Supplying freedom in Ukraine
There’s an old saying in military affairs: Amateurs talk tactics, while professionals talk logistics. If so, then the truly hardcore pros talk about boots. After all, infantry can’t “ground-pound” without sturdy footwear.
Meet Jonas Ohman, head of Blue/Yellow, an NGO, based in Lithuania, that has been aiding Ukraine since 2014. Ohman was born in Sweden, but settled in Lithuania, where he was struck by the contrast: “In Sweden, we’ve had two centuries of peace and freedom, and yet nearby, it’s been war and tyranny. So I wanted to help.”
The catalytic moment came in 2014, when Russia invaded the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Actually, that invasion was more like an occupation — or just a simple moving in — as the Ukrainian defense was so inept and half-hearted that a province with a population of 2.4 million changed hands with a mere three fatalities.
The problem for Ukraine, as Ohman saw it, was that its ability to defend itself was crippled by the persistence of Soviet-style fatalism, regional jealousies, and gangster levels of corruption. In such a murky environment, the central government simply was not capable of distributing needed military supplies. So Ohman established Blue/Yellow to help: Over the eight years of Russian-instigated “sitzkrieg” in the eastern part of Ukraine, as well as the last three months of Russia’s attempted blitzkrieg. “We go straight to the front lines,” Ohman says, “just like Amazon.”
In fact, there’s a long tradition of private support for a war effort. Here in the U.S., for example, the frigate Essex was commissioned into the Navy in 1799, having been paid for by a subscription of the people of Essex County, Mass. During the U.S. Civil War, Clara Barton led a private volunteer effort that ultimately grew, of course, into the American Red Cross. And during World War One, the American Field Service began as pro bono ambulance drivers, aiding the French and British military, even while the U.S. itself was still neutral in the conflict.
Blue/Yellow focuses on the non-“glamorous” essentials of warfare, including protective equipment, medical supplies — and boots. Although Ohman adds with a wry smile: “The Ukrainians have shown you can do a lot with a regular commercial drone.”
At a recent meeting at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., I asked Ohman how he manages all these supply-chain issues. He answered by pulling out his iPhone: “This is the greatest weapon.” He showed me how he uses it to receive and process requests — I can see PDFs and spreadsheets, typed out in Ukrainian, listing needs and orders-in-process.
Ohman’s phone also includes myriad photos of him with Ukrainian troops in full battle rattle.
Ukrainian soldiers are fighting infinitely better in 2022 than they did in 2014 — nothing like a humiliating loss to spur a nation onto the path, these past eight years, of reform. Ohman carries in his pocket an orange-and-black Ribbon of St. George, carried by many Russian soldiers into harm’s way; this one features a bloodstain. Says Ohman of the ribbon’s former owner: “He doesn’t need it anymore.” No doubt Blue/Yellow and other similar NGO’s deserve their share of credit for what has proven to be, for Volodymyr Zelensky and 41 million Ukrainians, Ukraine’s finest hour.
Indeed, it’s now possible to glimpse the prospect of Ukraine winning the war against its Russian tormentor. However, a single Russian defeat — no matter how signal — might not be enough to guarantee Ukraine’s security. After all, the Russian bear has lost many battles, and yet still won many wars.
So, what should American policy be, going forward? Here, Ohman shifted from in-the-dirt logistician to big-picture Clausewitzian: “What are U.S. objectives?” he asked. Are they to simply push Russia back, or to truly guarantee Ukrainian security? “Just as important as knowing who’s your enemy is knowing who’s your friend.”
And so, the U.S. will have to sort out these matters — everything from the continuation of sanctions on Russia to Ukraine’s potential membership in some sort of new security system — alongside the United Kingdom, the European Union, and other interested parties.
Of course, the fighting in Ukraine is far from over, and the outcome is hardly assured. And, in the meantime, Ohman goes about his work, doing his bit to supply the warriors on the ramparts of freedom and civilization.
James P. Pinkerton served as a domestic policy aide in the White Houses of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
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