The advent of portable cameras, coupled with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw an exponential increase in helmet-cam footage. Add to the equation WikiLeaks and YouTube, and one has vast access to combat footage. Yet it is very rare that one gets the chance to experience the same military operation from both sides of the battlefield. Now, however, a leaked video does just that.
The footage is from 2018 and depicts a Ukrainian patrol — their dog tags suggest that they were assigned to the Nationalist Volunteer Battalion “Donbass” — going on a reconnaissance and sabotage mission somewhere in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. According to SOFREP sources, the Donbass Battalion was and remains a unit of questionable quality (many of its members were drug addicts or criminals). The patrol enters the Russian trench system and begins to clear it with the intent of later booby-trapping it. They carry an assortment of weapons, including antitank rockets. This suggests that they were expecting to encounter Russian tanks or armored vehicles, or that they would use them against fortified bunkers. They discover anti-personnel mines attached to trees.
The way they patrol (for instance, they don’t designate terrain features as fallback points in case they come under attack), and the fact that they don’t know exactly where they are going, stresses their poor training. Moreover, when the firefight begins, there is almost no communication between the different elements and no attempt to call out targets and coordinate their fire. Then, the Ukrainian soldier recording the reconnaissance operation gets wounded. He appears to step on either an improvised explosive device (IED) or to be on the wrong end of a grenade. The volume of fire increases, and so do the Ukrainian casualties. In the absence of radio or telephone communications with their unit, the Ukrainian survivors attempted to request fire-support by jotting down a message on a piece of paper and tying it to an AK magazine. It reveals their distress, “Pull us out. Two 300 [their slang for wounded]. There are three of us. Use mortars.”
The video perspective, then, shifts from the Ukrainian to the Russian side.
The bloody outcome of the botched patrol is scattered all across the battlefield. What happens next, however, will undoubtedly surprise you. The Russian commander, he identifies himself as Lieutenant Colonel Marochka, takes the cell phone from one of the dead Ukrainian soldiers and calls the man’s mother. This is obviously a psychological operation from the Russian military. The action, which is recorded, showcases the chivalrous and humane character of the Russian soldiers (the video also shows the Russians treating the enemy wounded).
In a manner of showing rather than telling, the video shifts the blame for wiping out the patrol for the Russians and their Donetsk separatist comrades to the Ukrainian government and military. It was them that sent underequipped (they didn’t even have a wire-cutter on a sabotage mission) and undertrained troops to conduct complex operations.
For example, the fact that the Ukrainians are doing a recce and sabotage mission during daylight hours suggests either a lack of training and proper leadership or a lack of night-vision capabilities. Whichever it is, it isn’t the best publicity for the Ukrainians.
There’s, of course, the possibility that the whole video is a Russian fabrication for propaganda purposes. According to SOFREP sources, most of the reconnaissance work in the Donbass front happens through observation posts (OPs) or drones. Moreover, the patrol is smaller than the standard — Ukrainian standard operating procedures (SOPs) dictate at least 16 men (which is the minimum) for recce patrols. Therefore, it’s either a fabricated video or a further testament to that unit’s unprofessionalism.
On a side note, the conditions and scenery somewhat resemble the Eastern Front during the Second World War. In particular, its northern section in Finland. Firsthand accounts from Finnish and German soldiers recount how they would conduct long-range reconnaissance patrols behind the Soviet lines. Their aim, aside from gathering intelligence about their foes by observing their movements or snatching prisoners, would be to booby trap various terrain features or likely avenues of approach. In that section of the front, the war resembled more the immobile trench warfare of the First World War rather than the blitzkrieg operations in the central and southern sections.