DONBAS, Ukraine — Just outside the city limits of Slovyansk, an Eastern Ukrainian city not far from the frontlines, the driver in the lead van switches on the hazard lights and pulls over. “They’re going to put on their [bulletproof] vests,” says Ihor Koval, pulling in behind them. Ihor is the driver of the van I’m in and the organizer of this trip to deliver supplies to the Ukrainian Army Forces, among them volunteers who have signed up to fight one of the largest armies in the world. It’s the last leg of a 20-hour drive across nearly the entire width of Ukraine, and we’ve long since entered the Donbas, the flashpoint region in the east.
The last few weeks have seen the Russian invasion of Ukraine begin a shift to a new stage. After failing to encroach on multiple fronts and encircle Kyiv due to strong resistance from Ukrainian forces, the Russian military has pulled back to concentrate their shattered forces in an effort to fully capture and annex the Donbas region, where the initial invasion began eight years earlier. This is where many fear the war will enter a new, even more brutal phase as two entrenched armies fight a modern day war of attrition with tanks and artillery blitzing everything in their path. It will be grinding, and it will be bloody, and there will be destruction and death visited on these lands that will take generations to heal.
Despite the billions in heavy weaponry and materiels pouring into Ukraine, many fighters tasked with holding the line are still lacking in necessary supplies like body armor, consumer drones, and nighttime optics. So-called volunteers and informal networks like those organized by Ihor have taken it upon themselves to raise donations and sort out these logistics, sourcing supplies from all over the world. And as Russian forces now regroup and focus their efforts here in the east, Ihor is feverishly trying to ensure that those fighting them, including his cousin, are not left wanting for anything that could give them an advantage or save their lives.
Right now, though, Ihor is dead-set on making sure the Ukrainian volunteers awaiting this push from Russian forces at the very least have their share of traditional sausages and pastries for Easter this weekend. “I don’t care, man. I feel like I owe these guys big time,” Ihor leans over to me and says, referring to the fighters at the front. “And I don’t care what’s gonna happen to me. One or the other way I’m gonna die, why not doing this?”
The day the Russian invasion started, Ihor, who has lived in Cleveland for the last 30 years, was on a plane to Poland so he could come do his part. Next to him in the van’s cup holder is a reminder of the life he’s currently left behind: a bottle of Alcohol Killer, a sparkling fruit drink that serves as a hangover remedy and whose importation and distribution is his main source of income, along with a commercial roofing company he runs in Cleveland. “I’m telling you, dude, just have some and 30 minutes later you’ll be feeling great,” he had told me the night before as Jameson bottles were brought out among the motley crew of volunteers he’s gathered to run his supply convoys into the heart of the the biggest war in Europe in generations.
Ihor Koval is tall and blond, well over six feet and with the sturdy physique of the champion swimmer he once was in his Soviet youth growing up in Lviv, Ukraine. He bears a striking resemblance to the actor Daniel Craig, and is fond of calling everyone “dude.” These days, he barely sleeps, juggling two phones receiving constant messages and calls, military updates and supply chain issues. Logistics are challenging for normal companies during normal times. He must now do all of that with a minuscule budget in a war zone. Right now there’s a guy in Bulgaria with a bunch of tactical vests. He needs to get them to Poland, and then across the border into Lviv, all as quickly as possible.
Earlier that day, two vans and a truck had already been loaded up at the warehouse on the outskirts of Lviv, including medical supplies, tourniquets, bulletproof vests, generators, fuel, cooking oil, all manners of dried food, batteries, binoculars, coffee, cigarettes, Easter pastries and sausages, and care packages from family members in the west of the country.
The only thing missing is this package containing seven thermal vision monoculars, which have been among the most requested items at the fronts. Ihor had dispatched a young woman, a relative, to retrieve it and bring it over the Polish border from Krakow, but it looks like she’ll be spending the night. He usually sends young women, as they have less problems at the border. Unfortunately, the thermal visions are too important, and we’ll be forced to push the trip back another day. “It was supposed to be here today, and now the UPS tracking website site is telling me it won’t be here until tomorrow,” Ihor says, exasperated.
It’s 8:45 p.m. the next night when the thermal optics finally make it to the volunteer headquarters base. We head off into the night, the weather rainy and cold. Ukraine’s cities are under curfew, and nearly all vehicles are banned from the roads unless they’re trucks transporting goods, but Ihor is connected and has arranged official permission slips to show at the numerous checkpoints that dot the highway. We set off in two cargo vans and an L200 Mitsubishi truck he plans on leaving with a Georgian fighter he’s been friends with for years. Fighters are in desperate need of civilian vehicles that can make it through the muddy terrain, especially for taking the wounded 1-2 kilometers away to the ambulances that can’t make it through the muck.
The other men among our crew, all of them volunteers, are delighted by the new walkie talkies they’ve received, and the one in our car frequently squawks with messages for “Gringo,” the codename they’ve decided to give Ihor. Everyone is in good spirits despite the inherent risk in venturing into an active war zone in an unprotected civilian vehicle without guns.
It’s a 15-hour nonstop drive to Dnipro, the fourth largest city in Ukraine with a population of over a million, and that has quickly developed into a hub in the east. The roads are mostly deserted except for military vehicles and trucks transporting goods, as well as checkpoints and manned fortifications near every city and big town. Ihor points out the lack of road signs on the highways, all taken down in the hopes of confusing Russian invaders. His phones continued to buzz with notifications of military movements and messages about funding, about supplies, logistics, everything that he must handle to keep the operation running. Coincidentally, it’s something he’s almost perfectly suited to do, like he’s been training for it his whole life.
Born in Lviv in 1964, Ihor came of age in the last days of the Soviet Union. He grew up hearing the stories of the Holodomor, the Soviet-created famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s, from his grandfather, who grew up in the east of the country and only survived by catching fish in shallow ponds behind his home. He remembers bread lines and food shortages in the 1980s. But he also remembers summers in Crimea swimming in the sea and meeting girls, traveling around as a champion swimmer. In 1989, he was drafted into the Soviet military to go to the war in Afghanistan, a brutal engagement that decimated tens of thousands of young men, but luckily the Soviets pulled out before he deployed.
The country was falling apart then, and as the USSR started to open up economically, he got took on the entrepreneurial spirit. While working for the city of Lviv, he started taking goods from Ukraine to Poland to sell at markets. When Mikhaeil Gorbachev further opened up the Soviet Union to free enterprise, he got involved in a chandelier business.
But in 1992, Ihor’s uncle got him an invitation to come to the United States. He arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, with no English language skills and no job opportunities. Now the city has a sizable Ukrainian population, but back then he says he was one of only a handful. He got a job literally digging ditches for a cement company. It was hard work, but he was a true believer in the American dream. He says in those tough early days, he thought back to the words of his swim coach in Ukraine, the famous Georgy Prokopenko, who was a silver medalist in Tokyo in 1964: You have to be persistent in everything you do. “I had a lot of things in my life that didn’t play out easily. But I was persistent,” Ihor says.
Soon he got a job bartending nights in a strip club called Crazy Horse. During the day he would work on his English, using a Ukrainian-English dictionary his mother had mailed him and trying to read economics textbooks a friend had left him. He was fluent within a year, and started working on small business ideas. He was a consummate hustler. He would buy motor oil in Florida and sell it in Lviv. He set up some IT consulting agencies in Ukraine. He had an internet company that helped people sell things on Ebay. At one point, he was importing suits from Ukraine into the U.S. At another time it was motorcycles. None of his ventures was a stunning success, but none of them failed.
In 2007, he stumbled onto a product for sale on Ali Baba called Alcohol Killer. He ordered a sample, loved it, swore it worked, and started importing and distributing it in Eastern Europe, South America, and the States, where it’s called Xorb. It’s available at many gas stations in Ukraine, and whenever we pull in to refuel and buy snacks he always makes sure to check to see how it’s selling.
He later started a commercial roofing business, where he managed crews taking on big projects all over Cleveland. He had arrived in the country at 28 with no money, no English, and no contacts, and turned himself into a successful small businessman through sheer determination. “You know how I feel sometimes, like I lived two lives,” he tells me. “One life in the Soviet Union, and one in the States.”
All of these experiences, from coordinating shipments and sourcing supplies all over the world, managing small teams of employees and everything in between, have served him well in his new role: supplying the fighters on the front with what they need. He is a one-man force, raising funds, finding equipment, arranging for all of it to get to Lviv, and then sometimes taking it himself through the eye of the storm, all while uttering, “No problem, dude.”
A high-level NGO employee who works for one of the premier global organizations dealing in conflict zones would later tell me that she’s never seen anything like the response in Ukraine from civilians and volunteers to provide aid and supplies. “It’s like they don’t even need us,” she exclaimed over coffee in Kyiv.
When the Russians first invaded in the east in 2014, Ihor started raising funds to buy supplies for the Ukranians fighting there. But he grew impatient with what he saw as somewhat ineffective efforts in the groups he worked in. Sure, they were helping the families of the dead soldiers, but he wanted to do something to actually try to stop the soldiers from being killed in the first place. He tells me of some of those trips, going to a morgue in Debaltseve, a village southeast from Slovyansk, and seeing the bodies of 23 soldiers in the morgue. He helped buy some ambulances, but when he wanted to send bulletproof vests, the groups he worked with weren’t interested. He decided to go his own way.
He ended up being able to send some vests, and later a soldier would tell him that it saved his life. He continued with small fundraisers here and there, but when the full scale Russian invasion kicked off on February 24, he was on a plane to Lviv the next day. His children helped set up everything officially as a registered NGO and a website, called Evil Cannot Enter Heaven, and he’s been working tirelessly ever since.
The night passes uneventfully, our life stories told to each other and war updates constantly given as various Telegram and Viber channels deliver bursts of information. More Russian shelling is occurring in the areas we’re headed to. As the sun rises we pass impossibly large wheat fields spread out on both sides of the road. This is Ukraine’s bread basket, prized by Hitler and Stalin, where seven percent of the word’s high grade wheat is grown, according to The Washington Post. “You see that topsoil? Better than anything you can find at Home Depot,” Ihor says, referring to the dark black dirt that stretches out before us.
The tension here is much stronger. The checkpoints get more thorough, the soldiers manning them more serious. These are not the volunteers of the western cities, in ill-fitting camo holding older weapons. These are tested soldiers, with new kit, who fear saboteurs and Russian infiltration, who hear the shelling and still face the realistic threat of invaders at the gates.
The eastern cities are also drearier, with more Soviet block housing. Hedgehogs, the steel contraptions meant to block tanks, are everywhere on the roads. Bulldozers in the distant fields are digging trenches hundreds of yards long. Despite all of this, when we pull into Dnipro, it is bustling like Lviv. Old men paint fences in their front yards, street vendors sell fruits and vegetables, and couples stroll to cafes. There are many soldiers around, and some stores have boarded up windows, but the people seem determined to continue living as normally as possible.
Despite his early efforts to fortify the fighters in the east, Ihor originally felt a bit ambivalent about the way the people reacted to the Russians taking over territory. He thought they could have resisted more, that too many of them welcomed them, that they didn’t want to speak or be Ukrainian. But the trips with young fighters changed his mind. “It made an impression on me, at the time I was living in the U.S., that such a brave generation that came up. They weren’t even born when I left for the United States. And they all spoke Russian at the time,“ he said.
One of the major Russian propaganda points used to justify the war is the accusation that Russian-language speakers are being persecuted. To hear Ihor tell it, most of the men he met fighting against the initial invasion in 2014 all spoke Russian to each other, which proved a little confusing at times. “To tell you the truth, I used to think these weren’t my people at times,” he says of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east. “But that [the fighters’ dedication] made such a big impression on me. These people are Ukranians, they are fighting for Ukraine.” He adds, “We have to protect them. For sure these are our people.”
We arrive at the house where we’ll be staying the night. The women who live there have been cooking meals daily to deliver to fighters hours away, and have given up their home to our crew for the next 12 hours. One of them asks me why I wanted to come to Ukraine now as a journalist. I give her the usual litany of conflict reporter reasons and add that it’s important, history is being made. “But I don’t want to live in history, I want to live in peace!” she replies, laughing uproariously.
Throughout the course of the afternoon, various soldiers come by to pick up supplies, mostly tourniquets and some packages from family members. Bogdan Poltorak, 47, is a sergeant stationed in Kharkiv by Izyum, where some of the heaviest fighting is ongoing. Asked what is needed out there, he laughs and says, “We need the thing that only your president can give; we need drones that can fly all the way to Moscow.”
Poltorak says the Russians have the advantage in the air, but when the infantry comes in they just run away. “We’re using the javelins better than the Americans do,” he says, referring to the shoulder launched rockets that have become a symbol of the war for their ability to take out Russian tanks. He adds, “It’s going to be more Russians as fertilizers for the ground and our wheat is gonna grow better.”
I ask him what he plans to do after the war. He looks at me incredulously, as if I asked an entirely silly question. “We’re going to rebuild and then I’m going to go back to driving a truck,” he says. When I ask men what they’ll do after the war, the answer is always the same. Go back to my life. The implication is clear. They’re simply fighting for their home, so they can go back to their normal lives.
The women at the house prepare a feast for us and bottles of Jameson are also brought out, despite the 3:30 a.m. wakeup call the next day to drive into what will soon be one of the most fiercely contested areas of the country. Ihor has been pushing me to try Alcohol Killer, swearing it will cure whatever slowness alcohol can induce tomorrow morning.
Joining us at the table is the man they call The Georgian, Nodar Karashivili. With a shaved head and five-o’clock shadow in his camo fatigues, he looks the fierce fighter he is said to be, commanding a high level of respect from everyone at the table. He started fighting in the east in 2017, and has been fighting the Russian forces off and on since then.
“So you understand, I started fighting with Russia in my head when I was 13,” he tells me. He’s been fighting them for nearly as long with his body, as well. He tells me of witnessing the April 9, 1989 massacre when Georgians rose up to protest against the Soviet Union and the military killed 21 protesters and injured hundreds of others, and shows me a four-inch scar on his arm from when a Soviet soldier hit him with a shovel. Over the next few years, he then fought against what he says were Russian-supported separatists in the Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, though the amount of Russian support is disputed.
“If we don’t kill them here, they’re going to kill us in Georgia,” he says. “My country is very small, 3.5 million people. We don’t have enough resources to show the real evil that exists in the Russian government and how they treat the other nationalists and minorities.”
For him, that meant fighting in the trenches in Donetsk these last few years, which he describes as a positioning war, where they lacked supplies, attention, and big tactical movements. He’s cagey about where he’s fighting at the moment, though he says every day there’s shelling, every day there is a fight, every day they advance with a few tanks to see what’s going on and then pull back. I ask him if he’s hopeful. “Without a hope, I don’t fight,” he says. “Ukraine is the Statue of Liberty now.”
The following morning begins at 3:30 a.m. as we make our way further east. The towns and cities we pass now have a different feel. Many of the homes and shops have plywood boarding up their windows. Kramatorsk, one of the bigger cities in the area and a major target, is intensely fortified, with big mounds of dirt and massive slabs of concrete blocking roads, often ringed by the metal hedgehogs.
Coming up on the city of Slovyansk, we pull over to put on our vests, though it’s quiet as we cut through the south of the city to take an empty road to our destination, a village 15 kilometers southeast that I’ve been told not to reveal for operational security reasons. Smoke rises in the distance from the town of Siversk, in a contested area where there’s been shelling back and forth. After 10 minutes or so when we pass only one other car, we pull onto a pockmarked dirt road to enter the village, passing small farms and houses on each side until we turn into the parking lot of an empty secondary school where the unit we’re meeting has set up.
The city these men are tasked with protecting, Slovyansk, was the first city captured in April of 2014 and served as a focal point for their forces. Gun battles and routine shelling occurred over the following months until Ukrainian forces were able to rally and take back the city in July of that year. Then-president of Ukraine Petro Poroschenko called it a victory of “huge symbolic importance.” Foreshadowing the current atrocities in places like Bucha, Ukrainian investigators would later discover the bodies of executed civilians in mass graves in the city.
“A lot of good people died here, for no fucking reason,” Ihor says about the last eight years of war here.
War has again come to Slovyansk. Already, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the city, as well as nearby Kramatorsk and the surrounding villages. Defense analysts have said that Russia’s success in taking the entirety of the Donbas region falls on the defense of Slovyansk. According to the Institute for the Study of War, “If Russian forces are unable to take Slovyansk at all, Russian frontal assaults in Donbas are unlikely to independently breakthrough Ukrainian defenses and Russia’s campaign to capture the entirety of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts will likely fail.”
A few dozen men and a few women linger about in various states of camouflage fatigues as we hop out of the car and start unloading the vans. Artillery thumps in the distance constantly, but the fighters appear unconcerned. One tells me there are Grad rockets around 15 kilometers away. Most are excited to see what we’ve brought for them. The big bags of cigarettes are snatched up quickly, as are the Easter sweets and sausages. Ihor directs the packages among them, greeting everyone and shaking hands. The thermal optics and vests also receive a lot of nods of approval and handshakes.
Ihor hugs his cousin, who he soon introduces me to. Andrei Haletsky has been stationed here since March 5. He had been in the army when he was 18, but was a 45-year-old construction worker when he was drafted and came back to help lead this unit. The unit itself is a bit of a motley crew, comprised of volunteer fighters whose ages span decades. They look a bit rough, but Andrei says the situation is good. “The volunteer deliveries help a lot, with the food there’s no problem,” he says. Being volunteer units, though, they don’t have access to the same material as the regular military units. They need more vests, they need more optics.
Andrei doesn’t offer much else in the conversation, except to say that the shelling has started increasing, especially in the last two weeks.
I’m also introduced to Vita, a 31-year-old commander with dyed red hair who is one of the few females among the group. She’d signed a one-year contract prior to the breakout of the full scale invasion despite the concern of her parents. “They’re worried, but they’re used to it,”she says. “My mother will never be happy but she honors my choice.”
Vita’s partner is serving with her, and he joins the conversation. Regrettably, they had to celebrate her birthday together under fire. “What can you say, my birthday was the 26th of February. We were in the army on the 24th and already moving the weapons that day. What can you do?” she says, laughing.
How does she hope to celebrate her birthday next year? Her boyfriend answers. “We are planning on going to Egypt on the beach. But most likely now we are going to Crimea,” he says with a smile, referring to the Ukrainian peninsula, known for its seaside resorts, that Russia has now occupied for eight years and claimed as annexed territory.
As the vans empty out, Ihor asks some of the men what other supplies they need. More optics, more vests with plates, a drone with thermal vision, tablets to help with targeting. A short while later, we’re back in the empty vans for the lengthy drive back west, handing out extra tourniquets and bandages at checkpoints. Three hours into the drive, we see two Russian fighter jets streak across the skies, either heading to a bombing run or returning from one. In the coming days, many of the cities along our route will face increased shelling.
Back in the van, Ihor turns to me and says, “You like the trip, dude?” I ask him how it felt to see his cousin. For the first time, I see him grow visibly concerned. “He’s right in the center of all the shit going on there,” he says. Ihor’s feeling a little sick, having picked up a hacking cough, and we’ve barely started the 20-hour drive back to Lviv. He’s got a shipment of vests coming in soon, and in 10 days he’ll make the 40-hour round trip drive again, bearing more supplies. He hopes he’ll be able to see his cousin again.