He wears the patch of the largest Russia-backed separatist militia in the country, the Vostok Battalion, which he joined in February of last year.
In Kiev, Ihor Panasyuk is readying himself for combat against rebels like Protsenko.
Stout with a silver moustache, the 49-year-old joined the Ukrainian army to protect eastern Ukraine “from becoming another Chechnya,” where Russians and separatists waged two bloody post-Soviet wars.
But while Protsenko and Panasyuk are adversaries today, they are erstwhile brothers-in-arms:
Both fought for the Soviets during the war in Afghanistan, where their time overlapped for one year in 1988.
In the Red Army, Protsenko battled mujahideen in Kabul and Kandahar, where an injury to his right eye gave it a slight tendency to wander.
Panasyuk served as a fighter pilot stationed in the northern Afghan province of Mazar-e-Sharif, and flew out of Afghanistan on the February day that the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in 1989.
Although the two never met, they may face each other today across the front line of an entirely different war in their home country.
The two men are not alone.
Once participants on a key battleground of the Cold War, where U.S.-backed guerrilla fighters dealt a humiliating blow to the Soviet Union and the Afghan military it trained, Afghan war vets are again taking up arms in Ukraine by the thousands—whether on the side of the separatists or for the Ukrainian government.
For these men, called “Afgantsy” in Russian, the impulse to fight is almost innate—a response to what they view as another proxy war between the West, which backs Ukraine, and Russia, which openly supports the separatists.
Despite their age, for many Afgantsy, the nearly 2-year-old Ukraine conflict, which has killed almost 8,000 people and displaced at least 1.4 million, is a natural next step.
It is their third war in at least 25 years, with the 1990s Chechen wars sandwiched in between.
The middle-aged fighters’ hardened reserve, combined with much-needed combat experience, makes them desirable in a conflict defined by poverty and incompetence, in which recruits on both sides have been accused of robbery, drug-dealing and hard drinking.
“Afgantsy don’t sit about at home, twiddling our thumbs,” Protsenko told me at café in Donetsk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which pro-Russian rebels seized last year.
Garbed in camouflage and a teal-colored beret, he puffed on a cigarette, making his chest, festooned with Afghan war medals, heave up and down as he told me, “We know how to deal with blood, with wounds, with artillery.”
Panasyuk, who, like Protsenko, was en route to Horlovka, one of a string of bullet-riddled towns near the de-facto border separating the Donetsk statelet from the rest of Ukraine, echoed Protsenko’s claims to Afgantsy battle-readiness—“we know what war is, and what it isn’t”—but he doesn’t see his “brothers” from Afghanistan as his enemy; instead it is Russian President Vladimir Putin, Panasyuk told me, reaching up every now and then to touch the Soviet dog tag still on his neck, as if it were an amulet.
The presence of the Afgantsy is certainly felt.
Hundreds of pro-Ukraine Afgantsy took part in Kiev’s 2014 Maidan revolution, which drove out the Moscow-backed government.
Now, according to the Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, there are thousands of Afgantsy fighting as part of the 232,000-strong Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Representatives from the Ukrainian Union of Afghan War Veterans, a non-governmental volunteer group, say there are at least hundreds taking part on the Russian-backed side of the conflict, though some rebels estimate the number to be in the thousands.
It is widely rumored that even rebel commander Igor Bezler (whose nom de guerre is “Demon”)—the man the SBU blames for the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine a year ago—served in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, though he will neither confirm nor deny this.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan, which began in December 1979 and ended a little more than nine years later, remains a painful chapter in former Soviets’ collective memory.
It hastened the bankruptcy and 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
After Russia, Ukraine suffered the second-largest losses from the war, with at least 2,500 dead soldiers and thousands more wounded.
The toll on Afghanistan, meanwhile, was horrific:
One million people were killed, the country’s agriculture was destroyed and a third of its population fled, creating the largest single-country refugee crisis the world had then known—not to mention that Moscow’s invasion sparked a cycle of violence that continues today.
For many of the 90,000 Afgantsy who returned home (at least 15,000 did not), a hero’s welcome was rare.
As in other conflicts—there is a strong likeness to the American experience in Vietnam—what Afgantsy saw as an increasingly pointless war made returning to normal life extremely difficult.
“In Afghanistan, we bombed not only the detachments of rebels and their caravans, but our own ideals as well,” the prominent Russian journalist Artyom Borovik, who embedded multiple times with Soviet troops, wrote in his book The Hidden War.
This mix of disillusionment with the Soviet leadership and the scorn heaped on returning soldiers led many Afgantsy to form tight-knit support communities at home.
In Ukraine, these communities, mostly set up as branches of the veterans’ union, were instrumental in organizing fighters for the current war.