Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘People Die Because Aid is Delayed’: How Indifference is Killing Ukrainians

As Ukraine is outnumbered 7 to 1 on some parts of the frontline, volunteers explain the dangers they face as right wing politicians in the EU and the US stifle aid

Volunteer Kirill Marlinski drives by a gas station destroyed in Russian shelling the hour before in Donetsk oblast in July 2023. Photo: Kris Parker

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

On a recent trip home to Poland to rest and fundraise, 29-year-old Kuba Stasiak could not shake a disturbing perception.

“People have become indifferent. They have gotten used to the war and now it’s really hard to move them from their apathy,” he explained from an apartment in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk.

After two years of full-scale war, invading Russian forces remain along a 600-mile-long front that cuts across the south and east of Ukraine, occupying 18% of the country. Up and down this line remain pockets of civilians living in rural villages and the bombed-out towns that outline the war.

Usually elderly and without other resources, these communities rely on the humanitarian aid delivered by volunteer formations and small NGOs. If fighting threatens to overtake their homes, volunteers evacuate the willing and organize safe places to stay, often at great personal risk. 

Though the need for this work remains, the donations that support it have begun to slow down dramatically. While in Poland, past donors whom Stasiak approached to help repair a vehicle in Ukraine were suddenly no longer interested in providing more funds.  

“Even the people I was expecting to be more willing to participate, businessmen for whom two or three thousand euros is nothing collectively, were apathetic,” he lamented. “Most people can’t even recognize the names of Bakhmut or Avdiivka, and now the volunteer community is really struggling.” 

A journalist by trade, Stasiak has worked for the last two years as a humanitarian volunteer along Ukraine’s frontlines. In collaboration with Ukrainian and international volunteers — in Sievierodonetsk, Soledar, Bakhmut and beyond — he has helped deliver aid and evacuate around 400 civilians from some of the most dangerous areas of the front.

Kuba Stasiak walks through a damaged home while searching for a resident in Mykolaivka, Donetsk Oblast in July 2023. Photo: Kris Parker

Right Wing Objections

Donor fatigue is growing at a time when the continuation of aid is increasingly challenged by the political right in the governments of the United States and European Union, the two largest sources of assistance.

As Russian forces continue to push, the delays in aid are undermining Ukraine’s ability to defeat determined assaults and daily attacks on civilian infrastructure. Each Russian advance widens the areas destroyed by fighting and multiplies civilians in need of humanitarian assistance. As the latest package of US aid remains stalled in Congress, small groups of self-organized volunteers and supporters abroad are continuing their work as circumstances grow increasingly dire.

“I call Ukraine a DIY country,” explains 40-year-old volunteer Kirill Marlinski. “Because if you don’t do it, no one else is going to. So everyone’s gotta be a volunteer, pitch in, and do something.”

Despite initial Russian expectations of limited resistance and even support from sections of Ukrainian society, the invasion was overwhelmingly met with determined military resistance and the flowering of volunteer initiatives and international aid networks organized to support Ukraine’s civilian and military needs.

Normally an artist based in Kyiv, Marlinski is one of the countless Ukrainian and international volunteers who mobilized in response to the 2022 Russian invasion, spending the last two years delivering supplies to frontline villages and military units around Donetsk oblast.

Stasiak and a French volunteer named Lucas wait to meet someone seeking an evacuation in Mykolaivka, Donetsk oblast in July 2023. Photo: Kris Parker

Like Stasiak, Marlinski has worked with numerous informal groupings and non-profits to get aid in and people out. But as the war has dragged on, he also noticed a decline in volunteer activity along the front. 

“A lot of volunteers have just stopped, for the simple reason that if you don’t have people dropping at least a thousand dollars in your account, you will not be able to keep going,” he said. “A ridiculous amount of money gets burned up just maintaining the van; fueling it and repairing it.”

The roads of eastern Ukraine can vary widely in quality and vehicle or tire repair is a near-constant expense for many volunteers. While individuals like Stasiak, who raise money through social media and crowdfunding, are finding it difficult to keep people engaged, the problem has been widespread.

“At the beginning, we had donors providing in-kind donations of medical supplies, but that definitely dwindled in the past year,” explained 36-year-old Natasha Rudenko, a photographer and co-founder of the group Post Angeles. “The past year has been really, really hard for getting in-kind donations, or any donations, for that matter.”

The California-based non-profit has worked extensively with Marlinski, and since forming in response to the 2022 invasion, has shipped over 183,000 pounds of aid to Ukraine. 

Ukraine’s defence is reliant on the economic and military assistance provided by the United States, European Union (EU), and other allied countries. Though 47 states have provided aid, the bulk has come from the United States and the EU. Since February of 2022, roughly $75 billion of assistance has been committed by the US, and $144 billion by EU institutions and member states, though only half of EU funds have been allocated.     

Front Line Dangers

Commitments for Ukrainian aid began to drop towards the end of summer last year, as Ukraine’s counteroffensive approached its culmination. Launched in June, the counteroffensive was unable to overcome Russian lines reinforced in the months Ukraine trained and awaited delivery of advanced tanks and other weapons.

In Zaporizhzhia oblast, Ukrainian forces faced minefields up to 500 meters deep while attacked with artillery and helicopters. Losses were high and success was limited. The situation was soon characterized as a stalemate by General Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top military commander who was replaced in February of this year. In October the Kiel Institute reported an 87% drop in committed aid compared to 2022 from August to October.

Additionally, the number of Russian soldiers in Ukraine has increased from an estimated 190,000 to roughly 450,000, and the Ukrainian government is now debating how to mobilize 500,000 new recruits to replace its exhausted forces. With a much smaller population, Ukraine has begun to struggle to find new recruits, and the average age of a soldier is now above 40. Ukraine has yet to conscript anyone below the age of 27, though a proposed law could lower that age to 25. 

A pledge made by the EU in March of 2023 to provide Ukraine with one million artillery shells within a year has failed to meet that goal, and the EU recently acknowledged only 52% of the one million shells will be delivered by March of 2024. Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy recently stated only 30% of the critical ammunition has been delivered. Throughout the war, Ukraine has struggled to match the Russian rate of artillery fire, and Russia is estimated to be currently firing 3X the number of shells as Ukraine. The disparity in firepower has been central to Russian battlefield successes and poses acute threats to volunteers as well.

“Anytime you drive up somewhere 2, 3, 4 kilometres directly from the Russians, you run a risk of getting blown up,” explained Marlinski. “It’s a very small risk compared to soldiers, but you have to deal with it, that’s it. You have to understand that there is a possibility that you’ll get killed.”

The Heavenly Hundred: How EU Membership is at the Heart of Ukraine’s Struggle

Ten years on from the Euromaidan uprising, Ukrainians are still fighting for freedom and to be part of the European Union

Outnumbered 7 to 1

Multiple volunteers have been killed attempting evacuations.

In January of 2023, two British volunteers, Chris Parry and Andrew Bagshaw, were killed in Soledar. A few weeks later, Pete Reed, an American volunteer and medic, was killed in Bakhmut. In September, two members of the NGO Road to Relief, Anthony “Tonko” Ihnat and director Emma Igual, died after a Russian missile targeted their vehicle near Chasiv Yar.

A few days later, two Ukrainian volunteers named Serghiy Shalyhin and Vadym Zabara were killed while evacuating two civilians from a village near Kupyansk after a Russian missile hit their car, killing all four. On February 1 of this year, two more French volunteers were killed near Kherson.

“Nowadays, we are afraid of the FPV drones, kamikaze drones, because they are fucking everywhere,” explained Stasiak. The puppy of a recently deceased friend who served as a medic, barked in the background. Days later a missile landed 50 meters from his building, destroying all windows, while killing one neighbour and injuring six. 

“For a fact, the Russians have learned some lessons and that’s why it is so difficult, especially now, to move through these areas that are heavily shelled, because nowadays you’re not afraid of the artillery, but more of the drones; they’re more accurate and sneaky,” he said.

On 17 February, Ukraine’s military announced the withdrawal from Avdiivka, a fortified frontline town for nearly ten years. The retreat came after five months of Russian assaults that killed an estimated 16,000 Russian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Ukrainians.

Outnumbered by a ratio of 7 to 1, amid a critical shortage of artillery ammunition, Ukrainians withdrew under fire to escape a complete encirclement. During the chaos, wounded were left behind, some of which appear to have been executed by Russian soldiers.

“It’s not fucking Hollywood.” Kirill Marlinski, centre, speaks with residents of a village near Siversk, Donetsk oblast in July 2023. Russian positions were approximately four kilometres away. Photo: Kris Parker

“People need to understand that it isn’t over. Even when the daily killings have become so routine that it doesn’t tickle their nerves anymore, it’s real people that are dying daily,” explained Marlinski. “That’s the truth. It’s not a movie. It’s not fucking Hollywood.”

‘An Unending Source of Rage’

The fall of Avdiivka occurred amidst the backdrop of growing political turmoil among Ukraine’s two largest sources of military and economic aid, the United States and the European Union.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a rightwing reactionary who has opposed sanctioning Russia and arming Ukraine, blocked an EU vote on a $54 billion aid package in December and continued to threaten a veto until EU pushback forced him to drop his opposition on February 1, 2024. In the United States, far-right members of Congress, led by Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, have blocked an aid package worth $61 billion and continue to do so, despite vocal criticism.       

“This has been a pretty unending source of rage for me,” explained Doug Klain, a policy analyst and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council who works with Razom, a Ukrainian NGO based in the United States and Ukraine, leading their advocacy work in Washington D.C.

Razom formed in the wake of the 2013-14 Maidan Revolution and has raised over $100 million worth of aid since the full-scale invasion, most of which was donated in 2022. The NGO distributes the funds across a network of over 150 vetted organizations that work on the ground in Ukraine.

Brutality and Hope: Two Years of Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine

On the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Paul Niland argues that, despite exhaustion, Ukraine has learned to fight smarter – and that is reason for hope

“We know the consequences of delaying aid to Ukraine. It means that soldiers on the front lines are running out of ammo and they’re having to ration ammo, air defenses that were working really magnificently with close to 90 per cent effectiveness, dropping down to around 50 per cent effectiveness,” he said.

“People die because this aid is delayed.”

As debates in D.C. rage over the future of Ukraine, Stasiak, Marlinski, and scores of other volunteers in Ukraine and internationally, press on. The recent Russian advances in Donetsk oblast have increased the requests for evacuation that Stasiak is now coordinating with a small group of experienced volunteers, occasionally overlapping with Marlinski, who is under no illusions of what’s at stake.  

“Ukraine has to be built, now rebuilt, with the ideals of doing something for the good of the people, and it’s very important that volunteers continue to work for the country because if we do not succeed this time, it is game over.” 

Written by

This article was filed under
, , ,