Frontline Ukrainians Fear New Aid From U.S. Will Be a Disaster

Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images
Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

KHARKIV, Ukraine—After months of infighting on Capitol Hill, President Joe Biden has finally been able to sign off on a huge new $61 billion military aid bill for Ukraine. Delays to the bill, which got bogged down in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, were widely blamed for impacting Kyiv’s ability to defend itself from Russian advances.

After its passage last week, some members of the House waved Ukrainian flags while others cheered in celebration that Ukraine will soon receive new weapons ahead of Russia’s expected counteroffensive. Signing it into law at a White House ceremony on Wednesday, Biden promised the arms shipments would begin immediately and hailed what he called “a good day for world peace.”

The reaction here, near the front lines of the war, felt very different.

Oleg sighed when The Daily Beast told him about the events 5,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. “Are you serious?” he said. “Now this war will just continue.”

Oleg is from Saltivka, a part of Kharkiv city that has repeatedly been attacked by Russian missiles. A large majority of residential buildings, businesses, and critically needed infrastructure have been damaged. Oleg said that he is not pro-Russian, and does not want to live under occupation. He has seen some of the worst effects of the war. He has countless friends fighting on the front lines, some of whom have been severely injured or killed, and he’s had to move out of his home. For the most part, Oleg said he just wants the war to be over, but he knows that if Russians soldiers occupy Kharkiv, and discover the large number of friends he has who are fighting for Ukraine, he could be killed. Still, he does not think that the $61 billion in aid will help Ukraine win the war.

“In my mind, and all of my friends, this money doesn’t help Ukraine,” he said. “Our country has too much corruption.”

A military expert surveys a bomb crater at the site of a Russian aerial bombing of the city's Saltivskyi district.

A military expert surveys a bomb crater at the site of a Russian aerial bombing of the city's Saltivskyi district.

Ivan Samoilov/Gwara Media/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

“The new money will just prolong the war, and civilians and the military are tired. People want peace and negotiations. Not the continuation of the conflict,” he added.

Kharkiv has gotten increasingly dangerous over the last few months, with air raid sirens ringing consistently and new attacks most days. On Monday, Russia partially destroyed Kharkiv’s TV tower, causing interruptions in broadcasting signals, and later that day, the city was attacked again. The Kyiv Independent recently reported that Russia’s new counteroffensive could aim for Kharkiv, and The Guardian predicted that the city could become the next Aleppo, drawing reference to the Syrian city that was destroyed by the Syrian and Russian government a decade ago.

The new aid, which will include cash as well as direct military contributions, will undoubtedly help fend off Russian advances in the country, as the Kremlin’s troops focus their attention on Chasiv Yar. Soldiers told The Daily Beast Russia hopes to take control of the city in the Donbas region by May 9, the World War II Remembrance Day for Russia and other post-Soviet countries.

Throughout much of Ukraine, a collective sigh of relief has been felt, and many far away from the fighting feel that finally, they are receiving the aid they so desperately have needed. But in Kharkiv, 19 miles away from the Russian border, some residents are angry that the U.S. is resuming its aid.

People pay tribute to Ukrainian serviceman Nazarii Lavrovskyi.

People pay tribute to Ukrainian serviceman Nazarii Lavrovskyi, who was killed fighting against Russian troops.

Alina Smutko/Reuters

Olena, a local cafe restaurant worker in Kharkiv told The Daily Beast that she is considering leaving her home city and meeting her son in Germany if fighting returns in the expected next Russian offensive. She said that she loves Ukraine, and hopes that they will win the war, but believes Russia may soon have control over the entire country. “Will we win the war if we’re given these weapons?” she scoffed. “I doubt it, very much.”

She is resigned to the scale of the battle Ukraine now faces despite the new injection of support.

“It would be a disaster without weapons,” she said. “But mostly, it's a drop in the bucket.”

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One man The Daily Beast spoke to, Vladimir 45, a construction worker in Kharkiv, said that the $61 billion will end up benefiting the wrong people. “Only for politicians, their pockets. They buy houses, apartments, and we have friends who are at war,” he said.

Vladimir and his wife, Julia, 39, live with their two children in a small suburban village on the outskirts of Kharkiv. The family hear explosions nearly every day, and their 12-year-old son is constantly scared of the war, and often has panic attacks when Russian rockets zoom past his home. Last week, shrapnel from a shot-down missile pierced Vladimir’s metal fence, and there are crater-sized holes in his backyard from where a rocket landed two years ago. Vladimir and his family have seen some of the worst aspects of the war in Kharkiv, and he said that they are tired of constantly living under the stress of never knowing if they will survive or not.

At the beginning of the war, Vladimir said that he was hired to help in the reconstruction of a large boiler plant in Kharkiv that had been bombed by Russian attacks. He claimed that the workers had received money from Germany to help cover the costs of the repairs, but that a large majority of that money “got lost on the way from Kyiv to Kharkiv. They [Kharkiv] didn’t pay the crane operators, some part of it was underpaid,” to staff, while other expenses were written off as costing larger than they did to repair. He added that he was not paid for the work.

A law enforcement officer walks by a crater in Ukraine.

A law enforcement officer walks by a crater next to a damaged building following a missile attack in Kharkiv.

Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

Vladimir believes that money was used by Ukraine’s government to buy luxurious items, and not given to the people who need it, like soldiers with missing limbs, elderly people, or those who have lost everything. Right now, Vladimir said, he does not think that Ukraine will win the war.

“We might have won this war if we hadn’t stolen money, but since we don’t have money, of course we’re losing,” said Vladirmir. In regards to the new aid to Ukraine, he said “It doesn’t mean that Ukraine will win the war, it will go to the government. There will be more destruction, more people will die. We have to sit down and negotiate before the whole infrastructure [of Ukraine] is smashed.”

Another Kharkiv woman named Anya said that she supports Russia and believes that it can take all of Ukraine in the next six months, adding that she will stay at her home regardless of who is in control of it.

Anya said that Ukraine's government has been “A bunch of fools. They've been stealing, and they're gonna keep stealing” from the aid given by other countries. She added that soldiers no longer want to fight, and everyone is tired.

Anya's son was a Ukrainian soldier who died in combat last December near Bakhmut. Before his passing, Anya often bought him supplies he needed, like clothes, ammunition, and even a rifle, because he did not get enough support from the government.

Ukrainian President Voldoymyr Zelensky recently signed a bill the army draft from age 27 to 25 in the hopes of gathering new recruits as the number of voluntary enlistments diminishes. Many of Ukraine’s soldiers fighting on the frontlines end up dead or wounded, and if the latter, they might have to spend weeks to months in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and psychiatric wards to recover from their injuries. Once healed, they are often sent back to the frontlines without much of a break or time to be healed.

A soldier named Artem who The Daily Beast spoke with said that he believes he has had up to 30 concussions since the war began, and is only just now on a 21 day treatment at a psychiatric ward in Kharkiv. Artem said that for months his injuries were treated on the frontlines by military medics, who told him to keep fighting. Recently while on the frontlines in the Donetsk region, he said had a psychotic break and was brought to the psychiatric ward in Kharkiv.

“I’ve had post traumatic stress disorder for a long time now. I’m used to it,” Artem said, adding that right now his brigade does not have enough weapons to ward off Russian advances. He said that he hopes that the U.S. aid will help Ukraine, and give soldiers like him and his brigade enough weapons to win the war, but that he does not think it will amount to much. Artem has to go back to the frontlines soon, and said that he is trying to find some way to not go, he does not believe he can mentally handle the fighting any longer. He just wants the war to be over.

As he spoke, he began to cry, and said that the only thing keeping him motivated on the frontlines is his fellow soldiers. When asked how he feels about having to return to combat, Artem said “Look in my eyes,” as they filled with tears, adding that the new U.S. aid “won’t help.”

“I think Russia can win the war. I don’t want to go back,” he added.

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