March, 2016. I am back in Kiev, Ukraine. I have been here more than a few times, and in a way, I feel like this has become my second home. It’s been over a year since I first arrived in Ukraine. Back then there was this feeling in the air; you knew this country was at war. I remember the first time I saw Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). Back then it was littered in candles and posters of the war heroes who had died in the fighting. Different flags were flown, from the Ukrainian flag to armed battalion flags. Some men could be heard shouting into loudspeakers, trying rally support for their groups. People would line the streets looking at the posters and lighting candles. There was a feeling of sadness in the air—and anger.
Fast forward one year, and you would not think this country was still at war. Kiev now looks more like a nice Western European capital. Independence Square is now littered with young hipsters and dudes playing the guitar, dance groups busting moves all over the place, and in general, just a lot of young people looking very happy. It’s a very different feeling compared to when I first arrived here. It’s like these people don’t even know what’s going on in the southeast. Or it could be that they don’t care anymore. There is reason why they call it a forgotten war.
But for me, it’s business as usual. Like always, when I arrive here, my first stop is the hotel. After a few days’ rest (trust me, I needed it considering what was ahead), I begin my 20-hour train journey to the southeast. Next stop: Mariupol. After 20 hours on the train, I am knackered from sitting on my ass. It has to be the worst train journey in history. I meet my team outside. They are their waiting on me with big smiles, all of them sporting 9mms, all of them cloaked in MultiCam. It’s a tradition for us to pick a guy up from the train station and take him to get some good pizza and Pepsi—after all, the poor guy just spent 20 hours on a shitty train. Like always, we catch up a little on how life is, how the kids are doing, what’s happening with the team now, what we’re doing now, etc.
After finishing up with the food, it takes about an hour to hit the base where the rest of the team is waiting. Then we go through it all again. After that, it’s time to sort out your bed space and gear, getting ready for the morning. The day starts off with some PT: anything from runs to CrossFit to lifting iron in the gym. The choice is yours, but you must do some sort of PT. After that we head to the food hall to get some shit food (and I mean shit—this stuff will make you ill at some point. It’s rough.), then we do some tactical training in the afternoon. This ranges from CQB to recce stuff and contact drills. And before you know it, it’s nighttime and you’re free to do what you want. Most chill out and listen to music or look at YouTube. Some of the guys watch tactical shit, some guys watch nature shit, and the other guys just play around with their guns, talking shit. I love being a part of this team. I have been coming and going for over a year now, and I always enjoy seeing just how much the team has changed over the year.
I mean, one year ago, we were crazy, there is no doubt about it. We call those days the “Mad Max” days. Back then, it was a free-for-all. Whatever gear we could grab, we did. Whatever gun we could find or borrow, we did. Whatever car we could start, we drove to the front lines. It was madness. But now things have changed. We have our own cars and guns—all the Gucci shit to pimp them up, too. We all sport different camo, but most will wear MultiCam. We have our own armor and the latest gear, too. Almost all guys have something from Warrior Assault Systems! We have NGVs, thermals, optics, GPS, everything a unit needs to do some dirty work.
We have always worked inside the Ukrainian military spectrum. We have worked predominately with a unit call RDG, which stands for Recon and Diversion Group. Now, in the East, diversion really means sabotage, so our missions were always along the lines of recon work and blowing stuff up. Cool job, right? But in more recent times, we’ve found ourselves doing the recon work, then assaulting the position. Why? Because no one was making any use of the information we were giving. Why risk a recon operation when no one is going to do anything with that information? So on a few occasions, the team has done some direct-action stuff.
We have had over a year to jell as a team and train, and most of the tactics we use come from the French Foreign Legion (FFL). Last year we had the pleasure of being trained by some guys from the French special forces. They came over and spent a few months with us, training us mainly in CQB operations. We trained CQB three or four times per day. It was hard going. They also spent time training us physically so we could carry out the operations we were being taught. There were also, you guessed it, PowerPoints on tactics and vehicle recognition. Some night we went out and trained in recon operations patrol and OP tactics. The military knowledge held by the team is at a good level now, and this has been obtained over 18 months by not only training, but also by putting our skills into play. Each member of the team has seen his fair share of the front lines in Ukraine. Some of the team have been awarded medals for their services, and some received medals for getting wounded while fighting here.
But like all good things, this has come to an end for us out here. The unit we work with is attempting to become more legitimate, more legal, and that includes getting rid of all mercenaries or volunteer fighters. The unit itself has made major improvements from when it began. Now it runs like a normal Western military unit. They have uniforms, a rank system, dress code, booking in and out of weapons, they have tanks, APCs, BTRs, training on a daily basis, medical tests, etc. All the things you would see in a normal unit. Long gone are the days of relying on whatever you could find. Now, in my most recent time out there, the group we work with—RDG—has made some steps of its own to improve the unit’s capabilities.
But I am very skeptical about their new training methods. They have hired some old-school Russian Spetsnaz recon guys. Word in the unit was they were in Chechnya. Some real badasses right here. So why am I so skeptical? Well I took part in the one-week assessment they did on the group. Day one was a briefing about the assessment. Day two, the fitness test. Day three, nav-ex on the night recon test (sitting in an OP). Day four, shooting tests. Day five, medical training and tests. Day six, debrief. All the right things were included here, but here is the big mistake: It was old Soviet tactics. Map reading was done with rulers and protractors. Worse, they use a different scale than the rest of the world. They used 16 guys per recon team. Their shooting drills were all done at 100m—nothing past that. It all just felt very dumb and very basic.
After the assessment, we were told that the group RDG would have to do a training course run by these guys for six months. No chance in Hell were we going to do that. Not because it was hard, but because the content of the course was like a basic training course. Two weeks of that course was spent talking about the AK-74s: This is a trigger guard, this is a barrel, the maximum effective range you can shoot with an AK-74 is 400m (by the way, I have never seen anyone shoot a target with iron sights at 400m using an AK-74), etc. Then came the contact drills. Peel left, peel right, peel back, fire and move. Then navigating the Soviet way, which takes two hours to get an eight-figure grid reference. Why don’t they want to use a compass? I don’t know! And on top of all this, they wanted us to live in a tent for the six months on a range!
Like Hell am I going to do a basic training course. After the team made the choice to leave, we were also told that we could no longer go to the front lines because a couple of guys from the group were killed one week after we were there. The commander said that it would be a massive propaganda win if the rebels were to find dead Western European guys on the frontline, and we would also have a lot of explaining to do. It was a push to move us out in a nice way, and I don’t blame them at all. This was always going to happen, and the training course, I think, will benefit some of the guys. But my big worry is that the rest of the Ukrainian Army is being taught to Western standards by the British and American armies, so when they work together, I get the feeling that the rest of the Ukrainian Army will look at this group and just say, “What the Hell are you doing?”
All in all, I wish the group well, and hope they enjoy their time on the range. But for us, it’s our time to leave. The big question is, what’s next for guys like us? Where do we go from here? I guess time will tell.