After the incident in Debaltseve, we spent a couple evenings on a Ukrainian Army Forward Operating Base.
The scene was something out of the pre-Normandy invasion of the Band of Brothers series; the rain and snow came down lightly, but constantly. The ground was covered with a thin layer of ice, freezing in the cracks of potholed pavement that had been pulled up by the tracks of the heavy tanks. The open air smelled like exhaust and petrol, the metal banisters and stones were burning cold on the skin. If you didn’t step on ice, you stepped in mud that spread like kudzu, wrapping itself around anyone and anything.
The sound of raindrops, engines and harsh voices were punctuated with the occasional, distant explosion.
The soldier’s uniforms don’t always match, often taking on various camouflage from different nations, bought by volunteers or by their own wages. Fingernails, and entire fingertips, turned black under the labor of maintaining these vehicles, and I was convinced that a small forest had been cut down to line the sides of the tanks with lumber, and to power the small stoves and little bonfires they kept outside.
Underground, I put my sleeping bag on a cot on top of a stained mattress. The dark, smoky room could have been a recreation room at one point, with full length mirrors on both sides, and a pool table pushed against the wall. They use the table to hold cups, and various kinds of tea and coffee. The white plastic kettle and heater was powered by various surge protectors linking to an extension cord, which linked to another surge protector, so on and so forth, until it snaked to the top corner of a door. The door itself is no door at all, just a hanging, blue wool blanket nailed into the plaster above.
The extension cords are the last signs of modernity, apart from the simple non-smartphone phones and black brick-sized radios with antenna whips.
While I was there, they lay a series of maps on the green felt pool table, and with pens and highlighters, coordinated rally points and points of interest in a way that I had not seen since I was a young lieutenant going through the rather antiquated Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). When we, as young officers, moaned that no one uses this shit in war, our old fogy instructors gave us a Y2K-like apocalyptic scenario where no electricity could be had, and all the navigation systems went down, and we’d be reduced from power-points to butcher block AND THEN I’D BE GRATEFUL FOR THIS BLOCK OF INSTRUCTION.
I never had use for those two weeks of wasted lessons – but apparently they use it in Ukraine.
Some will say that Ukraine, a non-NATO country, might just be backwards and their soldiers more used to this old style of running a war. But that’s not true.
Some of these soldiers, many in their late twenties, had served in Kosovo with NATO less than a year ago. They were deployed there when the war in eastern Ukraine began, and their American counterparts looked at them and asked, ” Why are you here? Go home! There’s a war with Russia in your country!”
But they had orders. They stayed in Kosovo through their obligation, then returned to Ukraine for a brief reprieve, then straight to the front lines again.
They went from an inter-linked, secret, navigation system inside their vehicles to one of civilian-bought GPS’s and folding maps.
The soldiers joke, “It’s like fighting in the first World War.”
It’s a comment that is not said by a single unit, but by many. When I was held up at a Ukrainian check point, a soldier showed me his AK-47 with the manufacturing year of 1974. Another showed me his pistol from the 1940’s. Somewhere, there is mortar ammunition from the 1930’s.
All the while, they may turn to me and ask, “Where is America? Why are they not here?”
Ukrainians, who had deployed along side American soldiers now wonder how, when there is a war on their soil, America does not overtly side with them. It is not a question that asks for a geo-political, strategic answer, but one of a simple code of soldiers where you fight as brethren. It is the same sense I noted in Kyiv, when people expressed their feeling that the west had totally abandoned them right when things were at their hardest.
Heavy on their shoulders is the weight of victory. Each day they are reminded, in prayer, in discussions, that the loss of Donbass or the further pushing of the front lines will mean the amputation of another part of Ukraine. If they lose, then it will be an existential loss for the Ukrainian identity.
Here, they are certain, with no pretense, that their enemy is not Donbass, but Russia itself.
“How else do Russian relatives in the Russian military call us and tell us what city we should not be in before it gets attacked?” someone asked. I could not independently confirm this, but it seems that such occurrences were common enough that it was just general knowledge.
Next in the series: A different view of the Pravy Sektor