“When we entered Kharkiv after 1 o’clock at night, all we saw was darkness. It looked like a zombie town,” recalls Paweł Krutul (New Left), vice-chairman of the National Defence Committee. Together with opposition deputies, he visited the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. “People are dying here and at the same time others debate whether to allow countries that have Leopards to hand them over,” says the politician bitterly.
MPs Piotr Borys (Civic Platform), Paweł Krutul (New Left), Witold Zembaczyński (Modern), Adam Szłapka (Modern), Hanna Gill-Piątek (Poland 2050) and Marcin Mycielski, Vice- President of the Management Board of the Open Dialogue Foundation, travelled to Bakhmut to hand over the collected equipment and humanitarian aid, including 13 reconnaissance drones and power generators.
“Although the area has seen some of the heaviest battles of the entire front line for weeks, there are still around seven thousand people living in the city. They are mainly elderly people who find it difficult to leave,” says Paweł Krutul in an interview with Interia. He stresses that Poland should lobby beyond all divisions for the provision of military equipment to Ukraine.
Anna Nicz, Interia: What caught your attention the most when you got to Bakhmut?
Paweł Krutul, Member of Parliament: As we approached the city, already a few dozen kilometres ahead, more and more checkpoints began to appear, more and more weapons, boards with warnings about the area being mined. On the road we saw wrecks of burnt tanks and civilian cars. This was already raising the tension. The closer we got to the city, the louder and louder the rumble of artillery became.
When we reached Bakhmut, the command was given that in the event of shelling we have to go fast, without stopping. If something happens to one of the cars – we leave it, the army will come back for it, no one has the right to stop. Tanks were standing 40-50 metres from the road, firing towards the Russian army. And there was a response from the other side. At one point, a missile exploded about 100 meters from us. The drivers accelerated to cross this stretch as quickly as possible.
That sounds like a very risky journey. Still, you got the green light.
We talked to the drone squad. They showed us footage from above the fire area. From the beginning to the end, they took care of us and knew what was going on. If they had decided that it was too dangerous, we wouldn’t have gone there.
Paweł Krutul: It is important for Ukrainians that their neighbours remember them
During the visit, you had an opportunity to talk to the residents. How did they approach you? What were these meetings like?
Due to the constant shelling, we had to unload our buses very quickly. During the unloading, the residents came to us, talked to us, thanked us. When they saw the Polish flag, they thanked us for our help, solidarity. They had tears in their eyes.
There were mainly elderly residents who did not want to leave their place of residence or simply couldn’t afford it. They thanked me for every bag with food, cosmetics, the most necessary basic things. They hugged us, they were very grateful for the fact that we brought not only equipment for the army, but also food and basic means of survival for them. It was very important to them. They said they wouldn’t leave, they’d stay, no matter what.
They asked us to support them militarily, but also to help the handful of people who remained there. That we wouldn’t forget them. It is important for them that their neighbours remember them, despite our difficult Second World War history.
Many of these people may remember that time. Did the subject of the Polish-Ukrainian past also come up during these talks?
The Ukrainians we met were pleasantly surprised that despite this history, we as neighbours are able to rise above everything and reach them with help. And this is not a one-time help, because other buses also have been coming from Poland. They are shocked that we don’t forget about them. They think that it would be easier for the Dutch, the French or the Spanish to provide aid.
We have this black card in our history with Ukraine and it is good that President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Andrzej Duda have laid flowers at the Lviv Eagles Cemetery. People see it. These are significant steps in reconciliation, despite our terrible history. Of course, the next generation must remember about it, so that it never happens again. However, the Ukrainians appreciate the fact that we are able to rise above that.
What is the daily life of the inhabitants of such a sensitive city as Bakhmut? Is it possible to get used to the constant sound of artillery?
As we drove through the smaller towns, we heard shots that residents didn’t react to as nervously as we did. For them, it is now a natural part of everyday life. As far as possible, life goes on there normally. Of course, some windows are boarded up or covered with bags.
One of my colleagues said that animals got used to the noise there as well. While we worry about whether our dogs will not be frightened by the sound of firecrackers, in Ukraine, dogs did not even bat an eyelid during the explosions.
People are trying to deal with all this. They carry wood to their homes and burn it in metal bowls to heat their houses and survive without heating or electricity. When we entered Kharkiv after 1 o’clock at night, all we saw was darkness. It looked like a zombie town.
We experienced a strong clash between normality and wartime. And this has been happening just a few hundred miles from our borders. We should lobby beyond all divisions for the provision of military equipment to Ukraine. Germany is having trouble deciding to hand over Leopard tanks to Ukraine, which makes me very sad. There are a lot of these tanks in Europe and we could deliver them to the Ukrainians.
We talked to the mayor of Kharkiv. He said they were going to get 50 tanks, and they needed 300-400. This is only part of it. And when winter comes, there will be another offensive from Russia. Ukrainians need to have the equipment to respond to it. If they don’t, Putin’s army could go deeper into Ukraine.
War in Ukraine. The handover of Leopard tanks
Are the military commanders you spoke to watching the discussion around Germany’s failure to make a decision on the Leopards? How do they perceive it?
There is a war in Ukraine, and there is politics thousand miles away – these are two different worlds. People are dying here and at the same time at the same time others debate whether to allow countries that have Leopards to hand them over. We also have these tanks, we just need a green light from the manufacturer, that is, the German side.
I think we are able hand over more than 14 tanks. But we also need the protection of NATO forces.
You mentioned Poland’s lobbying on the international arena for military assistance to Ukraine. How do you assess the current activities of President Andrzej Duda in this matter?
Poland has not failed its neighbour. In the first days, we handed over a lot of equipment that could immediately enter the front. It was post-Soviet equipment so Ukrainian soldiers did not have to train how to use it. But this equipment is slowly running out. I think that now there should be MIGs on the table, which we have, and there are about two hundred of them all over Europe. Ukrainian pilots are ready to fly them. This is very important.
The President is lobbying across all divisions. Safety should bring us together. The President has good relations with President Zelensky and has much more knowledge, e.g. about operational materials, than we do as members of the opposition. I keep my fingers crossed for our foreign policy in this matter.
Is Polish politics really strong enough to be able to exert any influence on our allies? Much is being said about the weakening of our international policy in recent years.
The ongoing issue of the National Recovery Plan, the milestones, the failure to deliver on certain agreements is not helping to convince our Western allies. All Prime Ministers of the EU have it in the back of their minds that it is not quite possible to get along with the Law and Justice government. They remember Poland’s relationship with Hungary and President Orban, who is undoubtedly in Putin’s pocket.
It is certainly more difficult for them to change their attitude – they go hand in hand with Poland in terms of security, but there is the issue of the National Recovery Plan, in which the Polish government hopes that something will be given to them. Unfortunately, these are separate cases and it probably makes it difficult to lobby about aid for Ukraine.
Along the way, there was also the topic of war reparations from Germany. This is a very important issue, but is this the right time?
Now, first of all, we should get as much military equipment for Ukraine as possible, so that the troops can hit the aggressor at a greater distance. The Ukrainians don’t expect us to give them soldiers. They say: if you give us the equipment, we will drive Putin out. But there can be no interruptions in supplies, because Putin’s army knows about them.
Meanwhile, the German defence minister says that he is inspecting the equipment, but this does not prove anything yet. Unfortunately, it also does not give consent to countries with Leopards to hand them over to Ukraine. If we get such consent, we load our tanks and take them to Ukraine. Unless we go against the contracts we have signed and deliver them without the approval of the manufacturer.
Is such a solution on the table?
I believe that Minister Mariusz Błaszczak may be considering this. Our relationship with Germany is what it is. But this would be a diplomatic nuclear bomb.
Did your visit to Bakhmut change your perception of the war in any way? Make its scale more apparent? What are your thoughts after that visit?
Less talk – more aid. When you drive through Ukraine, you see a lot of new graves along the way. And at the same time we are still talking. So less talk, more delivery of military and humanitarian aid. Europe can afford it. But there can be no interruptions in these deliveries. If Ukraine loses because of this, we too will responsible for it. During our conversation, probably dozens of people had already been killed in Ukraine.
The interview was conducted by Anna Nicz, [email protected]