Holding the Line Against the Russian Invasion: A Ukrainian Volunteer’s Memoir

February 17, 2015
The 25th Territorial Defense Battalion Kyiv receives a shipment of aid in late July, 2014 |

Ivan Rodichenko is a volunteer Ukrainian fighter with the Kiev Rus Territorial Defense Battalion. The following memoir was translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. See our report from August on this incident here.

This was in July 2014, with the Kiev Rus 25th Battalion, not far from the Russian border in Chernihiv Region (Chernigov), 150 kilometers from Kiev. At first we took a stand there along with the border guards, ensuring the coverage of the Chernihiv line.

It was a typical July day, there was nothing to foretell anything bad. I was returning from Kiev to the battalion’s location, it was about 5:00 in the evening. I was bringing groceries and supplies for my platoon; these included knee-pads, back-packs and boots and of course beer and salted fish. I was traveling with a driver on a road through the forest and we were drinking coffee, talking about life, and cracking jokes…

But there was a tension in the air, and a kind of strange unease…I was more nervous than I had ever been before…I thought that I had drunk a lot of coffee, and that accounted for my nervous state.

In an hour, we reached the site of our battalion, and drove up to the checkpoint. (The block-post was at the entrance to the battalion.) I noticed some commotion, a lot of trucks were coming in and out, and the soldiers at the checkpoint were alarmed. When I drove up, the soldier who was at the checkpoint spoke into the radio that Yankee (that was I) had arrived. That was my call sign. And he opened the barrier.

We drove into the battalion and I saw all the soldiers were agitatedly discussing something. We drove up to the location of our platoon, and when we got out of the car, a soldier of ours named Lom [Breaker] came running up to us and said, “Yankee, don’t unload the car here now, the commander of the battalion is going to speak now, something is going on!”

I asked Lom what was going on. “You must know everything!! Tell me!” Lom answered nervously, “Russia is going to invade with its forces, they are going to go across the Chernihiv line to Kiev! Our job is to hold back the offensive.”

I felt sick at his words, my legs turned to cotton and my heart began to beat faster…My thoughts became confused… The first thing I thought about was my family, about my child, my parents, they were all in Kiev at that time. What I had heard was secret and I was not allowed to tell anyone or call anywhere so as not to cause panic. We decided not to worry our families and hoped that it would all turn out well.

Suddenly, we heard over the radio that some suspicious cars and people were at a location about 100 meters from the battalion! We immediately sent over a unit of 5 soldiers, and when they sneaked up to the car, they were noticed and the people drove away. The guys returned and reported that these people had been holding a laptop; perhaps they were noting the location of our battalion, in order to make a rocket strike…These were spotters. We grew more alarmed.

At that moment, some trucks with ammunition, mortars and so on drove into the battalion. We were ordered to unload the trucks. And then I realized that the situation really was serious, because we had been brought more ammunition (bullets and mortars) and this meant it was not an exercise…This was a combat mission…and it really was all very serious. I didn’t want to believe it!

A combat mission 150 kilometers from Kiev…I felt sick at the thought…

We began unloading the trucks and loaded the AK-47 magazines, and shoving the grenades into the launchers. I remember how we threw the RPGs into our jeep and the music of Kanye West drifted by. It was like a dream, it seemed as if a film were being made and we were all actors…I went up to our driver and handed him a machine gun! Take this, bro! He looked at me and said, “Well, Yankee, it’s a good day to die!” He always liked to joke around, even in a situation like this!

By 7:00 in the evening, the battalion commander gave the order to gather the whole battalion together and fall in for a speech.

And now we were fully equipped, with loaded rifles, for the first time in our lives, standing in formation and waiting when Vysota, the battalion commander, would speak…

It was almost dark, and the commander came out of his tent and walked briskly toward us. He stood in the center, and all 600 men froze, it was very quiet…Everyone looked at the battalion commander. Vysota [his name means “Heighth”–The Interpreter] spoke. “Men, the Russian Federation may possibly invade Ukraine! There is an enormous group of 17,000 of the enemy along the Chernihiv line. Infantry, 300 tanks, 500 APCs, 100 Grad systems, planes, helicopters and so on. And now the commander said the most important thing. There were only 1,500 of us on the border, including our battalion, which meant that we would last only 7 minutes in battle!

Were we prepared to defend Ukraine and stand until the end? Whoever didn’t want to do this, he said, could leave! With these words from the commander, I felt a shiver throughout my whole body…

I will remember this for my whole life! With one voice, we all said: “We’re staying! We will stand until the end!” I saw that everyone was afraid, but no one left!

Then the commander gave the order, “To your vehicles!” And the noise resumed.

Everyone began to load up their vehicles. It was our battalion’s first mission, and now people who had just been working as teachers, doctors, managers, or directors, and young guys who were just graduating from university were now traveling in a convoy in full combat readiness, perhaps taking fire for the first time in their lives!

Everyone was quiet and there was the strange feeling of adrenaline and fear…We reached our positions, the battalion took up the defensive…the night was warm and the sky was starry, we lay, camouflaged, in the forest…

And somewhere far away, in offices in Kiev, Washington, Berlin and Moscow, politicians were holding talks to stop the invasion of Russia, and that day, they managed to come to an agreement. Kiev slept in peace and no one knew that 150 kilometers away from Kiev, the 25th Battalion was holding their positions. At 5:00 am, we received the command to return to our place of deployment…We packed up, and exhausted and sleepy, we went back to our camp…It was a sunny day, and I was happy for each breath I took, and I admired the beautiful forest… The invasion of the Russians was stopped. The politicians were able to come to an agreement, diplomacy worked…

Within a few weeks, the battalion headed to Debaltsevo, and there we would encounter our first battle.