Ihor Lutsenko, well-known journalist, former lawmaker and public figure, says Ukrainian forces in the industrial Donbas region are ready to advance against occupying Russian forces. Speaking in an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, he describes his day-to-day life as an ordinary soldier in wartime, adding he does not expect Russia’s war on Ukraine to end soon.
Where are you fighting at present, and what is happening on the front-line now? Is the Ukrainian army continuing its offensive? How has the situation changed in eight months?
Near Vuhledar, Donetsk Region, a coal-mining area, where the situation is calmer. A month ago, there were battles, and many armored vehicles have been burnt since then. But intense battles are taking place right now near Mariyinka, and the Russians are looking for opportunities to attack, but they haven’t succeeded.
Are there active hostilities taking place? What are the tactics being deployed by the Russians at present?
A feature of our area is the fact that the enemy has drawn human resources away from our troops as much as possible, because a lot has changed since August. We forced the enemy to retreat a bit, but the front-line has not changed, although the Russians attempted an offensive a month. Marines came in and attacked us, and then suffered losses and retreated.
Now when we see the enemy, we strike using mortars and artillery. The enemy also drives out tanks and shoots at us. I would say that we’re in autumn mode now, when it’s pretty challenging to move, and the battlefield is muddy.
Have you been on the front for eight months, or was there a period when you had a break?
I’ve been on the front for eight months and four days. We had a rest in April near Kyiv, when the Russians retreated and left Kyiv Region. I call it rest because we entered the Chornobyl exclusion zone, which is recreational because Przewalski’s horses, deer, elk, and other rare animals live there now. Then we were thrown to Kharkiv Region to advance, and there was no rest.
How has the situation on the front changed in eight months? There was a time when the Russians were actively attacking, and now our army is carrying out offensive actions. How has the situation changed from the inside?
The situation changed from black to white, and then back. I was scared for the country when the Russians came on 24 Feb. I have never felt such fear, when your whole world can be destroyed – houses, cities, past, future – everything. When we saw that Kyiv would stand and the enemy would not break through it was exciting, and it was even more fun when the Russians fled from Kyiv.
Then it became difficult again. We were advancing near Kharkiv. It was inspiring. Our 72nd Brigade was one of the first on the Ukrainian side to advance in this war. We kicked out the Russians from Kharkiv Region – it was extremely inspiring.
Then the situation in Donbas worsened, and we were transferred there – it was challenging once again because we suffered losses. Our brigade was inside this rampart of fire. It is a tactic used by the Russians, when a massive amount of artillery is pouring fire on you around the clock, and there is no way out. The fire stops only for their serviceman to attack and for tanks to move out.
Of course, it isn’t much fun in such a situation when you’re on the receiving end of a barrage of shells and mines. You don’t see any prospect, because you are an ordinary soldier on the front-line, and you have to retreat all the time, losing your comrades, constantly on the end of this wall of fire, which is quite tricky.
We were near Bakhmut and left Lysychansk and several villages in that area – it was tough. We now feel confident because the situation on the front has changed – Ukrainian forces carried out a tough counterattack. And even in those areas where the Russians are trying to advance, they do it for show, because they have orders to carry out, but they see no real prospects. When Russian marines attacked us, it was a desperate situation for them.
Can we get back Lysychansk and Severodonetsk soon?
The situation has changed a lot since we left these two cities. I cannot predict when we would be able to return. I think if we concentrate on these tasks and the operational situation enables us to advance, we will get them back much faster and more effectively and with fewer losses than the Russians did. Everything they did was done with huge efforts. We will do it more efficiently.
How are you preparing for winter on the front? Are you and your colleagues provided with winter uniforms and heaters? Do you have enough weapons? What are your needs?
There’s little joy with the uniforms. Fortunately, we have a uniform that was issued in the previous season. It saves us. However, a soldier’s salary enables us to buy such things if such a need exists. A uniform is available to buy, but not military drones, which are difficult to buy even with money.
The size and form of the uniform itself is not a big problem, and at least it exists. By winter, another problem arises – the fight against mice. That’s because their natural enemies are scared off by the war. Birds, dogs, and foxes have fled, so there is a huge number of mice at the moment. It is dangerous in terms of disease. Even tonight, we woke up to fight a pack of mice because it was impossible to sleep.
Do you think the Russians also find themselves in the same conditions? Will the winter exhaust the Russians?
We hope so, but in general terms, supplies received by the Russian army are worse because they do not have an active civil society, and volunteering is not widespread in Russia. They have some stuff, but the supplies the Russians get are much worse than those we get. Even if we compare what they drive and what we drive. The Russians love the Soviet car industry, which is not exactly advanced.
However, the Russians have more weapons and tanks than we do, and more guns in this area. I think their prospects are still not very good because our institution of volunteerism is better than “Russian state provisions”, so we’ve got an advantage.
How many of your unit were killed and wounded? Are there any civilian casualties? Are there any civilians left?
In overall terms, our brigade was one of the hardest hit during the fighting because we went through the most hellish moments of this war. We defended Kyiv from elite units of the Russian army from the right bank of the Dnipro River. We advanced in Kharkiv Region, and we incurred losses there too. When we got to Donbas – the defense of the Lysychansk and Severodonetsk fronts – these are terrible things. We’re not in the best situation in this war, and many people have died.
Are there dozens or hundreds killed?
These are hundreds of people killed, and we understand that if we go on the counter offensive now, it will also be difficult, but we are ready for it. We think about it every day, and we get ready. It’s not productive to sit in one place. We must move forward.
As for civilians, this is also a very interesting topic. There is five percent of the population that lives in the hottest spots. I remember such a village, Vrubivka in Luhansk Region. It was completely destroyed by Russian tanks, mortars, and other fire. It was even scary to stay there, our tires were pierced by shrapnel every single day, and we changed them twice a day because the shelling was so intense. People still live in this village, the shelling ends, and they come out of their basements for water for 15-20 minutes – the phenomenon of the population’s resilience demands a separate anthropological study.
In the villages which I visit at the present time, the story is the same. Some people stay and live there despite the intensive shelling and hostilities that are taking place. Of course, they are not the elite and not the middle class – they are poor and uneducated people who are not socially mobile but are strong in certain other ways, and they carry on living there.
Perhaps they expect Russia to come, or are they pro-Ukrainian?
Of course, the percentage of people loyal to Russia is higher than that among the wealthy and educated. In general, these people do not think in abstract terms. For them, their homeland is their village and their house. They don’t bother with very high matters. They are simple people.
You experienced terrible events during the EuroMaidan in 2014. You were kidnapped by henchmen of President Viktor Yanukovych. Now you’re on the front and risking your life once again – which situation is the most terrifying?
These are entirely different situations. EuroMaidan was a peaceful protest. We tried our best to act peacefully back then, and now there’s a full-scale war taking place.
But at EuroMaidan there was a risk to your life, as there is now.
There is probably nothing worse than being captured. I’m not afraid to die in the war. I wouldn’t like to be captured again. It is a much more unpleasant story. I was captured on Maidan, it lasted for less than a day, but it was enough for me to understand everything. I was lucky to be captured by Ukrainians. Whoever they were, they were not Russians. By the way, the trials of my captors are still continuing, and one of them recently died in an accident, so unfortunately he will not be able to give testimony. I am still attempting to seek justice.
When Russian troops attacked on Feb. 24, I have never felt such fear, even when I was in captivity. In captivity, you understand that you can die, but some of your ideas will continue to live and move on. Russians were going to kill the whole country, which is much bigger than one person. Then the fear of this huge creature (Ukraine) surpassed everything I had in my life.
Despite this fear, you still joined the army and went to defend your homeland. Please tell us what motivated you.
My motivation is the understanding that the best thing you can do today is to take up arms, drones that have been lying around since 2014. Now is the best time to take everything you have in your head and your hands and defend the country. Of course, one’s imagination can draw some super scary things from the “second army in the world” – that it would be one million planes and 100,000 tanks. Still, it turned out that it is rotten, absolutely incapable of anything more advanced than that in the whole world, only in terms of cruelty and depravity. These people are well aware that they are worthless and come up with 100,000 stories to justify themselves. Somehow, Russia cannot be famous for anything else.
After a few days of fighting, it turned out that you can cause massive problems and huge losses, then the fear passes, and you feel the taste of enemy blood on your lips.
How do you feel about the decision adopted by the General Staff not to let journalists to the front, and minimize leaks of information about the situation on the front?
This decision is not one that works well. If any journalist wants information, he can get to the front. I have seen a lot of journalists at the front, and even though I have the opportunity to take journalists to the front. I don’t do it so as not to expose them to danger.
Is this solution still an effective one? Because here in Kyiv, we have lots of misinformation.
For some reason, foreign journalists can work effectively here and go anywhere that their insurance allows them, or they decide for themselves. They write better about the front than our Ukrainian journalists, and I am sorry about that. Ukrainian journalists should be the primary source and have a better understanding, but now it’s the other way around.
Do information leaks harm the hostilities?
It depends on the soldiers. They have to control the situation. If they work properly with journalists, it can be safe. It is the responsibility of soldiers not to permit journalists to go where they do not need go, not to say what they don’t need to know. Commanders must control it, but there are elementary things, and any commander will understand what can and cannot be done.
What is life like on the front, and what is the morale of our soldiers right now?
Morale is quite good. Of course, some units were sent to lighter areas of the front because a large number of their comrades were killed. Some units feel better and are advancing. Some feel better because they are advancing. In overall terms, the situation in the army is better than in the middle of summer because back then we were retreating. We were waging a defensive war and were losing significant things.
Now we are returning our territories, and continuing to do this. The Russians are now saved more by our Ukrainian mud than by their efforts, they are dying in packs, and even Kadyrov’s troops (elite Chechen troops led by Ramzan Kadyrov) suffer significant losses, although it is taboo for them to talk about it.
Do you feel fatigue from the war because the human body is, in any case, exhausted from such a restless and dangerous life?
I felt terribly tired from the war in the summer. When I slept for five-six hours a day for two months, I started hallucinating due to fatigue. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to recover a little bit, but my passion has not gone away. Since we have more biological resources, we can do new things, and we have our achievements. At my personal level, I see the enthusiasm.
How long will this war last, and what do we need to obtain victory?
This war will last a sufficiently long time. There is no such end of this war that you could feel and say to yourself: that’s it, endure it for another six months, and you can go to a health sanatorium to drink mineral water.
We are facing a path that will take a long time. Russian resources have been designed to last for years. Sanctions are a fragile thing, the supply of weapons coming to us is also weak. Russia will not fall quickly.
Despite this, we need to be optimistic, it may happen, and it has already happened in the past. For example, on Maidan, when everything ends a little faster than you expect. I am an optimist, and I think that this scenario of events should not be rejected either.