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Олена Каганець
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Effectiveness of Russian soldiers grows, Ukrainian company commander says

In a candid interview, Ukrainian army commander tells about forging a ragtag army fighting with a potpourri of weapons, Russia’s improved fighting tactics, and the growing chasm between the military and the home front.

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We met recently with Andriy (name changed) at the frontline city of Sloviansk, Donetsk Oblast, in the east of Ukraine where fighting continues to be intense, and has been since 2014. We meet in an ordinary flat where photos on the wall and clothing strewn about speak of a local family who fled the war with little or no preparation.

At present, these flats are rented for $20 by volunteers delivering supplies to danger zones who need a place to stay. They are also used by soldiers fighting nearby, lucky enough to spend some time with family during brief unit rotations. From time to time, Andriy and I can hear distant artillery explosions from the frontline, a mere 30 kilometers away.

Since the first invasion by Russia in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014, Andriy has fought in all phases of the war, with only a few breaks during that entire time. From 2014 to 2023, he advanced from the rank of soldier to that of company commander. Early in the 2022 invasion, his unit deterred Russia’s advance in the north of Ukraine. Then it moved south, participating in Ukraine’s Kherson offensive, then to the eastern city of Bakhmut, repelling Russian winter assaults, and finally was redeployed to the Luhansk Oblast in 2023.

At the time of our interview, Andriy was in charge of organizing a new company reinforced by drone detachments. In all, he was commanding 130 people and preparing them for a new round of battles.

Andriy’s new company is composed of people from all over Ukraine, with different levels of motivation. Some have come from reorganized detachments that lost combat capabilities, while others are stress-resistant professional military. Andriy says he does not watch news about the war but relies on his ground-level experience. Unlike TV reports that de-emphasize military losses, he says many Ukrainian soldiers are dying because there are also professionals in the Russian army who are able to take out Ukrainian people.

Still, Andriy remains spirited and optimistic.

“Life in the army is one day at a time. You live one day, and if you succeed, you performed your task and kept people alive – it’s a good day.”

During the interview, he answers more than 10 phone calls and voice messages. These are all coming from officers and sergeants in his company who are readying people, equipment, and ammunition to go to battle.

Andriy is on the phone almost around the clock. Over here, he needs to arrange the repair of cars … over there he needs to submit someone’s furlough report … then suddenly his priority is to appoint new recently mobilized service members. Then he races to other spots where he must manage additional pressing tasks. And all of this is needed now.

While Ukrainian soldiers have the right to a 30-day furlough each year to meet with their families, Andriy has been away for only 10 days since the February 2022 invasion.

“There are many wounded, there are many tasks — it’s war.”

Out of all the food we brought for the troops, Andriy chooses a home-grown apple from my father’s garden – a rarity in trenches. Many soldiers, after 20 months on the frontline, even if not wounded, have the need to undergo some form of treatment. Eating mostly canned food, sleeping in trenches or underground cellars, and taking on heavy workloads every day, leads to vulnerability even in the healthiest of bodies. Although only in his thirties, Andriy also had to spend some days in the hospital to “restore himself.”

Умови солдатського побуту поблизу лінії фронту, зафіксовані підрозділом Андрія

How Russians fight

While it is widely known that mobilized Russian soldiers have a low level of skills, not to mention motivation, Andriy is cautious about such simplification. Russians should not be underestimated. Like Ukrainians, they are constantly working on mistakes and adjusting their tactics. Andriy is sure that their potential is not yet exhausted and a difficult fight is still ahead that will require huge struggles on the part of Ukrainians to attain victory.

In September 2023, the Russian brigade that was positioned across from his units changed. The fresh Russian reserve of the 25th Army, consisting of newly mobilized soldiers, was deployed to replace previous brigades at the frontline near Sloviansk. Their effectiveness had increased exponentially, “Due to better training, better coordination… motivation,” says Andriy.

“New military, of course, want to prove themselves. If fighters sit in one place for a long time, they experience fatigue, burnout, and demotivation. When new soldiers arrive [on both sides], they start thinking ‘Now we will show them who we are!’”

In the autumn of 2023, the Ukrainian brigades in the Luhansk and northern Donetsk oblasts were mainly in defense, holding off a huge Russian grouping to allow other Ukrainian units to continue their counteroffensive near eastern Bakhmut and in the south. Today, Andriy’s units and the Russians are mainly working in the same manner, striking enemy positions during rotations.

 “We fly, observe, and calculate when they have a replacement at a particular point. We mark it and then strike intensively there. In the evening, our SPGs and mortars are already aimed there. And they do the same.”

Holding positions in the village is slightly better than in the field because soldiers can conceal themselves from shelling, not only in trenches but in better secured cellars. Still, nothing protects them during dangerous rotations, when they need to shift to or from ground positions. Units closest to the frontline mostly stay in place for three days because people become too exhausted if they don’t have proper sleep or a decent rest.

VDV vs mobilized

There is a difference between various Russian units. These variations can be detected on a drone video showing who is moving into which positions – are they experienced VDV (airborne) troops or recently mobilized units?

“If mobilized infantry troops are approaching, they walk in groups, confused, looking around, hiding behind trees. But when the Russian paratroopers come in, it’s ‘Go for it!’ With backpacks, they walk 50 meters, then another 50 meters, keeping a huge distance between them. They stretch out. No one would shoot at them [from artillery or mortar] like that. They are such wolves, you know. Then again, you can identify the type of fighter simply by their manner of walking.”

Commanding a company in the Ukrainian army

Ukrainian soldiers differ by levels of motivation and skill. The main task of the commander is to make them work together efficiently.

“I have a medic, for example. He’s a tattoo maker – covered entirely in skulls. It’s so scary that even I’m scared,” says Andriy smiling.” “I turn, he’s already sitting. I turn again, he’s already lying down. You tell him to stand, he stands. You tell him to bring something, he brings what you said but nothing more and sits down again.”

In a word, he is not the best of the fighters. On the other hand, there are fighters who commit 150%, including the deputy commander of Andriy’s company who works “like an enterprise.” While the deputy deals with all the paperwork, which is “a freight-full of bureaucracy,” Andriy can dedicate his time to working with soldiers and planning tactics.

Some soldiers from the so-called former “battalion of deserters” were also added to Andriy’s company and, to his surprise, became good fighters. This deserters’ battalion was dissolved early in the war after their commander ordered frontal attacks without proper reconnaissance, which led to many fatalities and soldiers fleeing the battle. The commander was removed, the battalion reorganized, and many of the soldiers were added to other units where they performed well.

A platoon of drone operators and a platoon of mortars reinforce Andriy’s unit. They have American 81 caliber mortars, which are “good,” according to Andriy, but he wishes they had 120 calibers which are “better,” because of their longer range and wider radius of explosion.

Колишній тил командного пункту роти Андрія, снаряди NLAW та СПГ, які вони використовували в бою

His platoon also has NLAW’s, Javelins, Stingers, and heavy drone bombers that can lift 30 kilograms of explosives each time. “This is a remake of an agricultural drone,” he explains.

Dozens of new models of drones have been developed by Ukrainian engineers since the onset of the war, often with the use of civilian prototypes. Bombers and kamikaze drones have become a unique innovation by Ukrainians. Extremely effective. Many think that even after the war, this is a specialty that will become closely associated with Ukraine.

Andriy says with obvious gratitude, “I have two flags on my body armor – Ukrainian and American.”

This reflects the current state of weaponry in his company and brigade, where they fight with a mix of mainly Ukrainian and American weapons, as well as a few German and Italian anti-tank systems. Andriy needs an unwavering supply of all these weapons but knows Ukraine cannot start producing them anytime soon.

“And that’s why people die. That is why cities are destroyed. Society might think that a new century has dawned on normal life, and all will be well, but, unfortunately, we have the killing and atrocities as they are now”.

People are the main value; their training and motivation define everything

People are the main value. This is the motto often used to describe the Ukrainian army, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his comments regarding the strategy of the Ukrainian offensive.

Andriy says it is better to pay $3,000 for 10 kamikaze drones and destroy a tank than to send an operator with NLAW that will need to trail around seeking a target, with a high risk of detection.

“Soldiers win wars, while commanders only command. It all starts with people… only after people should technology be valued. For me, commanding a company means more responsibility. More responsibility and then again even more responsibility,” he says, comparing his previous experience as a soldier from 2014.

In his previous position as a platoon commander, Andriy had under command mostly professionals or experienced people in the unit. While he admits it is much better to have 10 professionals than 100 untrained and inexperienced troops, the reality is getting different calibers of soldiers under your command, with whom it is necessary to perform the task.

    “In general, speaking about a soldier (because ‘commander’ is a separate story), a soldier at war should be a person with a broad profile. They must be able to drive a car, and start a chainsaw. They need to want to do the work. From typing the same report over again, this time in Word, to hammering a post into the ground, cutting a log, digging a dugout … not to mention orientation in the area.”

    “Victory loves preparation. [Victory happens] if you train specialists, prepare equipment, train people.”

Main battles: from the north to the south and to the east

Andriy has seen the death of comrades up-close but miraculously survived himself several times.

In the first months of the 2022 invasion, his platoon was deployed in Ukraine’s Rivne Oblast near the Belarusian one.

“I got very sick there because I was just sleeping in a ditch there. You sleep in three pairs of pants, a jacket and a sleeping bag, but you still feel the spring wind chilling you to your bones. Then town people organized themselves and brought us food … fed us. Locals.”

Once, intelligence reported that a convoy was heading in their direction from Belarus and Andriy got the order, “Stop a column, bomb it out!” He grimaces, recalling the first chaotic months of the war.

    “I counted all my cartridges. Even if I shot all of them, I wouldn’t do anything to the column, to put it bluntly. My anti-tank platoon only had NLAWs and Panzerfausts at that time.”

Still, he deployed his 12 men at the crossroads in several quickly assembled ambushes, creating crossfire, hoping to hit at least the first and last vehicles, and then adjust the fire of artillery to destroy the column. But as it turned out, the column did not dare to cross the border – perhaps Russians realized that ambushes might be waiting for them, or maybe they changed their plans after failing the offensive near Kyiv and not breaking the frontline in the Rivne Oblast.

After that, Andriy fought in Ukraine’s south, holding the defense and participating in the Kherson counteroffensive. However, although the battle was generally victorious for Ukraine, Andriy says, “There were only sad battles.” He lost comrades due to mines. Several soldiers accidentally detonated a mine after the full liberation of the western Dnipro bank. Many were maimed, one of them died. Russians densely mined fields while retreating from battle – their goal was to inflict as many losses as possible. Now, dense Russian minefields pose a huge obstacle to the Ukrainian offensive on the country’s southern frontline, keeping the army from advancing.

Andriy also calls one moment in Bakhmut, during the 2022-2023 winter, when he thought they would die. “We understood that we were just like a sausage on a plate, waiting for a rocket to drop on us”.

Several did drop closely. They were returning to Bakhmut after driving a soldier to the frontline. Their Volkswagen T4 had been purchased for $1,700, supplied by volunteers, and “was already crumbling, flying apart from the battles”.

In the middle of the Bakhmutka River dam, they suddenly saw a Ural truck, totally destroyed because its ammunition cargo had exploded. They assumed it was hit by a Russian ATGM Kornet (range of 4.5 kilometers) because there was a hill nearby occupied by Russians where they had a view of the city.

Earlier the same day, a Ukrainian armored vehicle “Kozak” was also stuck in the same place, and its crew was killed. And later, Andriy’s battalion commander also perished at the very same dam from serious injuries he sustained from a Russian ATGM.

    “A total of four vehicles were destroyed. We also drove there that day, but we were lucky. Russians may have decided not to expend a rocket for an old dilapidated T4.”

Another day, near Bakhmut again, the battalion was lucky to survive a powerful explosion of a Russian 120-mm mortar bomb. It exploded just 15 meters from them. It was very close, because the spread of debris from the 120-mm shell can normally reach 250 meters. Nobody from Andriy’s unit was expected to survive. However, luck was with them.

    “When you are in a war zone for a very long time, the sense of danger dulls a bit.”

A small elevation near the trench saved them. Since the shell hit the elevation, its fragments flew right over the heads of soldiers, not wounding anyone. Instead the trunk of a heavy chestnut tree was sheared off, just a stone’s-throw away.

    “We all inhaled, then exhaled, and ran to the shelter.”

Andriy later thought that this time, the Russians simply tried to guess where his unit would appear. His platoon had five firing positions in the area. Usually, he would choose one each time to fire a few shells, and immediately hide or relocate, before a Russian drone would detect them and pass coordinates on to their fighters. But this time, Russians must have randomly aimed their mortars in advance at this particular position in the hope Ukrainians would appear exactly there. They guessed right, but their shell missed … although narrowly.

The supply is “okay” if maintained at least on the current level, but the rear still could do more

In Ukraine, outlooks are spreading criticizing the current information policy of the state. Some citizens feel that the full reality of the war is not being depicted and instead the actual challenges the military faces are being played down. This skewed perspective leads many Ukrainians to believe that victory is just around the corner.

“I understand, information and psychological operations are ongoing,” says Andriy. However he shares the concern that not all of society is actively working towards victory because of such a pacifying policy.

He does not, however, agree with radical criticism of the government that targets the poor supply of drones or poor preparation of positions for defense, even if sometimes there are shortcomings.

    “Positions are being prepared, that’s for sure. But questions should be asked in a slightly different way. In a psycho-emotional format, in the unity of people. We need this emphasis – unity between the military and civilians away from war.”

Soldiers on the frontline often ask why the entire economy is not fully devoted to the war effort, and why some municipalities are still constructing playgrounds or roads. While Ukraine has allocated almost all of its national budget, or 21.6% of GDP, for defense, many believe this is not enough. People sometimes criticize the fact that municipal expenditures are still being directed to local (often non-urgent) needs and that allocating municipal funds to the war is being decided locally.

    “We all studied history. The economy shifts in wartime. Economic priorities are redirected to the military. Everyone focuses on saving the country. Here we have the impression that part of society says, ‘you fight the war there, and, we create companies here".

Andriy says his mood often depends on who he talks with. One day, they’re volunteers who have just delivered a car or other aid for his company. Another day, he sees online that some men from his village quit jobs to avoid being drafted.

However, on the bright side, he believes that participation in the war, despite all difficulties, will turn many people into military professionals, with a whole new set of skills. And those skills will stay with them – to their benefit. When people are forced to live under constant stress, they begin to realize that there is nothing to be afraid of. This can lead to personal growth, precisely because of the harsh demands of war. Their leadership and management capabilities will have been highly amplified.

These people can help bring the country back to health, by actively contributing to the Ukrainian economy. They will be motivated to use their skills for success – perhaps starting businesses, expanding the service sector, or even joining the public service.

He, like many others in Ukraine, does not nurture illusions that after victory in the war, a new age will arrive without challenges – sadly, another war could arise, even with the same enemy. Russians have attacked Ukraine in the past, for centuries – be it the Tsarists, the Soviet Union, or now the Putin regime. So far there are no prerequisites for a rapid democratization or collapse of Russia. That is why most on the frontline believe that even after Ukraine liberates all lands, the danger from the east may still persist. Consequently, the army, its readiness, and its strength will remain the main security guarantee for the years ahead.

 

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