'Tired, but still fighting:' Nebraska senator travels to war-torn Ukraine

May 24, 2024, 5 a.m. ·

Senator Tom Brewer with a Ukrainian infantryman
Senator Tom Brewer, right, with a Ukrainian infantryman in a trench (Photo courtesy of Tom Brewer)

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Ukraine citizens are tired but hanging on two and a half years after Russia invaded the country, according to Tom Brewer.

The Nebraska state senator recently made his fourth trip to Ukraine since the invasion in February, 2022. Brewer served 36 years in the Army, including six tours in Afghanistan, where he was seriously wounded and received two Purple Hearts before retiring as a colonel. He said his current trip to Ukraine, as a private citizen, is primarily focused on seeing the situation first-hand and reporting back to those in Congress who are interested. After arriving in Kiev on May 3, Brewer said he went to the embattled city of Kharkiv.

“Of course Kharkiv is where the heart of the fight is right now," he said. "That's the big town in the northeast. That's right on the Russian border that's kind of in the fight of their life just to stay out of Russian control. While we were there many of the attacks that are happening, were happening. As a matter of fact, they had me on the television station there and while we're in the interview, they had the alarm go off and then there was an explosion in the town right after that."

Kharkiv apartment building hit by Russian rocket
A Kharkiv apartment building that had been hit by a Russian rocket. (Photo courtesy of Tom Brewer)

Brewer said that beyond the death and destruction, the war has taken a psychological toll on Ukrainians.

“They're tired. They're wore down," he said. "They’ve been at war for over two and a half years and many of them were there day one and, you know, were fighting when the first invasion happened and have not really had much of a break since then."

When he was there in 2023, Brewer said Ukrainians were optimistic.

“Last year when we were here was when they did the counter offensive," he said. "And the new equipment had arrived and battalions that had been trained in Germany, England, Italy, they had arrived back in country and so they had fresh faces and new equipment and, you know, there was a real belief that they could they could push Russia back."

But it turned out Russia had constructed massive defensive fortifications, and Ukrainians lacked mine-clearing equipment. Nevertheless, they went ahead.

“It was a brutal fight through the summer and they made some progress, but considering the sacrifice of life, it was not worth it,” he said.

"Dragon's teeth" anti-tank barrier, part of Ukranian defenses
A "Dragon's' teeth" anti-tank barrier, part of Ukranian defenses. Tom Brewer said the barrier stetches from Kharkiv to Zaphorizhia, nearly 200 miles. (Photo courtesty of Tom Brewer)

Now the Ukrainians are on the defensive, which Brewer said is easier than being on the offensive. After months of resistance by elements of his own Republican Party in Congress, new shipments of American arms have resumed to the Ukrainians.

“It is a huge morale boost for them," Brewer said. "Don’t ever doubt that. But I guarantee you that there are thousands more crosses in cemeteries across Ukraine because we drug our feet and we didn't give them what they needed."

But still, Ukraine wants more. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for NATO to shoot down Russian missiles over Ukrainian airspace, and for permission to use U.S.-supplied weapons for attacks inside Russia. Brewer agrees, and thinks another change would also help.

“For them to win this war, we need to bring NATO instructors here to train these battalions of men, because they're enlisting through their draft, their conscript system, tens of thousands of men, and they have to take and send them on rails for 30-40 hours to get them all the way across Europe somewhere, to then unload them and then spend months training them and then load them up and bring him back here," Brewer said. "It's killing so much time unnecessarily."

The Biden administration has been reluctant to take those steps for fear of provoking a confrontation between NATO and Russia that could lead to World War III. Brewer acknowledges the risk, but thinks it’s worth it.

Brewer, left, with driver of Ukrainian T 64 tank
Tom Brewer, left, with the driver of Ukrainian T 64 tank. (Photo courtesy of Tom Brewer)

“I understand the administration’s scared to death to bring an American soldier into this country, but it's really a wrongheaded way of looking at things, because they’re soldiers," Brewer said. "They volunteer to go and do hard things in hard places. And training the Ukrainians to get them ready to go to war and letting them stay on their home soil, I think, is the right answer."

Asked how he sees things going from here, Brewer said the Ukrainians should hold onto their territory, dropping back only when necessary. And he added they should concentrate on retaking the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized under orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin 10 years ago.

“If you take back Crimea you win the war, because Putin can't call it a win if he loses the big prize of this whole invasion,” he said.

Brewer is scheduled to return to Nebraska June 1.