John Marshall graduate Oleh Ladan on war in native Ukraine: 'I get angry and want to do more'
Former Rochesterite joined the fight against Ukraine's destruction, says war would end with more support from allies.
ROCHESTER — Oleh Ladan was on a flight from Minnesota to London last February when Vladmir Putin authorized his “special military operation” against Ukraine.
Quickly, Ladan changed his plans. After wrapping up his business affairs in London, Ladan flew to Warsaw and then crossed the border into Ukraine.
At the time, he was a lone person stepping into Ukraine even as a miles-long train of refugees were fleeing that country. It was an eerie, frightening experience.
For the first several months, Ladan, a Ukrainian native who graduated from John Marshall High School and attended Rochester Community and Technical College, served in a Ukrainian volunteer battalion . He was stationed near Kyiv as the Russian invasion stalled outside the capital and was later repulsed.
Ladan is the older brother of Igor Vovkovinskiy , who was known as the tallest living person in the world and moved to Rochester in 1989 to be treated at Mayo Clinic. Vovkovinskiy passed away on Aug. 20, 2021. Ladan was born near Odesa, a Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea.
After completing his military contract last summer, Ladan began volunteering his time, using his knowledge in moving goods, to help supply the Ukraine army with everything from bullet-proof vests and helmets to vehicles and reconnaissance drones.
Having spent seven months in Ukraine on three different trips, Ladan has seen the jarring incongruity of war. Ladan rents a 14th-floor apartment in Kyiv, where war weariness has set in, and where it can almost seem like there is no war going on, until the Russians attack the city with their missiles and drones.
The attacks on civilian infrastructure are meant to demoralize the people, to weaken their will to carry on the fight, but all it does is strengthen the resistance, Ladan said.
“I just get angry and want to do more,” Ladan said during a video conference from his Blaine, Minnesota, headquarters where he owns a business, SkladUSA, an overseas shipping company. He plans to return to Ukraine within the next week. “As they come out of the bomb shelters, they’re donating on their phones, to get more stuff (to the army).”
Ladan, 46, has driven through fields littered with burned-out machines, wrecked tanks and dead Russian soldiers.
“Basically, the army (Russian had) in the beginning of the war is gone. That’s why they did the mobilization. Putin doesn’t care how much. … Human lives do not matter,” Ladan said.
At the city of Bakhmut, a strategically important city in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, fierce fighting is taking place as Russia seeks to score a rare military victory. During a visit to Bakhmut, Ladan was shown drone footage by commanders there. He said the scale of the Russian death toll, as reflected in the footage he saw, was “unreal.”
“The guys we help — they show us. The fields are filled with (bodies). (The Russians are) not even picking them up,” said Ladan, who said many of the dead were mostly ex-prisoners in the Wagner Group, a private Russian military organization.
Yet even in Bakhmut, many families have refused to leave. Kids are hiding in basements. All this even though the city was largely destroyed when he was there two months ago.
“(The big apartment buildings) are not livable, because most of them are ruined from tank and artillery fire or bombs. But there’s still people living there, and they are not leaving,” Ladan said.
Last year, the Pentagon’s top general, Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, estimated that more than 100,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or injured and “probably” an equivalent number of Ukrainian soldiers.
As many as 30 million have been forced to flee their homes, he said. The killing and suffering goes on.
Ladan has visited war-damaged cities in Ukraine he once knew as vacation or recreation spots before the war began. In Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, where he used to go with friends to watch the national soccer team, “half the city is pretty much gone.” Bombs have split apart apartment buildings. City streets are largely empty of people.
Ladan didn’t tell his mother or wife when he took his detour and headed to Ukraine instead of back to Minnesota to serve in Ukraine’s volunteer battalion.
“It’s not like you would have to ask permission,” Ladan said. “Everybody who knows me understands: There was no other choice.”
When asked how the war is going, Ladan said the support Ukraine has received from the U.S. and other allies has been appreciated and made a difference, but now it’s “trickled in very slowly.” It’s not clear to him why allies are reluctant to give Ukraine “attacking-type of weapons” like tanks and planes.
The U.S. supplied weapon systems such as the HIMARS multiple launchers have been game-changers. Imagine what would happen if Ukraine had more of them? It would end the war, Ladan said.
“It just kind of seems as if the coalition is not trying to help win the war,” he said. “The U.S. military has seen what Ukraine can do with technology weapons. We get a couple hundred tanks and 50 to 70 HIMARs, and the war is over,” he said.
Ladan said the costs of rebuilding Ukraine will run into the hundreds of billion dollars, if not a trillion dollars. The cost will only grow as the war goes on.
Ladan thinks the West is worried about what happens to Russia if Ukraine wins and Russia falls apart. What happens to Russia’s stockpile of nuclear weapons at that point?
“They’re held all over the Russian federation. My guess is that has something to do with it,” he said.
Russia is trying to seize Bakhmut and turn the tide of the war, because it is worried that a re-supplied Ukrainian army will have a decisive advantage.
Ladan said the war is a conflict about two opposing ideas: Ukraine wants to be a part of the West while Russia doesn’t recognize Ukraine’s aspirations and believes the country belongs to Russia.
Most Ukrainian families have relatives in Russia. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union for decades before its demise, when Ukraine became an independent state in 1991. For decades, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin sought to suppress Ukrainian language and culture. It created man-made famines that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s.
The Ukrainian people are a “land people” who believe in free enterprise and resist the idea of being collectivised or being brought under the thumb of another country.
“We have our own culture. We have our own language,” Ladan said. “(Putin) says we’re brothers. There’s nothing wrong with being neighbors. But we’re not brothers.”