‘Bukvy’ reporter spends a day with a Ukrainian sniper team on the frontline in Donbas to learn about their daily life and challenges they are facing these days.
The story is not sharing identities of the military unit personnel and location for security purposes.
We arrived in a small town 60 km away from occupied Donetsk. The first thing that strikes you is how seemingly nonchalant locals appear having a war conflict so close, literally in your backyard.
We also noticed a graffiti of ‘European Solidarity’ made in support of Ukrainian soldiers.
Scorched ground, battered buildings, wary people. While driving to our destination we saw the ruins Donbas war left up close.
After several check points we ultimately reached our destination. We were met by a sturdy man.
‘You have very careless looks, you will stand out here,’ said the man flashing a broad smile and leading us to the encampment of his military unit.
The man who called himself ‘Smile’ was a platoon commander of snipers we came to spend a day with.
A big stray dog that latches to soldiers is a common story here. On our arrival, the pet was placed on a leash but soon let go and enjoyed our company.
‘It is like a family member’, said a female sniper who joined the conversation.
We brought the sniper team some treats. With alcohol fully banned, most snipers go hard on cigarettes claiming it the only relief they can get.
The crowd were tending to their camp chores– some of the group were cooking, others were busy checking their arms and ammunition, the rest were on their phones talking.
‘You can’t take family day from them,’ explained one of the soldiers.
‘Smile’ left us for a few hours because he had to travel to a local hospital to take care of the injuries he was still recovering from.
The crowd doesn’t care much about the language issue -no-one is bullied over speaking Russian and the team listen to both Ukrainian and Russian music.
There is kitchen duty and no-one tries to dodge it either.
When ‘Smile’ returned we asked him to share some stories about his combat raids.
‘I can not single out something. All combat assignments were challenging and dangerous, and required proper training’.
We talked about different things – current moods in his team, plans for future, provisions they get, movies about snipers. I learned how people get into sniper teams and how they get along with locals.
What is your profession? What made you go and fight in Dobnas? Did you have any military experience before you joined the army?
Before this war, I had a regular life, had a business and didn’t have a care in my life. I had no military experience. When the war broke out, I just got carried away with it, I could not hold myself back. I joined volunteers. There were many of us who were concerned about the events and started to help with volunteer work for the army in the frontline. It was before In 2015, I undestoond that it was not enough. And I went to war. We had a small unit that was engaged in fighting ‘illegally’. In 2016 I signed a contract and officially became a platoon commander.
To claim victory at any cost?
We undoubtedly need a victory. We didn’t invade anyone, we didn’t invade the Muscovites. We live in our own country – why should we pass over our lands that cost our thousands of lives. I have never gone into close combat with the enemy, but I wouldl love to get a chance.
How did you end up in this platoon?
Few can become part of if for few openings we have go; still there are many worthy applicants. The most important thing is not how sharp you are as a shooter, but it is more about how good you are at blending it, becoming part of our family. Everyone has to try hard to be fully accepted… We allow for a trial term – a person can join us for a few weeks to see if we are compatible, if he can be compatible. If not, the person will understand if he is ‘odd one out’ taking cues from the way he is treated, and will ultimately leave.
On our way to the unit ‘headquarters’ we talked non-stop with ‘Smile’ tossing at me questions about latest news, political insights and situation in Kyiv.
As soon as we reached the encampment site we got swiftly instructed about the things we could not take photos of. To our disappointment, we were not allowed to take a photo of the unit vehicles that came from volunteers and donators but we manage to talk to a car mechanic who looks after them. This is when we got to fully grasp the idea what ‘made with love’ thing really stands for.
The place that shelters our fighters was buzzing with lunchtime activities – hosts were welcoming and open, soldiers keep coming up to us to say ‘hello’.
At lunch that followed snipers opened up about their wartime experiences. They didn’t mince words.
‘If we spot the enemy sniper- he is toast, I will keep f***ing firing until is it done, casually remarked one of the snipers.
You could feel this atmosphere of a close-knit family and unity free of any bullying and mistreatment by ‘elders’ that was long known as bane of our army.
Please, tell of your combat experience
I got it when we started our guerilla operations. In 2015-2016, we had a small group and we were learning from each other. Learning [warefare skills] came easy due to great motivation. I had a friend, we fought alongside. He is a super powerful person and he taught me a lot. We had friends from special force units coming to train us. And we are grateful to them- we have survived here and all thanks to them.
Is the Ukrainian army fully ready?
I am sure we can fend off aggressors and drive them away from our lands. Yet there is one ‘if’- if our western partners back us, otherwise it will be hard.
How do you get along with locals?
We have had different situations. It varies from place to place. There are people who are aware and can see what Ukraine and its military forces are doing for them. We are trying to help where it is possible. If needed, we can help with transportation for a doctor visit, chop wood, share food products. Still there are those who love Russia and want to go there.
How people in the military cope with stress? Do they seek psychological counseling?
We really have a great ‘family’ atmosphere, we support each other. We have never had such thing as PTSD or depression. We take things in stride, with humor. Now I have realized snipers beat doctors when it comes to humor. Yet I believe that professional psychological help is critical for those who have gone through the most violent engagements and seen all the ugly side of warfare.
What can you say about military logistics and supply here?
When it comes to supplies for such sniper units like ours, a lot is done by volunteers and private donors. All the things we need [as snipers] cost a lot. After several years of war, we clearly understand what we need and how much those things can cost.
Could you give some names of those who help your sniper team?
Since the time I started as a volunteer, a lot of help has been coming from Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and his team. I can name Mariya Ionova, Ihor Kononenko, many others who regularly contribute with their help and donations.
Things have improved in the army since the war started, military logistics have improved too. Still there are many issues like equipment, vehicles, sniper rifles and optics. It comes from our friends who cover such costs as they understand that we will have a hard time without them.
Like ‘Roshen’ company – in 2019 they spend a million US dollars to help the Ukrainian army to fully stock up on sniper bullets.
Each sniper rifle set can cost up to a half a million hryvnas and they also come from Poroshenko’s friends. We got them from Ihor Kononenko and ‘Roshen’ company. From what I know, Poroshenko himself bought more than hundred sniper rifles for different special forces units.
By the way, we could have failed to meet each others because I was supposed to go to Kyiv to pick up a new vehicle for our team but it got put off. And again it is bought on Petro Poroshenko’s money and is not secured on government funding. His [Poroshenko’s] ‘Roshen’ company regularly helps us with maintenance of vehicles and equipment. You should not be surprised to see ‘European Solidarity’ party posters in our headquarters.
What do you do to keep fit?
We have three criteria for enrolment you need to meet if you want to join our team. As I don’t drink, no-one here never drinks. I tasted alcohol once- 15 years go and never gone back to it after that. My fellows and subordinates just don’t drink.
[We have] regular workouts – physical, moral, intellectual… When we have free time, boys and girls, work out for 3 hours daily, which is really tough.
‘Smile’ reaches out for his mobile phone to show us videos of the team working out and practicing yoga meditation.
What do you think of dismissal of the military chief Ruslan Khomchak and his replacement Valeriy Zaluznyi?
Valeriy Fedorovych Zaluznyi is a super cool and powerful man, a personality, an officer who is deeply respected by army commanders and soldiers, by all those who met him personally or heard about him. We are really excited about his appointment because he has authority. It is great for the armed forces…
In case with Zaluznyi, hardly anyone can say any negative things about him, it is only positive [reaction]. He has won respect from all of those here.
Speaking about Khomchak. If you take 2014, we can talks with guys about the time, and I can’t blame any colonel, soldier, general, who was involved in the situation we had in 2014. It was just nightmare. No coordination, no arms, information exchange. It is hard to tell about those things. There should have been someone there at the time giving orders as lives of our boys and girls depended on that. I don’t know how I would have acted back then. I can’t put blame Khomchak or anyone else for the actions taken back at the time.
Is the current provisioning of the Army adequate?
The thing is that the army has not been receiving proper provision for several years, the way it should be when it faces the attack of the aggressor army from Russia. We need to secure the full provisioning.
There has been some rollback and lots of red tape issues lately. They haven’t procured uniforms, fuel for several years, and the food quality has worsened. We have reported on that. We send back poor quality products making our suppliers understand that we are no cattle here. People here should be supplied regular provisions.
We had situations when we were supposed to get prime quality oranges from Iran, and got Turkish low-quality fruit. It made me send such supply back. Three brigades respond in the same way. They would say ‘you will not be starving here’. We worked out that situation and the next time we were sent normal food stuff.
I guess, there were 4 contractors there was competition that ensured quality [of the food supplied]. Now they have no-bid procedure with a single supplier who has monopoly over 3,2 billion hryvnas food contracts. And we see the quality worsening. I told that before – what helps is donors.
What are your plans for future?
Many friends and journalists often ask me what I am going to do when the war ends. I will tell you this. I will be here till my last days or the last day of this war. I want to see it, I want to be part of victory over d***head Putin and Moscovites. I haven’t thought beyond that.
My family, mom, dad were really worried for me when it started. Now they have come to terms with it. My mom told me it made no sense to ask me about how I was doing because I kept saying everything was fine. Yet she checks updates on my Facebook page and sees everything, all my worries. I give my parents credit for their support. It is encouraging. I am grateful to them for that they have done.
The day drew to an end and we soon started back to Kyiv, but the soldiers stayed. They have a goal, they want to win this battle at any cost and bring back peace to our country, and I am indefinitely grateful to them for what they are doing for us.