Mariupol, Ukraine — The varied fortunes of war played out in cruel fashion in Ukraine last weekend as elation at an important victory against pro-Russian forces was dampened by the deaths of 49 Ukrainian servicemen when their plane was shot down.
At dawn last Friday I accompanied Ukrainian forces that launched an attack against pro-Russian gunmen who had seized power in April in the industrial city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. The pro-Russian forces had driven out a Ukrainian national-guard unit and murdered Mariupol’s police chief.
Ukrainians hope that the recapture of Mariupol heralds a turning point in their battle to prevent Moscow from annexing the conflict-ridden eastern parts of their country.
The attack on Friday was spearheaded by the Azov Battalion, a volunteer unit of mainly Russian-speaking Ukrainians from those eastern regions — the focus of separatist activity intended ultimately to incorporate large swaths of Ukraine into Russia.
Around 200 men from the battalion were joined by soldiers from the Ukrainian army, the national guard, and other volunteer units, making a force of around 400 men whose actions were coordinated by an army general heading the government’s “anti-terrorist operation” in Donetsk.
I had got myself embedded with the Azov Battalion ten days earlier after I discovered that it was preparing to lead the Mariupol operation. The city is one of some dozen places in Ukraine where separatists violently seized control. Until Friday, attempts to reverse the occupations had failed because of a combination of ineptness on the part of the Ukrainian government and the fact that many of the pro-Russian forces were better armed and trained than the Kyiv government’s military.
I met up with the Azov Battalion at its Kyiv headquarters for a ceremony where a batch of 53 new recruits swore an oath of loyalty to Ukraine before being dispatched southeast by bus on a 15-hour drive to their base on the Azov Sea — hence the unit’s name — near the town of Berdyansk.
Most of the soldiers in the battalion are well under 30 years old, many in their late teens or early twenties. Most have never had any military experience, and they underwent just three weeks of training at a national-guard or army camp before being judged battle-ready members of the battalion.
Also, most — around three-quarters — of the battalion are Russian-speakers themselves, belying Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attempts to portray Russian-speaking Ukrainians as pro-Moscow Ukrainians suffering oppression and discrimination by the Kyiv government because they use the Russian language.
Many of the battalion’s members had taken part in the months of mass demonstrations against Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president, Viktor Yanukovych, after he reneged on a deal to bring his country closer to the European Union and instead sided with Putin.
Some of those now in the battalion were among those who transformed the passionate protests into revolution and were in the forefront of street battles against Yanukovych’s brutal security forces. The revolution culminated with Yanukovych’s ouster in February after more than 100 protesters were shot dead by his paramilitary forces.
Almost immediately after Yanukovych fled to Russia, Putin arrayed tens of thousands of his troops on Ukraine’s border and occupied Crimea. Many street-battle-hardened protesters swiftly joined the Ukrainian army or national guard, or the volunteer units that sprang up in response to the Russian aggression.
The Azov Battalion is one of these units. It has attracted protesters who were drawn to nationalist parties like Svoboda or militant groups that later morphed into political parties such as the Right Sector or the Radical Party, the latter headed by Oleh Lyashko, one of the Azov Battalion’s leaders. In last month’s presidential election, Lyashko caused surprise by coming in third in a field of 18 candidates.
Because so many of the battalion’s members are from eastern Ukraine, they wear balaclava masks to hide their faces for fear that if they were recognized, their families, many living in separatist-controlled areas, would come to harm. For the same reason, they use noms de guerre.
Bajda, 23 years old, from the eastern city of Kharkiv, told me: “My parents were average products of the Soviet system. I was born in 1991, the year Ukraine became independent, but I didn’t have any patriotic upbringing. Our schools still used Soviet textbooks. But I managed to get literature and Internet information that began to show me the truth. I’m an idealist. I became politically conscious and patriotic. There wasn’t one great event that sparked it. It just came naturally to me. Now fate has given us a chance to become heroes for Ukraine.”
Bajda took part in demonstrations in Kharkiv in solidarity with the mass demonstrations in Kyiv: “Sometimes there were 50,000 of us. We fought street battles against people sent from Russia to stir up separatism. We showed them that Kharkiv is a Ukrainian city.”
“When the aggression against Ukraine began,” Bajda added, “I and my friends thought there would be a war with Russia. We had different ideas about what to do — whether to join the army or national guard. But we had the opportunity to form our own volunteer battalion, which is much more effective than any of the Interior Ministry units and many of the army units. I was one of the first to sign up.”
Bajda said they bought weapons and uniforms with money from donors, and they trained in fields, forests, and even building sites.
On the eve of battle, he said: “There’s no more fear. All of us have thought about it, but we are all calm now. We know what might happen, and we accept the possibilities and are ready.”
As in all conflicts, some of the fighters look painfully young to be risking their lives in battle. One young man from the city of Lutsk in western Ukraine uses the war name “Aykr.”
Aykr has put his law studies on hold while he is in the battalion. He explains: “When people come to attack your homeland you have to fight. In previous times people from Russia brought Communism and the NKVD, which essentially wanted to destroy Ukraine’s identity — its memory, language, culture, history. It wanted to wipe knowledge about Ukraine from the face of the earth and then to build upon the ruins of our country their Communism. Now Putin is trying to do something similar so he can build his Russian empire. Any normal person cannot tolerate that.”
Just before he left to join the battalion on May 24, Aykr asked his girlfriend of one year to marry him. She accepted, and although she did not try to persuade him to abandon the battalion, there were plenty of tears. He told her: “Don’t be frightened. They’re not going to give me a gun and tell me to go off the first day to the enemy. We will get more training, and if I don’t look as if I’m learning anything, then they won’t send me anywhere. I’m not coming here to die; I’m fighting for the future of our country. So that we and the children we will have don’t have to live in a rotten society.”
Apart from Ukrainians, there are some foreign volunteers in the battalion, including three Swedes, one Italian, and more than a dozen ethnic Russians who are Russian citizens. Nobody gets paid. The Swedes and the Italian explained that they had become interested in Ukraine when they saw reports about the mass demonstrations and came to see for themselves.
The Russians say they cannot fight for their own country’s freedom in Russia at present, and so they want to fight for those ideals in Ukraine and hope that Ukraine’s revolution will spur opposition to Putin’s rule inside Russia. Two of the Swedes and some of the Russians have some military experience and have helped with the training of battalion members.
A strict military routine applies at the base. Every day begins with a parade in full kit of black uniform, flak jackets, and helmet. Most of the men are armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, while some carry sniper rifles, tripod-mounted machine guns, or rocket-propelled-grenade launchers.
Green Kamaz military trucks ferry a portion of the battalion each day to a firing range where they practice with their weapons. Older battalion members who have military experience train the younger ones in techniques such as concealment, falling and rolling to avoid being hit by enemy fire, close combat, using night-vision goggles and gas masks, and some basic battle tactics.
Even though that sounds an impressive list of activities, I still had doubts that the battalion was ready for its first battle as we set off in a line of green military trucks from our base to Mariupol Airport 60 miles away — our jumping-off point for the attack on the city itself the next day.
There was standing room only on the crowded wooden floors of the trucks. Many of the soldiers looked too young to be going into battle, but all bore the confidence of the young and none showed fear.
The airport is closed to planes but is still in the hands of the Ukrainian military. Our transports parked on the runway as night began to fall. We were issued army rations of appalling tinned meat or fish and tasteless biscuits, and then settled down for a few hours’ sleep on the cold, hard floor of the airport concourse.
We were roused from our uncomfortable, chilly sleep at 2:30 a.m. on Friday and assembled near the transport vehicles. There was no breakfast or even a hot drink.
Overnight, we had been joined by other units, each in its different uniforms. We wound lengths of sticky orange packaging tape around our arms to identify ourselves as being on the Ukrainian side. Lyashko addressed the assembled fighters and said he would join the fighting.
Then we clambered aboard the transports and, in the grey pre-dawn light, rumbled off on the five-mile journey to the outskirts of Mariupol. The way was led by what battalion members referred to as their “secret weapon” — garbage trucks with hundreds of steel rods welded onto them to form a sturdy armored escort. The windshields were covered with the armor, with only thin slits in the driver’s and passenger’s positions. The roof of each truck had been removed and a double-barreled 22-mm anti-aircraft gun was fixed to the floor. It looked like one of the vehicles from the Mad Max films.
We sped along a mostly deserted highway with two lanes in each direction. Nobody showed signs of fear, but the tension mounted. Nobody was cracking jokes, as the men usually did around the battalion. Few spoke. Faces were full of introspection, and I guessed the fighters were absorbed in thoughts about family and their own mortality. I know I was, and I had done this sort of thing before, while most of my companions had never been in battle.
A few of the older members had served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Some Ukrainian patriots had volunteered to fight alongside Georgians against the Russians in the 1990s and 2008. Some had joined Chechen forces fighting the Russians in the 1990s, and they made bitter remarks about the Chechen mercenaries who had been sent across the border by Moscow along with other “volunteers” to bolster the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
We found that the separatist forces, alerted by the activity of the night before, had abandoned their barricades of concrete, tires, and barbed wire at the outskirts of the city.
Gazing nervously at the rooftops of buildings lining the road, we proceeded into the center of the city, to the crossroads where the Spartak Hotel is located. As soon as we dismounted from our trucks, a rocket-propelled grenade blew up a few feet from one of our vehicles, nearly taking off one of the battalion member’s hands and ripping open an artery.
Another explosion, and then widespread shooting erupted, and we scattered for cover. The group I was with sheltered by a wall opposite the hotel. About 100 yards around the corner from us was what turned out to be the separatists’ main defense point, another concrete and barbed-wire barricade.
An intense fire fight followed for more than three hours. In the heat of battle, everyone probably feels that he is at the hottest spot, with every bullet seemingly aimed at him personally. I stayed with one group the entire battle. but I know that our drama was repeated in other parts of the town where the Ukrainian fighters engaged the separatists.
The battalion commander, a tall bearded man called Andriy Biletsky, was with our group of around 30 men. He directed those men with shouted orders about where to take up firing positions and which weapons — Kalashnikovs, belt-fed machine guns, or RPG launchers — to fire where and when. By radio he was updated about the wider picture, and he coordinated the moves of various of the battalion’s groups.
The Mad Max vehicle slid out three times from a street perpendicular to where the separatist barricade poured fire on us. As it pummeled the barricades, members of the battalion darted up the street firing at the separatists. Other members of the group I was with worked their way to the separatist positions through back gardens. One of them, Serhiy, a former policeman from Crimea who refused to accept Russian authority after Moscow annexed the peninsula, was winged by a bullet, and blood gushed from his left temple. After the wound was bandaged, Serhiy rested for 20 minutes and then climbed over the wall again to rejoin the fight.
Slowly our group worked its way up the street toward the barricade. Two from our group sent four rocket-propelled grenades into a bank that was defended by the separatists. Other groups of Ukrainians closed in on the barricade from other sides.
Slowly the sound of gunfire became intermittent and then died down. We all carefully worked our way up toward the main barricade. There were some bodies on the streets, and the Ukrainian forces reported that at least seven separatist fighters had been killed and a dozen captured, while the rest had fled.
During the fighting there had been no civilians on the streets, but, as the Ukrainian forces fanned out, people came out to greet them and offer bottles of water. Occasional bursts of gunfire still echoed, and groups of soldiers investigated.
Lyashko, in black uniform and armed with two pistols, led some of the searches. In one basement they found five separatist gunmen who refused to come out until the Ukrainians threatened to throw a grenade inside. The prisoners were handed over to the police after Lyashko, a member of parliament, told them they would face 15 years in prison if found guilty of terrorism.
Lyashko said: “Ukraine needed this victory. It will have a profound effect on morale. It shows that we can beat the separatists even if Russia is supplying them. Ukrainians are a peaceful people, and we don’t want to take anybody else’s land. But we will never let anyone take our land.
“The operation was very successful and, as you can see, the terrorist sites have been destroyed. But the most important thing is that you can see that the local people don’t support the separatists. They’ve seen how this bandit Donetsk People’s Republic works — that they are marauders and thieves. People here are welcoming us. We need to work with the local population to ensure that the separatists don’t return.”
The joy of victory was tempered in the early hours of the following day, when battalion members learned of the downing of the Ukrainian plane.
A Ukrainian military source said the plane, a military transport landing at Luhansk Airport, was hit by two Russian-made Igla missiles fired from portable launchers. The Ukrainian government has accused the Kremlin of supplying the separatists with those missiles as well as large quantities of other equipment, including three tanks, which NATO satellite surveillance confirmed came from a Russian base in Rostov-on-Don.
The same type of missile had already downed three Ukrainian helicopters and a smaller transport plane since the conflict began. A captain who once served in the Russian air force and now is a volunteer fighting against the separatists said: “Who the hell gave the order for the plane to fly to Luhansk when they know the town and most of the area is full of terrorists who have used anti-aircraft weapons before? The transports should be used for getting men and equipment closer to the front, but not to a conflict zone itself. That’s madness or treachery.”
Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, praised the retaking of Mariupol and has temporarily made the city the capital of the Donetsk region while the eponymous capital, Donetsk, is still in the hands of the separatist leadership.
The deaths of the 49 servicemen aboard the plane were a grisly contrast to the light casualties — four wounded — suffered by the forces that recaptured Mariupol. By Sunday it was clear that despite losing much blood, the most seriously injured battalion member would live.
The battalion was gripped by the grief that has enveloped the whole country following the downing of the plane. The incident has hardened attitudes against Russia throughout the country. Bohdan, a 23-year-old battalion member from the city of Luhansk, which is occupied by the terrorists who likely downed the plane, said: “I hope that this is the start of the liberation of all the towns taken by the separatists. I want my battalion to be the one to take back my Luhansk from the terrorists.”
— Askold Krushelnycky is a London-based journalist and the son of Ukrainian refugees from World War II. He is the author of An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey through Ukrainian History.