Defiant in the Quagmire, a Ukrainian Commander Vows to ‘Liberate All of Our Lands’
Europe’s only war slogs into its fourth year
It starts in the same manner every day, as predictable as it is deadly. Twice a day, when the sun sets and again as morning’s first light arrives, the normal sporadic gunfire of a battlefield starts to increase in tempo.
Scattered shots take on a more constant rhythm, the occasional explosion from a howitzer or a mortar becomes more frequent until the high explosives are raining down.
The thunderous concussions, which create the sensation of being punched in the chest, provide an almost constant thumping backdrop akin to a drum machine.
Over around half an hour, the exchange builds up to a climax that sees the two sides enthusiastically and indiscriminately hurling everything they have at each other in a continuous roar.
Then, in contrast to the slow buildup, the fire quickly tapers down again to the occasional exchange. This is Europe’s only active war, and it has already cost more than 10,000 lives and displaced more than 1,700,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The reason for these predictable dawn and dusk bursts of combat is that these stretches of time are before the team deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine — OSCE SMM — arrive for the day and after they depart.
As night-vision technology is still scarce on the battlefield in Ukraine, combat is largely limited to those stretches of time when there is enough light to fight by. The presence of the OSCE monitors is connected to diplomatic efforts overseen by the OSCE to rein in the conflict and which led to a cease-fire, commonly referred to as Minsk I, negotiated by all parties to this conflict in September 2014.
The almost immediate failure of Minsk I led to Minsk II in February 2015, but, at best, the “cease-fire” agreements have only slowed down the fighting.
Although the cease-fire agreements failed in their ambition to halt the conflict, one significant impact they did have was to draw lines on what had been a fairly fluid battlefield. The cover of the cease-fire agreements gave each side an opportunity to rearm and dig in to their current positions.
This had the effect of hardening the lines on the battlefield and has driven the conflict to becoming bogged down in trench warfare resembling a battlefield on the Western Front in World War I. As a result, the original cease-fire lines that were established in September of 2014 have not shifted at all despite years of fighting and many deaths.
Advances have been limited to a few hundred meters within a ravaged no-man’s land between the two warring sides known simply as the “gray zone.”
Although the OSCE’s presence was requested by the Ukrainian government in early 2014 and was approved in a consensus decision by all 57 OSCE member states, among those Ukrainians we spoke with along the front, the agreements were viewed with universal disdain.
Ukrainian volunteer on patrol. Eleonora Giuliani photo
Some expressed contempt toward the OSCE for its perceived impotence in holding back Russian aggression, while others expressed frustration at the OSCE for standing in the way of Ukrainian efforts to reclaim what they perceive as their occupied land.
The combatants on the Ukrainian side are comprised of regular Ukrainian Army units and a mix of volunteer units made up mostly of Ukrainians, but also of a small number of citizens from countries ranging from France to Georgia to Belarus.
The volunteers are highly committed to this fight and enjoy broad support from the Ukrainian public. However, the relationship the volunteers have with the Ukrainian government has become a tense one. In the early stages of the conflict, the Ukrainian government was forced to rely heavily on the volunteers.
But as the Ukrainian Army has built itself up and the front line positions have stabilized, the government has made efforts to exert more control over the volunteer militias. Aside from Minsk II, which stipulated the disarmament of all “illegal” groups within Ukraine, the Ukrainian government is also uncomfortable with having the heavily armed volunteers and the militias they are part of operating outside of its authority.
Many volunteer groups have been absorbed into branches of the Ukrainian security apparatus, such as the National Guard or Territorial Defense Battalions. However, some volunteer militias have refused to be brought under the umbrella of the Ukrainian government.
These remaining volunteer units have officially — rather, “officially” — been ordered to give up their weapons and to remove themselves from the battlefield.
The reality on the ground is complex, though.
While the military is technically supposed to prevent the volunteers from traveling to the front lines and even to arrest them — and there have been some tense standoffs where this was attempted — the volunteers have many supporters within the ranks of the Ukrainian army.
The driver who took us to the front lines near the town of Avdiivka also picked up several volunteer fighters along the way who were hitchhiking back to the front after visiting nearby towns. At the many Ukrainian army checkpoints we encountered, they were always waved through after a couple of questions.
In the car ride, bouncing over the brutal eastern Ukrainian roads, the volunteers we had picked up explained that sympathetic officers within the Ukrainian army see the remaining volunteer militias, such as the famous Right Sector, not just as simple allies fighting the same enemy, but as a useful proxy force that can be used outside of the confines of the conditions of the Minsk agreements.
Being outside of the control of the Ukrainian government, the volunteer groups do not cooperate with the OSCE monitors. As such, they have a freer hand than the Ukrainian army to keep hitting the separatist forces at times or in ways the army has been ordered not to.
“We do things they can’t sometimes,” one volunteer said.
Another more practical alignment of interests is seen with the knowledge the volunteers have of the local terrain. The volunteers we visited claimed that they frequently take on a reconnaissance role for the Ukrainian army. The volunteers usually know the territory better than do the soldiers in the Ukrainian army.
The regular army units are rotated through on a frequent basis, usually every three months, whereas some of the volunteers have been on the front since the beginning of the conflict and know these fields, forests and hills extremely well.
Ukrainian commander ‘Santa.’ Eleonora Giuliani photo
Santa, the nom de guerre of a commander with the volunteers — who also happens to be writing a children’s book — advised us that he is in frequent contact with Ukrainian intelligence officials in the 74th Intelligence Brigade. It was these officials, he claimed, that even directed them to the area Santa’s group of volunteers occupy along the front lines.
Later in the conversation, Santa expressed pride in the fact that the volunteers came from very diverse backgrounds, nodding toward a volunteer in the distance who was supposed to have been a rising star as a D.J. in the drum and bass scene before deciding to take up arms.
The diversity of the volunteers has dropped in one respect though from the early months of the conflict. One of the conditions of Minsk II was the removal of “all foreign armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries” from Ukraine.
We didn’t observe any foreign fighters with the Ukrainian army or with those volunteer militias that have now been absorbed into the army — and it appears that they have been reduced, if not entirely eliminated, from their ranks. However, although they kept a low profile, we did meet a handful of foreign volunteers that were still with the remaining volunteer militias.
Extremely sensitive about being photographed or quoted on the record, they all said the number of fellow foreigners in their ranks was dramatically reduced from what it had been due to pressure from the Ukrainian government.
Despite the truly staggering volume of bombs, artillery, rockets, grenades, bullets and more exchanged on a daily basis, neither side seems to have any shortage of weapons or supplies. A volunteer commander with the nom de guerre Dolphin simply laughed when asked if he had any difficulty with keeping an adequate supply of arms given the quantity his troops used up each day.
And, indeed, all of the volunteer bases we visited near the front lines were overflowing with weapons and ammunition to the extent that many crates of ammunition had to be stacked outside under tarps.
Although the passionate exchanges of bullets and high explosives are “good sport,” as one volunteer put it, they are also a reflection of propaganda on both sides fueling the conflict. The propaganda from the separatist side is known for being particularly colorful with lurid descriptions of alleged Ukrainian atrocities, such as the crucifixion of children and eating separatist supporters alive.
It has even been claimed that the Ukrainians are killing birds with white, blue and red feathers — the colors on Russia’s flag. This type of inflammatory propaganda has made both sides little concerned about the impact their bullets and shells are having on what they have been told is their enemy.
These exchanges come at a heavy price. A commander we spoke with that did not wish to be identified, estimated that two to three soldiers a day are being killed and certainly many more than that are wounded. The fighters do their best to escape the daily onslaughts in a labyrinth of trenches that offer some protection from the artillery, but little from the mud and biting cold of Ukraine’s winters.
The “bases” operated by the volunteers behind the front lines are clusters of homes, abandoned as a result of the fighting, that have been reinforced with sandbags and repurposed as bunkers of sorts. The volunteers take refuge in these abandoned homes and commute back and forth from the trenches on the front lines.
Some volunteers will stay in a home resting and recuperating during the day, while another group will spend the night on the front lines. The groups will switch the next morning.
Sandbags blocking out the light, we carried out many of our interviews in the dark, stuffy confines of these homes and their cellars as the volunteers on the front line were often, and understandably, distracted by events taking place in front of them. Life in the homes would invariably revolve around a central room where the men and women smoked, checked Facebook on their phones and usually had a pot of borscht bubbling away on a field stove.
In one dacha, the volunteers discovered documents that showed the owner had been a high-ranking Communist official in Russia and were amused by their making use of the home now to fight the Russians.
The comment about the Russians was telling as all of the Ukrainian army soldiers and volunteers we spoke with did not perceive themselves as fighting separatists in a civil war, but instead as fighting a Russian invasion. Few would even use the word “separatists” and instead simply referred to the other side as “the Russians.” The separatist movement itself was dismissed by several as an operation organized by Russian intelligence officials.
This is not an entirely outlandish hypothesis as a variation of this scenario has also been floated by various NATO officials as a template for potential trouble in the Baltics fomented by Russia.
To be fair, the Russian government continues to deny supporting the separatists in Ukraine, only acknowledging that some Russian “volunteers” and off-duty soldiers have entered the war zone of their own free will. However, there is extensive evidence of official Russian involvement in the conflict.
The Ukrainian defense ministry claimed in January of 2017 that more than 5,000 regular soldiers of the Russian armed forces are already on separatist-held territory, along with 40,000 Russian nationals fighting in separatist militias.
The ministry further alleged that Russia has deployed at least 600 main battle tanks, more than 1,300 armored vehicles, more than 700 pieces of artillery and more than 450 multiple-launch rocket systems to eastern Ukraine.
The significance of this Russian involvement makes itself most apparent at any time the Ukrainians have appeared to be making substantial gains on the battlefield. Decisive reversals for the Ukrainians have always coincided with reports of the heavy presence of Russian troops.
On the last day of our visit, crowded into the cellar of another abandoned home — the upper floors had been destroyed by artillery fire — and huddled around a wood stove with a group of volunteers, eight men and one woman shared their feelings about Russia and the increasingly belligerent rhetoric coming from both sides.
“The Minsk agreement is being continuously violated by the Russians, but it bought us more time to prepare,” one said. “So we did not launch fresh offensives or respond too aggressively to Russian attacks.”
Whether or not this was as carefully thought out as suggested, it is true that Ukraine has had time to modernize its military and has grown it tremendously from the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers they could stand up in 2014 to more than 250,000 now. This places it among the largest armies in Europe. Ukraine’s weapons factories have been busy as well, churning out weapons and ammunition around the clock and developing new weapons.
It is possible that Ukraine is feeling more assertive now that it is in a much stronger position than when the conflict started. If so, the final thoughts of the leader of this group of volunteers did not provide hope to those hoping for an end to this conflict.
“The Russians will see what we will do in the Donbass [region]. They kicked us when we were down, but Ukraine is going to go on the offensive soon. You will see. We are going to liberate all of our lands they have occupied.”