KHARKIV, Ukraine – Here’s a key reason why Vladimir Putin failed to crush Ukraine: his civilians are fighting back with a volunteer army.
Across the country, groups of ordinary Ukrainians help feed or house displaced Donbass refugees, raise money to buy body armor or drones for military units without them, help homeowners devastated by shelling Russians to rebuild and save the survivors of the villages the Russians still occupy.
Like Americans, some volunteer in church groups or clubs. But I have met many who have created networks of volunteers or are working alone to make a difference. Their civic resistance to the Russian invaders is a morale boost for the public – and for the military.
While ordinary Americans debate how to counter threats to our democracy, these Ukrainians are fighting to save their democracy from a Russian takeover. Many have the skills to find employment elsewhere in Europe but have chosen to stay, despite the constant risks to their lives.
In Kharkiv, 20 miles from the Russian border, the volunteers face nighttime bombardments. They are wrestling with uncertainty over whether the United States and its allies will give its military the long-range weapons needed to push Russian forces beyond artillery range. They believe that their fight for democracy is also the fight of the West.
So let me introduce you to some of the brave volunteers from Kharkiv.
In a basement cafe in Kharkiv’s French Boulevard Mall, real estate agent Igor Balaka recently rang the bell to call the Rotary Club’s “New Level” chapter to order. They, along with myself and my translator, were the only customers.
Most of the mall’s 300 stores have been closed since a Russian rocket damaged the complex’s roof earlier this year. But mall owner Robert Mkrtchian, a Rotarian, is allowing the group to use a former ice rink in the basement to organize 1,500 food parcels a day for people homeless or starving from war.
Packets of macaroni, other packaged food, bandages, saline solution and syringes for hospitals line the concrete floor of the rink, along with clothing and household supplies. Rotarians worked with many other volunteer groups to disperse the goods to some of the hardest hit neighborhoods. They also work on clearing rubble.
Balaka; Serhii Ivalho, Developer; and Pavlo Filippenko, the head of a construction company, discuss how to find funds to build modular housing to help Kharkiv when winter comes. Members of the group fear that access to water and electricity will become a problem and that more citizens will lose their homes to the bombardments.
“In the wars you have seen, how has the economy survived?” asked a member. “Is it like the other wars you’ve seen?” We have never seen war before.
I realize that these businessmen, like most Americans, never imagined that a total invasion could come to their country in the 21st century. They struggle to figure out how to rebuild their city even as the Russians attempt to destroy it. They know that their survival depends on whether the United States gives them the long-range weapons to repel Russian artillery beyond the range of their city.
“War is a situation where you see what people are capable of,” says Mkrtchian. “People take off their masks.”
Balaka adds: “Everyone who stays here in Kharkiv is like a family.
Then the group nervously asks me the question I’ve heard all over Ukraine: “What will happen in America if the Republicans win a majority in Congress, or if Trump becomes president again?” Will your country stop supporting Ukraine?
Last Wednesday evening, shrapnel pierced the walls, windows and ceiling of Oleksiy Lomskiy’s NEBO restaurant in the DAFI shopping center for the second time. (Putin’s army seems to like to target malls, as I’ve seen in every city I’ve visited.)
The first attack on the mall also set fire to the multiplex cinema next to the restaurant. Lomskiy risked his life fighting the blaze with a hand-held extinguisher until firefighters arrived. Being inside a cinema largely reduced to ashes by a Russian rocket gives you a sense of the absurdity of this war.
But Lomskiy has maintained his staff, adding more kitchens, to prepare meals and bake bread for 8,000 people a day. In the Kharkiv neighborhood of Lomskiy, with skyscrapers scarred and blackened by rocket attacks, I see weary adults queuing outside the battered NEBO for a midday meal.
Lomskiy also has a fleet of yellow delivery vans that deliver food to dangerous areas; while I was visiting, one of them announced by radio that he had been heavily shelled, but he managed to escape.
Like Rotarians, the restaurant owner fears Western attention will diminish if the war continues. “Now most Ukrainians who have moved west are short of money,” he told me. He wants to keep feeding as many as he can. He was also concerned about how to shelter the citizens of Kharkiv who lived in destroyed buildings; he thinks they will need places to sleep for at least the next 18 months.
NEBO means “sky” in Ukrainian, and the restaurateur has set up a charitable foundation called “Peaceful Sky of Ukraine” to fund future operations. So far, he has paid for some of the expenses himself and has received help from World Central Kitchen, as well as funds from European aid groups.
But he warns that ‘Putin will destroy what he cannot have’ and that ‘Kharkiv can be easily destroyed if we cannot stop the Russian rockets from flying’.
The Ukrainian Civic Army, like its military forces, knows that all its efforts will be insufficient if the West stops paying attention. Yet unlike many past U.S. efforts abroad, U.S. aid to Ukraine goes to a country whose people are doing all they can to help themselves win.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and member of the editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquire. Readers can write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, PO Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at [email protected]
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