I wrote this post last year, but am publishing it now. The situation in eastern Ukraine is at a stalemate, and may remain so for a long time, but it is worth remembering what devastating impact it has had on the Ukrainian people. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have migrated to Poland since the conflict started, and having met many of them, I know how important it is for them that we not forget about Ukraine.
Officially the war in eastern Ukraine is subject to a ceasefire negotiated through the Minsk agreements. In reality the fighting has never stopped and the port city of Mariupol, the last bastion of defense standing in the way of a land bridge to Russian-annexed Crimea, is in the sights of massing Russian artillery and soldiers.
Several months ago I chanced to meet a Polish man, Jan, who became an international volunteer fighting in Ukraine. His experiences illustrate the challenges faced by the troubled nation, including the likelihood that eastern Ukraine will become a part of Russia, possibly in the form of “people’s republics” and that Ukraine’s economic and strategic weakness will ultimately lead the west to quietly drop the issue of Russian aggression.
Jan spent many years living and working in Ukraine and made numerous friends and business partners over that period. Out of a sense of curiosity he visited the Maidan manifestations in Kiev in early February 2014. Though sympathetic to the plight of average Ukrainians, he believes that the protests and ouster of President Yanukovich were provoked and manipulated by political and social elites, then on the fringes of power.
Yanukovich, he says, had become an uncomfortable figure who had accumulated too much, knew too much and had become too greedy, he had to be overthrown.
Once the fighting started in eastern Ukraine, Jan, feeling a sense of solidarity with his Ukrainian friends, chose to volunteer to fight on the Ukrainian side against the Russian separatists, first in Donetsk in October 2014 for 28 days and Debaltseve in December 2014 and January 2015 for 24 days, where he experienced the worst battles.
Jan was part of the 95th International Peacemakers Brigade, which included many volunteers from England, Germany and the United States. These were former military men who knew Russian or Ukrainian, and were thus able to communicate with their Ukrainian counterparts whose knowledge of English was limited or nonexistent.
Weaponry was easily accessible to volunteers including small arms like sniper rifles and AK-47s. Jan settled on a PK machine gun, a heavy weapon popular with Russia’s infantry forces, which can be vehicle-mounted. The weapons were from Soviet-era stocks in Ukrainian armories, though corruption and desperate economic conditions also meant that many weapons made their way to the black market. In Jan’s words:
“Where does war come from? An oversupply of weapons. It’s a business, everyone earns something on it.”
Besides weapons and ammunition there wasn’t much to speak of in terms of equipment provided, so between his first and second front-line tours, Jan purchased useful supplies, among them a top-of-the-line bulletproof vest with titanium inserts for about $200. The Ukrainian side recovered a lot of Russian equipment, including abandoned vehicles that broke down or ran out of fuel and had been abandoned.
The conditions on the front lines were miserable, with mud and moisture everywhere. Tents and generators supplied the bare necessities of shelter and power. Canned foods and energy bars provided sustenance. Jan recalled “cigarettes like I never smoked and will probably never smoke again.” Field hospitals and bandage centers were chronically short of bandages and medicine and if you were injured, “it was going to be very tough.”
Despite the difficult conditions, there was a strong sense of gratitude for the foreign volunteers who came to fight and a powerful sense of solidarity between the men where “everyone was treated the same”. An American soldier, “Jackson”, no older than 30, was a very well-known figure who participated in the fighting from its earliest days and was renowned for his bravery in battle.
He was wounded twice, the second time a devastating head injury required the insertion of a metal plate onto his skull, after which he left the front.
The fighting was chaotic, with very little if any intelligence beforehand to assess the situation in the field. Everything changed very fast and the battles were often improvised and reactive to separatist advances along kilometers of the frontline, geared towards the fierce defense of remaining strong points.
Jan estimated that for every 50 men on the front (a mix of professional soldiers, volunteers and new recruits), perhaps 20 were well prepared, among them very good leaders and professional soldiers and officers, while the rest were susceptible to group panic and abandoning their weapons and equipment in a chaotic retreat when the fighting intensified. A notable counter-example are the “Cyborgs” who defended the ruined Donetsk Airport as point of honor, fighting to the last bullet against massive attacks by the separatists.
The separatists were undoubtedly better equipped, prepared and trained for the fighting, acting like a regular army. This was evidenced by their use of artillery shelling to soften a target before an attack and flanking maneuvers. Their “incredible tactical preparation” was apparent, likely due to the experience of soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya in the 1980s and 90s and more recently in Georgia.
Alcohol abuse was apparently a chronic issue among the separatists however, which was clear when Ukrainian forces overtook separatist areas to find men who could barely stand on their feet.
Jan estimated that his brigade suffered 5-10 dead per day with perhaps as many on the separatist side in his area of the front. Many more were listed as “lost” when their remains couldn’t be located. Oftentimes they had simply ran away to save themselves. Numerous Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, among others, were encountered as defectors or prisoners from the separatist side. They had apparently come to fight for money, being told that their families would be taken care of, when in fact they were deceived and were essentially used as cannon fodder.
Civilians undoubtedly bore the brunt of the fighting, with the Ukrainian government being incapable of helping them in their plight. Even those that were evacuated had nowhere to live and work, while the rest tried to weather the fighting in improvised bunkers in their basements. Jan vividly remembers the rotting corpses of the victims of the war lying in rubble-strewn streets.
To be continued…