Ukraine’s Neglected And Battered Army Inspires Citizens To Pitch In

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- Well-wishers mill around the entrances of the two main hospitals in this city in east-central Ukraine — men who greet friends with hugs and backslaps or share a cigarette, women who arrive to visit the wounded, sorting food parcels and pouring cups of sweet tea.

Inside the two hospitals, one civilian-run and one military, the medical staffs are busy treating dozens of wounded Ukrainian soldiers, casualties of the six-month war with Russian-backed separatist rebels in the restive provinces to the east.

As those casualties have mounted, citizens and support groups for wounded soldiers and their families have begun to rally behind their long-neglected, resource-starved army in a rush of patriotic feeling.

According to the support groups’ tally, more than 800 soldiers have been killed in the conflict so far.

“We don’t have an army,” said Andrei Karnysh, a veteran of the border guard and the chairman of a regional support group, who was visiting the wounded in the military hospital.

“These boys were sent on buses, with rifles and just 30 bullets each,” Mr. Karnysh said.

“No body armor, nothing.”

Soldiers and veterans interviewed say the armed forces are understaffed, undertrained and underequipped as they confront a much bigger and stronger opponent: not the separatist rebels, but the Russian forces behind them, with their superior firepower.

The liars at the Kremlin deny taking any role in the fighting, but almost every soldier interviewed here spoke of direct encounters with Russian troops.

“They were shooting at us like they were on a firing range,” said Viktor, a reservist with his arm in a sling.

He gave only his first name, saying, as most other soldiers did, that identifying himself to a reporter would be against regulations.

Viktor said he was wounded Aug. 29 as Ukrainian forces tried to retreat through a prearranged safe corridor, but came under withering fire from Russian troops anyway.

Another soldier, who said he had just returned after four months in the Donetsk region, complained that “there are no supplies in the army.”

“There were no good flak jackets, weapons or equipment,” the soldier continued.

“We did not see the American supplies that have been given, or medical supplies.

It was difficult to get medicine.” Mr. Karnysh said that in the 23 years since independence, successive Ukrainian leaders had let the armed forces decline and even sold off some of their equipment.

Budgets became so tight that he and his friends collected contributions to pay for serving paratroopers to make one jump during training.

“We are civilians, and we are gathering money so the army can shoot,” he said.

When Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russian separatists began staging protests in eastern Ukraine in March, the Ukrainian armed forces proved largely incapable of handling the threat.

Since then, the army has called up thousands of additional recruits, and it has been joined in the field by volunteer paramilitary battalions.

Many of them were angered by the loss of Crimea and inspired by the protests in Kiev, the capital, that overthrew President Viktor F. Yanukovych in February.

Yet these efforts have resulted not in a unified force, but in a motley collection of units of widely varying ability — the volunteer National Guard formations under the Interior Ministry and the regular army units under the Ministry of Defense — with only a weak central command structure.

That lack of cohesion cost the Ukrainian forces dearly in late August.

Sgt. Maj. Ihor Tchaikovsky, 47, an army veteran who joined the volunteer Donbass battalion, said a lack of proper equipment and backup had cost his unit dearly, with about 50 men killed, 40 wounded and 110 taken prisoner when they withdrew from the town of Ilovaysk on Aug. 29.

“We got the order to leave, and were told there was a corridor,” Sergeant Major Tchaikovsky said.

“We made our column with civilian cars; we don’t have military vehicles or heavy guns. We had a big civilian truck loaded with wounded, and pickups and small cars.” 

After traveling 18 miles, he said, the column came under attack from Russian artillery and antitank grenades.

“We managed to scatter and started fighting,” Sergeant Major Tchaikovsky said.

“Normally, volunteer battalions function like police. This fighting was not something we should be doing.”

He said that the battalion had been able to capture some vehicles and eight prisoners, some of them Russians, but that its route out had been blocked.

Surrounded, the battalion was forced to surrender, he recalled.

The Russian troops immediately exchanged some of the wounded Ukrainians for their own men, and then turned the rest of their captives over to the separatist rebels, he said.

He and a handful of others were later released in another prisoner exchange, but 99 soldiers are still being held in the basement of the Security Service headquarters in Donetsk.

Despite the losses and the scale of the Russian intervention, soldiers interviewed over the past two weeks insisted that Ukraine had to build up its forces and continue to resist any breakup of Ukrainian territory.

“Many who went to Ilovaysk are ready to stay and build the battalion,” Sergeant Major Tchaikovsky said.

“If there was an opportunity not to fight, that would be better. But the mood of our guys is, we should do everything correctly, and not cause harm to the country and to the memory of those who died.”

Some units are receiving training and equipment.

A National Guard volunteer who was wounded in Ilovaysk said he had trained intensively for three months with an antitank unit before going into battle.

An army sergeant who was wounded twice defending the Donetsk airport from rebel forces and had shrapnel scars dotting his face said with a smile that he had survived because he had been protected by American body armor.

The sergeant said that the separatist rebels continued attacking the airport day and night even after the cease-fire was declared on Sept. 5, but that he was confident that the army could hold the airport, and would prevail in the larger conflict.

“I think we will stay as one country,” he said.

“We have survived so many things, and the whole country has been mobilized for this, you cannot imagine.”

The sergeant, 36, who repairs shoes in civilian life, said his comrades in the unit defending the airport were working-class men like him.

“One was a tea boy on the trains, another transported cash for banks, a third was a car mechanic,” he said.

“We can manage. Maybe it will be hard, but we will have victory for sure. My unit is very ready to fight.”

Source: The New York Times