It’s just me who remembers Gostomel [Interview]

Photo. Michał Lipski

How did the war in Ukraine look, during those first dramatic months, the time of hope, and how does it look right now? Honest, raw conversation with Michał “Lipton” Lipski, participating in the war in Ukraine, whose struggles began in February 2022, as a part of the OPFOR special battalion (the so-called assault Spetsnaz) and lasted until spring this year.


Maciej Szopa: What were the circumstances of you finding yourself in Ukraine? Why did you decide to go there?


Michał Lipski: I have been a part of the military all my life. The war broke out. Where is the place that the soldier should be in? Yes, partaking in the war, by the book. I have always wanted to prove it to myself, check everything for what I have lost the best years of my life. This, however, is just one of the reasons.

Another one, let us call it that, is far more idealistic. It is all about understanding the geopolitical situation. Putting it simply, we are next in the food chain. They finish Ukraine up and come get us next. Maybe not directly, but they will come get the Baltics. And we will be stupid enough to be first to go help them. NATO? We don’t know. The future will tell. So it’s better to fight here, it may sound bad, but it’s better to fight using someone else’s hands than fight at your place, with your own hands.


This motivates many other people that I talked to. What was your speciality in the Polish Armed Forces?

In Poland I served in the 6th Airborne Battalion in Gliwice, I was a company commander there.

How did you get to Ukraine? What was the unit that you got into?

It was quite simpler for me than for anybody else. Back in 2021, we went, as a unit, to carry out a training mission at the Yavoriv training range in Ukraine. And I was working with those people there, networking. When the war broke out, they were getting ready to go to Kyiv. And I knew the company commanders, the battalion staff, the battalion commander, I made arrangements to go with them.

Photo. Michał Lipski
Photo. Michał Lipski

So it was a regular unit, not a battalion of volunteers?

It was a special, Spetsnaz battalion. (214th Independent OPFOR Special Battalion, a unit formed in 2016 by ATO participants, eds.).

The Ukrainian Army is similar to its Russian counterpart, with special units, Spetsnaz, having different specialities. What special purpose (Spetsnaz) unit do we mean here?

Yes. Our unit was an assault unit, and assault units here are the heavy elements. There are some units reminiscent of ordinary commandos, with light inventory kits. However, most of the assault units can be viewed as mechanized, heavy infantry.

Photo. Michał Lipski

Why haven’t you decided to join the international units?

They started to form that legion, but I was reluctant to become a part of that unit.

And why is that?

In the Army, we had been working closely with the Americans, and with the British, for quite some time. And these are not people with whom you can go to fight in a full-scale war. You can join them on a „safari” in Afghanistan or Iraq. Where you have it all, and the enemy has nothing. These people really fight by the book. Without flexibility of any kind. Not my thing. I’ve always wanted to figure out things myself and improvise. The book is there to help you, but it is not like that, you do not have to always follow the template. When you follow the template, the enemy is ready for that. The Anglo-Saxons can’t do that, this approach is eradicated in their armies.

Apart from that, before leaving for Kyiv, on the 24th or 25th of February, I had a chance to meet the Americans and some other foreign volunteers. I have shown them they have no skill. There was a guy, „three years in the Marines”. He wanted to train people, he wanted to go out and fight. We are in a 2-3 storey-high apartment block, talking. I asked him: „how would you go in, through that door?” When he showed me, I responded: „Man, you are not going to survive. You have no skill at all”. To go out and fight with such people, ignorant, thinking they have skill…It is a bad idea.

So the Anglo-Saxons are used to good logistics, support, and to going about everything completely by the book?

Yes. In Afghanistan, there was a company going out, supported by an artillery battery, air support, helicopters, and MEDEVAC assets ready to go. The helicopters appeared on site five minutes after any injury. Here it may work on the other side - the enemy always has the artillery assets, in our case, it is not so certain, and so on.

Does it mean that in the Polish Armed Forces, you guys were more used to the situation faced by Ukrainians, without this comfort?

The Airborne troops always carry their whole home on their backs. First, you are limited by the volume of your backpack. Secondly, its weight. Even when you go to a training range, you must decide on what pieces of inventory go with you, and what stays. You can get the sleeping bag, and the sleeping mat, but there’s just 20% of backpack space left there. You simply cannot take everything with you. If you take everything, your backpack weighs 50 kilograms. You don’t want that. Here, we were always working with compromise. We were simply used to the worse conditions.

So it is the realm of airborne units?

Yes. The Kharkiv assault was a great example of that. We left for 2 days. We were to recapture a village, fortify positions there, and hand the village over to the units following us the next day. We captured one village, our replacement came, and we then went on to the next one. And this happened for 12 days. We found ourselves in a situation in which, on the 10th day, we stopped our main battle tank (Ukrainian one), and took water from it, as we did not have anything to drink.

Were you getting water from a tank? How come?

They use water as an extra layer of armour on main battle tanks, sometimes it puts out small fires if the tank is hit. The SC projectile or fragments go through those bottles, and even if something catches fire, the water puts it out a bit. We took it from a main battle tank when it was passing by, as we no longer had anything to drink.

We knew that when we were deployed for 2 days, it was going to be at least a week, and we were getting ready for that. But after a week, we were still going forward. There was no water and no alternative sources of water. No wells, rivers. The locals were saying that one needs a well 60 meters deep to reach the water. Nobody had one. And we were liberating areas that were occupied for 3 months. The water stored in barrels was green. It was not suitable for drinking.

And didn’t you have filters (ones in straws for instance)?

We were mainly relying on bottled water. At the beginning of the war, there were many problems, when it came to equipment supplies. Today we have managed to collect a much greater kit, than the one we had at hand back then. In the beginning, thermal imagers were a problem, and NVGs were scarce. There were other problems as well. But we managed to solve them along the way. People had connections. And in that way, gradually, we reached a somewhat sensible level. We were gathering complete inventory by the end of 2022.

Even though you had a SOF unit status?

This war has exposed certain mindset errors. You have the vehicles assigned, BMPs, and BTRs. But they do not solve all the problems. Trucks are also unable to reach all locations. This is how the fashion to use pickup trucks was born - smaller, more silent, and more flexible. One can transport things, or people, and pickup trucks are not as critical of a target as armoured vehicles are.

Photo. Michał Lipski

Do they blend with a civil background well?

No, it’s not about that. The pickup trucks are silent. At what distance can you hear a regular car approaching? 200-300 metres. When it comes to heavy vehicles, we are in the realm of kilometres. You can approach covertly.

Where were you deployed, after coming to Ukraine and talking to the Americans?

Instantly to the Yavoriv unit, as arranged in the beginning.

The unit that had trained with NATO earlier on?


And you were immediately deployed to the frontline? Where?

All locations, one by one. Kyiv was first, the capital had to be protected. Then Gostomel, and Perivky, so the north-west Kiev region.

What was your role there?

Gostomel was first, for obvious reasons. When the situation in Kyiv became more peaceful, we were deployed to launch a counter-offensive, in the Zhytomyr area, west of Kyiv. We were recapturing the Zhytomyr route and were headed roughly towards Chornobyl. After recapturing two to three villages beyond the Zhytomyr route, we were pushed back. Someone was still attacking Chernobyl, while we regrouped and were given a new task: recapture Gostomel.

The very same location again?

We knew the area already, so it made sense to have us redeployed.

Your first experiences in Gostomel happened during the first days of the war, right? You were fighting the infamous VDV avant-garde?


This was the key battle in this war.

Key, or not. It turned out to be so. The Russians hit a tough spot there, and the offensive collapsed from that moment on. They were ready to parade, and they encountered someone shooting them.

We now know that the elite VDV units were sent there. And they first encountered the territorial defence forces, and then the Ukrainian special units who started to push them back.


So that was you?


Can we say anything else about this battle? Those first VDV units were elite?

They were as elite as we are, in Poland. For the peacetime. Not trained well, inexperienced. They did not understand where they were going, they behaved as if they were on a training range. It turned out that guys were shooting, and an RPG was flying by…

Nobody, either on our or their side, had any combat experience. But we at least had trenches and buildings taken over. They were moving along the main route, in their BMDs, as if it was a parade at a training range. And all the hell breaks loose, bodies start falling down from those APCs. They were yet to understand where they went and what they were supposed to be doing. That this is a true war. Back then, they did not realize this. It was too early. Now, things are different.

Photo. Michał Lipski

So what happened after Gostomel?

We recaptured Gostomel, spent two weeks in Kyiv, and then were deployed to Kharkiv. The procedure was the same: acclimatization, reconnaissance, and then - all in. East of Kharkiv - villages like Tsirkuny, Rusky Tishky, Cherkasky Tishky, and Stary Saltov, up to the Russian border. It was back in May.

Then, someone realized that we are powered by enthusiasm, but still have a peacetime structure. This way, we were deployed to Kyiv in February. Hence, we were returned to Kyiv, to get ourselves into the original shape once again.

Were you fighting with incomplete personnel, during those first months?

Yes. After restaffing, we were back in action. In Yavoriv we were a two-company battalion, and we were sent to Donbas, as a single unit, in June. We were sent to western Donetsk, to Bakhmut. Back then it was 100 kilometres from the frontline, it was not that fashionable at the time.

Were you a part of the Kharkiv operation?

After around a month of fighting in Bakhmut we were sent north, received some extra personnel, and then we went to Balakliya. Then, from Balakliya to Kozacha Lopan, and then north of Kharkiv, to the border. There we were defending the area. Nothing interesting happened. Then we returned to Bakhmut, a champagne factory, and then we were sent to do an assault in Yampil, near Lyman. Then, Bakhmut again, and Soledar in late 2022. With the 93rd Brigade. Then we were sent to Klishchivka, where we stayed for 1.5 months. Then, the „mighty” 47th Brigade lost Soledar. In Klishchivka we were then replaced by the Azov guys, from the 3rd „Non-assault”, Army Tik-Tok…

Tik-tok army? Wasn’t this the term associated just with the Kadyrov guys?

They took positions from us, and our guides led them there and showed them everything, our infantry left, but as we were rolling out, the Azov vehicles were overtaking us. They surrendered a village we had been defending for 1.5 months in 1 day. They are laughing at the Chechens, but these guys are comparable. They have everything, as they managed to create a brand of their own. Marketing solves many problems. Everybody can do everything, but they are not doing the actual work. They ran away from Klishchiyivka, and we were turned back by the command. But it was too late already. We’ve lost 3-4 men in action, and we had up to 10 wounded. We were not using trenches, we had to do fighting recon.

Were you defending Bakhnmut as well?

Yes. And by the end of Bakhmut we considered, or at least self-considered ourselves as elite. I cannot see that elite status now. It is all gone.

Due to the losses?

Yes, due to the losses. And the lack of competency at the higher command levels. Our unit was not used in line with its purpose sometimes. Prigozhin announced they captured Bakhmut on the 20th or 21st of May. We were leaving a day after that. Where the aircraft monument stood, this was our last position. Bakhmut has exposed the lack of flexibility in the upper command, demanding defence at all costs.

They say that elite units were used there in the role of ordinary infantry.

It was not that hard to defend though. Rain is not an issue, you’re under a concrete roof. The worst thing is that they prepared most of those 9-storey apartment blocks for being demolished. They placed 100-150 anti-tank mines in each building. Do you know how many buildings were detonated? One. Just to see, if this number of mines would be sufficient.

And then they just surrendered all of the remaining buildings, unscathed. Why was that? We were to defend the area until the „last man standing”. We were unable to withdraw from the block as planned. At night cars could pick us up, getting 50-70% of the troops. The demolition units would check the wires. And then, if everything would be right, the cars would pick up the rest, and boom! And we would be waiting, on the next line already.

But no. “Last man standing”. It would be best for us to detonate ourselves together with the buildings. Arrangements made for a planned withdrawal were not used at all. There our elite status atrophied. It was finally killed by the 17th Armoured Brigade, to which we were assigned later on. For four months, without any rotation, we were defending the last hill near Bakhmut, near Ivanivsky.

Photo. Michał Lipski

So another endurance battle.

That hill had a height of a 4-5 storey building. And those 9-floor high apartment blocks were simply dominating us. For four months, we struggled with a sniper problem. The hill was also an easy target for the main battle tanks and artillery. The 17th Brigade was, as we jokingly described it, a tankless one. It has main battle tanks, but no one saw them. They were using us as ordinary infantry, to defend the area.

For 4 months we were joined by new troops, and after 2-3 days of training the new soldiers were immediately deployed to the new positions. We had many killed and wounded. The composition of the company changed two, or three times. What „elite status” was left? Just three people in the company remember what happened in Klishchyivka. I was fourth, plus one officer. 5 people in total.

Gostomel, the first battle? How many remember this?


Two of us remember Balakliya. We somewhat survived those four months with the 17th „Tankless”, and then we were moved closer to Bogdanivka. To join the 42nd Brigade. There, the story repeated itself, but the positions were a bit better. We were not pinned down by snipers to that extent.

Do you protect the positions of some units there?

No, not anymore. We are practically gone now. For now, I have 19 people at a hospital, a similar number of vacancies, and 17 cases of people leaving the unit on their own, where I have around 60 infantry troops in the company.

But isn’t that too risky?

I do not go towards the bullets as I did in the past. I work more in the capacity of an instructor. This war is different. Back in the day, you had someone to fight alongside, and you had purpose, now it’s more about luck than skill.

Artillery, drones…

Artillery was always present. FPV drones are the key problem. I remember when in August we were in a sniper position in front of Bakhmut, 600 meters away. A drone came in, and one of ours was hit a bit. He had his arms wounded because of fragmentation, but he was still able to walk. We concluded: walk alone, you’ll make it! He had 600 meters of forest to walk through. A forest that is several trees wide, and 600 meters long is referred to as „posadka” in Ukraine, and it is adjacent to a field. That guy walks, and he is chased by another drone, so he enters the „posadka”. The drone hit a tree. OK. He is still walking, and another drone is coming by. He entered the posadka again, the drone hit a tree. But one had to cover 1,500 meters in an open field, after walking beyond posadka. There, he had no place to hide. The fourth drone was what got him killed. Four drones to kill one guy. I have no words.

He stood no chance. If they have things to chase you, they will be chasing you, even if you’re alone. We always try to teach people not to move in groups, and to walk with a lot of separation. This mitigates the risk and minimizes the potential losses. For ordinary artillery, they would not be an attractive target. But the Russians don’t care about resources. Two men, 50 meters apart, may be walking there, and the Russians will start mortar shelling anyway. Because they can.

Two FPV drones may be used against a single troop. This is not an issue for them. They have resources sufficient to afford this. We are trying to minimize the losses, but the FPV strikes will be happening anyway. The Russians are doing things that make no sense. And you cannot employ countermeasures against something that does not make any sense.

However, the recordings available show that the Ukrainians are also not saving the FPV drones, and they are attacking individual Russian soldiers using those drones…

But here, the situation is a bit different. When we deploy a drone with an explosive, no one wants it back. The explosive is unstable. It may explode upon landing. If that drone is deployed, it is lost already, it may even chase a single soldier around some wreckage. You catch him or not.

For us, the APCs and main battle tanks are the true targets. And the Russians are chasing the infantry on purpose. There were situations in which three FPV drones were hovering at one of the Bakhmut crossroads. The drone was flying there. If no vehicle was passing by, it was simply hitting the road and exploding. Another one came, loitering in the area. Without a reconnaissance drone, the “Mavic”. Just the strike UAV. They had so many drones at hand, that they were able to control that junction all the time. If a car finally comes over, they will destroy it. And they will lose three drones during that time, just to control the area.

So they have a lot of potential. And they say that it is Ukraine who has the drone advantage…

The Russians do it as usual. They start the war weak, and stupid, and then they learn and develop. They had munitions and equipment reserves, they boosted the manufacturing. They manufacture munitions and drones. These drones are standard issue, the Russian Army procures them from the domestic industry. And we were and still are powered by optimism. The volunteers buy „Mavics”, and create strike drones, while the West will provide munitions. The state is somewhat uninvolved in the war. It should open factories, even abroad, in Poland, Romania, and Spain. Don’t Ukrainians work there? They could manufacture those drones and send them back in containers. There are Ukrainians there. But one needs money to do this.

The lack of artillery munitions and the fact that Ukraine procured none since August, awaiting donations, is absurd. They are losing soldiers, the losses are progressing fast, as there is no artillery support. We have come to a situation in which, a small Soviet army is fighting a grand Soviet army. We also employ troops for everything now.

So, now you are acting more in a capacity of an instructor, and less of a frontline commander?

I have been working on training all the time. I have relevant experience and some kind of aptitude to do this. And methodology coming from Poland. Back in Kyiv, I was teaching people before our Gostomel assault. A quick training on urban warfare and CQB - corridors, rooms. To teach them, or remind them how it’s done. Then, when new people came in, they were also being trained by me. Now I am the chief guy who prepares them. Earlier on I had to do that and fight at the same time. When the unit is in combat, no new people come, so no new people that need training are there. And when that unit is pulled out, the new people come, and new work comes. Now I am focusing on training, but new issues emerge here as well…

Photo. Michał Lipski

What kind of issues?

There is a major training quality problem, and there are issues when it comes to the quality of the recruited personnel. The baseline training done at the training ranges has a level so low, that sees people come to us a month after the actual conscription call. They sometimes fail to recognize the fact that their rifle comes with a sight. There was a situation where I got the guy down to the prone position to zero his sights, and at 25 meters he could not hit the target at all. I tell him: shoot again. He shoots, and nothing. A4 paper sheet at 25 metres!

I took his gun, took a shot - and saw it’s a bit low. I tell that to him, tell him to shoot again, and nothing, again. What was the issue? He was shooting using the front sight, but without using the rear sight - shooting 1-2 meters above the target. No one told him how to use the iron sights. At the training centre, over a month, no one told him.

And what are the motivation levels, among the recruits?

There is no motivation. Those motivated are in the graveyards already.

So those who come, have been simply forced?

This starts to look like the Russian “branka” of the 19th Century uprisings. They get people somewhere on the streets, and they bring them here, to the frontline. This is not a planned mobilization, it is a kind of a round-up.

Like in Russia?

It’s worse. They used to laugh about the Russian recruits, calling them names, like „mobiks, tsmobiks”, and so on. And indeed, this was the case from late 2022 until the early 2023. The Russians did not have enough people, and they were deploying the „mobiks” immediately, without any training. However, these days, in the worst-case scenario, the mobilized Russian soldiers go through 96 days of training at some Russian training range, and then they get 1-2 weeks of training here, in the zone, in a training facility near the frontline.

Most of their brigades have their training fields where they shoot, run, and can learn some behaviours so that they follow a certain standard. A „Mobik” goes through 100-110 days of training before the actual combat deployment. And this is the worst-case scenario for these guys.

Photo. Michał Lipski

The better scenario assumes that after 96 days he becomes a part of a unit that is restaffed after being withdrawn from the frontline. The Russians rotate the army as a whole. If a „Mobik” guy is recruited in a Division that fell back for 6 months, for extra training, recruitment, and integration, then he gets another 6 months of training. And then, in the best-case scenario, he goes through 9 months of training in total.

Summing it up, a „Mobik” goes through training lasting from 3.5 to 9 months. In our case, the conscripts have a month, along with 3 weeks in the frontline - if they are lucky. This translates into, give or take, two months. In the worst-case scenario, we were dealing with situations in which guys, after basic training, came to a training range, zeroed their guns, and were sent out to fight immediately. „We have no people”.

“Mobik-Tsmobik” may have 9 months of training. Our guys may be trained for 35 days and be unaware of having a sight on the gun.

It seems that the Russians are gaining a qualitative advantage then…

Of course, they do! They always had an advantage, also in the artillery department. It was varied. 17:1 in the beginning, 3-4:1 when the NATO support was at its peak, and now it’s 10:1 again. They are also starting to have an advantage in the drone domain. And why is that? Because their drones are state-manufactured, the factory is state-owned, and no one cares about the cost. And in our case, we need to do crowdfunding to get a drone like that - so there is an issue here. Especially when the enthusiasm is not as high-spirited as during the first year of the war. Some time ago you could have crowdfunded 5 pickup trucks in 2 weeks. Now, you have to wait a month for a „Mavic”, just to risk losing it immediately.

But there are many FPV drones manufactured, in Ukraine, and elsewhere…

Yes. But this is just enthusiasm and volunteer effort. This does not come from the top. The Ukrainian operational-strategic drones attacking refineries deep in the Russian territory are indeed, state-manufactured. But the Kamikaze drones at the frontline, this is just enthusiasm. So many issues are emerging for that reason. Each drone is different, they have certain nuances since they come from different sources. Preparing munitions for those drones is also a problem. There is a factory manufacturing RPG projectiles in Ukraine. They cannot shift their manufacturing efforts to deliver drone-tailored RPG munitions. The soldiers always need pliers and screwdrivers, and they need to modify those munitions. Disassemble, meddle, lose time, risk health. There is no guarantee it will work, as the soldiers may make a mistake. A year has gone by, since FPV drones are used, and there are no standard-issue warheads at hand. It is better to have the soldiers sit down, watch YouTube tutorials, and try and disassemble that warhead.

Photo. Michał Lipski

What else could be said about the Russians? What kind of an adversary are they? How did that evolve?

It depends on who you are facing. The Luhansk crowd has no motivation. They are trying to run. The Donetsk crowd or the Zekes (prisoners) fight under the influence of substances. They work or not…I don’t know how one can refer to this. They are motivating them by feeding them some substances, and those guys do not even know where they are headed. But they are moving forward.

Some units are well prepared, some are not. Where the Russians are motivated, there they use a mix. The units that are less prepared, or redundant, are sent into battle first, to wear us out, and make us deplete our stockpiles. Then, the proper units come over.

What are the redundant, disposable units?

Militias from the occupied areas - Luhansk and Donetsk. There are almost no males there, as our reconnaissance reports. There are some people from the Russian republics there as well, like the Buryats. All that could potentially pose a threat to those in power. Those people, once they come back, trained, with experience, may also smuggle weapons and start an uprising, locally. Russians don’t need that. They would rather lose those guys.

The situation is similar when it comes to the main battle tanks. Back in 2023, they were sending out T-80s, and T-90s, now they are deploying T-62s and T-55s. The new main battle tanks become a part of the reserve first, not the frontline fighting force. It seems to me the Russians would kill three birds with one stone. First thing: they could easily go through the frontline with the resources at hand, but for some reason, they are not doing that. They prefer heavy endurance battles. They came to a point where they do not want to capture the territory anymore, they would rather destroy the Ukrainian Army and population. This is some kind of genocide, against the Ukrainian soldiers fighting at the frontline. Who is used to do that? Those from the republics, who seem to be expendable. This is the second bird. Young, strong men coming from the republics could potentially be a threat, and they are thrown into the meat grinder instead.

Do you feel the Russians suffer from more losses than you do?

No, there is no such impression. Firefights are rare. And these boost the morale. Apart from sitting in the trenches, suffering from shelling and drones, this gives the soldiers a feeling of actually having an impact on things, being able to do something with his rifle. There is an enemy that can be shot. The enemy either falls or runs. You see the enemy, you shoot him, minus 1, 2, 3. The results are there. The soldier is satisfied and gets a feeling of a job well done. If you remain in a trench for a month, and you only wait for the drones to kill you, the morale goes down. There is a wounded guy there, another one is killed. We only see our losses. There are great movie clips showing our drones chasing the Russians, while we, ourselves, see the Russians drop grenades on our wounded guys. Until they are sure that guy is dead.

Photo. Michał Lipski

And what can be said about the civilians? What are your insights here?

In Kyiv, during the early days, the people were very supportive. They were eager to help. When we were passing through the city they were cheering when IFVs were passing by. The elder persons were blessing us. Things were quite different in Kharkiv. Some people raised their hands and waved at us. They were neutral. In Donbas, you may even get a middle finger.

I remember when we were entering Donbas, Bakhmut in essence. This was the safe zone back then, in July 2022. There was our column of 10 IFVs passing by. I was riding on the first IFV, with a Polish and Ukrainian flag, and nine vehicles with Ukrainian flags were following us. We’re passing through a village, climbing a hill, and we see people there. My BMP comes by, they start to raise their hands to cheer us up. And another BMP comes in, with a Ukranian flag, and their hands go down. It turns out that when they saw a Polish flag on my vehicle, with white and red colours, they initially thought it was Russian. White, red… and where’s blue?

Even today there are people there, remaining there under shelling, waiting for the Russians to liberate them. This is stupidity. In Soledar there was a family like that: grandmother, son, wife, and two kids. They were sitting, with Grad cluster munitions showering down behind their house. A kilometre from the frontline. The daughter was wounded. Medics wanted to take her, but the father did not let us take her to a hospital. They fixed her up on site, and they were still waiting to be liberated. I am curious how many people as such are in Poland now, using social support.

Our whole conversation shows that the situation is grim. Can you be an optimist, despite it all? Are there any reasons that would tell you to do so?

The optimism was still there, before that offensive that never happened. There was some memory of recent success then, of territories being liberated, and of the fact that the fighting was normal. And what happens now? The best case scenario assumes ATO 2.0 zone, the worst - we don’t know.

In the best-case scenario, we are speaking about a successful defence of the east, right?

No, we should rather think of the conflict being frozen. And this can be better. There is nothing. There is no mortar shelling, there is no artillery. The fact that our main battle tanks and IFVs shoot is only the case because we have managed to gather some stockpile that was not immediately depleted. The munitions were not used without an order. And there were other units, following the best Soviet practices, shooting when they were not supposed to shoot, even when there was nothing to shoot at.

You have been there for two years, the situation is what it is. Do you plan to return?

Yes. I am slowly getting ready for that. I simply do not see a sense of that job. One needs to go back and bring our guys back onto their feet so that they are at least somewhat ready.

Are there any prospects of that happening?

The general at the top here has no birdseye view of the situation. He has a view coming from the bottom, that is also misjudged at many levels. In Ukraine, the situation within that scope is similar to Poland. Small, Soviet army. We do not mention any problems. We write a report for our supervisor, stating that all is good. If we mention any problems, the staff will smoothen it out.

So I am not an optimist here. I know how things go. In Poland, we also have a small, Soviet army, but it is led by NATO. The commanders don’t want any changes, as they are always successful at the exercises. Take the Anakonda exercise for instance. If anything goes not according to the plan, it is the exercise organizer, not the commander, that should be blamed for this.

It is true. Unfortunately, this exercise has been like that, at least until recently.

During the Anakonda, we go through a scenario in which 10 Russian Divisions come from the Kaliningrad area. We use three divisions to defend our territory for two months, stop them, and our last division recaptures the 100 kilometres of territory lost during the battle.

I remember that exercise. We were observing them as journalists and the scenarios were puzzling, to say the least.

We need to wake up. But how can people reflect, on is the exercise is „doomed to succeed”? There can be no conclusion, and no lessons learned. I sometimes speak to people from my former unit in Poland. They have created a drone platoon at the brigade level - tasked with reconnaissance. At the brigade level! Platoon! And here, during the war, we conclude that there should be a drone company assigned to the battalion level.

We are still two steps behind the actual reality. There is a breakthrough, and this is OK. But here we have more drones at the brigade level, even though they are not standard-issue. Here, at the battalion, we have a platoon of recce drones, but also another platoon, a strike element.

What else do we need?

EW platoons. Without that, the infantry would not survive. They will tear us to pieces with drones. A counter-UAS suitcase jammer costs USD 10-12 thousand. We have these donated by volunteers, not the army.

So you are a self-standing battalion that is constantly reassigned to brigades?

Here, we have stood our ground for more than two months. No rotation. A brigade with 8 battalions had 2 battalions deployed and kept 6 in the reserve. It was rotating those battalions. And we were there for two months… Finally, when the brigade did its rotation, they did not say a word. And we were attacked by assault units and lost our positions. Then there was an investigation launched in Kiev, as to why we have lost the positions. The brigade was reporting that they were bravely defending the area. And it was us who kept the position in question. And when a failure came, there was a question coming to us: why did the battalion give up the positions? But the fact that the battalion had just 15% of its strength left, and no rotation happened, was somewhat overlooked.

In essence, this follows the art of war: the element is assigned there, to be used first. This is what the art of war dictates, in Ukraine, Russia, or the US. But the battalion also has its expiration date. There are losses, there is fatigue. We cannot stay on alert 24/7. Especially in bad weather, with freezing temperatures. Rotations need to happen. A battalion as such needs to rotate its personnel, hence, half of the people are sent into the field, losses happen, and there is nobody left to be deployed. We wait for people to come back from the hospital, people from different companies go to the frontline, people from support units - air defence guys, mortar guys, artillerymen. These people have not been trained as infantry, but there is no one else left. And the brigade is demanding. Then we have losses among those specialists.

Photo. Michał Lipski

So as an assigned, self-standing unit, you are facing a tough fate?

Yes. But this also stems from the fact that we are used not in line with our purpose. We work as an ordinary mechanized, motorized, or infantry battalion. One that has 3-5 infantry companies, command, comms, reconnaissance, and drone companies. It may also have mortars, but the infantry supported by the brigade’s support elements forms the core. As in Poland - you have an air defence company, artillery, and so on, all at the brigade level, but it is the infantry that forms 80-90% of its battalions. When the battalion suffers from losses, it is usually the infantry. And in our case, in a self-sufficient battalion, infantry constitutes probably 30% of the unit. The rest of the soldiers are the specialists. When you lose infantry, you still have 70% of the resources left in our case. Theoretically, this element is still combat-ready. But this is not true, as air defence specialists, anti-tank units, artillerymen, and demolition experts are the ones left to fight. This is a horrible waste of potential and resources. And this is the main problem tied to the upper levels in the chain of command. Nobody goes into the details, there is no respect or comprehension.

Another question: is the mortar guy ready to fight as infantry? No. They are not integrated as infantry. I am not delivering training for them. I am just training the infantry, I am not responsible for the specialists. And they are killed later on. There is a shortage of specialists. And then, there is no one to lay down accurate mortar fire. To hit the target, those without experience need to fire 20 bombs.

I was to ask about anecdotes, but considering the context this would not be reasonable here.

We have a twisted sense of humour. We get no human instinct when considering the losses. We do not pay attention to death anymore, we are like animals, we’re indifferent. Suicides happen. Sometimes someone concludes that he cannot take it anymore, and shoots himself.

PTSD is surely a problem as well.

Of course! I am somewhat amused by the US soldiers« PTSD brought from Afghanistan. They were on a safari, and now they suffer from PTSD. One day at the frontline here would cause a more severe PTSD. During a single day, a soldier like that would see and experience more, than during a 9 months long rotation in Afghanistan. Everyone wants to be a peacetime soldier. This mentality needs to change.

In recent years we have been witnessing people leaving the army in Poland. These could have been those peacetime soldiers.

Because the smell of burned meat is coming. It starts to stink. It was the same in Russia until they crossed the Ukrainian border. Then, they realized it was not as easy as it seemed. That the heavy assets suffer from faults, that there is a shortage of munitions, and that the prep work has failed.

Thank you for this conversation.