The Human Cost of a Hesitant Ukraine Policy

Bob McConnell
June 9, 2024

“If we were able to strike the military targets from which the enemy is launching their strikes, we would have had less victims, many people would have been still alive, and we would not have a scorched-earth situation.”

That is one of the lines from the op-ed below that resonates – over-and-over.

Throughout this war Washington’s story has been one of too little, too late.

It has been wrong, just as restrictions on how Ukraine can use American-supplied weapons have been – and is – wrong.

Give Ukraine what it needs in weapons and authority to win this war!

Wall Street Journal

The Human Cost of a Hesitant Ukraine Policy

Shortages of weapons and limits on their use left Kharkiv oblast vulnerable. Iryna Tsybukh saved lives and ended up losing hers.

By Jillian Kay Melchior | June 7, 2024 4:51 pm ET

A portrait of Iryna Tsybukh taken by her friend Julia Kochetova. PHOTO: JULIA KOCHETOVA

Iryna Tsybukh rescued the wounded from Ukraine’s bloodiest battles. While working as a combat medic, Ms. Tsybukh, 25, slept in abandoned homes a short drive from the front, and when the call for help came she and her crew raced to the trenches, often under shelling or through mined territory, to get soldiers the medical care they needed.

Ira, as her friends called her, “was always as close as possible” to the action “and to the place where her help was most needed,” said Julia Kochetova, a Ukrainian photojournalist who sometimes accompanied her friend at the front. In late May that place was Kharkiv oblast just south of the Russian border, a region that has recently borne the consequences of America’s hesitant Ukraine policy.

As Russia was pummeling the Kharkiv region with missiles, drones and glide bombs, U.S. lawmakers signed off on some $60 billion in aid for Ukraine on April 20, after months of delay. The Ukrainian broadcaster Suspilne reports that at least 216 civilians have been killed in the oblast in 2024, including 106 in May alone. The city of Kharkiv, the country’s second most populous at 1.3 million, has seen fatal strikes on a leisure center, a printing house and a crowded shopping mall in the past few weeks. Air-defense shortages remain so acute that if city residents step outside, they “don’t have a clear understanding if they will be alive in the second moment or not,” Mayor Ihor Terekhov said late last month.

Brig. Gen. Serhii Holubtsov, the aviation chief of Ukraine’s air force, said Russia is launching a minimum of 15 glide bombs each day at the city of Kharkiv and 30 and 60 across the oblast. These bombs can glide between 25 and 40 miles from the planes that launch them and leave “a crater in which you can fit a truck,” he said. The biggest glide bombs can destroy a five-story residential building and send shrapnel flying nearly 1,000 yards.

The U.S. has long prohibited Ukraine from using the weapons it provides to strike Russian territory. Around Kharkiv, that policy has created a sanctuary for Russian attackers. On May 10 Russia began an offensive operation targeting Kharkiv oblast, and the next day it dropped at least 20 glide bombs on the frontline village of Vovchansk, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Ukraine lacks the air-defense interceptors to shield effectively against incoming missiles and drones, and U.S. delays in providing military aid created severe ammunition shortages across the Ukrainian front. Ukraine still needs to hold the line against the Russians pressing in on Kharkiv. So its soldiers had to stay put and endure the aerial and ground assault, despite the casualties.

Ira wanted to give those wounded in Kharkiv a chance to survive. “I am not a person who dreamed of working as a paramedic all my life,” she said in 2022. She had periodically volunteered as a combat medic before February 2022, but she also worked in Kyiv on the reform of the public broadcaster Suspilne and made documentaries. Someday she wanted to own a house, plant tomatoes and have children. But “a full-scale war changed everything,” she told Elle Ukraine.

She became a full-time unpaid volunteer with the Hospitallers Medical Battalion. “Her crew was always one of the best,” said Oleg Gryn, 24, a combat medic from the Azov Brigade who worked with Ira. “Everyone was calmer when they knew that Cheka”—her call sign, meaning the pin of a grenade—“was nearby.” Ms. Kochetova recalled that Ira painstakingly outfitted her evacuation vehicle until it looked like a “spaceship” to make it “as warm and convenient” as possible for her wounded passengers, “not a cold car that’s carrying a body.”

Over 27 months, Ira evacuated sometimes as many as 20 people a day and helped save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives, Ms. Kochetova said. Among them was Ira’s friend Taras Homenyuk, a 35-year-old marine. A Russian drone dropped a grenade on his combat vehicle on Oct. 28, 2022, near the village of Opytne in Donetsk oblast. Surprised to have survived, he realized he could barely see and hear. Ira handled his wounds flawlessly, he recalls. “No one died that night. . . . Iryna was really calm, and she instilled this calmness in her crew.”

Ms. Kochetova photographed Ira’s missions in Donetsk around that same time, where she witnessed Ira’s rescue of a soldier with eye injuries—perhaps Mr. Homenyuk, though neither he nor Ms. Kochetova is sure. Afterward, Ira told Ms. Kochetova the wounded man was “someone close to her heart,” that she had been nervous “but you can’t show it,” and that she had resolved “not to become friends with the people I work with, because any of them could be in my car being wounded.”

“I was like, ‘Ira, that’s not true. You’re that friendly, you have that big heart,’ ” Ms. Kochetova recalled. “No matter how tough Ira was, she always was that vulnerable with the people she crossed. . . . I would say everything she was doing was just because she loved people around her, loved her country.”

Ira knew going to Kharkiv was risky. “The chance of dying increases with each battle. This is mathematics,” said Mr. Gryn. “Evacuation vehicles are a priority target for the enemy.” But “she believed there was an obligation. She perfectly understood that she would die and chose this path every time. We talked about it a lot.”

On May 23, Ira tweeted: “It’s my B-day soon, and I’m very proud of having made it to 26.” She didn’t. Her birthday was June 1, and on May 29 she was killed in action in Kharkiv oblast. She was “so f— young,” Ms. Kochetova said. “I’m extremely angry that we’re losing the best of our people.” The Hospitallers Medical Battalion hasn’t released the details of her death but says another combat medic who was with her, Ivan Nikolenko, survived with leg injuries.

“If we were able to strike the military targets from which the enemy is launching their strikes, we would have had less victims, many people would have been still alive, and we would not have scorched-earth situation” in Kharkiv, Gen. Holubtsov said on May 29. That was the day Ira died, although we didn’t know it as we spoke.

Gen. Holubtsov said that if Ukraine “had been able to strike targets beyond our borders,” it would likely have been able to preclude the attack on Kharkiv. As Congress dithered over aid, “we have lost some territory, and they have begun attacking again. The situation is not critical, but now just to stop their advances, we need probably three times as many weapons—and this is just for stopping their new attacks.”

Gen. Holubtsov says the only way to stop Russian aerial attacks on Ukrainian cities is to target the factories that make glide bombs, missiles and drones as well as the planes that launch them and the air bases where fighter jets rest. An interception-only strategy “is expensive, it is ineffective, and we will hardly be able to afford this, because the number of air-defense missiles, of interceptors, that we have is dozens of times fewer than the Russians have glide bombs. So it’s basically impossible in terms of numbers.”

Two days after Ira’s death, the Biden administration announced it had changed its policy to allow Ukraine to use some U.S. weapons to strike Russian territory. But the U.S. still won’t let Ukraine use long-range ATACMS missiles inside Russia, and Washington has been vague about where in Russia Ukraine can target. Gen. Holubtsov declined to comment on the specifics of the new permissions and restrictions. But the U.S. half-measures won’t eliminate Russia’s sanctuary, merely push it further back.

This is an insane way to expect Ukraine to fight a war. Ira’s loss is an example of the enormous human cost.

Ms. Melchior is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

Co-Founder, U.S.-Ukraine Foundation
Director of External Affairs, Friends of Ukraine Network
The introduction is Mr. McConnell’s and does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN).