SECURITY 16 February, 2023 9:00 am   
COMMENTS: Joanna Słowińska

Ukrainian soldier for BA: We need weapons, we’ll do the rest ourselves (INTERVIEW)

Roman Zagorodnyi, soldier of a Ukrainian airborne assault brigade Roman Zagorodnyi, soldier of a Ukrainian airborne assault brigade

Even the shortest war is long for those who fight unjust aggression on their own land. Every day brings untold suffering to Ukrainians, and it is in the hands of the West to alleviate some of these difficulties by quickly delivering more weapons and ammunition. We will do the rest, because we know why we are fighting and what price we have to pay for victory – says Roman Zagorodnij, a soldier of the Ukrainian Airborne Assault Brigade, in an interview with Where were you when the war began? You weren’t a soldier when it started…

Roman Zagorodnyi: I didn’t think the war would break out. I was convinced that there could be some major clashes locally in the Donbas, but I did not assume that a full-scale invasion would begin. In January I visited my grandmother in Mariupol. At the time, the city seemed safe as usual, with decorated parks and bustling streets.

Before the war, I worked at the Ministry of Digital Transformation, where I helped with the development of regions, at the level of oblasts. On February 25, I had a scheduled high-level meeting in Bucha near Kyiv. Of course, it was cancelled because of the war. This situation has turned my life upside down. I knew what to do when the war broke out, I was on the mobilization list, I had my military assignment, I had all the documents with me.

I remember the chaos. Morning missile strikes, the sound of explosions of anti-aircraft missiles, sirens. On February 24, I went to work, to the ministry. Even then, I saw soldiers preparing defensive positions near the government headquarters. After work, I changed into my uniform and jumped on a train without a ticket to go to my military unit. So did many Ukrainians. What was out of the ordinary was the rush. In the subway, I remember seeing people on the platforms taking off their civilian clothes and putting on their military uniforms. This revealed how the society changed. The attitude of President Zelensky played a hugely positive role. The Russians expected that the president and the leadership of the state would leave Kyiv. That didn’t happen. This gave the population a huge boost and zeal to fight. The first three or four days were very difficult, they were crucial.

What unit did you end up in?

After returning from Poland, I completed a year of military training in an airborne assault brigade. This unit was also mobilized. I am still in the same brigade.

Actually, it’s an elite unit… 

In a full-scale, conventional war, there are no elites. Each type of the military has a task to perform. Everyone has to be the elite. The artillery is to support, tanks to attack, special operations forces to carry out tasks secretly. If everything works as it should, you will succeed. You can say someone is the elite, for example, if there is a stabilization or a peace mission, where there is no enemy armed with howitzers, tanks or aircraft. In such a war as Ukraine is now waging, there is a place for everyone, and everyone can be elite in their own way.

Where did you fight? 

In fact, I’ve been on every front line except for Zaporozhye. From the beginning I was in the south in Nikolaev and Kherson, then I went to the Lugansk region, then Donetsk, then Kharkov and again to Donetsk.

But let us return to the beginning of your participation in the war. What was your first assignment when you arrived at the unit?

I joined the unit on February 25. There I was preparing to go to the front. I arrived to the front at the end of March. I was sent with my unit to the southern front, to the Nikolaev area. I had my first contact with the Russians the next day. The Russians at that time planned to encircle Nikolaev, they were surprised by the rapid occupation of Kherson. I operated near Voznesens’k. The command wanted to stop the Russians from taking over the south Ukrainian nuclear power plant. My first battle was to storm a village occupied by a Russian airborne party. They landed there in a helicopter. According to intelligence, there were 15-20 of them. However, in reality there were many more. Today it sounds funny, but we drove to the fight in a civilian Honda CRV. People use this car to go to the sea on holiday, but I was shooting from it. We were ambushed there, we were shooting from inside the vehicle. The Russians shot at us, fortunately, no one from our group got killed. It was a tough fight. The first in my life. Many soldiers lost their lives there, the enemy, as it turned out later, was the Russian Spetsnaz, which was to occupy positions closest to the front before the arrival of the main occupation forces.

I remember the emotions that I felt. It was terrible. You get shot by a sniper, machine guns, and you wonder what you’re doing here. Then I thought that my life would end in some small, abandoned village in the Nikolaev region, I thought “cool, you survived one day.” It’s a little quieter when you’re shooting at an opponent because you think you have the initiative. But it’s delusional. I was shot in the helmet, the bullet got stuck in it. Luckily, the bullet went through the body of the car and lost momentum.

Was it your worst experience so far? 

There were many. When you shoot people, when they shoot you. For me, the most traumatic experience was the artillery fire. I had a lot of cases when I was sitting in a trench and the Russians were shelling our positions day and night. You can’t sleep, you wait for the next “arrivals”, you don’t know where they will fall. One closer, one further away. And another one straight into the trench. Once, my friend and I were walking across some open field, there was no place to hide, it was at night, which during shelling makes things even worse because the impact of the missile splash can be seen very clearly. Then they started shooting at us with Grads. Missiles were falling near us, we could hear the swish of flying shrapnel. You pray to survive. I wish we could learn from this once it’s all over. We should learn this lesson. For me, this is a moment of reflection, but for someone it can be a life lesson, before they themselves feel on their skin what war is, what Russia is.

What does this war look like from the perspective of a regular soldier? 

From a soldier’s point of view, there are several elements. First, it is a full-scale conflict more reminiscent of the Second World War than, for example, unconventional conflicts in Afghanistan or the former Yugoslavia or Yemen. Here there is a 2,500 km long front, combined arms operations of many formations, sieges, artillery, aviation, supersonic missiles, electronic warfare and others. The second issue is the length of the conflict. You need to prepare a defensive position, you need to dig in, you need to plan offensive actions. There is a lot of hard work that is invisible.

It is very important from a moral perspective that the war is taking place on our territory. It grieves one to see what remains of the liberated villages and towns. It’s hard to look at people who are suffering. On the one hand, it gives motivation, but on the other it makes one heartbroken. Another factor is the pace of learning. In civilian life, you have time, you have opportunities. You want to learn something, you learn in your own time, just as you want to. In the army, during a war, it’s different. You get equipment that you see for the first time and you have  a few hours to learn how to operate it. Whether it’s a rifle, or a thermal imager, or a scope. This is not a computer game where you press a button and everything works. War speeds up learning, a lot. War is also about innovation and creativity. That is, inventing new ways of acting, attacking, reconnaissance.

There is a lot of talk about the tactics of the Russian army and the fact that it is not successful. Do you agree with that?

Looking from the perspective of the beginning of the war, indeed, Russian tactics were hindered by their strategy, because it was too ambitious and based on erroneous assumptions. We assess this on the basis of the documentation and equipment obtained, the testimonies of prisoners of war and the post-operation review.

They wanted everything right away. So, they immediately wanted to occupy Kyiv in order to disrupt the Central Command and destroy the political will of resistance. However, they sent many troops to simultaneously occupy Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Donbass and the south. This did not allow them to gather enough strength to continue the attack on Kyiv, wave after wave. They assumed that it would be a walk in the park through a friendly population with elements of the invasion on Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the Soviets took control of critical airports to quickly deliver their troops to the capital’s doorstep.

To achieve this, they had to enter quickly, stretch supply lines, secure roads. They allowed themselves to move in columns, often without air cover. They even managed to enter Kyiv with a few small groups, but they were located and destroyed.

They disregarded us as defenders and therefore often ran into ambushes, came under artillery fire, did not take control of the Hostomel airport, lost some of their best units in a fierce battle.

If they had a different tactic, if it had been implemented correctly, we would probably not be talking today, I would just be hiding in the woods as a guerrilla soldier. However, if the Russians hadn’t changed their tactic later, we would probably be talking in Crimea today. Unfortunately, the Russians are learning and doing it effectively.

What helped us a lot was the advantage we had when it comes to intelligence. Today we talk about drone warfare, but in the beginning it wasn’t like that. Maybe there was one drone per battalion. They had their Orlans, we had our tactical sets. Over time, the reconnaissance by drones began to become more and more important. What worked for us from the beginning was the coordination of reconnaissance with the artillery. We detect the target, transmit the coordinates to the artillery, which destroys the target. War is about pace and rhythm. You need to adjust both of these things accordingly. If you combine them, then you are successful. This was especially evident, for example, during the counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region. We managed to gather forces, prepare plans, positions and equipment and attack in a place where the enemy did not expect.

You mentioned the offensive in the Kharkiv region. Were you surprised that it was so easy? 

As a soldier, I can say yes. As we were preparing for the operation in one of the cities near Kharkov, one woman asked us at the store “when will you liberate the rest of the region”? I had the impression sometimes that everyone already knew that something was going on in this region. I don’t know how the Russians didn’t see it. When I saw the plans of the offensive before the operation, I thought that it was impossible, that it would not succeed. The Russians had the main forces then in Kherson, but there was also a lot of tanks, equipment, artillery and other gear. However, their defence line collapsed completely, we made a classic breakthrough. Our rallies turned out to be the key. We attacked quickly, swiftly went to the rear of the Russians, they did not know if it was us or their own. It was total chaos. I remember that when we near Kupyansk, the Russian Air Force was activated. One of the Russian planes flew over us, tried to turn back, but at that moment two missiles were fired at it. The Russians themselves did not know where their forces were or where we were. They were afraid to shoot, they were afraid to attack. It was a complete failure from the command to the execution.

Mobility, speed and cooperation between units helped us. Coordinating actions is very important. Ukraine is trying to use IT systems that help plan operations. We have reconnaissance data, we have drones, we have artillery, special forces, armored forces. Each of these elements, thanks to good management in real time, can maximize the efficiency of operations. The Russians have it at a relatively low level. Their forces are very dispersed, they do not cooperate with each other. This is still our advantage.

To say that Russians don’t learn is a mistake. They’re learning. They often copy our solutions and introduce them as their own.

As for tactics: now they no longer move, for example, in columns, as they did in the beginning. They can use unmanned systems along with artillery. An example here is the use of the laser-guided Krasnopol artillery shells together with the Orlans (Russian drones – ed.). The Lancet drones are also effective weapons that cause us problems. The use of the T-62 is also not stupid. They are easy to use, they have enough ammunition for them. The Russians now use tanks mainly in the role of artillery. Therefore, the T-62 is suitable for this function.

As for strategy: they now set specific, measurable, achievable operational and tactical goals. This helps them to better accumulate and focus their resources on achieving these goals. An example is Bachmut and Soledar.

Regarding equipment and tactics, what have been your biggest challenges so far?

There are two issues here – technical and personal. I’ll start with the technical aspect. A big problem is the Russian electronic warfare (WRE) and signal recognition systems. Russian systems are very good and here they also adapt them well to tactical conditions. Here I would list two systems-Borisoglebsk-2 and Swet-KU. Both are designed to detect, for example, wireless internet connections or mobile phone signals. If they find something, that’s where they send their artillery. But this doesn’t mean we don’t stand a chance. The advantage in artillery is not always characterized by quantity. We will fire fewer missiles, but they will hit the target. Artillery is very important. It is the cause behind most of our losses, as well as theirs. However, the artillery is just a tool. What actually kills?

The personal aspect is key to understanding the answer. Most often, the killers are: lack of responsibility, lack of prudence. The problem is laziness, the problem is mostly the prevailing belief in the military about the need to contribute minimum intellectual effort. While in time of peace there are usually no consequences, except perhaps reprimands, in time of war your laziness will bring you death or disability. Or it will come for your subordinates, friends, or other soldiers. I’ve seen people die because of their stupidity. They went through a minefield, although they knew about it, they did not disguise the equipment, and wham they were hit by artillery, did not dig a trench, artillery hit, they died, there was a ban on the use of phones or the internet, the same result-death. This is the first problem. The second issue is leadership. Success in war, and not only, is a matter of good leadership. This is not just about making decisions, it is also about your own commitment. If I don’t have discipline as a commander, how can I expect discipline from the subordinates? The closer you get to the front, the less important your rank is, but what matters is what kind of person you are, what kind of character you have. It happens that a full-time commander, an officer, does not command at all, and instead a, let’s say, sergeant is the leader. Another issue with the command is sectoral thinking, very narrow. As a commander, you only care about our own, the ones next to you no longer count. Collective thinking is often missing. If we have enough pickup tucks, why don’t we give one back to the ones who don’t? At the military level, this often works rather poorly.

How do formations like yours handle such a conflict? Airborne assault brigades are unlikely to have a chance to show what they were created for, which is landing from airplanes or helicopters, although this is probably more likely…

Conflict is about evolution. Each conflict has a different specificity, different assumptions. My formation may have “airborne” in the name, but today for us the key is the second phrase – assault.

But don’t you storm like Wagner? 

No, thank God we don’t (laughter).

The military has its specializations. But what really matters is whether the unit is fit to do the job. On paper, you may have hundreds of battalions, but ultimately what matters is who is “bojo zdatna” (fit for fighting – ed.). If a unit intended for e.g. defense is unable to fulfill its task for various reasons, then its place is taken by someone else. You don’t care who comes from where, you are only interested if they know what to do. Then you can sit in the trench. We had a period where for weeks we were on the defensive near Donetsk. There are very few helicopters, because the saturation of air defense is high, and such an operation would be suicide. The role of airborne troops is changing. We act as a rapid response force. The counteroffensive in Kharkov showed that you do not need to do everything with heavy forces, sometimes you just need speed, surprise and good planning. We often act as firefighters. We enter where we need support in defense, or we push the enemy where we need to attack quickly.

We already know about the tactics, the problems and the Russians. What do you miss the most? There is often talk of a potential shortage of people. What does it look like from your perspective?

At the operational level, the HIMARS, MLRS, did a great job. Barrel artillery systems, including the Polish “Krab”, French “Cesar”, Slovak “Zuzany” work great. By the way, the Krab turned out to be a decent weapon. Thank you to our Polish friends. Except it’s just equipment. What is a tank without ammunition, without diesel, without spare parts? Nothing. Military equipment works like a system. It needs to be repaired, replenished with ammunition, lubricants, fuel. It’s not rocket science to figure out that the military likes unification. If we can replace it, we quickly repair the parts. Now we have a lot of different types of weapons, different calibers, different expectations for service. This is a challenge. The problem is the availability of ammunition. It runs out very quickly, 5-10 thousand shots a day. This is the most pressing problem today.

And the fuel? 

I have not had any problems with fuel myself.

What about people? It is said that the war of attrition mainly affects personal lives. Based on your own experience, do you see problems, for example, with completing a unit?

So far, I have not noticed any problems with the recruitment of people to units. We have a lot of volunteers, there is basically no need for a mobilization like in Russia, where we take people off the street. Someone dies, someone is injured, and soon someone comes in their place. The problem is the equipment, the weapons, the vehicles. We still have strategic reserves, there is no risk of being left without manpower. But what is the point of drafting people, if there are no tanks, guns, planes for them. It doesn’t make sense. For me, from a soldier’s perspective, another soldier with a machine gun is not a big threat. For me, the biggest threat is a well-trained crew of artillery, armored cars or tanks. And we try to operate according to this scheme – we have tanks, we train crews and we have tactical unions. In that order.

How is your unit?

My unit has been fighting since the beginning. We have been involved in almost every major operation. I don’t know about any other sub-division, but in mine, which at the beginning consisted of 15 people, today there are four people left.

What happened to the others?

They died or were injured.

And while this is a personal tragedy, any loss of life or health is a choice. Men and women in uniform are committed to the cause and take risks. They clearly see what the “Russian world” brings: misery, death and hopelessness. Any reasonable person would not want their family, society, or nation to ever experience this. With God’s help, we will win.

Interview by Mariusz Marszałkowski