Ukrainian history is mostly known for its tragic parts. The glorious pages are often neglected. Today, we are witnessing the nation that is once again undergoing painful yet fascinating transformations. While a large of part of Ukrianian territory is still being tormented by the enemy, bringing peace will take huge efforts and hard work, and hypocricy, problems and confusion from the hybrid nature of the conflict seem frustrating, stories of heroism, sacrifice and devotion, abound. The Ukrainian Week spoke to participants of the war in the East to show episodes of victory - just few of the many feats that must not be forgotten.
On June 3, 2014, the counterterrorist operation (ATO) forces launched the operation to liberate Krasnyi Lyman, a town of a little over 20,000 residents, in Donetsk Oblast. By June 5, the Ukrainian flag was once again raised on the town council building and local police administration. Dmytro Mokletsov took part in that operation as member of the 25th airborne brigade. He shared the story of how it began, and of the battles on the town’s fringes.
“This was our first fight, a baptism by fire. We were ordered to liquidate the sniper point in Krasnyi Lyman outskirts, then to move further into town. We left our position at 3 a.m. A National Guard unit with combat vehicles was to accompany us. It was the first fight for all of us so everyone was afraid. We were moving in a column; it was raining heavily. Our eyes were big and round with fear. As we got closer to the road leading to Lyman, we saw the 95th or the 80th brigade – not sure which one exactly – shelling the woods to make sure we are not ambushed from there, making a corridor for us. We stopped and fired a few shots too. That place was close to the water tower where the separatist snipers were operating. Still, we soon found ourselves caught in an ambush.
As the separatists started shelling us from the woods, the National Guard turned around and left. They claimed later that they had no order to shoot and accompanied us more for a crowd effect. We took the fight. I was deputy commander, mechanic and machine gun operator of our BMD. We were ordered to shell the closest separatist checkpoint. I fired nine shots and the checkpoint was gone. Suddenly, I realized that our infantry group was hiding behind the BMD, using it as a shield from something. For some reason, they could not leave that shield – there was constant shooting coming from one flank. Behind the checkpoint was a two-storied building, its windows on the second floor covered up with sacks of sand. From a tiny window amidst those sacks was a machine gunner shooting at the group. I loaded the BMD cannon, although I’d never done that before, and fired. I knew the trajectory of the warhead only in theory. As it flew I heard everyone in the BMD praying: as if in a slow motion episode, the warhead hit exactly that tiny window. Everything there collapsed, and I lost control for a moment. We took over the checkpoint with no losses on our side and moved on.
Our artillery was stationed near Krasnyi Lyman, and we ended up on the outskirts, across the road from the local plant. That’s where we made our fortified constructions. We had reports that there were separatists inside the plant. Their scouts tried to get to our positions at night but we spotted them thanks to the thermal scopes volunteers had bought for us. The separatists then tried to shell us. At one point, we caught two of them – both with Russian passports and military IDs, one carrying just a Makarov gun with him, and another one – a knife and a binocular. They told us they were picking mushrooms in the woods, but we didn’t believe them, so we put them in jail and notified the Secutiry Service. We didn’t torture them, they got very humane treatment from us. They were fed exactly what we ate ourselves. We just had them help us dig trenches.
For the next two weeks, there were no big shellings at our checkpoint. In general, there were no huge battles in Krasnyi Lyman, unlike some other places. But it was just the beginning of the big war. Hardly any heavy equipment or tanks involved. The most powerful equipment we had for shooting was mortars. Eventually, we squeezed the separatists on both flanks and they moved towards Donetsk.”
Mariupol: flags on the balconies
Ukrainian forces pushed the Russia-backed separatists from Mariupol, a city of 500,000, on June 13, 2014. The major part of the operation was carried out by Azov, a battalion then reporting to the Interior Ministry and later formally going under the umbrella of the National Guard (it is soon to be reorganized into a special-task brigade).
“On that day, we were together with the National Guard and Dnipro-1 batallion,” recalls one Azov fighter, Bayda. “Our part of the operation was the storming while the National Guard and Dnipro-1 units made a cordon around the city. They were supposed to do the mopping-up following the storming. Eventually, however, the command had the National Guard withdrawn. I don’t know about orders for Dnipro-1. All I know is that Azov, too, participated in the mopping-up of Mariupol.
According to Bayda, the terrorists had set up their fortified sector at the crossroads of Hretska and Georgiivska streets. “… I remember the first explosion – a VOG fragmentation grenade shot from an under barrel grenade launcher. It exploded right by the feet of one of our fighters. He was seriously injured. We were just getting off our KamAZ trucks,” Bayda says.
Despite the difficult beginning, the Ukrainian forces took Mariupol with virtually no losses. Noone was killed, Bayda says, and several fighters were injured, one gravely.
“We had a sense of a triumph because we pretty much didn’t cound on anyone but ourselves,” Bayda recalls. “The plan to liberate Mariupol was developed by six of our commanders, including battalion commander Andriy Bilteskiy. We had previously rehearsed the operation at our training field, building the copy of the separatist barricades on the crossroads, according to our reconnaissance reports. We rehearsed moving around the place, throwing grenades and taking it under control to make all of it more of a reflex… But we were pretty much amateurs when we moved to the actual action.”
After the storming of the fortified barricades and the adjacent districts, the group headed back to the trucks to move to the city airport. “That was when we noticed the first blue-and-yellow flags appearing on balconies,” Bayda recalls with a smile. “It was then that Mariupol surprised us with its pro-Ukrainian position. A few months later, in September, it surprised us even more. At that point, only few of our and National Guard servicemen were in town – that’s peanuts in terms of actual effective defense. But the locals began to rally for Ukraine, volunteered to join the battalion en masse and helped fortify the city defense line. A huge number of people responded to our calls for help. The locals pretty much built the city defence line with their own hands.”
…The liberation of Mariupol was declared in June. Donetsk Oblast State Administration was then relocated there.
Attack on Luhansk: observe, don’t shoot…
The move of the Ukrainian military towards the occupied Luhansk launched in mid-July 2014 had every chance of a brilliant and rapid victory. Missing in that operation was apparently the wisdom and will of the top army commanders and the state leaders, but definitely not the heroism and sacrifice of Ukrainian soldiers who reclaimed a big chunk of Luhansk Oblast territory at the cost of enormous efforts and their lives. Yuriy, a member of the Kyiv-12 batallion, took part in the fighting and shared his story with The Ukrainian Week.
“The march on Luhansk started from Shastia for us, followed by Krasnyi Yar, Berhunka, Stanytsia Luhanska, and expanding further to the south, towards Donetsk, but I wasn’t there.
The fighting was ongoing. We got ourselves firm positions in Shchastia and moved over to Vesela Hora which is 5 kilometers from the town. That was the first spot where we were shelled with GRADs. Previously, they had been targeting some distant objects: apparently, the separatists hadn’t know how to operate them properly at that point. At Vesela Hora we were first shelled as a close target. That’s why we had many injured and our first “200” – the GRADs were covering everything around us. Every single day. We had a great Independence Day on August 24: the GRADs were shelling us from early morning till 7 p.m. non-stop.
At Vesela Hora with us were the National Guard and artillery groups. We built a miniature underground town there. Today, the Russia-backed militants are there. It is a very convenient location: you can see Shchastia and Luhansk (it’s around 15km from the city center) from atop the hill. By the way, the separatists had tons of Russian weapons. I’ve personally seen NSV heavy machine guns. We had none of those.
We took many prisoners in Krasnyi Yar. Those days were very difficult: the first time our battalion was shelled so heavily. When the enemy realized that Krasnyi Yar was lost to it, it started shelling their own groups, even blew up its own APC.
When the march on Luhansk began, our intention was to get around it (it was possible), strike from the frontiers and divide it into two parts. We could have fought back this oblast center city. However, there was no order to do that even as we were approaching the airport. In Verhunka we faced a heavy storming attack: we guarded the road and the railroad because it was not a simple checkpoint, but a fortified sector. There is no other way to get to Luhansk, but through it.
We were standing there until the very last moment, until separatist tanks moved on us. We saw the first “humanitarian convoy” crystal clear from our position. It was unloaded, and at 2 a.m. that night the separatists launched their tank attack. We tried to reach out to our artillery groups that were supposed to cover us up but the support wasn’t there. Then we tried to contact the police between Verhunka and Krasnyi Yar – they were gone too. It was then that we realized that we were facing tanks with nothing more than machine guns, so we were forced to relocate. We had no adequate equipment, only the passenger mini buses mobilized for war – and even those were all covered in scotch tape seal the broken windows. We were leaving the position under heavy shelling, taking all we could with us and leaving the rest. I remember driving past the field and sunflowers exploding all around. And I remember that I didn’t even care because there was no way and nowhere to escape from that mini bus. We could have liberated Luhansk. But the order was to stay and observe. I’ve hated that “observe” thing ever since. That first “humanitarian convoy” played the desicive role.
On July 21, 2014, a Ukrainian flag was once again flown over the freed Dzerzynsk, a town of around 34,000 people. The successful liberation campaign was carried out by the storming group of the military special-task force supported by the National Guard. Lieutenant colonel and war reporter Petro Hasay took part in the operation and told the story.
“We drove to the town at around 6 a.m. Our serviecemen dispersed and began to approach the town administration where, according to our reconnaissance report separatist headquarters was located, district by district. We met the locals and very few cars on our way. Two cars did not respond to our order to stop, so we fired at their wheels. It proved to be a good guess: the cars were with armed separatists. A few hundred meters from the administration building our group was detected and separatists fired from the adjacent buildings. We started shooting in response, mopped them up quickly, took several prisoners, and occupied the administration building rapidly. It was no more than 20 minutes from the moment we entered the town until the administration was ours. That was the storming group of the special task force in action. They are true masters, perfect teamplayers.
Within the town administration were about 10 hostages – women, older people and young boys. We took shooting positions, set up the covering outpost and began to search the building for separatists and explosives. Floor by floor, room by room. The minute we got on the roof and started raising the Ukrainian flag – our gunner went to the flagpole to remove the “Donetsk People’s Republic” flag – a sniper, then a machine gunner fired at him. We took our positions on the floors and exits while the separatists began to move their reserves closer to the place and shoot. They had the armoued APC 70, an amphibia BMD and two tanks helping them. They surrounded us and started shelling: all we could hear was only noise coming from the corridor between the cabinets. We had no idea which side they were going to storm the building from. The tanks shot over 20 times at us. It’s ok when the tank shoots at the exterior wall. It’s much worse when it reaches the window or an interior wall. One tank shot at our floor, about three meters from us, the blast sending me and the commander flying.
Our military showed no sign of doubt or fear and gave proper response. We lasted around six hours. When the separatists realized they would not manage to kick us out, they put the second floor on fire. Then, our most combat-ready members stayed there to keep the separatists away, while the rest along with the freed hostages went to the basement.
We were waiting for support groups to arrive. The separatists were not idling either: they blocked the road, set up ambushes and closed the railway crossing. It took time to unblock with those, while we had been waiting for eight hours already, 30 of us against their group of over 150 people with armoured combat vehicles. In all that time, just three of us were slightly injured and none killed. We fulfilled the headquarters’ order to take over the administration building, keep it under our control and free the hostages with no losses. As we were fending off the separatists, Girkin (Igor Strelkov, a Russian-native leader of the separatists who is now in Russia – Ed.) wrote on his social media page: “Thirty brazen Ukrops wanted to take over the town administration in Dzerzhynsk and burned alive in the basement.” Only we didn’t.
When our support group approached, the separatists realized that their rear would be blocked and once they were encircled, we would hit as well. They abandoned their equipment and fled to Horlivka, a nearby town.”
Popasna: without a single shot
Counterterrorist forces took Popasna, a strategic railroad junction of about 22,000 residents in Luhansk Oblast, on July 22, 2014. On that same day, Severodonetsk, an industrial cluster in Luhansk Oblast, was liberated as well. According to Anton Gerashchenko, Counsel to the Interior Minister, Popasna was liberated by groups of the Ukrainian military and National Guard, but “Donbas, the 3rd battalion reporting to the National Guard, was the main striking force”.
“We had three attempts to take Popasna. On the third time, we entered with no fighting,” shares Dmytro Riznychenko, a member of the Donbas-Ukraine volunteer battalion (now part of the Ukrainian military) who then fought in the ranks of Donbas, a volunteer battalion operating under the umbrella of the National Guard. “I arrived at the base in Artemivsk when our battalion was returning from yet another fight for Popasna. Some of our fighters were killed. Back then, I was at a training unit and hadn’t received weapons yet. I begged my friend to give me his machine gun, hopped on the bus and volunteered to go with the storming group.”
Dmytro never found out which military group helped the volunteers then, but he says that it did provide support. “There was a tank – not ours, for sure. Most likely, one from the military. The rest of the convoy was ours. We stopped near Popasna, stayed in the field for a while, got closer, stopped again. It was very hot, we were all thirsty, but we had to wait. The tank then moved ahead but did not shoot. We moved to the spot where the previous fight had taken place and found many shells on the ground but no bodies of our people. Then, we spotted a separatist checkpoint demolished by our artillery earlier, but it was empty. Once in the town our storming groups began to mop up buildings, and I headed to the town center. I couldn’t understand whether there were really no separatists in the town or they just set up an ambush. Then I realized that even if I returned, my own battalion could shoot me before recognizing me. The town was empty – no dogs, no cats, no people… Suddenly, I saw an SUV with battalion commander Semen Semenchenko, he waved at me, I got in and we rushed to the center. There we saw people with Ukrainian flags… That was our third attempt to take the town – and we finally did, no shots fired.”
Maryinka is a strategic town of around 10,000 people, adjacent to the Petrovsky district of Donetsk and a potential launching pad for the liberation of Donetsk. It was freed by the counterterrorist forces on August 5, 2014. The victory was difficult, one volunteer killed (member of Azov, a Russian-citizen) and 14 wounded (9 in the explosion of the Ukrainian tank on the anti-tank mine). As Ukrainian forces were mopping-up Maryinka, they were constantly shelled by GRADs and heavy mortars. In fact, as the Ukrainian forces stormed the separatist checkpoing where an ambush had been arranged, the enemy artillery was shelling both the Ukrainian forces, and their own.
“We got to Olenivka (Volnovakha County of Donetsk Oblast – Ed.) where we met the 51st armoued infantry brigade. They had a very cool commander,” shares Bayda, an Azov fighter. “The liberation of Maryinka lasted all day, and continued into the night: we found ourselves in an ambush almost at night in the suburbs of Donetsk.”
“Those battles were huge for us,” Bayda recalls. “Of course, we already had some experience and training. But it was a really tough operation. In fact, we took Maryinka thanks to our determination and enthusiasm. The operation had been planned and looked very clear on the map. But in action our radio communication turned into a chaos, coordination was bad. Yet, we managed to get to the Donetsk city line and occupy the checkpoint. The next day, the 51st brigade set up its own checkpoints there. Unfortunately, we had our first “200”.
Unlike in Mariupol, the Azov battalion did not stay long in Maryinka. “Our main responsibility is the southern front, sector M,” Bayda says. “In a vast assault launched at the end of this winter, we freed Pavlopil, Kominternova and Shyrokyne, and pushed the frontline closer to Novoazovsk. Then, we concentrated in Shyrokine.”
In summer 2015, the 28th brigade of the Ukrainian Army managed to keep Maryinka under control in a very challenging combat situation. According to a BBC journalist, this June battle was the worst since the signing of Minsk-2.
Pisky: taken over by determination
The village of Pisky in the suburbs of Donetsk switched hands many times. It was only in July 2014 that the Ukrainian forces finally took it under control. The official news of this came from the counterterrorist operation press-center on July 21, although they did not specify who stormed the village. At that point, Pisky was a reliable rear for the “cyborgs” in Donetsk airport. Yet, it remains a fairly important location till this day, providing control over ways to the Karlivske water reservoir (on June 7, 2014, the Russia-backed terrorists captured the territory around the reservoir and were demanding the staff to open flood-gates at gunpoint. That would have resulted in the flooding of six towns around – Ed.).
A member of Dnipro-1’s squadron 5 told us off-record that his group stormed Pisky having no respective orders. Only later did the Right Sector and 93rd brigade groups join them in the village.
“Luckily, we had taken the bridge line with the support of tanks previously (the Republic Bridge between Pisky and Pervomayske – Ed.). Then, pretty much upon our own initiative, we headed to Pisky, pushing the separatists to the slah heap where they have their fortified barricades now. We began to build our own trenches there but were ordered to retreat. So, we stayed in the village. As far as I know, our battalion had never been ordered to go there officially. We held our positions in Pisky for several months with no rotation.”
The fighter cannot confirm or deny the statement of Volodymyr Shylov, commander of the Dnipro-1’s squadron 5, from July 2014 where he said that the Ukrainian forces were ordered to leave Pisky after they had taken the village under control. Shylov refused to do that. “I have made it cear that we are not running back and forth, but staying there to the very end,” the commander said. By the way, most squadron 5 members are originally from Donetsk Oblast.
Now, Dnipro-1, as well as Sich, another battalion reporting to the Interior Ministry, have been withdrawn from Pisky. The Rights Sector and OUN were forced to retreat as well given the unresolved situation around legalization of volunteers in the ranks of the Ukrainian forces. Today, the village that undergoes daily shelling is under control of the 93rd brigade with Carpathian Sich, originally a guerilla squadron that has been stationed in Pisky since the fall of 2014 and integrated into the 93rd brigade.