From Stalingrad to Avdiivka
the war in ukraine, we are often told, is a partly a civil war involving rebels fighting the central government in kyiv. such inaccurate terms misrepresent the conflict.
the crisis is often talked about as if it’s entirely internal to ukraine, a domestic affair brought on by language politics, identity clashes and historical grievances. this is crazy. this is wrong.
ukraine is waging a war of self-defense against an outside aggressor — the russian federation. putin’s special operation in ukraine began in early 2014 has killed at least 10,000 people, mostly civilians, and displaced at least two million ukrainians.
calling the crisis a civil war serves no purpose of diplomacy or journalistic balance. it is a failure to serve the public interest. putin’s special operation in ukraine is a more accurate description.
the war needs to be described as it really is: a conflict instigated and sustained by russia’s armed intervention. it was russian troops in the spring of 2014 who seized ukraine’s autonomous republic of crimea.
the russian federation is an aggressor. areas of ukraine that have fallen under the kremlin’s effective military and political control are occupied by the aggressor.
russia has invaded ukrainian territory — crimea, donetsk and luhansk so far — and attacked ukrainian forces without a shred of plausible legal justification; bombarded ukrainian territory and killed ukrainian citizens; and seized territory that belongs within the internationally recognised borders of ukraine, declaring it part of russia. these are nothing less than acts of aggression under international law.
to argue or imply that there has been any acts of “self-determination” in any part of ukraine calling into question ukraine’s sovereignty over its territory contradicts the highest available organised expressions of international law. if editors and journalists substitute their own judgement of the situation, then they must explain why. — peter byrne (kyiv)
The 72nd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces recently marked its 75th anniversary. Seventy five years ago it was formed to fight for Stalingrad. And it did, helping to turn the tide of the World War II.
The brigade fights quite a different war today — against Russian aggressors and Russian occupation forces in eastern Ukraine. The unit today holds the toughest 38 kilometers of the front in eastern Ukraine near Avdiivka and Donetsk airport.
Credis Dervish recently returned from the frontlines, where she spent time with the servicemen of this famed brigade.
This is her story. These are her heroes.
“Whose idea was it, anyway?”
“Hard to believe, but it was one of the brigade’s commanders who first thought of this. He was here not long ago surveying the positions and said that it would be the hell of a thing to stick a Ukrainian flag right on top of that hut over there.”
“Was he serious?”
“But you gradually warmed up to the idea…”
“No. I liked it from the start… What’s the matter? It’s a beautiful picture now, can’t you see? A great looking flag. The orcs get to appreciate the new view every day now…”
The flag does make this war-ravaged winter landscape look lovelier — a bright blue and yellow banner flying against the backdrop of the grey ruins of what was once Donetsk Airport.
It sits just behind the enemy lines between the two flanks of the enemy position.
“They can’t take it down. They have tried. But it’s in our line of fire, so there is not much they can do… Move over, you can take nicer photos from here.”
Bakhmat shows Olena Mokrenchuk a better spot to shoot pictures from. Olena is the brigade’s press officer. She can’t stop marvelling at the view and enjoying the brand new DSLR Canon camera in her hands, compliments of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. The lens on that camera alone resembles the underbelly of a grenade launcher. A solid thing.
“And who agreed to take the risk?” I ask Bakhmat.
“Who? Half of my company wanted to go. We chose the two sneakiest ones. So, they went out, put up the flag, and came right back. That’s it.”
“And you, as the company commander gave the formal order?”
“It wasn’t really an order. More like a … Yeah, it was an order.”
“And what if they’d been spotted by the ‘orcs’? What then?”
“…Look how much water’s in here,” Bakhmat turns away from me and talks to one of the guys in the trench.
“Comrade Lieutenant Junior, grab that shovel please and start digging. Make a bit of a well down here and then cover it with that plank. Do it.”
It had been snowing and then raining the night before. The Lieutenant Junior who will be digging a hole in the trench wears knee-high rubber boots.
It’s all black soil around hear, soft and sticky.
“So what if those guys had been noticed?” I can’t let it go. “What if the other side opened fire on them? It’s a wide open field out there, nowhere to hide or to take cover…”
“Shush,” Bakhmat raises his hand and puts an attentive look on his face. “Do you hear that? They’ve been on the march all day today.”
Something hums steadily and rattles a bit in the far distance.
“Sounds like a tank,” I say.
“Yeah, two. But also — all kinds of heavy vehicles, not just tanks,” Bakhmat says. “Alright, we are going to move forward to our farthest position. There, you can sometimes hear not only what the orcs are riding on, but what they are blubbering about …”
We follow his lead through a thinly wooded area, changing to a trot where there is no cover at all and quickly end up by a t-shaped trench with parts of it covered over with logs, dirt, and sandbags. It is as muddy and wet in here as in the trench we just left. We are met by three soldiers. They all look too young for the job. They have been at this position for more than 20 hours now, I am told, and soon will be rotated out of here. The boys do look like they could use some sleep.
Bakhmat helps Olena into the trench, holds her Canon delicately… While Olena talks up the three warriors with baby faces, he browses through the pictures she has taken so far looking for ones that may give away his position and should not be given to the press.
And then he says to me, “I tell you this, comrade reporter. Had our guys been spotted then, it would have been a very bad situation. We probably would have needed to extract them in battle … in enemy crossfire. But the risk wasn’t that great, really. It was a very foggy morning. Mornings are often foggy here. And it was very early… The orcs were still asleep… And when they woke up — boom! There is a Ukrainian flag right in their backyard. Sweet! No?”
There are sporadic distant explosions to our left and occasional machine gun fire far from us to the right, and nothing but the humming sound of the heavy machinery before us.
“Olena,” says Bakhmat to the press-officer. “Do you mind if I snap a few pictures? Of those warehouses on the orcs’ side.”
He puts a firmer grip on the camera and gets out of the trench.
The sky today is as clear as a piece of glass. There is no fog.
It’s probably his favorite melody, although I don’t think he would ever admit it.
It starts timidly with Kalashnikov fire, and then the higher caliber machine guns chime in. Thump, thump, thump … Soft explosions from grenade launchers begin to dapple the melody and then mortars — 82mm and 120mm — ratchet everything up ten notches …. And then the powerful crescendo is announced by the great Kaboom of self-moving artillery systems.
The whole dance, as he refers to it, lasts about two to three hours.
And then what?
An intermission. About 20 minutes. Time to recharge and reload.
It is normally a two-act performance with one intermission, he explains.
He has been doing this dance for nearly three years, from the very start of the war. He commands a company that holds a stretch of the frontline right before the enemy-occupied Horlivka. He has been here since October of last year when the 72nd took up these positions.
Three years ago he would probably have none of this, he admits.
He was a law professor at the Chernivtsi University in Western Ukraine. He still participates in the legal clinic he founded. His former students provide free legal defense services to those who can’t afford it.
Out here on the battlefield, of course, he provides free defense to all — the indigent and the not so poor, by performing regularly this hellish, accursed, fiery dance.
The last major firefight was just before New Year. But it was much worse in the fall, he says. There was one battle in which he had to dance on three sides at once. His flanks were also attacked. But that battle ended well. No losses. The enemy? Yes, they lost a few. They had to come back three times for one of their fallen, despite heavy fire. It probably was a Russian citizen, could have been a Russian military officer. They are never left on the battlefield, dead or wounded.
Olena and I are spending Orthodox Christmas Eve on his position. We stick around a bit longer than we had planned. Our presence here is an event for the soldiers, who rarely have any guests. Enemy diversion-reconnaissance groups don’t count.
The troops live in dugouts. So does their commander.
After listening to the commander talk about the war, the first question I wanted to ask was whether military service is a family tradition.
He thinks for a minute.
“No, I can’t think of anyone who ever served. No soldiers in my family,” he says, “But there were plenty of priests …”
“… Sixty seven meters. That is the distance between my position and theirs … The outcome of the firefight? They had at least two dead. I saw them dragging the bodies away. There could have been more. I don’t know for sure, or how many wounded. On the night before, they had at least one dead. My company? No dead or wounded.”
In the piercing light of TV cameras Sanych looks markedly annoyed. He is being interviewed by two TV crews at once about the firefight on the Christmas night in the Avdiivka industrial zone, the so called Promka.
“How close do they usually get to you?” asks a reporter with the 112.ua TV Channel logo on her microphone.
“What do you mean — how close?… I’ve just told you, my position is only 67 meters from them. They come very close. We once shot one of them just on the other side of this wall. Had to radio them right away, tell them to come and take him away before he starts to stink …”
Promka is perhaps the best known place on the eastern front. Fighting almost never ends here. It only toned down during the so-called Christmas truce, but didn’t actually stop. That’s why media was interested in what happened here last night. TV reporters like to frequent the place. It is a bit of a headache for the guys who hold the position … and who have to watch out for them.
One of the commanders of the 72nd brigade confided in me once that before taking these positions he did not believe it would be possible to hold Promka for long because the enemy, propped up by Russian weapons and men, were so close. Even in the famed fight for Donetsk International Airport the enemy could only occasionally come this close.
Yet, they have been successfully defending Promka ever since they took over this part of the frontline from the 58th brigade in October. Back in the fall, it was really fun. The enemy tested the new defenders’ strength and tested really hard. Combat was especially intense, and close combat too.
Sanych is the company commander here. He is from Kamianets-Podilsky. He shows us his beloved Mitsubishi SUV, or rather what’s left of it. The SUV was donated to the war effort by some Ukrainian well wishers. “Look at what the separs[separatists] did to it. It is nothing but bullet holes anymore,” he says in disdain. He had no choice but to bring from home his own dilapidated Lada for his back and forth to the brigade’s command.
His position protrudes somewhat into enemy lines and because of this it could be shot at from three sides at will.
Just to walk among the ruins of the Avdiivka factories here means to walk on the enemy’s nerves and invite fire. And getting on the enemy’s nerves is something that Sanych’s boys just can’t resist doing.
Vitaliy from Khmelnitsky wears a conspicuous sign in red letters “Cynical Bandera” on his sleeve, Zhenia from Konotop has a huge Ukrainian trident on his hat, and Serhiy from Bila Tserkva likes to paint on the asphalt big bold expletives for the separs that even Sanych finds too offensive.
It’s never boring here.
A rope is tied between two buildings which are still standing. Military scrim nets are draped over it like bed sheets hung out to dry. The scrim nets protect one of the routes the servicemen of this company use to move around. We are being led alongside the nets. Our movement could be seen, but the nets make it much harder for the enemy to put us in their crosshairs.
Sniper fire is the biggest culprit. The latest casualty this company suffered was because of a sniper shot. When the enemy attacks this position head on, it suffers significant losses, sometimes with few or no losses on this side. Fighting on the defense does the trick for these boys. Sniper fire has inflicted the heaviest casualties.
Sashko from Kaniv covers us on the move. He almost never looks at us. His gaze is fixed in the distance where enemy fire usually comes from. His alertness gets to us. We stoop even lower and bow our heads.
But it’s been quiet so far.
When we are getting ready to leave, Sanych shakes hands and says “come back soon … “ He is wearing a straight face.
Just as we are getting out of Promka, a remarkable picture opens up. The road is downhill from here. Below the city of Avdiivka can been seen — all the way to the horizon. It is thickly dotted with houses and filled with orchards.
Before Promka was taken by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the enemy got pushed farther out of the city, this part of Avdiivka was one big shooting range.
We pass through the checkpoint serving as a gate to Promka. It is guarded by soldiers in full combat gear, and a man walks by the side of the road wearing blue sweatpants and a red t-shirt. He walks leisurely despite the cold weather. He looks completely relaxed and unafraid of active warfare. He must have just stepped out of his house to get a smoke or something.
This scene looks almost absurd. I even turn to look back at him to make sure I actually saw him…
The Ukrainian army took Promka in a fierce battle early last year. Promka sits on an important elevation that gives the army control over a major crossroad, the so- called Yasynuvatska rozviazka. It is a valuable bridgehead. It offers a number of tactical advantages in this area.
However, the most important goal of that military operation has just sauntered by me — a man in sweatpants who now can simply go out for a smoke.
Another five hundred meters — and there is another checkpoint, and beyond it are highrise apartment buildings, city buses, a supermarket, pigeons and even dreamy mothers pushing their strollers.
Olena brings the car to a stop and waits for another group of antsy TV reporters anxious to visit Promka …
Combined Russian-separatist forces invaded eastern Ukraine in early 2014. More than 10,000 people have since been killed in the fighting and more than 2,000,000 people made refugees in their own country.
He says he is 21, but he looks 16.
He tells me that his name is Ruslan, and before he utters his last name I stop him, I say I don’t really need his last name for the story. I know many of these boys don’t tell their parents where they really serve. They often avoid reporters and publicity so that their loved ones would not find out that they are at the front.
Could he chose not to serve on the frontline? Sure, he says, everybody who is out here had this choice, they all volunteered to be here. His buddy is serving in this company, so Ruslan wanted to go too. Plus, it is never boring in this trench, even when it’s quiet like it is today. How so? To entertain themselves the boys sometimes yell out curses to the enemy …
He yells out an expletive, somewhat awkwardly, as if he was embarrassed saying it.
“And the other side?” I ask.
“Oh, they curse right back at us… Although, I don’t believe we deserve it, to tell you the truth.”
It is the so called Christmas truce now, which means that Ruslan’s position only receives sniper fire, especially at dusk. He knows that there are at least two sharpshooters who work his position.
How does he know that?
“The ‘style’ of the fire is very different. One puts in his shots close to each other and quick. I call him the biathlon shooter. The other one… Well, he is fairly new, I haven’t studied him well yet. He shoots from a great distance, about 2,000 meters, with much longer intervals between the shots.”
“When was the last bigger firefight out here?” I ask.
“New Year’s Day. In the afternoon. They had to be drunk or something. They were screaming and yelling and shooting at us. We let them vent a bit and then returned fire.”
“AKs. That was enough.”
Bakhmat has come back. He shows us the pictures he had taken.
“It’s a very nice camera,” Bakhmat says. “When I go back to Kyiv for good, I will probably get myself one of those …”
He stops to think.
“On the other hand, why would I want to live in Kyiv anymore, eh?” he says. “How can one survive in that city these days? Have you seen the prices in the stores there? God. You see them prices and you want to go right back to the front… I am doing just fine out here. I’m well fed, well cared for…, decent pay, lots of orcs to shoot at. No. I’m staying here with my boys.”
He tells me we have to leave soon. It is getting dark and we have to drive with the lights off when we leave the front line. “So, move it, comrade reporter, while you can still see the road.”
We shake hands and embrace Ruslan and his brothers-in-arm.
One of them sings us military-themed carols, thanks for our visit.
“Do not be afraid to come here, to tell the story about this war. There is nothing to be afraid of. You’re in the company of real men out here,” he says.
They fear nothing.
We wish the boys luck and victory, and climb out of the trench.
I hear Ruslan is trying to say something to me before I get too far.
“Volyk,” he says.
“What’s that, buddy?” I turn around.
“Volyk. That is my last name. My parents know where I am. It’s alright. You can put down — ‘Ruslan Volyk, RPG shooter.’”
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