Editor’s note: Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks, reporter Katie McKellar and photojournalist Scott Winterton are traveling with Utah’s trade and humanitarian delegation to Ukraine. This is the first in a series of reports.

War hangs in the air. 

It’s apparent the very moment you cross the Poland-Ukraine border. At first you don’t see it, but you feel it. 

The same vast, green rolling hills that stretch across Poland extend into Ukraine. Herds of cows lounge in the sun. Scarf-wearing farmers plow their fields by hand. Tractors and the occasional horse-drawn cart dot the landscape. Packs of children walk village roads. Stone cottages line the main highway headed into Lviv, the largest city in the country’s west. 

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These were all peaceful, normal scenes that flashed from the windows of a 50-foot bus zooming down that highway on its way to its first Ukrainian stop, in Khmelnytskyi, some five hours away from the Hrebenne border crossing. 

But peace or normalcy weren’t on its occupants’ minds.

Inside the bus, the mood shifts from anticipation to somber complexities. Some members of the 30-person delegation from Utah had crossed into a war zone before, and they were eager to return to the close friendships they’ve formed. But for others, it was a first. 

In fact, when the group arrived on Tuesday in Kyiv, it marked the first ever state-led delegation to Ukraine’s capital city since hostilities broke out. 

“Welcome to Ukraine,” said Svitlana Miller, founder of the Idaho-based nonprofit To Ukraine With Love. She grew up in Kyiv, but moved to the U.S. for her education. In Utah, she attended Brigham Young University, met her husband and ended up settling in Idaho. Then war hit and she launched her nonprofit, which has fielded millions of dollars in donations from Utah. Now, it’s her seventh trip back to the war-torn country since Russia escalated its conflict with Ukraine with a full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.

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The remains of a building that was hit and destroyed by a rocket sits empty in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Scenes from Ukraine

As the bus approaches Lviv, evidence of war pops into view. 

“Look,” said Nancy Cadjan, donor donations director for To Ukraine With Love, pointing out the window.

Heaps of sandbags and, in some cases, stacked tires, form military defensive outposts along parts of the highway. Tank barriers made of rusty pipes and barbed wire sit on standby. 

Though Lviv hasn’t seen on-the-ground military conflict, areas around the city have been hit by at least three Russian missile strikes. While this grim reality is not lost on Ukrainians living here, they’re also doing their best to carry on with their lives. They drive by these military posts every day while commuting to work and filling their cars at gas stations. Farmers keep farming. Life goes on. 

As the bus crossed into Ukraine, Cadjan almost broke into tears. In her work for To Ukraine With Love, she coordinates projects from afar with Ukrainian colleagues, and it’s her first time visiting the country.

“I can just feel it ... the suffering,” she said over the low hum of the bus’s engine. “It’s almost like an entire nation crying.”

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Toward the front of the bus sits Bruce Roberts, a retired veteran who founded Utah-based nonprofit August Mission. It’s not his first rodeo. This is his fourth time to Ukraine. 

Though Miller and Roberts founded different groups, their mission is similar at heart: bring humanitarian aid to as many of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians that are now homeless and trying to survive. 

For To Ukraine With Love these days, it’s housing displaced Ukrainians from stricken areas like Bucha and Irpin. At least four homes will be turned over to new owners this week. For August Mission, it’s going the “last mile” to help those most in need. That’s taken many forms, including bringing generators to help hospitals full of injured soldiers, keeping power on during rolling blackouts, or delivering millions of dollars worth of medical supplies to desperate doctors. 

This time, Roberts and Miller are with a larger group, with sights set on an even bigger mission. 

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and others talk during a bus ride to Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, on Monday, May 1, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Why Utah delegation is in Ukraine

The delegation is led by Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and made up of other state officials including Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan (along with his wife, Aliona, who is Ukrainian); Craig Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food; officials with World Trade Center Utah; and business leaders from a variety of sectors. 

The delegation goals are threefold, according to World Trade Center Utah:

  1. Foster a deeper relationship with Ukraine during its darkest time of need. 
  2. Provide ground support in partnership with August Mission.
  3. Explore business opportunities in aerospace and defense, technology and agricultural sectors.

Adams put it this way to government officials in Kyiv: Provide humanitarian aid, offer Utah’s assistance in establishing a sustainable economy both during and after the war, and providing other support Ukrainians believe they need to win the war.

The idea behind the delegation started with Roberts, who first pondered whether any businesses would entertain visiting Ukraine and reached out to World Trade Center Utah, headed by President and CEO Miles Hansen. 

“Originally we thought we’d find just a handful of businesses that would be willing to go to Ukraine right now,” Roberts told the Deseret News. But then it “snowballed into something much bigger.” 

“My goal was to light a match, drop it on the fire and watch it grow,” Roberts said. 

As of midweek, already with a full slate of meetings with Ukrainian government officials in both Khmelnytskyi and Kyiv under their belt and with many more to come, he was hopeful that fire had indeed been lit. 

On Tuesday, some members of the delegation met with Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who thanked them for their efforts and offered advice. The discussion centered around why Americans, including Utahns, have a personal interest in seeing Ukraine win this war. 

“Fundamentally, we are here to try to stop (Russian President Vladimir) Putin from changing borders by force in Europe,” Brink said. “We believe to do so opens up a Pandora’s box of instability over the world. As (President Joe) Biden has made very clear, our support is to help Ukraine prevail on the battlefield, to assure its sovereignty and to make sure it can choose its own future.” 

From the onset of the trip, Utah’s Senate president was optimistic and eager.

Sunday morning, fresh off a nine-hour flight from Salt Lake City to Amsterdam and a two-hour flight to Warsaw, Adams seemed unfazed, even though he faced another three hours by bus before the delegation would rest for the night in Zamość, Poland, the night before the border crossing. 

“It’s about helping, no question about it,” Adams told the Deseret News during a brisk walk through the Warsaw airport. “If we, Utah or the United States, were in the same situation (as Ukraine), we’d want our friends to help us. So this mission is about understanding what we can do to help.” 

That help can come in a multitude of different forms, he said, from building upon earlier humanitarian efforts that came swiftly in the early days of the Russian invasion, to perhaps longer-term partnerships to help Ukraine not only rebuild, but flourish if or when it wins.

“We’re all hopeful,” Adams said. “We’re all hopeful that life will somehow get back to normal, and if it does, I have an obligation and a desire … to open up the dialogue (with Ukraine) early on so they have the highest and best ability of maintaining economic stability after the war. We want to let them know who we are, where their friends are, and how they might be able to take advantage of economic opportunities in Utah and vice versa.” 

“We don’t have to wait for the war to end to do that,” Adams said. “Because by then the start-up time may cost them significantly.” 

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, pauses to look at the hundreds of photos of soldiers killed in conflicts of war at a memorial in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, on Monday, May 1, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Ukraine: Alone on the battlefield

In Khmelnytskyi on Monday, the delegation’s first day in Ukraine, Utah’s Senate president and other members of the delegation were greeted by regional public officials including Violetta Labazuik, head of the Khmelnytskyi Regional Council, who visited Utah in August of last year.

Together, Adams and Labazuik, along with entrepreneur Owen Fuller, CEO of Marq, and other members of the delegation, placed yellow and blue flowers at a monument honoring fallen Ukrainian soldiers.

“I’ve been very impressed by the patriotism and the bravery of the citizens of Ukraine, to protect their homeland,” Adams told Labazuik.

“It’s as simple as it is. We are just standing for the land that belongs to the people of this country. ... We are doing this for a free and independent Ukraine, and for our children, for our future,” Labazuik said to Adams through a translator.

“It may be simple, but you are an example to the rest of the world. The bravery and the commitment you’ve made is a beacon for the rest of the world,” Adams said.

Ukraine’s unity against Russia, Labazuik said, shows “its will for freedom.” Adams said it reminds him of the U.S.’s own history.

“We have a saying in Ukraine, that a lone soldier in the field is not a proper warrior,” Labazuik said, adding that with “your support, the support of the whole world,” Ukraine will be liberated and free.

“You are not alone. Utah and America is with you,” Adams said.

“Yes, but no,” Labazuik said, smiling and laughing.

Though the rebuke was good natured, it was a reference to the fact that Ukrainians alone have been fighting the Russians, even though the U.S. and other countries across the world have sent billions in assistance other than troops. To date, the U.S. has committed more than $35 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, including millions of tank and artillery rounds, tens of thousands of antitank weapons, and air defense systems.

Labazuik and other Ukrainian officials repeatedly expressed appreciation for the aid the U.S. and other countries have sent for their fight, but told the delegation it’s important “not only, first of all, for Ukrainian people and to the whole world not to start getting used to this, and not to start perceiving Ukraine as a fighting country in this unproclaimed war.”

A woman talks on her phone as she gently caresses a photo of one of the thousands of soldiers lost in battle with Russia over many years of conflict in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Biden has said the U.S. will back Ukraine as long as it takes, but he’s opposed sending U.S. forces into Ukraine due to a war-wary Washington, as well as concerns about Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Though Ukraine has received billions in military aid and other support from NATO, it is not a member of the alliance. While NATO members agree Ukraine cannot become part of the alliance right now, some members are pushing for the alliance to give Kyiv at least a symbolic gesture that it’s progressing toward membership, Politico reported.

Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to fight on the battlefield.

“Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO,” said the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking alongside Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a press conference in Kyiv last month, “and over time, our support will help you make this possible.”

During its meeting on Monday, the Utah delegation and exchanged a multitude of gifts with Labazuik, focusing on messages of friendship and applause for the resilience and patriotism of Ukrainians. The connections now run deep as the region is home base for August Mission, with a warehouse and staff working daily to meet the needs of those who have fled the war torn area.

Tuesday in Khmelnytskyi, more than 350 residents lined up outside the spacious community theater to wait their turn for donated clothes, toiletries or, in some cases, mattresses bearing the name Malouf, the Utah-based company that has donated 18,000 mattresses at a cost of $1.7 million with plans to donate 6,000 more. Jonathan Freedman, who has served as Honorary Consul of Ukraine in Utah since 2008, also represents Malouf’s efforts here.

Monday evening, during a dinner hosted by Labazuik for the delegation, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also offered words of support to Ukraine through a prerecorded message ahead of the delegation’s travels. He said Utahns are “determined to help you win, to support you in rebuilding your country, and to enjoy our deepest ties even more in the years of peace beyond this awful and unjust war.”

“These are leaders who can get beyond surface level conversations to actually do the work that will make a difference in the lives of the people of both Utah and Ukraine,” Cox said. “One of the best ways we know we can lift each other up is to find ways to build enduring businesses together.”

“While today we come to help because you’re under attack,” Cox continued, “we know we have so much to learn from you. We are honored to be associated with you, and please know that in Utah we will continue to stand with Ukraine.”

Among the delegation are representatives of Utah’s defense industry, discussing innovative technologies, including mine-sweeping to clear the farmland that is riddled with mines. The full agenda for the delegation with Ukrainian officials included meetings with the Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food, Ministry of Infrastructure and UZ Railways, and the Ministry of Defense.

A woman cries during the funeral of Sofia Shulha, 11, and Pysarev Kiriusha, 17, in Uman, central Ukraine, Sunday, April 30, 2023. Shulha and Kiriusha were killed during a Russian attack on a residential building early Friday morning. | Bernat Armangue, Associated Press

What’s happening with the Ukraine-Russia war?

Utah’s delegation to Ukraine comes at what could be a turning point for the Russo-Ukrainian war. As Ukraine reportedly gears up for a much-anticipated counteroffensive, Kyiv’s front lines have been buzzing with vehicle movement and artillery strikes, with explosions regularly hitting Russian targets in occupied areas. 

Missiles have been hitting Ukraine, too. On Friday, the day before the Utah delegation’s departure, national headlines were splashed with reports that Russia struck Ukraine with its biggest barrage of missiles in weeks, killing at least 25. The deadliest strike was a missile that hit a nine-story apartment building in the city of Uman. 

That morning at around 4 a.m., alarms blared across Ukraine ahead of the attacks. In Kyiv, explosions could be heard in the sky as local officials said 11 cruise missiles and two drones had been shot down over the region. Debris from one rocket rained down on an apartment in Ukrainka, about 25 miles south of the capital of Kyiv, injuring a 13-year-old girl.

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It was an escalation of hostilities that stretched beyond the front lines, a bombardment terror tactic to keep civilians throughout the country in a state of unrest.

Five days later, on Wednesday, Russia claimed Ukraine tried to assassinate Putin with a drone strike on the Kremlin overnight — an allegation that was met with forceful denials out of Kyiv and skepticism of Putin’s claims by U.S. officials. Nevertheless, it was a topic of conversation and clearly on the minds of attendees of a reception of business leaders and the Utah delegation in coordination with the American Chamber of Commerce here Wednesday evening.

“As President (Volodymyr) Zelensky has stated numerous times before, Ukraine uses all means at its disposal to free its own territory, not to attack others,” the Ukrainian presidential spokesman, Sergiy Nykyforov, told CNN on Wednesday, calling it a “trick to be expected from our opponents.” 

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak also denied Kyiv had any involvement, CNN reported, saying it would make no sense for Ukraine to have carried out the alleged strike. He said Moscow is attempting to control the narrative and create distractions ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. “So, Russian statements on such staged operations need to be taken as an attempt to create pretext for a large-scale terrorist attack in Ukraine.” 

Contributing: Doug Wilks

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