26 Feb 2024

New Zealanders fighting in Ukraine plead for more resources

9:39 am on 26 February 2024
A serviceman from the 65th Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukraine army, at dusk in the suburbs of Robotyne, Zaporizhzhia Region, Ukraine, on 21 February, 2024.

(File photo). A serviceman from the 65th Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukraine army, at dusk in the suburbs of Robotyne, Zaporizhzhia Region, Ukraine, on 21 February. Photo: AFP/ Dmytro Smolienko

Exclusive - Two years from Russia's invasion of Ukraine and New Zealanders fighting there are making desperate pleas for more weapons and resources. They spoke to RNZ's Charlotte Cook.

Jordan O'Brien calls them "meat waves".

"There's no other way to describe it.

"Wave after wave of human meat being thrown at our defensive positions, in case our positions get exhausted of their ammo supply."

A former New Zealand Defence Force soldier, O'Brien has been fighting for Ukraine since March 2022 - a few weeks after Russia launched an all-out invasion of its eastern European neighbour.

The tactics the Russians have followed ever since are "the same stuff they've been doing since World War Two", he says.

"They're just firing belt after belt on the machine gun, magazine after magazine on their rifle… These guys just keep coming and keep coming and keep coming."

O'Brien is one of an unknown number of New Zealanders who have chosen to join the front lines of the conflict as fighters, medics and trainers.

And without substantial support, he and other Kiwis in the conflict zone are warning there will be dire consequences as the war enters its third year.

As a result of heavy shelling and fighting, an estimated 3.7 million people have been driven from their homes or are displaced within the country since Russia's shock invasion.

The UN Refugee agency says more than 6.3 million people have crossed into neighbouring countries.

The numbers of the dead on both sides can't even be quantified, but is estimated to be over half a million.

Apart from the appalling numbers that keep mounting up, the only thing that has changed since O'Brien first arrived is the experience of those fighting alongside him.

"We've got a lot of extremely battle-hardened veteran units now and what we're seeing from Russia, there's more and more conscripts.

"We are doing a tremendous job of holding, but in some areas there's a bit of give and there's a bit of take."

A soldier from the Ukrainian army, in southeastern Ukraine, on 21 February, 2024.

(File photo). A soldier from the Ukrainian army, in southeastern Ukraine, on 21 February, 2024. Photo: AFP/ Dmytro Smolienko

It's routinely been described as a war on a scale the world hasn't seen before - with drones playing a major role.

"FPVs [first-person view drones] and drone bombing and even reconnaissance drone work... it's all new," O'Brien says. "And we're developing our own doctrine out here."

"I just pray they die cause we can't do anything about it."

Another New Zealander contracted to the Ukrainian Army as a combat medic says while the situation remains the same, support has dwindled.

"We are running out of resources and we are running out of people.

"Russia has all the artillery, we don't have the artillery, Russia has the people, we don't have the people ... and it's costing us many lives, innocent lives."

The medic, who does not want to be named, has been working in Ukraine in medical roles since October 2022 and has seen the carnage firsthand.

She's done work to train the soldiers heading out to the front line and now works with the injured.

"A lot of shrapnel, contusions... My colleagues would get massive trauma, amputees."

Others are psychologically unwell and there's little she can do. "I just comfort them."

The way the medics are able to operate has also changed with Russia's growing weapon and intelligence collection.

"They have a lot of FPV drones and other artillery, it's difficult now, we just do the medivacs at night-time."

Because of the increased risk of Russian attacks, the injured are now brought back from the "zero line" - the direct border between Ukrainian land and Russian-held territory - to an area where an armoured vehicle can then take them back to the medics who are further away from the front line.

A Ukrainian medic treats a wounded serviceman in a medical evacuation car in the Donetsk region on 30 November, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

(File photo). A Ukrainian medic treats a wounded serviceman in a medical evacuation car in the Donetsk region on 30 November. Photo: AFP/ Genya Savilov

That change has dramatically affected health outcomes compared to when medics were closer and able to extract people more frequently.

"Sometimes two days or four days, we have people that we can't even get, still out there, slowly dying for days," she says.

"I just pray they die, cos we can't do anything about it."

The medic said she would always remember the "zombified" appearance of a soldier returning back to a bunker from a mission.

"[He was] like a completely different person when he returned.

"I gave him a hug and he squeezed me and said the training and skills I gave him, he used to save two of his soldiers that were injured while fighting."

She has also had to teach people how to help and comfort someone in the field whose injuries are too severe to save.

On top of the everyday dangers and casualties, people are getting tired, with too few soldiers to manage rotations around from the front line, she says.

"With no artillery we can not hold the line."

Another former NZDF soldier who RNZ has agreed not to name has been there for almost a year.

With funds and support from Western allies slow to arrive, Ukraine was being forced to withdraw from some positions, he said.

"We have no artillery. With no artillery we can not hold the line.

"The West, including the US, needs to be proactive here. Right now they are paying in money. If Ukraine loses, the West will end up having to fight Russia on their own soil and pay in blood."

When asked why he joined, the soldier said he didn't like what he saw happening in the country, which triggered old memories for him.

"I'm here to fight because I have the skills, knowledge and experience to make a positive change for Ukraine."

"We the world have let them down."

Retired army colonel and former Tauranga Mayor Tenby Powell started a humanitarian group in Ukraine, KIWI Kare, and spent seven months in Ukraine last year, returning home in December.

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Tenby Powell Photo: Supplied

During a counter-offensive during 2023 morale had been high, Powell says.

"That is now gone. It's a constant grind."

It will be hard to push into a third year, he says.

"It's pretty bleak really at the moment.

"[That] Ukraine has proved to the world they can win this war in a counter-offensive in military terms is simply outstanding.

"However, we the world have let them down."

The Ukrainians have been failed by a lack of timely funding and resources, sapping momentum from their campaign.

"Gaza has taken over the attention.

"Without wanting to comment on the geopolitics of either of these conflicts... the Ukrainian war is the biggest war in Europe since World War Two.

"The resources that are required for the Ukrainian military to continue operations are very significant and it's really important they are getting support as well," Powell says.

Individuals targeted by drones

Former Defence Minister and Carterton Mayor Ron Mark has been a contact in New Zealand for the Kiwis in Ukraine and has even visited the warzone himself.

Ron Mark, Minister of Defence.

Ron Mark (file photo) Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"I pretty much talk to people every night - it's pretty normal for me to be up at 3.30am or returning messages."

Mark would not confirm how many he speaks to for their safety and operational security.

The Russians appear to have a tactic of targeting specific people where they can, Mark says.

"It's turned into a very precise and personal war where individual soldiers are specifically and deliberately targeted by drones being operated by young men and women ... sitting 100 kilometres, even further, away from the front line picking you and choosing to kill you."

It is thought Kane Te Tai, who was killed last March, had a price tag on his head.

Former NZDF soldier Kane Te Tai has been killed while fighting in Ukraine.

Kane Te Tai was the third New Zealander to be killed in Ukraine, Photo: Supplied

While Mark supports the New Zealanders fighting in the war, he wants them to know they can come home.

"What I worry about is they seem to have an open-ended view to the conflict with no real idea in their head about when they should come home.

"Staying like men and women did when they deployed in the First and Second World War on an open-ended deployment, when you don't know when you're going home, raises the probability that you won't be coming home."

Despite nearly two full years of living in a country full of conflict, Jordan O'Brien has no plans to return to Aotearoa.

"I don't believe I'm suffering from any post traumatic stress or something like that.

But it's been "a long time dealing with the constant fear of death," he says.

"It's changed all of us. I don't know if I'll see the true effects until after the war."

He has an inkling of what that future might hold.

"I'm telling you right now though, the whirring of drones in the air is probably gonna send shivers down my spine in the future.

"Even if it's just some kid flying [one] at the park, I'm probably gonna run for the nearest tree... You hear it so much out here - and the follow up from that noise is artillery."

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