‘I am fighting Russians not because I hate Russia.’ The story of a Ukrainian volunteer infantryman


In a military position. “I wish you strength and good health,” is written in the picture. From Yevhen Shybalov's personal archive.

The tactics an infantryman uses to survive at war are very similar to the evolutionarily developed tactics of a cockroach surviving in your kitchen. 

You should sit quietly in a dark wet hole, ideally without any noise or movement, so you don’t somehow give away your presence. But at the same time, you should watch closely and listen carefully to what is going on around you.  

When you venture into an open space, do it very quickly and don’t stay there longer than necessary to perform your task. 

If a bright light flashes somewhere and a scream is heard, “Oooh fuck!” — you've lost, and it's highly possible that you'll soon be killed. Because somewhere out there, behind the unseeable horizon, a deadly slipper is already coming after you.   

Unlike a cockroach, an infantryman can also dig himself a hole if there isn't a suitable one. For this, he has his main superweapon — a shovel. And his second asset is not weapons but his eyes and ears. Namely, radios for communication and optical equipment for observation: quadcopters, night vision devices, and infrared thermal imaging cameras.    

An army spade with a short holder, which has not changed much in the last century, is humankind's most brilliant creation that has saved innumerable soldiers’ lives. Its main advantage is that one can dig a trench with it while lying down. It is deadly important under heavy artillery fire when “to stand upright” and “to commit suicide” are the same thing. 

Drones loaded with optical equipment are buzzing disgustingly somewhere high in the sky. They see you, but you don't see them. Many kilometers away from the frontline, a radar is wiggling back and forth — its elephantine ears tracking any military presence in the airwaves. At night, a lot of observant eyes are watching infantrymen sweating with fear in their trenches. 

But, no matter the technologies, the survival tactics haven't fundamentally changed. Dig yourself a fine trench. Make sure that it's securely concealed with grass. Keep your fucking smartphone off. And sit still.  

An infantryman's secret

I am going to tell you a secret. Almost all the weapons used by land forces are created for one single purpose: to kill an infantryman. 

Artillery, missiles, jets, strike drones, helicopters, armored vehicles, mortars, and countless other deadly tools have been developed exclusively for driving enemy soldiers from trenches and killing them. 

Against all this, a soldier has a shovel, an assault rifle, and patience. To stay patient and not move when they are watching for you. To tremble from fear when your trench is barraged with weapons and artillery. To repel the enemy infantry each time they attempt to assault. 

To endure hunger, cold, a constant lack of sleep, and loss of comrades. 

All of this is very difficult.

Instead, while staying alive, a soldier does harm to an enemy with the very fact of his existence. An enemy offencive loses momentum after running into the defense of an infantry unit. And it needs huge resources to continue its operation. 

Vehicles arranged in columns are shuttering haphazardly with motors and burning enormous amounts of fuel, or are riding along the frontline senselessly in search of holes like roads without defensive constructions blocking them. 

Artillery is spending massive amounts of ammunition to cover all the districts where the infantry continues to fight. 

Jets are wasting kerosene and expensive missiles to fell tiny forests where the units are dug in. 

Officers in headquarters are tearing their hair out in frustration and quickly redrawing campaign plans. 

Deadlines are being broken. Refined tactical schemes with beautiful arrows on maps are turned meaningless. 

Time is the main source an infantry gains for its army and country with the cost of lives. In my case, my infantry platoon halted an offencive by the Russian army, which desperately tried to encircle a huge group of forces in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk for almost a week. 

Against several dozens of soldiers with light armament, an entire battalion of elite paratroopers was unleashed. They were supported by dozens of pieces of sophisticated and expensive equipment: warplanes, strike helicopters, heavy mortars, rocket artillery and simple artillery, tanks, etc. And even so, with a tenfold force advantage, the Russian army hovered for a week near a small village in Donbas. 

Several of my comrades were killed and several more injured. I, myself, was captured, along with a group of other fighters. But the Russians took the village only after our unit withdrew and saved most of its soldiers. At the cost of priceless time and huge resources, the Russian army took the village, indeed… and lost it the next day as the result of a Ukrainian counterattack. 

The encirclement of Lysychansk failed, and the Ukrainian troops managed to withdraw in an organized way. As a result, those units created a new line of defense that Russians cannot breach until today.  

A Russian officer who interrogated me in captivity once said something along the lines of:

“You are saying that you were mobilized recently and that you are an inexperienced conscript! All of you are saying the same! And this corresponds to the data which we had before the assault. I was sure that we would quickly pass positions of units with weak weaponry and untrained personnel. But we bogged down! And I am trying to understand why…”

Because we had patience. And a deep willingness to survive. 

It is not like this anymore. As the Western assistance arrives, missiles and HIMARS have been playing the main role from the Ukrainian side. Then, tank operators at Leopards will join them. In due course, I want to believe, also pilots in F-16s. 

The infantrymen will take their modest place as a secondary force. 

Something I understood

Everything written here is not a field manual. This is simply an illustration of how a former civilian and civic activist with very liberal, humanistic, and pacifistic views starts to think like a soldier. 

Before February 24, 2022, I sincerely believed that our problems in relations with Russia could be settled peacefully. I was doing humanitarian work related to providing assistance to people in the east of Ukraine who have suffered from the war since 2014. 

In public settings, I appealed to others to pay attention to the suffering of these people and not to fly to arms without trying all the mechanisms of dialogue and mediation first. 

After a year of war and making a long way from civic activist to infantry veteran, I understood something. 

There is one thing that is common both to civic activists and volunteer soldiers: the desire for justice. 

In the ranks of the Ukrainian army, I met a number of acquaintances from the civic sector. And all of us have been sincerely sure that this is very unjust when a big and strong country can humiliate a neighbor who is weaker by means of size, wealth, and artillery.

With all my heart, I am for dialogue and diplomacy. But the basic rule of dialogue is mutual respect and equal status for both sides. 

I have no hatred for either Russians as people or Russia as a country. 

I am fighting Russians not because I hate Russia. 

But because I love Ukraine. 

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