Lily Hyde.A man reads the notice on the grave of Major Yuri Baran of the 5th Carpathian battalion, killed near Amvrosiivka on July 8 and buried in Memorial Square in Ivano-Frankivsk. © Lily Hyde
Soldiers from western Ukraine retreated from the war front near Amvrosiivka in Donetsk Oblast on Aug. 23 while, back home in Ivano-Frankivsk, desperate wives and mothers blocked roads demanding the return of their men.
It is yet another setback in a difficult week for Ukraine’s army leadership, as volunteer battalions stranded for 10 days in Ilovaisk, a city some 50 kilometers east of Donetsk, called for a picket of the General Staff military headquarters to demand reinforcements and better arms. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces withdrew from Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol, on Aug. 28 as Russian army soldiers advanced. The National Security and Defence Council said on Aug. 27 that several settlements around Amvrosiivka are now under the control of Russian forces.
Speaking to the Kyiv Post by phone, the commander of the 5th Carpathian territorial defense battalion, Vitaliy Komar, said the unit was forced to withdraw from Amvrosiyivka when it was continuously shelled across the border from Russia by heavy artillery, as well as by tanks and artillery barrages from Russian forces inside Ukraine, destroying ammunition and provisions. The battalion has been at the frontline for nearly two months, since July 5, with no armored vehicles or heavy weaponry, he says.
“They took the decision to retreat until they get fully kitted out by the Defense Ministry,” Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast council member Yuri Romanyuk said.
Officials at Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and Security Service, including anti-terrorist center spokesperson Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky, did not comment.
According to Komar, his battalion was the last Ukrainian military force to leave the area, with regular army units from the 24th and 72nd brigades, as well as other units, having retreated earlier. His unit had two killed in action since July 5, and seven wounded.
By Aug. 27, the battalion had left the war zone and made its way to the city of Znamyanka in Kirovohrad Oblast. Romanyuk said they were in discussion with the Defense Ministry whether to continue home to their base in Ivano-Frankivsk region, or be sent back to the Anti-Terrorist Operation.
In what is becoming a repeated refrain, the apparent failure of the government to provide its soldiers with even the most basic supplies is undermining both the conduct of the war and the morale of those fighting it.
“They were dumped,” said Romanyuk. “And absolutely all the territorial defense battalions are in this position. So they are in revolt against the Ministry of Defense. No one wants to endure this idiotic command anymore, and this inadequate attitude to soldiers, to the needs of the army and the National Guard.”
When they were sent east on July 4, men from the 5th battalion joked that they had not enough bullet-proof vests between them. “We’ll share,” one told local TV cameras. “Two people can wear one vest, so we’re covered front and back.”
The 420 men drove off in yellow school buses, wearing mismatched camouflage and boots their mothers had bought for them. They received 45 days training before being sent straight to the war zone. On July 8, their chief of staff, Major Yuri Baran, was killed. Since his death, one other soldier from the unit, 23-year-old Volodymyr Danyliuk, died in an ambush on Aug. 13 at the hands of Russian forces.
Mothers and wives have been calling ever since on an unresponsive government to either provide adequate arms and backup for the 5th battalion, or else rotate them out of the frontline and send them home. On Aug. 25 they blocked a bridge in Ivano-Frankivsk, paralyzing traffic into the town for several hours.
“We’ve knocked on every single door, and all the answers we get is that no one can do anything, our boys are doing their duty,” said Olga, whose husband is in the battalion. Olga, like all the women, did not want to give her last name for fear her husband would be punished or accused of cowardice. When the battalion was informed it would be sent east, draftees who did not want to fight without proper equipment were told they could be sentenced to 2-5 years for desertion.
A March 17 presidential decree requires every region of Ukraine to raise a territorial defense battalion, where volunteers can join draftees like Olga’s husband, who received his call-up papers one midnight in May. According to Olga, the vast majority of soldiers in the 5th battalion are draftees who were initially told they would remain in Ivano-Frankivsk to defend strategic targets like gas pipelines.
Impoverished Ivano-Frankivsk region raised nearly seven million hryvnias for food and equipment for its battalion, including helmets and bulletproof vests.
Councilman Romanyuk spoke to the Kyiv Post in-between negotiating the purchase of thermal underwear and bullet-proof vests. “We buy it all with our own money and send it ourselves,” he said. “No one else is looking after soldiers on the front line.”
This nationwide volunteer effort supporting the army is losing patience with what is increasingly viewed as incompetence or even sabotage by authorities.
“The 5th battalion’s moral, political and patriotic spirit is really high, they are ready to fight, but to fight within reason,” said Romanyuk. “To die stupidly with no justification – someone should take responsibility for that. A government who in three months is unable to buy helmets and bullet-proof vests has no moral right to be in power during wartime.”