The road outside Staryi Saltiv, a farming village in eastern Ukraine, is littered with proof of the senseless violence and surprising military failures that have come to define Russia’s war against this country.
The battle here, which was won by Ukrainian forces earlier this month as they continued to push Russian troops away from the regional capital of Kharkiv, also illustrates the determinative role played by Western military aid, including – the local commander says – weapons provided by Canada.
At the north end of Polova Street, which connects the two smaller communities that make up Staryi Saltiv, is yet more evidence of the Russian military’s willingness to fire on civilian targets. A line of five sedans – almost certainly a civilian convoy trying to escape the fighting in the village – has been reduced to heaps of scorched metal by tank and heavy machine-gun fire.
The scattered contents of the cars suggest the drivers were trying to flee for their lives when they came under attack on May 5. Lying on the road behind a black sedan that was second in the line of cars – and the most intact of the five vehicles – is a pile of blankets and children’s clothing, as well as a car seat and a black stroller. Further down the road, behind the remains of a white vehicle so scorched by fire that its tires melted, lies another heap of clothing and toiletries.
The Ukrainian military says at least eight people were killed when the convoy was shelled. An infant was among the two survivors.
About a kilometre south of the destroyed cars, the perpetrators of the attack met their own fiery fate – with Canadian help.
The charred remains of a T-90M tank, one of the most advanced pieces of Russian armour, sits atop a small rise on Polova Street. The Ukrainian unit that destroyed it, a small group of fighters from the reservist Territorial Defence Forces, say they hit the US$4.5-million T-90M with a US$20,000 weapon donated by Canada.
The Liberal government faced fierce criticism at home for waiting until after Russia’s invasion began to start delivering substantial assistance to Ukraine’s military. The first announced shipment, on Feb. 28, was made up of 100 Swedish-made Carl Gustaf recoilless anti-tank rifles, as well as 2,000 rounds of ammunition.
On April 22, Canada announced that it was sending the Ukrainian military an unspecified amount of additional Carl Gustaf ammunition. While many countries have Carl Gustafs in their arsenals, only Canada has publicly announced that it was donating such weapons to Ukraine.
Though less famous than the American-made Javelin and British NLAW anti-tank weapons that have played a significant role in helping Ukraine’s smaller military grind Russia’s offensive to a standstill, the commander of Kharkiv’s Territorial Defence Forces says it was a Carl Gustaf round – fired into the treads – that took out the T-90M tank.
The Ukrainian military says everyone inside the tank – which usually has a crew of three soldiers – was killed. A Russian armoured personnel carrier that took part in the attack on the convoy was also destroyed by a rocket-propelled grenade.
“Thanks to Canada for its help to Ukraine. I say this from my heart,” said Colonel Roman Gryschenko, the commander of the 127th Territorial Defence Brigade, in an interview. “We can confirm that we effectively use the equipment that you send. It’s not being wasted.”
Col. Gryschenko said the Carl Gustaf rifles were perfect for his reservist fighters since they were effective against heavy armour, while at the same time being easy to use. “Carl Gustafs are very simple. Give me 15 minutes and I could explain to anyone how to shoot one and do so effectively.”
He said that while the destruction of the top-of-the-line T-90M was unique, Carl Gustafs had been used to destroy “many” other Russian tanks.
Col. Gryschenko’s only complaint was that Ukraine didn’t have enough of the anti-tank weapons, forcing his men to conserve them. “If I had enough of them, I could design more advanced tactics. But now we are in a situation where we have to rely on old RPGs,” he said.
Ukrainian forces liberated Staryi Saltiv on May 1, after more than two months of Russian occupation. The tank and the armoured personnel carrier were part of a failed Russian counterattack that was mounted four days later. The Russian forces have since withdrawn to the east bank of the Siversky Donets River, which now forms a natural front line in the battle for the Kharkiv region. Stariy Saltiv sits on the west bank of river, and artillery was audible during the day on Saturday.
The village remains far from safe. The few residents who haven’t fled Staryi Saltiv have continued sheltering in basements since the Russian retreat. One of those who couldn’t make it to a shelter was 79-year-old Petro Dobrunik, who remained in his first-floor apartment because of leg injuries that made it difficult for him to walk. He was killed on May 8 by shrapnel that struck him as he lay on his couch.
“I don’t know who was shooting at us, I just know that we were being bombed,” said Mr. Dobrunik’s 73-year-old widow, Yevdokia, who was in the next room when a shell struck the electricity pole in front of their building, sending shrapnel flying into the couple’s living room.
Because of the unpredictable security situation on the front line, The Globe was escorted to Stariy Saltiv by a media liaison officer from the Ukrainian military. The officer, Senior Lieutenant Vladyslav Moshchouskyi, said that the TDF unit of about 15 soldiers heard the sounds of the Russian tank firing on May 5, and moved toward the sound of what they assumed was a battle between Russian and Ukrainian troops.
The Ukrainian reservists saw what happened to the civilian cars only after they ambushed and destroyed the T-90M and the armoured personnel carrier. “It’s not the first time they were shooting civilians,” said the 29-year-old Lt. Moshchouskyi, who was a prosecutor before the war. He said the tank crew had been “turned to jelly” by the Carl Gustaf round, which appears at close examination to have hit the tank’s ammunition storage, causing a larger-than-expected explosion.
Drone footage of the blast – a bright flash, then a rising pillar of black smoke – was shared on Twitter by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence. “The pride of the Russian tank industry was destroyed by the Swedish hand-held anti-tank launcher Carl Gustaf. We thank the Swedish people and the King for their help,” the tweet read. The weapons, which were designed in 1946, are named after Sweden’s current king, who was born that year.
In addition to the Carl Gustafs, Canada has sent four M-777 long-range Howitzers to Ukraine. The United States has sent 90 of the towed M-777 artillery pieces, which are designed to be accurate at a range of 40 kilometres, while Australia has donated six.
The deployment of the M-777s is a military secret. A request from The Globe to see the Canadian-donated Howitzers in action was denied.
Military hardware isn’t the only way Canada and Canadians are aiding the battle for Kharkiv. A short drive away from the Siverny Donets front line, The Globe encountered Pavlo Carbovnick, a 52-year-old Ukrainian-Canadian who left his job as a land surveyor in Calgary two months ago to help defend the country he was born in.
Mr. Carbovnick, who was drafted into the Soviet Red Army as a teenager, is now a member of the International Legion of foreign fighters that is supporting the Ukrainian army. The father of one says he’s a drone operator who helps Ukrainian artillery target the enemy across the river.
Mr. Carbovnick was surprised to learn from The Globe that he had briefly been the subject of an online manhunt after another foreign fighter, an American, posted on Twitter that Mr. Carbovnick was out of contact and potentially missing in action near Kharkiv.
Cradling an M-4 assault rifle, Mr. Carbovnick says he was just offline and unable to receive calls or messages. Mobile signals are difficult to find in the remoter parts of the battle-scarred Kharkiv region.
Mr. Carbovnick said he had come to Ukraine to fight “because I just felt the need to be here.” That personal motivation, he said, was the reason Ukraine’s smaller force had been able to repeatedly best the larger Russian army.
“The Russians have some reasons invented by Putin for fighting, but Ukrainians are defending their own land,” he said. “We’re fighting not to be part of Russia, so we can have our own identity.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.