It is a quiet, overcast winter morning in the front-line village of Taramchuk in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers from the National Guard’s Aidar Battalion mill about outside the abandoned homes within which they have garrisoned, tending to their morning chores.
The air is cold, but the wind makes it feel much worse. At places where the snow-covered fields blend with the overcast sky, the uniform whiteness conceals the horizon.
Clues to the war are subtle, but ever-present here, about 15 miles outside the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, and about 2 miles from the front-line positions of the Ukrainian soldiers’ enemies—a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian soldiers.
Along the road into the village, shrapnel has carved concrete power line poles like the eroded sandstone buttes in Monument Valley. At the edge of the woods, a small, easily overlooked skull and crossbones sign denotes a minefield. In town, some buildings bear the spattered pockmarks of shrapnel damage, while others have a caved-in wall or roof from a direct hit by a shell, or a rocket.
About 200 people lived in Taramchuk before the war. Today, only a few dozen remain. The village’s mayor struck a deal with the Ukrainian troops to garrison in the abandoned homes, so long as they pay for any damage once the war ends.
Alternately melting and refreezing snow cover has turned the one main road through the village into a muddy morass by day, and a frozen sheet as slick as an ice skating rink in the night and early morning. A few military vehicles, including a U.S. Humvee, are parked at random intervals at the places where Ukrainian soldiers live.
On this morning, 53-year-old Valera Dudochkin opens the metal gate to his home, welcoming in his friend, 54-year-old Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Derevyanko.
Derevyanko gingerly waddles across the frozen street so as not to slip. Dudochkin smiles broadly, curling his salt and pepper mustache and drawing the deep smile lines around his eyes. He pats Derevyanko on the shoulder and then clanks shut the brown metal gate, which is pockmarked by rusted shrapnel holes like a piece of Swiss cheese.
Valera Dudochkin, 53, a Russian, stands before his artillery-damaged home in eastern Ukraine. (Photos: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)
Derevyanko, the soldier, is a solidly built man with a thick, gray handlebar mustache. He has a pistol holstered on his right leg and a green keffiyeh from Afghanistan wrapped around his neck.
The German army uniform he wears he paid for himself when he volunteered for service in spring 2014. The war was just beginning then, and the Aidar Battalion was still a civilian paramilitary group not yet a part of Ukraine’s National Guard.
Both men are veterans of the Soviet Union’s Red Army, and served during the same period in the early 1980s. They consider each other friends.
“It’s like living with normal neighbors,” Dudochkin says. “I have no problems with the Ukrainian soldiers.”
It was not always this way.
Dudochkin is Russian. He moved to Ukraine in 1984 at the conclusion of his military service in the Red Army. Today, his mother and brother still live in Russia. His two adult children live 20 miles away across no man’s land inside the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.
“I’m on every side of this war,” Dudochkin says. “My mother almost had a breakdown when she knew I was friends with the Aidar soldiers.”
At the beginning of the war, Dudochkin distrusted the Ukrainian soldiers garrisoned in his village. Today, he has a special bond with them due to an act of compassion.
When Dudochkin’s wife, Alla, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the summer of 2016, Derevyanko and some other soldiers donated painkillers from their first-aid kits to ease her suffering.
The Ukrainian soldiers also pooled their money to pay for Alla to receive treatment at a local hospital, which Dudochkin, a former truck driver for a bread factory, could not afford.
Today, Dudochkin’s eyes well with tears when he describes how the Ukrainian soldiers next door eased his wife’s suffering in her final days.
“Yes, this war is crazy,” Dudochkin says. “I understand there are normal people on both sides. So how can there be a war?”
The Gray Zone
Ukrainian soldiers call the no man’s land separating them from their enemies the “gray zone.” The name is fitting, because there’s nothing black and white about this war.
As the conflict approaches its third anniversary, Ukrainian soldiers, as well as the civilians living among them in the war zone, have acquired a less absolute viewpoint on what victory will ultimately look like, as well as the moral culpability of their enemies.
“We have to fight for the brains of those people in the occupied territories,” Lt. Col. Maxim Marchenko, an Aidar Battalion commander, tells The Daily Signal during an interview at a command post a few miles behind the front lines.
“We should forgive those standing against us with machine guns,” Marchenko says. “Of course, their commanders should be in prison. But the ordinary soldiers, we should find a way to forgive them. It won’t take one month, or one year. It might take 10 years. But it’s the only way.”
The Aidar Battalion command post is in an abandoned building with no electricity. The interior is dark and chilly. On the wall is a memorial to the Aidar Battalion soldiers who have died in battle. On this day, soldiers are busy at work, making phone calls, conferring over battlefield maps, and tending to various administrative tasks.
Marchenko stands with arms folded. The lieutenant colonel speaks deliberately, frequently pausing and staring into your eyes for a half-beat longer than feels comfortable when he emphasizes an important point. You get a sense, due to his demeanor, of how three years of combat have hardened this man.
“The overall objective is to take back our territories,” Marchenko says.
“But destroying the enemy is not the end of the conflict,” he adds. “The war started with politics, and it will end with politics.”
The Aidar Battalion began as a civilian paramilitary group in 2014. In 2015, it was incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. The unit currently has about 1,000 troops in the war zone, according to personnel in the field.
The Aidar Battalion has a checkered reputation among the civilian population in the Donbas, Ukraine’s embattled southeastern territory on the border with Russia.
“We should forgive those standing against us with machine guns,” says Lt. Col. Maxim Marchenko, a commander in the Aidar Battalion.
A 2014 Amnesty International report singled out the battalion for committing war crimes. Resultantly, Marchenko has taken steps to prove to local civilians that they can trust his troops.
To that end, the unit shifted its fighting positions into the fields and woods outside of Taramchuk. They are now more exposed to enemy fire outside the concealment of the village, Marchenko says, but it spares the remaining civilians from more shelling.
The battalion’s troops have also donated what little extra supplies they have to local civilians, including food and medicine. And with the nearest ambulance located more than 30 miles away, the Ukrainian troops ferry sick and wounded civilians to hospitals in their own vehicles.
Most places in eastern Ukraine are still overwhelmed with Russian propaganda, which is as much of a threat to Ukraine’s overall war effort as the tanks and artillery. In some places, there is still not a single Ukrainian broadcast TV channel available—they’re all beamed in from Russia and the two separatist territories.
The diffuse Russian propaganda taps into attitudes leftover from the Soviet era, including deeply held, latent fears about fascism, and distrust for the central government in Kyiv. Conspiracy theories about the intentions of the U.S., NATO, and western Ukrainians are also pervasive.
“Of course their opinion about the war is different,” Dudochkin says about his family living in Russia and Donetsk. “All news lies. They see things on TV, and they have a different point of view. Those who cannot come here and see this place with their own eyes have a totally different point of view.”
Many families in eastern Ukraine are divided across the front lines or the Russian border. It’s not easy, therefore, for some civilians to trust the Ukrainian soldiers in their midst.
“When [Ukrainian troops] came into the village the relationship was different, but in a short time we improved that relationship,” Marchenko says of the interactions between Ukrainian troops and civilians in Taramchuk.
“But you should understand that family connections are stronger than relationships with the government,” Marchenko adds. “Of course they are more loyal to their friends and family than to us.”
A Just War
A February 2015 cease-fire, called Minsk II, proscribes the presence of heavy weapons and armor within a certain buffer zone around the contact line in eastern Ukraine.
The cease-fire has limited the intensity of the war and dissuaded both sides from launching any significant offensives. But the fighting never stopped.
More than 3,000 people have died since the cease-fire went into effect, roughly one-third of the conflict’s overall death toll of about 10,000 Ukrainians.
The war is now a long-distance battle, fought from trenches and improvised forts, comprising daily artillery, tank, and sniper shots. After three years of daily combat, war has become a way of life for the soldiers and civilians living along the 250 miles of front lines in the Donbas.
Ukraine returned to international headlines in late January when combined Russian-separatist artillery and rockets knocked out utilities in the town of Avdiivka, leaving about 16,000 people without electricity, heating, or water as temperatures dipped below minus 20 Celsius.
The Avdiivka attack, however, was not a one-off event that shattered a shaky truce. Rather, it highlighted another peak in an endless sine wave of violence that has persisted since the cease-fire was signed more than two years ago.
This type of prolonged, static warfare tests the grit of the soldiers who fight in it. Still, many Ukrainian soldiers don’t question the war’s overall justice, only the way in which the government in Kyiv has prosecuted the war effort.
“Victory is to take back our territory all the way to the border,” Derevyanko, who fought in Afghanistan from 1981 to 1983, says.
“Our morale is still high, but who knows if we’re winning,” he says. “The government doesn’t give us an opportunity to win.”
Many front-line Ukrainian troops have little faith in the current peace process. They reject the notion that the cease-fire is legitimate, or even holding at all. They also have little confidence in cease-fire monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, who tally daily “cease-fire violations” while patrolling the war zone in their bright white SUVs.
“After two and a half years of war, I’m convinced the main mission of the OSCE is to drink coffee at the petrol stations,” Marchenko says with a grin. “I can’t understand what they’re doing here.”
The OSCE is only tasked with monitoring the cease-fire; it has no enforcement mandate.
Highlighting their disdain for the cease-fire, many Ukrainian troops also harbor pernicious suspicions that the OSCE is a vehicle for Russian intelligence gathering.
“I looked at the situation, and very often after the OSCE visits, the enemy artillery becomes much more precise,” Marchenko says.
The Aidar Battalion soldiers garrisoned in Taramchuk call it a “quiet” place.
Taramchuk has recently been spared the kind of heavy fighting seen recently in Avdiivka. Some troops attribute the relative calm to the village’s location near a highway, which serves as a main transportation artery for civilians crossing into and out of separatist territory.
Yet, the fact that in 2017 a European village with daily artillery, rocket, and sniper attacks is considered “quiet” underscores how quickly and easily society’s tolerance for violence can be reset.
Inside one abandoned home in Taramchuk, Derevyanko is holed up with two other Aidar Battalion soldiers—a 50-year-old Soviet marine veteran of Afghanistan named Andriy, and a 34-year-old philosophy professor named Kostya.
Both Andriy and Kostya asked that their last names not be used due to security concerns.
Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Derevyanko, 54, inside a forward outpost in Taramchuk, Ukraine.
Andriy, who goes by the nom de guerre “Ale” (he’s a beer drinker), has a potbelly and grins nonstop as he talks. On his shoulder is a tattoo of a trident, Ukraine’s national symbol. Around his neck is a necklace with a heavy metal amulet of the Aidar Battalion’s crest. He wears a white and blue striped undershirt called a telnyashka, which was a traditional uniform item for Soviet marines and is still worn by Russian and Ukrainian marines.
Like Derevyanko, Andriy volunteered for the Aidar Battalion when the war began in spring 2014. He’s been at the front lines ever since, with only periodic periods of leave for a week or two to return home.
“Ukraine is my motherland,” Andriy says. “All my family and relatives lived under Moscow’s control, and some of them were sent to Siberia.”
When asked what he’s fighting for, Andriy replies: “I’m not political. My only goal is to stop the war on my territory. I don’t want my children and grandchildren to experience what my parents and grandparents did.”
The composition of the Aidar Battalion’s armaments and personnel reflect the ad hoc nature of its formation as a paramilitary unit in 2014.
“We’re like Noah’s arc,” Derevyanko says. “We have soldiers from all over Ukraine, and from throughout the Soviet Union. We have people from Belarus, Tajikistan, even Afghanistan, Spain, and Israel.
The walls inside the home-cum-fort are lined with body armor, helmets, and Kalashnikovs. Crates of grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and landmines are stacked along the walls. An anti-tank cannon is stashed in an outdoor shed. All of the ammunition, and nearly all of the weapons, are leftovers from the Soviet Union.
As the night wears on, the soldiers show off some vintage weapons, including a machine gun from World War I, which they still use in combat.
After their incorporation into Ukraine’s National Guard in 2015, the troops say supplies improved. But they still rely on civilian volunteers who, through private donations, run supplies such as basic military kit and foodstuff out to the front lines.
“The army gives us the minimum,” Andriy says. “The volunteers give us things from the soul.”
“If we’re lucky, we get the National Guard’s leftovers,” Kostya, the philosophy professor, adds.
At the outpost in Taramchuk, small reminders of home go a long way toward maintaining morale. Especially since most Ukrainian soldiers could probably drive home in an afternoon if they wanted to.
Above the doorway to the main sleeping area is a crayon drawing from one of Andriy’s grandchildren.
The Aidar soldiers collected scrap from the village to construct a makeshift sauna. After one- to two-week stints at the front line, they look forward to a steam, and to scraping away the accumulated layers of grime.
At night, electricity comes from a generator. A radio buzzes with the enemy’s unencrypted communications.
The Ukrainian soldiers have internet connection and a TV. Out of about 30 channels, only one is from Ukraine. The rest are beamed in from Russia or the two separatist breakaway territories.
“They always seem so angry,” Derevyanko says as he flips through the Russian channels.
Derevyanko laughs when an announcer solemnly reports a Ukrainian military attack, which supposedly happened on this day. Derevyanko knows it’s a lie. Then the reporter segues into a segment on how U.S. troops are fighting alongside Ukrainians.
“Can you believe this s—?” Derevyanko says, pointing to the screen with an upturned hand.
There is a small kitchen space in a room off the main entrance where Kostya has a furnace going. For dinner, he prepares pasta with meat, and soup, which he serves in plastic trays.
A Ukrainian specialty of salted pork fat called salo, bread, cheese, and a box of cookies get passed around. These food items were all brought in by volunteers, Kostya says.
As the night wears on, the soldiers sip on a special moonshine they have distilled themselves. “I started drinking vodka when I was 3 years old,” Andriy says, chuckling.
Later, after dinner, Kostya explains why he put his teaching career on hold seven months ago to take up arms.
“I was sick of the war,” he explains, speaking in British-accented English. “I felt the injustice here, and I felt it had no right to exist in any country. If it happened anywhere else, I’d still want to fight.”
Andriy and Derevyanko tease Kostya about why he waited so long to volunteer for the war.
As if boiling over with passion, Kostya stands. He folds his hands behind his back and paces back and forth across the room like a professor delivering a stern lecture.
He continues: “The true victory happens when our people realize what is going on here. This is my country. When the people living here realize we are all a part of the same country, and they don’t want to be just a colony of Russia, then they will have a chance for real independence.”
A Different Kind of War
For Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, the current war in Ukraine is a role reversal. In Afghanistan, Derevyanko and Andriy fought alongside Russians against an enemy armed by the U.S.
Today, Russia is the enemy, and the United States is an ally.
“It’s a propaganda war,” Andriy says of the current conflict. “America and Russia have always quarreled, and no one wanted to be a loser. And now Ukraine is caught in between that competition.”
Perhaps the most significant difference is a belief in the justice of their cause, which eluded these soldiers in Afghanistan.
“This war is different,” Derevyanko says. “That war [Afghanistan] was incorrect, we were occupiers. In Afghanistan we had the Soviet ideology in our heads, but some of us still felt like we were doing something wrong. But now we’re fighting for the right reasons.”
“Ukraine has never invaded anyone,” Andriy adds with a smile. “Today we’re fighting against occupiers. Those people who came into our territory with guns can’t be our friends.”
A quiet morning on Taramchuk’s main street.
Soldiers rarely fight for the reasons dictated to them by the governments that send them to battle. Rather, once the bullets start flying, a simple sense of duty to defend one’s friends, and to not disappoint their expectations, is what inspires one to act courageously.
When asked to compare the camaraderie among Soviet marines in Afghanistan with what he now feels for his fellow Ukrainian troops, Andriy replies: “Military friendship is military friendship. The main thing is to believe in each other. We have to believe in each other.”
‘War Is War’
Dudochkin’s home has been hit by a tank shell, a mortar, and a Grad rocket. He has mostly finished repairing the house, but one room still has a caved-in roof, and parts of the perimeter wall remain scarred by shrapnel.
Dudochkin, who was living with his wife at the time of the attacks, says they hid in the basement to stay safe. “It was scary,” he says. “I was afraid for my wife. We lived for more than a year in my basement.”
When asked why he doesn’t leave Taramchuk and live farther away from the fighting, Dudochkin answers: “Where can I go at such an old age?”
Dudochkin’s two children in Donetsk live only about 20 miles from their father. A 30-minute drive before the war, the trip now takes about 20 hours due to the various checkpoints and roadblocks along the way. The journey is also fraught with danger. Civilians occasionally die from errant artillery strikes or from driving over landmines.
“War is war,” Dudochkin says. “Of course conditions are hard.”
Living without electricity for more than a year, Dudochkin has no reliable access to TV, or the internet. He is alone. His wife is gone. His mother and brother are in Russia. His children are separated from him by the complications and dangers of traveling across the front lines.
Out here in a forgotten corner of a forgotten war, only a book, or tending to his home and crops, occupy Dudochkin’s time, and his mind, these days. His daily human interactions are limited to visits with the Ukrainian soldiers living next door.
Behind his house, Dudochkin peers over a wall toward a field where he and his wife grew vegetables before the war. Today, this plot of earth is covered in snow. But spring is coming, and it will be green again soon.
But not yet.
Standing there, Dudochkin says, “I hope this silly war will be over soon. I’m really tired.”
By Nolan Peterson, The Daily Signal
Photos by Nolan Peterson
Related materials: Russian aggression against Ukraine