‘If you want to lose a war, lose attention. That’s how that happens, and that is Putin’s end game,’ volunteer Dave Smith says
December 17, 2023
The Globe and Mail
As they stood shivering on the streets of Kupyansk, just eight kilometres from the Russian front line, Dave and Justin Smith worried that the war they’d come to Ukraine to fight is slowly being lost. Not because the two Canadians have any doubts about the bravery or the commitment of the Ukrainians they fight alongside, but because they feel the West is becoming distracted and losing interest in the grinding conflict here.
It’s a bitter reality for the two Smiths to contend with, as they battle a Russian winter offensive that’s slowly pushing closer to Kupyansk, an artillery-scarred railway hub in the eastern Kharkiv region. (The two are not related, but have been friends and comrades-in-arms since the day Dave met Justin shortly after arriving in Ukraine.)
The stakes for them, and this country, are getting higher. And the drift in public interest in Canada, the United States and Western Europe is being translated into government policies through a slowing of military assistance to Ukraine, as well as escalating diplomatic pressure on Kyiv to at least start thinking about what a negotiated end to the conflict might look like. “If you want to lose a war, lose attention. That’s how that happens, and that is Putin’s end game,” Dave said earlier this month, knocking loose some of the mud still caked to his assault rifle after “three-and-a-half days of hell” in the trenches just east of this city. The 39-year-old Torontonian – who will turn 40 on Christmas Eve – said fighting on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine in 2023 is close to what he imagines it must have been like in the trenches of northern France during the First World War.
“Basically, what we’re talking about is a World War One-style stalemate where it’s like, not only can you not run across no man’s land, like in World War One, but the ubiquity of drones has essentially made it impossible to integrate fires and manoeuvre effectively,” said Dave, a 15-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, referring to the military tactic of hitting a target with multiple types of fire – artillery, air and ground assault – at the same time. “Every trench battle now is like a medieval siege where you’re basically just lobbing the biggest things you can at each other all the time.”
A video of life in the trenches near Kupyansk, seen by The Globe and Mail, supports that description. In the 36-minute clip, members of the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine stand ankle-deep in grey mud as they drink from tin mugs and chat about how it’s too cold to take their boots off at night – and argue about who among them has the warmest footwear. Then, after 10 quiet minutes, the Russians begin barraging the trench with mortars, firing roughly every 30 seconds for the next 10 minutes.
The foreign fighters duck with each boom – swearing in English, Ukrainian and Québécois French – but hold their positions even as the rounds land closer and closer. The good news, they note, is that the mud swallows most of the mortar rounds whole, eliminating the threat of shrapnel. Between bombardments, a Russian drone flies overhead, forcing the unit to take cover so they can’t be seen from the sky.
Though Kremlin-controlled media describes the International Legion as “mercenaries,” the Smiths, like many of the foreigners fighting here, have dug deep into their own savings to help defend Ukraine. They
say they’ve spent thousands of dollars to buy their own protective gear, sniper scopes and other equipment to supplement the assault rifle and ammunition they’re supplied by the Legion, which is part of the Ukrainian military.
The Legionnaires get paid the same amount as regular Ukrainian soldiers – about US$1,000 a month, with bonuses that allow them to double or triple that depending on how much time they spend on the front line. But they have to pay out of their own pockets for everything from rent to servicing the vehicles they drive to battle in.
Both Smiths are members of the Legion battalion under the command of Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence service. It’s a unit that generally draws the most skilled and battle-hardened foreign fighters – and gets the toughest assignments, such as trying to hold the line in Kupyansk. Russian forces, which captured the city in March, 2022, only to be driven out by Ukrainian troops six months later, are again nearing its outskirts.
But the fast-moving attacks and counterattacks that marked the first year of the war appear to be over, at least for now. The plodding Russian winter push comes on the heels of a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive in the summer and fall that failed to break through Russian defences. What’s left is what Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, describes as “positional warfare.” The Canadians helping defend Kupyansk call it a war of attrition.
The latest phase is a particularly bloody one. November was the deadliest month so far for Canadians fighting in Ukraine, with three volunteers killed in action, adding to the six previously killed over the first 20 months of the war. “I often find myself reflecting on what I’m doing out here every time I hear about a Canadian who does end up getting killed,” Justin said as he drove his camouflaged pickup near the city. “I mean, it’s the nature of war, right? You never know when your number might be up.”
As a fire support officer – helping Ukrainian artillery choose and hit targets – he feels the waning Western support in a direct way. Russia has numerical superiority in soldiers, tanks and artillery pieces on the Kupyansk front. The Ukrainians have more accurate, longer-range Western-supplied artillery, but often they simply don’t have enough shells. “One minute everybody has lots of ammo, the next minute nobody has any. It all depends on what the international community is sending,” Justin said.
And the Russian infantrymen keep charging ahead. “Russia is like the bad guy in a video game that respawns. Like, you kill one Ivan and five more Ivans come back,” Dave said, using a derogatory nickname the foreign fighters have for Russian soldiers. Despite such talk, Justin says the Western military veterans who have joined the International Legion have empathy for their battlefield opponents.
Asked how often he’s called in an artillery strike that killed one or more Russians, the normally cheerful 30-year-old from Oshawa, Ont., becomes sombre. “More often than I care to admit,” he finally says after a long pause. “It’s complicated. It validates, you know, all the work and training that you put into this, but at the same time, those are just Russian kids that really are no different from the Ukrainian kids that are on our side, right? It doesn’t matter if they support the war or not, I don’t see them as bad people. I just see it as I need to be doing my job and I just gotta get it done.”
Justin, whose three-year stint in the Canadian military ended in 2014, left his job as a paramedic to come to Ukraine in the early days of the war. He started out leading medical trainings for Ukrainian recruits, then joined the International Legion. He spent most of last December taking part in the ill-fated defence of Bakhmut, another railway hub the Russians were willing to take enormous losses to capture.
Dave was deployed to Europe by the Canadian army at the start of the war as part of an international task force advising the Ukrainian military. He resigned his post this past spring to participate in the fight more directly, and joined the Legion in April in the time for the final battles on the outskirts of Bakhmut,
where he met Justin. Four days later, Dave was in a bunker near the front line when it was hit by a missile, but he escaped uninjured.
Justin himself narrowly avoided death in June when he stepped out for a cigarette minutes before the popular RIA Pizzeria in the city of Kramatorsk was struck by another missile, killing 13 people. “I don’t care what anyone says, smoking saved my life,” he said with a chuckle, as he pulled on yet another cigarette while artillery boomed on the outskirts of Kupyansk.
The Canadian has taken part in some of the most successful Ukrainian operations of the war – including the liberation of the formerly occupied parts of the Chernihiv region in the north in early 2022, and the city of Kherson in the south later that year – but the situation in Kupyansk reminds him most of the battle for Bakhmut, where the sheer size of the Russian force eventually overwhelmed the Ukrainian defenders after a months-long siege. “They’re advancing every day. Whether or not they make up ground, or they just try to do so, they’re definitely pushing. And they definitely have the momentum here right now. It’s not easy. It’s tough fighting. It’s muddy. It’s cold, you know, it’s just miserable. And they just have far superior numbers over us.”
The western half of Kupyansk, where the Smiths met with The Globe at a small house they use as a base, is still under firm Ukrainian control, though the sounds of incoming and outgoing artillery fire – which the artillery specialist Justin identified as striking the east bank of the Oskil River that runs through the city – were audible throughout the day. The building was within easy range of Russian artillery, though not yet the seven-kilometre range of the mortars that front-line troops dread the most.
Kupyansk, once a city of 25,000 with an economy built around a milk-canning plant, fell under Russian occupation in the first days of the invasion but was liberated by Ukrainian forces six months later. Much of the city was destroyed over the course of those two battles, and only a few thousand residents remain – mostly senior citizens who seem immune to the constant thunder of guns.
The Canadians say they are careful about not drawing too much attention to the houses they use as bases in the city, and try to avoid speaking English in public. They know that some locals weren’t unhappy with the Russian occupation, and suspect that some may be helping the enemy with targeting.
The two veterans – who are joined in Kupyansk by a third Canadian fighter, a 22-year-old Montrealer nicknamed “Speedy” who did not want to be interviewed – say they feel their time and training in the Canadian Armed Forces prepared them well for the fight. They laugh about how closely a mock storm-the-trenches exercise held annually at CFB Wainwright in Denwood, Alta., resembles the reality they’re now living.
But both Smiths agree that it’s a very different thing to fight the kind of battles most Canadian and NATO veterans have experienced in Afghanistan – and other places where Western armies had the artillery advantage and control of the airspace – than to go in knowing your side is outgunned.
The Russian artillery advantage, plus the omnipresent drones, make it almost impossible for the Ukrainians fighting east of Kupyansk to do anything more than try to hold their ground. “We just got the shit shelled out of us the whole time,” Dave said of his most recent stint in the trenches. “There basically is no room for manoeuvre. The moment you pop your head up, there’s a drone on top of you.”
Asked why they’re on the front line in Ukraine rather than spending Christmas at home in Canada with their families, they give different answers. Justin is motivated by affection, for both his 104-year-old grandmother who moved to Canada from Ukraine as a child and for the Ukrainian girlfriend he met here after the war started. “I’d like to keep that relationship going and if that means I need to keep contributing in this way, then so be it.”
Dave, whose wife and family are all in Canada, first answers with a single word: justice. Then he launches into a longer discourse on why he sees the struggle for Ukraine as crucial to the future of democracy, both in Eastern Europe and back home. He’s become enamoured with the struggle for freedom in neighbouring Belarus, a Russian satellite ruled by the Moscow-backed dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and sees that as another front in the same war. “Ukraine will win, long-term, because they are selling the better product,” Dave said, referring to the country’s desire to be a democracy rather than an autocracy aligned with Moscow. But he believes much relies on whether Western democracies maintain their support. “Democracy and the democratic countries really need to get their mojo back,” he says, standing in front of a shattered factory in the centre of Kupyansk. “They’re behaving quite cowardly – and they need to recognize that they need to fight, to defend themselves, if they don’t want to be defeated by people like Putin.”
Mark MacKinnon has been covering international affairs and Canada’s role in the world since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. Since that moment, he has covered elections and wars, revolutions and refugee crises, in all corners of the world. One of Canada’s most decorated foreign correspondents, Mark has won the National Newspaper Award seven times, and is nominated for an eighth award in 2023 for his ongoing coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mark has been covering Russia and Ukraine since 2002, when he was first sent abroad to serve as The Globe and Mail’s Moscow bureau chief. He covered the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity, and witnessed firsthand Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea as well as the start of the eight-year proxy war in Donbas. Mark is the author of The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics, which was published in 2007 by Random House, and The China Diaries, an e-book of his train travels through the Middle Kingdom along with photographer John Lehmann.