Ukrainian Veterans Gird for Another War – and Family Is No Excuse

After the fighting started in eastern Ukraine in 2014, a group of veterans launched a drone-making company. Now they pledge to share their experience to stop the Russians and their separatist allies

Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Maxim Subbotin, center, his colleague Yevhen to his left, and another colleague from the company UA Dynamics in Kyiv on Thursday.
Maxim Subbotin, center, his colleague Yevhen to his left, and another colleague from the company UA Dynamics in Kyiv on Thursday.
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

KYIV – As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was visiting the front on Thursday, one of the tensest days since Russia massed forces on his country’s borders, men wearing khaki jackets were testing drones they had made themselves, just a few kilometers from Kyiv. Most of them are veterans of the fighting in Donbas, the eastern region now controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

After their discharge, they joined up with engineers and aviation experts to produce small drones and other military technology not only for Ukraine’s military but also for export.

“These drones can fly 45 kilometers [28 miles] and back,” says Maxim Subbotin, a marketing expert and an unofficial spokesman for UA Dynamics, which was formally registered as a company last month. “They can hit a target with 4-meter accuracy,” he boasts, but declines to say whether the drones have already been deployed.

“Three-quarters of the company’s employees are veterans with experience in special operations deep in enemy territory,” Subbotin adds. That’s why, he says, the company also offers tactical and strategic consulting to countries “that sense a potential threat from Russia. The world hasn’t witnessed a military conflict like ours for 70 years – that’s why we have such unique experience.”

According to Subbotin, one of the most valuable lessons Ukraine has learned from eight years of hybrid war with the Russian-backed separatists is that the Russians can’t be trusted.

A Ukrainian veteran testing a drone near Kyiv on Thursday. Credit: Liza Rozovsky

“Maybe in France or Germany, Russian psychological warfare is more effective because they still believe them there. Here in Ukraine nobody believes them. Here everybody knows that Russia is our enemy,” he says.

“In Ukraine, Russia never successfully completed any mission of its hybrid information war because the Ukrainians have a long memory when it comes to who our enemies are. And now we can clearly say Russia and ordinary Russians are that.”

Asked whether this may be too harsh a judgment of ordinary Russians, Subbotin says: “They know their country started a war; they support it. And if they support a crime, they’re accomplices.”

A company employee who would only give his first name, Yevhen, says he fought in Donbas from 2014 to 2017. In recent years it has been more calm, but on Thursday separatist forces shelled a kindergarten in the village of Stanytsia Luhanska, which borders the city of Luhansk and is under Ukrainian control.

In 2017, Yevhen, who split his time between Kyiv and the front, felt his service was no longer needed. Now, he says, if the full-blown war resumes, he’ll definitely return to fight.

A Ukrainian veteran coaching a civilian earlier this month in preparation for a possible Russian invasion. Credit: Gleb Garanich / Reuters

“Loads of people will go back to the front lines,” he says. “The Russians can’t imagine the numbers of people they’ll be met with.”

Yevhen, 35, has a wife and a daughter who's almost 3. He doesn’t miss the fighting, “but having a family won’t be an excuse not to go again,” he says. “On the contrary, now there’s a greater sense of responsibility – I have to be there and share my experience and knowledge to stop the occupying forces.”

The fighting was difficult, and anyone who says he or she wasn’t afraid is lying, he argues, but when he hears the term PTSD he laughs. “PTSD? No such thing. It’s made up.”

“These years we’ve learned what modern warfare is,” Yevhen says. “If we had to be in a similar war abroad, like in Afghanistan or Iraq, it would be a piece of cake. Those guys don’t have artillery, they don’t have tanks or electronic warfare systems.”

For Pavlo Skshetuskyi, who fought four years in Donbas, volunteering for a war was a continuation of his role in the Euromaidan protests of 2013 and 2014, which more than once morphed into violent clashes with the police.

Ukrainians attending a rally in central Kyiv a week ago.Credit: Efrem Lukatsky /AP

“Even after all the battles in Slovyansk and Debaltseve,” two of the harshest campaigns in 2014 and 2015, “and even after I had to bury friends who were with me at Maidan, it still felt like it wasn’t really happening,” he says.

“It felt like they were shooting a movie, an awesome blockbuster, only we weren’t told they were shooting it. We fired, we were fired at, we killed, we were killed. But still there was this feeling that it couldn’t happen in Ukraine; nobody could remember such a thing.”

When we talk about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the social and family ties between the two countries are mentioned a lot. The war has put Skshetuskyi and some of his childhood friends on both sides of the front.

“I was born in western Ukraine but studied medicine in Donetsk. I had a lot of friends there. Now you can say they’re former friends,” he says, adding that at Slovyansk these friends were in the city fighting against him.

“Once in a while we even talked on the phone while it was going on. I still call one of them now. Every year on October 14 I congratulate him on Ukraine’s military day,” Skshetuskyi says.

“Of course he curses at me, but that’s how I check if the bastard is still alive. He’s still in Donetsk, he says he has no choice – Russia doesn’t want him and in Ukraine he’d go to jail.”

Pavlo Skshetuskyi at the front in the Donbas region.

Skshetuskyi is also willing to return to the front the minute he’s asked, but for now, he’s calm.

“There won’t be anything,” he says. “Russia is like those people who stand in front of a cage of monkeys, jump up and down, wave their arms and make strange movements to get the animals to respond.”

He laughs when I ask him who the monkeys are in this analogy. “Ukraine, the West, all of us,” he says. “We’re munching on our banana and looking at them in wonder. After all, they’re supposed to be cultured people, but they’re acting like idiots.”

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