Nebraska senator says Ukrainians can win the war, but it will take time

State Sen. Tom Brewer makes his third trip to the war-torn country, spends more time at the front to see how U.S. aid is working

By: - July 11, 2023 5:45 am
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Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer, a retired military veteran, visited the war front in Ukraine recently where a cannon fired off laser-guided rounds at Russian positions. (Courtesy of Noah Philson)

LINCOLN — State Sen. Tom Brewer, after his third trip to the battlefield in Ukraine, says the Ukrainians can win, but “it’s going to take them a while.”

“Now they walk with a lot more swagger,” Brewer said.

They believe they can win because they think they’re in a much better position, whether it be their passion to win, their morale, their knowledge, their equipment … all of that is working to their advantage,” he said.

“That wasn’t true a year ago — a year ago they didn’t know if they would survive as a country.”

‘Medieval’ battlefield

The decorated U.S. Army veteran, who was wounded twice during deployments to Afghanistan, spoke on Friday, less than a week after returning from a trip to Ukraine.

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Brewer described the area around the embattled city of Bakhmut as “medieval” due to its forests of artillery-shredded trees. (Courtesy of Noah Philson)

The trip included visits with Ukrainian military leaders in Kyiv, a few days near the Zaporizhia nuclear complex, and a precarious stop in the trenches near the war-torn city of Bahkmut.

“The place is just medieval,” the 64-year-old senator said.

Trees have been shredded into leafless trunks by months of artillery and rifle fire; dozens, maybe hundreds, of bodies of Russians remain unclaimed on the no-man’s land between the Ukrainian and Russian fronts.

Brewer said his first two trips, in June and November of 2022, were mostly for church and humanitarian reasons, delivering aid to citizens still living in the war zone, giving E-Bibles and support to wounded soldiers and talking to the Ukrainian officials he could.

This trip, he said, mainly focused on visits to the front, where they slept in basements as refuge from the thud of artillery fire.

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Brewer, third from left, said that few Americans visit the front, so when Ukrainian soldiers see one, they are eager to embrace and thank Americans for their aid in fighting the war. (Courtesy of Noah Philson)

As he’s said before, it’s important that an American visits the battlefield — so Ukrainian soldiers can see and thank someone from the U.S. for their help — but it’s also important to discover if the billions in dollars of American aid and military goods are being used and used properly.

“A lot of the time forward, it’s just understanding what’s going on,” Brewer said. “How is the American taxpayer dollar being used?”

Once he gets settled, he said, he will prepare what the military calls a “trip report,” which — as in the past — he will share with Nebraska’s congressional delegation and other federal officials.

“You must get pretty close to understand what’s going on and see what’s effective,” Brewer said. “But you also don’t want to get so close that you get blown up.”

‘Pretty hairy’

“I think we walked that tightrope probably as close as you want to,” he added. “There were days that were pretty hairy.”

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The battlefield in the war in Ukraine. (Courtesy of Noah Philson)

He traveled with a friend, Noah Philson of Elmwood, as well as a Lincoln television reporter, John Grinvalds, and a Ukrainian driver/interpreter he didn’t want to identify for fear of reprisals against his family.

Last year, the Ukrainians were fighting mostly with old Russian equipment, but now they’re using modern German tanks, state-of-the-art American artillery and longer-range missiles — better equipment than the Russians use.

He said the delivery of U.S. “cluster bombs” — which are banned by many countries — and longer-range rockets are “game changers” that will help the Ukrainians break through the trench- and mine-infested lines built up by the Russians, and disrupt supply lines and ammunition deliveries.

Brewer dismissed criticism of the cluster bombs, saying that it was “different” because the Ukrainians were using them on their own land and will be responsible for cleaning up any unexploded ordnance that might threaten Ukrainian civilians. Plus, he said, Russia has been using its own cluster bombs, and he said the Russian bombs’ failure rate is much higher than U.S. bombs, 20% compared to about 4%.

‘A drone war’

Brewer was at the front for the firing of M777 howitzer cannon that can launch an artillery shell guided to a target by a drone, which “paints” a target with a laser beam. He showed a reporter a video of the shell striking a Russian ammunition dump, sending trails of sparks flying in all directions.

“This is a drone war,” he said, with drones hitting targets, guiding missile strikes and providing real-time observation of the battlefield.

The American military, he said, may later regret not having observers in Ukraine to learn what they are about drone warfare.

Among their stops was the flooded city of Kherson, inundated when the Russians blew up a huge dam spanning the Dnipro River.

The inundated streets, Brewer said, reminded him of his deployment to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit with one difference: The Russians continued to shell Kherson even as rescue teams sought to evacuate flood victims.

“It just seems to be about as cruel as you could get,” he said.

Now, Brewer said, the big worry is whether the Russians will do something else considered unthinkable: blowing up the nuclear reactors at Zaporizhzhia.

The word is that the Russians have rigged the plant with explosives, he said. If the six nuclear reactors at Zaporizhzhia blew up there — compared to only one at Chernobyl — it could create a radioactive nightmare that could spread to nearby countries, Brewer said.

What if nuclear plant is blown up?

“If we start having countries in NATO being affected by the actions of the Russians, is that considered an attack on a NATO country?” he asked.

And what if Russia resorts to using tactical nuclear weapons, Brewer added. How will NATO respond? How will the United States?

“There’s a lot of really big issues that need to be addressed,” he said.

State Sen. Tom Brewer
State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Brewer said while the Ukrainian offensive hasn’t advanced as quickly and as far as initially anticipated, it is progressing. The Ukrainians can’t afford to lose as many soldiers as the Russians, so, he said, they are advancing judiciously, probing for weaknesses in the Russian front.

America, and Europe, should stay the course, according to Brewer.

“They’re going to survive as a country,” he said. “The question is will they be forced into some kind of a truce and have give up a good share of their country, or can they take back their territory?”

Brewer said he doesn’t see the Ukrainians giving up until they recapture all the land taken by Russia.

“We are giving a lot of treasure, but not blood — in Afghanistan we gave both blood and treasure — to see them maintain a democracy, and they’re fighting like tigers to keep it.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

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