Here in Ukraine, it is early June and the air is still frigid as the early evening twilight has begun to fill the sky. The darkness rolls in heavily and lazily, like a fat person in a Walmart motorized shopping cart. It moves sluggishly along the streets and alleys, bringing vapors ashore from the Sea of Azov. The fog obstructs your vision and impedes your movement, much like that oversized motorized cart operator.
Shyrokyne, once a popular seaside resort village, is now decorated with the marks of combat. Vacationers and commerce have been replaced with soldiers—most of them volunteers. These men and women hold the line for Ukraine against the looming Russian threat, which resides but a football field away. Here, they are unevenly dispersed amongst the village, where anyone could realistically be anywhere, in any building. If something went really wrong, you could really only know for sure if they were friendly if you were to see their faces.
The Ukrainians keep you guessing. They wear a collage of uniforms, mostly counterfeit copies and donated surplus from various nations around the world, making it impossible to identify friend or foe at first glance. In this obscured landscape, Ukrainian and Russian forces linger in scattered pockets throughout the abandoned structures and streets of the village. The area is not marked, meaning there is no clear zone of combat. There are no walls, no obstacle belts, nor signs that truly signify what area is controlled by whom—only a few hills that buffer battered resort buildings, a creek, the sea, a few roads, and a pocket of buildings that are hugged by a valley in the center of the village.
This pocket of buildings has become a default no man’s land, yet much uglier in scale than the flatland scenes imagined from a World War One battlefield. To stand in the stench of it and feel the universal, yet all-becoming vibrations of steady indirect fire, to see that the lines are obstructed by Lucifer’s jungle gym, is overwhelming. In the midst of it, scattered throughout the center of the village, are tight corners, mined approaches, unexploded ordnance from persistent shelling, random firing positions, observation posts, resting ruins of collapsed structures, as well as the resilient concrete and steel Soviet-era buildings now shuttered and locked with steel plates and bars.
Found in the middle of the pandemonium are civilians, many of whom have been reduced to medieval living standards and now rely on their few animals, gardens, and the goodwill of soldiers for food. These people have been trapped by the disgustingly corrupt Ukrainian system and a war they personally do not give a damn about. The civilians on the battlefield in Shyrokyne are primarily senior citizens who lack a place to go or refuse to leave what little they have left in this world. They have also been disenfranchised by a government relocation program that has left many of their contemporaries economically and socially marooned in the capital, Kiev. Their damning choices are to either die abandoned in the capital five hundred miles away, or at home as a casualty of war.
Surrounding them, from the hills over the valley, are disruptive hordes from Ukraine and Russia. The scene these opposing sides have created is a battlefield unto itself—beyond fiction. The landscape is exactly what one would envision following a battle of attrition between factionalized warlords in a post-apocalyptic landscape who are running a war with well-armed and motivated civilians with little to no military experience.
In random locations around the valley, a haphazard security perimeter has been established. As a non-unified front encircles the valley, the flood of violence is loosely held in place by an assortment of well-known, frequently fired at but often missed fighting positions. These positions are shakily controlled by a mixture of varying commanders and intermittently rotated troops who operate entirely independently of one another, none of whom have much interest in communicating.
They bring with them apprehension and opposition to even the mere thought of improving their fighting positions, fields of fire, or defensive lines. There is most certainly a disdain for how to operate tactically, like real soldiers, beyond the scope of a YouTube video tutorial or something seen in a movie. This is where reason comes to die. Simply the thought of knowing without ever learning trumps having done any training. This is what civil war looks like: The bold and the foolish are armed to the teeth, their heads pumped with nonsense about how they’re all heroes. Yesterday they were students. Today they are soldiers. It is that easy. They are then rushed to war before they remember reason, to play their part in a scene that is set for a farcical dark comedy. Most of them are a bigger danger to themselves than to their enemy.
In Ukraine, as well as in Russia, the cultural manifestation of bravado is sickeningly high—beyond the point of merely counterintuitive and straight on to negligent. These soldiers live in an alternate reality built on falsehoods and self-indulgence, the extreme of reading too many self-help books and taking such nonsensical faux-confidence to the max. This culminates on the fighting lines, where everyone seems to knows absolutely everything about anything. This often results in freewheeling escapades that result in death, dismemberment, and dereliction of duty from the front to the capital.
To further complicate the sociocultural box of crayons, there are no lines in the coloring books; an allied command or an operationally sound joint headquarters does not exist in any functional format for either side. The only examples of guidance and leadership are the efforts of well-armed and diverse commanders who sometimes obey the general orders to either advance or defend.
This barbarian style of command and control is approved and encouraged by the military and political elite in Kiev and Moscow. The dangerously disconnected leadership is propped up by an even more clueless media machine, which is determined to extract zero reality from the front and to fabricate their own myths and legends, often pandering to the opinions of the oligarch or politician that owns the media outlet. This is a sloppy, trickle-down mentality at its worst: A population only 500 miles away is ignorant of a war in their own nation. Those set to profit from the war have run an interference play by way of encouraging incompetent personnel and leaning on the press’ misinformation campaigns to expand their margins, but they’re hardly reinvesting their capital earnings. The Eastern European Monopoly guy has learned to quarterback, yet still fails to strategize.
One (of many) repercussions caused by this bureaucratic backwash is that every defensive position is found wanting in basic fortification principles. This is no country for engineers. From the hills and former multi-level resort hotels, there are fighting positions that see out over the abandoned center of town, like a collapsing gin-soaked shanty town centered around a food bank and a liquor store. Yet the soldiers choose to instead hang out the sides of the buildings and poke forth from holes in the ground with no fields of fire.
Other times, they will conduct hours-long firefights a room or two away from an enemy-facing window, or launch automatic grenades, mortars, and artillery guided by forward observers who seem to have left their glasses at home. All in the name of a sloppy exchange of random, unaimed bouts of fire with pro-Russian separatists on the other hill when they are not busy unloading thousands of rounds at ghosts, random noises, or the glimpse of a shadow caught in their peripheral vision. Consequently, the friendly fire incidents are high, but completely ignored as an issue. Please note: All things can and will be fired upon.
In Shyrokyne, Azov Battalion’s foreign volunteer soldiers are forced to fight in such an environment, and run the gauntlet of death by friend or foe as they cross into the abandoned structures in the middle of the town on diversion and sabotage missions. This is where Jamie and I ended up. We had this great idea: Let’s be freelance journalists in Ukraine. We were soldiers and foreign volunteers by way of Syria—the type of place where audacious Americans and Brits meet, and eventually come up with such concepts. It could happen to anyone.
Now, a long, long way from home and under the cover of darkness, a rag-tag gang of multinational fortune seekers, troublemakers, fighters for the cause, the mentally insane, and lost souls heads out into the soup. They carry AK-74 assault rifles, landmines, and repurposed plastic explosive as they zigzag their way across the collapsed structures and through the swampy seawater creek bed that designates the maybe-kinda line for Ukrainian and Russian forces.
A peril is now loose beyond the frontline, the foreign volunteer unit of Azov. On some of their shoulders is a patch resembling a shield. Emblazoned on it is the red crossed N and I of Azov, opposite a dragon’s head and topped with the words Mors Venit Velociter, Latin for “death comes quickly.” A most fitting motto to describe a group of maniacs that primarily operate as a diversion and reconnaissance group on and beyond the far eastern lines in Ukraine.
They are less concerned and more collected than their Ukrainian and Eastern European counterparts. They simply cruise across the destruction, stepping heavily on the rubble and through the slush of the creek bed with no regard to their present location—between the guns of the enemy and scared, trigger-happy allies to their rear. One man in the group says “I don’t care.” In response, the group lightly giggles. Madmen in the night brandishing smiles while coaxing weapons in the darkness. A cocky glistening spirit lingers around them, as if they were Hannibal’s own at the Battle of Trebia—and how brash a group they are.
Mongrels, they are in love with themselves and the life they have chosen. Stu from Denmark; Spiros, a Macedonian; Vladislav, an elder Ukrainian; Adrien and Astad of Belgium; Alonzo from Sicily; and Emil and Leevi from Denmark. Beasts on the prowl, with more of these foreigners lingering within mere hours’ recall. Tonight these men stalk the fringes of modern warfare—out of uniform, wearing beards, carrying long knives, and with grenades randomly attached to their chest rigs. They keep their weapons low and heads high as the soldiers on the line make way, anxiously allowing them to pass into the shadows like a pack of night wolves.
These wolves are off to prey on an unsuspecting flock of sheep. They appear on an open road strewn with broken glass and rubble from the steady shelling just beyond the banks of the creek bed. From there, they begin to bound and cover one another as they make their way through the streets and ruins that were once lush mansions, getaways for the privileged of Ukraine and Russia. Following their smooth start, the group’s discipline and organization swiftly fall apart within the first few moments.
Stu, as a parent would corral a pack of children hopped up on Mountain Dew in the mall, led the chaotic ADHD formation westward along the street that nests in between the enemy-side ruins and creek. Soon after, communication breaks down; they are now lost and confused. The group continues to fall apart as Stu breaks off to conduct a solo reconnaissance of the route. He hasn’t bothered giving a report to his team. To complicate matters, there is no chain of command or rank for one to definitively take charge of the bewildered mob without the initiation of a parliamentary-style debate.
Anarchy and pandemonium seep into the eyes and ears of the foreign volunteers, who react and initiate another tactical temperamental pageant, with weapons ready at the out, in, up, and down. They deploy and establish a 720 degree perimeter, doubling down on the standard of 360 degrees by creating a staggered column that meets a circle of soldiers from the ruins, through the street and to the creek. In the middle of a free-fire zone, they are pulling security in any direction without regards to their comrades. Still they manage to continue talking to one another like they are safely at home.
A few moments pass, and Stu reappears from a break in the ruins. It does not appear that anyone knew he had even left. He returns to find most of the weapons from his group trained directly upon him. Stu simply dismisses his brush with death and rallies the group to follow him across a large courtyard of a demolished mansion, a picturesque view with a shattered central fountain and an overgrown garden eating away at the fallen structures around it. At the corner of the mansion is a set of stairs leading to the next street, accessible via the fallen fence surrounding the mansion’s double tennis court.
Reaching a clay tennis court covered in broken glass, Stu takes Vladislav and Adrien to scout ahead and tells the rest of us to wait at the bottom of the stairs. Within a few minutes, he returns and calls the rest of the group up, and instructs everyone but Vladislav and I to take positions facing north. The group takes up a loud and hasty fighting position behind a short stone wall, ensuring that they bump into and kick everything they can, and then curse about it.
A chain-link fence and a wall separates the group from their target, and is now their only obstacle—aside from the many more things on the ground that they will inadvertently kick in the darkness. The targets are much closer than one would want while attempting to be tactical alongside a pack of clamoring wildebeests. The primary target is 20 meters directly north of the soldiers on the wall. The other is 50 meters away, and directly up a street that starts at the end of the wall.
With the enemy to our north, a friendly flanking team makes their way via the long eastern route, hopefully skirting the additional enemy positions to reach the objective. To our west, no man’s land and a hilltop loaded with our own guns, which often fire without reason. Due south, the tennis court access point. Beyond that, our very trigger-happy allies and our only route out. Our path, though disadvantageous and counterintuitive, leads us into the street. Vladislav has taken a knee on the opposite side of the street. The old man has dauntlessly found 1/10th of a decent piece of cover behind a wall abutment.
Now, the last man is to be positioned for a diversionary raid. I find myself planning for the worst and hoping for the best. Stu delivers mid-grade disappointment. I was to take up a hasty, prone, unsupported position in the middle of the street. No shit, there I was, belly down, dick in the dirt, looking out through an optic at glowing, bobbing heads in a trench within shouting distance.
Before the mission, Stu gave me one of the recently issued night-vision scopes. It was some off-brand paperweight, and would be best used as something to throw at ugly strippers. The scopes came with highly praised lies such as, “The scopes were given to us by the (insert any nation and/or agency).” In appearance alone, the scopes looked like a generation three Raptor 6X, but functioned like a generation one AN/PVS-2. The low-speed, high-drag device offered a AA battery pack, boasting an operational life of a staggering 15 minutes.
A built-in onscreen menu, most likely designed by the prince of darkness, offers top-of-the-line (in 1948) user input. This kind of synergy could only have been made possible through the adoption of refurbished bus driver-level button technology. The side-mounted and poorly affixed arrows, most likely attached by a method that is even banned in China, allow for nonstop operator reality checks. For instance, the pan, zoom, and other adjustments constantly hop positions, and to improve anyone’s early morning madness, all measurements are off by 30 degrees or more. These are manageable issues that one can plan for—that is until your screen and/or menus completely invert within the onscreen multi-layered menu.
Prior to moving out, Stu gave me this scope with a box of batteries, as well as some scope operation warnings. I repacked my special equipment to accommodate the scope, and Stu explained that when we reached our objective, we were to observe a possible enemy location in support of another team who may assault the possible enemy position with a rocket-propelled grenade-launched thermobaric rocket, machine gun, and small-arms fire. Our team would then initiate contact to draw out and wake up any observed enemy in the structure once the assault team opened fire. After a few moments of firing on the targets, everyone was to fall back under the cover of indirect and heavy machine-gun fire from the Ukrainian lines. We were to perform all of this under the cover of darkness. But this mission, like the night-vision scope in my kit, had a very deceptive appearance.
We all gathered for an operation overview or shit-talking contest. There, the persistent bravado common in Eastern European armies erupted. The Ukrainian volunteer battalions are no exception, particularly Azov. This mission in Shyrokyne rapidly became a loose confederation of volunteer organizations representing Ukraine. On the Ukrainian side of the village, volunteers for the mission suddenly appeared under a variety of banners, names, and organizations, as if this was suddenly the rally scene from “Braveheart.” They came for glory, making claims for Valhalla, but the very same types of soldiers never report for guard duty or volunteer for anything they can’t make look good on social media. If you don’t have a cool VK profile picture, you don’t have a dick. Despite all of the sudden motivation, the walk-ons were destined to ride the bench, watching the show from afar.
We continued in complete disregard of the mission timeline. The day became night. We all pulled out our flashlights, so the dick-measuring contest could chip away at the precious cover of darkness. In the hype-lines, acting a fool as if we were all suddenly in a DMX music video, were the foreigners and Ukrainians in Azov, the Chechens and Right-Sector fighters under the red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of World War II. From an adjacent line came the armed Ukrainian civilians of Donbass Battalion, with the lesser-known Kryvbas Battalion to the northern flank. Elements of Ukraine’s Marine Corps and paratrooper regiments were dotting the distant hills and looking down upon this gathering from a safe distance.
The foreigners were it—the men with the task. Somehow, they were best thing going in the middle of this situation; the best of the worst is still the best. They were the outsiders, the guys who didn’t give a damn about the politics or the bullshit. Kill a commie for mommy. Most of the foreigners could pull it off, too. They came with the experience; many of them were French Foreign Legionnaires, often speaking English and French to one another, an unusual thing to hear where the spoken language is principally Russian. As the shenanigans settled, the platoons on mission equipped themselves with arms and explosives, lugging around MON 90 and OZM landmines as commonplace objects.
The foreigners stood out as arrogant and confident in their ability and experience. They were also ignorant as to the remarks about them from their own battalion and other volunteer organizations. That ignorance allowed them to keep their heads held high as they were housed separately and operated independently in the field. A dangerous independence, to feel special and excluded, priding themselves on finding their own missions and in being placed in the most precarious situations by their Ukrainian commanders. Ukrainians are famous for throwing their foreigners into the fire; they disliked them but enjoyed the comfort of having disposable soldiers who could effectively pull a trigger.
Yet in the mix of Shyrokyne, the foreigners actually looked like they should be there. The foreigners always had a plan and knew where to go and what to do, often creating plans for indirect fire and clearing escape routes. They also mined their own internal perimeter and staged their equipment for the next action, often keeping their weapons on hand. For this they were ridiculed by the Ukrainians, who thought they worried and worked too much. These same Ukrainians often placed chairs by their doors and windows as an excuse to not keep a rotating night sentry posted, as they slept unguarded though the nights.
The other foreigners, the pan-Slavics, and the Russian volunteers with the Ukrainians, held the number-two slot in the Shyrokyne bowl. They could hold their own and had no reputation for retreat. They looked down on the volunteer battalions for their sordid unit histories and mediocre battlefield tactics. Many of them flooded to Azov, as it was the most successful unit on the battlefield. Azov prided itself on this and on its politically half-in, half-out commander and politician Andrivy Biletsky, who, like the battalion, is rooted in the extreme left-leaning Social National Assembly and Patriots of Ukraine, as well as with their neo-Nazi sympathizers.
Even though Azov is screwed by its legacy and the successful Russian smear campaign run against them, they have successfully moved away from that, and accepted command by Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. The majority of those fighting in the Battalion have never held beliefs that reflect the battalion’s early roots. Azov simply accepted foreigners, had the best equipment, and was winning its engagements with minimal casualties, despite what the hype, hoopla, Russia propaganda, click-bait/shock press, and thin-sheeted newsreaders would have you believe.
Right Sector is a fast and loose horde that cares not where it is or what it is doing. The assigned area of the village that Right Sector was to keep secure was in the middle of Ukrainian-held Shyrokyne. Their assignment there was meant as a preventative measure, but it led to ongoing friendly fire incidents. In Right Sector, antics are their middle name. They even have a few armed, but failed, insurrections against the Ukrainian government under their belt. Additionally, the Chechen volunteers of Right Sector are famous for randomly taking off into the wild, armed with TM-62 landmines to do God-knows-what. That is, when they are not kicking unexploded ordnance to deem it safe—or not.
The Donbass Battalion is famous in Shyrokyne for inciting massive indirect-fire incidents with the Russian separatists, and ignoring the placement of friendly mines and booby traps. As for the volunteers from Kryvbas, they take away from any name the battalion may have earned for itself. Currently, the ranks of Kryvbas are filled with vivid mythological storytellers, and others who put sniper-rifle scopes on short-barreled AKS-74U assault rifles. As for the actual military of Ukraine, they want no part of this action, they simply halfheartedly observe.
All of these units claim to be the best, but only the best goes forward and accomplishes missions. Yet there is really no good to be sought in being the best outsider, the best neo-Nazi, the best vandal, the best insurrectionist, the best liar, or the best observer in a fight for ruined lands filled with unexploded ordnance, mines, and with a heavy stench of waste and fouled flesh.
When things were finally set for the mission into enemy-held Shyrokyne, Adrien, Astad, and Spiors were sound asleep in a nearby building. In the spirit of team-building, the remaining foreigners set off like madmen, approaching to steal them and carry them off into slavery. Those awake busted open the door of the abandoned apartment house, shouting and grabbing at the others who only moments ago lay there in peace on a living-room floor, sleeping off a long patrol in Lebedyns’ke. None of us had gotten any sleep over the past few days due to a back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back patrol schedule, and immediate reassignment to Shyrokyne. Now presented with the chance to share the pain, we welcomed the opportunity to rudely rustle them awake and into our translucent reality of sleep deprivation.
Spiros was the first to complain, “We just got to sleep, man, and Clay just went home. He left in a truck.”
I replied eagerly, “To hell with you, you fucking honkey! I’ve been gone for hours, and you’ve been sleeping! I went to Urzuf and back—that’s a four-hour drive.”
Before this mission, we’d been on another long walk in the fields around Lededyns’ke, Kryvbas Battalion’s sector. Throughout those nights, we walked in the tall wet grass, muddy fields, and swamp lands while trying to use the slim tree lines that acted as a border and windbreak between the farmers’ fields. Our objective was mixed and riddled with paper-thin theoretical concepts. The original plan, now long discarded, centered around getting eyes on the nearby Russian separatist-occupied town of Sakhanka to verify or dismiss the presence and location of 120mm mortar teams.
That was five days ago. In the meantime, we avoided a make-believe Spetsnaz team and an invisible ring of landmines and ambushes, although we did encounter a very real drone and enemy patrol that followed an artillery exchange of self-propelled guns a few kilometers outside of Vodyane. The drone and artillery were not mentioned by the landowners, Kryvbas, or its eccentric field lieutenant who closely resembles a mix between Eric Cartman and a washed up pro-wrestler.
This large-and-in-charge wild man of the front wore gas station-grade yellow-tinted sunglasses day and night, with the lanyard lying carelessly about his shoulders and often entangled with the string of his African safari-style boonie hat. His fat sausage fingers often flicked at the air, searching for some invisible fried-chicken bucket, as he told tall tales about his lone, or small team, long-range expeditions across his sector.
In a boisterous voice, he would recount many tales, most often involving him spotting mines and enemy special operation forces, but he did nothing to delay them. He also couldn’t be bothered to annotate his own, or the enemy’s, position, nor would he waste his time reporting it to higher. These keen observations were often made from a Toyota pickup truck with the lights on, in an open field, at night. Somehow these slick gentlemen continue to elude the best of the best of the Russian Federation and every trap they laid for him. Things tend to get out of hand quickly in Ukraine, especially when you are operating in a sector where the commanders in the field pride themselves on excellent storytelling and costumes.
Unfortunately, one day, these men—the big-talking liars—may be remembered as the saviors of Ukraine. The biggest mouth and best stories tend to create the best warrior these days.
Our fruitless night treks and tall tales with Eric Cartman were over now, and the foreigner team regrouped in Shyrokyne. That morning, the team split off. Adrien, Astad, Spiros, and I separated for what was to be a standard explosives-clearing mission near a bridge on the southwestern beach approach into Shyrokyne. Azov Battalion is quite different than Kryvbas: When things escalate quickly with big stories and bravado, Azov has a team of foreigners to do the heavy lifting for them.
There I was with them. My journalism had gone Gonzo in Ukraine as I set off to clear explosives with these men. Way to put those degrees to work. This was also the day I was supposed to leave. I almost did. I had already extended my stay to be on the Lededyns’ke patrols. In Shyrokyne, we wrapped up by way of chaos. It would get done later, by someone. Maybe.
I was under the foolish assumption that, with the initial and follow-on mission checked off, we had completed our mission set. So I approached the company commander, Satana (сатана), which means Satan in Russian, and asked for a ride back to Yur’ivka.
In my mind, I was collecting my things and catching the late train from Berdyans’k to Kiev. Satan obliged, smiled, and offered me a hearty handshake. A truly strange experience coming from a menacingly large, bald ex-con with a red beard, a bust of Adolph Hitler tattooed on his bicep, and cauliflower ears from years of unregulated MMA fights. I felt comfortable with it at the time, especially following the six months of madness that led to that point. It had been a long journey, a descent into the fringes of delirium and lunacy. I had started this all humbly from Ohio in January. That is, after a backward, short, and ideologically confusing stint as a volunteer for the Kurds in Syria. I was now a first-time freelance journalist, and my God did I ever go Gonzo. It all seemed like it was coming to end in June.
So I prepared to leave the latest circle of Hell, from where I often try to dig to a lower level, and I shook the hand of the devil. I walked back to the abandoned apartment/house that we occupied, and said my goodbye to Spiros as he was the only one still awake. I grabbed my woodland-camouflaged MOLLE II rucksack that I brought from home, and got in the truck thinking that would be the last time I would ever see them or Shyrokyne. I never could have suspected that I would be returning to the same spot in just four hours.
To be continued.
***Some details, such as names, have been changed for OPSEC.