Inside the Historic Mission to Provide Ukraine Aid and Arms

TKristina, top U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, found that the wine was too warm so she got some ice from the waiter. Kvien was near midnight in eastern Poland on the 11th day after the Russian invasion. This was the culmination of an exhausting day that had seen her meet with senior Biden Administration officers, military brass and members of Congress. After visiting U.S. supplies to Ukraine, her boss, Antony Blinken (Secretary of State), had just left Rzeszow. Kvien was there to meet him.

“It’s been crazy here,” she told me that night in the restaurant of a hotel in the city center, which has served as her team’s headquarters since U.S. diplomats evacuated Ukraine. “A couple of days ago, I was sitting at this table with Sean Penn.” The American actor, who was working on a film in Ukraine when the invasion started, had been forced to flee over the border, abandoning his car at the side of the road and walking into Poland with a flood of refugees. Kvien met him at the hotel. “It feels a bit like Casablanca,” she says.

You will be able to easily recall the wartime epic if you drive a couple of days across that border. In 1942, the film was released less than one year after Pearl Harbor’s attack. The U.S. finds itself again in a major European conflict, eighty years after Pearl Harbor. It is not easy to see the U.S.’s involvement. This was on the eastern Polish plains, where the flood of aid from the U.S. has allowed Ukraine the best chance of survival and possibly even victory. “All of us are deeply, deeply committed to this cause,” says Kvien, who has been the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine since the start of 2020. “We’re here to help. We’re part of it.”

Many U.S. military cargo airplanes, filled with weapons, have been landing on border-area airfields in February. According to the Pentagon, it’s the largest authorized transfer of arms in history from the U.S. military to any foreign country. The border was also covered by huge convoys carrying humanitarian aid, transporting everything from diapers and bulletproof vests.

My journeys along this corridor revealed one thing: The U.S. is part of the war even though its troops don’t pull the triggers. It is not planned to send American troops for combat operations against Ukraine. President Joe Biden reiterated this red line on his visit to Poland in March 25. Biden seems open to anything below that, so the U.S. has plenty of options in order to make sure that the war costs are too high for Russia’s military and President.

Biden’s rhetoric has escalated as the Russian invasion continues to cause humanitarian havoc. This could lead the U.S. into an even more dangerous conflict with a nuclear-power. After meeting with U.S. troops in eastern Poland on March 25, Biden called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.” In a speech the next day, he questioned whether the Russian leader can remain in power after all the suffering he has caused in Ukraine. Biden’s primary focus throughout the trip, however, was on the aid the U.S. is providing to Ukraine to alleviate that suffering. “They need it now,” he told officials coordinating that aid at the airport in Rzeszow. “They need it as rapidly as we can get it there.”

The airport can accommodate approximately an hour’s drive from the border with Ukraine, was also the spot where my journey began a few weeks earlier, following the river of aid toward supply hubs in western Ukraine for distribution to the war zone farther east.

First stop was Rzeszow hotel, which is an unusual nerve center for U.S. missions. Kvien is a U.S. Army War College alumnus. She arrived here early in February after U.S. intelligence had concluded that a Russian invasion would be imminent. Kvien’s priority at that time was to persuade the Ukrainian government of the impending invasion, as well as to assist them in preparing. The mission met resistance from President Volodymyr Zilensky and nearly all his aides. The government of Ukraine did not prepare for the mission. Ukraine did nothing to call up the reservists, inform civilians, store food or transport weapons into place. This made it even more crucial that Poland had access to supplies once the invasion started on February 24.

In his declaration of war early that morning, Putin warned that any country interfering in the invasion would face a Russian response “unlike any you have seen in your history.” Many analysts took this as a threat of nuclear escalation. The warning was made more clear by a senior Russian diplomat. “By pumping Ukraine with weapons,” said the diplomat, Sergei Ryabkov, the U.S. is making “not just a dangerous move, but an action that turns the corresponding convoys into legitimate targets.” Such threats did not stop the U.S. from rushing aid across the border. The President approved $1 billion of military hardware, which included five attack helicopters (100 combat drones), thousands of anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft rockets as well as 60 million rounds and approximately 60 million rounds.

The 82nd Airborne troops of the United States have been sent to east Poland in order to prevent Russia from threatening their supply lines. “You are sitting at the forward edge of freedom,” General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the troops during a stop in eastern Poland in early March.

Kvien and her staff helped with this one-of-many visits from Rzeszow. The town has been visited by Congressional delegations. Former Vice President Mike Pence visited the country to witness the U.S. support of Ukraine. “We haven’t taken a day off in about a month,” Kvien told me at the hotel restaurant. “The days have started to run together.”

Humanitarian aidThe convoy started to meet the following morning at a Polish border town. Its organizer, Yuri Tyra (a longtime advisor to President Zelensky), was it. The two have been friends since Zelensky’s early days as a comedian and actor. Beginning in 2014, when Russia launched its annexation of the Crimean peninsula, they have made a tradition of visiting soldiers on New Year’s Eve, delivering treats and gear to raise morale.

Late February saw the start of a larger war. Tyra was in his bathing suit while he relaxed with his Brazilian family. Because he was certain that Russia’s buildup at the border was an ill-advised move, he decided to take a vacation. When Tyra heard the news, he sent a text message to Zelensky: “Coming to help.”

The mad rush to find supplies all across Europe began. Tyra was supported by a network of friends, including churches, schools and charities. Truckloads of supplies soon began arriving at another friend’s mechanic shop in a Polish village near the border. By the time Tyra got there on March 6—his wife, their daughter, and a suitcase full of their holiday clothes in tow—the shop was piled high with boxes. Untitled labels were from Finland and one was for Ukraine. The contents of another label was written in German and included 48 juice boxes (10 bags of muesli), 40 pairs of socks, and a list in German.

Over a dozen people had traveled for several days in order to transport it all across the border. Gennady Curkin, one of the volunteers, was just about starting production at New York City’s theater when it all started. When I asked about his motives for coming all the way from his home in Berlin, he countered with a question of his own: “How can anyone just carry on as normal when this is happening?” A few of the convoy runners had laid out a lunch of pickles, bread, cookies, and coffee in the back of the shop. Kurkin consumed cold meatballs out of a can.

Before long the trucks were fully loaded, about a dozen in all, and we set off in a line behind Tyra’s car. Kurkin and I were given an antique Belgian ambulance by him, which was donated in part by Dutch volunteers. We had to struggle getting our backpacks in the car because it was filled with so many medical supplies.

Although the border to Ukraine was only 15 miles from us, it took us seven hours just to get there. As we crossed Ukraine to Poland, there was an overwhelming amount of refugees. They were a large column consisting of children and women with roller luggages, and their pets. It was to be expected that more than 1 million had fled war-torn areas. Surprisingly, the flow of traffic into war zones was a large fleet of vehicles.

Many of these were aid convoys. Some carried Ukrainians, who were fleeing their homeland when the invasion began. A line of about a dozen identically coloured trucks sped through the traffic to get into Ukraine. One of Tyra’s convoy runners saw me staring at the vehicles, which had no identifying markers. “Zbroi,” He said it in Ukrainian. Weapons.

It worked wellIt was past midnight by the time we arrived at the border crossing. A system of tents and cordons meant that refugees waited in cold conditions to gain entry. At the customs booth, a Ukrainian official looked at my U.S. passport and asked in a tired voice, “Foreign fighter?”

When we crossed the border, it was nightly curfew, which prohibited the convoy to continue until dawn. A group of Ukrainian Special Forces troops arrived at the border to get the assistance, and offered to take me to Lviv the remainder of that night. All of them were in their 20s. “It’s keeping us alive,” said a 27-year-old named Viktor as we cruised through the first Ukrainian checkpoint.

Since 2014, Viktor’s unit has taken part in joint military exercises with NATO troops. The training has come in handy, he says, as have the weapons shipments from the U.S., especially the shoulder–mounted rockets capable of downing a plane or piercing the armor of a tank.

Viktor noticed that the armor on their cars was missing. Our minivan had been damaged and the back was loaded with aid boxes, such as a power generator, food, clothing, and clothes. “We’ve lost a lot of our men already,” he told me. “We’re fighting well. But we’re under-supplied. If you could get a message out there to the world, tell them we need a lot more armor.”

For about eightDavid Plaster is a veteran U.S. Army medic who has served as coordinator for the foreign fighters in Ukraine for many years. Local veterans’ groups took a liking to his first-aid seminars, usually delivered with a stream of off-color jokes. He met people in Kyiv and learned how to speak Ukrainian. From there, he began helping others find the right units for them. He says that those without combat training are more at home. “Nobody needs Americans roaming around in the war zone unsupervised,” he told me. “But if they’re capable, if they have the skills, they’re welcome to help.”

In the few weeks that have passed since the Russian invasion began, the number of foreign fighters has increased dramatically. After the Russian invasion began, President Zelensky reported that more than 16,000 people had signed up to the International Legion. Zelensky’s office launched a website with step-by-step instructions for enlistment, starting with an interview at a local Ukrainian embassy or consulate anywhere in the world.

Working in coordination with Ukraine’s armed forces, Plaster arranges for some of these foreign volunteers to teach locals the basic skills they need to defend themselves and stay alive, whether it’s applying a tourniquet or handling a weapon. Plaster was in Lviv at the beginning of March and was preparing a bag with shampoo, deodorant and wipes for distribution to foreigners arriving from overseas. A group of foreign fighters was also there. They had only just arrived and had forgotten to pack basic supplies in order to fight the war. One Australian sniper looked in the aisles to find nail clippers. They were all gone. Plaster was on his way to register when he overheard two men with American accents, and an American shopping cart. “You here to join up?” he asked them. We looked at them, then smiled and they confirmed their arrival in Ukraine to face the Russians. Plaster accepted their number.

European leaders tried to prevent their citizens going into the conflict zone, particularly if they were already serving as military personnel at home. “You should not go to Ukraine,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in response to reports that dozens of elite British troops and veterans, including the son of a British parliamentarian, were taking up Zelensky’s call to arms.

Most volunteers are just ordinary citizens who have been moved by the need to help. Igor Gavrylko drove his Mitsubishi from London to Ukraine after he was fired as a mechanic at a London auto dealership. Plaster joined him on the arrival. “I’ll go wherever I’m needed here,” Gavrylko told me.

Our hostel was located in the middle of the city, and it was very well equipped. Plaster had made arrangements for several dozen beds to be available for newcomers. Plaster found his own bedroom already crammed with pizza boxes and the fridge was stocked full of beer. He said that many foreign fighters were going to be sent to an area in west Ukraine about 10 miles away from the Polish border for orientation. They would then be sent to the front. “You should go check it out,” Plaster told me.

It was not my chance. A barrage a Russian cruise missiles hit the base, killing many more days later. One of the photos I received from the scene showed the collapsed building as well as large holes in the ground. A British citizen, Jeremy, was one of the survivors. He told me that he helped to pull his wounded and dead comrades out of the rubble. There was no room for anyone to be excluded.

Find the closest townWhen I returned to Poland, the checkpoints were packed at the base. These checkpoints were run by volunteers from the local community, young men dressed in civilian clothing and flying Ukrainian flags amongst piles of sandbags. I was signaled to stop by one of the men, who wriggled a red-and-white baton over my head. Unarmed, some of his friends stood alongside him and smiled nervously. He inquired where I was from and my destination. I answered that the U.S. was going to Poland. This was something the young man thought about for quite some time. “Carry on,” he said in Ukrainian. “And send them our thanks.”

My flight from Poland to Rzeszow left the airport two days later. I was taxiing next to the U.S. military aircrafts, which had arrived in order deliver arms for Ukraine. From the highway, you could see the planes moving around the tarmac as big, green whales through a wire barbed fence. To defend themselves against an attack by Russia, there were a few anti-missile surface-to-air batteries that stood on the field.

Several friends and acquaintances wrote to me asking whether war was imminent between Russia and the U.S. on the morning of my flight. One person emailed me to ask for information about the likelihood of World War III breaking out in less than a month. I didn’t know how to answer. It would be a lot like the airfield at the border and what it looks like the U.S. stands on that precipice. There is no way to know how Russia will react to the U.S.’s lifeline provided for Ukraine by its allies. The risk seems worth it for diplomats, convoy runners and soldiers, as well as the volunteers and soldiers who kept supplies flowing. —Reporting bySimmone Shah And Julia Zorthian/New York

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

Get in touchAt


Related Articles

Back to top button