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Dispatches From the Ukrainian Front

The reality of war in Ukraine: An interview with a Ukrainian cyborg

Dispatches From the Ukrainian Front

My buddy Serge is a Ukrainian Cyborg. Here he is seen fighting in the ruins of the Donetsk International Airport in 2014, the insert photo is the Ukrainian Cyborg patch.

By the time you read these words, there is literally no telling where the world will be. The options range from peace in Ukraine with the Russians in full retreat to global nuclear Armageddon with anything in between. It’s honestly pretty surreal.

It is a Sunday afternoon here in Mississippi, and I sit comfortably ensconced in my favorite writing chair. It’s chilly outside, but my home is warm. My wife is reading a book alongside me while she nurses a cup of hot tea. I just finished a 90-minute Zoom call with a new buddy named Serge. 

Serge is currently in Lviv, Ukraine, but he likely won’t be for long. Serge is a military interpreter. Last night, the Russians hit the IPSC (International Peacekeeping and Security Center) military base he calls home with air and missile strikes. Thirty-five Ukrainians died in the attack. Hundreds were wounded. Serge’s world is not warm or peaceful. Serge’s world is like something from a movie.

The Soldier

Serge is a really nice guy. I was a professional soldier myself years ago, so we kind of hit it off. There are mannerisms and vocabulary common to us all no matter which flag graced our shoulders. 


When I asked his age, Serge laughed and said twenty-nine. Then he explained that in Ukraine it was like dog years. Sometimes it’s not the years, it’s the mileage. Such was the case with Serge.


Serge enlisted in the Ukrainian Army at 18. He served his stint as an NCO with a Reconnaissance Company before leaving the military. When the Russian invasion occurred in 2014, he volunteered again, this time as an RPG operator. He said, as he knew he was going to war for real, he would rather have more experienced soldiers in leadership positions.

Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front
This is the cyborg from the movie "The Terminator." ("The Terminator" 1984, MovieStillsDB)

Serge was a Ukrainian Cyborg. That term stems from a reference made by a Russian journalist describing the Ukrainian defenders fighting in the Donetsk International Airport (DIAP) in late 2014. (If you never saw the sci-fi movie "The Terminator" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, then you are probably wondering what a cyborg is. A cyborg is a half-man, half-machine – an almost invincible robot.) Beleaguered Ukrainian defenders held off a concerted attack by Russians and Russian separatists who were hell-bent on seizing Donetsk and its associated airport. That was one epic fight.

The defensive situation distilled down to three buildings: the old terminal, the new terminal, and the control tower. Everything else was Indian country totally dominated by the well-equipped and amply supported Russian-backed separatist forces. Serge said when the fight first broke out, a traitor with a pass card unlocked all the doors in the terminals to allow the separatists wide access. The end result was a bit like the American Alamo, but way, way worse.

With the terminal area surrounded, the Ukrainians tried to rotate defenders every week. Serge was there for ten days. They moved in via BTR wheeled armored vehicles at 0400. He was assigned to the 2d Battalion of the 95th Airmobile Brigade. When he arrived, a Ukrainian tank was parked outside the terminal. He found out later the tank had been knocked out and that the bodies of the crew were still inside.





By the time he settled in, there were 50 Ukrainian troops in the old terminal, 55 in the new terminal, and 16 in the control tower—about a company all totaled. The Russians and their affiliated separatists held the entirety of the surrounding city. The subsequent fight was unbelievably brutal.

The Ukrainians held the first and second floors, while the separatists occupied the basement and third and fourth levels. The stairwells were heavily mined by the Ukrainians and covered by well-sited machineguns by the separatists. Their original intent was to starve out the enemy troops on the top floors. They found out later that the separatists had been quietly resupplying via a ladder in the derelict elevator shaft. The dark physics of all that was fascinating.

Russian sniper coverage was superlative. The Ukrainians had marked a line 25 meters inside the terminal. Anything beyond that line was accessible by enemy snipers. The hostile marksmen fired into the terminal every hour just to ensure their rifles were zeroed. There was no water, power, or heat. Food was in short supply. The latrine was near the 25-meter mark. Simply taking a dump meant taking your life into your own hands.

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The separatists trained dogs to navigate the stairwells to the basement in an effort at setting off booby traps. On his fifth day there, a dog blew up. That was clearly unsettling. If ever there has been such a thing, this was not a terribly civilized war.

The Ukrainians had some superlative artillery support and fine forward observers. As the separatist forces would attack, Ukrainian artillery would cut them down. Counterfire from mortars, 122mm and 152mm tube artillery, and 122mm Multiple Launch Rocket Systems was brutal. Serge said they could see the drones the Russians were using to coordinate the fall of their artillery, but they lacked the tools to reach them. However, with a couple of floors above him as a cushion he nonchalantly dismissed the effectiveness of the hostile party. Wow.

Enemy tanks were stationed 300 meters away. They tore the facilities to pieces with main gun rounds. Separatists in the upper floors rained down hand grenades.

Knowing the Ukrainians were cut off, the Russian media announced that the DIAP would fall in three days. They ultimately held out for eight months. Like I said, Cyborgs.

Current Events

It’s one thing to soak up media reports or YouTube videos. It’s quite another to have a friend who lives there. In Serge, we see the profoundly powerful reality of this horrible ghastly war.

Serge said that Ukrainian soldiers are fighting for the very survival of their nation and their people. As we got to know each other he explained that what he and his friends were fighting for was the opportunity to be free or not. Those three little words are unbelievably powerful. They are powerful enough to drive a small country to successfully stand up to a superpower.

Much hay has been made about the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Units. Originally the intent was to crew these organizations with combat veterans separated from the military. As the Russian juggernaut pushed into Ukraine on several axes these organizations were opened up to pretty much anybody who could wield a weapon. This brought its own unique challenges.

They’re trying to organize these units on the fly and under fire. Training levels are minimal in some cases. However, they have a secret weapon that is a great equalizer. The Territorial Defense Units are organized geographically. This means that their members are fighting in and for their own neighborhoods. While they may not be hardened combat operators, they are unbelievably motivated. As I type these words, the Russians are finding out to their peril that patriots fighting for their families and their homes are reliable combat multipliers.

Serge said that foreign military aid is indeed pouring into the country. He said the Javelin is an incredibly capable system, but that it is complicated to operate. To truly maximize its effectiveness requires focused training and time on a simulator, things that are in terribly short supply with the Russians pressing toward Kyiv. By contrast, the British NLAW is much easier to use and undeniably effective. However, it has a much shorter range. The farther away from the Russian tanks you’re trying to destroy the better.

 Serge said that in 2012 the Ukrainian and Russian armies both suffered from a great deal of neglect. The Russians subsequent aggressively modernized and were motivated, formidable opponents during the war in Donbass in 2014-2015. Nowadays, he says he sees evidence that the tables have turned. Russian equipment in many cases seems poorly maintained while that of the Ukrainians is kept at a combat edge. However, the Ukrainians yet remain lyrically outnumbered.

The War on Truth

Serge was raised in East Germany and Georgia before settling in Ukraine. His father is a retired officer in the Russian Army. Before the war in the Donbass, Serge maintained friendships with several of his counterparts in the Russian military. They kept up with each other as they were inexorably drawn to opposite sides of the war in Donetsk. Families there are split in ways we experienced during the American Civil War. In addition, to all the horrible things Vladimir Putin’s personal war has precipitated, this is perhaps the most pathetic. The young men doing the fighting and dying on both sides are just so much alike.

Putin declared that one of the reasons he was moving into Ukraine was to free it from the Nazis. Really? The Ukrainian President Zelensky is himself Jewish. His extended family perished in the Holocaust. Ukraine is also the only country, besides Israel, to have both a Jewish president and Jewish prime minister serving at the same time. 

As the Russians gradually wrest control of Ukrainian towns and cities their FSB secret police move in and round up dissenters. Serge said he had seen the Russians’ capacity for torture and oppression in the Donbass. It seems there are indeed Information Age Nazis at work in this war. It is simply that Putin commands them.

Denouement

I asked Serge to explain the big picture to me. This young man is wise beyond his years—combat will do that to a guy. He does not appear to be driven by hate. Like most of us who have tasted the addictive elixir of liberty, he just wants to be free.

Serge says time is not on their side. The Ukrainians are fighting for their national identity as a people, something we comfortable Americans honestly simply cannot imagine. They have a small cadre of combat-hardened and experienced professional soldiers. However, with each passing day these irreplaceable men fall. They lack the time, space, and resources to train up any more. Now they must make do with what they have. At the same time the Russians are learning, inculcating those precious combat lessons that can only be written in blood violently spilt. Time will tell if a patriot’s heart and modern weapons smuggled in from the West will be adequate to stem the tide.

The Ukrainians deserve our support. Like all sane folk I rightfully fear global thermonuclear war. However, I am beginning to realize that I might fear the death of liberty a little bit more. Getting to know somebody who is neck deep in the reality of that fight will do that for you. I want to see the Warthogs, Raptors, Lightnings, and Apaches unleashed on these invaders in the worst way. It’s likely a good thing I’m not making those decisions.

Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front
Today Serge is a military interpreter with extensive experience working with American and other international forces. He is the gentleman in the white t-shirt and sunglasses.

Allow me to put this fight in perspective for you using Serge’s own words. Serge and his father do not speak. They find themselves on opposing sides of a shooting war. When I gently asked him about that he said, “I don’t want to speak with him. We did not ask them to come here. I have a new family now.”

That should give you a little insight into the extraordinary power that is driving Ukrainian patriotism.


EDITOR’S NOTE: January 16th is set aside as a day for Ukrainians to remember those who fought so bravely defending the Donetsk Airport. There the Ukrainian government has issued a commemorative stamp and coin honoring the Cyborg fighters.


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