“When I saw the livestreams from Maidan, I wanted immediately to go fly to Kyiv. I never felt any patriotism for Ukraine before, I left my home town in 1994 and made my career here. But then I felt that something big was happening. My wife hid my documents then. But when the fighting started in the East, I knew that I had to be there. I felt that if there will be no Ukraine, I will cease to exist too,” tells OIeksandr Baranetskyi, a British military officer living with his wife and child in London. His swollen travel luggage stands in the corner; probably will have to be cut in half to make the allowed 23 kilos. “My wife and I made a round to all the military depots last weekend to buy stuff for Army SOS,” he explains. Volunteer groups like Army SOS that provide everything from kevlar helmets to first aid kits for Ukraine’s disastrously unsupplied army rely on the assistance of diaspora groups abroad to make the fight at least a bit fairer.
On 15 November 2014, Oleksandr will fly to Ukraine for the sixth time, to fight as part of a reconnaissance battalion of Ukraine’s National Guard against the Russian army and Russian proxies in Donbas, a covert military operation that has Russia has been undertaking after it annexed Crimea, following the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine that sent former president Yanukovych fleeing to Russia.
He is no romantic. “Your Maidan guys, they are the worst thing in the world, total idiots. In the middle of the warzone they start making a Maidan: we don’t want to go there, we’ll be surrounded here,” Oleksandr took me by surprise as soon as I told him I am from Euromaidan Press. Nevertheless, he spent no small effort in getting to Ukraine’s frontline as a foreign national, and is now spending his time and money, not mentioning risking his life and leaving his family, to save the lives of volunteer battalion fighters that he calls idiots. “If I can save the life of at least one, that means it was all for a reason.” During his service with the battalion, Oleksandr took part in saving 60 lives in the same day: 60 Ukrainian troops were exchanged for the father-in-law of Alexander Bezler, one of the main terrorist leaders and a general-lieutenant of the Russian Army.
He trains the battalion to do reconnaissance work: operating drones, working with agents (people on occupied territories sympathetic to the Ukrainian government), and manning checkpoints. And also teaching regular army things like discipline and operating weaponry. There are many reasons for his work being crucially needed. “70% of the enemy forces come from Russia. Regular Russian army, Chechens, Cossacks. I spent some time with the Russian army when I was there, I saw how they train. It’s not as good as the British military, but incomparable with the Ukrainian army. Ukraine has no army,” he said. Some of Oleksandr’s friends from that time in the Russian army are fighting in Ukraine. They call him and warn where they will be attacking, so that his battalion would not come under their fire. But otherwise, it’s regular business: they get well paid. Other Russian patamilitary groups deployed to Ukraine such as the Cossaks get paid too, for firing a specific amount of shots a day. Good explanation for why the ceasefire was never really there.
Part of the problem that Ukraine faces is that the patriotism and enthusiasm of Euromaidan participants that have left for the volunteer battalions does not make up for the difference in training from the regular Russian army. Military training takes time and discipline. “The Russian invasion is like a cancer. Donbas is such a miserable land, and it will take a fortune to rebuild all that has been destroyed, but if we don’t stop the Russians now the disease will only spread,” says Oleksandr.
Training in many Ukrainian formations is hard to come across. Some volunteer fighters that went to the ATO choose to return and learn the necessary military knowledge by attending private courses, of which there is a wide variety in Ukraine’s capital. Tactical medicine, shooting, strategy, military operations in groups, combat. These are the new hobbies of Ukraine’s younger generation. Other hobbies include volunteering to assemble first aid kits, making camouflage meshes, gathering and depositing supplies for the Army, making vests, fundraising for drones, organizing sewing sleeping bags for the Ukrainian army and volunteers… the list is endless. War has become the essence of life for Ukraine’s society, even if it has not touched you in reality. Hopefully, the volunteer war will move into the phase of a professional war with the help of people like Oleksandr.