According to a survey by the Horshenin Institute, almost 73% of Ukrainians believe that the increased funding of the army will not improve life in the military. Enlistment has not been prestigious for many years now. Paradoxically, there were 11 enlistees for each vacancy in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in 2011. Why was that? Because the army would feed them, they would not have to look for work or rent an apartment. After the army, they can work as security guards. All these plusses prevail over the minuses. The only thing new conscripts are not told, neither before, nor after taking the oath, is that a soldier is the slave of his commanding officer.
SOLDIERS FOR SALE
“In summer, soldiers work for all entrepreneurs here,” says former officer, Volodymyr Lazarenko. “They simply earn money for their commander. Those who refuse, are beaten. That’s why everyone is afraid and downtrodden”.
Mr. Lazarenko served in unit A 0801 in Ponyzivka, a village near Yalta. According to him, Vitaliy Smiriagin, the local commander, has been earning at the expense of soldiers for many years. “Soldiers would run away from him when he was still the commander of another unit,” Mr. Lazarenko says. “Back then, he forced soldiers to gather three to four truckloads of rocks every day. Dead tired, the guys would fall asleep on duty. Eventually, they could no longer stand it and deserted. The commander took the money earned by the soldiers. I mentioned this to headquarters a few times but they did absolutely nothing.” Smiriagin was later transferred to another unit, where he continued these operations.
The soldiers under Smiriagin’s command confirm Mr. Lazarenko’s words. Oleh Balabansky left the service a year ago. He remembers his stint in the army with horror. The worst thing, he says, was not the meager gruel, strict rules or even the bullying. The most difficult thing was the fact that together with other soldiers, they were given new work almost every day. “Sometimes, they would send 10 soldiers to work at a time, six to one place and four to another, while one person stayed at the barracks, who had to clean up the whole territory by himself.” Oleh recalls. “The worst job was to dig graves. I was digging one once and a guy next to us with a finger-thick golden chain around his neck kept barking “Come on, faster, faster!”
MONEY FOR OFFICERS, ICE CREAM FOR SOLDIERS
Commander Smiriagin is easy to find and still easier to negotiate with. He goes to the checkpoint, listens to the journalist’s story about a truck of bricks that needs to be unloaded and offers as many soldiers as necessary. We just need two. They are waiting for us at the checkpoint next morning. The commander takes UAH 200 for the work. Nobody checks our passports. In other words, he does not care who we are and what we are going to do with the soldiers.
The latter do not ask anything either, even when we take them for an ice-cream instead of unloading bricks. They still remain silent, when they find out by whom and why they have been bought. We took the soldiers to the commanders of the Crimean Military Law Enforcement Service and confirmed our story about the purchase of soldiers from Smiriagin with a video taken on the phone.
The scared soldiers recounted their experience of military service. Private Mykola said he unloaded trucks and dug trenches in Simeyiz and Yalta. Over six months in the army, he has worked outside the barracks seven or eight times. The military police decided to pay a visit to unit A 0801 to catch the commander red-handed. Half an hour later, the roll call revealed that two soldiers were missing. The officer was unable to explain where they were. When the journalists happened to show up with the soldiers, the military police registered a violation committed by the officer – sending soldiers to work outside the base for money.
The investigation revealed that Smiriagin had been sending soldiers to do work that was completely unrelated to military service on a regular basis, at the same time violating the social guarantees of the soldiers on a regular basis. The officer was found guilty of corruption and even fined UAH 2,250 (USD 280). To put it mildly, this is a joke. In view of Smiriagin’s business acumen, it is safe to assume that it will not prove too difficult to settle with the state. It’s true, however, that the officer is reluctant to pay the fine so has filed an appeal.
What would the punishment have been for selling the soldiers to, let’s say, sex maniacs?
It appears that this is also practiced in our military, but the military high command turns a blind eye to this problem, even if they are aware of it. During the investigation, journalists visited three military units, trying to buy soldiers for a night. In two units, one in downtown Kyiv and another one in the Kyiv Oblast, the solider on duty recommended that we talk to the officer. This means we were not the first ones to come with such a request. It surprised no one. Moreover, the commanders agreed to “assign” soldiers. They were not particularly disturbed by the fact that according to the journalists’ story, the client was a man. The solider provided by the officer was ready to go to a sauna or a private apartment. The important thing was to be back at the barracks by morning. The cost of a prostitute in uniform – about UAH 500.
The Ministry of Defense was infuriated by all the evidence collected by the journalists. Even before this inspection was appointed and started, the military accused the mass media of insinuation and provocation. Clearly, the inspection found no evidence to confirm the wrongdoings revealed by the media.
Our hero, officer Smiriagin continues to serve in unit A 0801. His former colleague, Volodymyr Lazarenko, continues to live near the unit and says that Smiriagin’s behavior has not changed. The only thing that changed in the life of the Yalta unit was that two privates were reassigned. Both soldiers sold by Smiriagin to the journalists were transferred to a unit under the Military Law Enforcement Service in Simferopol. Hopefully they will serve their last six months in the army as defenders of their homeland, not as cleaners, grave diggers or loaders. Sadly, there is no hope of two privates and journalists saving the Ukrainian army. Smiriagin-like officers abound in the thousands.