KYIV, Ukraine — The last time Petro Shevchenko saw his home near Bucha, his daughter and wife were in the car with him as they fled from Russian shells and rockets that had burnt down his neighbors’ houses or turned them to rubble.
Now he’s watching the Russians do the same in Ukraine’s east, where he’s leading a military unit on the front lines. The death and destruction he witnessed near his home inspired Shevchenko, a former journalist, to join the fight in hopes of pushing back those who invaded his country.
In the mud of the steppe in eastern Ukraine, shoulder to shoulder with other Ukrainians who have limited military experience, Shevchenko described real fear: He is afraid of the explosions that were meant for him and those he fights beside. But he feels he has little choice but to face it.
“War knows few rules, but when they destroy our homes, plunder our houses, rape women and kill our children, you realize that something is wrong,” Shevchenko said, recalling how he used to take his daughter to soccer practice in Bucha. “No war is normal, but this unheard-of violence is just too much.”
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has not caused the country’s defenses to crumble, as numerous experts expected. Instead, many Ukrainians have sought to aid or join the fight in any way they can — their resolve hardened by the atrocities they’ve witnessed.
In contrast to the soldiers battle-hardened after eight years of fighting in the Donbas region, there are also regular Ukrainians, like Shevchenko, compelled to join the fight. That desire has grown stronger among those who saw horrifying images or experienced Russian occupation in towns and cities like Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv and Kherson.
Ukrainian ‘morale is as high as ever’
Before the war, Shevchenko worked as a noted reporter in Kyiv. He interviewed Ukraine’s economic leaders for the popular business magazine “Novoye Vremia,” entering the offices of bankers, finance ministers and CEOs armed with a pen, notebook, laptop and voice recorder.
Now he’s leading a platoon into battle, carrying a mortar, Kalashnikov and shells. A few of the soldiers he’s fighting with have military experience, but there are many like him from varying professions — carpenters, construction workers, IT specialists and others — who joined up to defend Ukraine. To them, it has only become clearer that the Russians are bent on destroying their country and their way of life.
Glen Grant, a retired British officer who worked as a defense reform expert in Ukraine before the war, said many Ukrainian soldiers he has kept in touch with remain steadfast in their commitment to push out the Russians from their land.
“Their morale is as high as ever,” Grant said. “They know they have to hang on, but they know they’re winning.”
Morale is the distinguishing factor between Russian soldiers in this war and those on the Ukrainian side.
While Ukrainians feel compelled to fight back, Grant said, it appears that a growing number of Russians soldiers would rather the war ended. British intelligence indicated last week that there is dissension in the ranks as the Russians contend with depleted forces, poor tactical coordination, a lack of unit-level skills and inconsistent air support.
“There are pockets of Russians who are determined to persecute the war and kill every Ukrainian,” Grant said, “but there’s an awful lot of soldiers who want to finish with the war and go home because they were lied to about the whole operation.”
From journalist to soldier
The difference is that Ukrainians like Shevchenko have a reason to fight. He joined up in the days after his family’s successful escape from Russia’s attack. The Ministry of Defense confirmed his enlistment.
“I realized that I cannot carry on working as a finance journalist,” he said. “I understood that I had to do something different: to go and protect my country and my family.”
Shevchenko recalled hiding in his bathroom with his family when Russians invaded the towns and suburbs outside Kyiv. As they heard rockets hit nearby, his daughter asked him, “Why are they bombing us?”
In the days that followed, many people in their village started to leave, Shevchenko said, but no one knew whether it was safe. Stories rolled in about snipers shooting people on the street — a couple killed as they retrieved food for their waiting children. Then the electricity cut out, and the cellular network went down.
As bombs fell nearby, Shevchenko and his family fled. They felt a surge of relief as they reached the Ukrainian checkpoint, where soldiers asked whether they had seen Russian soldiers when they made their escape.
Safe at a friend’s apartment in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk days later, Shevchenko told his wife that he planned to enlist. At the recruitment office the next day, they told him he had 30 to 40 minutes to pack his belongings and say goodbye to his family.
“My daughter and I read a book there, just a few more pages — we sat there, as we say in Ukrainian, ‘Just sat and cried,’ and then I left,” he said. “At that point I became a soldier.”
He received a few weeks training, living in a barracks with 800 other soldiers. The conditions were grim, as illnesses often run through the units. There were regular attacks, and a missile strike forced them to start sleeping in a nearby forest.
Though he was trained to fire howitzers and work as an artillery commander, he was asked to lead a mortar battery after he moved closer to the front.
“I was lucky to get at least some training,” he said. “I know some people received even less guidance. As a result, I became a commander of a mortar platoon.”
‘Real war, with real deaths’
Transforming willing civilians into soldiers remains a challenge for Ukraine.
It must continue to dedicate soldiers to the fight — though it is unclear whether that’s because of the unknown number of Ukrainian casualties or because of how the war has changed — resulting in many cases of fast-tracked basic training. Units are filled with a mix of people with some battle experience and those with none.
In an ideal world, these soldiers would receive more training, said Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and a former director of the British army staff in the Ministry of Defense.
Barry said that British soldiers he trained took a 16-week training course, but noted that Ukraine does not have that kind of time.
“What you have got with the Ukrainian army is an awful lot of learning under fire, and people rapidly acquiring combat experience,” said Barry, who noted that some Ukrainians are now receiving training outside the country on new weapon systems. “It is something that you could do and could do quite effectively, but it does depend on having a cadre of professional leaders ready.”
For Shevchenko and many others, learning on the job is essential. While they may have witnessed horrors when the Russians invaded their homes, these former professionals are now being forced to grow accustomed to the spray of dirt from gunfire, tank blasts and shellings.
The death Shevchenko has seen never gets easier. A month of fighting at the front feels like a year, he said. They see infantry fights, the explosion of apparent Russian phosphorus bombs and endless graves. The smell of corpses is pungent.
“This is a real war, with real deaths, deaths of the people that I know and speak to,” he said. “I’ll speak to someone today, and then the next day I find out they were killed. When you face this reality, you realize this is not a fairy tale or some heroic novel — this is ugly.”