WORLDPOST

These Soldiers On Ukraine's Front Lines Are Starting To Doubt The War's Value

“Why did I come here, and what did my friends give their lives for?”

02/11/2016 11:00 PM AEDT | Updated 02/11/2016 11:29 PM AEDT
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Anton Skyba/The WorldPost
This apartment complex on the edge of the town of Marinka was long ago abandoned by its residents. Its only use now is as a front line fortress for Ukrainian soldiers.

MARINKA, Ukraine ― A long and jarring mud road, riddled with shell craters, winds from the edge of Marinka to shrapnel-riddled low-rise apartment blocks that now demarcate the end of Ukrainian government-held territory. Four hundred meters away, across a heavily mined field of rough grass, shrubs and tall trees sit the Russian-backed separatists. It’s like many areas across this war-torn section of Eastern Ukraine now ― one minute you’re in a rather normal yet slightly impoverished town, but the next you’re directly in the middle of a war zone.

This war has dragged on so long that many people living in front line towns are now more annoyed by it than anything else. Their initial sadness and despair morphed into anger because they can’t spend just one night without the sound of gunfire, or the threat of a rogue shell destroying their homes.

Though they share their towns with soldiers now, no one bats an eye at their presence anymore. This cohabitation is simply a fact of life, and has been for longer than anyone could’ve imagined.

This war has dragged on so long that many people living in front line towns are now more annoyed by it than anything else.

“I left everything and came to fight,” said one of those soldiers, a Jewish man named Avram who fights amongst the volunteers of a nationalist right-wing battalion called the Ukrainian volunteer army, or UDA. Avram and his fellow soldiers declined to give their full names for security reasons. Instead they are referred to by their first name, or a nickname assigned to them in the unit.

These men, the majority of whom have nationalist leanings, are still flooding onto the front lines, despite the belief that Ukrainian volunteer battalions had been removed from the fighting. It’s not known how many unofficial volunteers like these are still fighting, but they all seem to feel that they need to be there, despite Ukraine’s now large and quite capable military.

Ukraine’s potential problem with these men of the far right isn’t entirely the same as the rest of Europe’s. In countries like Hungary, France, Poland and the U.K., the far right gained traction by deriding immigrants and the European Union. Those messages were strong enough to lead U.K. citizens to vote in favor of exiting the EU. But in poverty-stricken Ukraine, in the midst of war, there’s no debate about immigration because migrants are not clamoring to get in. And the EU isn’t a problem for the country because Ukraine isn’t in the union. So there’s no danger that Ukraine’s far right will destabilize it that way.

Right now, it seems the nationalists and the government only agree on one thing: the importance of protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty. It keeps them bound together, in a sort of uneasy relationship. In the future, when the war ends, Ukraine’s government will have to figure out how to ensure that all these angry and armed nationalists don’t become the new enemy. And that could prove to be a thorn in the side of any long-term stability.

This war has weaponized and trained untold numbers of these bitter men. They found prominence during Maidan, the country’s revolution in early 2014, by painting themselves as the spearhead force against corruption, and fighting hard against the government forces beating innocent Ukrainian protesters. While corruption has always been the Ukrainian people’s greatest enemy, it came to a head during Maidan. Not much has changed since then however. While the average Ukrainian earns a paltry $150 per month, public officials earning around $1,130 monthly according to a report done by VoxUkraine, still roam around the capital of Kiev in expensive cars. Just last week, the full scale of their extravagance was laid bare when Ukrainian public officials were forced to declare their assets as part of a transparency initiative. Ukrainian society can now view an online database which lists the piles of cash, cars, property, watches and other luxuries that their leaders possess. The enormity of their wealth has shocked the public. 

The men of this battalion said it’s hypocrisy such as this that enrages them ― their post-revolutionary government has failed to achieve the more equal, corruption-free Ukraine that they’d dreamed about as they stood in the bitter cold of winter during Maidan.

But despite their claimed desire to fight corruption, support for the far right is still very low across the country, according to Ukrainian media outlets. Though many of these groups were lauded as heroes for their fighting, few in Ukraine want far-right nationalists leading the country.

Anton Skyba/The WorldPost
Avram pauses for a cigarette during a heavy night of fighting.

Avram stands barely 5 feet 6 inches tall, with short black hair and a thin frame, he hardly fits the Hollywood image of a battle-hardened veteran. But he’s fought in this war since it began in the spring of 2014, making him the longest serving member of his unit. Barely ever without a cigarette, or his Kalashnikov rifle, he’s steadfast in his commitment to battle.

“I did this for my kids, to protect them before the war came to our home,” he told The WorldPost. “But that was almost three years ago.”

He serves in a rare unit made up of Jewish fighters, all self-proclaimed nationalists, whose presence flies in the face of Russian state media. From early on in the war, Kremlin-sponsored outlets relentlessly declared Ukraine a country full of Nazis and fascists. But Jews have been integral in Ukraine’s struggle since Maidan. If Russia’s media push had any truth to it, Avram said that Jewish soldiers on the ground simply wouldn’t be fighting on the front line for a country that won’t accept them. When asked if he’s ever experienced anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Avram simply laughed.

“I have four synagogues in my small town. I’ve never had it happen in my whole life.” 

In the clip below, the soldiers participate in a nighttime battle in the town of Marinka in Eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists. The Ukrainians hold a set of destroyed apartment buildings which are the first line of defense from their enemy’s positions just 400 meters away. The weapons you hear are primarily AK-74s, RPKs and PKMs. 

This conflict is now in its 31st month, and despite a plethora of cease-fire attempts, the front line remains lethal. Close to 9,600 people have now been killed and some 22,231 wounded, and although the rate of newly wounded and killed has dropped substantially since 2014, it’s because around 1.7 million civilians chose to flee their homes rather than remain in the crossfire. Entire towns in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine now sit empty and destroyed. Here, only the poorest and most immobile civilians have remained to endure the relentless nightly fighting that takes place between Ukrainian government troops and Russian-backed separatists.

The fighting has had a sort of predictable routine to it since the Minsk II peace agreement was struck some 20 months ago. Although it largely eliminated full-scale military offensives and land grabs, the Ukrainian Army has still lost an average of two soldiers per day, which is higher than the United States Army’s mortality rate during the Iraq War.

The last large push of the war took place here in the town of Marinka, on the outskirts of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, during the summer of 2015. It was thwarted by Ukrainian troops. Since then, the two sides have resorted to battling it out from their heavily entrenched positions using a cocktail of snipers, machine guns, artillery and occasionally even tanks. Although small operations still take place, both sides are now so aware of each other’s positions and movements that it’s difficult to justify risking soldiers lives for marginal gains. The pointlessness of the fighting hasn’t gone unnoticed by the broader Ukrainian public. With nothing left to gain, it’s hard to understand why anyone still bothers to shoot. Many now seemed to have simply tuned out the war.

But in this part of Marinka, the war drags on for the volunteer soldiers of the UDA.

It’s unclear how many of these volunteers exist in the country now, said Tetiana Bezruk, a Ukrainian journalist who has extensively studied the far right, which includes many nationalist battalions such as UDA.  

'I did this for my kids, to protect them before the war came to our home. But that was almost three years ago.' Avram

“There just aren’t any reliable sources to verify their numbers,” she told The WorldPost.

However, what is known in the area, is that most of them are both combat-hardened, and extremely unhappy with their country’s progress after the Maidan revolution of 2014.

“All we see is the same stealing we saw before the revolution, nothing has changed, and it’s even the same guys in power,” said a soldier known as “The Macedonian,” a nickname he said he’s had since high school. Standing around 6 feet 3 inches tall with a large gut and shaved head, he’s a firmly middle class farmland owner from a large city in southwestern Ukraine.

“The only people who win in this war are our politicians. We sit here to die, but they make money.”

Many of these men, living in this decrepit apartment block are angrier with the government in Kiev than with the Russians. While bullet holes, tank shells and the shrapnel from heavy artillery have ripped apart the building they now call home, they feel that their own leaders have done more damage on the whole.

Yet curiously, they remain here on their own volition, free to come and go as they please. They operate in a sort of shadow relationship with the official Ukrainian troops stationed side by side. They are unofficial and have no status as combatants, but, nonetheless, these volunteers are allowed to continue their fight on the front lines. Many are former Ukrainian Army soldiers, and in fact the youngest member of this unit, nicknamed “Little One,” is currently a contract soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He was assigned to the unit from a neighboring building occupied by his unit. Despite his official status, he seems to be the most inexperienced, poorly trained and overzealous.

Anton Skyba/The WorldPost
"Little One" inspects the tube of his RPG during the quiet of the daytime as Avram stands to his left. RPGs, automatic grenade launchers, and 82mm mortars have become some of the most common weapons in this war.

During one battle, he begs the unit commander to let him fire off a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, at the separatists’ position. His wish is reluctantly granted before he scurries to the roof for a shot that inevitably misses the target. He sullenly re-enters the building and is immediately chastised by the others. His standing as an official government soldier gives him no weight amongst these more battle-hardened troops. Days later, “Little One” would be shot during a firefight. Although the bullet missed his major organs, he’ll spend the next two months in the hospital.

When asked why anyone still opens fire, one of the soldiers, a bulky 24-year-old former wrestling champion nicknamed “Prince,” shrugs his shoulders.

“We’re all bored during the day,” he said, “then they start drinking at night, and so they start shooting at us. Eventually, when it gets bad enough, we shoot back. It’s the same story every night.”

While it’s impossible to say who is to blame, without fail someone fires and the nightly “disco” erupts. Since the signing of Minsk II in February of 2015, this “low intensity” conflict, as it’s been dubbed by diplomats, has killed nearly as many people as the “full scale war” that preceded it.

'Eventually, when it gets bad enough, we shoot back. It’s the same story every night.' Prince

“The only way to end this is with another revolution,” said “The Macedonian.” In his opinion, the Maidan revolution was just a surface level success.

“We need a full cleansing of the leaders, and only then will the revolution be complete.”

Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in German and European studies at King’s College in London, said that this sort of talk isn’t unique.

“Even in the U.S. Army, soldiers say these types of things, but it’s not taken as seriously, and isn’t as problematic because the U.S. has robust institutions,” he said.

And although Ukraine’s institutions leave much to be desired, he does not believe these nationalists, despite their rhetoric, will become a big problem in Ukraine.

“There’s no benefit to their leaders to make this kind of push,” said Clarkson. “They used their ideology to get into some measure of power, and they seem comfortable there now.”

Anton Skyba/The WorldPost
"Prince" lays out on his bed during a quiet night, upset at the lack of fighting. The former professional wrestler says, "I fought for my country as an athlete and now I fight as a soldier -- plus I never liked Russians."

But further exacerbating this situation is the proliferation of weapons across the nation. The country’s secret service, the SSU, has reportedly found stockpiles of weapons in many areas of Ukraine. The belief is that many early volunteers held onto their weapons as trophies of war. Controls on weapons were low at the beginning of the conflict, as resources were diverted towards the war effort, so inevitably these trophies made their way back with the volunteers.

Compared to the others, “Leshiy” whose nickname means “forest boogeyman,” is heavily trained. The nickname he’s been given is in reference to the ghillie suit he wore as a sniper in the Ukrainian Army. Prior to enlisting in Ukraine’s military, he spent 11 years as a manager at Nestle. Although he was demobilized from service in the regular forces over a year ago, he joined the volunteer ranks to stay in the fight. He said he never joined because of any “fanatical patriotic beliefs,” but rather because he felt that it was his duty to his nation in a time of war.

But now, after two years on the front, “Leshiy” is angrier than ever with the decision-making of Ukraine’s leaders during the war than anything else. “They accepted this cease-fire, but it doesn’t work at all, so now we sit here getting shot at every night,” he told The WorldPost.

One night, as he listened to a Russian version of the Bible on his iPod, he slammed his fist at the sound of a machine gun burst from the building next door.

 

'No! I’m not fighting tonight. I want to listen to the word of the Lord.' Leshiy

“No! I’m not fighting tonight,” he screamed out. “I want to listen to the word of the Lord.”

Like many Ukrainian soldiers serving across the front lines around the separatist-held stronghold of Donetsk, he’s become distrustful of his government’s intentions.

“We could launch an offensive to take back that territory,” he said, furious at his government’s decision not to launch any offensives to recapture the territory. “We’re just waiting for the order, but instead they play these political games so we’re unable to do anything.”

When the Ukrainian government signed the Minsk II peace agreement, it made the decision that military action would not win back the regions under Russian-backed separatist control. At that point, however, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians had already been killed. Many soldiers here say they still want to fight for those territories, and dream of a grand offensive. The problem is that any such effort would mean untold bloodshed and render Ukraine a pariah on the world stage. Diplomatic efforts to end the war have been rather ineffective so far, and any full-scale conflict with Russia, the world’s second most powerful military, would likely end in disaster, like it did during the battles of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve.

Anton Skyba/The WorldPost
A volunteer soldier stands next to a bullet-ridden fridge. He says he joined the unit because he just wanted to fight.

Soldiers like “Leshiy” are not only angry, but also just confused.

“Now I wonder, why did I come here, and what did my friends give their lives for?” he asked.

Further complicating the problem is that the soldiers of this unit, and many others who’ve experienced the trauma of war, have few options to heal post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re angry, they’re frustrated, they’ve given up a significant portion of their lives to fight a war that has been a let down for them, but whenever this ends, there’s no cushion to help them land back into society. Ukraine is poor, and good jobs are not readily available. Many veterans who come out of the war find it tough, and although there has been progress on this front, it’s largely been due to the efforts of volunteers. This combination of anger, the distrust, the proliferation of weapons and the lack of psychological aid is a potentially destabilizing cocktail for Ukraine in the future.

So whenever this war ends, Ukraine will have to shift its few resources towards ensuring that the soldiers who fought to defend it do not turn on their leaders.

Also on WorldPost:
Ukraine Front Lines