Preamble: This is the first of two interviews with Ukrainian soldiers that recently exploded in the Ukrainian mass media. The second interview is substantially longer, and will be translated in due time. It is not our custom to publish interviews taken by the Ukrainian mass media. However, this one (and the one that eventually will follow it) are different. In law, there is a concept of admission against interest – it is a rule of evidence that allows a court to take a hearsay statement at face value if the content of the statement is so prejudicial to the person making it that he would not have made it unless he believed it to be true. Although most of what the interviewee speaks about he claims to have directly witnessed, the concept of admission against interest is still relevant in evaluating the veracity of his statements. Not everything in this account should be taken at face value, but the interviewee’s unequivocal denial of the official Ukrainian statistics of dead and wounded in this conflict is as telling as his statement that this war is “simply about embezzling money.”
When they say that we have 380 dead during the ATO, should we believe this? – (skeptical silence)
Translated from Russian by Gleb Bazov
There is a new fad in the Ukrainian army – to accuse of desertion, evasion of compliance with orders, and suchlike. Much less is said about the orders themselves, which may be correct in theory, but are deeply unrealistic in execution.
On Wednesday, the commander of the battalion of the tactical group of the 51st OMBr (Separate Mechanized Brigade), Pavel Protsyuk, was removed from duty. The fighters defend their battalion commander: they say that, under the circumstances, this strategic height could have been taken, but it would have been impossible to retain it in the face of heavy artillery fire.
Internet news site LB.ua discussed this with one of Protsuk’s subordinated, who told them that in Kiev the taking of Saur-Mogila was announced before the 51st OMBr even got there.
Question: Your commander is accused of failing to obey an order to take Saur-Mogila at all cost.
Answer: No one explained to us our direct task. We were only told that we have a mission that will last two days. And so we took food rations for two days, but it took us two days to just get there.
Our reconnaissance tells us: “On one side of Saur-Mogila, there are “unknown people”, on the other side – a checkpoint with a red flag. So make your conclusions.” But our commander says: “They said on the radio that these are our troops.” As soon as we got to the foot of the height, we immediately were shot at by the “unknown people”. “Our troops” should not be shooting us using a mortar, a machine gun and sniper rifles. Right away, we had several wounded, and the chief of communications, Major Khmelnitskiy, was killed. So, after that, we retreated.
We asked for artillery support. But no one gave us anything. This was on July 28th. In the meantime, they radio our commander: “If you do not take the height within an hour, you will be put to a tribunal.”
Less than so. We regrouped and set up a defensive perimeter at the foot of the height. [The enemy’s] gray UAZ jeep was driving by – probably their reconnaissance. They say us, turned our and drove off. Then a khaki-coloured UAZ jeep drove by. Inside there was a 17-year old guy from Kharkov, the driver, and a man 45 years of age. We took two more of them prisoner later – they were going to get “oxygen” for welding, and they told us that it was their field commander, apparently, a colonel specializing in tactics, from Russia, and that he was wounded in his arm. They told us that they had female snipers there. I showed them my SVD sniper rifle, and one of them tells me: “Our troops have a different model – it’s larger and the optical system is better.” So everything is clear with you …
Question: How did you manage to take them prisoner?
Answer: When our troops started shooting at the vehicle, they ran out and hid in the field. Then they tied up a sock or something like that instead of a white flag and started to wave it around.
Question: Did their own try to shoot them in retaliation?
Answer: Snipers were preventing us from taking the colonel and his driver. They drove out unexpectedly somehow. Likely, they did not expect to see us alive. Our troops even shot a warning salvo, and they opened fire on us. That’s when we got them … Their UAZ was full of ammunition. It started exploding after that. They had grenades there, but not RGD-5, like we have, but round once with a plastic cap.
… At five o’clock in the evening we asked for assistance to evacuate our “300s” [Note: Wounded in Action / WIA] – 18 men, a major and two separatists. And at eight o’clock the commander sent an assault group to storm Saur-Mogila – three BMP, three tanks and infantry. We report to General Staff: “Saur-Mogila is ours. Commander has ordered everyone to advance to the height and to set up perimeter defence.”
As soon as we reported that the height is ours, machine gun fire with tracer and armour-piercing rounds came from the “checkpoint with a red flag” (even though we destroyed it in advance). They were “hurrying” us to go up Saur-Mogila. And, at the same time, when the column at full speed was climbing the height, they shelled us using self-propelled guns. But we made it up without losses. Set up perimeter defence. Three BMPs stood at the very peak, and a tank was nearby.
As soon as we did this, minor mortar shelling followed, and then their howitzers started working, using high-explosive fragmentation rounds. The fragments were as large as my arm. They bombarded us from half past nine and until four in the morning. People were hiding wherever they could. Some hid in craters. Others – under burned-down BMPs, which were left there either by the 30th or by the 95th Brigade. Many started panicking. They abandoned the hardware along with ammunition. They were telling the commander: “We need to retreat, else they will kill us all here.” The commander gathered everyone and turned them back to the armoured vehicles. But! Because of frequent fire, the cannons of the BMPs jammed – only one of them was working – and all three tanks were damaged. The fuel was running out – we took fuel from the damaged vehicles and poured it into the working ones.
If their infantry came out in the morning, they would have killed us all.
So the commander decides to retreat. But we were on this Saur-Mogila, and we remained there for six hours!
We retreated, and the commander was once again ordered to take the height. To sacrifice the entire battalion, but to take the height at all cost …
In reality, however, we retreated even further, and all day our troops showered Saur-Mogila with fire – using Grads, howitzers.
Question: But why? If there was no one up there.
Answer: Yes, in a way. However, their troops kept crawling out of somewhere and continued to shell us. There is forest up there; that’s where they hit us from …
And now they accuse our commander of being a liar, a coward, of failing to obey an order. Our entire battalion will stand up for the battalion commander. And they will not go anywhere without him!
Question: So, in the end, who took control of Saur-Mogila?
Answer: No one! But on July 27th, before we even got there, they reported that our brigade took Saur-Mogila. Even though no one has been able to take it for the past two months. And, at the same time, the enemy has demolished the 30th Brigade, the 95th (there is nothing left of the Brigade – 150 men are left, at most), the 72nd, our 51st. Yesterday, the 3rd Regiment was there. They were obliterated by shelling, so they turned around and went back.
Our brigade is now being bombarded from the side of Snezhnoye, they are even have been targeting their Grads at us. The guys are asking for rotation; this is the fifth month they are fighting.
And meanwhile, they are putting our commander before a tribunal. But the entire battalion will stand up for him! And no one will go anywhere without him. And there is no way you could make anyone else go there, even at gunpoint. The entire area is open to fire.
I am not a tactician, I am a simple soldier, but I understand why we need this Saur-Mogila – to ensure that heavy equipment cannot make it to Snezhnoye. The road passes right beside it. There is one thing I don’t understand: where do the separatists get so much ammunition – they shelled us for three days straight. And not only us.
But to go up Saur-Mogila makes no sense because there is artillery shelling it. And when a Grad is working, then everyone lies down because there is nowhere to hide!
And the one who said during live broadcast that Saur-Mogila is ours, now wants to cover his own ass. Maybe it’s not theirs, but it’s certainly not ours.
Question: What about the monument itself, does it still stand?
Answer: Yes, it stands! Shells hit it, sparks fly, pebbles scatter, but it stands. It’s massive. You can see everything from there. I had time to learn every little bush by heart.
Two of our snipers had to stay behind there; they spent twenty four hours without war in blistering heat. They hid in a narrow drainpipe. And one of them was bitten by a copperhead snake. I later drew them a map, showing how to get to their troops: where better to crawl, across which forested area to cross, across which field.
Question: Did you already kill many?
Answer: I couldn’t tell you … I don’t even know … I don’t count them and don’t want to remember. When people make notches on their rifles – they are only showing off.
Question: Do you see faces in your dreams at night?
Answer: These days you don’t see faces – everyone is in masks. And I didn’t kill that many … I didn’t understand why they sent an entire company of snipers to Saur-Mogila. It’s not our tasks to fight artillery. The enemy is too far for you to see.
Question: What’s the range of your rifle?
Answer: To really hit someone – 800 metres. There is a special Russian rifle – “Vykhlop”, which has a sighting range of 1.5 kilometres, but shoots ever further. And it uses large calibre rounds – 12.7 mm. Its round is like a sharpened pencil – it pierces both a 50 cm wall and a person in a class 6 bulletproof vest.
I think this is war is simply about embezzling money. Because I didn’t get anything from the state, only from volunteers – night sights, for example. Maybe I just wasn’t lucky.
Question: Do you know that captured snipers get killed on the spot?
Answer: I don’t bring my military ID with on assignment. Instead I take a “fly” – RPG-18, two grenades, and up to a hundred rounds.
Question: For a hundred enemies?
Answer: If it comes to that. In reality, a sniper targets a specific person and takes him down right away. That’s why, if you reveal yourself, you can count yourself done for. My rifle was made in ’88; when you fire it, you can hear the sound, and at night you can see the flame. Whereas their rifles you can’t see or hear. That’s why, once you made the shot, you run from that place. At least 10 kilometres away. Unless you have a good position. In that case, you shoot and hide, shoot and hide. But I have not experienced something like that.
I want all of this to be over. This is not an antiterrorist operation, it’s a war. At first we thought we’d be like guerillas. People would rip their t-shirts [to show their conviction], but once the incident at Volnovakha happened, they all started begging to go back to training grounds, in order to run away home.
There is a lot that’s not going right. Because of lack of coordination our troops shoot their own. That’s how we “met” the 30th Brigade. Obliterated, they were coming from Saur-Mogila, and we were going there. And their tank shot at one of ours. Later they saw flag, and we figured it out. Two columns met on the road; it was difficult to pass each other, and the separatists started to shell us.
Here is another incident: wounded were being transported at night. Two BTRs from another brigade rushed ahead with turned-off lights, and our “Ural” truck fell behind. The driver says: “They abandoned me, and I don’t know the road. So I turned around and went back to the brigade.” He had one severely wounded, and the rest couldn’t even jump. They spent six hours with us on Saur-Mogila under artillery shelling. We were scared to death.
Question: When they say that we have 380 dead during the ATO, should we believe this?
Question: Then how many times more?
Answer: I don’t know, but it’s certainly not 380.
Question: Because you only saw with your own eyes …
Answer: Myself, I did not see that many. Here is a life example. I was able to speak to a pilot who transported the dead. Together with the wounded, he transported 64 men. But the majority of them were “200s” [Note: Killed in Action / KIA]! There were no black bags, and the bodies were simply piled up on each other. He said that he barely washed the blood from the plane. And on TV they said that on that day there were only 10 “200s”.
Question: And during the terrifying shelling on Saur-Mogila you only lost one person?
Answer: Now they blame us for it – they say that we never went there – too few dead, too few wounded. As for me, we should be happy.
This is how it was there: the commander saw that snipers were hitting the monument, so he figured that the howitzers would work the same way. And we regrouped our men and equipment. Their guns covered us in a chessboard pattern. They played chess, and we played along with them. And we must thank our commander for this! Every one of our fighters will subscribe to this.
… Yesterday our group went to Saur-Mogila with the 8th Regiment. My friend died there. A fragment got him in the head. He was a machine-gunner in a BMP. While we were still stationed at Ugledar, he went out with a local girl. And, apparently, she is pregnant from him. And now the parents of my friend want to bring her to live with them, so as to have at least some memory of their son.