Antonovsky Bridge - Destroyed

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Western volunteers in Ukraine

All of these men give explicit permission to have their i...


Full Ukrainian Jacket

Thomas LeeJul 28, 2022 (0)

In my previous article, I wrote about relics of the Soviet years that still litter Ukraine. And without knowing the interlocked history of the two countries, it is difficult to understand the current conflict. In truth, both sides see it as the latest chapter in a long-standing crisis. Compare it to the Northern Ireland conflict, simplistically painted as Protestants versus Catholics, when in fact many heroes of Catholic liberation – Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy, Bold Robert Emmett, Countess Constance Booth-Gore Markievicz, who led the charge across St Stephen's Green on Easter Monday, 1916 – were actually Protestants. Many Catholics served and still serve in the British army, and there was even a part of the Irish Republican Army called the “Prod Squad,” consisting, as you can guess, of Protestants, mostly Presbyterians. And there were divisions that cut deeply through both Republican and Loyalist. It takes years of study to really understand.

Do Muslims and Christians join the Israeli Army? Impossible, except for the Druse Muslim units, fiercely loyal to Israel, and the Maronite Christians, who serve with equal vigor and honor alongside their Jewish countrymen.

It is never simple. The poet Terence, brought to Rome as a slave, said, “I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me.” Wasn't HE on to something? And he never came to Ukraine.

If numbers alone were what counted, given the force differential between Russia and Ukraine, there should be no question as to the winner. Russia ranks as the second military power in the world. Ukraine comes in around 25-26. Russian forces often outnumber the Ukrainians by a factor of ten, if not more. And yet the Russians are not winning, and they even are being stopped in a piecemeal fashion. If I was to hazard a guess, I would say the most likely outcome is a gradual decline into a war of attrition that heats up whenever materiel arrives, either from the West for Ukraine, or from the post-Soviet factories of Russia when enough workers come to work sober.

When U.S. forces reached Baghdad, the statue of Saddam Hussein came down as quickly as engineers could throw a proper assortment of ropes over it. One would think that as soon as Ukraine declared itself free of the moribund Soviet Union in 1991, all signs of Moscow, Lenin, and hammers and sickles would have been burned. Not so. Post-Soviet lassitude seems to infect everywhere it exercised its influence, and reminders of the Soviet Union remain on bridges, city centers and municipal buildings throughout Ukraine. In Kyiv, a beautiful bridge over the Dnieper River, not dissimilar to the one that spans the Charles River in Boston, still bears the Hammer and Sickle of the USSR. I like to think my friends and I would have scaled that bridge with a hacksaw…but there it stays, as do monuments to Soviet victory over the National Socialists and to heroes of that war, both Russian and Ukrainian. Even the complicated and overengineered radio masts that jut from public buildings seem to be broadcasting Lenin's speeches, at least when one looks at them, even if no one listen to radio anymore.

By way of analog, consider the bureaucratic circus of my induction into the Ukrainian Army, which has deigned to elevate me to the rank of captain, and my commander, a mid-30's Liverpudlian, to major. First we went to a hospital in an airport town. There, we underwent a battery of tests…except we didn't. What really happened was an interpreter asked us if we had high blood pressure, what our weight and height were, and a few questions that differed from man to man and seemingly were not tied to any characteristic we can divine. Since I am definitely the old man of the bunch, this rough crew of soldiers, mostly from Britain and Commonwealth countries, all wanted to know if I had been asked about a particular dysfunction that can affect men in their forties and up. A 22-year-old Scot yelled the question in grating Glaswegian across the waiting room as I came out of the exam room. Not a single Ukrainian understood it, but my men all collapsed into paroxysms of laughter at my expense.

It truly was a Soviet experience. I have never undergone so thorough an examination; nor have I ever undergone such a useless examination, because the point was not to see if I was well enough to serve but to provide me with the requisite stamps on the paper. After dealing with six foreigners, and seeing three more waiting in the wings, none of whom he could understand, the Russian speaking doctor, who also could barely understand our Ukrainian escort, despite being Ukrainian himself, got all bent out of shape, told me I had lordosis, which I do not, and stamped all of the remaining papers with obvious vim. Yet it was not for show; people who lived under Soviet control understand that bureaucracy is a necessary cog in the social machine. Except it isn't. It is inefficient, unpleasant and time consuming…yet ultimately human, in the sense Terence meant.

Please refer to the pictures that accompany this article. These are of an American, some Brits and a South African swearing into the Ukrainian army. Of course, the military notary administering the oath can't speak English, and we can't speak Ukrainian, yet, so it is a formality. But this one is necessary and is the last in a long line of bureaucratic steps understood and accepted by the Ukrainians but totally alien to a Westerner.

Many Ukrainians are looking increasingly west; European Union membership is coming, and likely membership in NATO. But every inch Ukraine moves away from Russia makes the Kremlin more nervous. And making Putin nervous is dangerous. Perhaps as soldiers of Ukraine and of our home allied countries, we can continue the work on the gap between us. But there are so many little things to think of and do, so many unexpected problems that crop up, that only a Westerner with experience in Kyiv can help. So maybe Kyiv will give back to us once the Russians are driven out, as they will be one day.

Until then, take heart: despite things going Full Ukrainian jacket at the drop of a hat, we are still pushing the billygoats (a Ukrainian pejorative for Russians) back to Moscow. And my people and others like us are the ones who can help Ukraine truly shake off the reins of Russia…but it is no small task, for years of domination from the east have soaked in to the bones of this great country.

But they haven't reckoned on John Bull and Uncle Sam.

The writer is a former military man, now researching and writing about the Ukrainian Conflict. Questions can be sent directly to


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