«Imagine that the war will go on for ten years.» The perspective of a territorial defence warrior

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Has territorial defence become a full-fledged part of the Armed Forces, what problems are still unsolved, and what needs to be changed for the benefit of our defenders? Mykola Saveliev, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper «Ratusha» and a soldier of the 103rd Territorial Defense Brigade, talked about this in our «Topic of the Week» program.

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You have just returned from the war, and as I understand, you’re currently undergoing treatment. How did it happen that you ended up in territorial defence? I remember that you started your military education and training before the acute phase of the war.

Since 2018, we’ve been going to the training ground, learning to shoot with a Mosin-nagant, a pistol, a submachine gun, a machine gun. Learned tactics and medical affairs. All the time, somewhere inside, we hoped that it wouldn’t come in handy. But, unfortunately, it did.

When it all started, I saw everyone in the military commissariat, everyone who went to training with me. Everyone came on February 24. Already on February 25, we were near Lviv, and the training began. Accordingly, the training was not for an infantry unit, but for territorial defense units. No one knew what a territorial defense unit was and to this day I don’t not know what its task is.

What was done with the territorial defense unit, in my opinion, is a deception. Many people joined it with serious illnesses. And they were given stupid accusations: «Oh, you wanted to get a lot of money, to guard air defense points somewhere near Lviv.»

Did you guard those air defense points? Did you lie in concrete bunkers? Did you take those positions? We were not allowed to train at any training ground. Already in the combat zone at the training ground, I learned more in a day and a half than here [near Lviv.] in a little more than a month and a half.

Because the specific tasks that were set before the territorial defense were work at roadblocks, inspection of cars, cleaning of premises, struggle with enemy’s reconnaissance and saboteur groups. And when you were thrown into an infantry unit and immediately got to the front line, you suddenly felt lost, like many other people. There is nothing surprising here. No one refused to complete the task, but it was a deception.

If we build the defense of Ukraine on deception, it will not end well.

Have you been on the front line since the end of April?

Yes, on the 25th or 26th, I can’t remember exactly. Literally, two days were included in the state of affairs. Well, we went to hell. The fact that we remained alive is the merit of the platoon commanders, who at that time performed the duties of the company commander (I will not name the callsigns), and of the enemy’s incompetence.

If we had taken it a little further, there would be no one [of us] left, it would simply be torn to pieces. Some people had already died then. These are all Lviv residents, residents of the Lviv region. Some of them are still resting, I will not say where, but they were not brought to Lviv. They are reported as missing, although I believe they all died.

We already have July. Do you think that territorial defense has already become a full-fledged part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine?

No, we did not become a full-fledged part of the Armed Forces. What functions are assigned to territorial defense? Defense of the territory. So? So what? When other brigades work, they have the support of artillery, «mortars», cooperate with aviation. And what does territorial defense have? There are some rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), a couple of «tubes» [grenade launchers of foreign production], machine guns. And if tanks go, if serious equipment goes, how do you resist it? – No way.

Obviously, everything here depends on communication between different units. I’m not much of a military expert, but logic tells me that it should be.

Much depends on the command of the brigade. When the command of the brigade knew that the unit was not ready, it shouldn’t have been at all... Maybe, there was an instruction from Kyiv – I do not know, I won’t argue. But in reality, people were not ready. Bringing unprepared people into a combat zone is a mistake. Because when we are thrown into battle, and half an hour before they start giving out all kinds of NLAWs, Matadors, they say to get familiar with it – this is a deception. You’re kind of condemned to death.

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It was necessary to honestly say: «We are preparing infantry from you», then people would be taught how to dig in, combat tactics, we would be taken to infantry training grounds. And when you were being trained to work at checkpoints and immediately thrown to the front line... «Green» territorial defense to the combat zone, when Zelenskyi did not sign the decree on changes to the Law of Ukraine «On the Basics of National Resistance».

Well, there was a difference of eight days, I think.

Yes, and during those eight days, there were dead, a lot of them. And I am interested in how payments will now be made to the families of the victims. They were brought there illegally, in my opinion as an ignoramus in legal affairs. If at that time, the amendments to the Law «On the Basics of National Resistance» were not signed, then on what grounds was territorial defense established there? Are there any more questions?

There are questions, I just don’t feel able to answer them. At that time, there was a lot of information about this. And they say, at least here, there is a feeling that all this information helped, in particular, to divert brigades from the front line to others. I don’t know if it was like that?

I think this is not true, because I saw both the paratroopers and the Transcarpathian brigade, there were both the 80th Lviv brigade and the 128th Transcarpathian one – at the site of the battles. Those were former battles, we can already talk about them.

And here, out of the blue, we come. We are leaving, and an 80-year-old man walks towards us and says: «Men, where are you going?» We are on «Lanos» and «Niva» cars, we go on to the attack with machine guns. And then, when aviation destroyed the pontoon crossing, there were 72 of us. There were 73 units of military equipment: tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles.

Just imagine: we went there with assault rifles, two machine guns, and RPGs, just to be rolled up on tracks. And if it weren’t for the commanders of different levels, I think we would still be rolled up.

Have these problems already been solved? Because it was said that both the means of communication and the transport also didn’t fully correspond to the tasks that had to be performed…

There are many topics worth discussing. For example, the issue of transport. If, roughly speaking, you started 40 or 50 cars, and only 15 of them are refueled, well, they are registered, then why do you need the remaining 30-35 cars? Logically?

If you were in a combat zone for three or four months, would it be appropriate to do a rotation? Well, it would be right to make a rotation so that the guys could rest.

And we are talking here not only about territorial defense, but also all other units: paratroopers, gunners, tankers, because people must rest.

We treat with contempt the aggressor and the scum that are on our land. Three months – and they go on rotation, because when a person gets tired, he can no longer be an effective fighter, he is already working to exhaustion. He can already miss such things when sitting with the observation device: it seems that everything is as usual, but the terrain has already changed. Some reconnaissance and saboteur group might be coming from the side, and he might not see it.

You are an ineffective fighter if you are not rested. «So we heroically didn’t sleep for a week» – well, what’s the good in that? There are circumstances that for some time you have to rely on yourself, on your cleanliness, sleep, food in order to survive. But not all the time. I have a question to the military personnel: where will you wash your uniform? Pour water and rinse with soap, hang – and it has dried. It’s like that if there is an opportunity, but if there is no opportunity – would you rather walk smelly?

And there should be some sort of mobile laundry if there is a large subdivision. I understand that not at the «zeroes» [the front ositions], but where they depart after rotation. Is it there? I don’t think so. The food should impress with its variety, not canned goods, moldy bread and sausage.

I went through all the stages of medical evacuation. Very often, doctors do not have time to deal with you thoroughly. They gave you a painkiller, you drink it, and then you either need to be evacuated to some hospital, where you will be taken care of, or they must do something with you at the spot. However, they simply cannot do something on the spot due to the limitations of their resources. The management does not always give the go-ahead for evacuation either, because there are so few people anyway.

If there are 30-35% losses in units, then they should be taken for replenishment, right? But they are not taken away. I have a question: why, what kind of exhaustion is this?

Why did mobilization processes fail? Because they failed. That is, the delivery of summonses in churches. Well, I’m sorry, that’s way out of line. Many of the guys who were with us on February 24 at the Military Commissariat had experience of the ATO [Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation on the East since 2014], but they were sent home. Many are sitting at home to this day, no one has called them back. How can this be?

I can talk about my territorial defense battalion. Suddenly, an order came to gather all those with combat experience and send them to the Kharkiv region. Yes, they were sent. They fought, there were victims and wounded, but there were people with combat experience. The experience of the anti-terrorist operation cannot always be applied in the combat zone. But very often, there are certain things that do not change, whether during the anti-terrorist operation or during the war. And those people were not there, they were simply singled out from all units, from all platoons and companies, they were made into a good separate combat unit and sent to the Kharkiv region. And when we entered the war zone, there was no one to consult with on how to act in certain situations.

Fortunately, there were some other officers with combat experience who tipped me off. And thanks to them, many remained alive. But not all.

Do the regional and city authorities help you with provision? How often do they come?

You know, I don’t like «green» government. Well, that’s what happened to me in my life. But when we were standing here [in Lviv region], Kozytskyi helped completely. Starlink, barbed wire, iron, some materials – whatever was available, they helped. How can he help in the war zone now? I don’t even know what the formal design should look like. Maybe he can do something, but you definitely need to contact him with letters. Whether they appeal is no longer a question for me, but for the command.

We asked Kozytskyi, and he also answered that the Armed Forces have the authority, they are doing everything they can. I think people would be interested to hear your answer as well. What is the greatest need now?

I think, on vacation, because I see how, even in ordinary situations, people begin to go crazy. And those psychologists who are at the units are a formality. Everyone worries about their family. We are constantly under fire, and you get used to it. We are sitting, drinking tea, shrapnel flew from the side, no one can move, and we continue to drink tea: «Not here, but 200 meters away. It’s normal. All are alive, and thank God.»

But when the news arrives that Lviv has been shelled with rockets, everyone starts taking out their cell phones and call. Well, it’s great when there’s the Internet, the connection – and what if not? The tower was «put down», and you sit and do not know if yours are alive.

Someone has problems with family, others with children. We have people who have four or five children. I don’t know why they were brought here. A man served in the neighboring battalion who has eight children, another one has nine.

I wouldn’t take it. But here again, we are talking about deception. One thing, when everyone thought, «Well, I have two heart attacks, but I will be able to guard something. And during the time that I will guard, the National Guard will go to war.» When the volunteer fighters went, no one even mentioned about salary. No one knew how much they would pay.

So, in my opinion, although I am not a regular military man, it is necessary to put people on rotation, conduct the military medical commission very carefully. Because once, a boy was taken from us after he began to have epilepsy. But he also had epilepsy here, in the rear. How did he pass the military medical commission?

I will tell you how we passed it. They collected our military tickets, we went to the hospital, came out a minute later, they gave us military tickets and said: «That’s it, you passed the commission.» This is deception, such things must be judged.

This is my opinion, I do not impose it on anyone, but it’s a deception. And this happened not only with us. I am not talking only about territorial defense. It was the same in the rest of the units I spoke with.

In fact, it was possible to conduct mobilization processes as early as October-November 2021. Recruit and release for two months, and we would already have 100, 150, 200 thousand who at least knew where to insert the magazine in the riffle, how to aim at target, hide and dig in. This was not done, and in the end, the boys atone with their blood for someone else’s inability to manage processes. Someone else’s belief in a miracle.

What, in your opinion, should be changed in the formation and preparation of the territorial defence? There are specific proposals, in particular Yurii Butusov’s one, which could be prescribed in a separate law.

I agree with part of what Yurii Butusov wrote, I read it carefully. I have an interesting example. At Thermopylae, there were 300 Spartans who held back the Persians, which everyone knows about. But no one knows that they had a «support group» that built a wall, threw stones, spears, and treated the wounded. There were 40 thousand of them. No one remembers those 40 thousand. I learned this from a tour guide when I was in Greece.

So I guess territorial defence is the 40 thousand that no one ever mentions. Including about their participation in the operation, where Serebryanka and Bilohorivka were. We were accompanied by a man who was at the Donetsk airport. Then he said that even in the airport, he had never seen so much fireload. And there was territorial defense, not only our battalion, but the whole brigade.

Here you have to ask questions very carefully. Motivation regarding the use of territorial defence there. When we went on the offensive, there was little of us in the 80th brigade. My daughter calls me and says: «Dad, dad, I was told that some fools came here on Lanoses.» And I answer her: «Daughter, they are not fools, it’s dad coming.»

That’s how it looked. And this is wrong. The one who made the decision when the battalion was sent to watch the crossing of the Russians, and there was no communication, conducted a crime.

When we were told that the 128th brigade would support us, I asked where the 80th was. It turns out that there was no agreement about this with them. It is criminal, it must be dealt with, because if it is not dealt with, tomorrow it will lead to new victims.

And what does Butusov say? Decompose the territorial defence, attach separate combat groups from there to combat units where losses are high, and they will fight there. But there is one nuance few people talk about. Each commander of a combat unit will first of all protect his own soldiers, and all the «seconded» will be used in active fightings. Therefore, unlikely that it will be in favor of terdefense. Like, let’s use territorial defense, whoever dies will die, and whoever survives will learn to fight.

At that time, we had to be trained as infantry on training grounds. We had to be treated fairly. And they treated us dishonorably.

What is today’s social security for a territorial defence fighter, what is he entitled to and does his salary correspond to the risks to which he is exposed?

When everyone went to fight, no one knew what the salary would be. The fact that you receive over 60,000 hryvnias in your hands, on a card, with delays – yes, this is a lot of money for me. But I saw the torn ones. He went to the morgue. Those who were torn apart... I don’t know if the 60,000 will be nice to their relatives.

Social security: everything I have, except the machine gun and ammunition, I have found with my own efforts. Uniform, «armor», helmet – everything is mine. They gave only cartridges, a machine gun, and grenades.

Some of the guys were given very nice bulletproof vests, given by the Americans or the British, anti-shrapnel. The validity period is one year. But they hold shrapnel, not the bullets. They gave helmets, I wouldn’t say the best, but helmets are helmets.

Social security, as I have already said, is canned food, bread, sausage and water «Two Oceans» – not the best in taste. Our «Morshynska» is much better.

There should be full-time psychologists to see who has what, where and how. Maybe someone was «stuck» in positions. All people with weapons. And these Soviet officer «things» – shouting at soldiers – must be abandoned. Because everyone is angry, everyone has weapons.

Yes, there are a lot of smart officers, you can’t take that away, thanks to whom we may be alive. But there are many random people who are trying to climb the career ladder and earn a star on their epaulettes. It was always like that.

Any ideas, know-how are not welcome. Your initiatives are not needed. Do what you’re told. They told you right, wrong, you do it for several months and say: «What’s the point of this? Let’s move somewhere, let’s change something. It’s not easy to transfer from one position to another.»

People are dumb, few people read books, they mostly «stick» into mobile phones. And it is desirable not to do it at night, because Orlan [Russian military unmanned aircraft – Ed] flies. It will notice you with that mobile phone, throw something there – and that’s it, your mobile phone might stay, but you are unlikely to.

What would you advise those who are now preparing to go to the east?

Don’t go there as on a walk. It looks like it will be around for a long time. We are all like this: «Yeah, it will end by the first of September, it will end by the new year.» Imagine that it won’t. We thought the same about ATO, and it lasted for eight years.

Imagine for a second that this war will last eight years, ten years. This is quite real, because the enemy does not need super-accurate weapons. You can «sharpen» a million mines, several million projectiles and simply kill with hundreds, thousands of barrels.

They want to cause as much trouble as possible. Now, they are engaged in blackmail in Enerhodar, at the nuclear power plant, threatening to drop an atomic bomb. Maybe they will drop. The Americans don’t want them to do it, maybe that’s why they don’t destroy the Kerch Bridge. I understand that our Western partners do not allow us to destroy the Kerch Bridge, because the RF brings its reinforcements there [to the annexed Crimea], and then, these reinforcements are destroyed on the territory of the Kherson region.

I think ships can be sunk with those HIMARS, but for some reason they aren’t. Well, everything has its time, let’s see.

What is the attitude of the local population? It seems that it wasn’t like in 2014: «Putin, come!», but there are probably such people both from the locals and from those who were brought.

I’ll tell you a secret: there are only such people. Perhaps there are those who are for Ukraine, because they are helping us, saying: «Hush, we’ll meet there, I’ll tell you everything.» Most of the teachers and doctors left, the business also left. Those who helped the «DNR» in 2014, whose relatives serve there, who are ready to fire at us at any moment, they’ve remained. It’s easy.

I witnessed how one woman explained to another what the difference between Ukrainians and «ours», i.e. Russians, explosives was. And she is walking down the street of the village, which is under fire! They don’t care, that’s the problem.

Or they start telling how good it was under the USSR. I ask: «How can you tell how good it was under the USSR, if you are 30 years old?» – «Dad told me.» The dad has already died, but he still remained a supporter of the USSR. Or it’s the case when the son is fighting for Ukraine, and the father is a comlete «separ», an enemy who is waiting for Russia.

Take Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. At first, our people gave them humanitarian aid, and then, the Russians began to do so. They were satisfied then and now.

What a mismatch in numbers: ours officially declare that 37 thousand «orks» were killed, while the British declare that we killed 15 thousand «orks». I ask: where are the other 20 thousand? And I hear: «The British do not count residents of the LNR and DNR, because they are officially citizens of Ukraine.» RF also does not count residents of the «DNR» and «LNR», because they are not officially citizens of Russia. Here you have 22 thousand. On the one hand, they are «double-checked», and on the other hand, they are not registered anywhere.

There is a boy, I won’t say in which unit, whose father is in the «DNR» and who was mobilized. He tells me: «So I will have to fight against my father.» This is a huge human tragedy.

To what extent is the information field of Ukraine present there, that the residents there repeat Russian narratives like mantras?

Ukrainian channels are also watched in cafes, if there is a connection and electricity. It is not clear what is in their hearts. They can smile, say that everything is fine, but think completely differently.

Information policy among soldiers, I believe, has completely failed. Where do we learn everything from: random rumors or from Facebook, if there is Internet. And this is a great lever of influence. It was not a fool who once invented the position of political commisar, and they should work in units. They might be called differently, but to work, to monitor the psychological state of the unit, of each soldier in particular.

I was terribly pleased: people from the Russian republic of Tuva were standing against us, and their unit, of 80 men refused to attack. What worked was that constant shelling, that HIMARS appeared, that their tribesmen were captured, that they were given a phone, they called their friends and told about it.

Our intelligence already works correctly, works well. Such things must be done, because information and psychological operations are an important component of this war.

How do you feel the situation on the front lines has changed since the new weapons started arriving?

I saw only one weapon. I saw how M777 works, how HIMARS work. It’s just the joy of my heart. This is a modern weapon, and for me, it was a shock, when the «departure» is coming, you habitually start counting the seconds until the projectile arrives. And there is no «arrival» here. It flies 70-80 kilometers. Then, when you open the news and see that warehouses have burned down in the enemy’s rear, we have two days of silence on the front line, because their logistics have been disrupted.

Maybe, now with the help of HIMARS, we will have to perform tactical tasks, I don’t know. They are expensive – you won’t chase after every tank, you have to hit headquarters and warehouses.

But the fact that we stopped them now, the situation became parity. I call the guys on the front. They do not advance, the shelling continues. They can fire old weapons that «pile» squares. In addition, we left all our weapons in Crimea, and the Russians now have a lot of them.

Sergiy Smirnov spoke

Text: Roman Tyshchenko-Lamanskyi, Translated by Vitalii Holich

Full or partial republication of the text without the written consent of the editorial office is prohibited and is considered a copyright violation.

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