Dan Bilak, 62, formed a volunteer force to protect Kyiv and was recently awarded a medal by Ukraine’s defence minister.
January 18, 2023
KYIV — The choice of a Crimean restaurant for my lunch date with Dan Bilak is symbolic as well as culinary. The menu is inspired by the cuisine of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic people that have the sad distinction of having been persecuted by both Stalin and Vladimir Putin, for the crime of being native to a piece of land coveted by Russia. “Crimea, this peninsula that Russia tore from Ukraine and which we will take back,” he tells me.
I haven’t seen Dan Bilak since law school at McGill University in 1986. He was the guy who threw the best parties, who was quick to laugh, equally at ease chatting about the Leafs or a Bach concerto. And smart. Even at a school full of bright young people, he stood out.
As a young lawyer for Toronto law firm Fasken, he first went to Kyiv in 1991 to represent the Canadian Bank Note Company, which had won a contract to print the new Ukrainian currency, the hryvna. It was an opportunity to return to his roots, as both his parents were born in Ukraine. Thirty odd years later, he’s still there. “Shall we take the Genghis Khan plate? That should be enough for both of us,” he says, perusing the menu. The platter of food is gargantuan. It makes me think of the Mongol emperor who conquered a wide swath of Eurasia in the 13th century, including most of present-day Ukraine. I can’t help but draw parallels to the savagery of Russia’s current war effort, marked by countless atrocities against civilians. “We knew that the conflict in Donbas, which had been festering since 2014, was going to evolve,” says Bilak. “But we did not imagine an offensive so disproportionate from Russia.”
Back then, Ukraine had a threadbare and outdated army hobbled by a Soviet-style military culture. Russia’s stealthy military intervention in the eastern Donbas region, under the guise of a revolt by Russian-speaking separatists, was a wake-up call to modernize. “We accepted all the training we could get from NATO countries, including Canada,” says Bilak. “If we hadn’t had these eight years of collaboration with Western armies, I don’t know if we would have been able to confront the Russians.”
During this period, Bilak was a senior adviser to the Ukrainian government. He watched events unfold in the east of the country with alarm. Last fall, even at the highest levels of the Ukrainian government, many did not believe Russia would invade — despite the massing of hundreds of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders. It would be madness. But Dan Bilak expected the worst.
In January 2022, a month before the Russian offensive, the lawyer swapped his three-piece suits for army fatigues. Together with his neighbours on the outskirts of Kyiv, they set up a territorial defence unit. He knew nothing about military strategy, but learned fast. He enlisted his friends, found an experienced officer and set up a training camp.
The following month Putin invaded. At 62, Dan was past the age of conscription in Ukraine and, as a Canadian citizen, he could have left. But he stayed. While his old McGill classmates prepare for retirement at their Muskoka cottages, he’s becoming proficient in the use of assault rifles, heavy machine guns, mortars and RPGs. “I practice setting ambushes, setting traps. I do basic tactical manoeuvring. I learn how to retreat and do tactical medicine with tourniquets,” he says. “If I had to go down, I could probably take a couple of bad guys with me!”
While the technical skills of soldiering don’t come easily, it’s the mental habits that are even harder to master. “My unit was training on how to clear a building. I came across the ‘enemy’ in a room and I reflexively jumped back to protect myself,” says Bilak. “The instructor screamed at me, ‘What the hell are you doing? You have to shoot these guys.’”
Volunteers units like Bilak’s, with their ad hoc mix of civilians and soldiers, played a critical role in the defence of Kyiv in the early months of the war. “If it wouldn’t have been for them, we would have lost the city and the war,” he says.
The Russians were forced to retreat from Kyiv last spring, but now there’s a serious possibility they may be back in a new offensive launched from neighbouring Belarus. “It’s likely to happen because they’re crazy enough to do it,” says Bilak. “Putin is a risk taker. If he’s going to lose, he needs to lose big, fighting for the capital.”
Units like Bilak’s in Kyiv oblast, or region, would be mobilized. “This time we would be far more organized,” he says. “We would man checkpoints, guard infrastructure, patrol, do sabotage reconnaissance, look for drones and shoot them down.”
Bilak still struggles with the reality of war. Many of his friends never came back from the front lines. Last autumn, his village lost seven men, including three in a single day in Bakhmut just before Christmas. Recently, he learned that one of his best friends, an actor, was seriously wounded in the killing fields of Soledar. “When that happens, I just can’t function,” he says. “You try to fight the hate you feel with love, so I am lucky I can channel that feeling through my family.”
This isn’t like the conflicts that Canada has been involved in, like Afghanistan, where a mostly blue collar professional soldier class does the fighting. Here the front lines teem with the elite of Ukrainian society. Olympic athletes, TV stars, ballet dancers, academics, programmers, political activists, film directors. “You have to understand,” he says. “This is total resistance. This isn’t just the Ukrainian army against the Russian one. This is the Ukrainian nation and the army is just an extension of the Ukrainian people.”
Everybody pitches in to help the army. Babushkas cook borsht for battalions, while housewives sew camouflage nets. Dan uses his fundraising skills to buy equipment and clothing, such as winter uniforms and helmets. The Ukrainian conflict may be the world’s first crowdfunded war,
with individual units raising funds on Twitter and Facebook for things like drones, which are being used in vast numbers.
When I was in Kyiv, he invited me to a ceremony where the Ukrainian Freedom Fund that he works with presented an SUV to the 28th Mechanized Brigade. The military representative was an old friend of his, Volodymyr Omelyan, a former cabinet minister turned army captain who had just returned from the front in Kherson. These days Bilak is shopping for night vision scopes.
On the media front, he amplifies the Ukrainian government’s messages everywhere he can — on CNN, FOX Radio, CBC, CTV. He describes the current conflict as David vs. Goliath, and believes it will get worse before it gets better. “It looks like the Russians will mobilize 500,000 more men,” he says grimly. “They just throw in bodies at our lines until something collapses. Their equipment is crap, their weapons are crap, but these human waves are killing us.” “I still maintain that the Russian army will collapse, just like it did in 1905 and in 1917,” he says. “I hope the nightmare will end this year, but that will all depend on our Western partners. The longer it takes us to counterattack, the more chances they have to regroup and fight again.” He quotes the Ukrainian commander in chief, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhny: “The way we win this war is that we have to kill a lot; we have to kill a lot of Russian invaders and we can’t feel bad for doing that.”
He notes that Western military aid to Ukraine makes up only 0.01 per cent of the budget of the G7 countries. “It’s the deal of the century. We do the fighting. We do the dying and you get the benefit.” He wants to remind Canadians that the Arctic has the second-longest border with Russia within NATO. “What will you do if they challenge your sovereignty?” “We are getting the Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, the Challengers 2 tanks, the Patriot missiles. Thanks to Canada for buying us a NASAMS (anti-missile) unit,” he says. “They work fantastic. They hit 84/84 at the last rocket attack. But we need more. Ukraine is performing NATO’s role. We are defending Canada as much as we are defending Europe.”
His life in Canada never prepared him for this. “I never thought I would have had to fight for my freedom and that of my people. It makes you realize how much we take it for granted,” he says. “Someone could come and take it away from you at any moment. Would you rather die on your feet as a free person, or live on your knees as a slave?”
On Tuesday, my old university friend was awarded a medal “For Support to the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” by Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov. “I am no longer a guest in Ukraine. I have given it all my heart. My younger children were born here. My wife is Ukrainian. This is my heritage, my people, my home and you defend your home,” he says. If worst comes to worst, he has a plan to evacuate his family. The bags are packed. But he’ll stay until the bitter end. A Ukrainian defeat isn’t in Bilak’s vocabulary. “Ukraine has no choice but victory.”
A former member of the National Assembly of Quebec, Paule Robitaille lived in Moscow from 1990 to 1996, covering the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise to independence of its republics. She returns to the region after a quarter of a century.