leading 20 men and women. He told me that if president Zelensky signed a new Minsk agreement -- giving up Ukrainian territory – it would be ‘treason,’ the start of a civil war on the Ukrainian side. ‘Ukrainian patriots’ would kill Zelensky if he betrayed the country, if he did not stand and fight.

If the peace talks do get serious, General Smeshko believes he might be asked to join the negotiating team. He has been thinking about how to engage president Putin. Years of ‘unlimited power and unlimited money’ had ‘poisoned’ Vladimir Putin’s soul. Such a person, having the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal in his hands, would find it very hard to compromise. Smeshko feared it might be impossible to find a formula that would allow Putin to save face. Instead: 

‘The Ukrainian people will fight – this is proved by the history. From every window, from every flat, there will be partisan war. The Russians will not feel themselves safe in any place.’ 

But he continued: ‘We are losing the best of our patriots. You know, every life is unique. Our national idea is very simple for us. God. Freedom. Family’ – he paused now, struggling to go on – ‘and Ukraine.’ His eyes filled with tears, the second Ukrainian who had wept during an interview in as many days. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, getting up to find his driver.

Smeshko had brought up the issue of Russia’s nuclear weapons. How far exactly could the ‘full craziness of escalation’ go? While I was in Lviv, someone close to the Ukrainian intelligence services played me what was described as a recording of an intercepted telephone call. It was, supposedly, from an officer serving at Russia’s strategic missile base at Tagil, in Siberia, to his brother, an army officer in Kiev. The speaker has a trembling voice. He says he has been told of orders from the commander-in-chief – Putin -- to prepare a nuclear rocket attack on three cities: Kiev, Kharkiv, and Lviv.

'I don’t know what I should do...His [Putin’s] finger is hovering over the button. Maybe the commander-in-chief knows that he’s got no way out other than going to the Hague. He might just do it.’ The voice says the base was given three hours to get the rockets into a state of readiness. They were supposed to report back to the Kremlin when this had been done. The person who played me the recording said it had not been released for fear of causing panic.

I asked Smeshko and the senior official from Kiev about the recording. They were both aware of it and both thought it was probably Russian disinformation. But they also thought there was a chance it might be genuine. Russia had, after all, already put its nuclear forces on alert; giving targets to the missiles would be one further step. The other possibility, of course, is that the recording was made in Kiev – it did seem very clear for a call from Siberia. Even if this is propaganda, from whichever side, it is a necessary reminder that the war in Ukraine is taking place in the shadow of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has pointedly been telling Nato countries not to forget that fact.

The Ukrainians – understandably – invoke Munich. If Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will have to be stopped in Poland, or the Baltics States, or who knows where. They want Nato to intervene, starting with a No Fly Zone. It is hard not to act when Ukrainian children are being killed by Russian cluster bombs. But the stakes are unimaginably high if Nato goes to war with Russia for Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of lives are in the balance now; it would be hundreds of millions if the conflict escalates into a nuclear exchange beyond Ukraine’s borders. So Nato leaders must hope that Putin is stopped in Ukraine, by the Ukrainians. They are in the excruciatingly uncomfortable moral position of cheering the brave Ukrainians from the sidelines, while refusing to join the battle themselves. At the very least, they should ‘give the Ukrainians the tools to finish the job’.Slava Ukraini! Heroyam slava! Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!’