Ilia is going to be born in three months and her father doesn’t want the arrival of his first child to catch him in the line of combat. With the turn that the war has given in the last few hours, the wind of destiny is blowing in his favor. Yaroslav, 28, has been deployed for a month in the Kherson region, where Russian troops have ordered a withdrawal and in whose capital he returned this Friday to wave the Ukrainian flag. “We feel that they are afraid. So we are happy. We can see it clearly, that’s why they’re running away so fast. They pee in their pants, ”he assures, sketching a smile during a video call with EL PAÍS on Thursday night.
The young man works as a truck driver in a squad responsible for recovering material, tanks and other vehicles abandoned by the enemy so that they can be reused by the Ukrainian army. It is a job that has gained importance throughout a conflict in which Russia, with everything it leaves behind, has ended up becoming Ukraine’s main arms supplier.
Yaroslav is one of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who, as soon as the Russian invasion began on February 24, enlisted in the army of his country. In just a few weeks, he stopped being a taxi driver on the streets of Kharkov and became a soldier deployed on the main front in Ukraine today. “I wanted to join the victory process quickly, so the war will end sooner and we can live in peace,” he says. He is not authorized to reveal the place from which he is holding the conversation, but he assures that he is not far from the city of Kherson, where, a few hours later, throughout Friday, the first Ukrainian soldiers managed to enter.
“I drive my truck to evacuate broken or damaged Russian equipment and vehicles left behind at front-line positions, what we call ground zero,” he says. “I take them to a parking lot and there they get ready. Then we used all that material again against the Russians. While my colleagues work on the repair of vehicles and tanks, I keep bringing more and more, ”he continues. Yaroslav explains that they take advantage of everything, that they have orders to collect even material that in principle is not useful because some piece can always come in handy.
Some of these precious remains, Yaroslav details, have been used in recent hours to advance towards Kherson and recover towns such as Snihurivka, an important logistics point for the Russians, from the invader. The soldier explains that, in a few cases, he has participated in the evacuation of civilians who deliver them to the nearest medical services. Also, that neither he nor his companions have ever been part of an operation in which Russian soldiers have been detained as prisoners of war.
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Thus, with all the material it abandons, the Russian army has involuntarily become the main supplier of weapons to the Ukrainian troops. Until a month ago, the Kremlin’s armament incorporated into the Ukrainian arsenal consisted of: 421 tanks, 445 armored infantry vehicles, 192 armored combat vehicles and 44 multiple missile launchers. The General Staff of Ukraine declined to confirm to EL PAÍS whether these data, first published by the American newspaper Washington Post, they agree with reality. Yaroslav complains, however, about the lack of organization that sometimes prevails in the operations to withdraw this weaponry; on one occasion he had to transport it 250 kilometers away. Except in cases like that, when he had to sleep in the truck, he usually spends the nights under cover and with heating, never in the trench.
As a first class soldier, displaced in a combat zone, Yaroslav’s salary is 115,000 hryvnias a month (about 3,010 euros). That is more than double the 45,000 hryvnias (about 1,175 euros) that someone of his rank far from the front receives. When asked about the reaction of his family and, specifically, of his wife, Anastasia, who is six months pregnant, the soldier laughs. “They told me I shouldn’t have done it. They didn’t want me to join the army. They preferred that I had continued at home with my volunteer work or something else, ”he says.
“My wife is one of those who has tried the most to change my mind,” he says. For now, he is focused on advancing in Kherson, although he has in mind requesting a transfer to Kharkov so that he can be close before Ilia, the couple’s first child, is born. “I feel like I have to be closer to my wife; I feel responsible and she needs my support.” That’s why, even in full offensive, he tries to talk to Anastasia every day: “As soon as I have a chance.” Yaroslav was on duty Wednesday-Thursday night, when Russia had just announced that it was withdrawing from Kherson, the only regional capital he managed to invade since his offensive earlier this year. Moscow disguised his decision, as on previous occasions, under a tactical retreat. But on the ground it represents yet another failure in its attempt to occupy the neighboring country.
The Ukrainian army has taken a progressive turn since, in 2014, Moscow, supported by pro-independence militiamen, declared war on kyiv in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Eight years ago, Russia illegally occupied the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea with some ease. Now, the attacker has not had it so easy, as Ukraine has been surrounded by instructors, weapons and funds from abroad; that is to say, that the military reinforcement has been important. The Russian invasion that began last February, however, was a stomp on the Kremlin’s war accelerator that forced Ukraine to react on the fly. So, forests and parks were turned into training camps and weapons were distributed among the population. In addition, martial law prevents, with few exceptions, men between the ages of 18 and 65 from leaving the country; They must be aware of a possible call up.
However, tens of thousands of people, women and men, did not wait to be called. This is the case of Yaroslav, who, without having any military experience, went proprio motu. Initially, he joined a group of friends and acquaintances as a volunteer in Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city and located about thirty kilometers from the Russian border. But he wanted more. That’s why he jumped into the army. His first months of training were spent in the Zhytomyr region, in the center of the country. He was then sent to the Krivi Rig area in the southeast, the city from which President Volodymyr Zelensky is from. And there they offered him the possibility of going to a more specific preparation, lasting five weeks, in the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that he is a newcomer, supported by the succession of victories that accompany them, Yaroslav puffs out his chest: “We are better on the ground and many of us have special training from Canadian and British colleagues.”
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