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“Not how it looks in motivational videos”: Ukrainian combat medic dispels myths about war

Weary of euphoric illusions, having lost her love, 28-year old lieutenant Alina Mykhailova makes an impassioned plea: Ukraine needs an unflinching yet hopeful realism to carry on.
Alina Mykhaylova. Photo source: Detektor media
“Not how it looks in motivational videos”: Ukrainian combat medic dispels myths about war

During the Young Leaders Forum at Yalta European Strategy, Alina Mykhaylova, a young lieutenant and the head of the medical unit in the “Wolves of Vinci” battalion, shared her experiences in the Ukrainian military and underscored the significance of conveying a balanced perspective on the ongoing war.

Alina Mykhailova is a young lieutenant and the head of the medical unit in the “Wolves of Vinci” battalion, part of the 67th Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces. She also serves as a deputy in the Kyiv City Council.

Alina’s involvement in the war started when she was only 19 years old, back in 2014, initially as a volunteer and later, from 2016 onward, as a paramedic in the “Hospitallers” unit. Within a year, she established a medical service following NATO standards in the Detached Operational Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (now part of the “Wolves of Vinci” battalion). In 2022, Alina Mykhaylova was recognized as one of the “30 under 30: Faces of the Future” by Forbes.

In 2017, she entered into a relationship with Ukrainian volunteer and the commander of the 1st Separate Volunteer Battalion “Wolves of Vinci,” Hero of Ukraine Dmytro Kotsiubaylo, who tragically lost his life on 7 March 2023, during the battles for Bakhmut, sustaining shrapnel wounds to the neck with a tracheal rupture.

On life in the army

We never have days off. The army is in constant movement; there is practically no possibility to go home or have a day off. You don’t belong to yourself, you follow orders.

Although I am military, for me civilian stories with normal communication, with the possibility of at least minimally planning your day, this is critical. And there is none of this in the army. You can’t plan anything. It’s funny when journalists ask me, “We want to come visit you in a week, where will you be?” I don’t know where I’ll be this evening, because yesterday we were, let’s say, in Kupiansk, and in the morning we get an order that we have to move to Dnipropetrovsk region, and that we have 2 hours to pack up. It’s crazy to move with all of the stuff, because here there is this “damn, we just got here.” We had a week when we were moving, changing location, 5 times in 7 days.

You don’t belong to yourself. This is my great pain. You don’t have a planning horizon even for the next day. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, where we will move again, I can’t guarantee that I will be there tomorrow in the place where I was relocated.

Alina Mykhaylova. Yalta European Strategy. Photographs provided by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. Photographer: Serhiy Illin.
[Those who are considering an option of joining the military] need to clearly answer for themselves why they are going into the military. And understand that the military is far from how it looks in motivational videos and pictures. Because people came to us who watched successful raids and operations on YouTube, but reality is completely different. And when, for example, people were showed the reality – there was a video when a paramedic was unloading a wounded fighter, and he himself blew up – people wrote, “Why are you showing this, it’s demoralizing, it’s quiet horror.” But for us in the military this is surprising. We live in this every day. This is our reality, which society today is not ready for, because many people think that bullets bounce off our boys, no one dies, no one is left behind in assaults they storm. All our boys are always sunny, they are always alive… So then we have a problem with mobilization resources, that people come to us who want to storm strongholds, but they are not ready, neither physically, mentally, nor morally.

The problem with premature proclamations

A dangerous complacency has infected our society, and I believe it stems from misguided rhetoric proclaiming our victory as imminent.

When we were in Bakhmut this winter, for example, it was like facing a zombie attack. We would sit in a stronghold and see the Russians just standing up fully exposed and running straight at us. They would fall, and others would run after them again. It was an absurdity, like a horror movie. The truth is we do not currently have the resources to exceed them in numbers, weapons, ammunition, or equipment quality.

Objectively, it is unlikely we will be in Crimea next summer. But when our highest leadership says this, of course the population perceives it as: “Okay, we just need to hold out until next summer. If Crimea is ours, that means all the territory to Crimea – Zaporizhzhia, Kherson Oblast, Mariupol – will also be ours. So everything is great. I’ll hold out until next summer, I’ll mobilize, but I don’t really need to strain myself. And why should I prepare for possible mobilization or help the military if everyone else seems to be coping?”

Alina Mykhaylova. Yalta European Strategy. Photographs provided by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. Photographer: Serhiy Illin.

This agenda today is far from reality. I don’t want you to think I’m some kind of pessimist, but the reality is a little different. How to explain this? Probably only by starting to tell the truth, let’s say 15% of it. What infuriated me the most is what I read on Twitter: “What’s with that counteroffensive, how long can it take, why can’t they drive those Russians somewhere?” Our guys, first of all, face the fact that the counteroffensive runs into huge minefields, and you can’t explain to people not involved in military affairs that there are objective reasons the counteroffensive is slow.

It won’t go fast, no matter how much everyone wants it to, because the Russians have good training. We are not fighting mobik chmobiks [derogatory term for mobilized soldiers], we are fighting good, trained personnel, including military. Of course there are also some people who were taken [forcibly mobilized], but there are also trained people who came here with one idea – to kill Ukrainians, that’s it. These people include regular troops and paratroopers who study at military institutions in Russia.

We need to stop overwhelming people not in the military with only good news, of which there is little, and talk only about rosy prospects, which there won’t be. We should say we won’t be celebrating victory in Crimea next summer, because that’s how it is. The question is whether by the end of this year we won’t lose more territory. We are holding on by morale and willpower, and that’s great, because we have our ideals and desire for victory. That is much better, because the Russians don’t have that today. When we start telling at least a little truth, then maybe we will be able to regain sobriety in our thinking. That’s the main idea – for us to return to the sobriety of the situation today.

How to do this? At the state level, it means we need wreckers [people who deliberately undermine things] among the military. And by the way, they exist. Many military who talk about bad things, people perceive as panicking. But the reality is really different than what is shown.

How to convey the truth and tell it like it is

Many of my friends, my close people have died in this war, and I always think about what their reaction would be to any of my comments or actions. And that’s what’s the vector for me. It’s very important for me not to make any compromises with my conscience.

In 2017, Alina Mykhaylova entered a relationship with Ukrainian volunteer and the commander of the 1st Separate Volunteer Battalion “Wolves of Vinci,” Hero of Ukraine Dmytro Kotsiubaylo, who tragically lost his life on March 7, 2023, during the battles for Bakhmut. Source: Alina Mykhaylova’s Facebook page

I’m not holding on to any positions, I’m not in this war to continue career advancement, and my service will end at the exact moment when we have victory. At that point I relinquish all powers, I leave everything I have, and I return to my civilian life, hopefully something is left of it by then. And so I’m not afraid to get chewed out, I’m not afraid not to get some award, that’s what the punitive apparatus of the army can influence a person with, if we call things by their names. And that’s what people who have the army as their life are essentially afraid of.

So how to convey the truth and how to tell it like it is. It’s a question of there being some boundaries. When I come home, even my mom asks me, well how is it going, and I tell her, Mom, it’s bad. Well, perhaps not that bad, but still. I tell her, “Just watch less news, you have certain platforms for critical thinking, you read certain opinion leaders on social media, make your own selection, and then just be able to draw conclusions from it.”

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It’s important to tell people the truth, and do it so it doesn’t harm the country, the military, your unit that you are part of, and yourself personally. And it’s important to say this now because we have already reached a dead-end situation that will be difficult for us to get out of later because everyone will say, “Well you said the counteroffensive would be in 2 weeks, so where is it?” And we see this because, for example, Kyiv residents come up to me on the street and ask, “Well what about that counteroffensive, didn’t work out?” I say, what do you mean it didn’t work out? We took Tokmak, we went down there, and people don’t understand that even now, we’re sitting, and the operation is still ongoing there, we are still advancing, a kilometer or two. And those one or two kilometers are a great victory on that section of the front.

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