100 squats. That is one of the unofficial punishments for violating curfew in Kiev. On the other extreme is an immediate draft notice for the Ukrainian Army. That is Ukraine today. A surrealness of trying to maintain normality amongst the horrors of war.
The line of trucks to cross the border from Poland in Ukraine went on for over 20 minutes. My bus, with a barely functioning air conditioning was packed with women, kids, and me since all Ukrainian men 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country. It took us two hours to cross the border and all the guards were curious why I was there, but not in a hostile or suspicious sort of way.
The ten-hour drive from the border to Kiev was through eerily deserted streets, towns, and highways due to the curfew. During the entire drive, I only saw five people on the streets until the end of curfew at 5am.
I consider Kiev to be one of the most beautiful, vibrant cities in the world. The food, the culture, the architecture, the people. Their parks are alive and green. Despite the war, it is still that way today, but besides the visible signs of war preparation, there is a franticness that one can pick up; on the way young people party hard up until 10pm when all the bars and restaurants close so the workers can make it home by 11pm. I watched several people dancing on a sidewalk in a mambo line as the Macerna blasted from the speakers. On a beautiful Friday afternoon in a park, the air raid siren went off and a couple pushing a baby carriage paused, then continued on their business, all while a very talented violin player serenaded the couples cuddling on park benches. I also heard a very good rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” played on the guitar in same park. Besides the air raid siren, the only other sign of war was the completely covered center monument in the center of the park.
When I would talk to Ukrainians, they would all inevitably bring up the evilness of the “Orcs”, or Russians. At first I internally laughed at the comment being a huge Lord of the Rings fan, but then I started to use the word. It fits, a relentless evil and passion for destruction.
The drive to Odessa from Kiev, is a four-hour drive consisting of military checkpoints and endless fields of sunflowers. Ukraine is the largest exporter of sunflower oil in the world, up to 46% of all global production (Why Ukraine-Russia Conflict Will Spike Sunflower Oil Prices | Time). One of the many reasons that the cost of going out to eat and food in general has skyrocketed. Entering the city, you see another endless line of trucks waiting to offload their goods at the port that has been blockaded by the Russians for months. We tried to guess how long those trucks had been there. Some had tarps and campsites next to them, so I assume much longer than a few days. Weeks? Months? The blockade is further evident when you look out across the Black Sea and do not see one single boat, not even a small dingy, in the water. I have never seen a body of water next to a large port city completely devoid of all watercraft; ghostly.
Odessa, which is only 80 km from the front lines, is of major strategic, military, and cultural significance. It is also a European holiday spot. Locals tell me that the day of the first Russian attacks, a line of foreign-plated cars heading out of the city stretched for miles. Now all of the beaches are mined. Russian has always been the lingua franca of the city, but now Ukrainians are all trying to speak Ukrainian. I have been corrected several times for saying hello using the Russian “Privyet” instead of Ukrainian “Priveet”.
Why am I here? That is a damn good question that I ask myself often. Am I a war junkie? Or do I really think this an existential fight of good vs. evil? As an American and retired soldier, is this even my fight? As like most things in life, I think it is somewhere in between. I have spent time in Ukraine a few years after Maidan and fell in love with the country. I travelled far and wide on behalf of the U.S. Government from the frontline in the Donbas, to the port city of Odessa, to the rustic and traditional lands of the Carpathian Mountains. Ukraine is a country that is neither quite the West nor quite the East. Corruption is rampant. But they want to be like the West and be part of the West. They are hungry for it. That is what the war really boils down to.
I am here to impart some of my 30+ years of military experience into their military. I have been on the ground for a little over a week and already have helped train a new Army unit in small unit tactics. As a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer, I have trained and worked with militaries from the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Korea. I have even worked and lived with the Russian Army in Bosnia during the late nineties. Talk about irony.
This time is different. These guys (and so far I have only seen men in the military even though I know there are women serving on the frontlines) are not theoretically going into combat or an insurgency sometime in the future, their rendezvous with the dragon is only weeks away. There is a seriousness and humility about it that I have never experienced before. We don’t have time to pull someone off a firing line for a safety violation. We have to send them off as in positive a mental state as possible.
Five days. That is all many of these soldiers have. One of the soldiers I worked with who was having problems manipulating his weapon is a PhD trained geologist now serving as an infantry private. There is no way I have any right to get frustrated with him. He has given up so much and possibly everything. Humbling. Also nothing focuses you more than an air raid warning and rocket attack during a live fire exercise.
I hope to contribute in some small way. What we are doing feels right and just. I will be writing ideally on a weekly basis. Feel free to reach out and ask questions. There is always a disconnect between what is reported and what is on the ground. To give you a snap shot of the weirdness of it all, today I was trying to figure out if what I was buying was really oatmeal when the air raid sirens went off. The entire building was evacuated, and I didn’t get my oatmeal. I cannot promise a quick response, but I will try.