With his men getting hammered by Russia, a desperate Ukrainian battalion commander has landed in New York City, where he's rustling up money for weapons, helmets, and even toilet paper.
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
At French Roast, a bistro on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Ivan Rodichenko remembers when a machine gun took his comrade’s head clean off — and what happened next. “The Russians took his cellphone out of his pocket and rifled through his contacts. They found the numbers for his parents and his girlfriend and called them to say Oleh was dead. This was August 28, in the village of Nikishino, near Debaltseve.”
Debaltseve, a city of some 25,000 people halfway between the separatist centers of Donetsk and Luhansk, happens to be the locus of some of the fiercest fighting occurring in Ukraine right now owing to a recent push by Russian-backed separatists to regain the territory they had lost six months ago — and then some. Theories differ as to what their endgame is or whether there even is one. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to destroy Ukraine,” Rodichenko said. “I know he wants to go even farther: Odessa, Kharkiv, Kherson. He wants the southern corridor to connect Russia to Crimea. This was always his project; he just didn’t expect the resistance from the Ukrainian people. So he has had to improvise on tactics. The strategy is still the same, however.”
Rodichenko is an intelligence officer in a 40-man platoon within the Kievan Rus Territorial Defense Battalion, which has deployed to front lines of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. “I’ve been face to face with Russian soldiers,” Rodichenko told me in an interview last week in Manhattan, where he was visiting to try to raise funds for his beleaguered and underequipped battalion. Rodichenko’s next stop was Washington, D.C., to prevail upon Congress and, he hoped, the White House to supply weapons and modern military equipment to Ukraine.
So far, the United States has sent only night-vision goggles, body armor, and other nonlethal aid to Ukraine, though President Barack Obama is thought to now be considering dispatching the lethal variety. According to a recent report put out by the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, what Ukraine needs most are defensive radars that can detect multiple-launch rocket systems, a type of munition that has so far been responsible for as much as 70 percent of Ukraine’s casualties; fortified Humvees; light anti-armor missiles; medium-altitude, medium-range surveillance drones for tracking the movement and deployment of separatist forces (as well as countermeasures for duping the separatists’ own drones); and secure communications gear.
Rodichenko’s men have none of this. The Kievan Rus battalion consists almost entirely of civilians who went from political activists on the Maidan to summer, and now winter, soldiers. At its height, the battalion was 570-strong. Rodichenko says that all these volunteers were trained by a member of Ukraine’s special forces and were then more or less left to fend for themselves against an adversary backed either by Russia or from Russia and equipped with advanced anti-aircraft radar and artillery-guidance systems.
Rodichenko has had to crowdfund his war. In late June, he told me, he conducted a series of Skype calls and delivered a video appeal for money to members of the activist Ukrainian diaspora in order to buy basic supplies such as toilet paper and sleeping bags. He amassed $500,000 in donations. Eager to show me where all the money had gone, Rodichenko pulled out his iPad and exhibited a before-and-after slideshow. “This is what we had to wear to the front when the war started,” he said, showing a photograph of a young soldier in a T-shirt and plastic Crocs, with an AK-47 slung across his back. “The Ukrainian army gave us only bullets and machine guns and APCs [armored personnel carriers]. Helmets, shoes, uniforms, protective vests, radio equipment, night-vision goggles — we had none of this from the government. My guys have died on the battlefield because they’re wearing the same helmets my grandfather wore to fight the Nazis.”
Rodichenko swiped his iPad again to reveal more recent images of fighters outfitted in clean combat boots and proper fatigues. “We bought these ourselves with the money I raised.” Still, Kievan Rus has also had to bury its dead on its own dime. “One of our fighters was killed. The battalion had to scrape together enough money to buy him a grave and hire the bus to transport the body back to his village.”
Some things money can’t buy, however, given the strictures on military imports. Rodichenko freely admitted that he has resorted to smuggling in military-grade protective equipment (such as helmets) from manufacturers in Germany and elsewhere. But it still isn’t enough. “We’re using the kinds of walkie-talkies that you see in paintball tournaments, not wars,” Rodichenko said, adding that what Ukraine’s conventional forces are using to communicate is hardly much better.
Insecure radios and cell phones, whose positions can be easily geolocated by Russian signals intelligence, have led to untold casualties. Rodichenko relayed an anecdote from one particularly grim battle in Debaltseve last summer. The Kievan Rus battalion had called for an evacuation by Ukraine’s National Guard, but the armored personnel carrier meant to pluck the fighters from the field couldn’t find them. “He circled our location again and again,” Rodichenko said. “Finally, we had to fire a colored flare in the air to signal where we were. Of course, this also signaled to the Russians where we were. We lost a soldier waiting for that damned APC. When it finally arrived, one man from my battalion took out his pistol and held it to the driver’s temple. ‘Where the fuck were you?’ he screamed. ‘Our comms are shit,’ the driver answered.”
The Kievan Rus battalion is one of roughly three dozen volunteer battalions enlisted by Ukraine’s Defense and Internal Affairs ministries to act as added manpower in a yearlong war that only shows signs of intensifying — despite a cease-fire drawn up between Kiev and Moscow last September in Minsk, Belarus, that was worthless even before the ink dried. At the start of the conflict, Kiev relied heavily on these paramilitary factions because Ukraine’s military had been vitiated by the government of former President Viktor Yanukovych. Volunteers sign a contract with the government promising to obey orders issued by the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) command and to relay any and all intelligence gathered in the field — including forensic proof of Russian military involvement — back to Kiev.
Rodichenko says this stipulation rankles him and his men. “There are Russian spies in the Ministry of Defense, the SBU [Ukraine’s security service], and the police. We have enemies both inside and outside Ukraine. We know of a guy the government paid off to give info about our location of ATO forces to the Russians.” Yanukovych, a hireling of Moscow, fled Ukraine in late February 2014, but not before ordering operatives to steal “data on more than 22,000 officers and informants as well as anything documenting decades of cooperation” between the SBU and the Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), as Mashable’s Christopher Miller reported in December 2014. So far, more than 200 spies have been arrested for playing for the other side, including Volodymyr Bik, Ukraine’s former head of counterintelligence. “The terms of our contract make it clear that if we capture a Russian soldier and interrogate him and get his name, rank, and serial number, we have to send this information back to Kiev,” Rodichenko said. “But how do we know we’re not really sending it back to Moscow?”
Andrew Bowen, a specialist on the Russian military at Boston College, wrote recently for the Interpreter that the hodgepodge and amateur nature of Kiev’s defenses made the “injection of coordinated and well trained Russian units (such as Airborne and Naval Infantry that are not representative of the Russian Military as a whole) all the more important.” Ukraine is now into its fourth mobilization, and though it’s true that the army has been performing a lot better than it did last spring, many volunteers feel abandoned by a government that leaned on them with the promise of putting an end to Russian hegemony.
In fact, most mentions of the Kievan Rus battalion in the Ukrainian media center on its anger and frustration toward Kiev. In one article, published in the Ukrainian daily Fakty i Kommentarii on Aug. 29 (the day after Oleh’s head was blown off), Viktor Kolyada, the battalion’s reconnaissance chief, is quoted saying: “The leadership from the ATO headquarters never once held a general discussion with the commanders of the battalions and brigades.” According to an article on the news site Glavcom, the battalion was given only one 1975-vintage Russian armored transporter and defective assault rifles dating from 1982. Vasiliy Shcherbakov, a commander in the battalion, told the outlet: “When I asked why we couldn’t get BMPs [fighting vehicles] or tanks for support, we on the front line, dealing with the Russian army — for you know this isn’t an ATO, it’s a Russo-Ukrainian war — they told us: ‘You’re volunteers; you’re not entitled to hardware.’”
Rodichenko says he has no immediate plans to return to combat. He plans to remain in the United States through the first week of March, touring Ukrainian communities along the Eastern Seaboard to drum up support for the war effort.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, finds himself in an impossible position. He faces enormous political pressure at home to fight a Russian invasion his own government has not formally acknowledged, and just as much pressure from the United States and Europe to find a peaceful solution to a crisis that threatens to partition his Ukraine when no such solution exists. I asked Rodichenko whether Poroshenko, a former confectionary magnate, thinks he can even win the war at this rate, or would he prefer to cut a face-saving deal with Putin to allow a Russian-run enclave in the Donbass? He smiled. “I think he wants to go back to making chocolates.”
FP Photo illustration