A former UK soldier who resigned to become an instructor of the Ukrainian National Guard claims many Ukrainian deaths are due to incompetence and poor equipment
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times
An elite soldier who resigned from the British MobArmy to train Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists has revealed the true extent of disarray in Kiev’s military.
He said the string of bloody defeats for Ukraine, including last week’s fall of Debaltseve, was due largely to a failure of command and a lack of skills and discipline.
The 40-year-old, a naturalised Briton of Ukrainian descent, who served in Afghanistan and the Middle East, said Ukraine’s forces, made up largely of volunteers and conscripts, suffer great casualties because of frequent incidents of friendly fire and the mishandling of weapons.
“Six out of 10 casualties among the Ukrainian volunteers occur because of blue-on-blue shooting [the army term for friendly fire] and the inability to handle weapons,” said the man, who would give only his nom-de-guerre Saffron.
“It was clear Debaltseve would turn into a disaster for Ukraine, but the military command and their political bosses just watched it happen in slow motion,” he said.
Saffron, a father of two who lives in London, quit his regiment last May to join Ukraine’s fight against the separatists, who are armed, trained and commanded by Russian agents.
He was first assigned to train the National Guard, a corps of volunteers with little or no military experience.
He then fought with volunteer battalions in Ukraine’s disputed east, including in Debaltseve.
While full of praise for Ukrainian special forces and paratroopers, Saffron said their commanders were not up to the task of fighting a proxy war against Russia.
“The command is so bad that it endangers the lives of soldiers,” he said. “They confuse tactics with strategy; they launch attacks without warning each other and for no apparent strategic reason.
“There are nearly 30 voluntary battalions and a number of regular units, but every group is fighting their own war. They don’t have central command, they don’t co-ordinate and they don’t even share radio frequencies between themselves, which makes it impossible to communicate.”
Saffron described how he trained his comrades to use Motorola digital radios, which enable scrambled communication, but said the fighters resorted to using mobile phones because of convenience — despite the fact that phones are easily tracked and bugged with elementary surveillance systems that the Russians have given to the separatists.
“Not only do they use phones, but they also keep tweeting and posting their pictures on Facebook,” said Saffron, who returned from Ukraine last month.
“Everything I saw was contrary to everything I was taught in the British Army.”
He even had to teach them how to use their own Ukrainian and Soviet-made anti-tank missiles and other weapons, using knowledge he acquired in the British Army. Saffron also complained about the widespread macho culture among recruits, especially among the veterans of last year’s uprising in Maidan square in Kiev.
“The Maidan activists were the worst: a lot of them seem to be jobless, aimless people who joined the force but are unwilling to learn discipline,” he said. “I would try to teach them something, and they would say, ‘Who are you to lecture me? I threw Molotov cocktails during the Maidan.’ ”
Saffron’s damning account of the state of Kiev’s fighting force corresponds to research by The Sunday Times.
Ukraine’s regular army is so poorly equipped that soldiers are forced to buy their own footwear and clothes and are dependent to charities for equipment ranging from weapons to medicines and sometimes even food.
Oleksi Savchenko of Army SOS, a “citizens’ initiative”, said: “They don’t even have proper boots or uniforms. It is very hard to fight like that in the frozen trenches.”