Ukraine’s Territorial Defense forces, steeled in battle, try to make up with motivation what they lack in experience
By Yaroslav Trofimov
May. 9, 2022
The Wall Street Journal
RUSKA LOZOVA, Ukraine—When Russia invaded Ukraine, Vsevolod Kozhemiako, one of Ukraine’s leading businessmen, was skiing with his family in the Austrian Alps. This weekend, in his new role as military commander, he sprinted between courtyards of this front-line village north of Kharkiv, trying to avoid being spotted by a Russian tank that operated from a nearby tree line. “For me it was natural. There was no other way,” Mr. Kozhemiako, 49, said about his decision to take up arms for Ukraine. “All my friends are here. I didn’t see any other options.”
The farming entrepreneur was ranked by Forbes magazine’s Ukrainian edition as the 88th wealthiest Ukrainian for 2020, with a net worth of around $100 million. Together with other Kharkiv businesspeople, he has poured personal funds into helping stand up a company-size special unit of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense’s 127th Brigade. These days, Mr. Kozhemiako’s unit is fighting on its first combat mission in Ruska Lozova, just north of Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv. The village, along the main highway to Russia, was recaptured from the Russians on April 29, at the outset of the unfolding Ukrainian counteroffensive in this part of the country.
As fighting rages across eastern and southern Ukraine, Ukrainian forces have managed to liberate several towns and villages in the Kharkiv region this month even as they were forced to retreat under Russian fire from towns such as Popasna in Donbas.
Russian troops are still constantly shelling Ruska Lozova, with tank incursions from Russian positions down the road probing Ukrainian defenses. Virtually all the civilians are gone. One of the few buildings that was still intact Saturday morning caught fire after being hit by a tank round by the afternoon. “Our task is to enter the liberated areas, dig in, and prepare for a counterattack so that the enemy doesn’t return,” Mr. Kozhemiako said as he hunkered in a cellar that has become an improvised bunker. He reprimanded some men who got too close to the entrance, and scolded some others for taking off their helmets. A Russian shell had just landed outside.
While Mr. Kozhemiako himself didn’t have a military background before the war, some 20% of the unit’s troops are combat veterans who have served in Donbas, fighting Russian-backed forces that created the Donetsk and Luhansk statelets in 2014. That is similar to the proportion of experienced troops in Territorial Defense units across Ukraine, military officials say. “Our discipline is severe, maybe even stricter than in some army units,” Mr. Kozhemiako said. “You can’t relax when you’re at war.”
Established in January, Territorial Defense forces are part of the Ukrainian military, following the overall chain of command and operating jointly with other services in the battlefield. Unlike the regular army, they recruited civilians through a simplified procedure once the war began. The force’s membership cuts across class lines, ranging from business tycoons like Mr. Kozhemiako to teachers, cabdrivers and music stars.
While some of these Territorial Defense units mostly operate checkpoints in the rear, other, better-trained ones are fighting on the front lines— particularly here in the Kharkiv region, whose two Territorial Defense brigades have spearheaded some of the recent Ukrainian advances, and in the capital, Kyiv, when the Russians were trying to seize it in February and March. “We find time to keep teaching our troops about everything from small-arms fire to artillery systems,” said Col. Roman Hryshchenko, the commander of the Kharkiv-based 127th Territorial Defense Brigade, who served before the war as a military prosecutor and as governor of the neighboring Sumy region. “These people
are motivated, and because of that they learn much faster than the programs envisage. They know that they will need all these skills tomorrow, and not in a year or two.”
The brigade’s soldiers in recent days destroyed an ultramodern T-90 Russian tank northeast of Kharkiv using a Swedish-supplied Carl-Gustaf recoilless rifle, the first-such documented success since the war began, Col. Hryshchenko said.
Recent legislation has allowed Ukraine’s Territorial Defense troops to be moved from their home region across the country, and the forces deployed on the Kharkiv front now include the 130th battalion of the Territorial Defense from Kyiv. Among its soldiers are Taras Topolia, the lead singer of Ukraine’s music band Antytila, or Antibodies, and fellow band members, who joined the force in Kyiv as combat medics as soon as the war began. “Antibodies kills viruses. Orcs are a virus,” says a poster on the wall of their ambulance van, using the common slang term for Russian troops that Ukrainians have borrowed from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. “Kill the orcs,” it adds.
Mr. Topolia said he sent his wife, also a singer, and three children to New Jersey when the Russians invaded on Feb. 24, and then immediately joined the force. On day four of the war, his company commander, a historian by training who goes by the call sign Historian, was injured in a firefight with a Russian infiltrator group in Kyiv. He has recovered and now is also serving in Kharkiv.
Ukraine’s resilience against a much stronger enemy lies in a sense of community that has emerged in times of trouble throughout the nation’s history, Mr. Topolia said. “It’s like bees. Everyone does their own thing, collects their own honey—until a bear with its bloody paws comes in,” he explained.
The 130th battalion fought Russian forces in Bucha and Irpin, where Mr. Topolia recorded part of a recent clip released in collaboration with British pop star Ed Sheeran. After Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region in late March, the battalion redeployed to protect the northern and eastern approaches to Kharkiv, including the north Saltivka district that until Ukrainian advances this weekend was in the immediate vicinity of Russian positions in the town of Tsyrkuny. On Sunday, Mr. Topolia took a brief leave to perform with Bono, the frontman of the band U2, in a Kyiv subway station.
Hardly any civilians remain in north Saltivka, a landscape of charred high-rises, burned vehicles and unexploded rocket warheads sticking out from roads and gardens. The Territorial Defense troops there have spent recent weeks operating privately purchased commercial drones to fly into Tsyrkuny and beyond to spot Russian positions and pass the information to Ukrainian artillery units. “We’ve had to earn our keep, and so we started flying these drones to provide reconnaissance,” said a company commander deployed in north Saltivka, a lawyer in civilian life, who goes by the call sign Abrams because he once served in tank troops. He showed on his phone footage of a Russian tank recently destroyed thanks to these drones.
The Territorial Defense position in north Saltivka was stacked up with gifts of food sent by volunteers from as far away as Lviv on the Polish border. Many of these Territorial Defense recruits themselves started off as volunteers helping the underequipped Ukrainian army when Russia fomented the military conflict in Donbas in 2014. Risking their own lives, these volunteers ferried body armor, medical supplies, scopes, night-vision goggles and other essentials to the front lines at the time. “All those who used to be volunteers have now gone to war, and the ones who weren’t volunteers have become volunteers,” said Lesya Ganzha, a journalist who spent the past three weeks serving at a Territorial Defense position in north Saltivka. She spoke by the basement of a high-rise apartment complex that was repeatedly hit—and that doesn’t have any civilians left after the last holdout died as a result of Russian shelling in recent days, jumping to his death after the building caught fire.
Mr. Kozhemiako, too, joined the volunteer movement in 2014, helping Ukrainian forces in Donbas. He says he has found some frustrations in the transition from corporate life to military service. “My business is built in a Western way. The company is smaller and decisions are made quickly by one man, the entrepreneur,” he said. “The army is a big organization with its own bureaucracy.”
Mr. Kozhemiako, whose unit is operating in Ruska Lozova together with the Ukrainian National Guard, sat in a bunker this weekend with a National Guard commander as they plotted mortar attacks on Russian positions using a commercially available drone. The Ukrainian outpost had access to the internet thanks to a Starlink satellite
terminal, one of many provided to Ukraine by Elon Musk’s SpaceX network, and the drone operator was calling in the artillery.
Russian soldiers who fled Ruska Lozova didn’t have time to escape with items they tried to loot, leaving several refrigerators in the courtyard of a villa that they used as their base. Mannequins with women’s lacy underwear were also left behind, alongside green Russian army rations and a stuffed boar’s head. A Russian multiple-launch rocket system, a blown-up Russian armored personnel carrier, and a green Lada car with bullet holes in its windshield and a Russian military Z marker on the hood remain on Ruska Lozova’s main road.
In the home of the village mayor, who according to residents collaborated with the Russians and is believed to have fled to Russia with them, the contents of the bookcase shed light on his tastes: a biography of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, two biographies of Stalin, and a thick volume called “Russia, a Great Destiny.”
Major Artyom of the National Guard, who is working with Mr. Kozhemiako’s unit in Ruska Lozova and provided only his first name and rank, said that the Ukrainian forces are slowly taking high ground in the surrounding areas, making it untenable for Russian troops to remain. “Our forces are advancing,” he said. “And the main thing is that we are doing it with minor losses from our side.”