Report from Ukraine: Why They Fight

Article published by the Gatestone Institute, 25 May 2023. © Richard Kemp

This week, near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, I spent time with commanders and soldiers who have been fighting the Russian invaders in the shattered city, sometimes for months on end. This has been one of the longest battles anywhere in the world since 1945 and by far the most brutal in this war, with Russians and Ukrainians often fighting at close quarters, artillery hammering the city into Stalingrad-like rubble and a level of slaughter unequalled anywhere else in Putin’s vicious war.

Talking to these battle-worn men, their gratitude for the arms, ammunition and equipment supplied by the West was palpable and sometimes emotional. They credited us with keeping them alive and keeping them fighting. I asked what they now needed most from our countries. Of course more guns, more ammo, more tanks, more rockets plus combat planes always featured. But another consistent answer was striking even if not surprising: please do not try to force our country to make peace with the invaders.

This from men who have seen their brothers-in-arms cut down by bullets, bomb blasts and scything shell splinters; have battled to prevent the life ebb from their comrades’ mangled bodies; have endured the mind-numbing percussion of unending artillery bombardments and have risked their very lives with every hour spent in the ruined city. At one point the deadly reality of life in Bakhmut was driven home by fleets of laden ambulances hurtling past us, heading away from the battle zone.

With their blunt rejection of peace negotiations, were these fighting men disproving the words of US General Douglas MacArthur in his famous Duty, Honor, Country speech at West Point: ‘The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war’?

I did not ask them that question because I immediately understood what lay behind their grim determination to keep fighting despite the horror of it all.

Mass graves, Izium

Earlier I had visited nearby Izium, where the Russian occupation is marked not only by rubbleised and bullet-pocked schools, hospitals, houses and apartment blocks but also by shallow graves in the middle of the woods, now empty and each marked by a rough-hewn timber cross.

After the Russians had been driven out by the Ukrainian army’s counter offensive last September, 447 bodies were exhumed here, mostly civilian men, women and children, almost all showing signs of violent death, many executed, some mutilated and some with hands bound. The surrounding woodland is scarred with tank scrapes, large holes in the ground where Russian armour had been dug in to provide added protection against artillery and anti-tank fire and to aid concealment from ground and air. One of these scrapes had contained the corpses of 17 Ukrainian soldiers. Before they piled earth on top of them, the Russians had, for good measure, dumped an anti-tank mine on the bodies, intended to kill and maim those tasked with digging them out.

Torture cell, Izium

Some of the dead civilians had been brought to these woods from the town of Izium and from Balakliia, a few miles away. In both places I walked around police stations containing squalid cells and lightless basements where the Russians had jammed in their captives, men, women and children; and terrorised, tortured, sexually abused and murdered them.

I saw the same baleful sites at Bucha near Kyiv a few days later. Places like this are to be found in many towns and villages the Russians occupied. They are horribly reminiscent of Nazi torture and killing centres I’ve visited in Poland, France and on the Channel Island of Alderney. Like them, these sites deserve to be preserved, both as a reminder of the evil men do and as a memorial to the poor souls who suffered so terribly under the Russian jackboot.

From areas of the country that Putin’s army occupied since the invasion last February, they have also abducted Ukrainian children, including babies, on an industrial scale. The government in Kyiv has so far documented 19,393 kidnapped children, and there are most likely many more that are as yet unidentified.

Some are still held in areas of Ukraine the Russian army continues to occupy, and others have been transported to Russian territory. Like the torture and murder of civilians in Izium and elsewhere, and the summary execution of prisoners of war, these kidnappings are war crimes. It is for these abductions that the International Criminal Court in March issued arrest warrants against Vladimir Putin and his so-called Children’s Rights Commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova.

Putin’s forces and civilian bureaucrats have seized children from orphanages and children’s homes, removed them directly from their parents or taken them into ‘care’ after killing their families. Some have been forcibly fostered or adopted in cities including Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Rostov. Names and dates of birth are sometimes changed to render them untraceable. Those children who speak up for their native land, sing the national anthem or speak ill of Putin are ‘re-educated’ by Russian authorities, a process that has included extended periods of detention and solitary confinement as well as bullying and savage beatings. Some children have been enlisted into a Russian ‘youth army’ where they are trained and prepared to fight one day against their own people.

Above and main image: Kharkiv, May 2023

In Kyiv I met the red-eyed mothers of some of these children, every one of them going through a living hell that will never end until their sons and daughters are returned to them. The Ukrainian government and the NGO Save Ukraine, as well as individual parents that are able to, are making efforts to retrieve these children but so far only very small numbers have been brought home. While torture and murder cannot be undone, Russia’s child kidnapping can, and it is inexplicable that so far there has been no large-scale international outrage.

The kidnapping of Ukrainian children has grotesque echoes of the Third Reich, which forcibly removed at least 20,000 Polish children from their families and transported them to Germany — the same number as the children that we know have been kidnapped by Putin so far. Many of them faced an almost identical fate as the abducted Ukrainian children today.

Returning to the defenders of Bakhmut, knowledge of these wicked depredations is why they fight; and why they and the fighting men on Ukraine’s other battlefields remain determined to keep attacking, holding the invaders from their families’ doors until they drive them back beyond their borders, no matter what the personal cost might be.