Ukrainian officer describes combat in Avdiivka, supply & funding problems

22 June, 02:48 PM
Artillery shells at a Ukrainian position near the front line in the Donetsk Oblast, June 19, 2023 (Photo:REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Artillery shells at a Ukrainian position near the front line in the Donetsk Oblast, June 19, 2023 (Photo:REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Andriy Serhan, an aerial reconnaissance officer in the 59th Separate Motor-ized Infantry Brigade “Yakov Handzyuk”, who goes by the call sign Khokhol ( a derogatory word used by Russians to describe Ukrainians), spoke to RadioNV about the terrible cost of Ukraine's advances near Avdiivka. Serhan also believes that Ukraine can not only liberate Donetsk, but could even reach Moscow if the country's troops receive enough resources.

NV: How are you able to move forward now? Is it a result of the Russians weakening their reserves and transferring them to other, hotter sectors? Or is it greater pressure now along the entire front line in general?

Serhan: First, there is pressure along the entire front line. Secondly, the side that has the ball is the one that leads. You have to set the pace and do the work so that you lead this game, and so that they don't in turn advance and put you on the defensive. It seems to be much easier to defend, on the one hand, but on the other hand, the line changes only when you move forward.

Video of day

NV: Ukraines forces are on the offensive in the Donetsk sector as well, correct?

Serhan: We are constantly on the offensive and have been every day for a year now. While it was announced that there would be a counteroffensive and everything else, nothing happens in a single day. This may be an effort that takes two or three months of preparatory work, and only then, perhaps, we might get the kind of result that we did in Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts.

NV: You may have heard communications officers of your unit, the 59th Brigade, declaring boldly that 'just as we liberated Kherson, we will also liberate Donetsk.' How achievable is the liberation of Donetsk?

Serhan: Everything depends on the supply of weapons, ammunition, and high-quality military personnel. This is a big problem for us now, no matter what anyone says. Unfortunately, now, the only ones fighting are those who were called up. The volunteers came in the first period of the war, in 2022. We all remember how military registration and enlistment offices were overflowing. Now we don't have that big push from volunteers, so now they are gathering everyone they find. 

This is a problem because the state needs to work on how it motivates people to join up, perhaps with some kind of social package, so that people see the benefits and want to fight. This is important to ensure they are confident in their commanders and that the state will protect them. 

If we had the people, ammo, and weapons, then there would be no problem reaching Moscow. It's a matter of resources. Give us the resources, and we will reach out and capture Russia.

Take drones, for example; they are provided by volunteers because getting a drone from the state takes half a year to collect all the required documentation. That might be a slight exaggeration of course, but at the same time, if the state does provide the equipment, then it's just 1% of what volunteers are giving to us. This is the problem. Again, give us what we need, and we will reach Moscow.

NV: You are an expert in the use of unmanned aircraft. You say that the state provides only 1% of what volunteers provide. Has this situation not improved lately? Is the general perception that things are getting better in this regard, or is that incorrect?

Serhan: We need to work on improving things. Yes, there are civil servants who are doing their jobs. Yes, there are some resources that are being brought in, and there are some drones that are given to us to use by the state. But volunteers are much more effective in responding. You must understand that drones are constantly evolving. It takes more than a month for the government to sign an agreement and contract to put a drone into service. I remember one company spent eight months trying to get the right to put their drones in service with the army, but in those eight months, those drones became ineffective. 

Therefore, yes, there are some devices that we buy with the help of the state, but this is 1% of what volunteers give. The state is very slow in this regard, and it needs to be encouraged to do more. I honestly do not know how to do that, however. Our task is to fight, and we would like to receive the full package on the front line: drones, equipment, ammunition, and people. Ill say it again, we could then not only take Donetsk but reach Moscow. It is simply a question of resources.

NV: On the subject of drones: just before the broadcast, I came across a post from Valery Markus, the chief master sergeant of the 47th Brigade, currently fighting in the Zaporizhzhya sector. He said that drones are absolutely critical now because the lack of drones is costing the lives of our fighters. Therefore, he says, it is necessary to quickly collect three to four million hryvnias ($81,000-$108,000).

Serhan: Excuse me, but when will this ever happen? We can build bridges for tourists in downtown Kyiv that cost billions of hryvnias, but at the same time, we cannot buy drones? How much will people like Magyar [an ethnic Hungarian commander from Zakarpattya with an extensive social media presence], Prytula [the founder of the Serhiy Prytula Foundation, one of Ukraines top military fundraisers], Yuri Moskalenko [another prolific fundraiser for military drones], and other volunteers collect? These people are constantly collecting money and subsidizing the purchase of drones. But where is the state? When will it finally get involved in this work and operate at least on an equal footing with volunteers?

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Markus is right, drones save lives. Now that the counteroffensive is publicly underway, there will be a constant loss of drones. Drones are needed for the counteroffensive, and again, what are we doing? Fundraising, and then we also fall under criminal proceedings for the fact that we collect funds on our bank cards and buy drones. To be honest, we have given the state time, holding down the countrys defense for a whole year, driving the enemy away for a whole year so that it could build up its resources and give us everything we need for victory. 

With how things are now, we'll never win. We are spending money on laying pavements again, lets say, somewhere in the west of Ukraine, or in Kyiv, or in Bila Tserkva, it doesnt matter, and yet there are not enough drones on the front line.

NV: Those are very profound sentiments

Serhan: The life of a soldier is estimated at 15 million hryvnias ($406,000). When he or she dies, their family is paid 15 million plus 100,000 ($2,707) for the funeral. It would be better if these families did not receive this money, but instead, their relatives, alive and well. If we had these drones more people would come home alive. I understand that even though the army is now a priority, other economic areas also require development. But at the same time, it is not enough, period. 

NV: You mentioned Magyar, a commander of a drone company in the 59th Brigade. He posts videos from the Zaporizhzhya sector showcasing various drone strikes. Are these strike drones also volunteer initiatives, or purchases at the state level?

Serhan: These are also volunteer initiatives. Things happen noticeably faster and better with volunteers, and the purchase price for drones is usually around $450-500. I wonder what price our state pays for these drones. The components are the same as those from volunteers. Sure, maybe there are taxes to pay, maybe even worker salaries. Let's say $600, and if I am not mistaken, if we start digging deeper, it turns out that they buy them for $1,500-2,000... In fact, Magyar also analyzed this situation

The kickbacks here are paid for with blood. To be honest, this sort of thing just kills me. How can you make money off of a war? And then I remembered; our dear civil servants have been earning off of people with disabilities and orphans all their lives. Why do we think that they wouldnt make money off of the war? They are doing it successfully and earning colossal sums. In the end, either volunteers or the poor fight. We have a class system in the state; there is a class of those whom the military registration and enlistment office does not take because they're the daughter, brother, matchmaker, or godchild of a judge or prosecutor; and then there are those who will be raked in to fight. 

Our country has a caste system

NV: How common is this sentiment among frontline soldiers? How do you react to various corruption scandals, from money laundering to the theft of humanitarian aid?

Serhan: Everyone is tired of the war, and the volunteers became tired first because they came to the enlistment offices voluntarily and signed up. How long have we been fighting this big invasion? Its been 16 months without days off, without leave. Theyve had a maximum of 10 days, and perhaps some have gotten lucky with their rotations. But how do rotations work? When almost 70% of personnel have been knocked out with 30% remaining, only then does rotation take place. When we are taken out, it means we've gotten, excuse me for saying this, f*cked up, and we are being taken out of dug-in positions. 

Now units are undermanned with those who do not want to fight – there is no other way to describe it. And again they are thrown into positions at the hottest point, where there are no trenches, or with unprepared positions, or something else. That's why we hold on. Look at the 59th Brigade: it hasn't gone back a single step, but somewhere else it is moving forward, because we are holding on to this land since we are afraid of rotation. We will be taken out, for a month or two, and then thrown undermanned into the hottest place. Its not cool here, believe me, but theyll quit, theyll close some hole with us. Moreover, while on rotation, we wont receive 115-120 thousand hryvnias ($3,113-$3,249) pay that we receive here, with all the combat bonuses, but instead something like 20 or 50 thousand ($541-$1,353). That is, while we are at war, funding and everything else comes in. But if we are thrown somewhere in the rear, that's it. Our funding will be cut. And this is again a problem because soldiers should receive a decent salary, but what is our salary now – $400-500 plus bonuses for fighting?

No, it won't work, guys. The army needs to be made up of professionals. What is a professional? Its someone who, with his head held high, walks around Kyiv in uniform and is not ashamed to look people in the eye. He is well-fed and fit because he needs to carry from 30 to 60 kilograms on himself, and with this weight, he still has to run 10 kilometers or however many, while carrying a rifle and under heavy fire. He deserves a decent salary. And now we have a salary of  $400-500, roughly. We need to fix this, we need to somehow get the state involved and make it work.

NV: I saw reports last week about fighting in Vesele [located right near Donetsk Airport, under occupation since before the full-scale invasion ed.]. Now the map of hostilities has already changed, and territories have been liberated. How strong are the Russian occupiers in the Avdiivka sector? Who are you guys fighting there?

Serhan: Their line of defense has actually been fixed there since 2014. Donetsk is a sort of mecca for them. If they lose Donetsk, Putin's reputation will be immensely tarnished. Therefore, they will hold their ground in the Donetsk sector, in the vicinity of Donetsk. We are located close to the outskirts of Donetsk so we should not hope that they will soften up somewhere and give us an opportunity to move forward. We will have to really gnaw out this victory, with our guys losing limbs, arms, legs, eyes, and all the rest. This is the price of that advance. Therefore, I will not say anything about when we will take Donetsk. I'll say again, resources are everything. For each of their shells, we need to have 10, but so far I don't see this.

NV: It seems that one of the main obstacles to recruitment is fear of dying in senseless cannon fodder assaults. People are afraid of being unprepared to fight.

Serhan: In regards to preparation, I will take the side of the armed forces. Dear friends, this is our tenth year at war. To those who may be mobilized and they say that "we are not prepared," who prevented you from preparing for eight years? If you thought that this would bypass you and you would not be called, then you yourself are to blame. We had eight years of time to prepare the army for a full-scale invasion.

Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) [the term the Ukrainian government used to describe the campaign against Russian occupiers in Donbas up until 2018 – ed.] soldiers became somehow uncomfortable, and they were forgotten about. And who was the first to go to war in 2022? ATO veterans. These ATO veterans are running out. I already have just six left from the unit I had in 2014-2015, and there were 45 back then. This was from before the end of last year.

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