Ordinary Ukrainians become unlikely warriors
Aug. 13, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Denis Lavrienko is a 36-year-old TV director who devotes his free time to his wife and young daughter. Vladislav Matelsky is a 28-year-old part-time truck driver who lives with his girlfriend. Vyacheslav Konstantinovsky is the multimillionaire owner of a fast-food chain.
All have been rousted from peaceful lives in settings that wouldn't stand out in Western Europe — and are going to war.
Since a separatist insurgency broke out in eastern Ukraine in March, entire swaths of Ukrainian society — either through a government summons or their own patriotism — have suddenly been thrust into battle, many of them with little or no combat experience.
With the government desperate for more fighters and medics, a draft has brought in a wave of needed additions to what had been a neglected army. And amid a surge of patriotic indignation tipping over into martial fervor, volunteer battalions have proven an indispensable boost as well.
Many of the inexperienced conscripts swept up in the war effort confess to being scared.
"When I received my summons ... my feelings were mixed. First I accepted, but the fear stays with you," said Lavrienko, the director, who never saw combat as a radio operator during obligatory military service more than a decade ago.
"They're not sending us for training. This is a real military operation."
It is indeed. What initially emerged as a ragtag, pro-Russian rebellion has become more deadly over the past month as insurgent fighters have come into possession of heavy weaponry, such as tanks and multiple rocket launchers. Ukraine accuses Russia of supplying the rebels; Moscow denies it. But nobody denies that an increasing number of Russian citizens have joined the rebels, including many battle-hardened veterans of the Russian and Soviet military.
The fighting itself has become increasingly deadly. Of the 568 servicemen killed since March, a military spokesman said Monday, more than 200 have fallen in the past two weeks. There is no reliable count of how many rebels have been killed.
In the early days of fighting, the army suffered a string of humiliating losses as years of neglect in the armed forces were shown to have ill-prepared soldiers for battle against a light-footed opponent that outfoxed government troops at almost every turn.
The government has tried to rectify that with three waves of mandatory mobilization since May, after Parliament voted to reverse last year's abolition of the draft. The Defense Ministry will not say how many personnel have been called up into the army, which had an estimated 57,000 active ground troops before the conflict began.
The head of Kiev's military commissariat, Col. Volodmyr Kydon, said the draft is targeting skills that the military needs most: machine gunners, snipers, artillerymen, missile launcher operators and medical personnel.
"Volunteers are great, of course," Kydon said at a Kiev recruiting center. "But we need everybody to understand that all the specialists being brought into the army are being drafted."
There have been sporadic and localized public protests against the draft, mostly in remote rural areas in the west of the country, far from the eastern battlefields.
There has also been some draft-dodging, although no national figures have been released. In Dnipropetrovsk, a province of 3 million people in central Ukraine, 30 criminal cases have been opened. Enlistment officials in the western Lviv region are investigating what they deem a suspiciously high number of sick notes presented by doctors called up for military service.
Lavrienko, who received his military summons in mid-July, said the prospect of combat is frightening but he believes the country is doing the right thing.
"Of course it's terrifying," he said. "But don't just go about shouting that you're a Ukrainian and a patriot. Real patriots go and fight, while the others sit around to see how things are going to play out."
Many aren't waiting to be called up. Since the early days of the conflict, the slow-moving efforts of the standing army have been complemented by a clutch of volunteer paramilitaries.
One, the Dnipro Battalion, has reportedly received substantial financial backing from a billionaire oligarch. Another, the Azov Battalion, is accused by its detractors of being a hotbed of extremist right-wing sentiment.
And more volunteers are coming forward — even people like fast-food mogul Konstantinovsky, who put his Rolls-Royce up for sale to raise money for the war effort before joining the armed forces. It was a notable gesture in a country where it is widely assumed that the wealthy can buy their way out of military service.
Matelsky, the truck driver, showed up at an enlistment office in Kiev last week with a bag containing nothing but a change of clothes, two jars of pickled vegetables and a small religious medallion given to him by his girlfriend.
"When I enter the service, they'll put me in a uniform, give me boots and feed me three times a day," he said. "My future now is in the hands of the motherland."