The Daily Signal was among the first foreign media outlets to embed with the regular Ukrainian army during an eight-day period in Pisky from June 8-15, 2015. | http://dailysign.al/1LosnxO
PISKY, Ukraine -- The notion that the Ukraine cease-fire is still largely holding, or even being followed at all, is fiction.
In the eastern Ukrainian village of Pisky, only six kilometers from the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, and two kilometers from the ruined Donetsk airport, the Ukrainian army 93rd Mechanized Brigade is engaged in sustained combat with combined Russian-separatist forces.
In Pisky, combined Russian-separatist forces violate the cease-fire every day with heavy artillery barrages, including 120-mm and 152-mm shells, tank attacks, and sniper and automatic grenade launcher fire. Separatist reconnaissance units also slip behind the lines after dark, and gun battles are a nightly routine.
“I dance with death every day,” said Sergei Kozin, a red-bearded 43-year-old machine gunner from Dnipropetrovsk, who has been on the front lines in Pisky for more than two months.
The Daily Signal was among the first foreign media outlets to embed with the regular Ukrainian army during an eight-day period in Pisky from June 8-15, 2015 -- it was the first time a U.S. journalist embedded with the regular Ukrainian army in combat.
At about 3 p.m. on June 13, 2015, a separatist tank fired on a group of seven, including Ukrainian soldiers and this correspondent. The round landed about 60 feet from the group, and shrapnel sprayed overhead. Eardrums were left ringing. There were no casualties, and all seven were able to flee to a nearby cellar to take shelter for the follow-on shots that lasted for about 20 minutes.
Ukrainian forces firing unguided shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles turned the tank back.
Ukrainian soldiers involved in the fighting claimed it was a Russian T-72 tank, although this could not be independently verified at the time.
“They shoot every night and every day,” said Volodymyr, a 20-year-old lieutenant from Lviv who has been at the front for three months. “There is no cease-fire.”
(While some Ukrainian soldiers were comfortable giving their full names, many ask that their names not be published or their faces photographed due to security concerns.)
Facing these persistent, lethal attacks, the Ukrainian forces are forced to defend themselves by bringing up heavy weapons banned from the front lines under the Minsk II agreements, resulting in a complete collapse of the Feb. 12, 2015, cease-fire.
“We have orders to fire only if we are directly under fire, only if they are trying to take our position,” Kozin said.
“We can only fire if they shoot at us,” Volodymyr said. “But we usually won’t bother shooting back if it’s just small arms fire.”
The separatist artillery barrages are relentless and are coupled with daily tank attacks and persistent sniper fire, making Pisky a deadly place for Ukrainian soldiers who are hunkered down here to prevent a separatist breakout, which they fear would sweep across eastern Ukraine.
“Our mission is to hold the line and to prevent reconnaissance groups from crossing over,” Kozin said. “But it seems like the Russians are just using us as a laboratory to test their new weapons.”
On June 3, 2015, combined Russian-separatist forces launched an offensive against Ukrainian troops nine miles southwest of Pisky in the nearby town of Marinka, also on the outskirts of Donetsk. The attack comprised more than 1,000 troops who were supported with heavy weapons and tanks.
Ukrainian troops ultimately held their ground and repelled the attack, but they initially had to do so without heavy weapons support. It took almost six hours to redeploy Ukrainian artillery and tanks, which had been pulled back from the front according to the Minsk cease-fire, to support the embattled troops defending Marinka.
Ukrainian soldiers in Pisky point to Marinka as proof that the combined Russian-separatist forces have abandoned the cease-fire. They say heavy weapons need to be on the line ready for Ukrainians to use due to the looming threat of a Marinka-style offensive here. The cease-fire is dead, they say, and to stay on the line without heavy weapons deployed nearby to protect them in an offensive would be suicide.
“We can’t fight off Russian tanks with Kalashnikovs,” Kozin said.
Prepare for the Worst
The Ukrainian army anticipates a major assault in Pisky will happen soon.
Combined Russian-separatist tanks attack Ukrainian positions almost every day. The artillery is virtually nonstop and around the clock. Ukrainian soldiers say they start to feel uneasy if the firing stops for more than an hour; they are so used to the constant concussions coming at irregular intervals that total silence is disconcerting.
During a tank attack, the rounds came in with no notice, hammering a Ukrainian position for a half-dozen or so strikes. Tank shots are harder to anticipate than artillery fired from fixed positions because the shell arcs are usually flatter, leaving a shorter whistle before the round impacts. Soldiers consequently have less time to react and dive for cover.
Each day, Ukrainian soldiers repel separatist tanks with shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles and with armored personnel carriers. The Ukrainians consider the attacks to be probing missions designed to test the Ukrainians’ defenses, rather than attempts at an actual breakthrough.
The Ukrainian retreats at Debaltseve and Illovaisk, in which hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were killed when their positions were surrounded and overrun, have Ukrainians on edge about their prospects of survival in a retreat.
Many vow to fight to the death if they are surrounded in Pisky rather than being taken prisoner.
On the night of June 13, 2015, Ukrainian troops received information that a combined Russian-separatist offensive would likely happen that evening. The mood was tense throughout the night, and units were placed on combat alert.
Daniel Kasyanenko -- nom de guerre “Mobile Phone” -- a 19-year-old soldier from the southeastern Ukrainian town of Zaporizhia, said that if the order were given to retreat, it would have to be done on foot.
“We don’t have enough cars to drive us all out,” he said.
Pisky is a formerly wealthy suburb of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. From here, Ukrainian forces fired artillery in support of an elite unit nicknamed the “Cyborgs,” which fought for control of the Donetsk airport through January2015. The airport, which was totally annihilated by the fighting, is currently under separatist control.
Initially, Ukrainian units in Pisky comprised both civilian volunteer battalions and the regular army. But after a push by Kyiv to consolidate all the volunteer battalions fighting in the conflict area under government control, volunteer soldiers in Pisky from groups like OUN, Right Sector and Karpatska Sich have been integrated into the 93rd Brigade. The 93rd currently comprises both volunteer and mobilized soldiers.
Pisky is a devastated wasteland. The ground is littered with craters, Grad rockets and charred earth. Every building in the village is at least partially destroyed by the shelling; shrapnel and bullet holes pockmark almost every vertical surface.
A few civilians remain, but most have left. An Orthodox nun remains at the local church as caretaker. She brings out chocolate and bottles of water to Ukrainian troops passing by on patrol, and opens up the church for them to pray.
The Ukrainian units based in Pisky have set up positions in the cellars of the most solid structures, hoping to find a modicum of protection from the artillery. Ringing the village is a network of trenches -- reminiscent of scenes one might associate with World War I -- where the Ukrainians have set up machine-gun positions and snipers work.
Looming off in the distance one can see the Donetsk skyline. There are two tall, white towers from which snipers fire and artillery spotters can see almost 30 kilometers, Ukrainian soldiers claim. The structures are too close to civilian positions for the Ukrainians to try to destroy them.
“We are not willing to kill civilians,” Kozin said. “They are Ukrainians, and many of us still have friends there (in Donetsk).”
For many Ukrainian soldiers, direct Russian involvement in the conflict is a forgone conclusion.
“How can they say the Russians aren’t here?” said Vasiliy Ivaskiv, a grey-haired 53-year-old former miner from the western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk. “You can’t buy tanks and Grads in a supermarket.”
Some of the tactics the combined Russian-separatist forces use contribute to the enmity the Ukrainians feel toward their enemy.
In addition to 120-mm and 152-mm heavy artillery, the combined Russian-separatists also shoot flares and white phosphorous rounds at structures. At night, targeted buildings go up in flames. The white phosphorous rounds are capable of burning straight through the concrete walls of the cellars within which the Ukrainian troops take shelter, potentially killing them while they sleep or eat.
The separatists, who share the same radio waves as the Ukrainians, often taunt the Ukrainians in radio messages. The Ukrainians, for their part, laugh at the panicked radio calls of separatists under fire -- especially one call in particular, in which the separatists confused artillery fire for bombs dropped from an aircraft.
Humor and camaraderie are often the bedrock of the Ukrainian soldiers’ psychological grit.
“Our comrades help us endure the fear,” Kozin said.
“When our smiles disappear, we disappear,” said Nemo, a 39-year-old from the Crimean city of Kerch who has been on the line for more than five months.
Soldiers are constantly laughing and smiling -- almost purposefully during moments of intense danger.
“Sometimes we laugh, but it’s bitter laughter after the shelling,” said Oleg, 43, from Kharkiv. “But it’s not very sweet moments when there is shelling."
“Optimists will survive a lot longer in a war,” said Bogdan -- nom de guerre “Dan” -- a 25-year-old from Lviv with an anchored smile who likes to ride around Pisky in an old motorcycle he has fixed up while wearing a cowboy hat. Like many Ukrainian soldiers, he’s trained in multiple specialties, including as a sapper and medic.
“But I’m a normal person, and sometimes I have bad days,” he continued. “The worst part is seeing your friends die, seeing young men die. Sometimes you go back to where he was living, you see his stuff still there, and it’s really terrible to realize he’s gone.”
Pranks play a key part in preserving the soldiers’ morale. Once, Bogdan said, they called a pizza delivery joint in Donetsk. When they gave the address in Pisky, it was nothing but dial tone. And during one particularly intense firefight, the soldiers called the Donetsk police department to report a disturbance of the peace.
“They didn’t think it was so funny,” Bogdan explained, smiling.
While many soldiers outwardly treat the constant artillery barrages, tank attacks and sniper shooting with casual indifference, they privately admit that the near-constant fear of death is psychologically draining.
“Fear is always present,” Kozin said. “But it comes down to wanting to come home alive. Only silly people are not afraid.”
“There are two types of fear,” Bogdan said. “The first is when you imagine things that might kill you. The second is a reaction to something real, when you are just trying to save your life.”
“You just try to manage the first type,” he added. “You don’t want this fear to control you. The second type you use to save your life.”
The artillery attacks are indeed terrifying. The whistle of the incoming rounds often gives one second, at most, to dive for the ground to avoid the shrapnel.
“I always feel fear,” said Kostya Bezkorovayny, a skinny 22-year-old from Dnipropetrovsk who is always smiling (his nickname is “Smile Man”) and wearing shorts and sandals -- even in body armor.
“But you eventually learn to tell apart the really dangerous things from the things that are just scary,” he added.
Often times, however, Ukrainian spotters on the front lines are able to see enemy artillery being fired and transmit a radio message -- they say “hole” -- giving soldiers enough time to find an underground cellar in which to hide. Soldiers walking around usually carry radios, reflecting the reality that even a simple trip to the outhouse could turn into a life or death sprint for safety.
The unending sniper attacks are another concern. The laser-zip sound of bullets flying overhead (like a fingernail running down stretched nylon) and the crack of far-off sniper rifles firing is almost constant.
Sometimes the Russian-separatist snipers time their shots with automatic grenade-launcher attacks and artillery, concealing the sound of their shots, which could give away their positions.
No casualties due to snipers were recorded while The Daily Signal was embedded in Pisky, but there were multiple instances of sniper rounds impacting only inches from both Ukrainian soldiers and journalists, underscoring the constant threat.
Walls devastated by artillery shrapnel are also littered with 14.5x114-mm caliber sniper bullets. The whistle of bullets flying overhead is not unusual in Pisky, but still, everyone ducks when they hear the sound. Snipers, like drones, instill a unique fear in the soldiers.
Despite the tough living conditions and the relentless attacks, the overall morale of the Ukrainian soldiers in Pisky is high.
“It’s impossible not to be motivated when the enemy has attacked the motherland,” said Ivaskiv, whom the soldiers call Vasha. He volunteered for the military after traveling back and forth to the front lines driving supplies to soldiers. He was tired of seeing young men die, he explained, and wanted to fight for his country. He said he had to step over his pleading wife who tried to block the door when he left for the war.
He has a 31-year-old son whom he doesn’t want to join the military because the son is childless. “A man should have children before going to war,” Ivaskiv said, explaining that his father, who was born in 1913 and fought Nazi Germany in the Second World War, told him the same thing when he was a young man.
Konstantin Bernatovich, “Koha,” a 33-year-old television production engineer from Kyiv, beams with pride when he shows photographs of his twin 13-year-old boys.
“All I care about is getting home to see them again,” he says. He is scheduled to return home for their birthday this summer, but he will only get two days off from the front.
Many soldiers have been on the line for as long as six months, and the psychological toll of the constant shelling, and the indiscriminate, myriad ways in which one can die in Pisky, eventually breaks some.
One soldier voluntarily turned himself into the military police for drinking so that he could spend three days in the local brig to decompress after an intense firefight.
“We’ve had people go insane from artillery,” said Volodymyr, a sniper, who is married and left his job at an Obolon beer factory to join the 93rd.
“We run zigzagging on the way to the bathroom,” he said. “There is fear. Some have more, some have less.”
“Sometimes the Russians fire multiple shells at the same place at once so the concussions resonate like an earthquake,” Kozin said.
“We had one guy lose his mind from this,” he added. “He just started stuttering one day and then he was gone.”
Many of the men are more frustrated with not being able to attack the enemy than by the day-to-day dangers -- they are eager for large-scale operations to resume so that they can escape the lethal drudgery of this static, long-range type of combat.
“Our brothers are still dying, and we are only holding the line,” Nemo said. “There must be movement sooner or later, this can’t go on forever. What we have now is just a bad joke.”
“For the majority of us it is frustrating,” Kozin said. “It is our land, and we will not sit here for 30 years. It won’t get better if things just stay like this. We need a solution.”
‘If They forget About Us, We Are Lost.’
At one position on the front lines (the steel door to the cellar within which the soldiers take shelter is folded like aluminum foil from the concussion of artillery) the Ukrainian soldiers play with a litter of kittens. At another location, a unit has adopted a stray German Shepherd named “Dina.”
One afternoon, Ivaskiv held Dina down, and while she whelped in pain he extracted a piece of artillery shrapnel from her neck with his bayonet knife. Dina accompanies the unit on patrols, and she sleeps in the cellar with the men at night. She becomes very frightened when the artillery starts up, and often hides under the dinner table by the soldiers’ feet.
Meals, for that matter, are special occasions. At night the soldiers laugh and joke over dinner.
“When I was working in the mines, we could tell who was a good worker by how much he ate,” Ivaskiv said at dinner one night. “So eat up.”
The food is simple, hearty fare, cooked on a small gas stove.
They sometimes cook fish, which is caught from the nearby stream, mixed with rice, potatoes or barley. Every now and then they get a little lazy and use extra explosives to bring up the fish, but mostly they do so with lines.
Soup, salad and bread are almost always served at meals. So is salted salo -- a Ukrainian specialty made of cured pig fat. The men sometimes eat salo and sweetened condensed milk for energy before long missions. Eggs are for breakfast, and lunches are usually drawn out as a way to escape the summer afternoon heat.
Special occasions, such as the birthdays of children, call for chicken cutlets that volunteers have brought in. There is also a special compote juice, which volunteers bring in big glass jars with berries in the bottom, which the men drink with abandon. Nearly everyone smokes, more from Ukrainian cultural habits than anything specific to the war. But there is a natural, collective need to light up after a heavy artillery attack or a close call with a sniper.
Civilian volunteers bring all the food. The Ukrainian government sparsely supplies the soldiers. Many Ukrainian troops sarcastically claim that the government in Kyiv only gives them guns and ammunition. Reality is not too far off from these typically sardonic battlefield complaints.
“The state is not really supportive,” Volodymyr said. “We rely mostly on volunteers.”
The Ukrainians wear mismatched uniforms that often have either been bought off the Internet or sent by friends or family. Most are still equipped with winter gear, and therefore go on patrol in T-shirts to avoid the summer heat. Uniforms, boots, body armor, food, water, first aid kits, cigarettes, rifle scopes, night vision goggles (designed for hunting, not war), portable devices for plotting enemy artillery—it all comes from civilian volunteers who raise money to buy these things and then drive them to front lines in old, bullet-riddled minivans or SUVs.
“The Ukrainian government has forgotten about us for a long time, but the Ukrainian nation has not forgotten about us,” Nemo said. “It is inspiring to see the volunteers.”
“The main pillar of our psychological strength is the support of people back home,” he added. “If they forget about us, we are lost.”---- ---- ---- ----
This morning I heard that Daniel Kasyanenko was killed in action during a mortar attack outside the Donetsk Airport. He was only 19, and he was a friend. He was a young man who was aware, more aware than most of us, of how the war was affecting him. He was afraid it would ruin his spirit, and that, at 19, he was already running out of time.
I wrote this about Daniel in one of my articles. And in the video below, you can hear Daniel in his own words. We should all listen to what he had to say.
“We were sitting around the table one night after dinner when Daniel came by for a visit. It was dark when he arrived, hours past when he was supposed to have left his post. He had been in a battle that evening, he said, a bad one.
There was sniper and machine-gun fire and artillery falling all around. He wasn’t even able to shoot back, he said, because it was so intense. He could only low-crawl through the trenches to find cover and wait it out. Yet, when describing the battle, he said: “It was really awesome. Really awesome.” He gave a thumbs up and smiled broadly.
He looked tired, though, and when he sat down he chugged several glasses of water and then juice. He filled his plate with food and ate well. He glided easily into the conversation as if he were a 19-year-old just getting home from afternoon sports practice rather than a day of combat.
Daniel had a soft, tanned face, small dark eyes, and patchy young man’s beard, which he had let grow around his neckline and upper lip like many other young Ukrainian soldiers. He wore a cross on his wrist.
He spoke English in a staccato, halting way, sometimes staring off when he was stuck on a word, either because of the translation or because he was explaining an idea that is hard to express in any language. Daniel was unique in his ability to put the toll of the war in context. Even at his age, he already understood the unalterable changes occurring in him. He recognized that he was spending the formative years of his manhood in a place where all that life owed him -- years, love, family, career -- all those things could disappear any second in a white flash and red heat and dark nothing.
Soldiers such as Daniel escape death by seconds and inches every day. Others get it. Yet, time after time, they survive. You are either one of the lucky ones, or a name that you make a toast to before dinner with a sad shake of the head.”
[Editor’s note: Daniel Kasyanenko was with the Ukrainian Army’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade stationed in Pisky].[... video ...]
MARIUPOL, Ukraine -- A mortar killed Daniel Kasyanenko on a battlefield in eastern Ukraine. He was 19 years old.
He died on Aug. 6, 2015, almost six months after the Feb. 12, 2015 cease-fire. He was one of 18 Ukrainian soldiers to die in a 10-day stretch from Aug. 1 to Aug. 10, 2015; 98 Ukrainian soldiers were wounded in combat during the same period.
Daniel Kasyanenko’s death reflects a truth: The notion that there is, or ever was, a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine is a farce.
I met Daniel in mid June 2015, seven weeks before he died. We were in Pisky, a frontline city on the outskirts of Donetsk. I was there as an embedded journalist, and Daniel was there as a soldier fighting in the Ukrainian army’s 93rd Brigade. He had been on the front lines for two months.[... video ...] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIe5N51I_RU
A group of us, about a half-dozen soldiers and two other journalists, were standing inside a cluster of farmhouses on a sunny day with blue skies as the sounds of battle cut through intermittently. We all ducked at the sporadic Doppler zaps and supersonic pops of bullets passing overhead.
Zip, zap, pop, phew.
It almost sounded like birds chirping. Almost. So long as one forgot that each chirp was the lethal song of a trigger pulled with the intent to kill.
I was speaking English to another Ukrainian soldier, wiping away beads of sweat from my forehead (whether due to the heat or the nearby bullets, I’m unsure), when a young man with a buzz cut, tan face and narrow dark eyes looked over at me with an expression instantly recognizable as a desire to talk. He introduced himself in near flawless English and said his name was Daniel. He had a story he wanted to tell, I could see that. I asked if I could film him, and he agreed.
We talked for a while, dropping to the ground when the deadly chirping got a little too close for comfort.
Zip, zap, pop, phew.
“It is the DNR army shooting at us,” Daniel said, looking to the sky in the direction of fire. “The separatist Russian army.”
“So, this is … this is Pisky,” he added after another barrage of bullets, smiling and laughing like he was delivering the punch line of a joke.
Daniel’s fellow soldiers gave him the nom de guerre “Mobile Phone” because he was always taking photos with his cell phone. While I was in Pisky he ruined that phone, shattering the screen when he dove to the ground during an artillery barrage. He was going to ask a friend from back home to send him a new one, he said, explaining that his hometown friends had sent him his uniforms, body armor and first aid kit. The rest of his equipment came from civilian volunteers. He said the government only gave him weapons and ammunition.
Daniel told me how much he wanted to go home to Zaporizhia. He also talked about how hard it was to kill, and how it was even harder to see his friends die. He explained, revealing an understanding of human nature remarkable for a 19-year-old, that he did not hate his enemies. He said many were probably fighting for their friends like he was.
As a journalist, whose job it is to remain impartial in war, it was a challenge maintaining moral relativism toward those trying to kill me. Yet Daniel, a 19-year-old combatant, seemed to understand with an ease that eluded me the universality of duty. He didn’t take combat personally.
Daniel said he had joined the military to defend his country from what he considered to be a Russian invasion. He called it a “real war.” Yet, he said he was the only one of his friends to volunteer for military service.
“They don’t know what is war,” he told me, talking about his friends back in Zaporizhia.
“They sit there,” he continued, “but here, they don’t want to go here. When I was going here, I said to my friends, ‘Come with me, we will fight for our home, for our land.’ They said, ‘You know, I’m studying, I have leg broke … ’ I was thinking, ‘OK, good-bye. I go.’”
He had only been on the front for two months, but he had seen combat almost every day since he arrived in Pisky. Like many Ukrainian soldiers who volunteered after the war began in spring 2014 (Daniel was part of the Karpatska Sich volunteer battalion, which was recently integrated into the 93rd Brigade), he only received a few weeks of training before leaving for the front. Most of his training occurred in combat. He would shadow the older, more experienced soldiers, learning lessons they had themselves learned the hard way. And when he saw others die, he would learn from their mistakes.
One soldier described the battlefield education of Ukrainian troops in Pisky as “natural selection.”
One poignant lesson Daniel had learned -- which he explained to me over a lunch of borscht, sweetened condensed milk and salo -- was to always wear eye protection. He showed me his ballistic sunglasses, which were designed not to shatter from projectiles. There was a deep divot on the right lens.
Daniel said he was in the trenches when the separatists shot at his position with a machine gun, creating a hailstorm of bullet fragments and shattered pieces of concrete from the barrier behind which he was hiding. One of those tiny pieces of shrapnel struck the right lens of his sunglasses, gouging out the divot. Without the special ballistic lens he would have lost his eye. But now he needed a new pair, he explained, adding that he couldn’t afford the expense and the Ukrainian army doesn’t supply things like eye protection. Civilian volunteers had given him the pair he had. So he planned on waiting for the next volunteer equipment delivery.
“Maybe I’ll get lucky,” he said.
Daniel was superstitious like many of the soldiers on the front lines. He had frequent brushes with death; seconds and inches determined his fate on a daily basis. And there was ultimately no explanation for his survival that made more sense than the crucifix bracelet on his wrist, or the letter from an elementary school student that he kept tucked in the front pocket of his body armor.
Daniel was committed to the war, but admitted he was tired. He was worried about the psychological toll of the endless combat and wondered if he had seen too many terrible things to ever be a normal young man again. He feared that, at 19, his spirit was already ruined for life.
“I want to go home, just for a bit,” he said. “Just for a week.”
Do you get tired of the battles?
“Physically, no. Morale, I’m tired. Very tired.”
In the evenings, Daniel would come by the basement in which we lived to share a meal and talk. He had a lot of questions about life in America.
“What is Thanksgiving?” he asked. “What are the beaches like in Miami? Are the women in Los Angeles pretty? Do they really wear cowboy hats in Texas?”
His dream, he told me, was to go to America. That was why he studied English so diligently. He liked American rock and rap music, and he knew the Hollywood action movies by heart, frequently dropping quotes by Schwarzenegger, Willis and Stallone.
“Get to the chopper,” he would say in a German accent before going on patrol, quoting a Schwarzenegger line from the movie “Predator.” Ironic, since wounded Ukrainian troops are carted off the battlefield in the backs of bullet-hole riddled minivans and SUVs, not medevac helicopters.
The Ukrainian air force was banned from the conflict area according to the first cease-fire signed Sept. 5, 2014. For the past 11 months Ukrainian troops have fought from the trenches in eastern Ukraine without air support or the possibility of helicopter evacuations. Consequently, wounded Ukrainian soldiers almost never reach an emergency room within the “golden hour” of combat casualty care.
“You have no second chance here,” Daniel told me. “If you get injured, it’s just you and your medical kit. And nobody will help you, only you.”
Daniel truly knew about war, unlike the action-movie actors he could quote. And he knew it wasn’t like in the movies. Daniel, more than many soldiers twice his age, recognized the things he would have to carry with him for the rest of his life because of what he had seen and done.
“I want to get out of these battles,” he said. “I want to forget it. But I can’t.”
Daniel was supposed to stop by and say goodbye the day I left Pisky, but he never showed up. He later emailed me and apologized. The day before I left a mortar fell inside the trench he was in. The shrapnel missed him, he explained, but the concussion knocked him unconscious, leaving him with what he described as a “head contusion.” I suspected he had likely suffered a concussion or maybe even a traumatic brain injury. But after a few weeks in a hospital to recover and a couple days at home, he was back at the front.
“I’m OK, but sometimes it’s not so good,” he emailed me before he left home for the last time.
“I need to take a day off to Florida as fast as I can,” he added.
In “Into Thin Air,” his account of the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest, Jon Krakauer wrote:
… I agree that readers are often poorly served when an author writes as an act of catharsis, as I have done here. But I hoped something would be gained by spilling my soul in the calamity’s immediate aftermath, in the roil and torment of the moment.
Thus, my writing about Daniel is not meant to cure any sadness over his death, although it helps a little, nor is it a humanist ploy to give the war a face in the hope of making you care about it.
No, explaining who Daniel was, why he fought and how he died is meant to be a warning, because Daniel’s story could have been an American soldier’s story.
And if our leaders continue to downplay what is at stake in the Ukraine war -- it will be.
LONDON -- For the
last year, I’ve been reporting on the Ukraine war. I’ve been back and
forth to the front lines, embedded with Ukrainian troops and civilian
volunteers. I’ve been on the receiving end of Russian weapons,
including tanks, heavy artillery, mortars, machine guns, grenade
launchers, sniper rifles, and good ol’-fashioned Kalashnikovs.
I don’t know for sure the nationalities of the soldiers on the other side of no man’s land who were trying to kill me. There’s nothing distinctive about the sound of an incoming shell or bullet that indicates whether the finger pulling the trigger was Russian, Chechen, Serb, or a bona fide Ukrainian separatist.
But I do know this: One cannot buy tanks, heavy artillery, drones, and surface-to-air missiles (like the one used to shoot down MH-17) from a department store in eastern Ukraine. I checked. And one cannot learn how to effectively use this equipment in combat from a YouTube video.
Additionally, the attacks I witnessed were coordinated with drones and other sophisticated technology like communications jamming. Ukrainian troops near the front were instructed not to use their cell phones because combined Russian-separatist forces were using the signals to target artillery. That’s sophisticated stuff, similar to some of the technology the U.S. uses in combat.
The old maxim in journalism is Show, don’t tell. Well, that’s what I saw on the eastern Ukrainian battlefields. You decide whether or not Russia is involved.
After a year of reporting on the war in Ukraine, I decided to take a little time off to cover a war my own country is fighting -- Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. I was looking forward to the opportunity to be around some fellow Americans, visit the base BX to pick up my favorite energy drink (Blue Monster) and my favorite protein bars (chocolate chip cookie dough Quest Bars), and to be re-immersed in deployed military life.
There was something else I was looking forward to.
At least while I’m in the Middle East, I thought, I won’t be dealing with the Russians for a while.
You probably know how this story goes. I arrived at an undisclosed location in the Persian Gulf region as the news broke that Russian warplanes, tanks, missiles, artillery, and troops were arriving in Syria. And on Wednesday [30Sep2015], Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships dropped bombs north of Homs, 100 miles north of the capital of Damascus, marking the first combat use of Russian air power in the conflict.
According to news reports, Russia has also made diplomatic headway in the region, signing an intelligence-sharing pact with Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Presumably, many pundits assert, these moves are to defend Moscow’s key naval port in Tartus by keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power. Others have a more cynical take on the Kremlin’s moves, however, claiming that Russia is looking to undermine U.S. leadership in the war on ISIS and become the new dominant power player in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin alluded to as much during a speech Monday [28Sep2015] before the U.N. General Assembly, in which he took direct aim at U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa:
This article first appeared on the Daily Signal.
Kiev, Ukraine --The young man never told anyone he was going to war.
The 20-year-old student at Kiev’s Taras Shevchenko National University slipped away in June 2014 to join a civilian paramilitary group fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The young man, whose name was Sviatoslav Horbenko, was a star pupil at the university’s Institute of Philology, where he studied Japanese. When he transferred from a university in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine, during his third year, he had to retake 17 exams.
He aced them all.
“There was no bellicose air about him,” said Serhiy Yanchuk, an associate professor at Taras Shevchenko University and coordinator of the university’s Students Guard, a volunteer militia comprising students and faculty.
“He never acted or behaved aggressively for his personal cause,” Yanchuk said. “He was friendly, warm hearted, and an easy-going person. One would surely want to be a friend of such a guy.”
“He was an exceptional student,” said Ivan Bondarenko, a professor who heads the university’s Institute of Philology. “And he was an inspiration to all of us.”
Horbenko’s angular features and piercing eyes distinguished him physically, reflecting the intensity of his inner convictions. His work ethic and natural intelligence set him apart from his peers academically, inspiring high hopes for the future among those who knew him well.
Horbenko’s father, Olexander Horbenko, is a surgeon. He volunteered to treat wounded protesters in Kiev during the 2014 revolution.
The younger Horbenko was active in pro-revolution groups in Kharkiv, where he was studying at the time. As the revolution became violent in February 2014, Olexander Horbenko encouraged his son to transfer to Kiev to continue his studies due to the threat of reprisals against protesters by authorities in Kharkiv.
At his father’s behest, the younger Horbenko moved to Kiev and settled into life and his studies at Taras Shevchenko National University.
And then, a few months after the war began in the summer of 2014, Sviatoslav Horbenko disappeared. Without telling his friends, family, or teachers, he joined Right Sector, a civilian volunteer battalion, to fight at the battle for the Donetsk airport.
Olexander Horbenko ultimately was able to track Sviatoslav down at boot camp. The father tried to dissuade his son from going to war. But Sviatoslav was determined.
“That was my last meeting with him alive, our unforgettable conversation,” Olexander Horbenko later said. “Sviatoslav considered defending his fatherland as his duty, and he developed the strong bonds of military comradeship.”
At their parting, the elder Horbenko placed a necklace with an icon and a cross around his son’s neck. It was the same necklace worn by his own father -- Sviatoslav’s grandfather -- during World War II when he fought the Nazis. And Olexander had worn it as he weathered sniper fire on the Maidan during the revolution.
“And I let him go,” Olexander Horbenko said. It was the last time he saw his son alive.
In September 2014, Sviatoslav Horbenko stepped onto the battlefield for the first time. One month later, on October 3, 2014, he ran into the line of fire to rescue a wounded comrade.
While Horbenko dragged the man to safety, a tank shot at them. A piece of shrapnel from the round went into Horbenko’s neck, slicing his carotid artery. He was dead within minutes. As for the soldier he had run out to save -- he survived.
“Death takes the best of us,” said Denys Antipov, an instructor at Taras Shevchenko University and a veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine.
Because Horbenko served in a civilian volunteer battalion, he is not officially recognized as a combatant by the Ukrainian government. He has not received any posthumous decorations, and his family has not received the compensation of about $23,000 that typically is given to the families of fallen soldiers.
“His family feels really humiliated by such ignorance,” said Yanchuk, the professor who coordinates the university’s Students Guard.
The second battle for the Donetsk airport, for which Horbenko volunteered, was fought at close quarters, and it was brutal.
Opposing troops sometimes holed up on different floors of the same building. For months, soldiers on both sides endured near constant shelling, tank shots, rocket attacks, close-quarters gunfights and even hand-to-hand fighting, according to some Ukrainian soldiers who fought in the battle.
Ukrainian soldiers had taken control of the airport in May 2014, during the opening weeks of the war. That September, weeks after the conflict’s first cease-fire, combined Russian-separatist forces launched an offensive -- comprising heavy armor, artillery, and rocket attacks -- to take back the airport.
What followed was an apocalyptic showdown that lasted until January 2015.[War video, 01:09:33]
The Ukrainians gave the nickname “cyborgs” to their soldiers who fought at the Donetsk airport -- a reference to the science fiction beings that are a fusion of man and machine. It alluded to the superhuman grit required to endure such intense and brutal fighting, and a mechanical ability to endure endless fear and suffering.
Donetsk’s Sergey Prokofiev International Airport was rebuilt in 2011 for the Euro 2012 soccer championships. More than 1 million passengers passed through the facility in 2013, the year before the war started, on airlines including Lufthansa and Aeroflot.
The new terminal was stylish and modern. It featured manicured landscaping, polished floors, and chic metal detailing. A bellwether, many hoped, for Ukraine’s more prosperous future.
As the war in Ukraine evolved from skirmishes to artillery and tank battles in 2014, the Donetsk airport became a key prize. The opposing sides fought savagely for its control. Artillery and rocket attacks reduced the modern buildings to gutted ruins of crumbling concrete and twisted rebar.
Runways and the surrounding open spaces were churned into a cratered lunarscape, reminiscent of images of no man’s land from World War I battles like the Somme or Verdun.
The charred skeletons of planes littered the tarmac. The physical destruction evidenced the intensity of the battle, and the hellish conditions soldiers on both sides endured.
Surrounding villages like Pisky, about 1 mile from the airport perimeter, where Ukrainian troops staged for battle and fired artillery, also were reduced to demolished ghost towns by reciprocal separatist artillery, rockets, and tanks.
Yet, even amid the bloodletting, the opposing sides were able to demonstrate fleeting acts of humanity. Soldiers who fought at the airport described short truces, during which officers ventured out to collect the dead. Enemies walked among each other, their desire to kill undimmed, but held in check to honor the fallen men under their command.
Pro-Russian separatists, commanded and supported by Russian regulars and armed with Russian weapons, ultimately won control of the airport in January 2015. Ukrainian forces pulled back to nearby villages where they dug in for a protracted, static, long-range battle.
Two years later, Ukrainian forces still are entrenched on the periphery of the airport. Both sides fight from trenches and abandoned, artillery-blasted homes and buildings in a daily, tit-for-tat exchange of artillery and sniper fire.
The fighting has de-escalated from the death spiral of the winter of 2014-2015, but it hasn’t ended.
The students filled the hallway at the appointed hour. They squeezed, shoulder to shoulder, leaving a pocket of empty space in front of the table with the flowers, which was next to a poster with a picture of Sviatoslav Horbenko and some details about his life.
Behind the table and the poster was the entrance to the room at Taras Shevchenko University’s Institute of Philology that was named in Horbenko’s honor.
It was the second anniversary of Horbenko’s death. Some students held flowers. Others stood quietly, with their hands clasped in front of them.
“He would have made a good professor, a good husband,” Antipov, a 27-year-old teacher and war veteran, told the students gathered at the memorial ceremony.
“Do whatever you can to help our country,” Antipov told them. “But the most important thing you can do is to study, so that his death wasn’t in vain.”
Down the hall from the ceremony was a wall display featuring pictures of students and faculty who served in past military conflicts, including Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian sniper for the Red Army credited with 309 kills in World War II.
Horbenko’s picture is now among the others.
“History constantly repeats,” Antipov said.
About 200 students and faculty from Taras Shevchenko National University died fighting in World War II. The history of students volunteering for war dates back to the Battle of Kruty in 1918, during the Russian Civil War.
About 300 students, along with about 100 free Cossacks, mobilized to defend Kiev against a force of about 5,000 Bolsheviks. The students holed up at the Kruty railway station on the outskirts of the city, but eventually were overwhelmed.
More than half of the combined force of students and Cossacks died in the battle. Kiev ultimately fell to the Bolsheviks and, along with the rest of Ukraine, was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
The legacy of the students who fought at the Battle of Kruty inspired the formation in 2014 of the group called the Students Guard. Under the direction of Yanchuk, approximately 200 students and faculty members have received military training as part of an auxiliary guerrilla force dedicated to Kiev’s defense.
“Our goal is to train students to take up arms in the event of an emergency,” Yanchuk, the coordinator, said.
Life in Kiev is moving on from the war, even though it hasn’t ended yet and the front lines are only a six-hour train ride from Ukraine’s capital city.
There is a film festival in Kiev this week. The hip underground speakeasies in the city center are filled every night with patrons sipping on craft cocktails while jazz bands play covers of American songs.
At the Art-Zavod Platforma on the left bank, a former Soviet industrial space is now an art flea market and a venue for food festivals and concerts nearly every weekend.
The coffee bars in central Kiev perpetually are filled with hipsters and students. The foreign journalists who used to be an ubiquitous presence largely have left. Only a few stalwart holdouts remain, convinced that the forgotten conflict in the east still holds the potential to spiral into something much worse.
“Here in Kiev, the mass media, the political leadership tries to make the war look far away,” said Vasyl Yutovets, a student at Taras Shevchenko University and commander of the Students Guard. “We try to remember that the war is far from over. The threat is growing day by day.”
Yet, despite the distractions of youth, and many Ukrainians’ blind eye to the ongoing combat in the east, some students haven’t forgotten about the war.
“The hardest part is not going to the front line,” said Yutovets, who served in Ukraine’s National Guard and is a veteran of the war.
“But returning is hard, too,” Yutovets said, adding:
I can’t imagine doing nothing while our country is suffering. We are still hopeful for our future. When the war began, it was very easy to get to the front lines. We realized, then, it was our duty to support the war.
Civilian defense battalions like the Students Guard are also a hedge against further Russian aggression, Yanchuk said.
“When [Russian President Vladimir] Putin encounters the possibility of fighting territorial defense battalions, militias, or even students, it acts as a deterrent,” Yanchuk said.
Yanchuk served in Ukraine’s armed forces for three years and took part in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo. He also participated in joint training events with the U.S. military at bases in Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas.
Yanchuk leverages his military experience and his personal connections with Ukrainian military instructors to organize training events for the Students Guard.
The group conducts weekend training events, including first-aid courses, field training exercises, and weapons training. The group also runs specialty courses, including training on mines and booby traps, tactical mountaineering, and a basic sniper course.
The Students Guard at Taras Shevchenko University is another instance of Ukrainians’ enterprising solutions to their country’s myriad problems independent of official government channels.
“Civil society is two, or three, or five steps ahead of the government,” Yanchuk said. “Civil society is winning the war, despite all efforts from Ukrainian and Russian politicians.”
In eastern Ukraine, grassroots humanitarian groups have popped up to address the needs of Ukraine’s 1.7 million internally displaced persons as a result of the war. Across the country, veterans’ groups have formed to help returning soldiers reintegrate into civilian life and deal with the psychological consequences of combat.
And as fighting in the Donbas continues, volunteer civilian territorial defense battalions remain ready to defend their respective cities in the event of a Russian invasion.
Harkening back to the legacy of partisan groups of World War II, Ukrainians took their country’s defense largely into their own hands in the opening months of the war in 2014.
As the pro-Russian separatists and their Russian military handlers seized town after town in eastern Ukraine, some feared a march on Kiev, which could have split the country in two. In the eyes of many Ukrainians who volunteered to fight, the war in the Donbas had become an existential battle for the country’s survival.
The Ukrainian military was at that point a ragtag force. Its soldiers were a motley mix of draftees and recruits; equipment reserves had been depleted by decades of plundering by corrupt oligarchs and arms dealers.
With the regular army on its back foot, civilian volunteer battalions formed out of the remnants of protest groups active during the revolution. These paramilitary groups mainly comprised young men with no military experience, although some veterans from the Red Army, including Afghanistan veterans, also were in the ranks.
“There was a real chance the front could have collapsed in 2014,” Antipov said. “Nobody knew what was going to happen. So, many young people wanted to train for guerrilla warfare.”
Initially armed with hand-me-down weapons from local police forces, or collected from the enemy dead, the volunteer battalions stalled the combined Russian-separatist march across eastern Ukraine.
“There was no army in 2014,” Antipov said. “In my opinion, the volunteer battalions were the only reason we kept our independence. Why else would the Russian tanks have stopped in 2014?”
Then, in August 2014, thousands of Russian regulars streamed into eastern Ukraine to reverse the Ukrainian offensive. At the time, it looked like Ukraine was facing a full-scale Russian invasion.
“We were concerned in the summer of 2014 of how far Putin was willing to go,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt told The Daily Signal in an earlier interview.
“If the Russians broke through, there was no stopping them,” Pyatt said. “We were concerned that Putin was deploying enough force to mass an invasion.”
Although hundreds of miles from the front lines, some in Kiev began to prepare for a partisan, guerrilla defense of the city.
Spray painted signs indicating the nearest bomb shelter became ubiquitous -- they still are. City authorities issued instructions on how to use the metro as a bomb shelter.
Officials across the country made similar preparations for war. The Ukrainian military built anti-tank trenches around Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, the country’s second-largest city. And local officials and civilian groups built a network of fortified checkpoints around Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), Ukraine’s fourth-largest city.
Ultimately, Ukraine’s cobbled-together military was able to thwart the combined Russian-separatist advance at several key places, including the battle for Mariupol. Today, many credit the civilian volunteer battalions with turning the tide of war and fundamentally reshaping the Kremlin’s strategic objectives in Ukraine.
“It was Ukraine’s improvised army that held it all together [in 2014],” Pyatt, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said.
Later, after the ceremony to honor Horbenko, members of the Students Guard gathered in a nearby lecture hall to speak with this foreign correspondent.
Yanchuk was among the students and faculty members. He wore a pressed suit and tie and carried himself with military bearing as he explained the history and the mission of the Students Guard by giving a PowerPoint presentation that would make any U.S. military officer proud.
Yanchuk never met Sviatoslav Horbenko, yet he spoke reverently about the young man, explaining how the courage and sacrifice of Ukrainian millennials could finally put an end to Ukraine’s generational cycle of war and revolution.
Yanchuk posthumously enlisted Horbenko in the Students Guard in 2015.
“The war leaves scars,” Yanchuk said. “Both physical and moral.”
The 39-year-old teacher and Ukrainian army veteran then beamed with pride as he talked about the students who volunteered for the Students Guard, and their willingness to spend weekends training for their country’s defense.
“In the U.S., college life is associated with fraternities and parties,” Yanchuk said. “For these students, they have to seriously consider the possibility of fighting to defend their homes from a Russian invasion.”
The students were initially reluctant to speak openly about their fears and hopes. But they began to speak freely (and mostly in English), revealing a resilient hope that life will get better.
“My hope is very strong,” said Olga Makhinya, a student at Taras Shevchenko University and a member of the Students Guard. “I want to live in a united Ukraine. My native country, without war, without problems.”
But there was also a pervasive sense that the struggle is far from over. Their youthful, romantic vision of the future was moderated by a sober cynicism born from a collective exposure to violence.
“The time of idealistic and romantic people is over,” Yutovets said. “Now is the time to be pragmatic. We shouldn’t give up.”
Many of the young people gathered in the lecture hall that day had witnessed lethal violence, whether on the front lines in the Donbas, as the veterans had, or during the 2014 revolution. They shared a common bond and a collective sense of sacrifice.
“We don’t have faith,” said Viacheslav Masniy, a 24-year-old Ph.D. student and a veteran of the war in the Donbas. “Faith is to pray and wait. We are willing to struggle. We are tired of hiding our identity, like our parents did in the Soviet Union.”
These students and faculty considered the conflict in the Donbas to be a fight for their country’s independence from Russia and freedom to foster closer ties with Western Europe.
“Our enemies are not fighting for their freedom,” Masniy said. “They are fighting to destroy our country. They don’t believe we are a nation, or that we are a state.”
But Ukraine’s better future will not happen automatically. The students and faculty, mostly in their early and mid-20s, repeated a commonly held opinion among Ukraine’s millennials -- that the “Homo Sovieticus” mindset of the older generations is beyond fixing, and real change in Ukraine will be possible only when the younger generations, for whom the Soviet Union is not a living memory, take power.
“I think that the future of our country depends on our generation,” said Olga Svysiuk, a student at Taras Shevchenko University and a member of the Students Guard.
“Our example shows other people that we can change the situation for the better,” Svysiuk said. “We can change everything, if we want to do it.”
“We don’t just need heroes,” Masniy said. “We need to build a country.”Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot and a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, is The Daily Signal’s foreign correspondent based in Ukraine.
KYIV, Ukraine -- A planned missile test over the Black Sea spurs a Kremlin threat to shoot down the missiles and possibly target the launch sites.
An eleventh-hour compromise is reached, defusing an act of brinkmanship, which could have sparked an all-out war.
An episode between NATO and Moscow during the Cold War? Or, perhaps, the latest chapter in the contemporary conflict between NATO and Russia, which some have dubbed a “new” Cold War?
Rather, the aforementioned sequence of events was the most recent episode in a nearly 3-year-old conflict, in which Russia and Ukraine -- the two countries with the largest land armies in Europe -- have repeatedly tiptoed to the edge of all-out war.
“Ukraine does not want to be someone’s post-Soviet reintegration project,” Serhii Plokhy, a Ukrainian history professor at Harvard University, told New Eastern Europe, a news magazine.
On Dec. 1, 2016, Ukraine announced it had successfully tested 16 medium range surface-to-air missiles within a designated airspace over the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s missile test met the airspace requirements mandated under international law, providing a buffer of at least 19 miles from Russian airspace extending from the Crimean Peninsula, a territory Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
But as tensions with Russia neared a boiling point, Ukrainian officials shifted the airspace further away from Crimea.
The test ultimately went off without starting a war (or, more correctly, without escalating the one that’s already ongoing in eastern Ukraine), and both Ukraine and Russia sheathed their well-rattled sabers.
Just three months prior, in early August, Ukraine and Russia had gone to the brink of war after several sabotage attacks and skirmishes in Crimea, which Russia said were organized by Ukraine’s armed forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of provoking a conflict and pursuing a “policy of terror.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denied the allegations, calling them “insane.”
In Crimea, some of the 45,000 Russian troops stationed there began to concentrate in the north near the Ukrainian border.
Ukrainian military units went on the “highest level of alert,” and Poroshenko ordered the deployment of heavy weaponry near the Crimean border, according to Ukrainian government statements at the time.
And on Aug. 12, 2016, Russia deployed S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missiles to Crimea. The missiles’ range covers about 60 percent of Ukraine’s territory, according to an analysis by IHS Markit.
“These fantasies pursue only one goal,” Poroshenko said in a statement emailed to journalists in August. “A pretext for more military threats against Ukraine.”
Eastern Europe is no longer a geopolitical no man’s land over which NATO and Moscow jockey for control.
The region is a multipolar powder keg perpetually ebbing and flowing to the brink of regional war as Russia harasses post-Soviet states from the Black Sea to the Baltics in a gambit to reassert influence over what the Kremlin considers its “near abroad.”
A War by Any Other Name:
More than 10,000 soldiers and civilians have already died in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops are squared off in static, trench warfare against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars.
It is Europe’s only ongoing land war, comprising the two largest standing armies on the Continent. It is also a war in which one of the players, Russia, wields the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal.
The two sides continue to trade artillery and mortar shots and engage in small arms gunfights every day across hundreds of miles of front lines in the Donbas, Ukraine’s embattled southeastern region on the border with Russia.
The U.S. role in the conflict is limited to a training mission for the Ukrainian military in the western part of the country about 800 miles from the front lines, as well as various advisory missions.
The U.S. has provided Ukraine with nonlethal military hardware and supplies, including Humvees, Raven drones, counter battery radar systems, and meals ready to eat (MREs).
Lethal military aid for Ukraine is an ongoing topic of debate in Washington.
When U.S. lawmakers debate whether to arm Ukraine, they typically focus on how an influx of U.S. weapons will affect the current conflict in the Donbas. There are concerns that U.S. weapons could worsen the conflict, or spur the Kremlin to supply more arms to the separatist side.
But Ukraine isn’t asking for U.S. military assistance to fight trench skirmishes in the Donbas -- it wants anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons to stop a Russian invasion.
“Our enemy is the country, the territory of which is equal to one-ninth of the land area on the Earth, and a military budget a dozen times higher than ours,” Poroshenko said during a speech at Ukraine’s Independence Day parade in Kyiv in August.
Fight or Flight
Ukraine now has the second-largest standing army in Europe; Russia has the largest.
After a two-year crash course to rebuild its military, Ukraine has increased its active-duty ranks from 150,000 to 250,000 troops.
(France has about 209,000 active troops, Germany has about 176,750 active troops, Spain has about 133,000, Poland has about 101,500, and the U.K. has about 153,600.)
Ukraine rebuilt its army “almost from scratch within two years,” Poroshenko said in the Independence Day speech.
Today, “Ukraine is capable of defending itself, but requires further support,” Poroshenko said.
Ukraine has also increased its defense budget to about $6 billion, representing roughly 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Military spending is set to increase by about 10 percent annually.
Russia, which has three times the population of Ukraine and 10 times the GDP, has an active-duty force of about 800,000 with a reserve force of 2 million. Russia’s 2015 defense budget was about $65 billion -- roughly 10 times that of Ukraine and on par with the United Kingdom.
Ukraine’s annual defense budget is still a fraction of Western military powers, such as France (about $36 billion), Germany (about $37 billion), and the United Kingdom (about $65 billion).
Ukraine’s military strength, however, lies in the size of its army, and the quantity of military hardware at its disposal.
Ukraine, for example, currently operates more than 2,800 tanks -- compared with 423 in France, 407 in the U.K., and 408 in Germany.
And Ukraine’s arsenal comprises 625 multiple launch rocket systems -- compared with 44 in France, 42 in the U.K., and Germany’s 50.
Yet, while Ukraine maintains a numerical advantage over other European nations in terms of troops and conventional weapons, its military needs to modernize. Much of Ukraine’s arsenal dates from the Cold War.
Eastern Europe is rapidly militarizing.
According to Ukrainian military reports, combined Russian-separatist forces in the Donbas now wield about 700 tanks, 1,200 armored vehicles, 1,000 pieces of artillery, and 300 multiple launch rocket systems.
This puts the combined Russian-separatist forces in control of more tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, and artillery pieces than the armed forces of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Among EU countries, only Poland controls more tanks than combined Russian-separatist forces possess in the Donbas.
According to Ukrainian military reports, as well as reports from civilian intelligence firms, there are about 1,500 to 5,000 Russian regulars currently operating in the Donbas in tandem with a separatist force of about 40,000 troops.
Russia also has about 55,000 military personnel forward deployed to bases on the Ukrainian border, Ukraine’s military said.
Russia has also built up a heavy military presence in Crimea. The Ukrainian military says Russia has about 45,000 military personnel inside the occupied peninsula.
Since 2010, Russian military spending has gone up by 80 percent, according to NATO.
Russian military spending surged by 28.6 percent in 2015 alone. Russia’s initial 2016 military budget called for an 8 percent reduction in overall military spending, but a late budget addition this year boosted overall military spending to about 3.89 trillion rubles (about $62.4 billion) -- a 14 percent jump from 2015 spending, in real terms, according to a NATO report published on the alliance’s website.
Russia is about midway through a 10-year military modernization project, called the State Armaments Program. From 2010 to 2020, the Kremlin’s military overhaul project plans to spend 19 trillion rubles, about $647 billion at the average exchange rate in 2011, across all branches of the Russian armed forces.
Despite a 3.7 percent fall in GDP in 2015, and a projected 0.8 percent decline this year, Russia is still on track to meet 17.5 trillion of its pledged 19 trillion rubles for the overhaul.
Russia’s military adventures in Ukraine rattled the former Soviet countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- all NATO members. Military spending across the Baltic countries has consequently surged.
In 2020, the combined defense budgets of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are projected to have increased by 226 percent over 2005 levels -- from $930 million to $2.1 billion.
Latvia and Lithuania have had the two fastest growing defense budgets in the world since 2014, according to IHS Jane’s. And by 2018, the three Baltic states will have each doubled or tripled their budgets from 10 years ago, said Craig Caffrey, principal analyst at IHS Jane’s.
“This growth is faster than any other region globally,” Caffrey said.
The Military-Industrial Complex:
Ukrainian society and industry are becoming more martial due to the conflict with Russia.
For one, Ukraine has embarked on a piecemeal reconstitution of its military-industrial complex. This revival has, however, been fraught with accusations of corruption and bureaucratic resistance to change.
Ukraine has the legacy industrial infrastructure to be a major arms producer. According to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Ukraine was the world’s ninth-largest arms exporter in the period from 2011 to 2015.
During the Soviet era, Ukraine was an industrial hub for producing weapons and military hardware. The Soviet model, however, required production to be scattered across different Soviet countries, so that no one country was exclusively relied upon to produce vital military hardware.
The Soviet military-industrial complex was a collective effort across the USSR. Today, Ukraine is consequently left with production gaps from the Soviet era.
An example: Antonov, Ukraine’s largest state-owned aircraft producer, had previously relied on parts from Russian suppliers. Due to the war, however, those suppliers have been cut off.
Antonov now produces about three aircraft a year, according to Ukrainian news reports. The company needs to produce about 12 aircraft annually to be profitable.
In a statement published to its website, Ukroboronprom, Ukraine’s nationalized defense production conglomerate, said it was operating at less than half its production capacity due to “underfunding of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, which occurred due to the lack of legislative changes.”
The Ukrainian government allocated 13.5 billion hryvnias (about $500 million) in 2016 to repair, modernize, and produce new weapons for its armed forces.
Ukroboronprom said it received only 32.6 percent of this amount -- 4.4 billion hryvnias, or about $163 million -- from the government. Out of that payment, 1.6 billion hryvnias ($59 million) went to repair military equipment, and 2.8 billion hryvnias ($104 million) to produce new weapons.
Ukrainian society has also adapted to the state of perpetual conflict with Russia.
Across the country, civilians regularly meet on the weekends for military training. They comprise a network of partisan forces called territorial defense battalions.
These civilian volunteer paramilitary units, which can be rapidly mobilized to defend against a Russian invasion, are not official military units. But they receive training, equipment, and in some cases, arms from the regular military.
This grassroots defense mindset -- a throwback to partisan groups in World War II -- promises a protracted guerrilla conflict should Russia ever invade Ukraine.
“When Putin encounters the possibility of fighting territorial defense battalions, militias, or even students, it acts as a deterrent,” Serhiy Yanchuk, an associate professor at Taras Shevchenko National University, told The Daily Signal in an earlier interview.
Yanchuk is coordinator of the university’s Students Guard, a volunteer militia comprising students and faculty.
Ukraine’s military is in the process of a top-to-bottom overhaul to bring it in line with NATO standards by 2020.
Even the colors of symbols denoting friendly versus enemy forces on military maps have been flipped to match NATO maps. (Friendly forces were marked red and the enemy was blue on Soviet military maps, a color arrangement still used by Russia.)
In 2015, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense launched a special reform office, spearheaded by 39-year-old businessman Andriy Zagorodnyuk.
Ukrainian news reports have documented the bureaucratic headwinds Zagorodnyuk has faced while trying to reform the military.
“This year, we had a huge bureaucratic backfire from the system,” Zagorodnyuk told the English-language Kyiv Post newspaper in November. “Bureaucratic, probably corrupt. … Very rarely someone tells you to your face that he wants to keep things the old way. Usually people come up with a million different excuses.”
On May 20, 2016, Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, signed into law a comprehensive military reform plan called the Strategic Defense Bulletin.
The document calls for a total revamp of Ukraine’s military doctrine, training, and operations to ultimately achieve the “criteria necessary for the full membership in NATO.”
It also singles out Russia as Ukraine’s No. 1 national security threat.
Ukraine is not vying for regional influence over Russia. Rather, many Ukrainian soldiers and politicians say the current conflict is for Ukraine’s independence from Moscow.
Yet, tensions are inflamed to such a degree between Ukraine and Russia that there is scant leeway to absorb the shock of an unexpected event without it leading to total war.
“Ukraine is mobilizing around another idea -- the idea of a political nation, that would one day find its place in European political, economic, and security structure,” Plokhy, the Harvard University professor, said.
Plokhy added: “It is not only a state-political divorce, as it was in 1991. It is a mental, psychological breakup of Ukrainians and Russians.”
This first appeared in The Daily Signal here.Image Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr.