6 months of war: The view from the frontlines
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For another perspective on how Ukrainians are feeling on this, their Independence Day, we called Ukraine's former minister of infrastructure. His name is Volodymyr Omelyan. In the first hours of the war, Omelyan left his job and family behind to join Ukrainian forces on the front lines of the war, which is where we have reached him this morning. Mr. Omelyan, thank you so much for being with us.
VOLODYMYR OMELYAN: It's a great pleasure for me to be with you. And we are very grateful to every American who stands with Ukraine in those months (ph) because we do understand that without your assistance, help and commitment, we will never survive.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about your commitment to this war. When you said goodbye to your family and joined the Ukrainian forces, did you have any idea at that point that you would still be fighting six months later, on your country's Independence Day no less?
OMELYAN: From the very first day, our goal was to win and to celebrate victory together with our Western allies. And definitely mood of our forces was changing with every month because in the first days and first weeks, we were desperately fighting against overwhelming Russian troops. But right now, we do understand that we should free all our lands, all Ukrainian territory and finally close the issue with collapse of Soviet Union, which started in 1991 and should end in 2023.
MARTIN: I mean, it is amazing just to think about the longevity of the aggression that Ukraine has seen from Russia. I mean, without getting into specifics, your unit is now fighting in the south of the country, I understand, where reports say it's been very difficult to dislodge Russian forces. Can you give us a sense of just how difficult it has been where you are?
OMELYAN: Yes, that's true. After failed to capture Kyiv and capture eastern Ukraine, Russia concentrated all of their forces in the south of Ukraine right now. And we face severe battles. But we do believe that together with Western support and artillery, ammunition and I hope aviation, which we expect to come soon as well, we will prevail and we are ready to start counteroffensive operations. The only thing - that we don't want to spend human lives and lose our soldiers. That's why we rely on technical means and artillery, tanks and so on.
MARTIN: Have you lost people that you have known?
OMELYAN: Yes, yes. We lost just a couple of days, lost two of my friends from my battalion and another two the next day.
MARTIN: I mean, I understand that you are projecting strength and resolve in this moment as you need to. But how is morale among your colleagues, among your soldiers, after six months of this fighting?
OMELYAN: Yes, physically, definitely, it's exhausting, but morale is very high. And we do understand - you have best expression for the situation, that freedom is not free and we should fight to save our Ukraine, and we should fight to protect democratic world. Because definitely it's not only about Russia to occupy Ukraine. It's about the choice how the world will be ruled - with democracy or tyranny and autocracy. It's not only about Russia because China is behind all this stuff. And we should show the example that there is no chance for bloody autocracy of the 20th or 19th century to take the lead in the world.
MARTIN: I heard you say that Ukraine is committed to freeing provinces, regions that are currently occupied by Russia. Is that an achievable goal, do you think, or is there a possibility that when this ends, that it will end with changed Ukrainian borders?
OMELYAN: Well, I'm sure that it's achievable because if you recall 1991 and you talk to average people in the beginning of August, nobody would believe that Soviet Union will collapse, and everybody would answer you that it will last forever, Soviet occupation over Eastern Europe. And it ended within a couple of days. Right now, it's the same situation. Russia looks like a big monster. But we show to the world that we are not afraid, and we are able to resist and to beat them. The same as with the economy, the same as with the Russian politics. They are groups which captured the power in Moscow and in Kremlin, and they are trying to convince the whole world that corruption is OK and killing people is OK. We are not agree with that. And we do believe that after freeing our territories, we should together settle the problem of Russia itself because we do not want to have the same situation that we spend a lot of money, a lot of time to make democratic state and then we get another Putin to come to power and have another colonial war.
MARTIN: How is your brigade marking Independence Day today?
OMELYAN: It's calm. Definitely, we celebrate with our hearts, but we do not organize any great celebrations in the street because we do understand the danger. We are under permanent threat and real missile attacks from Russia. Let's say in the southern Ukraine, we already survived a number of them within the last 24 hours. And we do understand that until victory comes and until victory is got, we are not ready to make a great holiday in Ukraine.
MARTIN: I understand your family is - has evacuated. They're no longer in Ukraine. Have you had conversations with your wife about how long this is actually going to take, how long you will be separated?
OMELYAN: She understood my choice, and she fully agree with me that I will be here with the army in Ukraine until the victory comes. We do understand that it's not kind of one day of miracle happen the next day. And we do believe that within one year time, it should be over, but we will not take any compromise or diplomatic solution. Only battle will decide everything. So I hope that my family will be in safe condition in the West until I fight here in Ukraine.
MARTIN: Former Minister of Infrastructure Volodymyr Omelyan, he took up arms and started fighting with Ukrainian forces six months ago when the war began. He joined us from the front lines in southern Ukraine. Thank you so much for your time.
OMELYAN: My great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.