Refugees, neo-Nazis, and super patriots: Heading into the Ukrainian war zone
CHUGUYEV, UKRAINE — It's just before noon on August 29 when we pull into a dilapidated military depot filled with Ukrainian armor, sitting just south of Kharkov and a couple of hours north of the rebel breakaway People's Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk.
I can count nine green Soviet-era APCs — the kind with six wheels, small turrets and sharp angular noses — parked between two rows of crumbling single-story garages. Two mechanics are tinkering with one of them, swearing loudly and trying to figure out how to modify a machine gun mount with a quick release latch.
The mood here can best be described as sullen. There is a group of soldiers milling around a hundred feet away. Some are squatting in silence, others smoking and chatting. Two soldiers are complaining about poor cell reception in the war zone. “It doesn’t matter if it’s KievStar or MTS, I can't catch a signal.”
I'm here tagging along with a private/volunteer resupply group as it makes its weekly run from Kharkov to Ukrainian army bases in the war zone. The trip is organized by a non-profit called Peace and Order that's backed by a group of local pro-EU minigarchs, who have taken it upon themselves to provide Ukraine’s bankrupt and moth-eaten armed forces with basic equipment and provisions.
Today, the truck — a generic white GAZelle — is carrying about a ton of goods. Most of the stuff could be mistaken for humanitarian aid and not military supplies. There are about 500 kilos worth of medical goods — IVs, saline drips, bandages and various meds. The other 500 kilos are a mishmash: canned meat, pasta, shaving cream, cigarettes, Bic razors, uniforms, boots, socks, underwear, belts, a single generator, mineral water and a dozen knife holsters.
When our truck pulled into the military base, we were mobbed by a group of soldiers who all asked for the one thing that wasn't in the truck: warm clothes.
"No, nothing warm today," said Oleg, the guy in charge of this supply run.
The only thing he had for them were bundles of basic black leather army boots and light cotton uniforms, which offered little protection from the autumn rains and sudden cold snap that hit eastern Ukraine. Oleg promised to start bringing winter clothes soon, but that could take weeks or longer, and was of little consolation to the soldiers. They had to make do with some cheap cigarettes that Oleg handed out as treats.
* * *I joined the Peace and Order volunteer supply trip at the end of August, just as Ukraine's armed forces were completely collapsing from a fierce Russia-backed separatist counteroffensive. Back then, Ukraine was still several weeks away from President Poroshenko being forced into a humiliating ceasefire agreement that granted the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk Republics special autonomous status. And the foreign press was still full of rah-rah stories about the spunk and bravery of Ukraine's volunteer battalions in their fight against Russia's imperial aggression. But as I made my way from Kharkov in north-eastern Ukraine down to the Donetsk region not far from the fighting, I got a close look at the tense relationship between volunteer battalions and regular army forces, and the extremely fragile and fractured state of the Ukraine's fighting force.
What I saw there did not speak well for Ukraine's future military operations...
* * *A few weeks before I got to Kharkov, it looked like Ukraine's armed forces were blazing and shelling their way to imminent victory against Russia-backed rebels. The country's pols were strutting around, talking tough and making stern warnings to Vladimir Putin. But then everything changed. The rebels — fortified with volunteers and weapons pouring in from Russia — scored a series of surprise victories. In a matter of weeks they had rolled back Ukraine’s hard-fought advances, and sent a steady stream of mangled Ukrainian fighters to Kharkov's hospitals and morgues.
If that wasn't bad enough, the weather had suddenly turned shitty over much of eastern Ukraine. The lack of basic things -- socks, underwear, proper rain gear, and sleeping bags-- wasn't a huge deal during the summer, but soldiers were unable to cope with the freezing rain and mud.
Since the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich in early 2014, Ukraine has been bankrupt and insolvent. The country's new leaders took a hardline military approach to the separatist activity in east Ukraine, but found they didn't have the cash. The military could barely afford to keep its tanks and APCs fueled, let alone fund a protracted war against rebels and local insurgents backed by Russia. So Ukraine started brutally gutting the budget in search of funds, including getting rid of aid to single moms and people with disabilities. Starving the needy freed up about $600 million, but it wasn't nearly enough.
So plutocrats — who had spent decades plundering Ukraine's wealth — suddenly got patriotic and stepped into the void.
Plutocrats like Igor Kolomoisky, Ukraine's third-richest oligarch. He's worth billions, directs his Ukrainian business empire from Switzerland, and has a shark tank set up in his office like a crude bond villain. In the early days of the conflict, Kolomoisky paid for fuel, tires, and car batteries to make sure that the Ukrainian army could deploy its tanks and helis. He then started financing his own private fighting force, dishing out $10 million a month on the Dnipro Battalion, a 2000-strong private paramilitary unit lovingly known as "Kolomoisky's Army."
Kolomoisky was not alone. Major and minor oligarchs all across the country joined in and began organizing efforts to equip and bankroll the military. Ukraine's powerful diaspora pitched in with funds and international shipping from Canada and the United States. Local patriotic volunteers, many of whom had earlier been involved in organizing supplies for protesters camping out on Maidan in Kiev, got involved too and got jobs with various private supply groups across the country.
In Kiev, Peace and Order was probably the biggest and best known volunteer supply group. It was backed by a group of local businessmen and headed by an agro multimillionaire named Vsevolod Kozhemyako. A month earlier, Kozhemyako bragged that Peace and Order had equipped entire battalions operating in the Kharkov area: "[We provided] literally everything — starting with uniforms and then bulletproof vests, knee and elbow pads, medical kits, GPS units, communication equipment, 1-km gun sights, night vision, binoculars..." The man even went down to the front himself, and posed for patriotic selfies of himself in camo hanging out with Ukraine's freedom fighters.
But even Kozhemyako heroic efforts have not been enough to keep Ukraine's army from slipping back into abject poverty. Ukraine's armed forces need every bit of help they can get.
* * *After 20 minutes at the APC base outside of Kharkov, the truck is on its way to the next destination.
As we leave, Gena, the truck driver, asks a commanding officer about the situation down at the front. "We're headed down to Artemovsk. How is it there?"
The officer looks exhausted and crestfallen. He complains about the lack of good field intel. "No one knows anything. Everything is changing hour to hour. It’s quiet now, but it might be very different by the time you get down there."
Oleg isn't pleased with this news. The last time he and Gena made this same trip, they accidentally stayed in the military zone past the 8 pm curfew. As they headed back to Kharkov, a couple of spooked and/or bored Ukrainian soldiers took pot shots at their truck. Oleg expected unpleasant surprises from separatist fighters and pro-rebel locals, but the experience of getting shot at by his own side shook him up. When we left Kharkov that morning, Oleg had packed three bullet proof vests — one for himself, one for me and one for the driver.
Snacks & Refugees
We are on our way to our second destination: a National Guard forward operating base in the town of Slavyansk, a few hours south of the APC base.
We are all starving and pull over for a snack at a grimy roadside kiosk that serves hotdogs and hamburgers. I order a hot dog for 10 UAH (or 75 cents) that comes smothered in oozing, creamy mayo. While I gag trying to stuff the thing down my throat, a Ukrainian fighter jet streaks across the sky to the south of us.
We're back on the road.
We pass several cars with Donetsk and Luhansk license plates, and Oleg and Gena complain to me about Kharkov's refugee problem.
Kharkov sits very close to the combat zone in eastern Ukraine and has been on the receiving end of a steady flow of panicked and bewildered families — mostly women, children and pensioners — escaping the fighting. There are least 150,000 refugees in the city. It was a humanitarian catastrophe and the UN has been very critical of Ukrainian authorities for doing next to nothing to help.
Oleg — a diehard Maidan supporter who says he had lived on the square in Kiev since the very beginning of the protests against President Yanukovich — doesn't hide his hostility towards the refugees. To him, most of them are welfare queens and probably traitors, people who came to Kharkov for shelter and help while rooting for the other side (aka "the enemy").
Gena the driver seems to agree. He isn't ideological — just a guy with a truck who joined Peace and Order to make a bit of extra cash — but he knows refugees from Luhansk that were sheltering in Kharkov and they've been loudly and publicly cheering and celebrating the defeat of the Ukrainian military. "I heard them yelling, 'Our side is winning! Our side is winning!" says Gena. "It's crazy that they cheer for them when our troops are dying."
Talk quickly moves to money making opportunities. Oleg brings up an offer he got from a family that fled Donetsk. They'd pay him $500 to retrieve a car they left there. "Now! I'm not going to Donetsk for any price," says Oleg. But Gena is interested. He agrees that $500 is too little, for $1,000 he might be willing to make the run. "Maybe the best and safest way to do it would be drive it through Russia and not Ukraine?" he says.
They agree to discuss it with the refugees when they get back to Kharkov.
Forward Operating Base, Slavyansk
We drive up to our first military checkpoint right outside of Slavyansk. The is the point where civilian territory ends and the active military zone begins. It's my turn to be nervous: Back in Kharkov, I was told by an officer from the Security Service of Ukraine, the country's successor to the KGB, that I'd need accreditation from them in order to work in the war zone — or "zona ATO" (for "anti-terrorist operation") as people here call it.
The problem is I'm still waiting for my accreditation to go through. Back in Kharkov I decided to take a gamble and make my own press pass. I downloaded the Photoshop App on my iPad and stitched together a semi-believable press pass, then got it printed and laminated at a local 24-hour copy center. I was surprised by how decent and official it looked. Definitely better than nothing. Ukraine might want to join the EU, but it still lived by the old Soviet proverb: "Without papers you're a piece of shit/With papers you're a human being."
The plan works. At the checkpoint, a young soldier takes a brief look at my blue U.S. passport with the press pass tucked inside, and waves us through.
Slavyansk was one of the first cities to be captured by rebels. It was also one of the first to be liberated. Ukrainian troops took it back in early July after a long siege and heavy shelling that left the city without running water and electricity.
There are still signs of the heavy fighting that went on here.
At the entrance, a concrete welcome sign that reads "Slavyansk" is pitted from gunfire and shrapnel blasts. Kiosks, small prefab commercial buildings, and warehouses stand in heaps, shredded and turned inside out by artillery blasts. We drive by a faded blue and yellow billboard — "Independence is the only chance we have to be strong" — while a lone Ukrainian APC with cage-skirt welded onto its body to protect against armor-piercing RPGs passes us going in the other direction. Further inside the town, residential buildings with relatively minor damage have been freshly patched up and repaired.
We finally get to the National Guard forward operating base, located off of Karl Marx Street in the center of town. It's housed in a large courtyard sandwiched between a bunch of residential buildings and lots of trees. Inside the gate are a bunch of APCs, military trucks, and other light infantry armor. There are tents, an outside mess area, and a row of outdoor toilets — rickety wooden shacks placed atop holes in the ground. A rancid smell wafts in from latrines as the truck backs up into a parking space.
A commander and a group of soldiers ambles up to help with the unloading and to see what the truck brought. "Any insulated jackets?" one of them asks, seeing a couple of bundles of camouflage uniforms in the back of the truck.
"No. We don't. But we'll have to start buying up some winter clothes," says Oleg.
A couple of the soldiers walk away, bummed out.
While the other soldiers help Gena and Oleg unload the truck, I talk to one of the commanders who's standing off to the side and observing the process.
He's a short and squat man with dark features and jet black hair, and looks almost Mediterranean. I ask him about the volunteer battalions that are operating under the newly formed Ukrainian National Guard. He seems annoyed by my question, but politely explains that volunteer battalions are only a small part of the newly created Ukrainian National Guard.
"There are some Maidan volunteers, but the National Guard is mostly a reorganization of Internal Troops. Here most of us are spetznaz," he says, referring to the elite unit of the paramilitary national police force that Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union.
After the overthrow of President Yankukovich, many of the hardcore Ukrainian nationalists who served on the frontlines of the Maidan protests in Kiev organized themselves as volunteer battalions and joined the war effort. Some of these guys were straight up neo-Nazis, tracing their political ideology back to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian supremacist leader who collaborated with the Nazis, fought to establish an ethnically pure Ukraine, and whose followers were responsible for liquidating Jews and Poles.
Despite the dangerous ideology of many of these groups, plenty of Ukrainians and foreigners idealize them as the only the country's only truly brave and selfless patriots, the only ones who dropped everything to defend their country from what they saw as a direct Russian invasion.
But the commander has nothing good to say about them.
The day before, a National Guard unit had come under fire by pro-Russian rebels north of Donetsk and got pinned down and surrounded. A Maidan volunteer National Guard unit was stationed at a checkpoint not far away, but they were ordered to stay put and not intervene. But the unit disobeyed, rushed in to save their comrades, and instead got decimated by rebel fire. They had to be rescued as well.
The commander shakes his head. “Hotheads! You don’t know how to fight so sit at your block post!”
My talk with the commander provides a bit of insight into the ongoing conflict between Ukraine's various volunteer brigades and the regular army. Volunteer troops have been increasingly accusing regular military command of treating them as cannon fodder: Deploying them on the frontline where it's most dangerous and then abandoning them to die. The accusations started increasing as the Ukrainian side kept losing. Two days earlier, the leader of Donbas Battalion Semen Semenchenko (who is now lobbying the USG for support in Washington D.C.) accused Ukrainian generals of betraying their country, and called on supporters to protest the inept and corrupt military command in Kiev.
But the regular military here sees these guys a bit differently. They view them as a liability: Impulsive, poorly trained, and making life much harder for regular troops who have to bail them out all the time.
Oleg and Gena finally finish unloading the stuff. They shake hands, promise to come back next time with warm clothes, and we take off. Our next stop: Ukrainian military airport just west of Kramatorsk
Ukrainian military airport just west of Kramatorsk
Kramatorsk is about 10 miles south of Slavyansk. It also saw fighting early on, and was liberated in July.
In the city, there is visible damage to some of the high-rise residential buildings. A tall red brick building off to the left side has a giant hole in its roof. There’s a crane over it. It's being fixed.
The Soviet-era Kramatorsk Zаvod — which I think makes massive machine tools — is open for business. It looks like a shift just ended because lots of people are going home. The city is really shitty looking, overgrown with tall weeds everywhere, crumbling public spaces, and grass covering up its former Soviet glory. There's a patriotic billboard: “Thank you Ukrainian army for liberating Kramatorsk.”
We drive out of town and toward the base. It’s a bucolic scene: blue skies, wide open fields around us, bored grunts with AKs on guard duty, and an empty one-man pill box made from poured concrete that looks like a giant robot’s head. There are also a couple of kiosks selling cigarettes, sunflower seeds, kvass, and soda. A young solider coming back from R&R is sitting on a bench necking with a portly young woman, while another soldier with higher rank is pacing back and forth with a styrofoam pad attached to his ass with “Putin is a dick” engraved in it…
It seems peaceful now, but this base is an important military asset, and with Ukrainian defenses crumbling along just about every line in the face of a powerful rebel offensive, folks here are on edge.
And that’s why we're sitting outside the gate.
Normally the truck would get waved in through with no problems. But with rebels pushing closer and closer, security has been massively stepped up, and we now have to wait for clearance to go inside.
They say they need to check the van with a bomb sniffing dog — a hulking German Shepherd. “She goes for bombs and Snickers,” the soldier handling her said to us. “You better not have any Snickers.” Everything checks out okay, but an order comes from inside that it’d be better to not let us in.
Oleg says there’s an SBU control set up inside the base for extra security. His point man doesn't want us to go through the checkpoint, because the agents will start poking around and probably grab some of the stuff for themselves. So the plan is to transfer the stuff into an army minivan right outside the gates, and they’d drive it in themselves. “They’re not gonna go through the stuff if we drive it in,” says a soldier.
While they transfer a bunch of stuff out — a generator, shaving cream, yellow Bic razors, underwear, socks, pasta — I take a look around. A row of huge army semis rolls into base. They are the kinds of trucks that can carry anything from ICBMs to tanks. Today, they're not carrying anything.
Hospital in Artyomovsk
We double back to Slavyansk and then take the fork into the direction of a Artyomovsk, a small town of about 80,000 located about 75 miles east of the rebel stronghold of Luhansk.
The city was founded in the early 1700s as a fortification by Peter the Great, was settled by Cossacks and later Serbs, and became a prosperous provincial town in Soviet times known for its champagne winery, which pumped out bubbly sold under the ubiquitous “Soviet Champagne” brand.
It was one of the first towns to be taken over by pro-Russia rebels in April and was “liberated” by Ukrainian armed forces back in early July.
We drive into the town right before dusk. Storm clouds are moving in again. The air is stuffy, and the light is gray and muffled. We circle around a few times looking for the hospital and finally drive into a courtyard where we are met by a doctor and a couple of orderlies.
The doc tells me that scores of Ukrainian fighters came through the day before. It was a horrific scene. Blood everywhere, he says very casually. Only a few were treated here for shrapnel wounds — light injuries — while most of them had been airlifted to Kharkov’s military hospital. This must have been the Maidan volunteer division that the commander back in Slovyansk was telling me about.
The hospital is in shocking disrepair. The bathroom in the emergency intake room is a petri dish. The sink is cracked and stained. The faucets don't work, and water is piped in via a dirty rubber hose.
Two soldiers sit on a bench outside, smoking. One is in his mid-20s with a dark complexion and black hair. The other is older — in his later 30s maybe — pale and thin, almost anorexic. I learn that they both had come down with pneumonia — the result of sleeping out in the cold without proper bedding and in thin cotton uniforms.
They tell me that an captured Russian FSB agent is recuperating in the hospital. He's in a special room under guard — protection from Ukrainian soldiers. They complain of shoddy equipment. “They buy us shoes, but they’re made of cheap rubber and fall apart in a week,” says the skinny guy.
Without being prompted, they both start talking about corruption and rampant theft at all levels of the military.
"Nothing's changed. I’m not sure who we’re fighting for anymore. For our country? For Ukraine? For the oligarchs?" the younger says. He was with Pravy Sektor — the infamous neo-Nazi paramilitary group that served as the avant guard of the Maidan revolution in Kiev — and now served as part of a National Guard volunteer battalion, the one that got decimated a day earlier. “The army wants us to hold our positions, but they won’t back us up."
Several local women come up and try plying them with offers of hot soup and food. They politely refuse. "The only thing I'd want is an electronic cigarette," says the skinny guy, explaining that his lungs are shot from years of smoking, and he can’t run for long periods of time. "I can’t be a proper solider."
The women leave and the Pravy Sektor soldier goes back inside the hospital. The skinny guy stays behind, first telling me that he's suffering from shell shock and then hitting me up for some cash to buy another round of the alcoholic energy drink he's been nursing. "It helps me relax," he says. I tell him sure, and hand over 200 hryvnia — the equivalent of $14, enough for a twelve pack.
I want to stay longer, but Oleg is getting nervous. He wants to go before the 9 pm curfew and avoid getting shot at again.
Destroyed bridges, massive rockets
We drive straight up north toward Kharkov, crossing several checkpoints and a temporary pontoon bridge across a river. The main bridge has been shelled into oblivion just upstream, and its mangled carcass shows up as a romantic silhouette against the last blue-black rays of dusk on the horizon.
We make it back to the civilian area with a half hour to spare.
As we approach Kharkov, a long line of army gasoline trucks and giant eight-wheel monstrosities pass us heading the other way, loaded with long missiles maybe about a foot in diameter. They look like they'd fit Smerch, the heavy Soviet multi-rocket launcher, but neither Oleg nor Gena knows for sure.
"They're getting ready for a major offensive. You can tell by all the gasoline," says Oleg.
Read Yasha Levine's previous dispatch from the Ukraine-Russia war: Welcome to The Luhansk People’s Republic: Following the Russian convoy into rebel-held Ukraine