OTTAWA — When James Challice goes to war in the disputed southern Ukraine, he doesn’t travel to the front in an armored infantry fighting vehicle: he drives a Hyundai Sonata himself.
“We are hit by machine gun fire and mortars, we have to hide them (the cars) in the woods. It was surreal, but we use what we have,” the Canadian Forces veteran said in an interview with National Post.
Nothing emphasizes Canada’s small contribution to the war in Ukraine more than Challice’s eyewitness account from the Kherson region front.
Ottawa is expected to announce it will send several dozen of its decommissioned Coyote light armored vehicles. But critics such as former chief of the defense staff, retired General Rick Hillier, have been saying for months that Canada should have already delivered 250 LAVs, 50 Leopard tanks and 18 M777 howitzers. (We’ve only committed four of the big guns from our stock of about 37.)
Challice, who arrived in Ukraine last March to train and fight alongside volunteer territorial defense soldiers, is stunned at his country’s contribution. “I hate to say it – and don’t get me wrong, I’m a proud Canadian – but a lot of it is just junk. You’re here to help these people and someone says ‘oh, this is from Canada’. But it’s a training tourniquet that you can’t use in the field. The night vision goggles they sent down half worked and half didn’t,’ he said. “I know the equipment is there and I know we can send it. We needed it yesterday. There will be a lot of pressure here in the south and if we don’t maintain the momentum it will grind to a halt.”
While the situation is grim for Ukraine in the east of the country, in the south, the Ukrainian defense force is gradually pushing the Russians back, despite being under fire (Challice said during his last mission, for every large gun the Ukrainians fired, the Russians sent back five).
Ivison: From Ukraine, exclusive interview with a Canadian veteran
John Ivison: As Canada sends ‘junk’, Canadians threaten to lose interest in Ukraine
He said the Ukrainians do not have basic equipment, such as encrypted telephones and body armor. “It’s little things like using Motorola radios that the Russians can pick up. Some guys still rock steel plates (instead of body armor). But we go on anyway. There is no choice,” he said.
The terrain to the south doesn’t help the attackers. “It is difficult to mobilize a large number of troops because there is only a tree line and fields for cover,” he said. The Russians, laced with ammunition, have been haphazard in attacking tree lines.
Hillier said the Russians learned from the nosebleeds they suffered in the early months of the war. Now Putin’s army is using the extended range of its cannons and its superiority in electronic warfare to cluster Ukraine’s defense forces in what the retired general called a “bear-hug,” preventing them from activating reserves or counter-attacks. Russia hopes Ukraine will run out of weapons and ammunition.
“The longer this goes on, the more likely Russia will break through or Ukraine will collapse,” he said. “The West can change that equation by doing what it has promised.”
He said he has heard estimates that only a tenth of the aid pledged has landed in Ukraine. A catalog of donated weapons by independent security analyst James Rushton suggests there is some Western equipment in the field — more than 150 towed howitzers have already been delivered to the Ukrainian government from various donor countries, as well as 120 rocket launchers. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said four prized high mobility artillery missile systems (HIMARS) had arrived from the US. The problem is that Ukraine says it needs 300 rocket launchers, 500 tanks and 1,000 howitzers to turn the tide.
“Ukraine is in a dire situation and the West will be complicit in any Russian victory,” Hillier said.
Challice remains convinced that won’t happen. He said he traveled to Ukraine because he acknowledged he had “certain skills” and “because I believe in life, I don’t believe in death.” Since his arrival in March, he said he has been impressed by the courage, drive and intensity of the people of Ukraine, qualities that he believes will win the war.
“I started training the guys I’m with in March. We stayed together the whole time and that’s important. I am proud of these guys. We’ve had a lot of contact and a lot of situations where I thought I was a goner. But my friends are behind me,” he said.
In a recent raid on fields and ditches in the south to retrieve the bodies of dead Ukrainians, he lost a teammate to a bullet in the neck.
“It happens every day now. It’s reality. I’ll have time to think about it when I get home. When I get home,” he said.
Challice said the incentive to move on became even stronger as his team helped take back villages occupied by the Russians, where the atrocities were visible everywhere. One woman told Challice that she found her husband in their backyard, where he had been tortured and shot in the back of the head. A man who had been locked in a bomb shelter for six weeks discovered that his wife and daughter had been raped, murdered and buried in a shallow grave.
The revelation that the Bucha massacre was not a one-off means there is no need to accommodate or negotiate with the Russians.
On the contrary, Challice remains optimistic that Ukraine can win. “If we keep doing what we’re doing and we get the supplies we need, I think we can take everything back after February 25.”
For that to happen, the West needs to send more weapons and move them faster.
Challice’s message to the Canadian government is simple: “Send it.”
“I know there are policies, procedures and politics involved. But that shouldn’t be. Send it. When it comes to this kind of war, timing is absolutely everything. You need stuff yesterday,” he said.
• Email: email@example.com | Twitter: IvisionJ