‘Just take pity on us’: Ukrainians call out for help in battle for the sky


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LVIV, UKRAINE—When war broke out in Kharkiv, Valeriy Voskoboynikov bought three train tickets out of town — one each for himself, his fiancée and his father. But his family convinced him to hop on a commuter train that was leaving a day earlier, telling him they’d meet him soon.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/03/2022 (380 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LVIV, UKRAINE—When war broke out in Kharkiv, Valeriy Voskoboynikov bought three train tickets out of town — one each for himself, his fiancée and his father. But his family convinced him to hop on a commuter train that was leaving a day earlier, telling him they’d meet him soon.

So when the shelling started, fast and unrelenting, Voskoboynikov was left to watch as the city faced some of the most devastating bombing of the conflict, with his family members still inside.

The day they were meant to leave, his fiancée, Jamilia Tiutina, missed her train. His father decided not to leave the city, believing it to be safe. Then the subway shut down. That’s when the shelling began, fast and unrelenting.

Kharkiv, a cultural hub in eastern Ukraine, has faced some of the most devastating destruction of the conflict so far. It was one of the first places where Russia began destroying civilian targets, when its cultural heart — a postmodern opera house in the centre of the city — was destroyed in a blast that also killed at least 10 people.

Yet in a conflict that has seen much damage from weaponry launched from the ground, Voskoboynikov says his fiancée also saw fighter jets pass overhead.

Russia has not yet used what is believed to be the full might of its air force, opening up an opportunity for the much more sparsely equipped Ukrainian forces to hit back. Still, local officials say planes have been seen dropping bombs in some places, including a maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol that Ukraine said was hit by an airstrike this week, and an attack in the northeastern city of Sumy which the Guardian reported on Tuesday had killed 21 people, including two children.

“When a fighter jet or a bomber flies on top of your head, and you know that it’s bringing some bombs to you, I only can imagine how terrifying that is,” Voskoboynikov says.

He’s one of many who have faced bombing in Ukraine who are pleading with the global community to do something.

“We are hoping for the no-fly zone and we are hoping for more anti-aircraft equipment,” he said.

“Ukraine is not the ending point for Putin and for Russia. It’s just the starting point in the Europe invasion. So if they ignore helping us now, the other European countries are next. We need to be united in this and we would use any help.”

The terror of those who have suffered night after night of bombing in eastern Ukraine has put a new focus on an increasingly fraught battle frontier in the conflict with Russia:

The sky.

Why is control of airspace important?

Both countries are scrambling for control of, at the very least, pockets of the airspace along their shared border.

Dominating the air is considered a key piece of strategy because it can speed a military’s advance on the surface below. As the conflict in Ukraine progresses — and spring mud makes travel on the ground increasingly challenging — airspace will likely matter even more.

“It removes a literal dimension to warfare,” says David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “You don’t have to spend your time looking up in the same way, so you can look horizontally. If you don’t have to deploy your forces in a way where you’re worried about an incoming enemy aircraft and having to provide protection from that or trying to shoot it down, you can put more focus on what you’re doing on the ground.”

Right now, much of the damage inflicted by Russia has come from artillery and other ground-based weaponry. It’s not a coincidence that the Ukrainian cities hardest hit are in a battered strip of land along the country’s eastern, Russia-facing edge. Places like Kharkiv and Mariupol, an industrial hub on the Sea of Azov, have suffered frequent bombardment that have left much of them in ruin.

Experts say these strikes would be mostly unaffected by a no-fly zone. However, if Russian forces want to push deeper into the country, troops will have to venture out of range of much of their existing artillery and into areas where the ability to drop bombs, deposit soldiers and supplies and surveil from the skies will be crucial.

Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, are looking to prevent them doing just that. While they don’t have the capacity to actually control their own airspace, they can at least muck up the Russian plans as much as possible. To that end, over the weekend the president pleaded with other countries for more warplanes.

Meanwhile, countries like the U.S., U.K. and Canada walk a tightrope, providing military aid to Ukraine while seeking to avoid provoking Russia, a historic adversary well-stocked with nuclear weapons.

Why is NATO against a no-fly zone?

Although the centre for displaced people just outside Lviv is comfortably warm, Oksana nonetheless sits bundled in the layers of wool she’d thrown on almost 12 hours earlier. She’d donned as many items of clothing as she could as fled her home in northwestern Ukraine, in a town where a school and maternity ward were among the targets razed by Russian artillery in recent days.

With pale knuckles, Oksana, who declined to give her last name, clutches the manila folder that was one of the few things she and husband managed to grab as they fled Zhytomyr just after dawn — it contains the passports and birth certificates for them and their three young children.

Hours before they decided to run, a bomb exploded 1,500 metres from their home, Oksana explains. Their basement where they’d been hiding for the nine days prior shook with a force they’d never felt before. While she says the family counts themselves lucky to be alive, the memories of their city being levelled by Russian bombs will not be easily forgotten.

“It’s a hell there,” she says between tears. To her, and to many others who have endured what she has, there is only one solution:

“We need Russians to be denied of entering Ukrainian air,” she says, sobbing. “Just take pity on us.”

Despite pleas from civilians, NATO remains firmly against a no-fly zone of the kind previously used in Iraq, Bosnia and Libya. The trouble with such zones, says Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert on Russian foreign politics and military who is also a senior research scientist at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization devoted to American security, is that they don’t police themselves.

“If you are NATO or the U.S. or somebody and you declare a no fly-zone, it’s not like suddenly all the planes in the area are like, ‘Oh, OK, there’s a no fly-zone, we have to land now.’”

“The opposing side would contest that. So the question that arises is, how do you enforce a no fly-zone?”

The answer, of course, is if NATO declared it, NATO forces would have to defend it. And not only would NATO have to patrol the airspace above Ukraine, but this would likely mean attacking defences designed to attack planes — and some of those might be in Russia or Belarus.

This would amount, the argument goes, to a full-on provocation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also defended not imposing a no-fly zone, saying it would cause an escalation in the conflict.

“The thing that we have so far avoided — and will continue to need to avoid — is a situation in which NATO forces are in direct conflict with Russian soldiers,” Trudeau said in a news conference last Friday.

What else can other countries do to assist Ukraine?

With its air force far superior to Ukraine’s, Russia was expected to own the sky right from the get-go, Gorenburg says. Yet many of its planes have stayed on the ground, and experts wonder why.

“Is it that they’ve been trying to limit their operations, in which case we could see more (force used in future)? Or is it that they’re not actually able to conduct large-scale, squadron-level air operations, because they don’t have the confidence to do it?

“I’m not sure.”

In that relative power vacuum, the much smaller and weaker Ukrainian Air Force has continued to fly, carrying out relatively small-scale operations. Over the weekend, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked American leaders for more planes to keep up the fight.

Providing planes would be complicated for a couple of reasons. The first is that NATO countries are trying to be careful to look like they’re not becoming actively involved in the conflict, Gorenburg says.

There are no hard-and-fast rules here, but western leaders are trying to predict how Russia might react to a perceived escalation, he says. One thing they’re likely thinking about is that while it might be one thing to give assistance to a country just looking to defend itself — particularly when Russia likely doesn’t actually want to fight NATO — actually getting involved in the fighting would be another thing entirely.

“It’s not like you’re flipping to page three of the understood rule book about how we can deal with this kind of scenario,” Perry says. “It’s very much being made up as we go along.”

For this reason, the conversation so far has been around the U.S. supplying planes, but not pilots. This has created another logistical wrinkle.

The Ukrainian Air Force mostly uses the older, Soviet-made planes still common in many former Communist-bloc countries. This includes the MiG-29 (a twin-engine fighter the Soviets rolled out in the 1970s) and various vintages of Sukhoi Su fighters.

As experienced as they may be, most Ukrainian pilots don’t actually know how to fly American planes such as F-16s.

It would be simpler, then, for countries with the former Soviet planes to give those to Ukraine instead. That’s why nations like Poland have stepped forward to volunteer to give their MiG-29s to Ukraine — the Warsaw government in fact said it would send its whole fleet to a U.S. airbase in Germany, in exchange for some American F-16s for themselves.

However, the U.S. rejected the three-way plane swap on Tuesday, saying that this plan also required too much NATO involvement.

“The prospect of fighter jets ‘at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America’ departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance,” Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a statement posted online.

What is Canada doing?

Canada has already sent lethal and non-lethal weapons to Ukraine in what Perry calls “unprecedented commitments.” On Monday, Defence Minister Anita Anand told Global that the government was looking at providing Ukraine with drone cameras to assist in the fight.

“Canada alone is not going to win the war for Ukraine,” Perry says. “I don’t know that Western support is collectively going to win the war for Ukraine, depending on how you define winning but we’re in lockstep with the most supportive members of the (NATO) alliance,” he adds, meaning the Americans and the British.

But as the international community debates action, the thousands of Ukrainians who are running for their lives are forced to wait on every update.

For now, those still on the ground are left to wait. Voskoboynikov was finally reunited with his fiancée Tiutina, who eventually gave up on a train trip and got a ride with friends of friends to Lviv. Because of the bumper-to-bumper traffic, a trip that normally takes 12-13 hours ballooned into five days.

The pair eventually convinced Voskoboynikov’s father to leave as well, and he is expected to join them this week, before journeying on to Poland to meet a brother who will take him to Rome.

In a phone call with the Star, Tiutina says she’s relieved to be sitting next to her fiancé, but still in a state of shock.

“I also feel kind of a bit numb, if you know what I mean. Like all my senses are, I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe this.”

The pair had bought an apartment in Kyiv planned to marry in the spring, but now that’s up in the air.

“This was the plan,” Tiutina says over Zoom. “The lesson that we all have learned not to plan anything ahead because it’s meaningless. Basically, all your plans can go wrong.”

Johanna Chisholm is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @JohannaEChis

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