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Dispatch from Donbas: The Russian shelling stops ‘only when it rains’

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

Picture: Viktor Zotov sits at the site of a shelled bridge on the banks of the Siverskyi Donets river in the village of Tetyanivka, Donetsk. Pic: Phil Wilson.

Sean Stark, a US national, spent three weeks on the frontline in the Donbas region with a unit of other foreign fighters, under what he called ‘constant’ artillery attacks

Jeff Farrell

July 16, 2022

Business Post

Sean Stark made the decision to join the fight against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after he saw television news reports that the Kremlin’s soldiers were raping women and children in an occupied area.

“They crossed the line for me when they were doing sexual things. And another woman, they pretty much shot her face in the street, she was all bloody. I mean, I have kids, I couldn’t sit in America with my family, my job, any further without helping,” he said.

“So I went to the Ukrainian embassy with my paperwork and asked them could I come, and here I am.”

On Wednesday morning, the 43-year-old from Boston was talking to me in the main train station in Przemysl, in south-eastern Poland, about 20 kilometres from the border with Ukraine. He had just hopped off a train from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, more than 1,000 kilometres away, that had pulled up earlier on platform five.

Stark was heading back to the United States after spending three weeks with a unit of foreign fighters around the Donbas. There are about 20,000 such foreign fighters, according to Ukrainian officials.

The American said his unit specialised in training local civilian volunteers to defend themselves in combat situations in the eastern region where the Russian forces have claimed a large swathe of land. He would not give any specifics of the training or the locations he operated in, but he said there were constant artillery attacks.

“It’s mainly just shelling over and over. They only stop when it rains,” he said, shaking his head.

Stark raised his eyebrows when asked about the quality of the local civilian volunteers. “They’re definitely good, they definitely could use some help, they have a ton of heart and those guys want to be better, and I have nothing but respect for them.”

We were talking outside the station where behind us, the train from Kyiv sat on the track beyond rusty railings topped with spikes.

To the left, refugees lined up for food at the World Central Kitchen where a thin woman wearing a white baseball cap served hamburgers heated on a sandwich maker. In a car park to the front, scores of refugees stood in line, waiting to board the train back to Kyiv, many heading home four months after they fled Russia’s invasion of their country on February 24.

There, I spoke to three elderly people, two women and a man in their late 70s, who fled to Poznan, in western Poland. They were returning to Zaporizhzhia, more than 550 kilometres south east of Kyiv, which Russia has shelled.

“We want to go home,” the man said, flashing a gold tooth as he spoke.

Those going back home are not returning to safety. Large parts of Zaporizhzhia are under Russian control, with the Kremlin army slowly advancing westwards. On Wednesday, Russia shelled an area of Zaporizhzhia, leaving seven wounded.

Sean Stark: the former US marine made the decision to join the fight against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after he saw television news reports that the Kremlin’s soldiers were raping women and children in an occupied area. Picture: Phil Wilson/Parklife Photography

Elsewhere, on Thursday, Russian missiles struck civilian buildings and a cultural centre in the city of Vinnytsia, in central Ukraine, killing at least 23 people, including three children, in what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called “an open act of terrorism”.

The shelling came as Russian forces last week made “no significant territorial advances” in the Donbas region, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defence.

The Ukrainian army on Tuesday scored a military coup with a missile strike on a large ammunition store in the town of Nova Kakhovka, in Russia-occupied Kherson. The strike left seven dead, according to Russian officials.

That attack by the Ukrainian army was attributed to US weapons that have been shipped to the frontline.

Zelensky had pleaded for rocket launchers with a longer range to match Russia’s artillery firepower. The attack on the munitions depot on Tuesday prompted claims that High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (Himars), supplied by the US, were used. Ukrainian officials made no comment.

The US sent eight Himars to Ukraine earlier this month to help Kyiv’s forces repel the Russian advance in the Donbas region. Washington followed through with another four amid a tranche of military equipment and supplies with a total value $400 million.

Logistics of war

The US and its Nato allies including Germany and Britain have been shipping their weapons and supplies through Rzeszow airport, near the capital of the Podkarpackie region of Poland, that borders Ukraine.

The airport was previously a provincial hub that shuttled in tourists such as hen and stag dos into the city on Ryanair flights from Dublin and British cities such as London and Bristol. These days, it is a funnel for weapons bound for the Donbas region that could turn the war in favour of Ukraine.

On Monday morning, I drove by Rzeszow airport and saw rocket launchers lined up along the runway.

Outside the airport entrance, police toted machine guns and inside, it looked like any other airport. Families waited for loved ones at the arrivals gate.

On the ground floor, in a nod to the many British visitors who pass through, a red English style telephone box stands. On the other side of the airport, a shop sells Winston cigarettes and souvenirs such as shot glasses and mugs that bear the word Polska.

The giveaway that Rzeszow airport is a key strategic location for the West to help Ukraine defeat the advancing Russian army is the steady stream of US soldiers decked out in military fatigues who wander into the shop.

Having bought their coffees, Coca Cola and sandwiches, they head back across the road to the G2A Arena, outside the nearby town of Jasionka. It serves a similar function to Dublin’s Convention Centre, and until recently hosted business conferences, trade shows and wedding fairs.

Picture: Increased military presence at Rzeszow airport in the south east of Poland. Pic: Jeff Farrell

Since February, it has been repurposed to house hundreds of US troops reinforcing Nato allies in Eastern Europe in response to the Russian build-up of troops on Ukraine's border ahead of its invasion on February 24.

The makeshift Nato base was visited by US president Joe Biden in March, who shared a meal with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division stationed there, and spoke about the high stakes of Russian aggression.

From the airport, I walked over the motorway and up to a security gate of the G2A Arena where three US soldiers stood guard in front an armoured vehicle. One rested his elbows on the gate, and the other two stood casually as I approached.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a photo?,” I asked. One of the soldiers, who appeared to be about 20, gazed at me with his mouth open. The silence was broken only when another stood upright and said firmly: “No, sir.”

Picture: US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division at the makeshift Nato base at the G2A Arena outside Rzeszow. Pic: Jeff Farrell

Back in the airport, on the second floor, I tried to walk the stairs to the observation deck to get a look out to the runway to view any weapons being unloaded.

A woman in an olive green security uniform, manning a baggage security screening area, shouted over at me in Polish, waving her hand at a sign that read: ‘Observation Deck is Closed’.

This is part of the airport bosses’ efforts to hide the logistics of the war from the tourists who still pass through. Days earlier, the airport’s press spokesman declined my request for an interview about the supplies to Ukraine being shipped through the airport.

Russia has repeatedly attacked the city and state of Lviv, over the border in Ukraine, 100 kilometres south east of the airport. The strikes have included strikes on a military base on March 14 where foreign fighters were holed up.

Moscow forces fired more than 30 missiles at Yavoriv military training ground, according to Lviv's military administration, in strikes that left more than 35 dead, according to the Ukrainian officials.

Located between Lviv and the Polish border, the military base has held joint drills with Nato and Western military personnel, including the United States.

The attack on March 18 came the day after the Kremlin threatened to attack Western weapons shipments to Ukraine.

Rzeszow is now a base for Nato troops, and a funnel for munitions to Kyiv’s forces on the frontline, so the threat remains that Russia could target the airport with cruise missiles.

However, that threat is low, as Biden has vowed that America would defend “every inch of Nato”, but the fear remains.

Travellers waiting for a flight to Newark have mixed feelings about any danger.

Outside the John Paul II chapel on the first floor of the terminal, I spoke to Adam Mroczka, 56, a Polish national from a small village a half hour away from the airport.

“We had a lot of history with Russia in the 20th century, if Nato wasn’t here I would be scared,” he said.

Adam’s nephew, Kacper Koszeonik, 21, from New Jersey, who was in Poland visiting his uncle, thinks differently.

“There’s clearly a threat of a world war with Russia, threatening EU countries for supporting Ukraine,” he said.

“It’s hard to believe that, in the 21st century, there could be a big conflict like this.”

Full-on assault

A Polish academic, Dr Maciej Milczanowski, who served in the Polish military in conflict zones, agreed that it was crucial that Poland has Nato on its side. He said that Poland’s army, which numbers about 120,000, is not ready for any full-on assault on its territory.

“Poland wasn’t really prepared for any war up until February 24. Right now we are rapidly trying to build up our defence system, but it takes a lot of years, not weeks or months, so we are not well prepared. But right now it is growing rapidly,” Milczanowski, who is a lecturer specialising in defence in the Institute of Political Studies in the University of Rzeszow, said.

“And we see in Ukraine that even if you are not very well prepared, the Western help is building very fast defence capability. It’s not that bad [in Poland], but it’s not that good either.”

He does not envisage a Russian attack on the airport in Rzeszow, despite its status as a Nato base.

“If it was just Poland, [Putin] would not have any problems attacking the cities, but really Poland is the gate for the weapons to Ukrainians, so the problem for him is to not spread the war to more countries,” Milczanowski said.

“I think from the mentality point of view he is afraid of Nato because he believes his own propaganda in that Nato is almost attacking him, trying to overthrow him, and that’s why he will not, I presume, attack Polish cities.

Picture: US volunteer in Ukraine Sean Stark is bound home for Boston after getting off a train from Ukraine here at Przemysl train station in south eastern Poland. Pic: Jeff Farrell

“But we never know what the future will bring. The people in his circle, they are confused about this war, if Russia is really strong and they maybe have some ideas which for us are not reasonable. I think Russia is unpredictable right now and we should take any scenario as possible and be prepared for anything.”

Back in the Przemysl train station on Wednesday, Stark offered his own view on how the war could play out as he loaded his military green duffel bags into a grey Citroen taxi.

Having been on the frontline, he believes that what Ukraine needs to turn the war in its favour is more weapons such as the the long-range Himars that are being shuttled through Rzeszow.

“If Ukraine are going to win, they need all the help they can get,” he said.

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