A Terrifying Secret in Putin’s War Is Now Impossible to Hide

Tom Mutch
Tom Mutch

KHARKIV OBLAST, Ukraine—When Yulia’s husband, a Ukrainian soldier fighting on the front lines against Russia’s invasion, told her that 25 men in his unit had died in a single day of fighting, she was absolutely furious.

The Ukrainian woman—who lives in Kyiv and spoke under a pseudonym—told The Daily Beast she had seen photos of one of her colleagues sipping drinks in Berlin on social media earlier that day. They used to work at a foreign IT company together, she said, and he had illegally slipped out of the country. At that point, her rage for draft dodgers had peaked.

“In my former team [at work], there were eight men. Five of them left the country illegally,” she said, calling her former colleague an “arrogant prick.”

At the beginning of the war, a patriotic fervor overran Ukraine, with men and women volunteering in the tens of thousands. The borders with Poland and Moldova were thronged not just with refugees leaving the country, but with Ukrainians flocking back to take up arms to defend their country.

Now, it is a different story. A year of grueling attrition warfare has been described as ‘hell on earth’ by at least four soldiers who spoke with The Daily Beast this year, stripping much of the glamor away from combat service.

In turn, the number of Ukrainian volunteers has drastically dipped, forcing the military to rely heavily on conscription. Those drafted in that process, which is opaque and seemingly random, are often inexperienced.

In an interview with The Washington Post this spring, a Ukrainian lieutenant colonel complained that he was now leading a unit composed “entirely of inexperienced troops,” some of whom would not fire their guns because they were “afraid of the sound of the shot.”

The Daily Beast was invited to watch a combat medic with the Ukrainian Army’s Third Tank Regiment give a crash course in battlefield medicine to a group of freshly mobilized men. The new recruits had been called up to serve in the Ukrainian army as it prepares for its long-heralded counter-offensive. In recent months, Ukraine has created around a dozen new attack brigades with estimates of 40,000 additional troops ready to force the Russians back towards their own border.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A new recruit participates in a demonstration with a Ukrainian combat medic.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Tom Mutch</div>

A new recruit participates in a demonstration with a Ukrainian combat medic.

Tom Mutch

“If you have a neck wound, you have 90 seconds to put on a tourniquet, told the group of soldiers in a training ground in Kharkiv Oblast near the Russian border this week. “Or you will likely die.”

His model for the demonstration was a baby-faced young man with slightly chubby cheeks and a mop of bright blond hair. He was barely 18 years old and just out of high school. Rather than preparing for university or hitting up a bar for the first time, he was getting ready to deploy to the front line as part of an assault brigade.

Sitting under a series of canopies next to him were a collection of tanks, mostly T-72 or their variants, donated by Warsaw pact countries. The tanks were well camouflaged, and the base was outside of artillery range. But as one of the soldiers pointed out, the men were not out of danger.

“Where we are now… the front line is not far away. The enemy is not far away. And they can attack us… at the distance we are right now they can attack us with unmanned aerial vehicles or missiles,” one officer said. We could hear the faint thumping of artillery in the distance, and on one occasion, an explosion uncomfortably close to us.

While many of the other observers in the group of more than 10 soldiers—(they didn’t want to disclose exact numbers)—seemed resigned to their fate, the 18-year-old recruit had been watching intently, asking questions and volunteering himself. His desire to get through this war alive was clear.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A group of recently mobilized Ukrainian men receiving training in Kharkiv Oblast.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Tom Mutch</div>

A group of recently mobilized Ukrainian men receiving training in Kharkiv Oblast.

Tom Mutch

The men were all inexperienced, and notable for either their youth or older age. It was reminiscent of a line about the bedraggled defenders of Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: “Most of these men have seen too many winters, or too few.”

The Ukrainian Armed Forces press officer did not respond to comment requests from The Daily Beast about Ukraine’s ability to recruit sufficient men of fighting age.

Revolving Door

The officer core were all seasoned veterans, many of them who had been fighting since 2014. That includes Yuri Kulish, the hardened deputy company commander of the 3rd Tank Brigade, who had been involved in liberating the very land we were standing on during the Kharkiv counteroffensive last year. He spent the time recalling battles and the exploits of former comrades. He was lucky to survive the pitched battles in this region.

“We were driving on the road, and turned into a forest belt, and 600 meters away from us were four Russian tanks,” he said, recalling a particularly harrowing incident last year. “They were new developments, maybe T90s… instantly I see all the tanks targeting us.”

The first hit, he said, knocked out their tank gun, and gave his driver a brain injury. He got out of the tank and started running while the Russians fired shells and tank machine gunshots at him. They drove straight towards him.

“I realized I won’t be able to run away from it… I fell on the ground and faked to be dead,” he said. He was soon saved by a Ukrainian infantryman armed with anti-tank weapons, who disabled the lead Russian tank and managed to evacuate him. His injured gunner, Losha, had to leave the armed forces, and was replaced by a 62-year-old who had been voluntarily mobilized from civilian life. He says he is proud of those who have made the impossible transition.

“These people were mobilized the same way, had civil professions, but they fearlessly went to fight, completed their tasks. And this is the most impressive thing to me,” he said. He didn’t discuss the death of his men, but the fresh faces of the new recruits who filled those gaps were telling on their own.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Deputy Company Commander of the Third Tank Brigade Yuri Kulish.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Tom Mutch</div>

Deputy Company Commander of the Third Tank Brigade Yuri Kulish.

Tom Mutch

All this fighting has left the 3rd Tank Brigade, and all Ukraine’s armed forces, badly bloodied during the intense months of fighting on the front line. Ukraine and Russia are notoriously tight-lipped about their casualty figures, both claiming unrealistically low numbers for their own units, while vastly inflating enemy casualties. More realistic figures, provided by U.S. intelligence, suggest that both sides have taken well north of 100,000 casualties including wounded, captured and killed.

On the ground in Ukraine, however, a consistent trend has emerged. Many of Ukraine’s most experienced brigades have suffered grievously—their ranks worn down by the brutal fighting in Kharkiv, Kherson, and, most infamously, Bakhmut.

Civilians, meanwhile, are well aware that such blows up their chances of being recruited.

“Can’t go to Kherson these days… you know there is a chance to receive a mobilization ticket for Ukrainian men on the block-post at the entrance to the city in Odessa and Mykolaiv,” one translator recently told The Daily Beast when asked about joining a reporting trip to liberated Kherson. “Don’t want to risk it, sorry man!”

Some men have even complained about getting mobilization notices as “punishments” for minor infractions, such as bar fights or being caught outside after curfew. Telegram channels exist in each major city reporting sightings of teams that hand out drafts. Ukrainian media outlets have documented concerns that the wealthy have been able to bribe their way out of mobilization—either directly, or by exploiting loopholes in the exemption process, such as bribing doctors to certify them as disabled.

Ukraine has also been forced to severely curtail rest-and-rotation periods for their troops. Some have been on or near the front lines since the beginning of the full-scale invasion last February. They report being allowed a total of one and a half weeks off duty in that entire period. The army has also been recalling soldiers who had been demobilized because of injury or psychological trauma.

Everyone in Kyiv or Western Ukraine seems to know a relative, partner or a close friend on the front line. It is one of the reasons some are so lax about the dangers of drones or missile strikes—they know the risks they take are nothing compared to those fighting in Donbas or in the south. With so much riding on the upcoming counteroffensive, the Ukrainian government appears to be pushing many men and women to the limit.

For Yulia, the concern is not only about a shortage of men left to fight for Ukraine. Her frustration is also about Ukrainian values and principles.

“We say we’re fighting for democracy and European values… I just hate to see such corruption in Ukraine again and how people easily commit a felony knowing they won’t be punished,” she said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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