Ukraine’s Army Slogs Through the Merciless Donbass
Blood, borscht and BTRs
The Ukrainian military is close to defeating the rebels that have caused so much trouble in the country’s east during the past two months. The rebels are now surrounded and Kiev’s army is pummeling them with artillery.
But it’s been a slog for the troops tasked with sweeping the towns and cities of the heavily-armed, Russian-backed separatists.
It’s tough to grasp how hard the fight is. Ukrainian news Website Gordonua interviewed an anonymous 20-something national guard trooper who fought for two months in brutal conditions. While he’s a patriot, the incognito nature of the interview gives a critical look at an impoverished, post-Soviet military scrapped together to fight a determined enemy.
There’s terrible, stomach-churning food. Poor or nonexistent equipment. Friendly fire. The Ukrainian forces also are suffering much higher casualties than the brass is admitting, according to the soldier.
Russian-backed separatists developed a canny but low-fi intelligence network which stands in contrast to the poor intelligence the Ukrainian military is working with. As the trooper’s unit traveled in their armored vehicles, taxi drivers doubling as spies tailed them, relaying information via phone to rebels waiting in ambush.
‘Mud, dust and superglue’
The soldier speaks highly of an instructor at the national guard’s training center. The coach taught his unit how to seize buildings, deploy checkpoints and how to protect their vehicles from mortar fire. “It turned out that we did not know anything,” he tells Gordonua. “Generally not a damn thing!”
But they could have been a lot more prepared. The soldiers spent a lot of time putting on “silly exercises, not even close to real combat conditions” to show off for touring government officials.
And the mud. The ever-present and terrible mud. “In eastern Ukraine, the land after the rain turns into a mixture of clay, shit, mud, dust and superglue,” he says.
Worse, the troops’ tents date from the Soviet Union and are full of holes, which quickly flood whenever it rains. The soldiers have little to no body armor, tactical gloves or eye protection. Their fabrics are not burn-proof, and the palms of the soldier’s hands burned from firing his hot AK-47 without gloves.
They’re short on everything. Sleeping bags. Helmets. Socks. They’re particularly short on medicines and first aid. They’re superstitious about being wounded. “There is a vile law,” he says. “If you have a tourniquet, then you’ll surely be wounded twice.”
Smoking at night is out of the question—it attracts sniper fire.
The food is “tasteless and not satisfying,” he says. The typical guardsman breakfast is porridge with a side of butter “plus a smelly piece of bread and tea.” Dinner is awful-sounding “military-style” borscht, which he says is painful on the stomach. He calls it a starvation diet.
The U.S. has shipped hundreds of thousands of packaged Meals Ready-to-Eat to Ukraine since the war began—one of the few pieces of military aid approved by the White House. But officers hoard the prized American MREs and only a few trickle down to the grunts.
Compared to Ukrainian army borscht, the MREs are “really very tasty, very nutritious, very classy food,” he says.
The poor equipment also extends to vehicles. On May 29, separatists shot down a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter near Slavyansk with a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, killing 14 soldiers including Gen. Volodymyr Kulchitsky. The unnamed soldier’s unit responded to the crash site, traveling 40 miles in rickety, wheeled BTR armored transports.
One BTR broke down, and then when passing through a village, a second BTR’s engine “began to boil and stopped.” That left them stranded and exposed around potentially hostile locals. The engine cooled and they went on their way, but on the way back, one of the BTR’s wheels snapped off.
‘Terrible living conditions’
All of these problems have contributed to heavy casualties, according to the soldier.
Friendly fire is a recurring problem. To distinguish themselves from the separatists, Ukrainian troops wrap their helmets and biceps with rolls of yellow Scotch tape. But there’s not enough tape to go around.
In late July, Kiev’s National Security and Defense Council reported that 363 Ukrainian soldiers have died in what Kiev calls the ATO, or anti-terrorist operation. But the soldier says “that’s a lie.” The military lists many soldiers—such as those killed by mines—as missing. The real number of dead is likely higher.
The fighting is brutal and takes place in close quarters. Separatists armed with machine guns set up ambushes inside basements. The troops have to clear apartment blocks with grenades. The hardest jobs are left to the determined airborne infantry, with the national guard and ad-hoc volunteer battalions providing backup.
The soldier says he’s “never seen such poverty” as that in eastern Ukraine, which could lead to people foolishly seeing the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic as a “panacea for all ills.” But he describes the rebels as bandits and marauders who steal everything they can get their hands on.
What’s also notable is that while the army is committed to finishing the separatists, many soldiers appear to have stronger loyalties to the Euromaidan revolution and its anti-corruption politics than the Ukrainian government itself.
Vice’s Simon Ostrovsky recently interviewed a Ukrainian-American volunteer serving in the volunteer Donbass Battalion who expressed these sentiments.
“I think there’s this feeling that especially among the politicians—this political elite—that they think that life with continue going on as it has for the past 20 years,” the volunteer told Vice. “I personally think, and any soldier that you speak with here will tell you—that will not happen.”
The national guard soldier agrees with this. “After the war in the Donbass,” he told Gordonua. “The military will no longer tolerate the terrible living conditions in the army, outdated weapons, incompetent commanders, idiotic information, corruption and so on.”