A communications entrepreneur and North Sydney councillor, James Spenceley is now working on the front line in Ukraine to deliver crowdfunded ambulances and evacuation buses. By Charles McPhedran.

The Sydney councillor on a mission in Ukraine

James Spenceley in Ukraine.
James Spenceley in Ukraine.
Credit: Charles McPhedran

It’s 1am in Zaporizhzhia and the air-raid siren at our hotel sounds again. We are just 60 kilometres from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. In recent weeks, the facility, now controlled by Russia, has been constantly shelled. A United Nations report issued on Tuesday said the UN had observed Russian military trucks in the reactor’s turbine halls.

Russian leaders have repeatedly warned of “another Chernobyl”. The Ukrainian government has called Russia’s actions “nuclear blackmail”.

Zaporizhzhia feels nearly deserted. Half the shops are closed. On the radio an emergency message to Russian soldiers plays between ads for groceries. The message tells them to give up their weapons and surrender.

As fear of a disaster at the plant increases, the local government has started distributing iodine tablets to residents. At the railway station, refugees with bags slung over their shoulders and caged cats in their arms file into the terminal.

As the siren wails, I hide in the sealed bathroom of our high-rise hotel – in case the blast from an incoming cruise missile smashes the window of my room. Two doors down from me is the Australian entrepreneur and North Sydney councillor, James Spenceley. When I ask him in the morning what he did during the alert, he tells me he was remotely attending a board meeting in Australia.

“They really don’t know what I am up to,” he says. “It’s just too far from anything they have experienced in their lives. Maybe I’ll tell them sometime.”

Spenceley is 45 years old, ebullient by nature and built like a former rugby league forward. He is living in two worlds at once. In one, he drops his seven-year-old daughter, Siena, and 11-year-old son, Roma, at school, and banters with his Ukrainian wife, Vika, in Russian, before returning to his home in Cremorne to read company accounts. In the second, he delivers ambulances to front-line medical units in Ukraine, travelling to some of the most dangerous cities in the country – such as Mykolaiv and Kramatorsk. He has been on three missions, delivering 10 ambulances and two evacuation buses since May.

The trips have not been without their moments. One of Spenceley’s on-the-scene updates, made for crowdfunding supporters, was interrupted by an incoming missile. “It’s a beautiful morning in Mykolaiv, very quiet – blyat,” he says in the clip, using a Russian expletive. His phone shakes as an explosion goes off close by. Mykolaiv’s centre is being bombed up to once an hour right now.

A week before we met, Spenceley and a friend found a missile in the road outside their hotel. Rebellious Russian soldiers had removed the detonator and scrawled “Forgive us! It’s the least we could do” on its tip.

His trips to the front line in southern Ukraine have a personal significance for Spenceley. Vika’s parents are trapped in Russian-occupied territory.

“[My mother-in-law] rang me one day and told me she had been at the [village] store, and that there was a tank parked outside,” Spenceley tells me. “I asked her whether it was Ukrainian or Russian. She said she preferred not to ask questions.”

When we visit a car park in front of a massive shopping mall, full of people who have just escaped occupied areas not far from where his in-laws live, I see tears in Spenceley’s eyes.

The refugees here have spent seven days at a nearby checkpoint. Their legs are burnt by the summer sun – and they look ragged with exhaustion. The final Russian control point is right in the middle of the front line. People can hear the shells hitting the ground on both sides of the narrow road they pass along.

“What stays with me are the emotions from the people I speak to,” Spenceley says later as we leave the site. “It’s the real reason why I do this volunteering.”

One of those who recently passed through the makeshift processing centre in that supermarket car park is a friend of a family whose name and location are being withheld for security reasons. She is an administrator in a nearby provincial city the size of Cairns, now under occupation.

Officials who chose not to collaborate were hunted by the Russian secret services. For weeks, the city’s councillors changed where they slept every few nights. Now, six months after the occupation began, many have managed to escape. A couple of them made it out via a bridge that was blown up moments later. They tell us this story over dinner.

It’s a long way from North Sydney Council, Spenceley says, with its debates over “how high [development-approved] buildings should be or what types of waste we should collect”.

Spenceley, who was raised in Belrose, on the edge of Sydney’s northern beaches, entered politics after parting with the firm that made him a fortune, Vocus Group (formerly Vocus Communications), the business fixed-line provider. It grew from a handful of employees in 2007 – when he returned from three years in Ukraine and sold his home to fund its founding – to a giant corporation with more than 1000 staff by the time the business was acquired by Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets (MIRA) and superannuation fund Aware Super last year.

Today he combines politics, board work and the charity missions to Ukraine. The latter are far more challenging than anything he has encountered in his life so far, he tells me. “Because every decision you make here, no matter how small, is absolutely critical.”

Spenceley admits that the confidence he exudes throughout the journeys derives from a mixture of mathematical calculation – he reckons he has only a slight chance of being hit while driving – and insouciance about his own safety.

“You have to be prepared to die,” he says to me, matter-of-factly, as we drive into the perilous Donbas region.

Moments later, our ambulance delivery mission runs into a problem. The gearbox of one of the vehicles – driven from England – conks out. We park on the edge of a sunflower-filled minefield. Spenceley and his 20-something Polish mates – drivers whose henna tattoos and bright-coloured T-shirts remind me of Bali backpackers – google how to repair an engine. Every time they try to restart it, the ambulance slips further towards where the mines have been laid. Things look utterly hopeless.

After frantic phone calls to friends of friends, a pick-up truck eventually arrives from a nearby repair shop. Spenceley, now seated behind the wheel of the ambulance, gingerly manoeuvres it onto the truck’s rusty platform.

In no time, we are headed towards the crumbling industrial city of Dnipro to deliver our final ambulance of the trip – to a city medical unit attached to an elite military unit.

A rocket has just hit their front-line post in the east, killing two paramedics. Their spokesman, Flag, shows us videos of twisted ambulances and his dead medics. His unit has been down to just one vehicle per thousand men after the health workers were targeted. They are serving in one of the most notorious towns on the front.

As Spenceley eats pizza with his team afterwards on the river, a group of tipsy diners approach the group to ask the men where they are from and what they are doing. When they hear they have been delivering ambulances to the front lines, tears begin to run down the faces of the people. They, too, have just spent a week under the sun and the shelling south of Zaporizhzhia, before passing through the refugee processing centre late at night. Slurring their words, they thank Spenceley, mantra-like. “And I had to hold myself back from crying with them,” he tells me later.

Soon, the businessman turned local politician will return home – to anxious Vika and North Sydney Council, with its developer squabbles and heritage-listing applications. And to a country which, he says, occasionally prefers to pretend this war does not exist.

“I asked the teachers at my children’s school whether they’d ask them to draw pictures for their classmates near the front line,” he tells me, his mouth curling slightly downwards. “And they wouldn’t. Because a lot of parents haven’t even told their kids that the war is happening.”

That’s impossible for Spenceley, who has spent months in the midst of it. Instead, he says, he tells his children everything: “I say to them it is not like it seems on the television. Yes, there is so much destruction. But there are also thousands upon thousands of good people helping – trying to stop what just one bad man started.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Ukraine mission".

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