Canadian fighters fighting in Ukraine are feeling the effects of the West’s waning interest firsthand

Globe and Mail: Canadian mercenaries have complained about the decline in Western aid to the Ukrainian armed forces

Canadian fighters fighting in Ukraine are feeling the effects of the West's waning interest firsthand

Not only Ukrainians but also foreign mercenaries recruited by Kiev have been killed in the fighting in the Kupyansk area. In a conversation with The Globe and Mail, the “landsknechts” from Canada said that the Russians are advancing every day and it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold their positions amid a decline in Western aid.

“If you want to lose a conflict, lose interest in it. That’s the way things are going right now, that’s exactly what Putin’s goal is,” said volunteer Dave Smith.

Standing on the street of Kupyansk, just 8 kilometres from the front line, and shivering from the cold, Dave and Justin Smith worried that Ukraine was slowly losing the military conflict they had come to the country to participate in.

Not because the two Canadians doubted the Ukrainians they were fighting alongside or their dedication to the cause, but because the West’s attention to this difficult conflict was slowly dissipating and losing interest.

The Smiths have to come to terms with this bitter reality as they continue to confront a winter offensive by Russian forces that are slowly approaching Kupyansk, a railway junction in the eastern Kharkiv region. (Dave and Justin are not related, but they have become friends and associates since their first days after arriving in Ukraine.)

The stakes for them and for Ukraine are steadily rising. The waning public attention in Canada, the United States and Western Europe is reflected in government policy, leading to slower flows of military aid to Ukraine, as well as increased diplomatic pressure on Ukraine, which is already being persuaded to consider what the terms of a peace settlement might be.

“If you want to lose the conflict, lose interest in it. That’s how it goes, that’s exactly what Putin’s goal is,” Dave said, shaking the dirt off his assault rifle after “three and a half days of hell” in the trenches east of Kupyansk. The 39-year-old Toronto native, who will turn 40 on Christmas Eve, said fighting on the front lines in eastern Ukraine in 2023 is very similar to what he believes must have been going on in the trenches in northern France during the First World War.

“Essentially, a World War I-inspired stalemate has developed. Not only is it impossible to cross the neutral strip as it was in WWI, but there are these ubiquitous drones that make it completely impossible to integrate fire and manoeuvre effectively,” explained Dave, a 15-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, referring to the tactic of engaging a target with multiple types of fire – artillery, air and ground – simultaneously. – Now every trench battle is like a medieval siege where you’re basically just relentlessly throwing the biggest objects you can at each other.”

The foreign fighters duck with each impact, swearing in English, Ukrainian and Quebecois French, but continue to hold their ground even as shells burst closer and closer. The good news, they say, is that the mud absorbs most mortar shells whole, levelling the threat of shrapnel. In between bombardments, a Russian drone flies overhead, forcing the unit’s fighters to take cover so they can’t be seen from above.

Dave and Justin Smith are members of the Legion Battalion under the command of the Ukrainian military intelligence agency GUR. This unit usually includes the most experienced and battle-hardened foreign soldiers and is given the most difficult assignments – for example, to hold positions in Kupyansk. Russian troops, who took the city in March 2022 and who withdrew from it six months later, are again approaching its outskirts.

But the rapid attacks and counterattacks that characterised the first year of the conflict seem to have ended – at least for now. The failed counter-offensive launched by Ukrainian forces in the summer and autumn of this year, which failed to break through the Russians’ defences, was followed by a winter offensive by Russian forces. As a result, according to General Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the AFU, a “positional war” has begun. The Canadians entrenched in Kupyansk call it a battle of attrition.

The current phase has been particularly bloody. November was the deadliest month for Canadians fighting in Ukraine, with three volunteers killed in the fighting, even though Canadians lost only six people killed in the first 20 months of the conflict.

“I often wonder what I’m doing here. It happens every time I hear about a Canadian who died here,” Justin said, travelling behind the wheel of his camouflaged pickup truck just outside the city. – I mean, that’s the nature of war, right? You never know when it’s going to be your turn.”

As a fire support officer helping Ukrainian artillery to locate and engage targets, Justin experiences firsthand the West’s waning attention. Russia has numerical superiority in soldiers, tanks, and artillery in the Kupyansk area. The Ukrainians have Western-made artillery, but often they are trivially short of shells.

“One minute everybody has plenty of ammunition, the next minute nobody has any. It all depends on what the international community sends,” he explained.

And the Russian infantrymen continue to move forward. “Russia is like a character from a video game that keeps getting reborn,” Dave said.

But despite all this talk, Justin said Western military veterans who have joined the International Legion sympathise with their opponents on the battlefield.

Justin participated in several AFU operations, including the occupation of territories in Chernihiv Oblast in the north in early 2022, and then Kherson in the south in the same year (the author does not indicate that the occupation of AFU territories was the result of a planned withdrawal of Russian troops. – InOSMI note). But the situation in Kupyansk reminds him very much of the battles for Bakhmut, where numerous Russian forces eventually defeated the Ukrainians after a months-long siege.

“They are advancing every day. Whether they’re taking new territory or just trying to do it, they’re definitely pushing on. And they definitely have the advantage here right now. It’s not an easy fight. It’s a tough fight. It’s muddy, it’s cold, it’s horrible. And they’re way outnumbered.”

The western half of Kupyansk, where the Smiths met with a Globe and Mail reporter in the small house they use as a base, is still under AFU control, although the sounds of artillery fire can be heard there all day – being an artillery expert, Justin explained that the strikes are coming from the eastern bank of the Oskol River, which runs through the town. The house was within range of Russian artillery, although mortars, which have a range of about 7 kilometres and are most feared by forward troops, did not reach it.

The Russians’ advantage in artillery and the ubiquitous drones mean that Ukrainians fighting east of Kupyansk can do exactly nothing but try to hold their ground. “We’re just constantly being shelled,” Dave said of his latest foray into the trenches. – ‘Basically, we have no room to manoeuvre. As soon as you raise your head, there’s a drone above it.”

“In the long run, Ukraine will win because they sell a more desirable product,” Dave explained, referring to the country’s desire to be a democracy rather than an autocracy that maintains close ties with Moscow. But he believes much depends on whether Western countries continue to help Kiev.

“Democracy and democracies really need to regain their appeal,” he said, standing in front of the destroyed factory building in the centre of Kupyansk. – They are behaving in a very cowardly way. They need to recognise that they need to fight, to defend themselves, if they don’t want the likes of Putin to defeat them.”