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How death of my friend Kirill has brought home the terrible human cost of the Ukraine war two years into the conflict

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A FRIEND of mine was killed last week. Kyrylo Ulman was shot and bled out in the carnage of Ukraine’s retreat from the eastern town of Avdiivka.

His devastated comrades said he helped delay a Russian encirclement, saving countless lives.

Brave Ukrainian fighter Kyrylo Ulman was killed amid Ukraine’s retreat from the eastern town of Avdiivka

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Brave Ukrainian fighter Kyrylo Ulman was killed amid Ukraine’s retreat from the eastern town of AvdiivkaCredit: Chris Eades
The Ukraine War has been costly in terms of human life and financially to all involved

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The Ukraine War has been costly in terms of human life and financially to all involved

But his own body was left behind “in the cauldron” as his brothers-in-arms were unable to recover it as Russia claimed the town as its latest blood-soaked trophy.

I say friend. I had met Kyrylo, 36, who I knew as Kirill, half a dozen times since Putin unleashed his full invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

A businessman before the war, he is one of hundreds of thousands of soldiers slain and maimed on both sides of this bloodbath.

Yet the news of his death was a hammer blow that cut through the mind-numbing blizzard of statistics.

Most of the times I met Kirill we were on the front lines near Bakhmut, before and after it fell to Russia in May last year.

Twice we were in trenches a few hundred metres from Russian positions as artillery thundered all around us and drones buzzed overhead.

Once we had to dive for cover as shells exploded nearby. Kirill laughed, as I caught my breath, and cursed the “f***ing Russians” with a smile.

Moments later, in a lull, we leapt into a 4×4 and roared over quagmire tracks to the sound of Vietnam War anthems White Rabbit, by Jefferson Airplane, and Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix at full volume.

The first time we met was in a yoga studio in Dnipro, a city in central Ukraine, a few days after the full-scale invasion. The studio had been transformed into a military training centre.

Kirill was a volunteer. He was a civilian entrepreneur who ran a successful business, Godzyki Kombucha, making fermented soft drinks.

Russian tanks EXPLODE as Ukrainian forces repel enemy advances

Goofy smile

But he had signed up to fight at the first opportunity and was learning to handle a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

He stood out among his fellow recruits mostly because of the coin- sized earrings that had stretched his ear lobes.

He had a slightly goofy smile and seemed uncomfortable holding a rifle. He did not look like a soldier.

All of that soon changed. The next time I saw him, near Bakhmut, it had become second nature to scour the landscape through his rifle scope.

He moved with the caution and confidence of someone who knew how terrain could save his life. But the goofy smile was the same.

Kyrylo married partner Dasha after signing up to fight in the Ukraine War

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Kyrylo married partner Dasha after signing up to fight in the Ukraine WarCredit: @dsh_pr/Instagram
Kyrylo had never picked up a weapon before Russia invaded his homeland in early 2022

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Kyrylo had never picked up a weapon before Russia invaded his homeland in early 2022Credit: @ulman_k/Instagram

In July he proposed to his girlfriend, Dasha, and in September they were married. Most of the guests at their wedding were Kirill’s fellow soldiers from the 3rd Assault Brigade.

As we pass the second anniversary of Russia’s war on Ukraine, I wonder how many more Kirills will be lost.

In a heartbreaking tribute on Facebook, Dasha hailed her “amazing husband” and backed his decision to take on the Russian invaders.

She wrote: “Farewell, my dear. You are amazing. I will say it out loud every day. I support your choice to defend our country.

If it were not for him and his comrades, the boys would not have been able to evacuate from Avdiivka

Colleagues

“You are an example. You are the shield of your brothers in arms! Thank you for being my family!”

His colleagues at his business said he “died as a hero”.

They added: “If it were not for him and his comrades, the boys would not have been able to evacuate from Avdiivka.

“He helped the boys to get out of the cauldron, but he could not get out himself.”

The first 12 months of this war were marked by Ukraine’s spectacular successes.

President Zelensky refused to flee Kyiv with the immortal line: “I need ammo, not a ride.”

His troops repelled an assault on the capital then forced Russia to make a series of humiliating retreats.

First Putin abandoned his march on Kyiv. Then the Russian front lines collapsed in Kharkiv in the north east, before Moscow surrendered its only positions on the west bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson.

Throughout that winter Ukraine endured and thwarted Moscow’s attempt to destroy its heating and energy infrastructure.

The second year was grimmer. The meat grinder town of Bakhmut — which had become a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance — fell to Russia’s Wagner mercenaries in May.

Then Ukraine’s long-awaited counter-offensive failed to achieve its aims in the summer of punching south to the Sea of Azov.

Even with British Challenger 2 tanks and German-made Leopard 2s, Ukraine was unable to break the so-called Surovikin defensive line of vast minefields, trenches and tank traps.

Ukraine’s most stand-out successes over the past 12 months have been in smashing Russia’s Black Sea fleet with sea drones and Storm Shadow cruise missiles.

At least 15 Russian warships have been destroyed and another five badly damaged, according to the Oryx blog that tracks visually confirmed losses.

Kyrylo fought in the trenches as the Russians encircled Bakhmut in a brutal phase of the war

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Kyrylo fought in the trenches as the Russians encircled Bakhmut in a brutal phase of the warCredit: Chris Eades

That includes the Kilo-class submarine Rostov-on-Don that was hit with a British-supplied missile in September.

The most recent attack, on Valentine’s Day, sank a Ropucha-class landing ship, Caesar Kunikov, in a swarm of exploding sea drones.

Ukraine has also shot down at least five Russian planes this year, including a Beriev A-50 early warning aircraft, worth an estimated £260million, over the Sea of Azov.

You are an example. You are the shield of your brothers in arms! Thank you for being my family!

Dasha

It has also carried out sabotage strikes thousands of miles inside Russia, including at Russia’s longest railway tunnel, cutting a key freight link to China. But the fight on land — on the 600-mile front line carving up Ukrainian territory — has ground almost to a stalemate.

Ukraine’s former armed forces chief, the wildly popular General Valeriy Zaluzhny, warned there was unlikely to be a “deep and beautiful breakthrough”.

Writing in The Economist, he said both sides were in a “stupor”.

He wrote: “The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy is doing and they see everything we are doing.”

If either side moves they get hammered.

He added: “In order for us to break this deadlock we need something new, like the gunpowder which the Chinese invented and which we are still using to kill each other.”

Zaluzhny used Avdiivka, where Kirill was killed, as an example. In one four-hour window, Ukraine destroyed 140 Russian vehicles when they came within range of artillery.

Over the course of a month, Ukraine said Russia lost a staggering 7,000 troops in Avdiivka, 100 tanks and 250 armoured vehicles.

Slogging it out

Yet despite these eye-watering losses, Western officials said they believe Putin remains hell-bent on conquering all of Ukraine.

They added that the tyrant has no “meaningful plan” beyond slogging it out for as long as it takes.

Moscow’s expectation is that “Russian manpower and equipment numbers will eventually tell”.

That is what happened in Bakhmut. And it is what happened in Avdiivka.

By the time Ukraine’s troops retreated from Avdiivka they were outnumbered seven to one, a military spokesman said.

Russia had massed some 15,000 troops to capture what was left of the town.

Overall, Russia’s losses are more than 302,000 soldiers killed and wounded, according to UK government estimates.

And a think tank suggested Moscow had lost more than 3,000 tanks.

Moscow’s reliance on mass — and the Kremlin’s ruthless willingness to let thousands of men get slaughtered — leaves Ukraine facing a dilemma over whether to mobilise up to half a million more troops in the defence of its land.

The surge of volunteers, like Kirill, that bolstered the armed forces has ebbed

The surge of volunteers, like Kirill, that bolstered the armed forces has ebbed.

Professional soldiers who started the war have paid a heavy price in casualties.

Veterans with recent military service have mostly already been mobilised.

Meanwhile, Russia is spending almost 40 per cent of its annual budget on security and defence, ramping up weapons production and buying in ammunition and drones from Iran, North Korea and China.

Experts warn Moscow’s economy is on course to collapse, but in the short term Russian troops have ammo, while Ukraine’s troops say they are running out.

A vital US military aid package, worth $60billion (£53billion) has been blocked for months in Congress by opposition political wrangling.

A €50billion (£42billion) EU package was eventually passed this year, but only after Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban had vetoed it until he got his own concessions from Brussels.

Ukraine is desperately trying to ramp up domestic arms production but without the help of its allies Zelensky warned last week that “Russia will destroy us”.

Western officials have warned there is unlikely to be any battlefield breakthroughs. There are no miracle weapons to break the deadlock on the battlefield.

So the war seems likely to drag on. It is a battle of attrition and the winner will be the side with the most endurance and resources.

Ukraine’s greatest threat remains the resolve of its Nato allies.
In the meantime, the war takes a terrible toll.

And brave men and women, like my friend Kirill, will continue to pay the ultimate price.

The Avdiivka battlefield where Kyrylo lost his life also left many soldiers wounded

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The Avdiivka battlefield where Kyrylo lost his life also left many soldiers woundedCredit: Getty
Russian airstrikes in Avdiivka left Ukrainians batting for survival as the death toll increased

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Russian airstrikes in Avdiivka left Ukrainians batting for survival as the death toll increasedCredit: AP
Medics worked tirelessly to try and treat the wounded in makeshift shelters

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Medics worked tirelessly to try and treat the wounded in makeshift sheltersCredit: Reuters

Thank you

WHEN the war broke, Sun readers donated in their droves to our Ukraine Fund for the Red Cross.

Two years on, British Red Cross chief executive Beatrice Butsana-Sita met some of the people the money has helped, including Iryna.

Beatrice said: “Iryna, her husband and two children watched in horror as their home burned to the ground.

“Then Iryna’s husband was called to the front lines, and she was left homeless and jobless with two kids.

“Eventually, she moved into a Red Cross settlement. I will never forget her voice as she told me how grateful she was to all who donated, for giving her and her children somewhere safe and warm to live.”

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