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Ukraine army captain who gave his medal to Biden says war with Russia "would be very different" without U.S. help

Gift of gratitude from Ukrainian frontline
Ukrainian captain exchanges gifts of gratitude with President Biden 02:51

Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine — The week before Christmas, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived unannounced in the eastern town of Bakhmut, right on the front line of his country's fight against the Russian invasion. He was there to boost morale and hand out medals.

Ukrainian Armed Forces Captain Pavlo Chernyavsky was among the recipients that day standing dutifully in line for his turn to receive a medal and shake the president's hand. But what happened next shocked Zelenskyy.

Instead of humbly accepting the Ukrainian military's Cross of Merit, Chernyavsky handed it right back to the president.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, is given back a Ukrainian Armed Services Order of Merit medal by Captain Pavlo Chernyavsky, in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, in late December, 2022.  AFP

"You could tell that he was shocked," Chernyavsky later told CBS News. But it was no protest.

Chernyavsky was the commander of a unit operating a battery of HIMARS missiles. They'd been using the advanced, U.S.-made and U.S.-supplied rocket system to hammer Russian positions in the fields and forests of occupied eastern Ukraine for months.

HIMARS: How it's changing Ukraine's fight against Russia 06:07

The HIMARS, which stands for Hight Mobility Artillery Rocket System, have been a game-changer on the Ukrainian battlefield because of their nimbleness and accuracy. Manufacturer Lockheed Martin says the rockets are accurate to within a few feet at a range of almost 200 miles. They've allowed Chernyavksy's unit and others like it to rain down fire on Russian artillery and command posts deep behind the enemy's lines.

In handing his medal back that day in Bakhmut, the young captain wanted to extend his gratitude to the benefactor of the four HIMARS launchers he commanded: He wanted to say thank you to President Joe Biden. So, he asked Zelenskyy to take his military cross and present it, in person, to the United States commander-in-chief.

Just a few days later, on the Ukrainian leader's first trip to Washington D.C. since the war began, Zelenskyy offered the medal and an accompanying letter to Mr. Biden at the White House.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy presents a Ukrainian military medal, The Cross for Military Merit, to U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, December 21, 2022. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

"He's very brave, and he said, 'Give it to very brave president,'" Zelenskyy told the American leader.

"Well, undeserved but appreciated," responded Mr. Biden, accepting the medal.

He later gave Zelenskyy a command coin from the battlefields of Iraq, where his late son Beau fought. That coin was presented to Chernyavsky in a televised ceremony at the Ukrainian parliament after Zelenskyy returned to Kyiv.

The Ukrainian captain said he didn't "have the words" to explain how that made him feel. He keeps the talisman stored safely at his parent's home, for fear of losing it on the battlefield. 

Ukraine's front-line commanders say some of their outdated equipment has been no match for Russian tanks. That's why the nimble and highly accurate HIMARS systems sent by the United States have proven so invaluable.

Ukrainian troops dig in for winter defenses 03:04

In the eastern city of Kramatorsk, right back in the thick of it, Chernyavsky told CBS News the war along the front line, which stretches for hundreds of miles, "would be very different" if it wasn't for the heavy American weapons.

He said that vital assistance was more important than any number of medals or coins, even the most treasured, and he made it clear — as other Ukrainian leaders have, right up to Zelenskyy, that they need more; More weapons, more tanks, and more long-range rockets to hit Russian forces regrouping miles from the front lines, preparing for an expected new offensive.

"That way, the war would be over quicker," said the captain.

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