On the front lines with Ukrainian volunteers
There is a certain irony when British journalists are riding alongside Ukrainian Civil Society volunteers, delivering British military uniforms (purchased in Kyiv) to Ukrainian troops fighting Russian and separatist forces in the Donbas region – it shows not only that the world is truly a smaller place, but also that the situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine is a dire one.
President Poroshenko, incidentally not a popular figure among regular troops, has inherited armed forces completely ransacked by the previous regime. The Ukrainian armed forces suffer from a high level of incompetency in their highest echelons, perhaps a hangover from their Soviet predecessor. There is a real lack of initiative and discipline, with allegations of endemic corruption. This indiscipline and disorganisation inevitably filters down to the front line, itself exacerbated by a tumultuous situation on the ground, with troops frustrated at their lack of support and leadership, as well as the lack of progress stemming from the Minsk peace summits.
Under-manned, under-paid and under-equipped; the Ukrainian regular army and the Volunteer Battalions rely on the kindness, bravery and dedication of the country’s volunteers; a network of whom sprawls across the whole country. Helped by the ubiquitous nature of social media, the volunteers exist in a world far removed from the bustling cafes and bars of central Kyiv. They use sites such as Facebook to co-ordinate deliveries, fund-raise for vital equipment and share stories of their travels and the soldiers.
I recently rode along with a group of volunteers from Kyiv as they made the arduous 700 kilometre journey to the front lines in the heart of the Donbas region. Their story is simultaneously inspirational and bizarre, in that a country with lofty European aspirations following the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-14 cannot or will not supply its own troops adequately.
There is an obviously deep bond between these soldiers and those who bring them their vital supplies; the beaming smiles from the soldiers on the heavily block-posted roads in Donetsk Oblast were a giveaway as we were waved through without a second look. It is no surprise though, for soldiers who feel ever more disconnected from their government and generals in Kyiv; the visits from volunteers remind the troops that they have not been forgotten, at least by ordinary people.
The conditions in which the soldiers live can only be described as neglected, with many making camp in old, abandoned and partially-destroyed houses. Many of these houses also form the foundations of the forward positions along the contact line or promzon – all of which would be considered rudimentary by most western standards. Aside from the ruined nature of the buildings, the infrastructure in the areas in which the front line soldiers is all-but destroyed: the electricity constantly flickers and the sanitation is poor. There is little wonder why the troops on rotation on the front lines are angry and frustrated.
The troops on the front lines are visibly bored, the agreements made in Minsk prevent them from firing upon or assaulting the separatist positions – the constant shelling from the Russian and Separatist forces are an ever-present reminder that these agreements represent a ceasefire in name only. The troops are frustrated at their inability to act, which both adds to their indiscipline and also their hostility towards the government. They do, however, remain confident in their fighting ability; with one soldier in particular claiming that if they were to be given the order that they, “would be at the border in three days”.
Whilst many may be sceptical over this level of confidence, the majority of those stationed on the front lines are hardened by two years of conflict. For these men, their various stories often parallel each other: they were active members of the Maidan Self-Defence units who went straight from Kyiv’s central square to the East to defend their country as part of the various Territorial Defence Battalions. Many of the men we encountered were veterans of the bloody battles of Ilovaisk and Debaltsevo, hardened warriors who no-doubt had experienced fierce fighting and shown incredible courage. There is a sense that they feel somewhat betrayed by the very government they fought for all those months ago – this is particularly emphasised when the issues of the Minsk agreement and the proposition of “special status” for the separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are discussed
Extraordinary, Ordinary People
The conflict in Ukraine is generally no longer regularly reported in western media; when it is, the focus is generally on military activity, the breaking of the Minsk agreements and often includes a catalogue of weaponry used. What is often neglected is the network of civil society volunteers that supply and equip Ukraine’s troops out on the frontlines. Since the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14, Ukrainians have continually shown how resourceful they are; realising that, for the most part, they need to use their own initiative and work outside of established state-structures in order to effect any kind of change or achieve their goals.
With the government initially struggling to modernise the armed forces, ravaged by years of neglect and illegal asset stripping – it once more came to the Ukrainian people to ensure that those defending their homeland’s freedom were equipped with everything necessary to accomplish their objective. Whilst the political elite squabble and surround themselves with controversy, the Ukrainians do what they do best: use their initiative and make the best of a bad situation.
Since July 2014, volunteer Natali Prilutskaya has been travelling from her apartment on Kyiv’s Left-Bank suburb to the war-torn front lines in Donetsk Oblast. She began making these regular visits following the death of her brother-in-law, a decorated commander in the Donbass Battalion known as Mirotvorets’ (Peacemaker), at the hands of an enemy sniper in the first months of the Russian invasion. Driven by a deep sense of care and responsibility for the young men on the front lines, Natali’s enthusiasm is both infectious and unwavering. Her determination and passion notwithstanding, Natali is a whirlwind of noise and laughter – constantly sharing stories, jokes and songs – it is hard not to smile when in her presence.
Natali is a perfect example of the caring, strong and resilient Ukrainian woman – determined and principled; she is but one of many who collect donated items then delivers and distributes these among several positions on the front lines. With a network spanning the whole country, what struck me was the bravery and principle-led determination of the predominantly female volunteers. In addition, Natali also collects objects such as spent shell casings and ammunition crates and transforms these into beautifully-patriotic household decorations. The money raised from these is then ploughed back into the war effort – it pays for equipment, uniforms, vehicle repairs and much more.
Natali also introduced me to several young women, all around 18 years of age, who were about to embark on their first mission to the front lines. With revolution, war and conflict being an almost-constant in their most formative years, these women have found their calling and are willing to risk their lives in the defence of their homeland – all the while; their male counterparts are continuing to defend Ukraine’s frontiers from further Russian encroachment. Collectively, the volunteers’ love for the men and women in Ukraine’s armed forces cannot be easily articulated. It is no surprise, with individuals like Natali and her energy that would surpass that of a thousand people, that the volunteers have become a vital and recognised part of Ukraine’s war effort.
In May, we accompanied Natali on one of her supply drops to the area around Donetsk Airport; to active hot-spots including Avdiivka and Piski. What was immediately remarkable was the sheer joy we, and in particular Natali, were greeted with. Every position we visited greeted us with open arms; with a hug or a handshake and a coffee or a bite to eat. There is an obviously-close bond between Natali and the young men on the front lines – particularly the younger soldiers, who clearly see her as a mother figure. This, we are told is common between the soldiers and the volunteers – familial ties between people united by a common cause.
As well as practical items such as food, boots and uniforms, we carried letters and pictures from children in schools all over Ukraine; small messages of support and prayer for their heroes on the front. These seem to mean a great deal to the soldiers, as each position and base we visited were plastered with similar drawings and letters. Both the visits from the volunteers and the items they take remind the soldiers that those away from the conflict have not forgotten about them, that they are still in the minds of the people for whom war is not a daily reality.
Aside from this, we also carried food and toys for the adopted animals who take shelter in the various military positions on the front line. Among our load, we had food especially bought for the famous Ded’ – a huge Alsatian, a favourite of volunteers and soldiers alike, who survived 4 mine blasts and lives in a position on the outskirts of Mariinka.
Without people like Natali, and the volunteers she works with, Ukraine and its armed forces would be in a dire situation – not just through a lack of regular supplies. The volunteers’ ability to boost the morale of the troops and of the remaining local population is invaluable. To remind the troops, and the people of the East, that the people of the remainder of the country have not forgotten about them is a huge boost and the volunteers should be proud of the effect and power they have.
Stefan Jajecznyk is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies at University College London. He is currently working as a freelance journalist whilst completing an MA at the University of Salford.