Mark Mackinnon

May 16, 2022

The Globe and Mail

Captain Volodymyr Kiselov had a choice: He could retreat with his unit of Ukrainian special forces and maybe live to see his wife and infant daughter again, or he could stand his ground, under heavy Russian fire, and give his men better odds of escaping. In the May 7 battle, somewhere in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, 32-year-old Capt. Kiselov chose the latter. His unit of crack fighters, members of the famed Alpha Group of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), successfully pulled back to a more defensible position as Capt. Kiselov, whose nickname was “Vova,” and a fellow officer known as “Uncle Sasha” stayed behind to provide covering fire. Both were killed. “Vova and Uncle Sasha saved the rest of the group,” said Oleksandr Reznikov, a 31-year-old who met Capt. Kiselov in the military and became his best friend. “They told the others, ‘Who, if not us, should do this?’”

Capt. Kiselov’s death came three weeks after he met with The Globe and Mail to discuss his unit’s role in the successful defence of Kyiv, as well as the looming battle for eastern Ukraine. He feared the second phase of the war would be more difficult and dangerous for him and his men – unless the West expedited the delivery of the long-range artillery Ukraine lacked.

The details of his final mission are not public, and the SBU press office said it cannot comment on combat losses while the war continues.

But Capt. Kiselov’s family and friends believe he was a hero who helped change the course of the war for Ukraine. They want his story – at least what they know – to be told.

They also believe his death might have been prevented by faster Western action to deliver long-range weapons, thus reducing the need for special-forces units such as Capt. Kiselov’s to attempt risky close-quarters attacks on Russian artillery and armour.

It was only after weeks of war, when it became clear that Ukraine was mounting a fierce and successful resistance to the Russian invasion, that Canada and other Western allies started sending heavy artillery to Ukraine. “If we had artillery and rockets that could hit them, we could win this war. But now we can’t reach them, and that’s why they are moving forward,” Capt. Kiselov told The Globe on April 21. Sixteen days after that interview in a Kyiv restaurant – and six days before Ukraine announced it had started using Western-supplied Howitzers in the field – Capt. Kiselov was dead.

Poltava’s central park was a favourite place for Capt. Kiselov and his family to take walks during his short breaks between deployments.

While Ukraine has touted the more than 25,000 Russian troops it claims to have killed since the start of the war on Feb. 24, its own military losses are a closely guarded secret. It has officially acknowledged between 2,500 and 3,000 military deaths, but Western estimates put the number closer to 11,000.

Last week Capt. Kiselov’s mother, his widow and Master Sergeant Oleksandr Reznikov (no relation to the Defence Minister) agreed to meet with The Globe to tell the story of a career soldier whose job was to remain as anonymous as possible while striking hard at, and behind, enemy lines.

It’s a job Capt. Kiselov was proud of – and good at. He and his men played a crucial role in the battle for Hostomel Airport, near Kyiv, in the first hours of the war. Poorly equipped and caught by surprise by the audacious Russian attempt to capture the airport with helicopters and paratroopers, Ukrainian forces thwarted Russia’s plan to use Hostomel to land a large force and rapidly seize the capital.

In the process, the patchwork force of Alpha Group fighters, along with special-forces units attached to Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence service, local reservists and foreign volunteers, bested some of the most elite units in the Russian military.

Before Hostomel, there was an expectation that Russia’s larger and technically superior army would quickly conquer much of Ukraine. Afterward, both sides knew Ukraine was able and willing to stand its ground.

Later, Capt. Kiselov and his men were among the first Ukrainian troops to enter Bucha, the town on the outskirts of Kyiv that saw mass executions and organized rape during the month it was under Russian military occupation. It was an experience that haunted him through the last five weeks of his life.

Capt. Kiselov joined the military at 18 and was rapidly promoted to officer. Soon he was selected for the SBU. The successor agency of the Soviet KGB has a long and controversial history in Ukraine. It was used as a tool of repression by Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych but has undergone substantive purges and reforms since he was ousted in a 2014 revolution.

Capt. Kiselov was one of a new generation of SBU officers who grew up in independent Ukraine. They rose to replace older agents, veterans of the KGB, whose true loyalties had been a source of concern for successive Ukrainian governments. That was never an issue for Capt. Kiselov, who grew up in the central Poltava region. His mother, Olena Kiselova, said her son was always fiercely proud to be Ukrainian. “He was a quiet patriot. He didn’t go around screaming about it, but he loved Poltava and loved Ukraine,” Ms. Kiselova said. “He told me, ‘Mom, I want to be in the SBU because I feel I’m needed there.’”

She said her son was a “sickly boy” who nonetheless always wanted to join the army. He developed his strength and skills by secretly taking kickboxing lessons while she thought he was swimming with friends. “I opened a newspaper and saw a picture of him after a kickboxing competition,” she said. The sickly boy had become a fitness freak and had grown into a muscled and broad-shouldered adult who would run eight to 10 kilometres a day.

After joining the SBU, Capt. Kiselov spent five years in eastern Ukraine fighting Russian proxy forces in the Donbas region, in the smaller war that preceded this year’s overt Russian invasion. It was there that he met MSgt. Reznikov, who said his friend was a natural leader. “He was always super-confident. Everyone wanted to be in his unit because it was a guarantee that you’d come back alive.”

In 2019, Capt. Kiselov was called to Kyiv to join the SBU’s special operations team. “I don’t know and wouldn’t tell you what they did there,” MSgt. Reznikov said.

In his April meeting with The Globe, Capt. Kiselov said the role of the Alpha Group was often to work behind enemy lines, attacking troop columns and disrupting supply lines.

Such tasks became critical after Feb. 24. Capt. Kiselov told The Globe that he and his unit were sent to Hostomel only 24 hours before the war began. They were stunned to see 30 Russian helicopters appear over the horizon as dawn broke – unsupported by ground forces or even air strikes to weaken the Ukrainian forces waiting for them. “Their tactics didn’t work because they were told there would be no resistance,” Capt. Kiselov recalled of the battle, which saw at least three helicopters shot out of the air and some of Russia’s most elite troops killed or captured after they were surrounded on the ground.

While the Russian tactics at Hostomel were puzzling, what Capt. Kiselov saw in Bucha truly shocked him. MSgt. Reznikov – who was then a member of the reservist Territorial Defence Forces in the neighbouring town of Irpin and who entered Bucha alongside his best friend – has a smartphone full of horrifying photos and videos of what they saw on April 1. The streets were a blackened mess of burned vehicles and corpses, including headless torsos and severed limbs.

Capt. Kiselov’s family said he was definitely shaken by what he saw. “He really couldn’t take it that civilians were being killed. He literally couldn’t understand how it happened or why it happened,” said his 31-year-old widow, Alyona Kiselova, who has been living outside Ukraine with the couple’s eight-month-old daughter, Veronika, since the war began. The family briefly returned to Poltava for last week’s funeral.  Capt. Kiselyov’s funeral was held in Poltava.

The Russian withdrawal from the north of Kyiv meant the war’s main front would shift from the forested outskirts of the capital to the more wide-open terrain of eastern Ukraine. The Globe met Capt. Kiselov and one of his fellow special-forces fighters on April 22, while the unit was back in Kyiv recuperating. Several members had suffered concussions in an artillery battle near the Russian-occupied city of Izyum, south of Kharkiv.

Capt. Kiselov agreed to the interview so he could underline Ukraine’s need for long-range artillery, which he believed would prove decisive in the war’s second phase. “I don’t know why this issue took so long,” MSgt. Reznikov said of the delayed Western decision to give Ukraine the weapons it needed. “Maybe it’s politics. But if we received this artillery earlier, we would have had much fewer losses.”  “The West has helped us,” Capt. Kiselov’s mother said. “But too little and too late.”

Capt. Kiselov called his wife as often as he could during the war. After Bucha, he sounded different, less confident. “He had a feeling that he would die,” she said. “Our last conversation, I was really begging him to be careful. I told him: ‘We are waiting and we want you to come back home as soon as possible.’ I asked him to prioritize us. He told me that if his guys were in danger, he would do anything to protect them.”

Just after 9 a.m. on May 7, MSgt. Reznikov called her to deliver the news she had feared.

Her husband, who had always wanted to build a house in the pine forests outside Poltava, is now buried there instead. He was a soldier by choice, she acknowledged, but it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who instigated the war that killed her husband.“If there was no war in the country, Vova would still be with us,” she said, pushing little Veronika in a stroller through the streets of Poltava. Capt. Kiselov’s mother said the family is collecting all the mementoes they can, so Veronika can one day understand who her father was and why he had to die for Ukraine. “Her father was a hero, and she needs to be proud of him.”