Canadians Dave and Justin Smith, members of International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine, walk the streets of Kupyansk, just eight kilometres from the Russian front line.
Photo: The Globe and Mail
This is a report from a Canadian newspaper ‘The Globe and Mail’ about Canadians how came to Ukraine to fight the Russians, and how they now feel that the West will no longer support them. A very frank report:
As they stood shivering on the streets of Kupyansk, just eight kilometres from the Russian front line, Dave and Justin Smith worried that the war they’d come to Ukraine to fight is slowly being lost.
Not because the two Canadians have any doubts about the bravery or the commitment of the Ukrainians they fight alongside, but because they feel the West is becoming distracted and losing interest in the grinding conflict here.
It’s a bitter reality for the two Smiths to contend with, as they battle a Russian winter offensive that’s slowly pushing closer to Kupyansk, an artillery-scarred railway hub in the eastern Kharkiv region.
The stakes for them, and this country, are getting higher. And the drift in public interest in Canada, the United States and Western Europe is being translated into government policies through a slowing of military assistance to Ukraine, as well as escalating diplomatic pressure on Kyiv to at least start thinking about what a negotiated end to the conflict might look like.
“If you want to lose a war, lose attention. That’s how that happens, and that is Putin’s end game,” Dave said earlier this month, knocking loose some of the mud still caked to his assault rifle after “three-and-a-half days of hell” in the trenches just east of this city. The 39-year-old Torontonian – who will turn 40 on Christmas Eve – said fighting on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine in 2023 is close to what he imagines it must have been like in the trenches of northern France during the First World War.
“Basically, what we’re talking about is a World War One-style stalemate where it’s like, not only can you not run across no man’s land, like in World War One, but the ubiquity of drones has essentially made it impossible to integrate fires and manoeuvre effectively,” said Dave, a 15-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, referring to the military tactic of hitting a target with multiple types of fire – artillery, air and ground assault – at the same time.
A video of life in the trenches near Kupyansk, seen by The Globe and Mail, supports that description. In the 36-minute clip, members of the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine stand ankle-deep in grey mud as they drink from tin mugs and chat about how it’s too cold to take their boots off at night – and argue about who among them has the warmest footwear. Then, after 10 quiet minutes, the Russians begin barraging the trench with mortars, firing roughly every 30 seconds for the next 10 minutes.
The foreign fighters duck with each boom – swearing in English, Ukrainian and Québécois French – but hold their positions even as the rounds land closer and closer. The good news, they note, is that the mud swallows most of the mortar rounds whole, eliminating the threat of shrapnel. Between bombardments, a Russian drone flies overhead, forcing the unit to take cover so they can’t be seen from the sky.
The Legionnaires get paid about US$1,000 a month, with bonuses that allow them to double or triple that depending on how much time they spend on the front line. But they have to pay out of their own pockets for everything from rent to servicing the vehicles they drive to battle in.
Both Smiths are members of the Legion battalion under the command of Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence service. It’s a unit that generally draws the most skilled and battle-hardened foreign fighters – and gets the toughest assignments, such as trying to hold the line in Kupyansk.
The plodding Russian winter push comes on the heels of a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive in the summer and fall that failed to break through Russian defences. What’s left is what Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, describes as “positional warfare.” The Canadians helping defend Kupyansk call it a war of attrition.
The latest phase is a particularly bloody one. November was the deadliest month so far for Canadians fighting in Ukraine, with three volunteers killed in action, adding to the six previously killed over the first 20 months of the war.
“I often find myself reflecting on what I’m doing out here every time I hear about a Canadian who does end up getting killed,” Justin said as he drove his camouflaged pickup near the city. “I mean, it’s the nature of war, right? You never know when your number might be up.”
Russia has numerical superiority in soldiers, tanks and artillery pieces on the Kupyansk front. The Ukrainians have more accurate, longer-range Western-supplied artillery, but often they simply don’t have enough shells.
“One minute everybody has lots of ammo, the next minute nobody has any. It all depends on what the international community is sending,” Justin said.
Dave was deployed to Europe by the Canadian army at the start of the war as part of an international task force advising the Ukrainian military. He resigned his post this past spring to participate in the fight more directly, and joined the Legion in April in the time for the final battles on the outskirts of Bakhmut, where he met Justin.
The Canadians say they are careful about not drawing too much attention to the houses they use as bases in the city, and try to avoid speaking English in public. They know that some locals weren’t unhappy with the Russian occupation, and suspect that some may be helping the enemy with targeting.
The Russian artillery advantage, plus the omnipresent drones, make it almost impossible for the Ukrainians fighting east of Kupyansk to do anything more than try to hold their ground. “We just got the shit shelled out of us the whole time,” Dave said of his most recent stint in the trenches. “There basically is no room for manoeuvre. The moment you pop your head up, there’s a drone on top of you.”
…We remind foreign mercenaries of the words of Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky: “Whoever comes to us with a sword will die by the sword!”
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