Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine: Testimony from Debaltseve

Russia's proxy war in Ukraine Testimony from Debaltseve For EMPR readers learn more about the withdrawal of Ukraine's Armed Forces from the encircled railway hub of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine

For EMPR readers who would like to learn more about the withdrawal of Ukraine’s Armed Forces from the encircled railway hub of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine. Earlier, we published a report from one of the Vega squadron fighters, who are part of the Special Forces of Ukraine’s National Guard. Now, we present the story of Shaman (nom de guerre), 30, a volunteer who fought in the special mountain-infantry brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 

Shaman defended Ukraine’s sovereignty in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) August 31, 2014 through February 19, 2015. He’s originally from Nyvochyn, Bohorodchany County, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.
When I was little I was constantly complaining to my mother – I wish I was born during the World War II. I could have helped the grandpas to fight for our land and protect it. I do protect it now.
Before we left for the front, we were issued iodine, bandages, guns and cartridges. We did not receive modern First Aid kits or walkie-talkies. No night vision goggles or heat sensors were issued, either and without them, it’s very difficult to fight. So at night, my ears became my eyes: all we could do was try to hear where the enemy was shooting from. After two months, civilian volunteers finally brought us night vision gear.
It was largely thanks to such volunteers that we were able to fight at all. They supplied us with everything, from uniforms, boots, body armor and helmets, to food, water and tents. They raised the funds themselves and bought the binoculars and the heat sensors that they later brought us.
Most upsetting thing at war was neither the lack of anything nor the enemy one kilometer away but the fact that people behind your back do not support you. We shared our food with local residents, gave them our bread and they told us – why are you giving us spoiled bread? While it was the bread I was eating for six month. We were sharing with them what we had. Why is it like this? I don’t know. But we all love our country, Ukraine is above all else, and we don’t have time to ask questions. In spite of everything, we kept on fighting and defending our country.
After our president signed the last Minsk Agreement, Ukrainian troops began withdrawing on February 14. We were stationed near Debaltseve, outside Kirovske. Our mission was to enter Debaltseve itself to provide cover for the withdrawing columns of troops. The militants and separatists did not offer any corridor.
Instead, they followed us and kept shooting. We kept them at bay for two days—but these weren’t the separatists. Through my Dragunov sniper rifle with its 2,000 m scope, I could see that these were not ordinary guys like the ones we were fighting near Kirovske, these were big men, around 6’5”, all geared out in new uniforms and equipment. It was very clear that they were professionals. Talking with our guys who had been covering positions all around Debaltseve, we all would say that the enemy was now eight Russians for every two local militants.
When we got to the checkpoint in Debaltseve, a group of militants showed up. They thought they were heading for their own. Instead, they fell right into our hands, surprised that Ukrainian soldiers were still in Debaltseve. That particular group was all locals, but they arrived in a Ural truck loaded with weapons and bearing a Russian license plate. They admitted that they were driving around with fresh ammunition for the Russian forces: loading, delivering and unloading. They were armed with AK-100s, which Ukrainian soldiers don’t have. They were wearing the same uniform as Russian Federation regulars, too, both camo called “Russian Birch” and ordinary green uniforms with black patches.
Two hours later, we were attacked with tanks. Our weapons and truck were destroyed. Out of 14 in our unit, only three of us were unscathed. The rest were injured, and our platoon’s captain was killed. No one was going to surrender to the enemy as the majority of us are volunteers and volunteers do not live long in captivity. That’s why each of us was holding in his hand his last grenade.
We were saved by our detachment’s commander. He gave the UAF soldiers orders to fire mortar in his direction, which forced the enemy to retreat. This gave our medics 10-15 minutes to come in and evacuate us. Their vans were small, so they loaded the dead first and then they lay the injured on top of them. That’s how they got us to the hospital in Artemivsk. Those boys who uninjured had to walk out on their own.
”If Russia didn’t support the militants with arms and reinforcements, there wouldn’t be any war in eastern Ukraine. You can’t just buy an AK-100 in a store”.

Story by Dasha Prokaza (interview) and Iryna Kovbasa (copyrighting).
EMPR: O. R. (translator) and Lidia Wolanskyj (editor) contributed to this publication.
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