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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #12

On Sunday 10 September 2023 two international aid workers were killed in the vicinity of Bakhmut, in Donetsk Oblast, on the front line between free Ukraine and Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia. They were members of a humanitarian team associated with Road to Relief, one of the few international NGO’s providing humanitarian assistance to the front line in eastern Ukraine. The dead were a Canadian and a Spaniard, although German and Swedish volunteers were also injured in the incident. They were in a vehicle heading southeast from Sloviansk to Bakhmut, a distance of around 45 kilometres, from where they were due to proceed to the settlement of Ivanivske, in the western suburbs of Bakhmut. This road is notoriously dangerous.

Sloviansk was seized by Russian-associated military forces in 2014, before being retaken by the Ukrainian Armed Forces shortly afterwards. However in the conflict since February 2022, Sloviansk, with a population of slightly more than 100,000, has seen heavy fighting including street-to-street fighting and artillery and other airborne attacks. It remains an active combat zone. Bakhmut was a city of some 70,000 people but the majority of the urban conurbation was captured by Russian Armed Forces in the early stages of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and Bakhmut has since then seen more or less relentless fighting. Most of the population has fled and by all accounts much of the city has been destroyed. Fighting continues amidst the ruins of Bakhmut on a daily basis.

No doubt the people of Ivanivske, just a few kilometres west of Bakhmut, stand in dire need of humanitarian assistance of any and every kind. The road from Sloviansk to Bakhmut is notoriously dangerous. It is completely empty, flat and straight, and any vehicle traversing that route is a sitting duck for Russian artillery based in the suburbs of Bakhmut. The aid vehicle was the recipient of a direct hit by a Russian artillery shell, it flipped, and two of the four people in the vehicle died as a result.

The deaths of these civilian aid workers is a tragedy. Some might question the wisdom of their risking (and indeed forfeiting) their lives in an attempt to deliver humanitarian assistance to so remote a settlement. Others might praise them as heroes for attempting to do so. One major question is why they took this particular road, so notoriously dangerous, when there is another minor road to Ivanivske, from Kostyantynivka just to the southwest of Ivanivske. On the other hand, just a few days ago there was a massacre in Kostyantynivka, as the Russian Armed Forces shelled a market. Up to 17 people are believed to have been killed. This may have deterred the aid workers from taking the road from Kostyantynivka, which is about 19 kilometres; but the road from Sloviansk was hardly likely to be much safer and would inevitably involve passing through actively contested neighbourhoods of Bakhmut where fighting is currently raging.

As always, it is hard to comprehend the relative locations of these various towns and settlements, and the roads between them, or to understand why they might be of strategic importance in pursuing Ukraine’s war aims, without a physical map showing the front line. In the case of Bakhmut, the strategic importance is to advance towards Russian-held Donetsk and/or to encircle that large city. Because if Donetsk falls to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, or at least can be kept in play, then the Russian occupation of Ukraine is essentially over. Donetsk, a city once of over one million people but suffering general population decline over the years and whose current population under Russian occupation is not reliably known, is for all practical purposes the administrative capital of Russian-occupied Ukraine.

Once the capital of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”, a Russian puppet state of some kind, and now formally (but illegally) annexed by Russia into what Russia has taken to calling the “new territories”, Donetsk is the principal railhead in Russian-occupied Ukraine and the principal administrative centre within those territories for the Russian Armed Forces. It is also the administrative centre for the Donbas iron and steel industry, which is the principal prize in the region for Russia from her unlawful conquests. That is why the fighting is raging so hard in the Donetsk region, because in the final stage of the war, when a ceasefire and peace agreement may be in sight, the fate of Donetsk and the geographical integrity of the Donetsk Oblast will be essential to the balance of power between the warring parties.

We pay tribute to the fallen aid workers who had the courage to try to help the people of Ivanivske, who surely knowingly placed themselves in harm’s way by entering accurate range (within 25km) of Russian artillery positions. They may have imagined that their mandate to deliver humanitarian assistance, and the internationally recognised symbols of civilian aid workers, a red cross on a white background on their vehicle, would cause the Russians to spare them and to let them pass freely. Alas, the fact is that the Russians do not want international civilian assistance to be provided to suffering Ukrainian civilians, lest it boost the morale of the Ukrainian population close to the front line that the Russians are doing everything in their power to undermine as part of a policy of total war.

Therefore the Russian Armed Forces are resorting to the most ignoble of tactics, including the shelling of market places and of international civilian assistance missions. This abhorrent behaviour is illustrative of the dangers of Russian aggression and the merciless, cynical attitude the Russian Armed Forces are prepared to adopt in pursuit of their war goals. The Russian Armed Forces are certainly not interested in winning the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian population. They are content to shell and bomb them at will, to demoralise and dishearten them. They are also prepared to murder civilian aid workers if that suits them, no doubt to deter others who attempt to undertake the same good works.

This sort of mentality - in which lives become worthless, and no distinction is drawn between combatants and civilians - represents all the values of Stalinism that the Ukrainian people are doing everything they can to draw away from. It is revolting, and it represents everything that is wrong with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Russians offered no condolences or apologies to the families of the dead and the wounded, who suffered and gave their lives in pursuit of a noble cause. They didn’t care. Presumably someone gave the orders that an international civilian aid vehicle be targeted, and that person or people is a war criminal. Intentional attacks on civilian targets with no military purpose during a state of war is unambiguously a war crime under the Rome Statute.

These events also remind all international aid workers in Ukraine, particularly the handful close to the front line, of the perils of the work and the importance of taking every precaution to ensure your personal safety. It is a grievous error to go anywhere near accurate Russian artillery positions in a foreign vehicle, or with one with unusual markings, or with a foreign SIM card in one’s telephone. All it takes is a single operator with Signals interception capacity or a single sighting of an anomalous vehicle, to lock onto a foreign target and then to launch a relatively inexpensive laser-guided shell. Stay at least 25km away from Russian artillery positions at all times, unless travelling absolutely incognito (which requires great care and significant expertise).

We salute the bravery of the dead and we wish the survivors the quickest possible recoveries. To all other aid workers in the region, brave as they are, we counsel them to take every precaution to avoid attacks by the Russian Armed Forces and we remind them that they are enhanced and attractive targets in the eyes of the Russian military. There are a lot more people in the region who need civilian assistance, and we need our international aid workers alive not dead.


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.


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