How Ukrainian forces took back a town controlled by pro-Russian separatists -- and scored a major victory for their country's morale.
In April, pro-Russian gunmen seized power in the industrial city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine. The separatists succeeded in driving out a local Ukrainian national guard unit and shot the local police chief.
I was there, late last week, to watch a Ukrainian military unit take the city back. The Azov Battalion is a volunteer unit of mainly Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the country's East, where separatist forces supported by Moscow have been trying to wrench territory away from the control of Kiev. Around 200 men from the battalion were joined by soldiers from the Ukrainian army, national guard, and other volunteer units, all adding up to a force of around 400 men coordinated by an army general who heads the government's "anti-terrorist operation" in the Donetsk region.
I joined the battalion two weeks ago, after I discovered that they were preparing to lead the operation to regain control over Mariupol. Until this past Friday, attempts by Kiev's forces to neutralize separatist occupations had failed because of a combination of government ineptness and the fact that many of the pro-Russian forces were better armed and trained than the Ukrainian military.
So that's how I ended up, late last week, in Mariupol Airport, located a few miles outside the city. The airport, which was to serve as our jumping-off point for the final attack, is closed to planes but still in the hands of the Ukrainian military. Our transports, bulky green military trucks of Soviet vintage, parked on the runway as night began to fall. We were issued Ukrainian army rations of appalling tinned meat or fish and tasteless biscuits and then settled down for a few hours of sleep on the cold, hard floors of the airport concourse.
"There's no more fear," Bajda told me. "All of us have thought about it but we're all calm now. We know what might happen. We accept it, and we're ready." Bajda, 23, comes from the eastern city of Kharkiv; he was born in 1991, the year Ukraine became independent from the USSR. He described his parents to me as "average products of the Soviet system," but he grew up feeling an intense sense of allegiance to his country. "There wasn't one great event that sparked it. It just came naturally to me. Now fate has given us a chance to become heroes for Ukraine."
During the EuroMaidan protests in Kiev against then-President Viktor Yanukovych Baijda joined solidarity demonstrations in Kharkiv, some of them numbering as much as 50,000. When Russia annexed Crimea and started stirring up separatist feeling in other parts of the East, he and his friends decided to form their own volunteer battalions. They bought weapons and uniforms with money from donors, and trained in fields, forests, and even building sites.
Since then, though, the men of the battalion had received at least a modicum of proper training from the state. I had watched older battalion members with previous military experience run the younger ones through their paces on a firing range. All the men of the unit learned basic battle tactics, concealment, close combat, and the use of night-vision goggles. Even so, I still had doubts that the battalion was ready for its first battle.
The battalion's officers woke us at 2:30 in the morning, and we assembled near the green military trucks that had brought us to the airport. There was no breakfast or even a hot drink. No one can accuse the Ukrainian military of indulging in needless luxury.
Overnight we were joined by other units, everyone in different uniforms. We wound lengths of sticky orange tape around our arms to identify ourselves as members of the Ukrainian forces. Standing there in the early-morning gloom, we listened to an address from Oleh Lyashko, a right-wing politician who vowed to join the unit in its fight. The Azov Battalion draws many of its volunteers from protesters close to nationalist parties and political organizations. Lyashko, who campaigned to respectable effect in last month's presidential election, is one of the battalion's strongest supporters.
Then we clambered abroad the transports and in the pre-dawn light rumbled off on the five-mile journey to the outskirts of Mariupol. The way was led by what battalion members referred to as their "secret weapon" -- a former garbage truck covered with makeshift armor in the form of hundreds of steel rods welded together on the outside. Thin slits were left open in the windshield for the driver and front passenger. The roof of the truck had been removed and a double-barreled 22-mm anti-aircrat gun was fixed to the floor. It looked like something out of one of the Mad Max films.
Our little convoy of trucks sped down a deserted four-lane highway. In the back of my truck I was in there was no room to sit; we stood on wooden floors, packed tightly together. Normally the men of the battalion joked a lot, but now no one spoke. The faces around me were lost in introspection. I guessed that the fighters were absorbed in thoughts about their families and their own mortality.
The unit boasted an odd assortment of men. Most of the volunteers were young Ukrainians like Bajda, who had battled the security forces of President Viktor Yanukovych during the EuroMaidan protests that ultimately brought down his regime. Because so many of the battalion's members were from eastern Ukraine, they wore balaclava masks to hide their faces; the worry was that harm could come to their families, many of whom live in separatist-controlled areas, if their identities become known. They used false names for the same reason.
A few of the older members had served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Some were Ukrainian nationalists who had volunteered to fight on the Georgian side in that country's brief war against Russia in 2008. Some had joined Chechen forces fighting the Russians in the 1990s; during my conversations with them I heard many bitter remarks about the Chechen mercenaries who had been sent across the border by Moscow to bolster the pro-Russian separatists.
There were even a few foreigners in the battalion: three Swedes, a lone Italian, and a dozen or two Russian citizens who claim to oppose the government of Vladimir Putin. None of these men receives pay.
As our convey neared the edge of Mariupol, we found that the separatist forces, alerted by the activity of the night before, had abandoned their barricades of concrete, tires, and barbed wire at the outskirts of the city.
Gazing nervously at the rooftops of buildings lining the road, we drove slowly into the center of the city. The vehicles halted at an intersection next to the city's main hotel. As soon as we jumped down from the back of our trucks, a rocket-propelled grenade blew up a few feet from one of our vehicles, shredding the hand of the men.
Another explosion quickly followed. Gunfire erupted on all sides and we scattered for cover. The group I was with sheltered by a wall opposite the hotel. About 100 yards around the corner from us was what turned out to be the separatists' main defense point, another barricade of barbed wire and concrete.
The firefight that followed lasted for three hours. Once again I experienced that peculiar feeling, common to anyone who's experienced battle, that each and every bullet was aimed at me personally. I stayed with one group throughout, but I know that our drama was repeated in other parts of the town where Ukrainian fighters engaged the separatists.
The battalion commander, a tall bearded man by the name of Andriy Biletsky, was with our group of around 30 men. He shouted orders: Where to take up firing positions. When to advance. Which weapons -- Kalashnikov assault rifles, belt-fed machine guns, grenade launchers -- to fire where and when. Through radio he was updated about the wider picture, coordinating the moves of the battalion's units.
Three times the Mad Max vehicle slid out from side streets, opening a withering fire on the separatist barricades. Members of the battalion darted up the street, firing at the enemy. Other members of the group I was with worked their way toward the separatist positions through the back gardens of buildings. One of them, Serhiy, a former policeman from Crimea who refused to accept Russian authority after Moscow annexed the peninsula, was winged by a bullet that made blood gush from his left temple. After the wound was bandaged, Serhiy rested for 20 minutes, then climbed over the wall again to rejoin the fight.
Slowly our group worked its way up the street towards the barricade. Two of the Azov's men sent four rocket-propelled grenades into a bank building that was also defended by the separatists. Other groups of Ukrainian fighters closed in on the barricade from other sides.
Slowly the sound of gunfire became intermittent and then died down. Everyone carefully worked their way up towards the main barricade. There were some bodies on the streets and the Ukrainian forces reported at least seven separatist fighters had been killed and a dozen captured whilst the rest had fled.
During the fighting the streets had been deserted by civilians but as the Ukrainian forces fanned out people came out to greet them and offering bottles of water. Occasional bursts of gunfire echoed and groups of soldiers investigated.
Lyashko, in black uniform and armed with two pistols, led some of the searches. In one basement they found five separatist gunmen who refused to come out until the Ukrainians threatened to throw a grenade inside. The prisoners were handed over to the police after Lyashko, a member of parliament, told them they would face 15 years in prison if found guilty of terrorism.
"Ukraine needed this victory," Lyashko said. It will have a profound effect on morale. It shows that we can beat the separatists even if Russia is supplying them." Even more importantly, he said, the operation demonstrated that local people had no sympathies with the separatists. "They've seen how this bandit Donetsk People's Republic works - that they are marauders and thieves. People here are welcoming us. Now we need to work with the local population to ensure the separatists don't return."
The joy of victory was tempered in the early hours of the following day when battalion members learned that separatists had downed a Ukrainian military transport landing at an airport in eastern Ukraine, killing all 49 servicemen aboard.
A Ukrainian military source said two Russian-made Igla missiles fired from portable launchers hit the plane. The Ukrainian government accuses the Kremlin of supplying separatists with those missiles as well as large quantities of other equipment -- including three tanks, which NATO satellite surveillance confirmed came from a Russian base in Rostov-on-Don. (One of the Ukrainian volunteers I interviewed, a veteran of the Russian air force, harshly criticized the government's decision to allow a heavily loaded plane to fly over territory controlled by rebels known to have anti-aircraft weapons. "The transports should be used for getting men and equipment closer to the front but not to a conflict zone itself," he told me. "That's madness or treachery."
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko praised the retaking of Mariupol. He temporarily made the city the adminsitrative center of its region as long as Donetsk, the capital, remains in the hands of the separatist leadership.
The deaths of the 49 servicemen aboard the plane made a grisly contrast to the light casualties -- a mere four wounded -- suffered by the forces that recaptured Mariupol. By last Sunday it was clear that despite losing much blood, the most seriously injured battalion member would live.
Nonetheless, the battalion was gripped by the grief that has enveloped the whole country following the downing of the plane. The incident has hardened attitudes against Russia throughout the country. Bohdan, a 23-year-old battalion member from the city of Luhansk, occupied by the same group of pro-Russian fighters who likely downed the plane, said: "I hope that this is the start of the liberation of all the towns taken by the separatists. I want my battalion to be the one to take back my Luhansk from the terrorists."
DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images