Ukraine never seems to disappoint. Just when I least expect it, something fascinating happens. Today I spoke for five hours with Ukrainian soldiers returning from battle with Russian separatists…and Russians.
Please note that I have changed names to protect identities. I am, by no means, a reporter. Nevertheless, I wanted firsthand knowledge of this military conflict. And since I have no idea who will read this blog post, I am not risking anyone’s life or livelihood. I love Ukraine, but there is still a lot of corruption here—and I want to be able to go home someday.
This afternoon I had initially met with a young lady who I am considering hiring as a tour guide and translator in finding information about my maternal grandmother’s family in Rozwaz, Ukraine. We had coffee at an underground café, the Left Bank, located underneath the Lviv Opera House. As we were talking a group of soldiers walked by and grabbed a table a few feet away.
My translator got up to talk to them. When she returned I asked her if they might be willing to chat with me. I was interested in hearing their observations about the separatist uprising in Eastern Ukraine. She walked over and asked them. They turned to look at me and smiled.
I picked up my laptop and iPhone and walked to their table. “Oksana”, my companion, explained that I was an American writer and author researching family genealogy in the Galicia area of Ukraine. She told them I was interested in their opinions and experiences on the conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk. I told her to ask them if I could take notes and they agreed.
There were six young men, all in their late twenties, from all over Ukraine. They had recently been released from active duty and were free to return to their homes, families and jobs. Conscription was over for them for good.
“Boris” had dark, movie star looks with a firm jaw and thinning hair. Married, he would soon be returning to his job as a builder.
“Pasha” also had dark, Eastern European features. He did not speak much, but when he did, he was enthusiastic. He works for a security company.
“Yevgeny” had blond hair and looked younger than his years. Yet his looks also betrayed a certain aging that had come from fighting. He tore a military patch off his uniform and gave it to me as a souvenir. He is a postal worker.
“Ivan” had intense eyes that bore straight through a person with eyebrows that seemed to be perpetually raised. He also gave me a patch from his uniform. He would soon be returning to his job as an electrician.
“Pavel” was a burly fellow who said very little, just nursed his beer. He works for a gas company.
“Sasha” grew up near my maternal grandmother’s hometown of Rozwaz. He had a boyish, earnest face and did most of the talking. He is a railway worker.
All these young men would be returning to the jobs they left behind thirteen months ago when they went in to the army to help fight Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. They had all been guaranteed that their jobs would be waiting for them when they returned.
This particular night, they were nursing beers. The day before they had been fighting. Mind you, all comments are the observations and opinions of these young men.
Since I am not a reporter, I did not have a quiver of questions to ask them. I just had my own personal interest as a bystander, an American, watching from afar from the relative safety of my homes in America and Italy. These young men had plenty to say. Oksana translated for me.
According to these returning soldiers, probably sixty percent of the fighting personnel in Eastern Ukraine are Russian. How did they know? I asked them. They were able to tell from the insignias on vehicles and equipment as well as the accents spoken by the soldiers. Not only that, the professionalism of those fighting was different from the separatists of Eastern Ukraine.
The Russians used artillery that separatists would not have access to–and they knew how to use it effectively. Since these young men were not “professional” soldiers, they knew all too well that the separatists would be much like them. But facing soldiers who knew combat and the military, speaking with a distinct Russian dialect uncommon in Eastern Ukraine, told them that many they fought were Russian.
Chechens were also encountered. Again, they could tell by the language and dialect. Being captured by the Chechens was a terror that all soldiers had because of the rumors that they had heard. According to the young men, Chechens are known for supposedly castrating their prisoners of war. Oksana affirmed this was something that was considered common knowledge in the military.
The men showed photos and videos on their cell phones of missiles that had been shot into Eastern Ukraine. These missiles would break in two—one piece falling to earth with little impact, the other piece resembling a sort of cluster bomb that would drop many smaller bombs to cover a large area.
The videos and photos showed these men climbing onto and hanging off the useless part of the missile that had fallen to earth. Some of them looked to be six to nine feet long. The technology was from the USSR, only updated. Another giveaway.
The men told me that, with the Minsk peace agreement, they are not allowed to shoot at the Russians or the separatists. Instead, they aim their artillery and just shoot into the air when the Russians shoot at them. They cannot aim at an actual target. This is what is leading to a stalemate. The Russians continue to violate the Minsk agreement, but the Ukrainian military leaders will not allow the Ukrainian soldiers to actually respond.
The location these men held was roughly sixteen kilometers outside the devastated city of Luhansk. They were on the western side of the Siverskiy Donets River. If soldiers on the separatist side would try to cross the river, the Ukrainians would fire into the air, sending off warning shots around the soldiers, forcing them to remain on their side of the river.
Occasionally, members of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) would come around to the area checking to ensure the peace agreement was being held. The OSCE is concerned with early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post conflict rehabilitation in Europe.
When the OSCE would arrive, Russian military activity would cease. After the OSCE left, the Russians would start firing again.
In the minds of these young men, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is destined to continue for years. Their experience has soured them on military service, primarily because of their commanding officers.
Their opinion is that the military structure is incompetent. Generals and other officers are not promoted from the ranks. They are political professionals from the government who have no idea how to handle a military conflict. Or, worse yet, their training is from the backward era of the Soviet Union.
From their viewpoint, the officers are mostly inept. Perhaps fifteen percent have the respect of the soldiers, the rest are seen as dolts with no credibility. These officers have a retrograde attitude toward the soldiers who are doing the fighting.
Calling the soldiers pigs, monkeys and dirt, officers show the soldiers no respect. They are given degrading assignments. Many soldiers were educated and affluent but even they were treated like garbage. No concern is shown for the soldiers’ psychological or mental health. No concern is exhibited for their well-being. Even the volunteers who had been fighting are now being controlled by the government soldiers which is having an impact on morale and desire.
As an example, Sasha told of a time when a car full of soldiers was blown up by a Russian missile. The response from their officer? “How’s the car?”
The soldiers relayed that they receive more help and psychological support from the locals and the volunteers than they do from the Ukrainian government. Even though the locals are frightened from constant fighting for over a year, they still provide the soldiers with all they can offer—bags of mushrooms, potatoes or apples. They offer cars and clothing. They help with medical needs. They give money.
At the beginning, these young patriots were full of piss and vinegar to help their country remain free from the stranglehold that Putin wants to put on them. They see Russia as the past—a failed system that wants to suck them back in. They look at America and Western Europe as the future, a future they want to have because it beckons with promise.
Now, however, while they are still pro-Ukraine, they do not encourage anyone to fight. The lack of support and respect from the superiors is demoralizing and makes it difficult to function and be successful in the crisis. They are convinced that, if the government were to change the military structure with people who have a modern, contemporary view of warfare and who know how to treat those doing the fighting, that Ukraine would be successful in the conflict.
And they are ambivalent about NATO. Ukraine apparently has a significant military apparatus and substantial military industries. However, they feel Ukraine does not use any of this to its advantage.
In their opinion, Ukraine will remain free; Russia will not win. Ukrainians in the western part of the nation will not give up what they have achieved through independence, even though the birthing pains of democracy and freedom are proving hard to handle.
They say that corruption in all aspects of government (education, military, the judiciary, etc.) must be overcome by voting out those who perpetuate a bankrupt system based on a discredited Soviet mentality. Any Russian attempt to invade western Ukraine would result in a devastating civil war that would be impossible to keep from the Russian people.
I asked them if they felt that Eastern Ukraine should be left to the Russians. Their answer? An unequivocally unanimous “YES”.
Despite the help and support from many of the locals, they told me that the population of the area is very low-class, ignorant and uneducated. Because of this, the people are easily duped into believing the propaganda of Russia. They say that the majority of the people in Eastern Ukraine don’t know what they want.
Their opinion is that Ukraine is better off without a populace they feel is nothing but drunkards and white trash. Let Russia have them and deal with the problem, is the general attitude. They said Western Ukraine is what counts and Western Ukraine will be better off and succeed without having to cater to such a mentality. They actually stated that the population of Eastern Ukraine is not “fit for Europe.”
The impression I got from the above comments was that they felt Russians and Russian propaganda are only capable of attracting ignoramuses. These men want Ukraine to be free and prosperous and dragging people they consider to be Neanderthals into NATO or the EU would only slow progress. They belong in Russia as Russia continues its slide backward.
In a nose-thumbing to Russia, I was shown a photo of a rudimentary Stalin statue. The soldiers had painted Ukrainian colors on it and given the statue Cossack features. (The Cossacks were an eastern Slavic people brutally forced into famine by Stalin.) The photos showed the men standing on and around the statue with satisfied smiles.
The soldiers told me that they do not want to go back to fight. Even though their conscription is up, they said they wouldn’t want to go. However, there was a caveat. If the government were to provide proper training and military support from people who understand the conflict and understand actual warfare, they would eagerly return.
Every question I asked resulted in spirited responses, usually lasting at least five to ten minutes. My poor translator had to try to remember everything they said and broke down their responses to the basics. They were jazzed that someone wanted to talk to them and seemed to be blowing off thirteen months of steam.
When I joined the men, they had just ordered a “tower of beer” which is basically just that—a three-foot tower of beer with a tap that is brought to the table. I offered to buy them another tower when they finished the first one, but they waved me aside and ordered one for themselves.
As a matter of fact, every time I tried to buy them a beer or an espresso, they politely declined. I was blown away when coffees and pastries began arriving for me and for Oksana—Ivan had kept ordering them. Their generosity and politeness astounded me. They had a sense of honor about them. Eventually, I ordered appetizers and insisted they dig in.
I explained to them that, having found long-lost family in Ukraine, they were fighting for me, an American now. And I was grateful. They passed it off as something they needed to do.
Now that they had returned from fighting, they were chagrined to find out that their military salary of $150/month only buys one third of what it bought two years ago. Sasha, engaged to be married, asked how he would provide for his new wife or raise a family with such a drop in the currency? They receive no military pension and only piddling help with medical issues.
These men started out as complete strangers, brought together from all parts of Ukraine to fight in a conflict they believed in, to keep their families and their country safe. Now, they affirmed that they were all brothers, family who would remain friends and stay in touch. Their relationship was obvious when I saw how they related to each other–there was intense respect in their affection for each other when they embraced. Their eyes would lock.
And despite their experience, despite the omnipresent fear and stress of their involvement in a war, they have emerged, all six of them, with a greater respect for life. Each one vehemently agreed that they have come out of this with a softer, more contrite heart. They want to do good in the world. They do not feel any aggression. They composed themselves with a sense of honor and dignity.
Indeed, their sensitivity was brought home to me when Ivan proudly showed me some photos on his phone. Mixed in with shots of artillery and tanks and rain-soaked sleeping bags were pictures of a native flower, purple and flourishing among the chewed-up landscape. He beamed when he showed it to me.
By the time our conversation finished five hours later, only Ivan, Sasha and Yevgeny were left. We downed shots of tequila and I thanked them for protecting my family and my homeland. They each shook my hand heartily and gave me a smile and a bear hug before they walked out the door, back to their lives and their families.